After the excitement of the stolen and recovered passports we enjoyed the company of fellow passengers over Masala Chai Tea, with mixed nuts to nibble on, served by the ubiquitous train vendors that passed through the carriages. The three hours passed quickly and we decamped at Ajmer Junction to find a public bus to Pushkar. Like all major cities the station was a mass of people and outside was no different. We crossed the road, backs sweating under our packs in the midday heat, and found a small café with a helpful owner. The buses pull up outside his place and he would let us know when ours arrived, he thought 15 minutes before the next one, which gave us time for another cup of sweet Masala Chai. Much to our amusement the battered buses do not stop, but rather a man leans out of the bus shouting the destination and you have to run and jump on it. No mean feat with a heavy backpack and hand luggage. Fortunately we were the first customers the bus had, and the only ones at our stop so we got to choose our seats. As the bus passed through Ajmer we were joined by locals, mainly women with children. One mother struggled with her older boy, he had a serious developmental disorder and ran from the bus, only to be collected by the conductor and pulled weeping and wailing onto the bus. He sat, cowering and crying for the rest of the journey, but not before he had thrown his flip flops out of the back window which his mother had to then retrieve. We passed his mother some Oreo’s from our bag which she shared gratefully amongst her two children. As the bus filled to bursting I moved to the front with our backpacks giving me a wonderful vantage point to admire the stunningly beautiful women of Rajasthan. Tall, slender, ebony dark, bedecked in extravagant silver that was set off by the rich colours of their saris, they could have been part of a Vogue photo shoot. It was not such a good seat for the 30 minute
stomach churning ride up the steep hill on hairpin bends, but I had plenty of gorgeous scenery to divert my attention all for 30p for the 3 of us.
We had come to Pushkar on the recommendation of Mark who we spent time with at Bee Bees on Koh Lanta Island. We’ve learnt that following the advice of fellow travellers is the best guarantee of getting the experiences you’re looking for, and Pushkar didn’t disappoint. After the hustle and bustle of Delhi and Jaipur, Pushkar is a chilled out beauty. At its heart is a square man made holy stepped lake surrounded by temples and ancient Havali’s (traditional square decorative buildings). Our hotel, The Radhika Palace Hotel, was at the waters edge. From it’s cool covered terrace we could lounge on floor mattresses with round bolsters watching the elaborate rituals taking place at the water’s edge. Hindu’s from all over India, and the world, come to bathe in the lake and worship at it’s temples. Holy men sit on the steps leading to the water, small fires burning, the smell of incense and firewood permeates the air. Of course cows are everywhere; at the waters edge, on the narrow footbridge over the water culvert that feeds monsoon rains into the lake, in the streets and shop doorways of the bazaar, ATM queues, and entrances to the many temples. Pushkar Bazaar is a mecca for clothes shopping, thousands of tailors work their magic on the beautiful fabrics produced in the villages, as do silversmiths setting precious stones into intricate settings. Having already couriered home one lot of linens purchased in Jaipur, we found ourselves needing to ship another 10Kg of ridiculously cheap products. The Indians are great salesmen and we’re pretty good customers.
We had not come to Pushkar to shop, indeed we had only come to Pushkar for two nights, but our hotel, its staff, fellow travellers, and the fabulous atmosphere of this small town sucked us in. Two nights turned into four, and four turned into six, I could easily have stayed forever. Many people in our hotel were there for months, or on return trips. It was a traveller, rather than tourist, hotel. There were no longer TVs in the rooms, every toilet seemed to leak, the swimming pool was made watertight with cloths stuffed in holes, paintwork was rough and peeling. But it was a haven of great service and an ambiance that was hard to beat. In the lobby more than 10 tortoises, including the tiniest of babies, pottered about. It’s illegal (an imprisonable offence) to have tortoises in captivity in India, but these had been rescued by the pharmacist owner who had set up an informal refuge for them. We spent hours lying on the floor watching them mill around, beguiled by their prehistoric aura and determined actions. Fred fell in love. He fell in love too with the rescued dogs who lounged on the blanket covered old settees in the lobby. The evening, before dinner, is IPad time. He would take up his seat, next to Skinny, a black whippet cross stray who had found a home here. Out on the veranda Skinny’s pregnant daughter slept on a blanket, for company was another blonde dog with a duff leg, courtesy of a break that had never been reset before she too washed up here.
Putting aside the leaky toilet, which we found rather charming, our room was lovely with coloured glass doors that opened to a shared veranda with views of the forested hills that surround Pushkar. At the top of each peak a small bright pink temple was perched. In the mornings mist lay below the green hills like spun silk and the whole view was a muted pastel palette. At night we went to sleep to the sounds of drumming and chanted prayers from the temples, later in the night this was drowned out by the jubilant Bhangra music of the nightly wedding parties that went on to 4am (so Dean reported one morning after a poor night’s sleep). I’ve become accustomed to using earplugs in the last 3 months and find the more muted musical experience of India at night time quite comforting.
A collection of young bucks in the hotel and garden restaurant looked after us. Decidedly westernised, they nevertheless retained the essence of their culture. For the first time on our trip we got a daily dose of head wobbling “Anything is possible” in response to our questions or requests. Our orders for food and drinks elicited a smiling “Why not”. The only female member of staff was an older tall slender lady, clad in a purple gossamer sari, who seemed to do all the hard work around the place. With an extravagant silver wedding belt around her tiny waist, and beautiful thick silver bangles on her ankles and wrists she was the most dashing house maid I’d ever seen. Dressed like this she would shimmy up to the top of tall trees squatting down precariously on a high branch to cut off dead twigs, using nothing but a long stick with a hooked saw tied to the end. The most glamourous tree surgeon I’d ever seen, and not a harness in sight.
We’d checked into this hotel because we could settle by Paypal, a boon in the challenge to source cash, but it couldn’t have been a better choice. It made it easy to set up camp on this beautiful terrace, watching an exotic world, grazing on vegetarian food and non alcoholic drinks. We relished the lemon and mint coolers, Masala Chai, hot lemon honey and ginger teas taken on the terrace. Over the 6 days we ran through the eclectic menu and found it all delicious. In India everything is fresh and beautifully cooked, they run the French into second place easily. For company we had a wealth of interesting people. Pieter a South African was filming a documentary about Chandra a Gypsy woman living in a tented village 2Km away, we talked to him about Africa and his work all over the world. Sally and Toan were cousins from Melbourne that had met up in Pushkar. Of Vietnamese origin, they were experienced travellers, Toan was rarely in Australia thanks to his successful career as a photographer and was shortly off to do a wedding in Calcutta. Sally had finished a long yoga course in the Himalayas, as well as an 11 day silent meditation retreat, and she treated Fred and I to a yoga lesson on the terrace, we were poor pupils but loved it. Fred cried when we left them, Toan came especially to wave us off. Freya was working on a new clothing collection for her online Jack Fruit label, and commissioning the production of garments in Pushkar ready for the English festival season. Clarisse and Beulah were friends from Cornwall learning to make silver jewellery for a week, producing Christmas gifts that only their mothers would love (their words not mine). Clarisse had been travelling for 2 years and had no intention of stopping, Beulah was taking a break for a month pondering on what to do next. I spent a wonderful few hours chatting to Arienn, originally from Hungary she had spent years in advertising in London before finding a more peaceful meaningful life after travelling. She was in Pushkar designing jewellery for her online business ‘Bountiful Treasures’ and buying stones for her high end products. My old world of NHS Procurement met me in Pushkar when we got to know Julia and Dennis from Bath. They were on a trip to retrace the steps of her mother who had been brought up in India, but it wasn’t long before we were talking the challenges of orthopaedic joint procurement. There were even more people than this that we encountered, everyone of them added to our enjoyment. One of the real pleasures of travelling is having the time to relax into slow conversations with strangers who quickly become friends that you may, or may not, see again. I read a sign in a restaurant on Koh Lanta “We’re not strangers, we’re just friends who haven’t yet met”, it couldn’t be more true.
Of course the shop keepers in the busy Baazar quickly became our best friends, this was the only country in 6 months we were doing any shopping. The most special was Vipin who sat cross legged on his roll mat in his tiny shop and who, with a theatrically expressive treacle voice, declared “Oh……….My……….God” every time I emerged from behind his curtain in something else. He sent his contented second son out for Masala Chai, offered us a smoke (which we declined) and settled us in. When we asked the cost of any item he reassured us with a smiling assurance “Not very much”. If I asked if they had any other colours I was told “Of course….in India we have every colour”. Of course, because this is the land where ‘anything is possible’. We bought a lot from Vipin, in many colours….. One evening we popped in with my favourite outfit from his shop, he sped me off on his motorbike through the packed bazaar to a silver shop shouting to Dean, who was left standing at his shop door, “Don’t worry if I don’t bring her back - there are plenty more in India”.
Daily trips to the Bazaar brought us into contact with small children roaming the streets without adults. A group of three between 2 and 5 years old would grab hold of us as we passed over the bridge from the hotel to the bazaar, asking for biscuits. A little girl, filthy and ragged with matted hair, had perfected a “Photo? 10 rupees”. She held onto our clothing and slipped her fingers into mine. The hotel staff told us they were put there every day by their families, so with a heavy heart I gave them only a friendly smile. We will sponsor another child in India when we get home, as well as a granny.
We finally decided that we had to leave Pushkar or we would get forever stuck there. So we bade our goodbyes (which involved lots of selfies with the staff), which I’m sure is more of an ‘Au Dieu’, and a dozen or more new Facebook friends. A taxi took us to Bundi which doesn’t sit on a train line. The driver obliged us with a Chai stop, and the café filled up with the curious. A group of young men crowded into one another on the steps, intertwined and continuously added to, until finally a group of 20 had collected to sit and stare at us. We’ve learnt “Ram Ram” as our way of expressing thanks, this most Hindi of sayings is met with broad beams and a bit of a giggle. Of course the drive was as interesting as ever, the daily business of rural India is a look into the past before the Industrial Revolution, and you feel like you’re on the set of a Bollywood movie. Turns out they’re not that ridiculous after all, the only thing missing in reality is everyone bursting into a flashmob song and dance.
Carol our friend from Newark had recommended Bundi, her favourite stop on a 6 week tour of India. As we approached the town we got sight of the decadent sprawling sandstone palace set into the hillside. Like most old towns it was nestled in a narrow valley, imposing intact fortified walls running the length of surrounding hills. As we dropped down the holy lake, a mini Pushkar, came into view. We had learnt that ‘The Jungle Book’ was based on this town and its ancient buildings, and Rudyard Kipling had spent time living here finding inspiration for his works. Our hotel, more of a homestay, was basic but close to the lake. Its roof terrace gave wonderful views of the palace and lake, and like all the buildings here was fitted with grills to make it monkey proof. Once we settled in we set off in search of Kukki.
Our real reason for coming to Bundi was to take a guided tour with Kukki, an elderly self taught archaeologist who has discovered prehistoric rock paintings and artefacts in the countryside surrounding Bundi. Dean had come across him in Lonely Planet and we had made a booking by email. At a nearby lakeside restaurant we were met by Kukkis son, Kukki Jnr. Well fed, beaming, and bouncing with energy he ordered us Masala Chai and we took a seat under the shade of a tree beside the water. Kukki was busy the next day, but Kukki Jnr would take us out. He had planned a full day; rock paintings, waterfall swim, bird spotting, and a visit to a village family to play cricket (this one was just for Fred). Unlike his father he had trained as an archaeologist, the first of his family to get an education. Over our Chai he told the emotional story that charted the family history from their uprooting during the Partition and loss of everything, to the present day, his father’s amateur passion resulting in a profitable business that bought him and his sister an education. Our itinerary and start time agreed for the next day, Kukki Jnr left us to order a late lunch.
The simple family restaurant served us wonderful curries and stuffed breads, cooked by the wife in the tiny kitchen in the courtyard. Each item was individually prepared and freshly made, it took an hour for lunch to come. Meanwhile Fred had grown nervous about his lack of preparation for a game that is a religion in India, he’s new to cricket but had confidently blustered that he loved to play it. It had been gnawing at him since Kukki Jnr had announced he was organising a game of cricket with the villagers “Our very own Laagan” (the film where the Indian villagers take on and beat the British garrison team, secretly taught the rules and coached by the English rose fiancée of the commanding officer). Having ordered lunch Fred asked if we could find somewhere for him to practice / learn cricket. Thankfully a plastic bat and ball was to hand and I launched into a crash course in the rules of cricket in the courtyard. A scarlet bottomed monkey sat 6 feet from our rusted oil drum wicket looking on with puzzlement. Fred cracked it quickly thanks to keen hand to eye co-ordination, and commitment to learn out of fear of humiliation the next day.
An evening stroll through the narrow dirt streets of Bundi was a delight. The Palace glowed a deep orange beautifully up lit, the cupola’s cast magnificent gothic shadows on the intricate façade. Cows, stray dogs, and pigs vied with the motorbikes (no room for cars), squeezing through the open vast teak wood city gates studded with iron Elephant spikes. It’s supposed to be high season for tourists, but the demonetarisation crisis has hit hard. Indian tourists are lacking, they have no cash to dispose of, and many international tourists have cancelled their bookings, diverting to Nepal and other parts of Asia. With warmth and gentleness we were welcomed as we walked the streets, we stopped occasionally for a chat. At a small shop front we paused, wondering what the metal tins were. It was a ‘General Store’ we were told, spices and other food produce stored in the decorated boxes. As we chatted with the owner a young boy approached and with a wide smile and maturity beyond his years invited us to his restaurant. We climbed the narrow steep stairs to the roof terrace, brought to a halt by the appearance of a green parrot on the first floor landing. He was quickly placed on Fred’s finger and started chatting away to us all with the most delightful cooing. Mum appeared, starting a conversation with the parrot who replied to each sentence. We eventually made it to the terrace which had stunning views of the illuminated palace. Despite a late lunch we treated ourselves to some Pakore (deep fried frittered veg) and herbal teas. As we got out our cards we were joined by a huge male monkey that had navigated the rope netting designed to keep them out. Like a shot it charged to the doorway and made its way down the stairs. I ran after shouting that a monkey was ‘in the house’. It was soon making a return dash hotly pursued by the father of the family. The monkey left as sneakily as it arrived, but it went out with a bang as Dad let off a fire cracker that deafened us. For good measure he lit another which promptly exploded as it left his hand. Our ears were ringing for some time and Fred was left slack jawed but highly amused that everything he had learnt about firework handling was being ignored with wild abandon. Dad then sat down to join us followed by Mum. They were great company and fun for the rest of the evening – we’re not strangers, just friends who haven’t yet met.
In the morning we found Kukki Jnr stood beside a tiny minivan that would be our carriage for the day out. We set off with water supplied and the promise of a day we wouldn’t forget. How true that was. It took us nearly an hour of terrible roads, busy villages, quiet country lanes to get to the first stop in a National Forest. All the way Kukki Jnr taught us about Bundi, Indian village life, and what we were seeing around us. It turned out that the men on motorbikes, with huge shiny curvaceous brass urns were taking the milk from their cows to the city to sell. Lorries, like obese old ladies bulging out of their tent dresses, were transporting hay for cattle under the canvas that was twice the size of the lorries themselves. The old men sat round the Chai stands, in white cloth kicche (traditional loin cloths) and fuscia pink woven twisted turbans, were the village elders who had earnt the right to wear their crowns. The small kids, carrying large bundles of firewood between distant homesteads, were not at school because their parents couldn’t afford the £100 a year to send them to the state schools. Fred couldn’t believe that the teenagers, washing in the post monsoon natural pool in the middle of nowhere at the roadside, were having their morning bath. They would put on their uniforms after drying hopping, three at a time on to a bike if they were lucky, or walk if not. Homemade fabric tents appeared in the forest, families have brought their cattle, buffalo, and goats to graze for a few months, before they return home many miles from here. We’ve become so used to the chaotic and unfathomable road rules that we barely noticed the cars driving the wrong way down the road, or the times we over (or undertook) with no line of sight. Despite this we arrived, bumped and battered, at the lake that feeds one of India’s most impressive waterfalls.
A large river feeds the giant waterfall that descends into a vast gorge with a 300 meter drop. Buffalo bathed in the icy water, submerged to their nostrils, their tiny ebony coloured guardians sat cross legged on the bank. We navigated the feeder river by bridge and were met by troops of monkeys. Two Italians had joined us for the rock painting visit and we set off through the brush, Kukki Jnr stopping to point out wildlife along the way. A 20 minute walk brought us to a vertical drop which we would have to climb down to find the prehistoric rock painting. Kukki’s father had discovered his first rock painting in the 1990’s, exploring the area alone after years of collecting evidence of early human population in the form of primitive tools, he has now discovered over 100 rock paintings. Kukki Jnr moved large branches that he and his father had placed over the start of the climb to mask the entrance and we started to navigate the rock face. Fred went first with Kukki Jnr and we knew we were in for a treat when we heard him excitedly exclaim “Oh my God its amazing”. Sure enough a cavernous overhang provided perfect protection for early man. East facing, sheltered from rain and sun, a blackened roof was the result of fires lit to maintain warmth. In the deepest sections, perfectly lit but protected from the sun, were the paintings. These are the third oldest in the world, after the aboriginal and French cave paintings, only in France you can’t actually see the originals any more. It was stunning to see them close up perfectly preserved in this dry climate. He explained them to us, and how his father had a dream where the Shaman came to him revealing their purpose, a novel theory which he had presented to international experts at a conference a few years earlier. The Shaman had told him in his dream that they were a diagram of how to defend against wild animals, and catch them for food. An early blackboard for braves. The first painting had unclothed people, gender easily identifiable if not quite anatomically accurate. The women carried the spears and arrows, making themselves large standing on tiptoes with arms outstretched. A later painting showed people clothed in skins, and the final painting was an intricate depiction of the wildlife. The remnants of a fire still sat next to us beneath the charcoaled ceiling, todays shaman still use the cave to call the spirits of their ancestors, and we drifted back to a time 15,000 years ago. A magical moment. As we sat there Kukki arrived with two Japanese guests. In his 60s his enthusiasm bubbled out of him. He told us more of his story and that of the caves, it is no wonder he is an Indian national treasure and Lonely Planet star pick for India. Before we parted he treated us to a rendition of a Bollywood classic that had us grinning from ear to ear.
Next stop was the waterfall, our Italian companions left us and we began the walk down the steep steps to the turquoise pool at the bottom. Monkeys lined the path giving us the evil eye, we were very much in their territory. The fall is stunning. The black strata rock, layers that resemble a giant brick wall, protrude unevenly making for hundreds of small glistening fountains. The sun turned it into a white diamante cascade that threw out dozens of rainbows. We were hot and sweaty after our walk and ready for a swim. Sliding gingerly down a flat boulder we slipped between the rocks into the freezing water. Not deterred by the shock I defiantly swam out of the shade into the sun lying on my back to look up at the fall and surrounding jungle. Primitive man had it right; Location, Location, Location.
We walked back up the steps, past a shaman who spends his day at a temple half way down, and sat on the steps of a deserted building to have lunch that Kukki Jnr’s wife and mother had prepared. Into scraps of newspaper he placed a Puri bread that would hold a samosa which was then topped with garlic and tomato sauce and a coriander sauce. It was divine simplicity which we wolfed down. We caught the shadow of a monkey on the roof, directly overhead, others appeared and we knew we were surrounded. It was time to leave. We suffered only one monkey attack which was fast and furious, I sacrified my last Puri bread to save my fingers.
Enthralled by what we had seen and experienced we smiled all the way to our next stop, a tiny village down a narrow track. Kukki Jnr knew a family here and we were to be their guests for Masala Chai and a game of cricket with the boys in the family. Grandma (Daddi in Hindi) was a beaming bejewelled delight swathed in a bright orange sari. She’s a shamen with the gift of foresight. Daddi would have performed her ceremony and revealed our future for us, only it wasn’t Monday and the spirits only come to her on a Monday. Instead, with 5 of her 6 grandchildren, we hung out in her garden on daybeds, drank tea and played cricket. A calf was tied to a tree behind the bowling position with its mother a few paces away basking in the sun. The family parrot came to all of us, free to leave at any time, perfectly settled in its human family. We’d brought a dozen packets of Jim Jam biscuits for the kids which they shyly took and shared out. The children were a delight, a world away from the spoilt rich kids of the west. Their cricket bat was a small piece of wood fashioned from a redundant plank, the ball was bald. It’s a place where kids go to school if their parents can afford the £100 a year for a state school. Few go to school.
A delightful soul warming hour later Daddi left her grandchildren at home to visit her 6th near Bundi, catching a ride with us in our cramped mini van. She was taking milk in a small urn which we padded with loo roll when the bumpy ride started to spill its contents on her orange robes. She held my hand tightly and kissed me, as she had Fred, as we sat side by side. She admired our Chaing Mai Elephant Nature Park water bottles so we happily gifted her one. She looked like she had won the lottery and was going to give it to her granddaughter. As she left us 20 minutes later the tears started, mine not hers. These people are beautiful. We were dropped back at the hotel, hugs all round from Kukki Jnr, and a promise from him to come and see us off at the night bus the next day. Tired but invigorated we found another delightful rooftop ‘Tom and Jerry’s café’ to eat and play cards. We slept well that night.
We set off for breakfast out and a visit to the ruined palace and fort after a lazy start. We climbed the steep stairs of ‘The Rainbow Café’, passing grandma at the mid point on her day bed peeling boiled tomatoes for the restaurant. Fresh fruit, pancakes, and a toasted egg sandwichs set us up for our sightseeing. Poorly equipped in flip flops we made heavy work of the smooth vertical cobbles on the wide sweep up to the decaying palace. Fully intact, but abandoned long ago, monkeys, bats and other wildlife have staked their claim. Wild roses climb the walls and weeds have taken root between the slabs of marble. Two young men took us into locked rooms to show us the delicate painted decorated panels, perfectly preserved from the 1600s. Black speckled Belgian glass still adorned the mirrored rooms. We peeked into a room to see hundreds of giant bats suspended, slumbering. Narrow staircases took us to chambers that overlooked Bundi and its hills, windows made of carved marble screens. Once colourful paintwork was now faded, but lying down on the floor to look at the ceilings which had seen no sun, we got an insight into the lush colours that would have adorned every wall. We took the cobbled path up to the Queen’s Palace, the rose garden still maintained with bright bushes bursting in pinks and purples against the lush grass. At the centre was a square marble pool, a carved seating area on each side. I reclined for a picture only missing the wine and opium which the Maharaja’s wives whiled away their days with. An elderly guide took us into the main painted room which told the story palace life. The drunk wife was held up by a servant as another topped up her glass. The Maharaja looked down on his wives from a turret, their nakedness lit by the moonlight. A desolate wife stood alone in the garden, abandoned for a younger beauty in his collection of 60 wives. Eunuchs gossiped at the poolside refilling the hookah’s with opium. Dean was taken to one side for a lengthy whispering session before we entered an inner room, he could explain to Dean the purpose of the room was but not in front of Fred and I. The detailed Karma Sutra panels in the dark room needed little explanation, even Fred cottoned on. I guess with 60 wives the Maharaja would have needed inspiration to maintain the momentum.
Our final stop required a walk to the top of the hillside to get into the fort. The man on the last gate house had given us a stick to carry and instructions to not look the monkeys in the eye, keep the stick down and only raise it if we were attacked. By now Dean was cursing my insistence of style over practicality; I’d stopped him wearing his walking shoes and his slip on timberlands were not up to the task, nor were my flip flops. Fred picked up thorns through his Crocs but battled bravely on. Monkeys lined the narrow dirt path screeching at us and my nerve wobbled; Planet of the Apes. We felt the dark oppressive atmosphere of the latest remake of The Jungle Book as we moved in a tight single file, smallest member of our pack sandwiched between us. We stepped into the past through the first of several 30 meter high gates in the solid fortress wall, vast wooden doors and fearsome iron spikes intact. Inside the fort nature had run rampant. A vast stone stepped pool 20x20 meters had been engineered into the rock, it was as perfect as a concrete structure. We climbed some open vine covered steps to the top of the wall and took in the vista. Eerie and empty it was a spine tingling experience and we gladly started our descent ready to return to the present. We stopped at a café in the palace grounds sitting on a roof top overlooking the blue and white painted houses of Bundi. A child flew a kite from the flat roof of his house, we watched it getting entangled in the overhead power cables. We decided to have a late lunch and early dinner back at ‘The Rainbow Café’ enjoying the tomatoes we’d seen being prepared by grandma. Our return business earnt us a warm welcome and a stunning meal.
Our hosts at the hostel had looked after us wonderfully, organising cash and bus tickets, but we didn’t get to say goodbye because a family member had been rushed to hospital. The 13 year old younger brother was left in charge. By the time we left grandad had taken over and had bizarrely been joined by our elderly guide from the Ladies Palace who was now only dressed in a loin cloth, neighbours were gathering to catch up on the family drama. A Tuk Tuk took us on a bone crunching ride to the night bus stop and sure enough Kukki Jnr turned up to see us off. He had brought Fred and Dean a coin each from his store of antiquities that they will treasure. We gave him pencils and pens for the village children, and he stood and sketched a picture on the spot, soon surrounded by curious onlookers. In the cold of the night a family with 5 children waited, they were there when we arrived and there when we left. We gave them some of our left over biscuit packets and blankets to keep the small children wrapped up. Having established there would be no blankets on the night bus I had no choice but to take them back as we boarded, and rued the day that I had couriered the others home from Pushkar. With a 12 hour ride through the night and no toilet Kukki Jnr took us to the Sikh temple next to the bus stand. Beautifully clean and ordered, beds were laid out and food was available for those who have no home or shelter. They welcomed us in. I wished we’d found the time to visit the Punjab, we will in the future and I’d like to see if we could volunteer at one of the Sikh refuges open to all comers.
The night bus was not quite as described and a long way from the luxury of Argentinian night buses. Our reserved full length beds were full of opportunists who had not booked beds, and they were turfed out by a friend of Kukki’s who was determined to see us safely ensconced. Fred and I got into our double compartment and slotted all our rucksacks at our feet. Dean was across the passage in a narrow single of coffin sized proportion cubicle. Fred was full of excitement, I thought we were going to die. We got out our water and biscuits, turning on head torches to read kindles. Fred drifted off almost immediately and I avoided gazing at the faeces on the ceiling, but struggled to ignore the stench of inhuman odors and filth of the bed. Thankfully we had hoodies and I pulled them up over both of our heads providing a barrier to the grime we would lie in until Delhi. I also reminded myself that I wasn’t one of the 20 people piled on top of cargo in the rear of the bus. We all woke a few times in the night but largely slept well, my dreams punctuated by thoughts of death and my wakeful moments offering prayers of thanks that I’d had a few more hours on this earth. I slept through a near death experience that Dean relayed, and in the morning found God again. Still it only cost us £20 and we arrived in Delhi with our lives and luggage intact.
We had booked into Harry Pokko’s back in the main baazar and it felt like returning home. This part of Delhi is crazy busy, impoverished, but the real Delhi and we love it here. We went straight back to Madan’s for food and tea’s sitting at the roadside table. A succession of the underclass stopped to ask for food. An elderly lady that can’t speak, only makes noises, joined us for a cup of black Chai. With sign language she told us her story and expressed her joy at meeting us. She refused food and the owners refused our offer to pay for her drink; they supply her with one every day. A barefoot girl about 6, in filthy rags and bushy hair took up our offer of food. I ordered her a thali, and whilst she waited for it the owner brought her a half eaten plate left by a customer. Fred passed her his half drunk Lassi with a fresh straw. I sat and smiled at her, the smiles half returned, self- consciousness and shame have already visited her. Behind the dark glasses my eyes filled, and I caught the involuntary heave of emotion before it slipped out. She finished her food and slipped silently away. The painfully skinny teenager (think Belsen) we’d come across last time we’d been here appeared. We asked him to sit down but he skitted off, only to return with 3 of his mates. They lingered outside the seating area asking for food, the young waiter took my order of 4 rice and breads. The owner came along and I thought we would be in trouble for turning his restaurant front into a soup kitchen, instead he got the boys to sit down at the table and told me it was better for me to buy them an egg sandwich each, quicker and more nutritious. As they waited, the skinniest looking vacant and faint, one of them who was without an arm started to speak to me in English. He was clever, smiling, sweet, warm, curious, and dreadfully embarrassed about his stump. They were street kids living under the arches of the flyover, they tried to eek a living collecting rubbish or picking up an errand. There was something very special about him, I wanted to bring him home with me. You can’t spend time with the street people and leave without making commitments to yourself to use your money to make a difference, we won’t have to think about our New Year’s resolution this year.
We hope to load more pictures later
We’ve been in India for 6 days now, and it’s hard to know where to start with this stunning country. It feels like we’ve experienced every extreme in that short time, but we know we’ve only just scratched the surface. India is a crazy beauty that stimulates all your senses, and gives rise to a full gamut of emotions. Its people are beautiful and intense, with a vibrancy that is reflected in the rainbow of colours they fashion. The landscape and buildings provide a feast for your eyes, it’s impossible to pick up a book on a train journey, however long, you just want to drink in the sights as you pass though cities and countryside. On top of this we have arrived in the middle of a commercial revolution; the boldest demonetarisation undertaken in any country in the world, which has brought commerce grinding to a halt.
I had insisted on India being included in our itinerary. Many years ago, I read ‘A Suitable Boy’ by Vikram Seth. It captured my heart and imagination. The film ‘Lagaan’ added to my wanderlust. Dean was less keen due to an unhappy transit through Delhi airport a few years ago. He landed back in England swearing never to set foot in India again. George, who owns and runs our favourite restaurant in Newark ‘Koinonia’, is from Kerala and over the last few years has whetted our appetite for the south. We’ve committed, and failed numerous years to make it to Kerala for Christmas, and I think George had given up on us. This trip gave us the opportunity to put that right. One of the first things we agreed on, when planning the trip, was Christmas in Christian Kerala. But for me the palaces and forts of ancient Rajasthan still called. So, we settled on 3 weeks in the North of India and a flight to Bangalore for a 3-week trip through Kerala to finish our six months. Ever since we’ve been nervous as hell. However, the benefit of having India at the end of our trip is we’ve not only become more experienced travellers, but also met other travellers who have shared their wonderful Indian adventures and prepared us for our time here. Mark, who we spent 3 weeks with on Koh Lanta Island, and Richard our friend in Canberra, have both spent many months in India over the years. Other travellers we met had years of India experience between them. By the time we stepped off the plane at Delhi, we had become excited and were ready to be thrilled. We took Richard and Mark’s advice, and agreed we would not dismiss and shoo away the locals, but instead embrace them with warm smiles and open ourselves to engagement and conversation. What great advice they gave us, and how easy it has been to follow it.
Our arrival in Delhi was eventful from the start. Happily, Dean was let into the country despite his appearance being radically different to his passport photo. He matched his India visa, which seems to be the hardest document in the world to obtain. So only a smile and a joke from the Immigration Officer held us up. Our bags came off quickly and we entered the hall to find huge ATM queues. We ignored them assuming we could pick up our Rupees easily in Delhi where we would spend 2 nights before moving on. Big mistake, but I shall come to that in due course……. Our hostel driver was not there to meet us, but eventually turned up. We had to wait for another couple who had still not appeared from the hall, due to ATM queues, for another hour. More accurately after an hour we gave up and Dean called the hostel, miraculously another driver appeared in 10 minutes and took us on our way. We never got to the bottom of that one. We left the quiet boulevards of the airport approach roads and soon hit the horn honking gridlock that is Delhi. As we did so, tiny children appeared at our windows doing cartwheels in the inches between the cars, and mothers with babies offered up cheap plastic toys for sale. Our driver turned out of the traffic and we were soon in a rat run teaming with monkeys and lumbering cows.
We were staying in the heart of the old bazaar. It was an utterly insane place. Tiny streets lined with the old buildings of Delhi, were a slow-moving mass of Tuk Tuks, Rickshaws, cars, motorbikes and lorries. People somehow squeezing and weaving between the vehicles, the odd cow trundling along, roaming free. All this accompanied by the ever-present cacophony of horns. There appeared to be no traffic rules at all, and 6 days on we still have no idea about the protocols for horn usage. We pulled up, rather ominously, in the heart of the bazaar. There was no sign of accommodation and I was loathed to get out and be dropped amid this insanity. A man suddenly appeared from our hostel and we set off with our backpacks. After a few steps, we turned off into a narrow lane to be hit by the stench of the open latrine that served as the public toilets. My confidence in Dean’s booking waned dramatically as we picked our way to the stares of the back-lane shopkeepers. But after a few meters we arrived at our hostel and to our relief it was an oasis in the middle of the madness. Dean had come up trumps again.
After an explore of the roof terrace and a shower we set off to find some food somewhere that would take cards, as we had now established that we would not be able to get cash from an ATM. They were either empty or the queues were 5 hours long. Dean changed $20 of our emergency dollars with the hostel owner to see us through the next day. The bazaar was hair raising to walk through, Fred clutched tightly as we tried to fathom a route between the traffic, people and cows. None of the restaurants the hostel had said would take cards did. We eventually landed on Madan’s Café a narrow haunt with tables packed in. They didn’t take cards either, but the owner, Pau, insisted we eat there, we could pay anytime, whenever we could get cash he said. He meant it. We ordered Lassi’s to drink and Thali to eat, and Fred overwhelmed and emotional after a long and testing day dropped his head on the table ready to cry. Just at that moment I spotted a boy nearly his age. The boy’s mother got up and invited Fred to come and say hello. Within a few minutes Fred had made best of friends with Eli, an Australian 10-year-old who had been travelling for 6 months with his parents. Hope, his mother, came and joined us. Like us, Hope had no cash, and having been in Delhi for a day already confirmed that it was unlikely that we would get any without hours of queuing at an ATM. Also like us she was eating on tick at the invitation of the owner. As the boys chatted animatedly, Fred fully recovered and bolstered by finding a delightful English speaking traveller his own age, we discussed the money situation and swapped travelling stories with Hope. Her husband Rob was in Australia to attend his brother’s wedding, returning in a day, so she was having to manage alone but would have Australian dollars to exchange in just over 24 hours as Rob flew in. Raul from Holland joined us on our bench. Every year this well-worn impoverished looking traveller spends months in India. He had managed to get money that day and we picked his brains on where to go to try.
All through this meal and travellers’ tale telling a microcosm of the bazaar played out in front of us. A man sat outside the Café on the floor sorting rubbish. Raul had brought him some old jumpers from his hostel room, its winter in India and the nights are cold. Gloria, a 70-year-old American lady who spends 6 months of every year in India, brought him a black bin liner of water bottles she collected from her hotel for him. He gets paid by the KG for these bottles which are then recycled. Someone else bought him a meal. Tiny, dark, silent, and birdlike he crouched on his haunches watching us. Pau had left the restaurant and returned with an elderly western woman wearing a sari that still revealed her jet black dyed hair. She scowled and spat out words in fluent Hindi, bloated crimson hands bringing her cigarette to her lips. Pau accidentally spilt a small amount of Lassi on her and she slapped him and violently let forth a volley of Hindi expletives before scurrying into the back of the café to mutter to herself. We found out the next day that she arrived in India in the 60s and strong opiates were responsible for her distended feet and hands. We marvelled with Hope that she was still alive. Beggars stopped but we offered only food. None was taken. Mafia rings run the begging and begging spots are ‘owned’ by the rings. The rings want cash not well fed beggars, emaciated yields better profits. After wonderful food and hospitality, and an eye opening 2 hours we retreated from the madness to our hostel, with arrangements made for Hope and Eli to join our trip around Delhi the next day. An elderly lady lay sleeping on the floor, no bedding and no blanket, wedged up against a parked motorbike. She wasn’t part of a ring. It is singularly the most heart wrenching thing I’ve seen.
We had hired a private car through the hostel, which we could use a card to pay for, to take us to the sights. At breakfast, we put the bananas and packaged muffins in our bags to give to the old lady we had seen asleep on the floor the night before. After collecting Hope and Eli from their hotel we set off, cramped in the car, giving instructions to our driver that we could only visit sights that were free and needed to find an ATM during our day out. Our first stop was the beautiful main Krishna temple. Shoes and cameras were locked away before we entered. The architecture was decadently decorative, pinks and golds adorning every inch. We explained to a shocked Fred the appropriation of the swastika by Hitler, 6 days in and I still struggle when I see it everywhere, wondering why on earth Hitler would choose a symbol from a peaceful Indian sub-continent religion. I need to find some time to research that. We were given a wonderful talk by one of the monks receiving offerings for Shiva at a shrine in the temple. We earnt a grey Bindi for our foreheads, leaving with some good old fashioned advice for the boys on working hard, and a better understanding of the Krishna faith. Next stop was an ATM. The first machine we came to had some people outside so we pulled over. However, it was empty as many are now, but those outsides were filming for India TV News, the main 24/7 news channel. Our driver was asked if we would be happy to be interviewed for the lunchtime news. We said yes and trooped out for our moment of Indian fame. Arranged in a tight semi-circle, Hope, Dean and I were each asked a question on the situation, the boys excitedly beaming at the interviewer. It was all quite thrilling but unfortunately we would not get the opportunity to see our piece to camera on the midday news.
Finally, we found an ATM with cash on Connaught Square. With hope in our hearts and Hope by our side we stood in the queue of 30 or more people, and the boys made friends with some Indian men who were hanging out. The queue moved at a snail’s pace, a slow machine, and people using ATMs and cards for the first time. It was here that we learnt the detail of what was going on. Modi is the working class Prime Minister from an impoverished background who has a successful reforming track record as Chief Minister for the Gujarat region. His party won an overwhelming majority in the last election, ousting the corrupt ruling class Congress Party that has been led by Indira Gandhi’s descendants since her assassination. Only 1% of people pay tax in India, and like Argentina it is a black / grey market cash economy. To address rampant corruption and the lack of funds for public services; education, development and sanitation improvement, Modi has committed to overhaul the commercial system. He needs to flush out the black-market cash hoarded at home by rich Indians and get tax paid on it. To make this money visible, collecting tax on it retrospectively, he has abolished the old 2000 (£25) and 500 (£6) rupee note, replacing it with new notes. All the old notes must be turned into the banks by 15 December or they become invalid. Indians with money therefore must bring their money to the banks to change for new money, in this process they should provide evidence of where this money has come from and tax paid on it. If there is no evidence of tax paid they must pay the current rate of tax on it. The practical impact is the banks have long queues of people waiting to change the old notes, and when new notes are issued it is largely the new 2000 rupees. However, the new notes are a vast sum in India and change for these notes is now running out. The central bank underestimated the requirement for more 100 rupee notes to keep the system liquid, providing change for the new large notes. To spread the cash distribution everyone is limited to a maximum 2,000-rupee withdrawal a day (tourists 2,500). However, as a tourist, even if you get your hands on 2000 rupees you struggle to use it because the everyday traders don’t have change for that kind of note on a 20-rupee transaction. Despite the chaos being caused, people not buying and having to queue for 5 hours a day to get cash out, the vast majority of Indians support this, only the rich or corrupt object. Queues are patient and there is a real acceptance that they are prepared to suffer real hardship for a few weeks to build a better India.
We successfully got 2,500 each out at the ATM, and feeling flush with cash we set off for our next stop the Lotus Temple. A long queue nearly put us off, but it was moving fast and we were inside the elegant grounds in 15 minutes. Like Sydney Opera House, the Lotus Temple is made of cream tiles that shine like a white plastic in the sun. You follow the long beautiful path up to the holy waters that surround the Lotus Temple before circling up into it. It was here that we got our first taste of Indians wanting a selfie with us. Fred with his blonde hair and radical haircut is a hit. My blonde hair and pale skin, comparatively as I’m sporting quite a golden tan, is a favourite with the sari clad ladies. Dean doesn’t do too badly looking like a white Sikh, he’s been asked several times if he’s from the Punjab. As a holy place, where you can take a camera, lots of Indian tourists visit. Consequently, many visitors from rural areas have not been around, or met, westerners. Requests for photos doubled the time it would have taken to do this visit otherwise. We felt quite sorry for Hope and Eli having to linger for us. Hope is half Philippine and half white British, consequently after 6 months travelling her and Eli look almost Indian, and since her blonde husband Rob left for the wedding they’ve not had to stop often for photos. We did our best to keep moving but it was slow progress, we didn’t want to offend parents throwing their children at us for a photo op. In the temple, we got some respite and sat quietly in the pews enjoying the silence. The temple is home to a new religion ‘Baha’i’ with a wonderful central aim to unite all religions to bring harmony. All faiths visit this temple and all are considered equal. By now starving we made our way back through the crowds, being stopped for more photos, and let our driver take us to a restaurant that took cards where he would get a free meal and commission. Five of us ate for £15, a wonderful but expensive meal for India, however we got the use of western toilets and left restored.
Our final stop was The Red Fort, the place you’ve got to visit if you come to Delhi. As a tourist, you pay 10 times that of an Indian for all attractions, still a paltry amount compared to the UK. It was £6 each for adults and children were free. In Jaipur, we met some people from the North West of England grumbling about the ‘thieving Indians’ and the inflated entrance fee for foreigners. We felt embarrassed at their ignorance and wondered if they had any appreciation of the tiny amount of money locals earn and just how rich we are compared to them. The Fort was stunning and wonderfully unkempt. Colonial barracks had been constructed during the days of the Empire, sitting alongside the open rooms of the Maharajas palace. It was a Sunday and family day for Indians. Immediately we were besieged for photos, often starting with shy requests that you are only too glad to oblige. Fred was warming to the theme, smiling on cue and deciding that he rather liked fame. I suggested he see how he felt about it at the end of 6 weeks. We spent a gorgeous 2 hours exploring and only touched the surface of the site, you could spend a day here. On the walk, back out at closing time we passed the vacant colonnaded Commanding Officers residence, long grasses and rusting iron garden furniture left in situ. It was all so romantically evocative of bygone times. Just what I wanted to experience. Exhausted, grimy, but fulfilled we drove back to our hostels to repair ourselves before dinner at Madan Café again with Eli and Hope.
The next day was a 5:45 start to walk the deserted streets of the Bazaar to Old Delhi Train station. The sun had not risen and cold of Indian winter nights still lingered on the narrow dirt main road. Our only company was a handful porters pulling empty wooden carts, and Tuk Tuk drivers who woke bleary eyed from sleep in their open cabs to call us for business. As soon as we hit the station the bustle returned, but we found our platform easily and sat on our backpacks to wait for the Express Train that would take us to Jaipur. Around us people waited and station porters slept on their carts with just a blanket for warmth. Perfectly on time our long train emerged, 30 plus carriages, and we climbed onto our luxury seating in 1st Class Air Con. Staff brought us trays with newspaper, cups and bottles of water and we settled down to enjoy the 5-hour ride. It was as we pulled out of the station that we got our first real sight of mass poverty. People sleeping under railway arches among dirt and rubbish, those who were awake picked through the residue of the lives of others, searching for food or something to sell. Lining the route out of Delhi shanty settlements of plastic sheeting and other materials made for more luxurious dwellings. Beyond the makeshift housing decorative rendered houses painted in multi colours were waking up. The sun rose as we emerged into verdant green countryside. In neat fields the women were out tending goats and crops clad in vibrant sari’s, heads covered by orange shawls to shield them from the sun. Breakfast arrived, breaded deep fried vegetables with peas and rice. It was delicious. We caught up on the news reading The India Times, dominated by news of the cash crisis and the government’s response. It is the season for farmers to buy seeds and fertiliser and Modi has directed cash to the villages for the next 2 days to enable them to trade. He has also given permission for agrarian merchants to accept the old notes and can swap them in at later dates. This huge experimental overhaul is requiring the government to adapt implementation daily to the challenges being thrown up. I just can’t imagine any government in the developed world being this bold and brave for the benefit of the poor and long term health of a country, challenging the establishment and corporate norms.
On arrival, our driver, organised by our Airbnb, found us after a 15-minute delay. We’re at the wrong exit. As we’ve waited men come up to us looking for business. We stick to our plan and engage in conversation. They are respectful and curious. Fred and his hair is the main conversation point. We have fun with them, leaning in to their intimacy and lack of boundaries. Sabir Ali is our driver, extremely tall, beanpole thin, and very dark skinned. As he takes us to the Explorers Nest he offers his services for sightseeing, producing a beautifully bound notebook full of handwritten endorsements by tourists of all nationalities. We agree a price for the rest of the day and the next of £25, and he promises to help us find cash. He sees us to the home of Lt Col Arvind and his wife. It’s a leafy cul de sac in the heart of Jaipur, walking distance to the Pink City, set over 3 floors with a roof terrace that has view of the Amber Fort in the hills above the city. We relax for a couple of hours on the cool first floor balcony before Sabir picks us up, chatting with Arvind as his Nepalese houseman serves us toasted cheese sandwiches. We learn more about the support for Modi and his reforms, and the endemic corruption that has hindered the lives of ordinary Indians. Things are hard even for this household, they don’t have the cash to replenish their stocks of vegetables and drinks for guests, his wife make daily visits to the bank to wait in line for ATMs to dispense the money that is like gold dust.
Sabir picks us up in his white car and takes us around the city sights. Far less polluted than Delhi, it is nevertheless packed and progress is slow. We start by driving through the Pink City, more orange than pink, it is nevertheless a confectionary of juicy concentrated food colouring and moulded fondant icing. Noisy and packed, men sit in groups at the front of each shop reading papers, playing dominos, and chewing the cud to the backdrop of honking horns. Our skin has dried out, dust is everywhere, the dry heat of India is a contrast to the humidity of Thailand. We decide we need to find baby oil to smooth our scaly skin. We decamp from the car at the oldest palace in Puskar and make our way down a narrow lane. A fee of £25 buys us all a 2-day pass for all the sights in and around Jaipur. We take the marble steps up into the main quad of the Maharajas palace which has an elaborate fountain in the centre. Carved pillars support the balconies above from which hand worked edging cascades. There are 365 small windows in this palace that is built over 5 floors, each one smaller than the one below. We make our way up through the floors until we stand, like the bride and groom, at the top of this wedding cake admiring the view of the city and the hills surrounding it. At every turn groups of young men and women, families, and school groups stop and ask for photos. The trick is to keep moving, when you stop someone plucks up the courage to ask and before long a hoard of people have gathered, moving in for ‘Just one photo please Ma’am’. It never is just one photo; members of groups and families are rotated until a whole album has been created with every member of the family appearing in combination with us.
Next up, the Prince Albert Museum, a multi-national collection of antiquities housed in a palace built for a visit to Jaipur by Prince Albert. We admire the ancient coins, art, weaponry, industrial art, painted panels telling the story of Hindu Gods and prophets, amongst other displays. It’s an impressive collection that we can linger over in the cool of the interior, at least we linger if we dare but not long enough to appear in more family albums and Instagram pages. But of course, we don’t escape, and we smile broadly for each photo.
Sabir takes next to a Maharaja’s mausoleum on the outskirts. Its stunningly beautiful with not a soul in sight. The monument, more open pillared buildings set in beautifully tendered rose gardens, covers 5 acres. It’s in the hillside and the fortified walls of Jaipur, which extend out and up the steep hills from the thick outer walls guarding the remains of a past ruler, remind you of the Great Wall of China. Stray dogs have made their beds in the courtyards and wild peacocks take flight when we appear. Fred has acquired Henna on both his forearms from a friend of Sabir, a 10-minute job to decorate has cost us a ridiculous amount (£12), but for Sabir we don’t negotiate as he’ll get 50% commission and we’re being too polite. Fred walks around with his arms extended allowing the thick goo to dry for at least an hour.
Our final stop is the Monkey Temple. We refuse the pressing offer from hawkers to buy monkey nuts but take up one of the young guides to show us around. We can pay what we like, a neat trick that always makes you pay more than you could. We forget his name but he’s a delight. We climb up the narrow winding cobble stones covered in monkeys, there are hundreds here in large troops. Mothers carry babies in their arms, some nursing them. Youngsters bound along, sticking close to their family groups. Some ride the pigs that are everywhere. Litters of piglets snuffle the walled edges of the steep path, moving out of the way of roaming cows. We see our first genetic mutation, revered in India, a cow that looks like its half way through calving. It isn’t, instead it has an extra 2 stunted legs protruding from near its tail. A man in robes offers us a photo for money, we decline. Our 17-year-old guide indulges Fred in some parkour, they run up the smooth rock face that lies between the hairpin bends of the cobbled path. We finally make it to the top where an open flat roofed building sits and admire the most stunning views of the city. Fred has disappeared with our guide; we are called out of the cool to see them atop of the building waving for photos. I gulp at the sight but remain calm, the temple children in tattered clothing have danced along the walls we’ve climbed with kites held aloft and survived. We sit down, the four of us, and wait for sunset. Jubilant clashing music drowns out the horns of the city, it’s a wedding party taking place in an arena the size of a premiership football club. We can see it from our vantage point. This is wedding season, a disastrous time for this de-monetarisation, but despite stories of weddings being cancelled we will see many wedding horses trotting through city streets. This one is a grand wedding and we are told it will last 5 days and cost over £100,000. As the sun starts to go down the arena below is lit up, neon pink and bright white lights illuminate the festivities. There must be over 1,000 people at the wedding party. The sun starts to set and we make sure we put down our cameras to enjoy it. It’s wonderful. In the dusk, we descend, two robed temple monks are sat on a roof top chatting. They smile and wave and let us take a picture of them surrounded by monkeys. They don’t ask for cash and our guide tells us that they are real holy men, not one of the pretend hawkers that hang out around the city. We pay our guide 200 rupees on the way down because he doesn’t want his boss to know how much he got. The £2.50 we paid him puts a smile on his face and we say goodbye, avoiding calls to buy food and drink from stall holders.
Back at our retreat a Thali was cooked for us and we wolfed it down. Arvind and his wife joined us for dinner. We discussed Indian politics, relations with Pakistan, and the monetary crisis. We move on to their experiences over the last 9 years of running Explorers Nest. They have us in fits of laughter at the story of a 45-year-old Englishman who arrived 3 years ago to buy a camel and ride it across the Indian desert. He had been on a camel safari when he was in his 20s and decided to fulfil his dream of making a solo crossing of a desert by camel. His family had clubbed together to provide the £800 for a camel and provisions. Arvind and his wife decided to join him in making his purchase, and allowed him to park his camel outside for a night. A night turned into 3 until the camel ran away. It was tracked down but it was too young for the task. Another camel was bought and Arvind sent the Englishman on his way. He eventually heard that his dream of being Lawrence of Arabia ended after 6 hours when he fell off his camel and had to finish the journey on the wagon provided by a guide he had eventually hired when he realised the task of making the trip solo was beyond him. To top it all Arvind tells us that India has no desert to speak of, it’s a narrow strip of arid land that runs from Jaipur to Jaisalmer, villages and dwellings every half kilometre. An ill-conceived midlife crisis that entertains us all.
Arvind’s Nepalese chap makes us scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast which we take on the cool terrace with the company of chipmunks and a pair of colourful doves that have built a nest in a hanging basket. Sabir picks us up and takes us to the tallest tower in Jaipur, it’s a narrow construction without steps that we struggle to mount in our slippery footwear. We are thankful that there are no other visitors to this hidden gem as there is only room for one person in the passage. A dead gecko protrudes from a light fitting having overestimated the space available. We climb the 100 meters mostly in the dark finally emerging into the bright light. Thankfully a high mesh has been erected around the space at the top, Dean still manages to mistake a man-sized gap which runs through the middle for a step, narrowly missing a fatal fall at the last minute. We enjoy the peace, high above the busy city, before making our way down the polished floor that turns it into a helter skelter. The only way we can do this and stay standing is to use the walls on either side as a prop. It’s amazing how much fun you can have without Health and Safety regulations.
Jaipur has one of the oldest astronomy centres in India. Giant instruments for navigation, star gazing, and time telling constructed in the 16-1700’s by subsequent Maharaja’s and still standing today in the palace grounds. It’s nearly midday and we watch the sundial, measuring 50 x 20 meters, until it is noon. The heat is blistering and we retreat to the shade. We can’t do the site justice and after half an hour we head out to find Sabir and his car. His uncle is there telling Sabir where to go for cash. Sabir buys us some pineapple from a stand to keep us going, we’re running a tab with him and he’s already lent us 2,000 rupees. Our running joke is that he is both driver and banker for us in the current circumstances. We park up outside a bank, more than 200 people are pressed up against the gates, women on one side and men on the other. The police are letting batches in and the scrum is robust. We muscle our way near enough to catch the eye of the police and they come out to give us safe passage inside. I fear crushing in crowds, avoiding them at all costs, but we brace ourselves and Sabir takes care of Fred as we make for the gate. We’re ushered into the bank manager’s office and are brought water. A negotiation with a British national, of Indian origin, is taking place. He holds a wodge of £50 notes in a silver clip, but leaves empty handed. With a roomful of people standing, us seated in luxurious leather chairs, we explain our need for cash. A long exchange between Sabir and the Bank Manager takes place, at the end of which we learn that the ATM is around the corner being refilled as we speak. When we get there, there is a queue of about 20 waiting but they smile, welcome us and usher us to the front, delaying themselves by 15 minutes. We get our maximum of £80 of cash out and feel like we’ve won the lottery, and when we emerge triumphant from the small booth they cheer. The cheer is because, as the first customers of the replenished ATM, we confirm it is working, and they also cheer for us. All through this testing time Fred is experiencing things that make him understand just how lucky we have been in Britain since rationing ended.
Lunch is in the carpark at The Amber Fort, young boys find Sabir a space and we go over to a stall run by a friend of Sabir’s. Few children go to school after the age of 10. We get Chai, sweet milky masala tea that is divine and our regular drink in India. Samosa’s and vegetable Pakora’s, freshly made and cooked by the owner, are served. A stop in the public latrines is a test, but Fred and I pass it. The fort itself is astounding. We climb 50 meters up the walled cobbled winding path to this stunning hilltop construction. I cry as I walk through the mirrored halls, this is what I came to Rajasthan to see and it doesn’t disappoint. We clock up more selfies, I’m sure we’ve been photographed more than Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in the last few days. We stay only an hour at the fort but again you could easily spend a day. For me it should be on anyone’s bucket list and I’d even come back to admire the formal lake gardens and wonderfully preserved interior again. The views of the region from towering windows are simply stunning.
We let Sabir take us to a fabric factory, we know we’re likely to get conned, but we feel we owe him. True to form we are subject to a piece of theatre; walked through a fabric dyeing space, past tailors, and carpet weavers, and up into a sales area. We know all but the sales area is theatre. Drinks are produced and fabrics laid out. The salesmanship is amazing and we buckle, 10Kg of bedspreads, tablecloths and scarves later we slot our credit card into a machine and let go of £200, plus £50 for shipping to home. I wish Dean a ‘Happy Christmas’ and Sabir beams, he enjoys the joke and I suspect can’t believe his luck (he’ll get 50% of this sale). Exhausted we arrive back at Explorers Nest with another day agreed with Sabir, this time into the countryside. We stroll out for dinner 5 minutes away in a local roadside eatery. A tiny ragged child begging catches my eye and my emotions. We ask the owner to get him some food and a dish is placed on the table behind us. I ask the owner to bring it to ours so we can eat with him but the child is terrified of us and refuses, and so he sits behind us and eats. Another table pass a Lassi that they’ve ordered over to him. I’ve no idea if he is a genuine beggar but my guilt is satisfied and I know he has a full belly that night.
I wake early and get up to catch up on blogging. We’ve been doing too much to find time to write, and I have so much to write about. I get about 20 minutes in, herbal tea made from plants in the garden is served before fellow guest Mona (not her real name) sits down. She is a beautiful woman in her 50s from New Zealand, but speaks with the accent of her German homeland. I adored meeting her from the start, but this is the first time we have had quiet time together. She leaves India in 2 days after 3 months here travelling and studying Ayurveda Medicine. She spent yesterday helping a young Indian woman get money, giving up 100 rupees of her last 800 when they failed. Mona must leave today, she met an Indian man on a train in Bikaner, romance blossomed as he took her sightseeing, and he is coming from his home town to consummate the passion that has developed. No hotel will take a booking from a westerner and an Indian unless they are married. She spent a day trying and our Airbnb host must comply with the rules. They have found somewhere, through a friend of a friend. She knows it will be one night only together, but she lives her life as though every day is her last. We’re going to New Zealand in the future and I will visit her, she’s a special one.
Having achieved no blogging, but had a great time with Mona, we set off with Sabir. We’ve chosen the location, the Sambhar Salt Lake. Sabir is not very happy, it’s in the middle of nowhere and he has never been there, we suspect it’s because there is no chance to earn commission. Dean insists and there is a tense moment when Dean leans into the car, where we and Fred are buckled in, and says he’s calling the day off as Sabir tries to negotiate on price again. Sabir caves in and quickly works hard to make sure we are all friends. We get over this hiccup by the time we are out of Jaipur, it takes an hour. We pass a big road smash and policemen scratching their heads. Sabir pulls over to check everyone is ok, they are. Then the countryside opens, no traffic, just ladies in the brightest of saris on foot often herding goats between grazing. On the small homesteads trees are grown in straight lines, crops are green, and there are hayricks that Turner could have painted next to the mud walled homes. All this set against the ever-present bright blue sky. We pass a small bazaar taking place away from any dwellings, it’s like a car boot in an English village but without the cars. An hour into the countryside we see a wedding taking place. The thick red and gold stripes of the marquee walls hang down from the community open building and a white wedding horse, resplendent in jewelled saddlery, stands in the shade. Sabir asks if we want to visit it, we say we’d love to if it’s not rude, he assures us they would be honoured and we reverse up.
At first the vast wedding party is cautious wondering, like us, about the protocols. They’ve never met westerners we learn. I put my hands together and greet them with ‘Namaste’s’ which they return. The smiles suddenly grow and I am pulled over to the women and a tiny baby, its eyes Kohl rimmed to protect against flies, in the arms of its mother. It unites us all and I’m given the baby to hold. For a tense moment it looks like it’s going to dissolve into howls but rhythmic rocking calms it, smiles and clapping come from the women. The wedding photographer appears, looking like he’s won the lottery. I’ve lost Fred and Dean by now in the melee, but when I turn still holding the baby, I see Fred atop the Wedding Horse. An intended 10-minute stop turns into an hour; we are shown the stash of wedding gifts, taken through to a small dark room inside a house that has been cleared to view the brides (there are 2) and grooms, and posed for photos. We gift 200 (£2.50) rupees to each bride which brings howls of delight from their families. The brides themselves look only 13 or 14. Their faces are covered by elaborate veils, but for our benefit they are drawn back so we can gaze at their beauty. Like exotic creatures only just captured from the wild they are shown off, surrounded by a noisy insistent crush of people. They look terrified and are anything but the Bridezilla’s of the West. This is most definitely not ‘their big day’. We retreat from the dark cool room, feeling rather claustrophobic, and are posed for more pictures. I’m surrounded by small children now calling out ‘HI’. I have to say ‘Hi’ and shake hands with each of them. It feels like being the member of the royal family without the bodyguards. I’m acutely aware of this as I feel sharp pains in my head and realise that I’m having hairs pulled out as mementoes by the children behind me. One of the older villages clips them around the ear. We finally say goodbye and walk to the car. The whole wedding party follows us. The car is surrounded and Fred and I struggle to get in, I peel fingers off the door frame terrified of shutting the door on them. We leave to the sound of the car being slapped, and as we look out of the rear-view window we see the colourful clothes chasing us despite the dust of the road. We can’t believe the wonderful experience we have just had. Sabir is beaming.
After a few wrong turns, Chai tea at a cross roads, and directions from motorcyclists that we stop, we arrive at a deserted religious retreat ‘Dhani’ next to the lake. Ancient Rajasthani white buildings surround a man-made lake, a mini Pushkar. No one comes here now and the water is green and stagnant, nevertheless it is stunning for its silence. A man appears and ushers us into his home, its divine, bright bedding covers mats on the floor and a small child plays with a metal bowl and spoon. He takes us through his home to his terrace that overlooks the lake pulling up chairs for us, his wife brings us water in metal cups. His mother is sitting cross legged on a mat in the shade reading a book in large print. They ask us for nothing, just want to share the beauty and tranquillity of their home. Sabir finds us and is worried that we are drinking water that is not mineral, Dean and I had given it a go out of politeness but stopped Fred as we were unsure. We leave with grateful thanks and pictures for posterity. A gentle and heart-warming time. The salt flats are a weird experience. We’ve come in the wrong way and we’ve arrived at the salt production side rather than the wild wetlands. It’s a pre-industrial revolution way of working that takes 3 men who are currently sitting in the shade. We wander through the square sections of salt water, a broken down wooden cart is rusting on the ancient railway tracks that are no longer used. Fred and Sabir wander off between the square mirrors of water chatting. We explore quietly for half an hour and take pictures of the eerie perfect mirrors and strange colours. By the time we are back in the car we are more than ready for home. That night Dean has succumbed to a virus and stays in bed as Fred and I go out to meet Hope, Eli and Rob for dinner. We catch up on adventures and places visited.
We have our final adventure on the platform of Jaipur station. As we get our seats in Second Class non-AC (padded bench seats that Indians use but not usually westerners), there is a fuss over seating. A man in his 50’s wearing a suit is indicating that he should be in the seats we think we should be in. Dean gets his ticket out of the wallet which he carries his passports in. Suddenly Dean notices that the man making a fuss is no longer there and he pats his pocket. The wallet with passports is gone. We’ve fallen for the classic distraction con, one that we had read about but forgotten. With the train standing in the station, Dean charges off down the carriage and jumps onto the platform. A fellow traveller points Dean in the direction that the man has run and Dean follows in hot pursuit. This takes him across the platform, into a train and out the other side where he jumps down onto the tracks. He runs across 2 lots of tracks, climbs back onto another platform and up the concourse to the station building. He spots the man, carrying a bag that he recalled, and shouts at him. With 2 police officers at the exit the man drops his bag. Dean picks it up and remonstrates with him. He returns to the train holding the wallet aloft and limping with a bloody knee. The train applauds him and pass him anti-septic cream. We feel for our passengers who are all Indian, we can tell they are terribly embarrassed. Amazingly, given the time that the whole incident took, the three of us pull out of the station with all our bags. Dean’s virus is long forgotten and he seems to have a whole new lease of life.
In our first 6 days India gave us everything and more, as did its people. A huge, complex, multi layered society that we’ve only seen through a crack in the door. Its left us hungry for more and as I write, its continuing to deliver, but I know even now that I’ll be back many, many times. If you’ve not been yet, book your flight, it will be the best experience you ever have.
We left the hustle and bustle of vibrant Chiang Mai and an eye-opening trip to the Elephant Nature Park in search of an island retreat. With 3 weeks before flying to Dehli, to start 6 weeks in India, we wanted a slow pace of life chilling in a hammock on the beach. Abbi, a volunteer at the Bangkok Bed and Bike hostel, had interrupted my migraine inducing search for a destination. She had spent some time at Bee Bees bungalows on Koh Lanta, one of the islands in the South Andaman Sea, only leaving because she had to make her way to Bangkok. She knew what we were looking for and her description sounded perfect.
We took a late afternoon flight from Chiang Mai to Krabi, Dean had ordered a taxi and booked one night in a cheap hotel, making for an easy journey. The young Thai on the desk was wonderfully sweet, delicate, and quietly spoken. He showed us to our room, apologising for his English despite it being perfectly adequate. Like most young Thais he wore the obligatory brace on his teeth, further broadening his already impressive smile. Our room could have been a studied homage to the 70s; nylon quilted bedspreads in bright primary colours picked out the detail of the 6 flying ducks arranged diagonally, in flight across the wall. We suspected Hilda Ogden had been commissioned to decorate. We booked a minibus and ferry service to the island of Koh Lanta via the front desk and set in for a good read and an early night.
In the morning, wary of island mosquitos, Fred and I went in search of more spray and a few additional supplies. Although inland, we could smell the sea on our walk and started to get excited. The bus came on time and we set off on a round of collecting other backpackers. We were soon full to bursting, the driver miraculously finding ways to squeeze in another huge pack and passenger, just when we thought there couldn’t be another pickup. Our final stop involved the driver reversing up a motorway, realising he had missed a layby. None of us could quite believe it and, seated in the middle of the bus, I was dearly thankful we hadn’t got into the back row when we had the pick of the seats. We’d spent enough time in Thai vehicles and traffic to know it was unlikely that his reversing lights would be working, and we all held our breath as lorries bore down, missing us by centimetres. We survived, prayers answered, and our final pick up was made.
The journey took us through country lanes, past stall holders dressed in tunics and hijabs. The south of Thailand is predominately Muslim with a wealth of Mosques dotted along the roads. A small ferry took us across the narrow strip of sea, mangroves lining the coast, we imagined crocodiles lurking in their dark corners. As we crossed a final bridge onto Koh Lanta we spotted hoards of long tailed monkey’s playing on the mud flats of the estuary. My shriek of joy ensured everyone’s cameras were pulled out and blurry shots were captured. We soon came to the coast that Thai Islands are famous for, long white sand beaches and distant horizons dotted with craggy islands. In December and January the water will turn crystal clear, but for now the typhoon and monsoon seas are still churning. It’ still a stunning sight, the bright blue sea disappearing into the horizon.
We were the third drop off and, in the hot mid afternoon sun, we put on our backpacks to tramp down a narrow muddy lane to find Bee Bees Bungalows. The promised 3 minute walk was thankfully just that, and we were quickly in the middle of bamboo huts with roofs woven from palms, colourful hammocks slung on the balconies, surrounded by embroidered scatter cushions. Ann, the Thai owner greeted us, deeply tanned with long floppy jet black hair that fell over his beaming face. I’d called that morning to say we were coming, Bee Bee’s doesn’t take bookings, but Ann had held a room for us, turning away another family. He is always full, whatever the season, so it was a lottery as to whether we would get a room. We did. His wife Karo, Japanese by origin, showed us where to stow our luggage until our bungalow was ready. A sand floored, open sided roundhouse forms the centre of Bee Bees, tattered books slotted into the floor to ceiling library, roughly hewn fixed seating circling homemade tables covered in colourful cloths. The bar is an honesty bar, drinks stored in vast ice boxes just outside the shared space. We opened a large bottle of Chang beer and walked the 20 steps to the sea. It was bliss.
Before long our bungalow was ready and we were blown away by the multi floored adobe that we would call home for the next few weeks. Fred had a double bed, suspended above ours, which he accessed by a vertical wooden ladder. Mosquito nets gave the place a fairy tale quality. Outside our balconies were on 3 levels, each with a hammock and reclining cushions. Our bathroom was a cold water shower and sink, the loo was flushed by pouring a bucket of water into the pan. Back to basics, and an escape from modern life and comforts. As Ann said to us later, “I give you Thailand when you come here”. Apparently its not to Thai tastes, too close to regular life for Thai’s, but us Europeans love it. With bags in our bungalow, we pulled on our swimmers and took to the water. The beach is golden sand, but below the high tide is a dead coral reef. When the water receded we were treated to the sight of the exposed blackened coral, the result of the 2004 Tsunami, that is slowly reviving. A richness of weird and wonderful ocean creatures have returned, making for great rock pooling. We all took a stroll down the beach in the early evening, passing other accommodation and bars that had yet to open, its still low season. A harbour of longtailed boats greeted us at the end of our walk, a newly built boat was on dry land getting its final coat ready for its maiden voyage.
We had all sorts of plans for our Koh Lanta stop, there is plenty to do on the 22km long island. But instead our plans have ground to a halt and the days have raced by as we’ve fallen into a routine of doing very little except chilling out and making friends of strangers. As it would be monotonous for me to write about each day; early morning breakfast of omelettes and black coffee, sea swim, occasional run, Pad Thai lunch, reading and writing on the beach, more swimming, and dinner with Chang and cocktails, serenaded by Ning on his guitar, followed by bed, repeated day after day, I thought I’d delve more into the people we’ve met and the friendships forged. The fifteen bungalows have become a community of people, some here as long as we are; neighbours we speak to daily and share our time and food with, others passing through bringing fresh conversation and perspectives to those of us who have decided leave our backpacks unpacked.
Ann and Karo head up our family. Always smiling and promising the weather will be better tomorrow. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. When it’s raining, which it often has been, he joyfully tells Dean that it is just for him. He knows that Dean is here to escape the oppressive heat of the interior. On beautiful days, when the clouds have cleared he apologises profusely to Dean but celebrates his miraculous workings with other guests. Everyone’s a winner here. Two brothers Ning and Nong, yes these are their real names, are the man Fridays for Ann and Karo. Long jet black curly hair frames their delicate faces that host wispy beards. Ning is tiny, short and slender, Nong is strappingly tall for a Thai with a supermodel look. They tell you they love their work; waiters, barmen, playmate to children, and night fall turns them into musicians who strum the classics with a reggae beat, lyrics laden with thick Thai accents. An army of others look after us all and re-build the bungalows that are eaten away by insects within 2 years. We say “Sa Waddy Car / Cap” every morning to the ladies of the kitchen, hands together bowing, and they giggle back at us. In return for our customer loyalty they occasionally feed us sweet treats that are not on the menu. They are mysterious glutinous sticky black blobs wrapped in singed banana leaves. Chief engineer, plumber, electrician and builder is a toothless older man who wears his sage coloured baseball cap back to front. A cigarette permanently suspended on his bottom lip. A new shaded platform was erected in a day, including electrics. If you plug your charger in and hold the end of the cable you get a lovely feeling coursing through you; no earth to have an earth cable here. Bee Bees is truly built on sand. Of course a place like this has its own massage veranda. It’s £6 for an hour long Thai massage with oil, and the grandmother who kneads you between her fiercesome[Fh1] fingers has lost none of her strength. She spends most of her day sitting Buddha like on her platform in the shade, gazing at the sea, until one of decides we need a work out to correct our postures from too much lazing around.
A multitude of nationalities make up our fixed community. A Swiss family with 2 children are at the start of their 12 month trip, figuring out what they enjoy doing and relaxing into the start of home schooling and travels. They’ve been trying to leave for 4 days now, after 10 days they wanted to see a smaller island that is only accessible by a longtail boat. The first day they were too late in booking, the second day the boat was full, on the third day the weather was too bad. Last night we had a stunning storm and all boats were cancelled again this morning. We’ve started to call this place ‘Hotel California’, you can check out but you can never leave….. We’re convinced Ann is conjuring the sea Gods every night to keep this wonderful family here.
Mark is English, here for 30 days to write a book on mindfulness and self inquiry. He left his Executive role at EMI as head of music for music more than 1 year old, to find something more grounded. For the last few years that’s been yoga, coaching, working festivals and stuff he enjoys. We spend hours with Mark chatting about life. Our politics align and he has a refreshing optimism about the future. He sees young people all around him who have compassion, emotional intelligence, openness, and a healthy disregard for ‘Little Britishness’. Mark makes me think about my drive to always be doing stuff, I decide to give myself permission to do nothing productive, unless I want to. I decide that doing nothing has become my exercise for this leg. I’m living in the moment, enjoying conversations and inactivity. I’m exploring the boundaries of boredom and refusing to weigh up the success of the day with asking myself “what have I achieved”. Dean and Mark spend late nights, long after I’ve gone to bed, talking about TED talks, papers on psychotherapy, achieving fulfilment and whatever. I pump Mark for music industry stories and am left slack jawed by some of the things that he tells me, I understand why he left. We’ve all got to know one another well, Fred is disappointed on the nights when we venture away from camp to have dinner just the three of us. A new tribe has formed quickly in this place.
Michael is Austrian. A leathery tan is the canvass for heavy tribal tattoos. In summer he is a surf instructor, in winter a ski instructor. Bright blue eyes bulge out, contrasting with his gingery sun bleached eyebrows and hair, when he talks. His energy is enormous, like a child he is constantly in search of adventure, finding it daily and having us in fits of laughter at his exploits as he retells them in great detail. His English is excellent, no more so than when he is swearing. Every story has several “This bloody fucking shit…..” in it. Spat out in a heavy accent, he experiences joy and frustration in extreme measure. We live the moments he has lived, enthralled and amused by him. He has a single minded certainty and absolutism to his thinking that is admirable. His bluntness engages me rather than offending. He walks by having an ADHD moment, just now as I sit here typing, to say he doesn’t know what to do. I tell him that when you don’t know what to do you should do nothing. He says normally when he doesn’t know what to do he smokes a joint and then he knows what to do. He went on a cave walk a few days ago and the guide gave him a joint. He’s only just smoked it “But the bloody fucking shit joint, it was like nothing, like maybe it was bloody, fucking shit green tea, I don’t know”. He’s wandered off down the beach, maybe in search of a mushroom shake. He’s been threatening to leave for days, but it’s that Hotel California vibe again…..
Drugs are abundant here, a joint for sale behind bars (not at Bee Bees) on the beach. It’s illegal but a blind eye gets turned and a few Baht are handed over, which is what inflates the price of the below the counter joint apparently. Mushrooms are not illegal, and bars serve up Mushroom Shakes “bloody fucking shit weak” according to Michael before he has one, “bloody fucking amazing shit after he has tried one”. One of our camp is experienced in drugs, they have accidental encounters with locals and expat residents; Italian girls, Spanish girls, other girls. They always seem to be a pair of girls. We become educated, vicariously in their merits, properties, effects, and the detail of the trips they get. Acid is dropped one night. In the morning we are told that the bleary eyes are a consequence of too many Changs. Camp gossip reveals it was the acid taken with a couple of Italian girls the night before. A lovely couple, transient members of our tribe, impress us with their non- drinking. We find out, in the course of the evening as I order another Mojito, topping up the rum with the bottle in my bag (one downside of Thailand is they don’t ‘free pour’), that they are actually stoned on Tramadol. You can buy it for £1 at the pharmacy if you say you’ve had a motorbike accident. I’ve a strip of legitimately obtained Tramadol in my pharmacy bag, but reserved for strict medical emergencies that require extreme pain relief. I don’t tell anyone in this conversation, I want to avoid being coerced into being a dealer or exposed as a party pooper. The Tramadol will be going home intact if this trip is successful.
A German couple are here with their 10 month old baby. She never stops smiling and practicing her wave. She’s passed around the camp, held, clucked over, and played with. Her parents are a delight. Mum’s a peace worker, with experience in Lebanon and Syria, we have conversations that shock and educate us. Lebanon is a tiny country with 4M population. In the last 5 years they have had 1.5M Syrians and 0.5M Palestinians settle due to conflicts. The country has absorbed a 50% increase in its population without violence. The charity she works for supports interaction between Lebanese youth and those of migrant countries. The objective is to sustain the assimilation and prevent prejudice in the younger generation through exposure and education. Friendships are formed and compassion is established. We reflect on the trauma and media hysteria that less than 1% of immigration causes in our wealthy, vast, European landmass. Not seen the Daily Mail or Express report on that success story. We learn about the rise of the far right and nationalism in East Germany, once the cause of so much angst to West Germans, as they had to fund the integration of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The rescued become the persecutors. By contrast we learn that in Dachau, infamous for the horrors that took place during WWII, the community has volunteered to host immigrants from Syria and Libya. A town hall meeting attracted 70 residents who quickly decided that their new residents needed small groups formed to help with the practicalities of settling in their new country; how to set up a bank account, clothing for the families, learning German, finding long term housing, sourcing employment etc. The volunteers spanned generations, making amends for the horrors of the past by opening their arms to the vilified of the present. It would be erroneous to label their individual motivations, but the past is determinedly not being repeated in Dachau, there is no ‘bogeyman’ that they fear, only people in need who the town chooses to help.
Hannah and Kieran were our new Georgia and Ed (who I’ll come to in reverse order). They’ve just left us, a 2 night stay turned into a 3 night stop, Hotel California again…. Hannah was a sassy, fun, joyful companion. Without a doubt her start in life had privilege and excitement, thanks to her father’s profession. She surprised us with her thoughtful and original thinking. She did not understand the concept of ‘nationhood’. She considered herself a global citizen, as did Kieran, an Aussie who had lived in London since he was 19. They both wanted to live wherever they wanted to in the world. Money, education, professional qualifications allowed them to do this. If she could, due to circumstances, live anywhere in the world, then why shouldn’t others? Global citizens not identifying with ‘nationhood’, I liked the concept and the thinking. It rang true. There are people I know who have family that have emigrated that hate immigrants and vote UKIP. They have no issue with their family that emigrate, but have an issue with immigrants. What is the distinction? Creed and colour I suspect. Hannah told us that her parents split their time between the South of France and Oxfordshire. Dinner parties at her parents were international affairs. Within the wealthy ex-pat community a few voted ‘Leave’, not her parents. Hannah highlighted the irony that those expanding their footprint, living outside their ‘nation’, were voting for a narrower vision of Britain. A Britain that isolates itself politically and economically from its nearest neighbours and allies, driven by a fear of losing its identity.
Before Hannah and Kieran we had Georgina and Ed. Another well educated and well travelled couple in their 20s. They are emigrating to New Zealand for 2 years, maybe more if they like it and get accepted. Ed plays rugby with Fred on the beach; coaching him in dummy runs, tackling, and other manoeuvres. Ed didn’t chose banking or a high paid commercial job, instead he worked with underprivileged children in inner city London coaching them in rugby. More great stories about kids who unite across tribal boundaries of race, to form a coherent school team. The Somalians, Traveller, Eastern European, Asian, and UK white kids stop fighting for a bit and play rugby as a team. One of the them is interviewed for an England Rugby video about the project. Asked what he thinks of Rugby his answer is “Well its better than fighting isn’t it?”. Ed gets good news when he’s at Bee Bees, it looks like he has secured a job in New Zealand rugby coaching as part of a community project. How lucky that group of kids will be.
Georgina has left her job working for MIND in London. I mistake her for a Grammar or private school girl. But no, she went to a tough comprehensive that has now closed down. Well read, well travelled, open, and inquiring, she makes me think about my anxiety over the poor secondary schooling in Newark if we don’t get any of our choices for Fred. We play cards at night with Ed and Georgina, talk mental health policy and funding, ruminate over the state of political choice available to the electorate, share a sadness about the disconnect between the elderly, who want to save ‘Great Britain’, and the young vote for an inclusive society. They tell us great stories about India, which they’ve just left but will be returning to after Vietnam, before they finally arrive in New Zealand. Fred’s appetite begins to be whetted for adventure in this strange land.
Mark has started to teach a yoga class on the platforms at the front of the camp, at the water’s edge. Lithe young women from all over Europe join in. He shows them the bars at night, and I tease him about his coterie of ever changing devotees. You can find him sitting crossed legged most days or nights, when not writing or teaching, with at least a couple of young women wanting to learn about yoga and mindfulness. So we have our own guru, not self made but appointed by the tribe.
Throughout all of this peace and harmony we’re counting down to the US Presidential Election. We were in the US for the Democratic and Rebublican Conventions, we watched the speeches and late night analysis in motel rooms. Fred is as enthralled as us. As election and results day approaches we make sure that we have a live feed we can play through the day. Fred asks me the night before what will happen if Trump wins. I start to answer, but stop because I can’t even think about that being a possibility, something churns in my stomach at the thought. I say there is no point discussing it because it won’t happen. I’ve convinced myself that the pollsters have got it wrong and that Trump and his divisive politics will herald a Democratic sweeping victory; Senate, Congress, and Presidential.
We rise to our 7am alarm, the first results will be declared at 7:30am. We sit at our regular table on the beach, bamboo roof providing shade, and our jolt inducing electrics available to keep us fully charged. There are 5 Americans that have arrived at Bee Bees. The three middle aged athletic adventurous ones are leaving today at 1pm, so they will get the results whilst still at Bee Bees. The others, two wonderful ladies in their 50s, have only just arrived. We get ourselves coffee and breakfast and ignore the first round of results, we all know the electoral college system well, there are only a few key states that will decide this race. Optimism is high, but I’m surprised that my game changing Democratic sweep is not materialising from the start. As the Americans emerge from their huts they huddle around too. Everyone of them is rooting for Hilary, some because they cannot countenance Trump as their President. We were expecting to be done by 11am, but as 11am arrives concern is setting in. Trump is ahead, but it’s to be expected. The Mid West, Central and East Coast states are in, with the exception of Pennsylvania, a swing state with a large number of electoral college votes. When Florida is declared for Trump the first shock starts. Florida is a swing state that has voted for every elected President, except 1964. It has voted red. The Americans that are leaving get another beer, they’ve been drinking beer since 9am. They leave to pack and lie in a hammock to read a book, a distraction technique. When they’ve stopped thinking about it and concentrating on it, it will all come right.
We watch the percentages by state as the votes are being counted, across the board the swing states and the ‘firewall’ states are too close to call, it looks bleak. Isa, the German who works with refugees, comes out with Paulina here daughter in her arms. She looks like she’s going to cry. Paulina reaches out to us and sits on my lap, Isa stood at the side of our table watching the live stream. Paulina all giggles and smiles, clambering onto Fred and nestling into him, distracting us from our anxiety and horror. We agree that even for the atheists at the table we should try a prayer, it’s a joke except it isn’t.
We aren’t watching Fox, the Daily Mail / Express / Sun of US television news only worse. We’re watching the more moderate Murdoch fare of Sky News. The mood amongst the diverse group of pundits has changed; voices have dropped, they look pained, and rather stunned. The atmosphere in the studio is mirrored by us. A couple of young women are interviewed in Time Square, they so eloquently get to the nub of the issue with Trump “If he is elected, we have a President who admits he sexually assaults women, and that tells every man in America that its ok to sexually assault women”. A heavily accented man, who is part of a group of middle eastern origin, is asked who he supports. The reporter is stunned when he says Trump. She asks what he thinks about some of the anti-Semitic statements Trump has made during his campaign. He laughs, and smilingly opens his mouth to speak. His friends pull him away before he can answer. We sit at our table slack jawed at what we’ve just seen, so are the pundits in the studio.
Democrats and Republicans at their headquarters in New York are interviewed. Sarah Palin comes on, beaming through her interview. After the interview a pundit reports rumours that she will be a candidate for Secretary of State. I tell the Americans at Bee Bees. They shake their heads in despair and order more beers. They’ve huddled together now, away from our table, talking intensely, heads shaking as they speak. There is a lull in the results coming in, we leave the feed running, and I draw Fred diagrams, teaching him the structure of American government. The role of the Executive (President), Legislature (House of Representatives: Congress and Senate), Judiciary (Supreme Court), and how the Founding Fathers set out to create a ‘balance of power’ between these three arms of government. We cover the Electoral College system, and in it discuss the merits of proportional representation, or not. Today it’s a rounded Political Science seminar, more hours of it than we expected. I eventually give up. It’s looking like Trump will triumph. I pick up my detective book “A child killer stalks the frozen streets of Aberdeen”, it comes to something when a novel about paedophile serial murderer is more appealing than watching the results of the Presidential election.
The election is called, decisive states have voted Trump, and we cannot believe it. To make matters worse, the majority of Americans voted for Clinton. She won the vote but, for only the 2nd time in 120 years, the Electoral College system has delivered a President who did not have a majority of the vote. Al Gore lost to George Bush Jnr on the only other occasion. Fred tells me to stop swearing. I tell him I will, its just that “I cant f***ing believe it”. I say this many, many, many times. The Americans apologise to us, we tell them its OK. They tell us they feel so embarrassed, we tell them it’s OK. The couple, that are part of the group of three leaving today, say they’ve already emailed their financial advisor to see what they would have if they liquidated their US assets. They’re not joking.
We don’t watch anymore. We swim, play, read, and then go out for dinner. Mark, us, and the two American ladies. We don’t talk about the election, but we drink a lot of wine and talk about nice things. We stop thinking about Stevie Wonder’s thought for the day “it’s like putting me in a car and asking me to drive”.
The next day I wake early and lie in bed watching the speeches. First Kaine and Clinton. Fantastic, thoughtful, authentic, measured, and utterly heart breaking. Then Pence followed by Trump. Dean had said to me that Trump was reported as being quite moderate in his acceptance speech, I’m curious to see this change. When I watch Pence and Trump I’m utterly thrown. They are both appalling, shatteringly appalling. It’s a rambling mess of homespun nonsense, chants of “USA USA USA” in the backdrop. The satirical puppet film ‘Team America’, from the South Park team, comes to mind instantly. Pence, to his shame, says he is proud to support and serve Trump. No he’s not, and we know he’s not. He says a lot more than that, words that could have been written and delivered by a small town bank manager at a Rotary Dinner, not the Vice President elect of America with a team behind him that should have written a worthy and noble speech.
He introduces Trump, weird music plays in the background, really really weird trash opera music. For 2 minutes everyone is left waiting, cameras pointed at the staircase down which Trump will descend. Hilary was introduced by Kaine and walked on the stage immediately. Trump apparently does this a lot, like a band at a gig, leaving the crowd waiting allowing the anticipation to build. The Queen is never late. Eventually he appears, descending the stairs painfully slowly. Was he worth waiting for? If you like South American soap operas then yes. We watched them occasionally in Rio, Santiago, and Cordoba, with Fred, giggling at the bad acting, poor delivery, over the top make up and dress, and obvious absence of any plot sophistication. The cast of one of these soaps follows Trump down the stairs. They look like they’re going to a wedding dinner and took a wrong turn. The speech itself is a rambling mess of non-sequiturs, pointing out people, praising the secret service then randomly acting out how he’ll throw himself to the floor of the car when they tell him to “coz these guys are tough, they’re really really tough, and you do what they tell you”. I could go on, but just watch it for yourself if you haven’t already.
As I watch Trump, I wonder if the Republican party is dying inside. It’s like your most embarrassing relative turning up uninvited to a party and dominating proceedings. I cheer myself up by thinking that this is actually the best thing that could have happened. The Republicans now have to manage Trump, 50 key Republicans signed a letter saying he was ‘dangerous’. Did they hope he’d lose? Did they expect to win Congress and the Senate, but have Clinton as President, making her a lame duck President by killing her policies in the legislature, just as they have done with Obama? Now the dream scenario for political parties has turned into a nightmare for Republicans. There will be nowhere to hide for Republicans for the next 4 years. Everything, good and bad, will be at their door; a Republican Congress, Senate, Presidency, and Supreme Court (due to a vacancy Trump will nominate, and Republicans will endorse, the deciding judge). The figurehead, in the President, a narcissistic psychopath, sex attacker, hater. The Republicans will either have to manage Trump, who has shown himself to be unmanageable to date, or civil war will break out in the Republican party. I smile a bit when I think of this. But like a rapid cycling bi-polar sufferer, it makes my despair even more acute. There is no ‘balance of power’ as envisaged by the Founding Fathers. I swing between the two emotions for the rest of the day. Over Mojito’s we raise our mood, reminding ourselves that the young will right the wrongs in the next few years.
Koh Lanta and Bee Bee’s are our island paradise. A beautiful setting that has been fabulous because of the people we’ve met and spent time with. Our only common threads, tying us together, are that we are travelling and like things basic. We differ in many things; some people here do drugs, some of us don’t. Some of us believe in God, some don’t. Some of us have kids, some don’t. Some of us have employment, some don’t. Some of us are rich, some aren’t. Some of us are old, some aren’t. But without exception we do not fear the strange or the different. We wake in the morning to the sounds of Muslim Prayer, broadcast over the tannoys that line the streets. We are served by Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Atheists on Koh Lanta. We all learn the three genders that the Thai language has, female, male, and transgender (they had these long before Caitlin Jenner) for our humble Thai greetings. Collectively we share a disbelief at the result the Electoral College System delivered. We console the Americans amongst us, who are bereft. We remind ourselves that young people, in both the Brexit referendum and US elections, voted for inclusion. But make no mistake, if we look to history, avoiding disaster will be either a miracle, or the result of sensible souls in the world ensuring that we have a compassionate culture that is unafraid to challenge and stand up to hatred. I’ve quelled my anger and anxiety. Let’s have a revolution of compassion that people hear, see, and feel through individual and collective behaviours. My blog was going to finish here but……..
……..Last night I checked my Facebook page. A former work colleague had devastating news. Her 18 year old only daughter died suddenly in the early hours of Sunday morning. It’s heart breaking. The fragility and preciousness of life came into sharp focus. I sent her my love and let her know I will be thinking of her, a paltry token given her loss. Two things will get her through the tough years of grief; the love of those around her, and her own resilience and fortitude. She has these in spades. Love, resilience and fortitude……….
Shine on you Crazy Diamond (Thailand Part 2)
We arrived into Chiang Mai in the darkness, sharing a communal Tuk Tuk with a charming chatty crew of solo young backpackers. Our hotel for the next 4 nights was a short shared ride away. Sri Pat was the number 1 Lonely Planet recommendation as a ‘Flashpacker’ hostel, and we got it at a great rate. Our room, with a roll out bed for Fred, was on the top floor with a balcony overlooking Chiang Mai. A small pool was squeezed into the courtyard, perfect for cooling off after a day’s sightseeing. We found a refreshing salad bar for dinner, after a short walk, navigating the mad traffic wizzing through the narrow streets. Sultry spicy air was all around us and we could see why Chiang Mai captivates its visitors.
We committed to making the most of the day, and set off reasonably early, skipping breakfast, in search of the famous Wat’s. Old Chiang Mai is quite compact, and we took less than 15 minutes to arrive at our first stop, The Lanna Museum. We took in the exhibition slowly, reading about the Lanna culture and its rich religious content. Comparative religion was todays educational subject, specialising in Buddhism. We followed this up with a refuelling of pancakes, smoothies and toasties (picking up an intricately strung Buddhist fresh flower charm from an elderly lady who came into our café selling them) before making our way to Lilia Massage. This fabulous social enterprise retrains female Thai prisoners in massage. There is a terrible amphetamine problem in Thailand, addiction leading to petty criminal activity to fund the habit. Stigmatisation of released criminals makes it impossible for them to return to their families and communities, or gain employment. The Lila Massage provides the way for them to progress; the committed ones pass the selection process and training, finally working in one of the several parlours they have set up. In beautiful purple and gold silk uniforms the women stood in the teak lobby bowing as we entered. We sat and chose from the menus before being led to seats where our feet were soaked and carefully washed. Fred was to have an hour long foot massage, whilst Dean and I had opted for a full body oil massage. We would have this together. The signs in the hall way listed behaviours that the school expected of its masseurs, and those it wanted reported; poor service, talking during massage, lack of interest in the client. They clearly ran a tight and disciplined ship. Dean and I slipped on our massage pants and hair nets, I don’t think either of us have looked less appealing. The massage however was amazing, careful, thorough, and utterly relaxing. Still dazed we joined Fred in the lobby, he was smiling beatifically. It was another ‘best experience of my life’ for him. We bowed to our ladies and thanked them in Thai and wished them all well, glad that we had spent our money here.
It was temple time, and we set off for the most significant Wat in Chiang Mai just around the corner. We couldn’t go into the main temple, a conference for orange clad monks was underway, but the grounds and a smaller temple were all we needed. Massive gold statues in the gardens astounded us, and the smaller beautifully decorated temple we could enter was a feast of Thai religious art. Most monks are only there for short periods. They earn ‘merit’ for themselves and their families by taking orders for a month. There is huge prestige for a family when one of their sons does this. However the fast pace of modern life is taking its toll and many now short cut it to a weekend, or week. I’m not sure how this works in the eyes of Buddha, feels like a bit of cheat to me. It was amusing to see most of those not in prayer wondering the gardens with smart phone in hand, quiet contemplation seemed quite absent. None of them looked terribly happy, they probably looked the least happy Thai people I had seen.
The heat was quite overpowering and we had had a pretty good tour, now ready for the pool, so we headed back. I had decided that I could no longer put off a waxing session so found a small shop and left them to make their way home. A neatly dressed middle aged Thai lady took me through to a bed, drawing a curtain around us and turning on the wall mounted fan. We were not, apparently, going to reveal my body one bit at a time, tucking tissue paper into my pants to deal with my bikini line. Instead I was to strip off and lie naked on the bed so she could see the extent of the renovations to be undertaken. She put her glasses on and peered at me and, like a plumber, sucked in hard. The pot of wax was on and she set to, methodically working from my lower leg up as I lay naked on her workbench. When she got to my bikini line there was no discussion about how I would like it. The scissors came out first, every hair trimmed back. Then came out the clippers for more trimming. Finally the wax was ready. I was put in positions usually kept for the nurse every 2 years, and fingers dexterously found folds no western beautician has ever been near. Judging from the time taken, and the places visited, my beautician in England has been rather negligent. When we were all done and I stood to get dressed I saw bits of flesh I’d not seen since before puberty. Miraculously it had all been rather painless. I paid my Bhat (£14) and left feeling, I swear, lighter.
At the bottom of our lane we had spotted an outdoor pizza oven servicing a corner plot restaurant. Wine, a rarity in Thailand, was on the menu which sealed it for me. The food was delicious, excellent service, and we ended up with the delightful company of a German family backpacking with their scarlet haired 18 month old daughter. An early dinner turned into a late night fed by great conversation.
Desperately in need of a clothes wash I woke early and dropped a big bag at the laundry next door, picking up an iced coffee for Dean and I on the way back. Made with condensed milk they are a total meal, or two, but gorgeous. We wanted to head out of the city into the countryside to escape the city for a day. We’ve missed the campervan and the freedom to drift into small places, a Tuk Tuk, we hoped, would give us the chance to explore a bit. I passed an older driver parked up on my way back with the coffees and we agreed a price of £6 for him to drive us around for the day. We gathered our things together and joined him 20 minutes later, the three of us squeezed into the back with a couple of bags of picnic food and swimming gear. As we cleared the city, picking up speed, we were cooled by the open vehicle, infinitely better than an aircon taxi. Fred beamed as the small vehicle gave a false sense of tremendous speed, though he did seem to be overtaking vehicles of all sizes. I started to wonder, not for the first time this trip, if this was to be our last experience of life. I’ve found that the only thing to do in those situations it suck up the experience, if it’s going to be your last you might as well enjoy it. I’d hate to die anxious and unhappy. The Thai countryside is wonderfully lush. We turned off the highway and at ground level it was like being in England of old. Thick rich green grass covered untamed verges, ditches were full of water, running off the jungle hills that surround Chiang Mai. We climbed through the lanes, making our way to Sae Mae waterfalls. Several times we politely declined his offer to take us to the Tiger Sanctuary. Sadly none of the tiger centres are sanctuaries. Tigers are taken from the wild, kept in captivity, and drugged to keep them passive. Second generations are bred in captivity, never knowing freedom. Its dispiriting that monks are responsible for many of these places, tourists understandably believing that ‘sanctuaries’ run by monks must be ethical places. They aren’t. If you can pet and lie against a tiger it’s drugged, unseen cruelty having been used in its ‘training’. We also enschewed the ‘Monkey School’, ‘Cobra Show’, ‘Crocodile Circus’ that we passed for the same reasons. Instead we made our way to the Insect Museum and Zoo. The website had promised the largest collection of insects and butterflies curated from across the world.
We arrived to a warm welcome and few visitors. The staff could not have been more enthusiastic in their desire to educate. Rare, madly coloured, butterflies flew through the air in the especially planted butterfly garden. Chrysalis hung from branches, some moved to carefully arranged twigs so they could be viewed. Several huge moths had hatched in the night, apparently it’s rare for visitors to see one still hanging on to its redundant shell, we saw three and they were enormous moths. We got to view the incredible display of pinned insects, numbering thousands, from all over the world. A challenging array of insects were on display to handle, Fred took some persuading but overcame his primeval instincts and worked his way through caterpillars, centipedes, beetles and stick insects. He rejected the millipede, 100 legs were ok but 1,000, he decided, was too much. We were glad he got over his fears, and learnt a lot, however it wasn’t lost on us that we were creating a hierarchy of what creatures should be kept in captivity and handled and which shouldn’t. This was brought into even more sharp focus when we were offered Bearded Dragons and Geckos to hold. They were also for sale.
Ready for some really wild nature we took another 20 minutes to get to the falls. As it was Sunday the locals were out in force getting relief from the heat of the city. Mae Sae is a series of 10 waterfalls that you climb up a path to get to, each one higher up. We heard them before we saw them, also feeling the cool they gave off from a distance. We climbed up the steps that have been cut into the hillside, stopping at Waterfall 7, third from the top. Deep pools overflowed with the water crashing from above. Pretty streams carried the foaming water down to the next fall. Young bucks were doing tumble dives off the rocks, we sufficed with navigating the slippery flat rocks that led into the pools. We soon had a game going of swimming into the falls, being submerged by the foam, finally emerging with the current into the large deep pool. It sure beat the CentreParcs rapids for excitement, but required a watchful eye despite Fred being a strong swimmer. It wasn’t long before Fred had found some local kids to play with, then a Dutch family. Around us families picnicked, children swimming whilst parents enjoyed the cool of the spray and relief that the higher elevation provided. It was just beautiful, surrounded by jungle green, peering through the canopy above the falls to see the vibrant blue sky. We headed back to our Tuk Tuk, greeted cheerily by our driver, after a couple of hours of fun. He wanted to take us around more of the sights, so we settled on the nearby Karen village. The drive there was more gorgeous countryside, past farms and homesteads, buffalo grazing freely. The village itself was a disaster. We walked for a minute up the entrance path, past small food outlets staffed by bored unsmiling villagers. At the entrance, we were asked for £10 per person, a vast sum in Thailand. We declined. We could see it was a coach tour construction, villagers lounging around like lost souls at the zoo waiting to perform for the cameras. There was no interest as we left, perhaps they were drugged too. I suspect they had no sense of self beyond that of freak show. It was desperately sad. We started off the drive home in a muted reflective mood, but ‘Captain Chaos’ our driver cheered us up with small detours through the lanes before taking us home. We showered off the jungle before Fred and I set off for a foot massage at ‘Silver Hands’ just around the corner from us. Side by side we sat in the small parlour. It was a lovely time together, Fred is the perfect massage companion holding hands as our feet, legs and thighs were worked over.
That night we got a Tuk Tuk to the famous Saturday night market, weaving through the traffic at speed, until we hit the queues on approach. Spread out throughout an entire district, the narrow streets were packed with visitors moving along the stalls on either side. More cooling clothes, especially for Dean, and lots of street food were the order of the night. We picked up some pretty trinkets, and much to my later regret didn’t purchase a beautiful necklace made from moulded incense. I jangled my way through the market, adorned with a delicate ankle bracelet that hung loosely. I hoped it gave the impression of the racehorse ankles possessed by my grandmother which genetics failed to pass on to me. Dean finally found some light clothing in a shop run by a delightful older Thai lady. Her English was pretty good, and she was very honest about what would fit and wouldn’t, even if it did her out of a sale. As everyone is covered in sweat at the market you can’t try clothes on, so we held shirt seams to his back and loose trousers to his waist. Shorts and shirts were selected in fabulous colours; the trousers were trickier. My special moment was her poking Dean in his stomach telling him, quite earnestly, that he needed to lose weight. He responded telling her she needed to make bigger clothes. She then proceeded to tell him he needed to eat less, and set about demonstrating the abdominal exercises that would benefit him. I loved the searing honesty and lack of obsequiousness, I’d take the first over the second any day. We agreed what we wanted and she kept discounting it, bartering herself down at every stage of the sale, without a word from us. We left happy and amused, apart from Fred who was outraged that anyone could criticise his Dad, whatever compliments had come his own way. Great food, refreshing fresh fruit smoothies, and live music along the way completed our market experience. We left the hustle and bustle at 9pm for home, we’d leave the late night party market for others.
A slight hitch in the booking of our visit to The Elephant Nature Park needed sorting on Sunday morning. Dean had accidentally booked the following Saturday, which whilst not disastrous, did mean we would have to go up to Pai, or somewhere else that we weren’t planning to, to kill 5 days before returning to Chiang Mai. A late night brain wave was to turn our one day booking (for the following Saturday) into a two day plus overnight stop this Monday, the website was showing vacancies. It would be quite a bit more expensive, but we weren’t liking any of the accommodation options to stay in the North. We headed over to the office in the city and thankfully they could accommodate our request. We got a sense of what ENP would be like as a small blackbird hopped on the desk, guarded a calculator jealously (it was clearly his and his alone), and sat on Deans shoulder watching the proceedings. Rescued dogs lounged under the tables, including a Pug, Fred’s favourite breed. After sorting out our ENP trip we grabbed a very late breakfast before heading back to chill out at the pool, packing for ENP, and sorting our flight to the islands. A late lunch was Japanese across the lane from our hotel. It was fabulous and ridiculously cheap. We got our jobs done, ran out of time for a massage, but walked to the Sunday Night market 5 minutes away.
Fred got his long awaited fresh coconut, Chiang Mai sausages on sticks filled us up before we tucked into dumplings cooked in front of us. We didn’t buy anything else, just soaked up the atmosphere of the vast market of local goods. Our walk home took us through the heart of backpacker party town, on the corner of a cross roads a VW camper had been converted into a bar. We stopped for a Mai Tai for me, Sprite for Fred, and a virgin Mojito for Dean. With elephants calling the next day we sensibly decided one was enough.
The mini bus arrived at 8am and we soon had the company of a young female vet from Ottley, Yorkshire, who was volunteering for 2 months at ENP, in the dog sanctuary they run. They have 400 dogs that they rescued, mostly from the 2011 Bangkok floods. Only 40 a year get rehomed in Thailand so a group of 80 dogs were being sent to Colorado with a charity that had sent volunteers to pick them up and fly them to the US. On the hour long journey we discussed farming, veganism and animal ethics. As a local farm vet she was a firm supporter of the small farmer, desperate not to see them eaten up by big industrial farms servicing the supermarkets. As a family we are grappling with our love of meat and starting to struggle to reconcile it with our view of what our relationship should be with animals. As we educate ourselves, and I’ve been pretty close to farm life, its becoming more difficult for us to justify buying meat that we haven’t farmed and slaughtered ourselves; with full control of the experience that animals have. It was a good conversation. By the time we arrived Becky had offered Fred the opportunity to come and visit the dog sanctuary so he could help out during his stay.
Our companions on the 2 day, 1 night stop were Alisha and Jake from Colorado. We couldn’t have wished for more lovely people to spend our time with. Both were civilian nurses (intensive care and emergency care) who had served in the Navy. Jake had been deployed in Iraq twice and they had met when stationed in Italy. In their 30s, they were well travelled, funny, and thoughtful as we discovered over the 2 days and a beer or more. We arrived with Jake and Alisha for mid morning feeding time. The elephants here roam free, accompanied by a Mahout which the elephants ‘choose’ when they arrive. All the elephants here have been abused, traditional elephant ‘training’ is by its nature an abuse of them; physical and psychological. They therefore need to have a totally new experience of humans. The Mahouts are drawn from the local tribes, some of whom only speak their own language, who are traditional elephant Mahouts. They have been trained by ENP to use positive re-enforcement and leave behind methods handed down through the generations. We stood on the balcony handing out watermelon, bananas, and squash. The elephants came over to us and used their incredible trunks to take the food from us. Until you see a trunk operating close up you don’t appreciate its dexterity. Containing over 1,000 muscles, with a tip that works like an opposable thumb, they sniff out and carefully take the large, or tiny food, from you. The teeth are set deep in their mouths, but the vast tongue makes an impressive appearance. We were already in love.
After feeding we walked along the river that runs through the park, elephants wandering in their family groups. Lone elephants have made new friends, others have arrived as small families, and a few new babies have been born. Naughty teenagers ventured across the river to the other banks, loathe to return, but coaxed back by a Mahout. Heartbreakingly there are severely disabled elephants hobbling along. A female, always close to the visitor centre, had a crushed rear leg, the result of a logging accident 10 years ago. We wondered if Stryker, Johnson & Johnson, or another orthopaedic trauma supplier could tackle the challenge with a bespoke solution. Land mines left behind after wars accounted for other injuries to limbs, so whilst free they were not pain free, their vast weight placing unequal pressure. There were elephants we didn’t see. Too traumatised by humans they are on another site in the park. Some can’t even be with other elephants, so they live alone with their Mahout to care for them.
In Chiang Mai dozens of elephant riding, trekking and training centres advertised. Driving in we passed people on elephants in rigid baskets, or bare back riding. When you come to ENP you wonder that it is still legal. Elephants do not have the physiology to carry humans, their bones deforming over time. Like the tigers, monkeys, crocodiles at the other attractions, they have been taken from their habitat and subject to discipline to train them to do unnatural things. Thankfully the commercial success of ENP has led to 2 other local operators moving from riding and chaining to free roaming. The park is confident that if visitors to Thailand, and other countries, choose to spend their money in ethical ways, all parks will be driven by the power of money to rethink their offer. Ultimately its in our power to influence what happens to those elephants and other animals already in captivity. The bigger challenge is to ensure that none of the 1,000 remaining wild elephants are brought into captivity.
On the first day we bathed the elephants that had been led to the river for a cooling bath, one elephant for the 4 of us to bath. After discussion with Jake and Alisha, we decided on the second day we would give this up. The success of the park means that more than 50 visitors (there is a limit) a day visit, paying the significant cost of buying the elephants that need rescuing and paying for their ongoing care, which is huge. The consequence is a dozen elephants, who are the most well integrated and placid, experience a lot of human contact at bathing time, surrounded by groups of 10 throwing water on them. We stepped back from our second bathing experience so the larger groups of day visitors could share our elephant.
A wonderful Thai vegetarian buffet was provided at lunch, and afterwards we walked around the park again. We got close to some of the elephants, others we kept back from (those who want to play their way which is just a little to rough for a human to survive intact, or those who just need their space). We watched them rolling in the mud baths, made for them daily using diggers and a hose, and tossing cool dry dirt with their trunks onto their backs. We all decided that watching them, whether close up or at a distance, was rewarding enough. A skywalk from the visitor centre was impressive, again giving the elephants space. We hoped that one day visitors to ENP will find it sufficient just to watch them.
Our rooms were surprisingly luxurious, and most wonderfully situated over the elephant park. A compound housed those with recent injuries who needed to stay immobile for a bit. It was right behind us. At night we were serenaded by the flapping of ears, shaking chains as they tried to undo the gate using their trunks, and the odd trumpet to family roaming elsewhere. Not even elephants like to be in hospital. Before we went to bed we found Cat Kingdom, the cat rescue centre that is on site. Fred was in seventh heaven as dozens of cats roamed free, low gates surrounding the Kingdom only to keep the roaming rescued dogs out. One section was for newly rescued cats who were enclosed, a holding area that they would be released from once ready. With both the rescued cats and dogs all, but the sick and new, roamed free. The vicious ones wore a red ribbon to warn visitors. We liked that. If their aggression was the consequence of human abuse, they would not be punished by being imprisoned, instead the rest of the human race would have to take their chances, but fair warning had been given. A few doggie skirmishes took place over the course of the 2 days, territories being established daily as they claimed temporary ownership of day visitors. Alisha and Jake were claimed by a dog who snuck into their room with them. Snuggled down they let him lie as they went for dinner. No trouble until they went back at night and a second snuck in. We chuckled on our balcony as we listened to the sounds of them trying to separate and shift the intransigent squatters. Dean picked up his own dog. She had sat at his feet all night in the bar as we chatted with new friends. She growled if our feet threated to tread on her, Thai dogs are far more assertive than their South American relatives. As the night set in, fireflies came out, and Chang beer was drunk, she made her way to his side, quietly ignoring the occasional pack warfare that broke out on the decking. Bedtime came and she followed us also sneaking in to our room. Like Jake and Alisha we let her be on the sofa.
We had gatecrashed Pat and Marissa’s table at dinner. They were volunteering for a week as part of a 2 week trip from Toronto. Fred found ‘Walking Dead’ fanatics to chat to, and we found more delightful company. The six of us, plus Fred, passed an easy evening of new friendship and common values. Its one of the pleasures of travelling that there is always fresh conversation, we’ve learnt to move on when there’s no connection, but here we found it and were sad it was so short a stay. Once again we thanked Mark Zukerberg for his creation.
Our second morning at ENP was a delight. The day visitors don’t arrive until 11am, so we had the park to ourselves and our guide, and got to walk around the grounds quietly watching the Elephants. Excitement came when we had to make a run for a treehouse as an old elephant decided we were too close to her extended family that included the baby. Aunty coming to see us off. Not content with our retreat, she climbed the tower and decided to pull part of the roof off. Not a word of anger from the Mahouts, instead we were asked to leave, which we did. In the afternoon Fred went off to the dog sanctuary, lovely young volunteers giving him jobs to do and letting him help out. The four of us made rice balls for the old ladies who had no teeth. We mixed a concoction of nutritious ingredients, under careful instruction, rolling them into balls. With a sack truck Jake wheeled the heavy basket quite some distance. As a rather grumpy old lady was our customer, we were imprisoned behind a bamboo enclosure in the park, and she trundled over to us to be fed. We liked that. Humans behind bars, elephants free. We fed her by turn, her trunk decending and sniffing out the food. She slowly munched her way through the meal, preferring a small banana inserted in the rice ball to sweeten it. Elephant snot, deposited by her trunk, covered my legs, I didn’t want to wash it off.
With it nearly time to leave I walked down to get Fred from the dog sanctuary. He’d had an amazing time and the volunteers had been so kind to him. We chatted about the dogs as we walked back, and he told me their stories. As we left, we all agreed we’d had a special time. The 2 days and 1 night was definitely worth the extra money, and our booking error turned into another blessing in disguise. Our only challenge was the further dissonance it created for me about our human relationship with animals. We had vegetarian pizza that night and I lay in bed reading the PETA website. This trip has been life changing, but in ways we’ve not expected. As we waited for our flight to Krabi the next day, in Chiang Mai airport, we researched ‘Gourmet Vegan’ cookery courses in the UK. It’s that or we’re going to have to move to a small holding to rear and farm what we eat, I’m struggling to see any other way forward.
With Dean eventually released from Australia (see previous instalment), we settled into our Quantas 9 hour flight to Bangkok. As it was daytime we would be able to enjoy another smorgasbord of movies. We did just that, landing at 5pm, slightly bleary eyed, having taken a 5 hour leap back and feeling the 11pm Sydney time. That morning we had awoken to the news that the King of Thailand had died. We knew that was momentous for the Thai people, the longest serving monarch in their history was, we had read, deeply loved and revered. On the plane, announcements had been made, and advice from the Australian government issued. As we had travelled into the airport on the Sydney Metro a young Thai woman sat next to me had seen our travel book. She had advised that there would be significant disruption for several days, and had counselled us to sport dark clothing. We tend to be quite a colourfully clad family so, on landing, and with baggage collected, Dean nipped into the bathrooms to change out of his red jeans into something more demure. Sure enough, all around us, Thai’s had rummaged in the back of the wardrobe to find black and white. Over the next few days we would be much amused by the inappropriate nature of some of the tops; “Sexy girls & boys 2012”, Pink Floyd, Toyota Golf Challenge, “Smoke Weed and Chill”. But they were black.
The heat and humidity hit us when we took the escalator down to the Metro, leaving the cool of the air conditioned airport behind. Dean ably negotiated the ticket office and we joined a queue to board the first train. The Thai’s know how to queue; single file and strictly no line jumping. I needed to see the route which was posted above the doors for train entry, thinking I was trying to jump the queue I was chided. They may be used to some of our European neighbour’s poor understanding of the important institution of queuing. Apart from this, we felt nothing but warmth from our new hosts. They readily offer you a smile, and if you get in first, you are rewarded with the biggest of beams.
When we emerged from the last train change we got a hint of what was to come with the Death of the King. Our hostel was located near The Grand Palace, where the Kings body had been taken that day, to lay in state. Thais had congregated at The Grand Palace to pay their respects. We were met with thousands of Thai’s trying to enter the station, returning from their pilgrimage. Whilst we exited swiftly, they would be queuing for many hours. The knock on for us was the total absence of taxis or Tuk Tuk’s, and we had 3.8Km to go in sweltering heat and humidity. Seeing us looking rather dazed, a group of young lads came over to us and offered to help. They lent Dean their phone wifi access to orientate ourselves and download the address. We did find a couple of taxis and Tuk Tuks, but none would take us through the traffic towards the Grand Palace. Just as we were gearing up to attempt the walk, the young lads came over and offered to help again. They flagged a Tuk Tuk and negotiated with him for some time. Eventually he agreed to take us for 150 Bhat (£3).
We were eternally grateful to them as we made our way against the traffic, the streets at a standstill. Fred had been warned by a rather miserable Aussie in Santiago never to take a Tuk Tuk in Bangkok, too dangerous. As Fred is at an age of heightened safety awareness, and low trust in his fellow mans judgement, I was amazed that got in the Tuk Tuk. Even more he beamed and laughed as we picked up some speed, the delightful driver spotted this in his mirror and decided to liven things up a bit. We turned off the main road entering back street alleys, weaving and speeding along. Back on the main road, he decided to put on a slalom display to further spice up the ride. Fred’s growing laugher only served to squeeze more out of him. Fred announced he was having the best experience of his life ever (yes, again!). Now fully awake, we arrived at the wonderful Bangkok Bed & Bike. Renovated by an architect, it is more boutique hotel than backpacker hostel. The small room, we had to climb over our beds to get in, thankfully had air con, which we promptly switched on to sub zero mode. We made our way around the corner to get some street food and a kind New Zealander made space at his table. The delicious food was with us in an instant, and we got some rice and chicken into Fred before he crashed out perched on a stool with his head on Deans lap. We all slept well that night.
A lovely breakfast came with our hostel lodgings, Fred nearly feinted when he saw one of the many jars contained Oreos. Dragon Fruit, Banana, Mango, and Apple for me, all Thai grown and wonderfully sweet. The banana had a citrus hint to it, amazing. The Weekend Market, largest in the world, was our mission today. A bin bag of clothes had been emptied from our rucksacks, too warm and surplus to requirement for Thailand and India. We also needed black. Too far for a Tuk Tuk ride, we hailed a metered cab and revelled in the air con, the heat had got to us in the 5 minutes we had been standing in the street. As you would expect there were rows of stalls selling fake brands of clothing. We opted for the thinnest of cotton stalls, hippy tie dies and wild Asian prints. As we loaded up Fred found the toy section. His siblings had included £10 worth of Thai Bhat in his Birthday present. £5 of it bought a huge selection of fake Pokemon and Lego goods. For £3 each Fred and I had a Thai massage side by side. We loved it. Fred wanted to follow up with another one straight away. The girls were delightful, smitten with Fred, and he with them. I may have a Thai daughter-in-law in the future.
Ready for lunch we found a sit down stall with one table left. For £1 each we had hearty meat and fish soups, filled with al dente veg and noodles. Fred insisted on chop sticks, his ham fisted effort drew nods of appreciation from other diners; lunch was a slow affair. A few more stalls and we called it a day. Thankfully we had avoided the pet section, Fred was horrified in Cordoba to see puppies in shop windows and we wanted to avoid a repeat of the teary 3 days that followed. We also didn’t want to encourage and buy into the commerce. As we walked out of the market, looking for a cab, Fred spotted a tiny fluffy Pomeranian, unable to resist he put his hand out and stroked it and was rewarded with a rapid succession of bites. Asian pet puff balls have little in common with the ‘Wild Dogs of South America’ (see Dean’s blog).
Despite the valiant efforts of our return Taxi Driver, he couldn’t get us back to our Hostel. Key roads had been closed due to the Kings death. We offered to jump out near The Grand Palace which was only 15 minutes walk. How glad we were that we did. The large numbers of black clad Thais milling around soon gave way to the snaking line of people queuing to see the King laying in state. The sun was beating down, some had umbrellas but many didn’t. We were soon being offered food and drinks, we didn’t realise at first but they were gifts, volunteer groups of students, nurses, clubs, teachers had cooked and procured product for free distribution at The Grand Palace. At first we tried to refuse, we had eaten, were not far from home, and those queuing to see the King (only Thai nationals allowed) had more need than us. Eventually we accepted a cup of juice each and a donut which we clung onto to avoid offending others that offered their food. It was touching to see genuine affection for the King and mourning of his death. It was wonderful to see the kind, generous, and gentle response of Bangkok locals to those queuing, and non-Thai visitors. We were surrounded by a warmth we were quickly becoming familiar with.
When we got back Dean and I read and relaxed. Fred got maximum use out of the full sized snooker table. Keith, the Thai hostel Manager, played a few rounds with some gentle coaching. On his recommendation we walked to the Flower Market for dinner at a street food cart. The market was astounding. Deliveries were arriving and a roaring trade was being done. Buyers from all over the country come to this market, and presumably some from abroad. The Kings death had given the traders a quantum leap in business, they would be working 24 hours for the next few days to make the intricate floral displays we were seeing outside most properties, as well as at the pop up shrines around the city. The variety of flowers and colours was beautiful to walk through. We would have taken in more but our tummies were hungry and Sydney time kept intruding, bed was not very far off despite it only being 6pm.
A mix up over ‘spicy’ and ‘no spicy’ resulted in Fred having the spiciest of dishes, and we had already ordered chili laden food. Dean and I wolfed it down and Fred got the road cart kebabs he had been asking for, on the way home. In an attempt to readjust body clock’s we caved in and had a glass of white wine at the hostel, and gave Fred one game of pool. It was our limit and by 8pm we were in bed ready for lights out.
One of the delights of being in a hostel is the people you meet. At Bangkok Bed & Bike it was a succession of young American women in their early 20s. They were clever, adventurous, curious, educated, and fun. Not a bad combination. What I found admirable was they were all travelling solo, a couple of them on open ended trips. We inevitably talked about the upcoming election, we were glad that our politics were aligned. Let’s hope their like prevail in a few weeks time.
After another great breakfast we left for a ferry trip that would take us to China Town. We weren’t having much luck with Tuk Tuk drivers, this time he got hopelessly lost and ended up dropping us 10 minutes walk away having given up. We were asked to leave the Tuk Tuk, but not to pay. We didn’t mind, Fred had got his Tuk Tuk ride in and we had got the exercise we badly needed. We found a route that took us through the fish market, the smell of shrimp knocking us off our feet, and transporting us 5 years back to Tao O where we had stayed for a break on Lantau Island
A complex game of draughts crossed with chess required my engagement with him for a good hour before I capitulated, defeated more by the rules than my opponent. When we did leave, it was to find a restaurant near Democracy Square, there were 2 so if one was closed we could try the other. We love the feel of Bangkok, every street you take has a friendly hustle and bustle. No one bothers you, but everyone makes you feel that they are there to help you. Another lovely combination. Of course in the midst of the karmic charm we had to have a small intrusion, in the form of the legacy left by American GIs on R&R from Vietnam. As we looked for barber shop signs, our intended destination was opposite one, I spotted large plate glass windows on the first floor of a complex. Three mannequins were placed in the window. Then the mannequins moved. Elegantly dressed women, in long slit evening gowns, with demure hair, pressed themselves against the glass waving at the cars passing below. At the ground floor door, two men stood, neon pink love hearts above their heads. Dinner was another interesting chat, and we definitely covered a lot of stuff not on the curriculum, that arguably should be. Fred, already a feminist, came to his own conclusions about the merits of visiting Ping Pong bars and other seedier ‘entertainment’ establishments.
We didn’t find the place we were looking for, but much to Fred’s delight the fusion restaurant we ended up at served a mean spaghetti Bolognese with chicken. I had my first Thai green curry, I’d singularly failed to accurately order anything like it until now. Bleary eyed, having made it to 8:30 pm we left the restaurant. We convinced Dean, against his better judgement, to take a Tuk Tuk. The first driver we walked away from based on price. The second, after reading the map and address in his headlights, taking a worryingly long time to see it, accepted. Dean beat him down from 150 Baht to a more realistic 50 Baht. He immediately took the wrong exit and we ground to a halt on the main boulevard through the city to the Parliament, via Democracy Square. Sat in traffic, that was not going to move for an awfully long time, he beat his hands against his head cursing himself and his stupidity. I felt dreadful for him, and we did our best to comfort him and let him know we didn’t mind. Fred was of course delighted, no early night, and extended time in a Tuk Tuk. After several minutes of being stationery we noticed that there was no traffic on the other side. The route to the Palace and Parliament was lined by police and empty of traffic. Around us hundreds of motorcyclists, mostly young people decked out in black, and with handwritten signs sellotaped to the front of their bikes, turned off their engines. We were in for the long haul. It transpired that the Crown Prince, entire Royal Family, Prime Minister, and government were due to make their way to the Grand Palace. The route had been cleared for them and all other traffic stopped. We had a prime position on the outside lane of the 3 lane highway, it gave us an uninterrupted view of the other side where they would pass. It took a bit of persuading, but eventually Dean embraced the momentous occasion. Camera in hand he was the first to leave our Tuk Tuk and was soon talking to some locals. Not au fait with the protocols, I got a few pictures before one of the many police and soldiers around us gently told me to put it away. We waited nearly an hour, passing the time with those around us, before I saw people on the other side sitting, being told to stand up. Another few minutes and the cavalcade arrived, fronted by police motorcycles . It must have been a mile long with more than a hundred cars. The Crown Prince came first in a large cream vintage Rolls Royce, the King’s widow, the current Queen, brought up the rear. After the procession had passed people on scooters squeezed passed, many offering us water and food concerned that we had been caught out unexpectedly. Our driver got us some extra water and biscuits too. Nearly 2 hours after we had finished dinner, 15 minutes’ walk away, we arrived home. We paid our driver 200 Baht for his lost time and trouble, 50 Baht more than his opening price, and 150 Baht more than the agreed price. We decided he probably had more use of our £4 more than us, if nothing else to get a pair of much needed glasses. Having had an unexpectedly late night, for us, we turned in straight away feeling very lucky to have been part of a historic weekend.
Our last morning in Bangkok was spent getting Fred a haircut, culling more from our wardrobes ready for disposal, and packing up. At the salon Fred’s appearance caused a sensation, and he was surrounded by the salon ladies taking pictures and recording his hair cut. He left with a shaved head, save his long top in a ponytail. Another quick street stall lunch and we were ready to leave. The £20 taxi ride, air conditioned, door to door, bags loaded and unloaded was worth every penny. The sheer size of Bangkok meant it took an hour to clear the city, even on the traffic free highway. Old town gave way to modern apartment blocks, colourful and thoughtfully designed. Further out houses on stilts straddled the waterways, intermingling with the pallet making district that serviced the industrial section. Slowly paddy fields appeared, locals up to their knees in the silty water. Ayutthaya was upon us suddenly, announcing its presence with a Khmer temple at a crossroads. Dean had taken care of our booking, 2 nights for my Birthday, and kept it a surprise. We pulled off the road and a wall of tiny red bricks looked inauspicious, but the subtle signage and security guard hinted that he hadn’t booked it on hostelworld.com. Vast, distressed, teak doors were opened for us and we stepped into an art gallery, masquerading as a lobby. We were led through narrow outdoor corridors and up a set of stairs to our room. When the door opened the sight was breath taking. Glass fronted, our room looked directly across the river to the white moss covered 15th Century temple Wat Phutthai Sawan, in front cows grazed on the lush monsoon grass, and the red tiled and gilt edged 19th Century temple next to it completed the palette. Light and airy, a vast round bath sat in the middle of the room, and a divinely comfortable super king sized bed invited a snooze. Instead I burst into tears. Mr Repper had done very well indeed. Eyes dried and left alone, we went out onto our private balcony and drank in the views. The monks were in prayer and it took us a few minutes to realise that the wild dogs of Ayutthaya were joining in. The river, 80 meters across, was swollen with the rains. Barges passed, laying low in the water, loaded with cargo. Deck hands waved back as we snapped them, and their colourful washing lines, strung outside the cabins.
The heat was sultry and sweaty, nevertheless we resisted the urge to retreat to the cool of our air con room. Thankfully a stylish plunge pool, nestled in a courtyard, gave us some relief as we cooled off before finding an early dinner. We failed to find our first choice and settled for a riverside place that was deserted. The family were delightful when we arrived and Fred thought we should support their enterprise. The host was clearly a Lady Boy, and she soon happily shared this with us. She suggested that Fred was so beautiful that he should become a Lady Boy too. A thick accent and the bewildering conversation left Fred with a confused look. When it was slowly explained, with some subtle adjustments, he sported an emoji face of epic proportions. Beautiful food, great service, and lots of fun made for a great evening. Fred joined the extended family for some Mozzie swatting, taking over the electric ping pong bat sized contraption. Its light attracted swarms, and we heard the gratifying crackle of their electrocution. Fred was enthralled, Santa might just get a rather peculiar Christmas list this year.
We woke on my Birthday to a beautiful hazy sunshine, just enough to turn the river into a fast flowing gossamer of glistening diamonds. As Fred slept on, Dean and I went down to enjoy the early morning, note for Fred stuck to the television. The breakfast terrace, overhanging the river, gives the most beautiful view of the temples, on the opposite bank. Morning prayers were underway and the wild dogs joined in again with their own chorus. Vast barges passed us, chugging their cargo down to Bangkok. Like the mad dogs, it was only us English who resisted the air conditioned glass fronted restaurant, we wanted to soak up the smells and sounds around us. We were rewarded with fine beads of sweat even at 8am, it was going to be a hot one. The breakfast menu was a stylish mix of Thai and English classics. We opted for the Full English and Eggs Benedict but with a Thai atmosphere around us.
We had planned to do a bicycle ride around Ayutthaya but by 10am we knew the heat and humidity would beat us, though we were sat on the cooling river with a large fan beside us, we were wilting. Instead we opted for a swimming, home schooling, and travel planning day. Storms are currently battering Asia as 2 typhoons converge. October is the shoulder season, monsoons ending and the North of Thailand where we’re heading next should be rain free. However, the current forecasts are showing sustained heavy rains and thunder storms for the next 10 days. Looking forward to November, when we should be travelling to the southern Islands, the weather continues to look poor. We decided we would have a creative re-think with no options ruled out. As Fred worked through his assignment of researching population sizes of major cities we’ve visited, and organising them into a bar chart, Dean and I got out our travel books and laptop to come up with a new plan. As the day continued to warm up and the humidity increased we began to envy the Facebook postings from home about fires lit to take the chill off a cold autumn. After much research, and the offer of a 2 week stay in the cool Himalayas from an English friend, we decided to stick to our original plan for now. We will head up to Chiang Mai by train, 14 hours of air conditioning, and have 4 nights in L.onely Planet’s star pick, still only £40 a night. If we can bear the heat and humidity we can move on to Pai and stop at a fishing lake, with swimming and waterfalls. We’ll see how we go….
Birthday dinner was down the road, after a hair raising walk without pavements, to a restaurant with a deck suspended over the river. Packed out, even at 6pm, we were the only westerners there. The extended monsoon and storms has swollen the river and the banks have burst long ago. In the garden of the restaurant the pagoda was submerged, and bizarrely a flock of 30 life sized plastic sheep just about kept their heads above water. Fred, hankering for chicken nuggets and chips (he has done exceptionally well eating all sorts of weird and wonderful concoctions that we had no idea were coming), seized on a picture. Our food was the best we had so far, which is saying something, but Fred’s was a portion of deep fried chicken knuckles and feet. Holding back tears of disappointment he munched through the chips and we ordered a sirloin steak. The bill still only came to £30. With full tummies we braved the walk back, opting for a cooling swim before bed. A group of Aussies in their 30s had arrived and were in the plunge pool. They were making full use of the bar, empty cocktail glasses sat beside them, discarded wine bottles, and plastic bags of Singa cans indicated that at 8pm they were in for a longer night than us, and sorer heads in the morning. Sure enough, the next day, one by one they emerged bleary eyed, sunglasses firmly in place, with a forced animation of those living with the shame of the night before. Sat in a prime spot I naughtily enjoyed their awkwardness, grappling with the remembrance of boundaries breached between them. I’d loved my Perrier water the night before, but I loved it even more now.
Our stay at the wonderful Sala Ayutthaya was at an end. We had another long leisurely breakfast whilst Fred slept on again, then packed up our bags. Dean took a Tuk Tuk to the train station to sort our Chiang Mai tickets, and pharmacy to get more mozzie spray and ointment (we’d been less diligent than we should have been the night before). A hostel next to the train station before our departure the next day, for £13, would feel a bit of a come down after my luxurious Birthday treat but the Sala was happy for us to spend the day by the pool after we had checked out. We’d by now decided that street dogs had it sussed, no point killing ourselves in the heat and humidity, so we’ve leaned into the climate and the slow pace of life. As Dean and I both agree, we’ve had the best view of the most beautiful temples from our balcony, and just how many temples do you need to see.
Ayutthaya’s Tuk Tuk’s are famous for looking like Darth Vader’s helmets and Fred was desperate to ride in one. The hotel ordered us one when it came time to leave and the driver gave us another fabulous ride past the ruins that litter the town. Huge ancient trees, with vine like trunks, formed an avenue. One was bandaged, we later found out that it is the oldest in the town, and the trunks are soft requiring support and regular care. We turned down an alley and arrived at a stunning old teak house. Bed bound grandma overlooked the lobby, walking frame to hand, with a two large bamboo branches across her bedroom to signal a boundary for guests. She cheerfully waved when we came in, and cackled at Fred who bowed to her with his hands together. The homestay was a delight. Small water features decorated the garden that led to the river front bar and restaurant. Upstairs, shoes left at the bottom, we found the entire house was carved hardwood heaven. The landing was open, exposed on both sides of the house, no glass just open shutters. Teak recliners were arranged in a row, visitors able to enjoy the view and the breeze that travelled through the house. Hidden in the carved panelling were the doors to the bedrooms which you had to step into, the doors were a foot off the floor. We loved it. Down the lane we got some dinner and settled in for another early night before our morning train to Chiang Mai.
Less diligent than we should have been, and sleeping naked without sheets, we collected a few mozzie bites in the night. We’ve become pretty immune to them, and they are nothing compared to the effects of Ontario mozzies. With a large bin bag of clothes, coats and shoes to get rid of I set off early to find somewhere. Although only 7am the street outside our homestay was full of local traders and shoppers. As in Rio, they were sat on the floor with a few paltry second hand items for sale. I quickly found a home for my bag and was much thanked. In need of supplies for our journey I found a fruit seller, vibrant pink dragon fruit, tiny ripe bananas, and a bag of apples was £1. The green wilko shopper that our friend Dr Chris had given me was pulled out and the lady erupted with laughter. Others gathered around, chuckling and applauding my bag. I’m presuming they thought I was shopping like a local, whatever it was we all enjoyed the moment. Before leaving we had a lovely breakfast on the terrace overlooking the river, again kindness and warmth from the family.
Thankfully the train station was a 5 minute walk, by 9am we were again sweating buckets. Charming colonial architecture with Thai styling, we sat by a huge fan and waited for the ‘express’ to arrive. A small dog sat on the sill of window number 4, panting in the heat. Other stray dogs wandered around the platform, drinking from the water feature. As we waited, surrounded by black clad Thais, a pair of very smartly dressed elderly ladies approached us. In their funeral best, pearls set off by their well tailored dresses, they asked if they could have a picture with Fred. They were on their way to Bangkok to say goodbye to ‘our King’. Fred, getting used to this, happily obliged. We were then all pulled in for a ‘selfie’. They were delightful, and the whole thing was again very charmingly incongruous.
Only 10 minutes late, the train is notorious for delays, we boarded and found our seats. Wonderfully cool, we were relieved that we were not going to be sweating our way to the North. Watching the scenery, reading, blogging, and the odd snooze meant the journey passed quickly. Fred found friends in a Thai family with 3 children. The baby, about a year old, had an unrelenting bottom of the tummy chuckle when tickled. Fred joined in to the baby’s delight. It was infections and the whole carriage was charmed by the little one. With Fred’s surplus toys gifted to his new friends, Fred got off at Chiang Mai with a lighter bag, and I with a new Facebook friend.
We had flown into Bangkok on one its most historic days, witnessed the Thai people expressing their love and mourning for their King, and experienced the kindness of strangers on countless occasions. Women cooked on every corner producing fresh tastes and scintillating flavours. The charm of the Bangkok people shone through even in a city familiar with foreigners, which is quite a testament to their nature. We had also glimpsed the underbelly, created by Western men. Yes the heat and humidity had hit us, but with beautiful sights that we could sit and pant at, we weren’t going to complain for long. We got off our train at Chiang Mai confident that we would make even more friends on this trip to Thailand, and we very much doubted we would have to go looking for it.
A short hop from South America to Asia (10 days in Australia)
Well the Aussies certainly read the script, learnt their lines, and put on a full costume display (board shorts, flip flops, RM Williams Boots, safari hats) for our Australian 10 day leg. To avoid having to fly back to the UK in order to enter into Asia, we had put in a short break to catch up with family and friends in Australia. My fabulous cousin Suzanne and her family agreed to have us for a week in Sydney, and a special old friend who pricks our ecological conscience was only a few hours down the road in Canberra. From the moment we stepped off the plane and into ‘Border Control’ we were met by the cheery, optimistic good humour that we would become familiar with. The substantial difference between Dean’s passport photo and current bearded appearance gained a joshing from the Immigration desk “You’ve changed a bit mate”, to which Dean replied “I know, I just keep getting younger”, and yes the officer was called Bruce. Leaving Australia proved to be more problematic…..
The 14 hour flight, with a further 14 hour leap forward in time, chewed up our body clocks. Suzanne, who picked us up at the airport, fed us a spaghetti Bolognese and medicinal red wine before we crashed out at 9pm Sydney time, 7am the same day in Santiago. We had a solid sleep until 1am when Fred and I both woke and made a cheese sandwich, 4am was another waking when Fred and I, fully synchronised, had a bowl of cornflakes. Deep sleep must have punctured our wakings, we felt fantastic when we woke. Astoundingly the suburb of Turramurra is full of wildlife and tropical trees. Our dawn chorus was the sounds of the jungle, evensong was the rustling of possums in the trees that we got to see peering at us, all in Suzanne and Phil’s garden. Remarkably free of jet lag we set off for the pool at 8:30am to accompany Will (11) to his swimming lesson. Ollie (15) and Fred swam in the Olympic sized outdoor pool whilst Suzanne and I sat in the wonderful crisp sunshine and caught up on the comings and goings of our extended family across the world.
Suzanne showed us around the coastline on our second day, stunning views from the vantage point of McCarrs Creek, followed by an afternoon of swimming and cricket at the beach. I’ve been amazed at just how beautiful the landscape is here. Lush greenery, golden beaches nestled into compact coves, crystal clear waters, and stunning geology. Surfers took on the substantial waves, whilst we took to the water in the walled pool filled with the bracing Pacific Ocean.
We spent a gorgeous restful few days in great company, wearing fresh clothes, smelling sweetly, and wining and dining in terrific company. Two snuggly cats, two boys to play with, and plentiful Pokemons, was just what Fred needed. In the first 2 days they cleaned up, and the adults were treated to lengthy, excitable accounts of rare Pokemons they had captured. Phil, Suzanne’s husband had been working away, and on his return he took us all swimming in another Olympic sized pool, Sydney is littered with them. He also introduced us to the Aussie institution of the bowling club. Pints and cigarettes in hand, the predominantly male over 50s members, took us all under their wing and coached us on a ‘rink’. It was a highly competitive group of novices, largely good humoured apart from Dean nobbling me with a jovial bowl at my ankle bone which elicited much swearing and near physical violence, despite the presence of children. We celebrated our sporting day with a curry down the road, and it felt just like Saturday night at home, except instead of pigeons flying overhead we had Silver Cockatoos toddling along the road with us. Awesome – as they really do say round here!
Sunday was sightseeing day in central Sydney. Amazingly you can’t spend more than £1.50 on public transport on a Sunday in Sydney, no matter what routes and form of transport you take. Consequently, we explored on train, bus, and ferry. We started off at the outdoor market under the arches of the Harbour Metro station. Colourful, bright, cheery stall holders engaged us in good humoured conversations. Live music and fresh food made for a lovely atmosphere. We walked over the Harbour Bridge, eschewing the opportunity to climb to the top of its arches, instead leisurely enjoying the stunning views. I had no idea that Sydney was so green and beautiful. Largely low rise, with its historic decorative terraced homes protected from re-development, lush greenery cuts through it. The harbour itself is inland, sheltered from the Pacific, with a myriad of waterways working their way into the suburbs. Not only did Fred want to get out the property pages, so did I.
The Opera House was a revelation. Not white, but cream tiled, it glistens in the sunshine, its architecture even more impressive up close. We had a pitstop in Phil’s office on the 38th floor of a new harbour front office block, where we got to appreciate a bird’s eye view in 360 degrees. After a ferry ride across the harbour we arrived in Manly for fish and chips before a walk round the bay. Clever engineering of ketchup packets caught me out, opening it the wrong way, I managed to splatter Fred, myself and a row of 4 Aussie teenagers sat behind us on the seafront steps. Thankfully they took it in good humour, fortunately I was wearing a jumper with a paint splatter effect so no impact for me, Fred on the other hand took the full force and looked like an extra on The Walking Dead.
We washed ourselves down on the promenade and headed round the Manly Beach bay for a bracing walk. Multi million dollar houses lined the way, but you could see why they chose this gorgeous spot. Entertainment came in the form of novice paddle borders battling on choppy waters. Tanned, and with sun bleached hair, surfers on a day off due to messy waves, sat on the rocks in hysterics enjoying the misery and frustration of the holiday makers wanting to complete their Australian dream. The bus back to the car was packed so we all had to split up. Fred found a young female companion and was soon deep in conversation. I earwigged from across the aisle to him marvelling that she had been to Everest base camp. They exchanged travelling stories and, as he talked animatedly to her, I was comforted that he has got so much out of the trip than I realised. She had visited India a number of times, although 5th generation Fijian her family’s heritage was Indian, and allayed some of Fred’s fears about our upcoming India leg. She was on the bus going home having finished a volunteering session at a children’s hospice, she did every other Saturday in addition to working full time. They parted friends and Fred richer for 30 minutes of conversation with an adventurous and compassionate person.
Monday we set off for Canberra to see our old friend Richard in a hire car. Before entering vegan heaven, we sneaked in an Aussie MacDonalds on the motorway, very naughty but pretty good. The highway from Sydney to Canberra took us through rolling hills and lush grassland full of livestock. Small holdings and larger farms sported corrugated tinned roofs, much to my delight. Nothing like vernacular architecture to make me happy. On the recommendation of Phil we stopped at a vineyard that uses Biodynamic growing methods. We left the highway to take a country lane to the Lark Hill Vineyard. Within a few minutes we saw the carcasses of Kangaroos who had not made it across the road, not just a few but dozens. Thankfully Fred didn’t see them, but did shout out his spot of a huge mob (yes that is the collective noun for a group of Kangaroos!) on the edge of some scrubland. We pulled over and turned around to find them again. Pulling onto the verge we were amazed that they just sat and looked at us, windows were wound down and we fumbled for our cameras. We managed to get a few shots before they decided they’d had enough of our staring competition and they bounced off. We were tickled at their springing high speed escape and couldn’t believe our luck at stumbling across them. As those of you who have read our blog will know, we only enjoy animals in the wild or supporting institutions that have rescued animals.
The Lark Hill Vineyard was an absolute treat. A small family business, the owner took us through to the cellar, and educated us in his wines and the Biodynamic process. Dean had drawn the short straw, deciding to economise by only putting himself on the hire car insurance. His loss was my gain. As he professionally sniffed, swilled and spat (as taught by our friend James the wine merchant), I absentmindedly forgot the smaller details of the process. We worked our way through the fizzy Pinot Noir, whites, and reds, eventually settling on a mixed case to take to Canberra. As we left Fred’s parting words were “Thank you, you’ve made my parents very happy today”. How right he was.
Fully laden we arrived into Canberra earlier than expected. No traffic on the highway and an empty capital city caught us out. With time to spare before our host was home we headed up to the Royal Mint, another of Phil’s recommendations. It took us 10 minutes to cross from one side of Canberra to the other, including going past the Canadian Parliament, and taking a wrong turn. No need for congestion charges here. Like most of the museums and galleries in Canberra it was free. We enjoyed an educational video before exploring the exhibits charting the history of money and the Mint. All the operations are visible to the public via a gallery that overlooks the warehouse and operations. Cutting edge automation was on display, Penny and Titan danced for their audience in between performing complex tasks. I was pretty sure Titan was inappropriate on at least one occasion as Penny passed. Fred left happy, having cast his own coin, with a fresh desire to see his Great Grandfathers coin collection. Before we left we had a Mr Bean experience with Dean battling the door and lock of the car, except it wasn’t ours. Uh Oh. As we turned away we explained to another visitor in the car park our error, not that we were doing a spot of breaking and entering in one of the most secure places in the city.
We had a wonderfully warm welcome from Richard, who true to form had prepared a stunning vegan feast for us. The evening was spent catching up and making plans for our 3 days in the city. With a wealth of museum’s and art galleries in Canberra that we wanted to work our way through, we were over the moon to discover that the British Museum’s ‘The History of the World in 100 objects’ was in Canberra on tour for the next 2 months. Richard had been wanting to take it in so we agreed that we would make it our first stop the next morning. It didn’t disappoint. Goodness knows how they were able to decide what to include, but they did a fabulous job. Organised in chronological order, they had also cleverly curated it by theming the periods in time (see link) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_History_of_the_World_in_100_Objects. If you get chance it’s a must see. Of course being Canberra it was virtually deserted, not surprising when your capital city has a population of 400,000 and is a flight away from the most populated parts of the vast country. Much to our amusement one of the few other visitors was the couple who had caught us doing battle with the wrong car at the Mint the day before. We would see them once again in the next 2 days, a very small world. The Exhibition was housed in the National Museum of Australia, so we spent another hour taking in some of the collections before heading across town to view Canberra from the peak of Mount Ainslie. From here you see the architect designed city in its full, organised, glory. On the ground it feels pretty soulless, nothing has spontaneously emerged, and it is eerily empty. Shops are in precincts, houses are on cul de sacs, there is even a petrol station block with 4 gas stations. From above you see the stunning parliament house, bold boulevards leading to it, and a huge city centre man made lake nestles amid all of this. We admired it, but I’d challenge anyone to fall in love with it.
Lunch was at a vegan co-operative for more delicious food. In addition to wolfing down the bowl of red pepper soup, brown rice and sourdough bread, which Fred loved, we got treated to vegan banana muffins and the wonderfully named ‘bliss balls’; coconut and dates if you’re interested. Staffed and frequented by an alternative crowd largely from the university, we loved it here. We left Richard to complete some work on his PHD and headed off to another Olympic sized swimming pool. We were thankful for some exercise when dinner came and we wolfed down more delicious vegan food collectively prepared under Richard’s instructions. It was so good we went for firsts, seconds and then thirds.
Canberra has such a fabulous range of places to visit that it’s hard to narrow things down, even with 3 days in the city. Fred decided on science and technology at Questacon for the morning. For the second time in Canberra Dean got a discount for being retired, and for a modest fee we got to enjoy the terrific exhibitions and interactive spaces. A lecture theatre on site was running 2 sessions; The History of Man in Space, and Natural Disasters. We were treated to both of them, fabulously delivered by the young staff. Home schooling was working out well in Canberra. Time constraints had meant that we had not been able to visit the First Australians building in the Australian National Museum the day before, so we left Questacon to get a better understanding of the Aboriginal heritage of Australia. It was absolutely stunning. At the entrance a film of ‘The Apology’ runs on a continuous loop. On 13 February 2008 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gave a speech on behalf of the current and previous Australian Parliaments for the wrongs committed against the First Australians. I wept as I watched it, moved by the simplicity of the apology and the deep and instant response of those listening. It’s a very short film and I’ve attached the link for those who have not seen it https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=the+apology+kevin+rudd&view=detail&mid=6748EAC6572217E0CE456748EAC6572217E0CE45&FORM=VIRE We moved through the exhibits silently, totally absorbed by the history and personal stories.
If we weren’t emotional enough, I was finished off by visiting the Australian War Memorial where they have a’ Last Post’ ceremony every day at 4:50 with the ‘Last Post’ at 5:00pm. We spent a week around Amiens visiting the Somme and surrounding areas four years ago. The memorial in Canberra echoes the impressive Theipval. We made our way across the gardens, past statues, plaques, and heavy artillery to the memorial building and chapel. A pool of reflection sits at the centre of a balconied courtyard, upon which are written the names of all of the fallen in all of the wars that Australia has been part of. Controversially there is no reference to the Aboriginal War, and the fallen First Australians. We found ourselves a spot at the heart of the building, up some stairs to give us a view of the ceremony. Around us buses of school children, the elderly, veterans, every day Aussies and visitors from abroad filled the space. Military representatives from 20 plus countries stood to attention as the story of an ordinary soldier was told first. Every day they share the history of one soldier who’s name is on the walls. On the day we were there it was of a 47 year old man, originally from Shropshire, who had enlisted at 44, and had been hit by a bullet in the stomach in the IWW. The simplicity of the story, the absence of heroism in his death, the human experience of his family left behind, was so impactful. After 10 minutes the ceremony was over, closing with the haunting ‘Last Post’. Emotionally drained we headed back for a rest and distraction from the failings of the past, and the frustration that our politicians have not been better students of history in their youth.
Great conversation, vegan pizza and more lovely wine restored us on our last night. We set off for Sydney better educated, seriously contemplating becoming vegan, and having had a wonderful time with a great friend. We came a little unstuck when we spotted another MacDonalds on our return journey, guiltily slipping in for a ‘dirty’ burger. We were glad we did when we had the most delightful encounter with a first Australian. Waiting near our table for his order, he started up a gentle and curious conversation. A felt hat decorated with feathers and small badge flags sat on his head. In a suit and tie, he smiled throughout his conversation with us. He shared his experiences of England which he had visited and thanked us for visiting the First Australians museum. Another beautiful memorable moment in the most incongruous of settings. I’ve never left a MacDonalds feeling spiritual before.
Our lovely kind cousins cooked for us and provided more wine, we had drunk the case in Canberra between the three of us, and Fred got his last night with the boys, cats, and wild Pokemon. A final express wash and dry meant we set off for the airport fully laundered. We were chauffeured to the metro station by Suzanne and then Phil took us to our final train change to make sure we made our flight. Their hospitality and effort was amazing as they looked after us, and made sure we got to see the best of Sydney. Their fabulous sons meant that Fred left with a heavy heart, wanting us to buy the house next door so he could see them every day. Suzanne and I felt we knew one another better than we did before we went to stay, it’s the bonus of intimacy that Facebook gives you, but by the time we left Suzanne and I were firm friends, not just family that had met once at a funeral.
Of course we couldn’t leave Australia without a bit of excitement. Jovial Bruce was not on duty at Border Control. Having failed the computerised facial recognition test, Dean was ushered to the supervisor’s desk. Fred and I joshed for a few minutes, as we waited having exited. The few minutes turned into 5 and then 10. I managed to get a view of the proceedings by craning my neck. The Supervisor did not think Dean was Dean, whether he put his glasses on or took them off. The Supervisor’s Supervisor did not think Dean was Dean either. His driver’s licence, credit cards, Fred’s birth certificate etc seemed to have no impact. There was not a smile in sight, but remarkably Dean kept his cool. Eventually, and we have no idea why, after 20 minutes and a whole pack of Border Control senior managers making him take his glasses on or off, they let him out of the country. Maybe they’d taken a liking to him and just didn’t want him to leave…..
I’d been quite sniffy about Australia before we went, not seeing the attraction; a bunch of Brits in a hot country, good at sport, that is a cultural wasteland. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Australians are a cheery, multicultural, optimistic crowd. They smile and say hello, find everything ‘awesome’, look after themselves and others. They have the humility to apologise for the past, even if it was the past of others, and the First Aboriginals have the generosity of spirit to accept. The tiny bit of the landscape we saw was beautiful and left me chomping for more. We will be back, covering the vast distances with plane journeys (apologies Richard), trying to see just a bit of this diverse place. Until we do, we will have to suffice with ‘Dreaming’ of the magical land and people that we got just a tiny glimpse of.
Assured that Route 40 after Cafayete would be a good road, newly paved, we set off on Sunday morning. We refueled in town, and had a delightful exchange with a young petrol pump attendant who wanted to know all about the van and our trip. Across the way a pastry shop provided us with brunch, and then we went in search of a smoothie that had been promised to Fred. In the main square we parked up and Dean bumped into a group of American students in another Wicked campervan. We’d previously encountered them in the gas station at San Pedro de Atacama. He passed 20 minutes with them catching up on their adventure and sharing ours. Fred and I waited across the sunlit, tree filled square for the smoothie shop to open. The owner languidly mopped his floor, unperturbed by waiting customers. This is not a country that you can force a rush, however often I got up, leaned in the door, smiled, and did my ‘we’re in a hurry look’. With an immobile face, that a Botox Dr would be proud of, he mopped over the same floor, which was already gleaming. When the smoothie came Fred assured me it was worth the wait, and beaming smiles with “Muchos Gracias” from Fred was rewarded with a broad grin from the owner.
Dean brought me up to speed on the Americans in the van. A group of 5 girls and 1 boy, they were on a study tour in Valparaiso and had taken a break to explore the north of Chile and Argentina. They needed to get their van back in 3 nights and were under some pressure to cover over 1000km, plus the day long border crossing in that time. A mislaid passport by one had caused a 2 day delay as fresh papers were sorted. Unlike us they had also had their van emptied and all items searched for 4 hours at the other border crossing, which we had been advised not to take. I didn’t envy their experience, or the challenge they had coming up.
The drive proved an easy one, albeit rather monotonous. We’ve had our fill of deserts, just as in Canada we had our fill of huge mountains and acres of trees and lakes, and this drive was 5 hours of perfectly straight roads the disappeared into the dusty horizon. Admittedly the scenery was stunning, but it wasn’t fresh to us. In large flat valleys between the Andes and the internal mountain range the wind battered the van, and a few times we had to get out and put the cover back on the roof tent. After 5 hours we arrived in Belen. It was a rapid and delightful change of geography which this country is full of. We descended from rocky desert into a lush valley, streams appearing from nowhere, willow and cypress trees in abundance. We entered the village via a ford, and emerged outside a general store, which also served as outdoor bar. Needing food and advice on where to camp, we pulled off the road and walked back to the shop. A girl approached offering a tray of homemade cakes, a celebration seemed to be taking place. Outside the shop a couple in their late 20s sat in the back of a car with doors open onto the pavement, smoking, drinking and making out with wild abandon. Being late on a Sunday and looking slightly disheveled, we suspected they’d been at it for some time. On benches outside the shop men and women, late middle aged, sat glasses in hand, clearly well sozzled. Think of a Sunny Sunday in the pub garden about 6pm when the sunburnt are still downing pints after a 1pm start. No one seemed too worried about work the next day. Of course their cheeks were full of the coca leaves that are ubiquitous in this part of the world.
We stepped into the dark unlit shop, unsure if it was open, and found the usual paltry, but wholly adequate choice of goods. Father, daughter and grandson milled around. On one counter stood an array of stationery, including photocopier and fax. Bizarrely a vibrant pink full sized football sat atop a halved 1.5 litre drinks bottle, serving as a stand for the ball. Another hidden counter had fruit and veg, stacked behind it tinned and dry products. I still haven’t got to grips with the fact that you don’t do self service. With a broad smile the 30 year old daughter took the produce I’d collected out of my hands and asked me what else I wanted. Its like stepping back in to the England, so wonderfully captured in ‘Open All Hours’, that I remember as a young child. We got meats, veg, fruits, drinks, and of course the football. Fred’s was dying and this one was only $8. Fred had found a cat lazing on the floor under a table, delighted that someone had found her to stroke, she lay back for him with all four paws in the air. We established that the grandson was also called Fred which immediately bonded us all. Fred and I were ushered out of the back of the shop, urged to follow when we were unsure, and taken through a kitchen, TV blaring the Bocca Juniors game out, to the yard. Across from the heaps of junk in the yard was the purpose of this visit. Proudly, ‘Belen Fred’s’ mum showed us her Llama. We struggled to contain ourselves when we were told that this lovely sweet animal was called Martin, the incongruity tickled us thoroughly. Martin had the most beautiful eyes and luscious lashes. All soft fluffy hair he spoke to us in funny purring squeaks. Fred and I stroked and petted him, ‘Belen Fred’s’ mother beamed. We returned through the kitchen and paused there while Fred stroked the cat that had retreated there from the shop. All around us items were strewn, caked in grease and dust, the telly however was gleaming and centre stage. We paid up and said our goodbyes, with directions given to the Tourist Information office and local municipal campsite. Handshakes from grandad and embraces from Fred’s mum. They had done well out of our trade on a slow Sunday evening, but we had the best of it with another wonderfully warm experience.
A tour through Belen, picking up food supplies and cash, brought us to the Municipal campsite. Argentina has them in nearly every town, they are extremely cheap or free, as was the case in Belen. Fabulous aging sporting facilities sat inside the vast park at the edge of the town. A running track doubled as a velodrome, football pitches nestled inside the track. A grandstand of racetrack proportions was painted white. Nearby an Olympic sized swimming pool was full of leaves, the peeling sky blue paint just visible. You see the recent economic history of Argentina in these places; when newly erected 50 or 60 years ago it would have been a significant investment by one of the worlds richest countries, now the wood shows more than the paint applied decades ago, and the wrought iron playground equipment rusts as Argentina no longer has the money to invest in renovations and upkeep. Nevertheless the population of Belen was out in force, taking full advantage of all the facilities. Lots of plump women admirably put themselves through their paces, sporting tracksuits and carrying water bottles. Cyclists raced in groups, families picnicked at the elaborate BBQs, children filled the swings and roundabouts.
After a long and challenging drive Dean just missed driving into a tree at the centre of the huge car park, sun had blinded him, but it brought rich chuckles from the families sat around the tables. We found spot and set up camp, cooking began straight away and Fred found boys to play football with. We chatted with a few mothers who passed us by, and toasted with Vino Tinto, some ladies who were briskly doing laps. The park emptied quickly at nightfall, the mozzie bites we quickly accumulated told us why. After dinner we retired for an early, and quiet night, sleep. Or not. What we didn’t know, but were to find out several times on this trip, is that Argentinians wake up about 11pm and that is when they start to party. In Municipal campsites. After an hours sleep we were woken by thumping boom boxes, an eclectic mix of rave, rap and Ibiza creating at once a cacophony of sound. We drifted off, and back out of sleep, several times until at 3am everyone had packed up. That was about when the dogs started.
Bleery eyed we set off early, another big drive was planned to San Juan de Jachal. Full of fuel, we picked up homemade sandwiches us from a roadside ‘kiosk’, a window in someone’s house, for breakfast. Our drive was over 6 hours and more wonderful scenery, fortunately the roads were good and not a soul in sight for the majority of our trip. We had intended to get fuel and food in San Juan de Jachal before heading up to a small village, high in the Andes 40km away called Rodeo. Unfortunately, we came mighty unstuck when none of the ATMs would work on any of our cards, and the only fuel station that took credit cards was out of fuel. Marooned, with very limited supplies we found the municipal campsite on the outside of town that was fortunately free. We were down to our last $5 (I’ve had to move to $ rather than pounds as my pound key has given up the ghost on our laptop… apols). Dean had emergency US$ which we would have to come to the bank to change in the morning, we had discovered that at this edge of Argentina not even the national bank ATMs work for international accounts.
Two kiosks sat around the woodland out of town campsite, one alongside the huge swimming pool, empty save rubbish and garden waste. At the nearest kiosk a swarthy toothless man was delighted that we wanted to camp here. His youthful girlfriend, baby in arms, came out to speak to me in English. She was bashful and full of blushes when I told her she spoke good English. He offered to sell me some wine, but I explained that we were fresh out of cash. Not to worry, he plonked down a litre box of white and red wine, $1 each. Dean came back later to get the white, what’s to lose hey? It was fantastic, it washed down our dinner beautifully. Dinner was a mélange of emergency supplies; tinned tuna, tinned asparagus, mayonnaise and spaghetti. We all agreed it was pretty tasty. As I prepared dinner I had the help of 5 year old Loreli and her smaller brothers. They had been playing at one of the tables as their mother nursed a small baby. Loreli was fascinated by our camping stoves and what we were making. She put the salt in my water, opened a tin, and joshed with her younger brother who was wearing our sieve as a hat. She told me about her family, coached me into pronouncing her name correctly (I earnt an enthusiastic handclap and bravo when I finally got it right), taught me Spanish and she learnt English. Sweetly precocious for her age, I ached just a little for a girl like her to complement our family.
Meanwhile the obligatory dogs had turned up. Heartbreakingly we also came across our first puppies. Two fluff balls, no more than 6-8 weeks old were playing and sleeping at a neighboring brick BBQ. Fred was overwhelmed and declared it the best place he’d been to. He set about feeding and watering them, and the plump, full teeted bitch that was with them. Spare flight blankets were pulled from the van and a bed was made for them in their spot. We decided to deal with the flea bites rather than stop the puppies being cuddled and nursed. The bitch stood by as Fred fed the pups and bedded them down. We gave her separate supplies which she wolfed down, clearly hungry. Other dogs stood back from the puppies food, letting the stray youngsters get their fill, we rewarded them with their own bowls. What was remarkable about all this, was the bitch was not their mother. When morning came she was gone but the puppies were still there. Her full teets and belly was her own pregnancy nearing full term. We couldn’t understand why she tended them so well but hadn’t groomed them, they stank and were covered in muck. Fostering them, like the other older dogs on the site, didn’t bring with it maternal cleaning instincts (Nellie still grooms Patch despite him being 3 years old), that may also have stopped her letting us handling the pups. In the morning I enquired at the kiosk about the puppies and was told that they had been dumped at the park about a week before, and no, the bitch was not their mother. We’d been emotional the night before, wondering how many of the pups the bitch had lost, with only 2 left. Now we were heartbroken. Saving grace came in the form of the many workmen on the site clearing the irrigation channels and the stray ‘pack’ that occupied the site. On the BBQ, where we had settled the pups down the night before, under blankets, and with food and water, was an empty plastic sandwich bag. The workmen brought food for the pups too. The big black dog, who had nearly taken the skin off my finger the night before jumping up for food, stood back as we fed the pups in the morning, only growling at them when they cheekily left their full bowl and crossed to give his a try. Stray adults were taking care of the babies that had been added to the abandoned pack. Workmen were bringing in scraps to give the pups a fighting chance. Nevertheless I sobbed my heart out before, and as we were leaving. I wished more than anything that we could take them with us, but we couldn’t. We left the workmen with the bag of dog food and showed them the blankets. They understood and thanked us. Like Smokey and Dusty, the pups will live with us for a long time. We hope they have a long and happy life, free, protected by the pack around them, and helped by the kindness of human strangers.
An antidote to high and deep emotion came when we attempted to get US dollars changed at the bank. We arrived at 9am, the bank opened at 8am, but found that the currency changing hour didn’t start until 10am. Don’t ask. We milled around, rather hungry, but not able to buy anything, with no cash, in this cash economy, we filled up on the ample supplies of water we carry. Eventually 10am came and Dean was already at the front of the queue. It took 30 minutes of Monty Pythonesque procedure for him to emerge with his Argentinian Pesos, acquired at a remarkably favorable exchange rate. Forms had to be filled in triplicate, no one seemed to know what to do with them, passports were photocopied, but no one seemed to understand how to complete the computer process. Just as I was getting worried that we would have to divert entirely, and head inland to a big city, Dean emerged Peso’s in hand. We filled up with fuel, that had been delivered in the night, as we left San Juan de Jachal, and started the 40km uphill to Rodeo. We were much in need of some rural idyll and a restful campsite for a few days. The Municipal one at San Juan had turned into the same rave scene as Belen’s, although I’ve by now mastered sleeping through it, sounds entering and shaping my dreams. Still, clothes were filthy, we’d done too many one night stops without showers and facilities, and we generally wanted to have a bit of a break to recharge.
Windy hairpins, on a less than perfect road, with adverse cambers, inviting a drop off the cliff edge, kept us on our toes and ambivalent about the stunning views. If anything caught our eyes it was the roadside memorials to those who had less luck, or judgement, than we did. They lined the way, pyramid piles of empty water bottles placed by visitors as a glittering memorial. On reaching the top, at 2,500 meters, we were rewarded by the most breathtaking of sights. The vast mountain lake, in the heart of the Andes, was a motionless mirror to the snow covered peaks that surrounded it. Perfect symmetry was before us. We had read in Lonely Planet that from October onwards this is the best windsurfing lake in the world, but it had not mentioned, nor had any other book we had read, the beyond beautiful view. There was not a soul in sight, and we enjoyed it in solitude for 30 minutes. Bull frogs called across the lake from one of the small islands, a massive distance, but we heard them with absolute clarity as they shattered the silence. We moved the van to an outcrop to do a photo shoot for Wicked Campers and ourselves. Stan even seemed to smile. A walk to the waters edge and we found the water fresh, but not icy, despite being fed by the snow melting as Spring came into full swing. Full up on the pure beauty of the views, we followed the road around the lake to Rodeo, of course this brought more magnificent views and sights. Our favorite was a family of 3 Moorhens (or some such), gliding across the still lake, leaving small elegant slipstreams behind them. It was here that we saw the oasis in the high Andes that is Rodeo. Vast Willow and towering cypress trees circled, and filled, the village. Cattle and horses grazed on the lush grass. Although we could have wild camped we had decided that hot showers, after 3 days of unwashed sweating was in order. The tourist info directed us to the only one open and we were rather dubious as we pulled into the ramshackle yard, greeted by ‘Swampy’ 30 years on from the Newbury Bypass protests. Turned out that the campsite was down a lane, through the yard, and as we drove through the avenue of fruit and cypress trees we came out into the most idyllic of dingily dells. In a slight hollow, the wooded haven was circled by a babbling stream, horses grazed, and the snow covered Andes looked down on us. A lovely lolloping chap came and found us, delighted to have a customer out of season. We found a pitch but he urged us to move. He knew his site. He guided us further down and we weaved through the Willows until we were beside the brook, a stone table with seating sat under a pergola with the water running at its edge. BBQ with wrought Iron sinks, shade and speckled warm sun, and perfect views made this his best spot.
Before we set up the tent and camp, we went off to get supplies for the 2 night, 3 day stop. Just up the road a proper corner store beckoned. Smaller than our kitchen, it overflowed with goods of all sorts, yet again everything we needed. Stuffed into this space a butcher oversaw his counter, 2 young men ran around getting goods for customers, and boss sat over his large calculator ready to tally the purchases. A nursing mother also sat in a corner, part of this family business. Per square foot Argentina shops are the best staffed I’ve ever seen. We let the butcher choose our steaks, again we left him wide eyed at how fat we wanted them sliced. Piling up homemade Sausages, half a chicken on the bone, black pudding, and cold cuts made him smile. We let our server choose our wine, his best, $3 a bottle (we took 4). Fully stocked up on veg, olives, dried goods, fruit, and plentiful fine wine all for $60. We let one of the chaps carry our boxes to the van and tipped him for his trouble.
We had lunch at our riverside table, sweet avacaods, fat tomatoes, sharp cheeses, piquant cold meats, and warm fresh bread required a ‘coup’ of vino tinto to wash it down. It was all marvelous and just what we needed. Dean, who had the worst of sleep for 2 nights with the Municipal campsite partying, retired to the cool of the tent for a siesta. Fred had a domestic science lesson; handwashing our entire wardrobe with Mum. He wasn’t bad, enthused by the opportunity to leash hell on an ants nest by the loo block with dirty water. We strung up 2 lines of washing, sun would bleach what we hadn’t been able to scrub out, but at least the dust and sand was gone. Being a school day ipad time was limited so we decided to explore the contents of the river. We soon found it stuffed with freshwater crabs and decided to see whether we could catch any. Fred is obsessed by the idea of joining the scouts and becoming self sufficient when in nature. We found a stick, some of the blue string we use for odds and sods, and sacrificed some of the sausage left over from lunch. The sieve was retrieved as a scoop for any that took the bait. It wasn’t long before we had 2 doing circles in our washing up bowl, full of river water. I left Fred to it, sat on a picnic blanket, looking like ‘Jiminy Cricket’ and sat down to blog.
A perfect afternoon of restful pleasures, satisfied by chores done, was topped off by BBQ preparation. Dean gathered dry wood from around the site, and I got the potatoes ready for Papas Fritas. It was a lovely meal, taken again at our riverside table. We polished off the 2013 we had opened at lunch and decided we needed to see if the 2014 was as good. It was. So good we polished that off too. Satiated all round, sure of no boom boxes appearing on the deserted campsite to disturb our sleep, we made for an early night hopeful that the babbling stream wouldn’t make us want to pee all night. It didn’t.
We passed 2 wonderful nights and nearly 3 days in Rodeo pottering about our site, enjoying its remoteness. Of course dogs had joined us, this time shaggy large wolfhounds. We enjoyed them, relieved that our leaving would not break our hearts again, they were big boys who owned the space around them, and had no need of ‘owners’.
This was to be our final big drive before we crossed The Andes back into Argentina, and we were going to settle for another couple of nights outside Mendoza. It took an uneventful 6 hours to get there. By now we don’t bat an eyelid when a horse and cart, dog following behind, turns onto the motorway…… Dean had found the Termas Cacheuta in Lonely Planet. The largest series of hot baths in Argentina, it had waterslides and waterways that worked through a 5 acre site. The weather had changed as we came into Mendoza, grey and overcast. However up the mountain to the Termas the clouds cleared and the sun shone bright. We found a restaurant opposite the entrance to the Termas who were happy to let us camp. They even had washrooms we could use. It was perfect. Again being low season nothing was open in the evening, however the restaurant had a tiny grocery store attached and the chef butchered us half a chicken. We stewed it in the pot with caramalised onions and carrots. Tinned peas finished it off, and it paired perfectly with buttery mash. We got an early night, ‘Daddy’s Home’ made us howl with laughter in the tent as we snuggled down, in preparation for a full day of water based fun and relaxation.
A cold night, with the whole village of dogs waking for a unified choral rendition in the early hours, was offset by a beautiful crisp morning. An English Breakfast, Argentina style, for Dean and pancakes for Fred set us up for a day of Thermal bathing. Our camp dogs greeted us warmly, even more so when the left over chorizo and pancakes came their way. Keepy uppys kept him occupied until the 10am opening, when we had to make the 50 meter journey across the yard. The Termas was vast, including a mile long river that circled a fountain and wave pool. Indoors we moved between near boiling to freezing pools, joined by all ages. Yet again Fred became a mascot for school kids on a day out. Blonde hair and blue eyes earning a celebrity status, and wherever we went we were greeted with shouts of “Frreeeed”. We lasted 6 hours of water filled fun, by which time I think there was more dead skin than water in the baths….!
A campfire dinner with the dogs set us up for our Mendoza to Santiago trip, thankfully the midnight chorus was less invasive, or we had learnt to tune it out.
We’d already done the journey by bus a month before, but setting off from a different start point brought us past stunning winery’s before we began climbing to the 4,000m border. The road was yet another joyful route for the first hour, taking us past powerful broad rapids that fed into stunning lakes, that we had not seen before. We then joined the final road to the border which we had taken before on our bus crossing. It was a quick and easy journey through The Andes, and we marveled at the engineering that had carved it out. An ancient disused railway accompanied us, a relic of the 1800s, with occasional abandoned train stations in the midst of ghost towns. After 2 hours we hit the tailback of traffic waiting to cross the border. Dean made us sandwiches and we enjoyed the scenery, snow all around us, until after an hour and a half we got to the front of the queue and parked up. We all trooped in, desperate for the bathroom, to do the 5 step crossing process. All our papers stamped eventually we joined the wait for our car to be searched for fruit by sniffer dogs. Relieved of not only fruit, which we had declared, the Chilean food agency also made off with our Salami, Tomatoes and everything we had bought for dinner that night. Our crossing had taken 2 hours, but we were just delighted to be across and set off for the switchback hairpins that would drop us down the other side. Fred acted as a very able co-driver, warning me of upcoming bends using Maps.me, whilst Dean reclined in the back of the van exhausted by the whole experience, chuntering about what Brexit would mean for our European holidays!
We had found a campsite in Los Andes at a restaurant, an hour outside of Santiago, for our final stop. The sun shone brightly as we pulled into ‘El Sauce’. They were delighted to have us, their only camping guests, but warned us that a big party was on for that night in the vast function room. We were invited to join, which was rather tempting, until we discovered that it was 10pm until 6am. We thanked them and declined, knowing full well that by 10pm we would be very ready for bed. We set the van up and then moved to the terrace of the restaurant for a couple of restorative Pisco Sours. They were made by the owner, in his 70s, and were wonderful, topped off with Angustura Bitters which was a first. We are quite the connoisseurs now. The cheery Chef offered to make us dinner at 7pm, a small version of his fare for the party that night. As dinner time neared we were called in to see him preparing an array of meats on his indoor BBQ that would have rivalled that of Henry VIII. Just as it was ready he moved our meats, piled artfully, onto a mini BBQ that would sit on our table. White coals sat beneath the silver serving dish, with the silver top keeping the moisture in. It was a stunning meal; homemade black pudding sausage, belly pork, prime steak ribs, lamb cutlets and large buttered potatoes all cooked on the BBQ. It was accompanied by homemade corn bread rolls, a piquant salsa, salted butter, and a mixed salad of every vegetable you could imagine, including delicious artichoke. By the time we had finished eating the large family of the owner had started to arrive. Martin, an 8 year old grandson, quickly found Fred and they set off to play football on the pitch by our van. We polished off the bottle of local red, chosen by our waiter, until the boys were ready for an ice cream sundae. Full tummies, with Fred worn out by an array of games, meant we were ready for bed before the party started. We drifted off quickly. The traditional Chilean band entered our dreams and we woke in the early hours listening to the fun sounds of 200 people making the most of their Sunday morning. Unlike the thumping boom boxes of rap and rave music, we rather enjoyed the band, drifting in and out of sleep, enjoying the party vicariously without having to leave our bed. Amazingly, when we woke at 8am in the morning, there was not a car left in the car park. Everyone had driven home, and we very much doubted any of the drivers had stuck to Agua con Gas that night. Sunday morning was not a time to be on the road anywhere near Los Andes.
In preparation for dropping off the van the next day, we set about emptying and cleaning it top to bottom. It was a fun day as we pottered through the chores, grateful for the use of the hosepipe provided by El Sauce and the fact that I’d bought a bottle of bleach early in our trip. Martin had come back with his mother and Fred passed another fun day speaking pigeon English and Spanish, granted a pass on helping out. With the van gleaming we rewarded ourselves with a move to the terrace and our final Piscos. By now we were best of friends with the Chef, waiter, and owner, and we were joined by Paula, Martin’s mother. It turned out she was a psychologist working with children in schools and was very excited to learn that Dean was in the same field of work. We managed quite a deep conversation about different schools of therapy, and differing international approaches, using a linguistic mix of English, Spanish and French, helped by the fact that many key words in this field retain their Greek origins. We retired to cook our final camping dinner, with details exchanged so Paula could stay in touch with Dean and connect with international colleagues.
The morning was beautiful and we set off, saying goodbye to the dogs on the site. Fred donated his old trainers to ‘Chico’ who had made them a firm favorite, constantly stealing them from the van. We worked our way through the countryside into Santiago, negotiating the traffic and one way systems, arriving at Wicked Campers with a heavy heart, tears already welling in my eyes at least. With paperwork over Fred and I headed back out to the service yard for a last goodbye. We couldn’t help but lie ourselves against his psychedelic panels and give him a kiss. Over the last month he had taken us through rivers, up gravel mountain passes, bounced over cobbled roads, sweltered through the desert, and snuggled us down. It was because of Stan that my view of Argentina had shifted. Able to get out of the cities into the back lanes and small villages we had found another country. Love for Stan had been instant and justified. With Argentina, it needed a second date and a search for a different side to the big cities. We resolved that we would come back for more and tackle the south, both Chile and Argentina, definitely in a camper, and hopefully re-united with Stan!
Before our mammoth 14 hour overnight flight, also losing 14 hours in time difference, we returned to our hostel favorite, The Princesa Insolente Hostel in Santiago. We got a warm welcome and Fred joined some backpackers in a table football game. Having spent the last few days clearing up left overs and emergency rations, we had the best fast food ever at Fuente Mardoque a stunning retro Chacarero bar (Chacarero’s are the Chilean alternative to burgers); lashings of layered thin steak, smothered in salad, jalapeno’s, mayonnaise, avocado, cheese etc. Washed down with Sprite, it took us an hour to wade our way through. Sensibly we went to sleep alcohol free and with very full bellies.
Our cab picked us up and we had the chattiest of drivers, who spoke no English. Nevertheless, as we have become expert at, we all got to know a lot about each other regardless of language barriers. We had had the most wonderful South American adventure, most of our pleasures coming from unexpected places. The dogs, the wildlife, the landscape, the people, the food, the drink, hot springs, golden beaches, the list goes on and on. I’ve learnt not to judge a place and its people at the first pass, but take a step back and explore a little deeper. We move onto Asia and India knowing that its small towns and villages and not the cities we want to dwell in. The dogs have stolen our hearts in South America above all else. As we embark on our next legs, except the short 10 sojourn in Australia, I have no doubt that hanging onto our hearts will remain a challenge. We loved Brazil and Chile in an instant, Argentina was a slow burn, but I’ll definitely be back for more; next time a bit of southern comfort.
We set off from San Pedro de Atacama, high up in the desert plains, for Argentina with trepidation, at least for me. We had flown into Buenos Aries nearly a month ago and undertaken a three city tour of BA, Cordoba and Mendoza with a short interlude in the picturesque Gaucho town of San Antonio de Arecca. In the cold, gloomy early spring it had failed to capture me. The warmth of Rio and its people gave me an ache, pulling me back. There had been exceptions; a fabulous day at the Estancia in San Antonio where the sun shone bright and we were delighted by the delightful gaucho hosts and other fun filled guests. Our hostel host at San Antonio was wonderfully helpful, but it had felt rather like ‘The Shinning’ in the deserted guest house that was ice cold. Our historic Air BnB in BA was a ‘Colonel Fazackerly Butterworth Toast had an old castle complete with a ghost’ experience. High ceilings, with original French windows, tiled floors, and the original fixtures and fitting may look pretty but with one electric heater and no external vista I was left more than physically cold. Joy in BA came with the aged tango dancer partnering a stunning elfin beauty with timeless elegance, the wonderful waitress in the beautiful restaurant (that served us tourist steaks that did a disservice to all), and the fusion musicians that funked up Tango to our delight. Cordoba and Mendoza brought a richness to us in the shape of fellow traveller; Roberta the Italian beauty who bounced delight and energy into everyone through the sheer force of her personality (Fred might just find an Italian girlfriend after his encounter), and great hostel hosts (Wilhelmina from Brazil, gentle, kind, funny and bringing us all together through a communal meal), and the mixed aged group of men from BA who’s car had broken down in Mendoza on the way back from them watching Argentina play Uruguay and were stranded with us for 3 days. I’ll dwell on them for a bit, with not a word of English we bonded over our steaks that were too much for us to finish off, and the free red wine. Football and Fred brought us together. No doubt in England they would have been Milwall supporters. They travelled to South Africa for the World Cup and went to every Argentina International game, they were planning Russia. A bouncer, mechanic, trade unionist and factory worker we hope that our encounter meant they hated the Brits a little less. We were thankful we had bought Fred a Bojca Junior no 10 Carlitos shirt, it might just have saved us. In contrast to the warmth of some, we found poor service of the careless kind that is just unnecessary, and aloof unfriendliness that raises my hackles. Dean has more empathy, they may be shy, is his response. To my shame I don’t accept this. A smile costs nothing in response to a greeting. A short Spanish looking chap sealed it for me when 3 mornings on the trot he blanked me in our Mendoza hostel. Thinking on it I may go back and write up the 10 days I’ve had little motivation to capture, and search deep in me to find a bit more of Dean inside myself before I do.
To return to the theme, Argentina left me lukewarm (perhaps not quite cold) and as we had travelled through Chile and I was loathe to return. However, the 11 hour desert crossing, which we would have to repeat if we were to stay in Chile, gave me motivation to complete our planned circuit and give Argentina another go. After all this time we would be in a camper and not stranded in cities that had started to merge together. As the Orbital track from the 90’s goes ‘Open your mind’.
Another beautiful journey out of San Pedro to the border crossing across the Andes, 5,000m again, stunned us. We repeated our hilariously bizarre border crossing, moving along 4 glass booths at the border; to check ourselves out of Chile, ourselves into Argentina, to check the car out of Chile, and then into Argentina. Thankfully, despite our van proclaiming the hallucinogenic merits of cacti, we were not required to empty the van and pay a bribe, as is apparently common. The fabulous journey down to Susques was reward enough for our decision to cross again into Argentina. A small town, populated only by the indigenous people, sports original buildings and chapel from the mid 1500s. A hotel, newly established, provided us with lunch, dinner and a place to park up. We bought a bottle of the local red with a late lunch, and being newly abstemious, kept half of it for dinner. Still at 3,500m we were shattered by 8pm and hit the sack not long after. This time we had Chico for company, a bull terrier / Alsatian cross who wore his wind proof jacket over his long fur. Not interested in our manufactured Chilean dry dog food, he nevertheless lay at the foot of our ladder all night.
Midnight loo break showed us the stars were just as bright in Argentina at this height, and we had warmed up to our new country with the lovely care taken of us by the hotel staff. We took the morning slowly when it came, as Fred slumbered on. Dean and I read through the guide books, selecting locations we might linger on the iconic Route 40 that we were taking down to Mendoza, drinking our freshly brewed coffee in the company of Chico. The next few nights were taken care of, Jujy we would skirt, stopping at the thermal baths with free camping, followed by a campsite with waterslides outside of Salta. After that we needed to work our route and timescales to make it back to Santiago in time.
When Fred eventually woke we had a plan in place and set off. We had been anticipating a jaded desert trip for the next few days but the guide books, and annotated maps, had failed to mention that our descent would take us through the ‘Rainbow Valley’. Breathtakingly beautiful it beat the Lunar Valley hands down. I can only think that God got bored one day and picked up a paint brush. The colours defied logic. Sandstone yellow sat next to verdant green, greys, blues, reds and pinks. When we re-read the books the trip is described as the route to Bolivia. Yes, it is, but only part of it. We had turned off route 52 onto route 9 which took us through the heart of this painter’s palette. All the while the sun shone down and the sky was a vibrant blue backdrop. Women sat on the roadside knitting, broad brimmed hats protecting them from the sun, brightly coloured ponchos keeping them warm at the high altitudes. On top of this the cacti were enormous. Dean had been rather disappointed by the ‘Giant Cacti’ promised on the road to the Tatio Geysers, here was delayed gratification. As we dropped down through the ‘Rainbow Valley’ verdant green quickly replaced rocky desert and the route was lined with huge green willow trees. Horses grazed the roadside, untethered. We were right to push on. Lesson learnt.
Horror came in the form of Argentinian driving and highways. We hit a main highway, which had no hard shoulder, and which had huge mounds of surplus tarmac pushed to the edge, but on, the carriage. The first one caught us out, and we flew into the air, crashing down with all our belongings scattered through the van. We modified our expectations, but the drivers around us truly left us in fear of our lives. The Taxi driver who had picked us up in Buenos Aries at night, had driven at 90 mph, in a clapped out car, in driving rain, nose to tail with the car in front. Although it was a hot sunny day, the driving was no different at the opposite end, and side, of the country. Further amazement came when we saw cattle, horses and goats grazing the grass verge along the way. Like the dogs in Chile and Argentina they seem to have more road sense than our car driven children, let alone our captive stock. Occasionally we came across burning grass verges, sometimes a few kilometres in length. No fire engines charging out to tackle it, instead they are left to burn out. So we recalibrated ourselves and tried to relax through the drive.
With only £10 of Argentinian Peso’s we came a bit unstuck as we pulled off the highway and into the village of Villa Jardin en route to the Termas de Reyes, where we were hoping to ‘take the waters’ in an open air pool and free camp. Nearly out of gas (though we carry a full can for emergencies), the gas station didn’t take Credit Cards. Argentina is a nearly wholly cash economy, which accounts for the low income tax collected and the high VAT they levy. Only problem is everyone pays cash to avoid the VAT and as a consequence the majority of transactions must be done with notes and therefore provide no income to the state. We later learnt that flat rate of tax circa 20% regardless of income earnt, has also driven up VAT rates, a penalty on the poor. It’s a country where the low tax burden on the high income groups has resulted in the penalised finding a way around, cash only. We were shocked to learn that some government departments also only transact in cash with their contractors, and sub contractors.
Our need for fuel required us to set off down the road to Jujy, assured by the garage that it was the only place to get cash. Fortunately 2 minutes down the road we spotted an ATM, a quick u-turn and we had avoided an hour long detour. A lady and her parents were selling Empanadas outside the ATM so we bought 6 homemade chicken Empanadas for the grand total of £1.50, giving her £2 and exchanging photos. Back up to the garage for a re-fuel and re-stock in the adjoining corner store. We got a taste of what was to come when shopping in Argentina for the first time here. We picked up some red wine but were told that we really shouldn’t buy that one, and were offered another. A male customer had come into the shop for provisions. He didn’t agree. He went around the counter and brought out another bottle. With us as silent witnesses, they debated which red wine we should be allowed to buy. Once they had settled on a bottle we were presented with it. Fearing we were going to get hit for a £10 bottle, I asked how much it was. Grand total £3.50. We took 2. In need of meat and veg we were directed down the road back towards the ATM. In a fabulously poorly stocked store we found everything we needed. We asked if he had chicken, he came out from a walk in freezer with a huge beast of a chicken, and happily cut it in half and then cleaved it into chunks, still on the bone. Loaded up, and with a full tank, we set up off the hill up to the baths.
It was such a pretty drive up through the valley, and we arrived at the baths hot, dusty, and just a little smelly after 2 sweaty desert days, and a nights free camping. Much to Dean’s delight, and Fred’s, the Termas was an outdoor pool into which hot spring water was pumped. We paid our entry fee of £4 each and joined the families, who had trooped up here after school and work. The bar was open, and the many BBQ pits were in full use, surrounded by ample cuts of beef and bottles of red wine. The water was a wonderful 35 degrees and we were soon soaking ourselves. Fred found a local boy to play football with. His skills were amazing, and at 13 he was more than happy to coach the younger English boy. As Fred passed the next 3 hours between the pool and the homemade football pitch, Dean and I read and lazed, happy to be amongst greenery. Lonely Planet had said you could free camp in the carpark opposite, so I asked at the pool bar. A confusing conversation ensued; no English on the part of anyone, and limited Spanish on mine. I drew a diagram of our bus with rooftop tent to try and clear up our request, but still more confusion. Eventually it turned out the answer was yes, to the original question I had asked in Spanish, which could have been answered with a universal OK. On the other hand I wouldn’t have bonded with the 6 people who gathered to join the novel experience. I left Dean and Fred at the pool and crossed the road to put on a chicken, carrot, celery, onion and parsley pot stew. After an hour of slow cooking it was nearly ready and the boys came back to the van just as the pool was closing up at 7pm. As Dean hunted for the corkscrew a beaten up car pulled up alongside us. A mother, father and son leaned out admiring Stan. It wasn’t long before they were out of the car, Dad with a full cheek of Coca leaves and clearly having had a skin full too, Mum smoking and sporting red bloodshot eyes. As the son, who turned out to be the same age as Fred, got out it was clear that he was suffering foetal alcohol syndrome, or the effects of a bump to the head from the large scar across his forehead. I was embraced by Dad, Mum got into the van where Dean was still rummaging, and the son wandered around in a daze of mental absence. Experienced with drunks, having run a bar for 6 months in a French ski resort, I continuously thanked them for stopping and explained we needed to sit down for ‘La Serena’. Fred who was nervously watching for any light fingered activity, was ushered to the table and I walked Dad to the car. They happily got in and after a few more minutes of salutations they sped off. We tried not to think too hard about an unbelted 10 year old in a car with 2 drunk parents and the driver fresh on Coca leaves. Even more remarkable, he was a geography high school teacher, and would be back in the classroom the next day at 7am on a Tuesday.
Dinner was delicious, as was the wine that the village had selected for us. We settled down early for an undisturbed night, first having moved the campervan behind a row of trees, cautious after encountering the Geography Teacher on a weekday, to guard against fast drunk drivers missing the bend on their way home. Morning brought a glorious day. We had no facilities so headed down to the stream that passed behind our van, masked by bushes and trees. Crystal clear mountain water, and natural pools, invited an icy bath. It was another wonderful travelling experience. Without soap or shampoo I washed head to toe and dried in the sunlight. Refreshed we set off for a campsite near Salta, bracing ourselves for more hairy Argentinian highways and drivers. In San Pedro de Atacama we had met an elderly Dutch couple who had been provided with a campsite guide by their rental company. They had tried the Salta Municipal site but hated it on arrival and headed South to one 15km away. On their advice this is the one we were going to try. We had a lovely encounter with a family from Buenos Aries at the Salta Tourist Info, who after we left came up behind us, overtaking and showing us the road we needed to take. We parted with honking horns and hands waving out of the windows.
We missed the supermarket turn, again, and found ourselves 5km away from the countryside campsite. A small village appeared on our right and we pulled in to see what we could buy. In the carport of her house a woman was running a fruit and veg stand, including, to our amazement, leeks and sprouts. We went in and found a fantastic array of fresh produce. A substantial sale made she directed us around the corner to the butcher. This was our first proper Argentinian butchers experience, for a small village the range was outstanding. Cold meats sat alongside, homemade sausages, and slabs of trip and other offal. One half of his refrigerated counter was dedicated to every cut of beef you could imagine. Dean was determined to do his own ‘Argentinian BBQ’ at the next campsite so we asked him for 3 of his best cuts. An elderly lady, who had also come from the carport fruit and veg shop, was by now sat on the bench in the butchers waiting to be served next. She stood up and discussed with the butcher which of the cuts we should be sold. After some discussion he retreated into a back fridge and returned, smiling, with a huge piece of beef on the bone. The elderly lady nodded in agreement, and he began to take a section off the bone and trim it. He placed his knife to the thickness he proposed, but we urged him to give us a bigger cut each. Eyebrows raised, he did so. We started to dread the cost. No fear was warranted, 3 best cut thick steaks cost a total of £5. We left laden with cold meats, sausages, a half chicken butchered into pieces still on the bone, and half a dozen eggs. He threw in, for free, a large slice of an unidentifiable cold cut, the elderly lady enthusiastically nodding and telling me what to do with it. Not a clue I’m afraid. But later at lunch Dean enjoyed it cold, though I declined it I’m afraid. Our final stop was across the dirt road at the shop that sold dry unperishable goods. We let them choose the wine, £3 a litre, and finished our grocery shopping. Yet again local shopping had provided great goods and wonderful insight into a small village life. The people had warmed us, and my reticence about Argentina was fading fast.
As we took the country lane for the last few kilometres we passed countless horses and a man trotting down the road trailing a couple of small ponies. Pretty, compact, dusty, Estancias lined the lane, dogs lazed in the middle of it, we were clearly meant to go around them. We turned into the campsite and were greeted with the fabulous sight of a waterslide, and then the anxiety provoking sight of coaches and hoards of children. Were we going to be crushed by no availability in this low season? I jumped out of the van, to the sound of boom boxes and a swimming pool full of joyful high school aged kids, and went into the office. The most beautiful and elegant of women greeted me. Long luscious black hair, framed a delicately featured face that was lightly, but perfectly, made up. Of course we were welcome, and she was sorry about the children, they would be gone by 6pm as they were on a day trip out. She showed us where we could park and asked if there was anything we needed, she was going into the city later and would happily get us supplies. A wonderful welcome. Dean found a spot we liked and we set up camp. Stan, yet again, was the source of much amusement and curiosity to the kids. It was the teachers, fag in hand, who approached us to admire him, the children more cautious. Fred changed into his swim gear and we brewed some coffee, ready for a relax in the shade from the sun. Next to us the most enormous of speakers had been placed, as they were around the many enclaves that different groups had set up, and Argentinian dance music blared out full blast. We rather enjoyed the festival atmosphere. The kids had various tasks in their year and subject groups, one of which had been to create a huge canvas art work. The fabric 10m x 10m was stretched between trees, secured at 4 corners. Dean went over to admire and take pictures. A couple of kids picked up the courage to come and talk to us, in Spanish of course. Where were we from? Where had we been? They were amazed at our trip. A group of three beautiful teenage girls giggled with us, and with sweet beguiling voices whispering their admiration. What we were doing was, apparently, beautiful and magical. The Latin based words suited their profound view of our trip. We take for granted what we are doing, and it’s when others, who don’t have this opportunity, and who may never leave their city let alone country, respond to us that we are reminded just how lucky we are.
Chicken and leek casserole, cooked slowly in a white wine stock, simmered for a couple of hours. As I washed the leeks the owner who was in consultation with her plumber at the outdoor sinks, wanted to know what veg it was and what I was cooking. I can recommend a game of vegetable based charades as great fun. Hand gestures to show that they grew above the ground, and the use of ‘blanco’ and ‘vert’ to describe the colours and they finally nodded and agreed that it was indeed leeks. I described what I was cooking and that it was a slow pot dish, and she jokingly asked if she could join us for dinner. The plumber wanted to come too. Meanwhile Dean had got into conversation with one of the Chemistry students. Excellent English on his part meant Dean learnt all about the group and their day out. Lorenzo was clearly the most studious and committed of teenagers. He had the ambition to become and engineer. Dean told him about our ALMA visit, their discovery of proteins containing sugar in space, and the work they were doing on black holes, and he was amazed. He promised to go on their excellent student website. They parted Facebook friends, and with an offer to him that we would host him if he ever got to come to England.
At 6pm the kids started to depart. As they did so more of them got the courage to approach us, after a couple of hours of observing us. The many vast stereo speakers were carried by 4 people each to their buses, and others came over and tested out their English, that was about as good as my Spanish. The surly became sweet, dissolving quickly into giggles as they took it in turn to ask us questions. Fred was made to take off his sunglasses so they could coo at his blue eyes, they beckoned others over to see them, marvelling at his combination of blonde hair and blue eyes. When they had finally gone, chased up by the chain smoking teachers, Fred decided we needed a family swim in the freezing pool. At the pool there was another smaller group of older kids, that turned out to be 6th formers from Buenos Aries on a week long trip to work with under privileged children at a local school. From wealthy families, speaking excellent English, they did not have the shyness of the other group of kids that had just departed. We were quickly surrounded and the English teacher made to come and speak to us. Much to my shame I was mostly obsessed by the fact that I was stood in my bikini sporting a full complement of untamed, natural hair, surrounded by perfectly groomed teenagers talking to a rather dashing fully clothed English master. I beat a retreat, using the casserole as an excuse, feeling I’d done a disservice to English women, forging a reputation for them that German women used to have in the 80s.
After his swim, Fred got his football out. By now tattered by regular climbs to 5,000m, causing over inflation, followed by drops to less extreme altitudes. A dunking in the lake, which fortunately had a breeze that brought it to the south side after 15 minutes, only worsened its state. Satisfied by assurances that Pele would have played with a similarly deflated and split ball, he practiced his keepy uppys. Soon he was joined by a group of the BA teenagers on the football pitch next to our van. We got out the wine and had supper, deciding he could have his later rather than spoil his fun. When they had to go in for a school session they promised another game tomorrow and Fred went to bed a happy boy, 16 and 17 year olds who want to hang out with you are pretty much the coolest thing in Fred’s world. I was also roundly told off for being embarrassing when I had said it was his ‘Beddy Time’. Not cool.
We woke to a warm but overcast day. Cooking, washing and blogging occupied us. Fred had his usual pancakes, for Dean I cooked the huge sausage that was in one piece, with massive tomatoes, and eggs. Two young workmen clearing the site of rubbish from the school trip the day before had a chat as they passed. Now 11am I made them up a plate to share and took it over with cutlery and napkins, explaining that this was a traditional English breakfast. Argentinians, and most South Americans, take coffee and 2 small croissants only to start the day. When they returned the plate, spotlessly clean, they were full of praise. The kids had left on their buses to work at the school and Fred managed a straight 5 hours of football practice, with a bit of reading and spelling to round off his home schooling. Dean got the BBQ lit at 3pm, starting the long and precious process of producing white hot wood ash to cook our steaks over. Everywhere you go, parks, campsites, schools, homes etc have the ubiquitous brick BBQ, many with chimmneys, all with 2 sections for different parts of the cooking process. The potatoes were sliced, salted, parboiled, and soon ready for frying. Timing meant that Fred’s dinner had to be delayed past ours, we didn’t want him to miss his last night of fun with the teenagers on the football pitch, and we enjoyed dinner for 2 over more lovely Argentinian red. The steaks were fabulous as were the chips, fried onions and grilled tomatoes. We felt very pleased with ourselves, and rather full. Washing up at the sinks soon brought out the rest of the teenagers that weren’t on the football pitch with Fred. Dean found himself surrounded by a very earnest group who were intent on talking geopolitics with a psychoanalytical approach. I decided to leave him to it as it looked as though he was in it for the long haul. With the company of a bottle of red I continued my blogging with Pink Floyd on my playlist. A delightful girl wondered over and asked if I was ok with Dean being cornered elsewhere, I thanked her for her kindness and assured her he was a big boy and would extricate himself if he wanted to. I think he rather enjoyed his status guru for the night. Amongst the introvert Argentinians he has found his inner extrovert. We were finishing the night merry just as our beautiful hosts ‘friend’ came over to say hello. Although nearly midnight we had a further hour amicably discussing Argentina, its history, Las Malvinas, tax laws and corruption. Because he had worked as a kitchen porter in England, including for the Royal Navy in Plymouth, language on his part enabled us to explore themes usually beyond us. His parents had ended up in this Northern part of Argentina to escape the military dictatorship in the 70s & 80s. Left wing, they were vulnerable and had been tipped off that they were to join the ‘disappeared’, so they disappeared before they could be ‘disappeared’. As a child his grandmother had scolded him harshly for asking what the word ‘communist’ meant, such was the potential impact of someone hearing him utter it. Unlike someone we had met in Cordoba, he assured us that the numbers that had ‘disappeared’ were 30,000 and more. It was an enlightening conversation and we enjoyed his company, enquiring curiosity, and openness with all the subjects we discussed. It also showed us, yet again, what we miss when we’ve not taken the time to learn the language of the countries we’re travelling in. Best get myself a Thai book in Australia……
We set off in the morning for Route 40, the purpose of our trip through Argentina, having had a lovely break. Hot showers, great company, peaceful location had been restorative. Our beautiful hostess came to take pictures of us and Stan for her website. I later found out I was still covered in cold crème that I’d plastered all over my face in an attempt to get some moisture back into my weather beaten skin – typical. She warmly embraced me as we said our goodbyes. What a lovely person who has made a wonderful refuge full of warmth.
We followed the Maps.me app, which quickly took us onto a gravel track. Fortunately it was just a bridging road, and after passing more small houses and estancias, we emerged onto a main road, albeit deserted. The rest of our journey to Route 40 was free of the crazy driving we had previously experienced. We zig zagged Westwards through small towns and villages finally arriving at the start of Valles Calchaquies. Just like England, narrow lanes split the lush grass, rows of variegated green trees and cowslip. To add to our sense of home, it began to drizzle and the mist came down. 50km before we had been in arid grassland now, as we ascended one of the most beautiful drives, we were in deep fog with rain for company. The winding road turned into tight hairpins that climbed steeply, soon it was a gravel track, then the gravel track became a deeply grooved one over which we bounced, or rather slid. For 20 km we climbed and then descended, all the while with no visibility at all. We took a few pictures of the foggy road for posterity. Once over the other side we burst into bright sunshine and verdant lush valley had become pink sand and giant cacti, all in a matter of a few miles. The dirt track became a perfect highway and we breathed a sigh of relief. Once across the giant cacti desert we emerged at Cachi. A beautiful indigenous town of adobe dwellings that was augmented in the 1500s with colonial architecture. The population is 90% indigenous and we caught on film an old lady sitting in the square singing a tribal song with the wonderfully squeaky voice of a 2 year old girl. We had lunch and went into the church. A dog lay amongst the pews, enjoying the cool of the stone floor ignoring the few visitors. Refreshed we set off on Route 40, which we had finally hit, for Cafayete 290km south. New tarmac had brought us into Cachi, but as we left it we were quickly back on creamy gravel. Stan does not possess bed spring suspension, nor upholstery you would wish to spend the night on. For 290km we shook and rattled along, bums and thighs sweating on the pimpled plastic seating. Not only did we have to contend with the bumpiest of rides, but also this national highway became a single track, Dean artfully slid his way around blind bends that rose and fell in one swoop. Much to our amusement, every now and again, a sign signalled that care should be taken. Every kilometer required care to be taken, with not a crash barrier in sight and vertical drops all round. Dean re-familiarised himself with the horn, which took me back to my childhood and Dad beeping his existence on Cotswold lanes overflowing with thick hedgerows and cowslip. Pleasure came in the form of the untouched communities we passed. This is still the countryside of subsistence farmers that settled on a route forged by traders centuries ago. It was trampled down by donkeys, and the donkeys remain, now wild, scattered and grazing along the road for us to see. It was Sunday late afternoon as we made this drive. All along the route families sat out on the porches and dirt patios under the shades made of cactus wood. Outdoor clay ovens smoked, and the plump colourful chickens that had escaped the pot, for today at least, roamed free. Of course dogs were everywhere, as were horses. Llamas started to appear, and as we made our way further south they became as frequent as the goats, sheep and other animals we had seen. There were few cars, we passed maybe 10 in 290km, instead scooters and horses kept us company. Most scooters were loaded with a family; baby at the front, Dad holding the handlebars, toddler behind, Mum bringing up the rear. Not a crash helmet in sight.
10km outside of Cafayete the dirt track miraculously became a brand new tarmac road. Two lanes, yellow lines in the centre, and curbs. Bliss. A local event must have been going on in another village, gouchos on horses, families loaded up on the back of flatbeds, police on bicycles were making their way home to Cafayete. We also got to see acres of vineyards, as promised by our wine merchant friend James. Absolutely shattered we headed straight for the municipal campsite 1Km out of town. We were pleased to see other vans, one German and one Swiss, and quickly got parked and set up for the night. Of course the obligatory street dogs soon arrived. Our heart was stolen this time by ‘Alberto’ a huge shaggy blonde thing. Long matted hair, not unlike mine at the moment, and a sore on his leg, with the most beautiful amber eyes. He asked for our love without shame and we fell instantly in love with him. We got the dog food out and made a water bowl, and he made his bed in the most inconvenient of places, just outside the sliding van door. That was that, he’d chosen his pitch just as we had chosen ours. Thereafter we had to step around him everytime we needed to get into the van. After a tiring journey we decided not to cook but stretch our legs with a walk into town for dinner. Fabulous local food, and the local wine did the trick. We came back to Alberto still laid beside the van, but soon up, with his paws on Dean’s chest, and a tongue in his mouth. He hasn’t lost his touch with the blondes. Midnight loo breaks found Alberto fixed to his spot. In the night dogs or people must have approached, we were woken by Alberto seeing them off. In the morning when we got up we were all greeted individually by him, Fred lovingly knocked to the floor such was his size.
With wifi on the campsite we decided to have a lazy morning and catch up on social media and contact with family. Martin, with the swiss plated VW Westie, joined us for coffee and cigarettes. With perfect English he told us about his 4 years on the road with his wife. At 45 he gave up working as a senior manager in a Paper company after having to make redundant someone he really liked and respected. They had sold everything to become travellers. We wanted to know about his Central America experiences, they’d travelled safely and cautiously through El Salvador and Honduras which have the highest murder rates in the world. We listened to him for an hour, enthralled at their experiences. He could imagine never going home and being a permanent gypsy, his wife couldn’t. It was a great conversation. I went over later with our contact details and he gave me their card. I was tickled that the German couple they had met up with after a previous encounter, and Swiss couple were enjoying a proper ‘Frustuck’ of cold meats and cheeses, deep in Argentina. I suppose it’s not much different to us keeping up our cooked breakfast tradition on the road.
Before we left we said goodbye to a clutch of dogs, aside from Alberto, a chocolate whippet with a overbite lower jaw, protruding needle teeth, and tiny amber eyes pulled at my heart. Terrified of being touched she hungrily took our food at a safe distance of one foot. The water was lapped up thirstily. I sat, at her comfortable distance, in the dirt with her. It was however Alberto who was our Cafayete dog. Like others we desperately wanted to take him home. If Dogs look like their owners than this was Dean’s.
Argentina has surprised us. Perhaps because in our first encounter the weather, cities, and people were more reticent and drab than those that came before or after. However, in our van, and out of the urban drudge, we’ve come to love a different Argentina. It moves through sprawling desert, jaw dropping geology, verdant greenery, and mountainous peaks more quickly than any place we’ve been before. Argentina needs to up its marketing, it rivals Chile but you just don’t hear about the North East the way you hear about San Pedro de Atacama. The people too have delighted us. Friendly, warm, kind and accommodating. More introvert maybe than the Brazilians and Chileans, but it’s a shyness not an aloofness, I’ve found my inner Dean. So I started with trepidation and a bit of resentment, and I ended up wanting more. And more we have had, but that will have to wait till next time.......
After the first kiss Chile continues to seduce us all and our love affair continues with this magical country. We arrived after a gruelling 11-hour drive into the dark, packed, narrow, dirt streets of San Pedro de Atacama. Lonely Planet had given us the Takha Takha hostel and campground to aim for, a lovely description, great location, and the added bonus of a pool to retreat to after a hot day exploring the sights of the driest place on earth. Of course we hadn’t booked…. But fortunately they had space in the carpark for us to pull into, and agreed a price after some haggling by Dean. Although tired we were excited by our arrival and, having put the tent up and got Fred out of his jim jams which he’d been in all day, we walked into town to find a pizza that had been promised to Fred. A tiny eat in and take away served us the most delicious thin pizzas which we washed down with non alcoholic lager, as the place had no alcohol licence. On our way back we dropped into a bar and treated ourselves to a very modest single pisco each. Eyes drooping, and the cold of the desert night having arrived, we got into bed and settled down to the wonderful noise of a town just waking up for a night of local partying 2 days in advance of Fiestas Patrias, apparently the celebrations for Chilean Independence lasts a mammoth 5 nights in most of Chile. Thinking sleep might evade us we discussed getting our earplugs out. We needn’t have worried, seconds later we were out for the count.
In the morning we awoke to find the most delightful colourful secret of gardens sprinkled around the site. It had been established by, and was still owned by an elderly Chilean lady, who has made a haven for explorers of this ancient village. A black and white photo from the 50s of her and her husband was on the wall of the reception. Immaculate in a belted sun dress, she sat nestled into the arms of her besuited husband, who sported a neat groomed moustache and slickly Brill Cremed hair, beside the Tatio Geysers. It reminded me of my grandfather who never left the house in anything less than a 3 piece suit and brogues, regardless of where he was going.
We decided that we needed a day of rest, so after a breakfast of homemade pancakes and a desperately needed shower, we settled down by the pool to read, catch up on social media, and a much required muck out of Stan the van. Dean found a local laundry shop and dropped off two bin bags of clothes. Fred, delighted to have wifi, could finally play his newly acquired Pokemon Go app. As I presume has now become familiar to readers back home, he spent most of the day wandering the large site phone in hand catching a variety of Pokemons, each one exciting him. The Raymond Chandler Big Sleep trilogy kept me entertained, as did the ice cold swimming pool that washed my sinuses thoroughly every time I dived in. After shopping for fresh veg we cooked dinner on our camp stove and then headed out into town for another evening explore. Having been pretty much alcohol free since we were in Pisco Elqui we made another Pisco pit stop. Predictably one turned into two, which turned in to three, and as an experiment we decided to see if we could wear four without a hangover. The barman seemed impressed by our efforts and we were rewarded with the most delicious platter of tender steak mignots and deep fried seafood dumplings courtesy of the house. With a promise to give a fabulous Trip Advisor review we very merrily walked the final 20 yards home to the van. We’d arrived in San Pedro with a full moon which would quash our hopes for star gazing. However every night there was a magic hour between darkness falling and the moon rising. Rather tipsy, we climbed our steps into the tent and there above us was the most glittering of starry displays.
Fresh brewed coffee from our stove pot and pancakes fixed us in the morning, no we can’t drink four Pisco Sours and not feel a little weary on waking, before we set off for the Luna Valley and Salt Flats. As we drove out of town we were treated to the range of 7 volcanoes that surround the town. Three of them remain active, and Fred couldn’t believe that he could see smoke puffing out of the most active of them. We later learnt that it erupts every year, but the regularity of its eruptions means it’s a rather undramatic affair. It only took us 15 minutes to arrive at the gate to the Lunar Valley Park. All the tourist venues are staffed exclusively by the indigenous population, and rather like the rest of South America speak no English. Nevertheless, we managed to pay, get a map and secure directions. Some help came in the form of a group of French University students on a year long placement in Santiago, that had come up to San Pedro for a break. In convey we set off into the desert on a track we had been warned not to deviate from. The map marked a series of parking spots to set off on foot to explore different geological features. First up was a narrow slit in the vast rock face that is the lunar valley. It was marked as a cave and we expected to find a small entrance quickly, how wrong we were. Instead the slit in the rock face continued for a circular mile taking us dramatically deep into sand coloured hill side. We flexed our bodies, weaving along the narrow path rock above and around us, sunlight illuminating our way until we entered the start of the cave, when we were plunged into total darkness. Fifteen minutes in and now only able to shuffle along the path sideways, due to its narrowing, and lit only by the torch on Fred’s mobile, I began to feel rather claustrophobic. Pot holing is my idea of hell. Much to Fred’s disappointment I called a halt and we doubled back. As we walked back to the car we saw a family of 3 who had completed the entire circuit. They had industrial torches in hand and were extremely dusty and dirty. Even if we had been better equipped and prepared I think I would still have bottled it!
We continued through the stops, taking pictures of the stunning landscape along the way, until we eventually came to the plateau that gives the tremendous view of the Lunar Valley. Multi coloured rock formations stare back at you, set off by the bands of salt that are ever present here, reminding me of the rainbow layered sand gifts that you’d be given after an aged aunt returned from a trip to the Scilly Islands. Although best seen at sunset, we were truly impressed by our mid afternoon visit. We bumped into Vince, an American who had lived in Santiago for the last 10 years with his family, running a high end suit making business for US customers prepared to pay $5,000. We passed 15 minutes with him and his daughter, both of whom yearned to be back in the US much to our surprise. Feeling adventurous, we took a road to our left which was marked on the map as the ruined Salt Mines. It turned into more of an adventure than we had bargained for. Clearly only suitable for 4x4s, we found ourselves bone crunchingly bouncing over the glassy bouldered track uphill with no way to turn round and head back. It took a nerve shattering 15 minutes to reach the abandoned mine and housing stock. Some hardy cyclists rested against the broken down walls. We spotted Vince and his daughter who had followed us. Clearly traumatised by the route, although in a 4x4 pick up, they didn’t stop, we saw them make a quick turn and double back. They missed a treat. This terrifying journey, and a short walk further uphill, gave us the best view of the Lunar Valley, which now opened up in a crescent below us. Fred then thought we should take the path that led into the Salt Mine. We made our way down through a gully that ended in the start of the mine which was snow white. Rather disturbingly the walls around us creaked, and having only recently watched ‘The 33’ about the buried Chilean miners, I again lost my nerve. We steeled ourselves, climbed back into Stan, and set off for our return journey to the main track. Thankful that we had only metal crockery, and once more bounced about like a ball on a roulette wheel, we got back to safe land determined to be more cautious on our next outings. The trip back down through the park afforded us more stunning views. We only wished we knew more about geology, and had paid more attention to our geography teachers, however we agreed we’d use the wifi back at Tahka Tahka to read up on what we’d seen.
By now mid afternoon, we carried on to the Cejan salt flat lake where you can swim. This was one of my must do’s of the trip, and as we wound our way along a desert track for several miles, we eventually emerged at the gate house to pay our entry. Three lakes make up this location, with one of them swimmable, and I was determined to test the claims that you can’t submerge yourself, such is the saline levels. Although the sun of the desert, and at the altitude of 2,500m is dangerous without full sun block, due to the delicate biosphere you have to wash yourself free of sunscreen, or any body products, in an ice cold shower before walking to the swimming lake. Fortunately, Fred has a UV swim vest so he had some protection. It is just stunning as you make the walk to the lake. A bright turquoise colour, it nestles in the pure white of the salt flats, which combined with the bright rainbow backdrop of the distant lunar valley, and the stunning pure blue sky is an outstanding sight. Hardly anyone was around, maybe 2 other families, and we found one of the 4 shelters giving shade. Fred and I set off for a dip first, we hadn’t expected our toes to reveal the water to be utterly freezing. Still determined we both jumped into a deep part of the lake. Shockingly cold we immediately bounced back up to the surface and sat there unmoving, suspended in the water by the salt. Not sure if Fred just didn’t read the memo, but he shot out of the water on the basis that it was salty and had just swallowed a mouthful. Dean obliged with a photo shoot from the shore, not nearly quickly enough, and once that was over we were out of the water in a flash to lap up the hot sun. Satisfied, and with some stunning photographs, we took another icy shower to rid us of the salt coating our bodies before heading back to enjoy the last of the hot sun by the pool. A long day, and the residue of 4 Pisco Sours each, made for an early dinner, with nothing stronger than water, and early night.
On Saturday we woke with excitement to the alarm we had set. This was the day we would visit the highest observatory in the world, ALMA. The visit was free but we had booked online 6 months in advance. We’ve all become very obsessed with ‘The Big Bang’ and how the universe started, evolved, and what lies in store for it. We’re an ‘arts’ minded family, and I (much to my shame) got an ‘Unclassified’ in my Physics O’level. Consequently we’ve been reading voraciously over the last 6 months the works of John Gibbons, Stephen Hawkins et al to redeem and educate ourselves on the life scientific, especially astrophysics. We walked to the bus station, where the ALMA bus would collect us. We were greeted, as we approached, by Eleanor who called out to us. She thought we looked like ALMA visitors, I suspect that was Dean’s beard, and we replied that yes we were. Being rather early we had not had breakfast. I left Dean with Eleanor and set off with Fred in search of coffees and Empanada’s as the bus wasn’t due for another 15 minutes. When the bus came there was much disappointment. Dozens had turned up hoping for places, there were none spare. Sad for them, but glad we’d booked and turned up on the right day (some had arrived weeks or days out from their booking), we set off. I got to ride the bus with Eleanor. She was charming. In her early 50s she had 2 daughters and a granddaughter that lived with her in San Pedro. From a wealthy US family that had moved to the Netherlands, she had arrived in San Pedro 30 years ago and become a guide. Things were tough for her, newly arrived ‘guides’ with no real knowledge of the area or culture were undercutting established, experienced guides. She was 3 months behind on her rent with a 12 year old to support. It turned out that Eleanor’s older daughter worked at Takha Takha and Fred later gave one of his surplus toys to her for Eleanor’s granddaughter. Eleanor had landed the ALMA tour gig after much lobbying, and hoped that the prestige of being selected would help her land more business on her newly launched website. We certainly found her a wonderful guide.
We were split into 2 groups when we arrived at the Operations Base for ALMA, a large Spanish speaking group and a smaller group of 6, which Eleanor guided, for the English speakers. The Operations Base, which includes the housing and facilities for the scientists and support staff, sits at 3,500m, whilst the dishes are positioned at 5,000m and engineers working with the dishes have to wear oxygen masks. We learnt that this international venture, involving 5 space agencies and countries, is at the cutting edge of astrophysics and astronomy. The 66 dishes are spread out over a 16km site and operate together to provide the largest span of imagery of space. Being set in the driest place on earth and at 5,000m, the highest information point in the world, ALMA can provide the clearest picture of the stars, moons, planets and galaxies beyond earth. It is not an observatory in the usual sense, there are no telescopes, instead the dishes read the radio waves, created by astral events going back billions of years, from which images are then generated via the largest non-military computer in the world (over 1M processors crunch the data). ALMA is truly at the cutting edge of discovery. We were amazed to find, as we talked to some of the scientists, that in the last 12 months they have found sugar molecules in space. Sugar is the key building block of life, and they believe that this discovery will eventually lead to evidence of other biological life forms. In one of the offices, where some of the scientists were analysing banks of screens showing live data I took the chance to ask whether they thought black holes contained something or nothing. Stephen Hawkins had postulated, in the 1990s, that black holes crunched matter to nothing and this remains one of the critical questions, what happens to matter in a black hole. I had the most marvellous 15 minutes listening them debating between themselves. Of course, they said, matter can’t go to nothing. One of them believes we will find that something comes out the back end of a black hole, possibly into another universe. It was one of the best 15 minutes I’ve ever spent, and I desperately wished I could have asked questions and listened to them for hours. They left me with the advice to follow the news closely over the next year, they are expecting a paradigm changing discovery, but they wouldn’t tell me what it was. So it’s probably worth us all subscribing to ‘The New Scientist’ forthwith! Very kindly, an engineer came into the offices with the scientists to give Fred an ALMA badge. He had seen him through his office window and had chased us down to give Fred the badge. He spent 10 minutes talking to him about his ambitions, and encouraging him to take a science and engineering route. There is a material culture of education and development of young people at ALMA. The majority of the workers are Chilean, a commitment made by ALMA in return for the Chilean government providing the site. In addition, they fund, and actively take part in, the education of local schools. They have a stated aim to develop engineers and scientists from the local population. It was impressive and enlightened, a sharp contrast to the history of colonial treatment of the indigenous population. What we also loved about this wonderful group of people was their humour. Dotted around the vast site were cartoons and white boards sporting ‘geek’ jokes, very endearing.
After our intensive educational and mind blowing experience we retired in the afternoon heat for a rest by the pool. Fred notched up a few more Pokemon’s, who knew there were so many in the desert. We also prepared Stan for our next 24 hours, where we would head up to the highest hot springs in the world. A 90Km drive uphill, into the heart of the volcano field, would take us to 5,000m. In preparation for this, determined to give ourselves the best chance of dealing with the effects of altitude (remember ALMA workers do not ascend to 5000m without oxygen canisters attached to tubes in their noses) we drank lots of water and no alcohol with another camping stove dinner, before taking a stoll out to find the music of the fiesta that was calling us on the eve of Fiestas Patrias. In the main square we found a flat bed truck loaded with musicians, surrounded by children in traditional costume dancing set dances with joy. Feet stamped in unison and white hankies waved high above their heads. A small café had a terrace overlooking the gathering. We ordered coffees and water, stopping for an hour to watch the locals in ponchos, knee high leather boots decked in silver spurs, and women in tightly corseted dresses with fulsome skirts taking to the cobbled dance floor. Our highlights were the 2 and 3 year olds throwing themselves into the mix, teenagers uninhibitedly keeping traditions going with smiling faces, and a wonderfully middle aged couple dancing a coquettish play of seduction reminiscent of voluptuous aging sopranos singing the willowy youthful Carmen. We briefly popped into the boozy hub of the fiesta at the municipal car park, but with a full day ahead of us a quick tour sufficed and we headed home.
A wonderful nights sleep and a refreshing shower set us up for the trek on Independence Day, the main national holiday. We had anticipated it would take us 2 hours to reach the Tatio Geysers. How wrong we were. We had misjudged 2 things; the stunning scenery with outstanding wildlife, and the terrible condition of the vertical hairpin road. For the scenery and wildlife we kept stopping for pictures that just had to be taken, over 24 hours we had more than a 1,000. For the road we dropped to 10Km per hour on many occasions. We crossed a rocky ford which we had to approach and leave at an angle of 30 degrees (see video) which got our nerves going again, but around the next bend a salt lake full of wild flamingos was our reward. As we worked our way up, the springs that spill out from deep below created narrow verdant valleys that iced up at the edges. The deep blue sky, rainbow geology, white of the ever present salt, was now complemented by deep green marshland around more aquamarine spring water. Pop a few stunningly pink flamingos, wild vicunias, foxes, llamas, donkeys, and vast array of birds into that landscape and you understand why we were so trigger happy with our cameras. All the mini bus tours go up to the geysers in the early morning and we gingerly avoided them as they descended. We were the only ones making the upward journey at midday. After 4 hours we reached the 5000m mark and the entrance to the Tatio Geyser park. No one was at home. A white flatbed truck was parked round the back and we eventually found a lone worker. Crushingly we discovered that the park was closed from midday, and tantalisingly we could see the geysers a mile from where we were, across the flat plateau surrounded by the tops of the puffing volcanos. Another 2 workmen appeared, after discussion between them, and confused exchanges with us, they moved the bollards blocking the park entrance and shooed us onwards with ‘Vamoos’s’, when we didn’t move and still looked disappointed, they got in their trucks and beckoned us to follow them. At the edge of the geysers they parted company and waved us on to enjoy this magical place alone.
The park has two attractions, the geysers, and the hot springs that form a pool that you can swim in. Human engineering has intervened and a natural swimming pool has been developed with the construction of a small dam. Icy cold at this altitude, we wrapped up and walked to the pool, past boiling water holes bubbling water heated at the earths core. With not a soul around we stripped and plunged into the wonderfully hot water. We swam, played and then lay still having a timed minute of mindfulness. We edged to the boiling water springs and felt the searing currents, making waves with our hands in the water to dissipate the dangerously hot water. Thankfully the altitude only slightly affected us, the lack of oxygen left us a little breathless, probably due to the slow progress of our journey up from San Pedro. Dean had the clever idea of boiling some eggs in the boiling springs, so I nipped out of the hot waters to the van and returned with sieve and eggs. 5 minutes later we were enjoying a late lunch of avocados and boiled eggs, washed down with yet more water to keep ourselves hydrated. With the van parked in sight we decided this would also be a great spot to shoot our Wicked Campers ‘get naked’ photo. Wicked Campers offices are decorated with customers stripped, but ingeniously hidden bits, in the wilds with their campers. Dean retrieved the tripod and camera and we created our family pic. I’ll leave it to Dean to decide if he posts it on this blog page as he was our main centrefold!
We had toyed with the idea of camping up at the geysers, but cautious of the severe cold we would have at night, and the possibility that prolonged exposure to the altitude may affect us, we decided to descend to a hamlet of 5 houses, thatched white washed chapel, and cemetery at 4,000m. As we made the journey back down Dean and I agreed that this had been the best day of our lives. When we had been going up past the hamlet the village’s Fiesta had been in full swing, dressed in traditional costume they were seated at red, white, and blue decorated tables, oil drum BBQ smoking away. As we arrived back in the early evening their celebrations (for the day) were over. With permission given, we set up camp in a sheltered spot and Dean went off to find bathrooms whilst I started cooking. Fred had got his football out and within seconds small, medium, and large children came tumbling out of a pick up. Dusty and dirty, the little ones wrestled one another to the ground in between playing football. They were like a joyful pack of puppies, seemingly oblivious to dust in their eyes, even the grit and odd rock that they occasionally threw at one another. As Fred played with this group of kids Dean shouted me over. I had thought that the music coming from one of the long houses was a stereo, but no, it was a cowboy hatted old boy with an acoustic guitar playing and singing the most beautiful Chilean love songs into 2 microphones, the speakers carrying the music across to me at the van. Sat next to him was the most sozzled but welcoming of companions emotionally singing along with him. We were given a cup of the local hooch, and stood there listening. It was the 4am in the morning point at a party, except it was 6pm, and we’d just arrived. It was another beautiful moment in a wonderful day and we loved that we were there for this dying moment, 2 men alone playing and singing and kept awake by coca leaves stuffed in the sides of their mouths. We declined the second drink, altitude headaches had started, and thanked them for letting us share as we left to cook and bed down.
With a stunning sunset came biting cold. We layered up in skins, jim jams, hats and woolly socks, and piled every blanket and quilt into the tent. We were looking forward to a peaceful night, free of the noise of San Pedro’s partying between 11pm and 5am, but it was not to be. I was woken by Dean screaming “Oh My God” which got me straight out of bed. Not disaster, as I had feared, but rather the stunning sight of the Milky Way right in front of us. So bright, visible and detailed I felt I could reach out and touch it. Stunned we all, including Fred who had been woken by the kerfuffle, gazed slack jawed at the sky that was so foreign to us. I’d like to say we sat and watched it for hours, but the wind had got up and it was so cold that Fred was soon crying, and I wasn’t far behind being in full possession of a splitting altitude induced headache in addition to being chilled to the bone. We bedded down again, overjoyed at the night sky and the fact that we had seen it, with Fred between us, warming him through. However the night time excitement was far from over. The wind continued to pick up and the top sheet of the tent came part free and flapped aggressively against the rest of the tent for the whole night, a wild donkey visited and decided to call to us (they are very very very loud), my headache worsened and I alternated maximum doses of ibuprofen and paracetamol through the night (my ‘Far From Help’ Wilderness Medical training course that had covered dealing with altitudes was paying off), and we all woke to drink water which then made us all need a pee. Waking very bleary eyed and poorly rested we unanimously agreed that the best day of our lives had been followed by the worst night of our lives, with the exception of our Milky Way and star gazing. We lolled in bed for a bit before cooking up more pancakes and coffee to set us up for our return journey. As we did so the mini bus tours that had made a 5am sunrise trip to the Geysers were now on their way down, stopping at our hamlet where the hungover locals were preparing llama meat on skewers over their oil drum BBQs to sell to the tourists. Between 10-11am 20 mini buses turned up. Much to our amusement they included us and Stan the van in their tour of the village. Most only asked permission and took photos, but a couple of groups stopped by for a chat, in awe at the psychedelic van with tent and ladder and curious about us. One family of 3 brothers in their 30s and their father from Santiago spent over an hour with us. They were great company and because they spoke excellent English we got the opportunity to talk to them about their extensive travelling, work in mining and banking, and Chile’s politics and economy. We parted Facebook friends and with more offers of a bed in Santiago when we drop the van off, and a commitment that Fred could come and stay with them in Santiago when he’s 18 and doing his own trips. Having enjoyed the interesting and relaxed pace of meandering conversations, with people in no rush, we felt ready to drive the remaining 3 hours back to Takha Takha and the restful oasis it had become to us.
We refuelled, checked tires, and oil levels at the gas station on our return. Picking up some more food at a local butchers and veg stand we were ready to recuperate and recharge. Eleanor’s daughter was on reception when we arrived back, and she made room for us in our old spot. We gave our report of the day before and she marvelled that we had had the Tatio Geysers to ourselves, and promised to tell Eleanor what a wonderful time we had enjoyed. Touchingly she was visibly delighted that we had found her home so magically special. The dusty clothes we had worn for the last 24 hours got a hand wash, and Stan had another clean out before we took to the pool relaxing on the loungers, too tired to even read. We passed a lovely gentle afternoon before dinner. Fred made more new friends with Sophia and Alberto on holiday from Santiago, passing a few hours with variations of Marco Polo in the pool, followed by hide and seek and other land based international kids games when the sun went down. We sat down to eat as they left to go out for dinner, but not before Instagram and FB details had been exchanged. Sophia and Alberto’s mother made another offer to host us when we get to Santiago.
This was our last night in Chile before we crossed into Argentina for 2 weeks, before crossing back into Chile to drop Stan off and flying out to Sydney. With Fred tucked up in bed we sat out and chatted over sparkling water. We have found nothing but warmth and friendship in Chile. More offers of accommodation than we could ever take up, rescued and cooked for when we got stuck in the sand, stunning landscapes and abundant wildlife, history, art, music, science and culture. At every stop dogs have joined us and kept us company, making us feel at home and useful. Friendly, gentle, curious and kind, we have fallen in love with Chileans. We read that Chileans will always ask you what you think of Chile, they want to hear if you think they, and their country, is OK. We found this to be true in all our encounters. So to our new Chilean friends who read this, yes you are OK, you are far more than OK, you’ve been wonderful and we thank you for every moment we’ve enjoyed with you. Lets hope we, in more ‘sophisticated’ societies, can find the humility to step outside of ourselves to look and learn, and ask the questions of ourselves and our society that Chileans ask. There’s a lot we can learn from you.
We crossed from Argentina to Chile over The Andes by bus, leaving cold Mendoza on a gloomy grey day and arriving 7 hours later into a hot sunny Santiago, nearly a week ago. It was a stunning ride from the flatlands of Argentina, up through a multi-coloured rocky landscape, climbing to a snowy 5,000 meters where the border crossing sits next to the chairlifts that service ski resorts for both countries. Throughout the journey the Andes towered above us at a height of 6,000 + meters, providing the most beautiful snowy backdrop to the landscapes below. The skies cleared as we started our climb out of Argentina so we benefited from crystal clear blue skies and brilliant sunshine. A border skirmish between Chile and Argentina 10 years ago has resulted in both countries maintaining a heavy military presence with numerous military camps on the route. We also read that parts of the Chilean border are still mined, mine clearance is ongoing, and not to venture out for a walk. Dean is yet again saved from hiking!
As soon as we crossed the border, a hilariously laborious and inefficient process that much amused us, the brightness of the Chilean people shone through. Not only does the sun seem to shine brighter here, but the people put a shine on everything. The houses were painted bright turquoise, yellow, green and red. Fiestas Patrias, the anniversary of Chilean Independence, is coming up on the 18th September, so each house was proudly decorated in the red, white and blue of the Chilean flag, and many had full sized flags flying at full mast in their gardens. Whether it is the climate, or just that they are more green fingered than their Argentinian neighbours, the gardens were in full multi-coloured spring time bloom.
Santiago bus station is too busy for the traffic it attracts, which resulted in the whole bus being decamped on a side street near the station. We picked up our full complement of bags, the weight of which seems to be growing, and made our way into the bus car park. We said a few more prayers as we dodged reversing double decker buses and climbed a waist high wall to safety. Having negotiated the ATM, and now with Chilean Pesos in hand we got a cab to our hostel. It was a gorgeous tropical haven in down town Santiago. Brightly painted walls provided a backdrop for the antique furniture and fittings, and funky murals covered the larger spaces. The accommodation ran around the vine clad courtyard which housed an open air bar, sofas and, much to Fred’s delight, a Football table. Our room snugly fitted a bunk bed and a single bed, decked out in stylish linens. It was our best hostel experience to date. At less than £1 a drink and £1 for a hamburger we took the easy option and stayed in to eat. Although it was dark after we had eaten we decided to venture out into town to stretch our legs, get some more cash and fresh fruit supplies. Santiago is a vibrant city, Chileans were out in force in the bars and restaurants, and we felt very comfortable walking around amongst them.
After a great night’s sleep we had our hostel breakfast with a French couple taking a year out travelling. With details exchanged we’re looking forward to receiving their spreadsheet of hostels for Thailand, they seemed to have been a bit more organised than us! Fed and topped up on coffee we said goodbye to our hostel hosts. We weren’t allowed to leave however until they had taken pictures of themselves with Fred. Apparently they don’t ever get any kids and wanted to have some shots to put on their website. Photo shoot over we walked to the main street and caught a cab to the Wicked Campers Depot to collect our home for the next month.
Paperwork took about an hour and then we were taken into the yard to meet ‘Stan’ our 6 seater graffitied campervan. A riot of colourful art decorates Stan, we have since found out that the lettering on both sides “Lican Peyote Style”, along with the accompanying art, celebrates the hallucinogenic qualities of cacti. No wonder we have been greeted with chuckles wherever we have gone, and requests for photos. As we were picking Stan up we met 2 Austrian mountain climbers returning their vehicle. They’d just completed summiting a 6,000-meter mountain in the Andes and some ski touring. They gave us some great advice on where to pick stuff up, maps to download, and places to get showers and camping gas which has proved really helpful in our first week.
Dean drove Stan out of the depot and into the Santiago traffic. We picked up our first set of camping supplies for the van and set off for Walmart to get food, our last stop before our first night destination, a small fishing village called Horcon just north of Valparaiso. We missed the Walmart turning and found ourselves outside Santiago with no food supplies. As we approached the last village on Route 5 we pulled in to see if we could find a roadside market. We were in luck. Although sparsely stocked in the tiny store, we got the essentials and then followed the shopkeepers directions to a roadside fruit and veg stall. Having spent £80 between the 2 local traders we were extremely pleased that we had missed the Walmart junction and spent pesos in the village.
We arrived in Horcon by early evening and were greeted by the sight of bright sun shimmering on the aquamarine Pacific. A tiny fishing village on a crescent bay, we abruptly came to the sea front. Fishing boats were lined up on the sand 5 feet from where we stopped. There seemed no where for us to go in this toy town destination (much smaller than I had thought it would be) and it looked like our first night plans were going to go horribly awry. Two fishermen, chuckling at our van, approached us and I asked, using one of the phrases I had learnt from Fred’s Latin American Spanish phrase book given to us by Pablo, if there was anywhere we could park and camp. Smilingly they directed us between some ramshackle wooden buildings to the right. We drove 10 meters and found a sand covered yard half the size of our garden where a wall lined the seafront and the fish gutting tables were laid out. We backed the van in and admired the view over the sea, hoping for a low tide that would keep us on terra ferma through the night. Slightly nervous about being so exposed to the elements we opted to set up the bedding in the van rather than erect the roof top tent. As we did so flocks of herons, pelicans and seagulls flew around us. A van pulled up to the wall and out jumped a fish merchant, throwing back into the sea his unsold produce. Even more birds arrived and we were incredulous at the amazing sight of the mixed flock surfing the waves below the wall, flying overhead, catching fish in full flight, and even more joyfully taking from the hand of the fishmonger. Show over and sun setting we set off for an explore.
Horcon has a population of about 200 and we passed most of them as we enjoyed the evening sunset over the ocean and stunning scenery. Friendly smiles and ‘Hola’s’ made us feel very welcome. The explore of the bay only took us 10 minutes, but it was truly gorgeous. We decided to be lazy and treat ourselves to some local seafood. We passed Paulo smoking on the steps of his restaurant. With a jaunty neckerchief, suave moustache and beard, and stylish impoverished artist look we decided to see if he was open. He took us in and, now that he had customers, he turned on the lights and handed us menus. Pisco Sours was our drink of choice and we let Pablo choose our food. With our Pisco’s we were served small homemade flatbreads accompanied by a pile of cut lemons and a dish of chili, onion, garlic and herb tapenade. Pablo showed us how to prepare it, cut and butter the warm flatbread, smear a tiny amount of the tapenade on the buttered flatbread, finish by squeezing the fresh lemon onto the tapenade. It was gorgeous. The combination of the chili and lemon was new to us and we’re definitely bringing it home with us. The fish was as much of a triumph. We had 2 different plates, both landed in the bay that morning. Served with a salad and a small amount of frittered potatoes. With our glasses drained of Pisco we asked Pablo to choose a wine for our fish and he brought out 3 bottles talking us through them. We went with his recommendation of the mid priced vine from 5 miles away. The whole splash out meal and drinks for the three of us cost £40. By now we were best of friends with Pablo who told us how he had moved from Santiago with his family because his daughter had terrible asthma in the city. She has none now. Facebook details exchanged, and sorry that we couldn’t take up his offer stay another night and meet his family for dinner and drinks at his house, we promised to stay in touch.
We merrily headed back to our van and were stunned to find parked up next to us the most magnificent, muscular, pure white horse. Utterly bizarre and utterly enchanting. Fortunately, we had bought apples on our fruit and veg shop, so we chopped them up and made friends with the snow white beauty who was to be our neighbour for the night. We sat out for a bit and people passed by on their way back home from a night out, we greeted them and they us. The elderly local drunk passed us merrily several times rasping smiling greetings to us and engaging us in conversations that were beyond us, I’m pretty sure they would have been beyond anyone. The owner of the horse, all beaming smiles, full on a tipple or two, also came by with a bucket of food. We found out that she was called Rosalind, but little else due to our language limitations. Happy, we finally we settled down into our den, three peas squashed into a pod, lulled to sleep by the sounds of the sea, and comforted by the presence of our white steed to guard over us.
Waking came with the van rocking from side to side rather violently. Disorientated it took a few seconds to remember where I was, what I was in, and to figure out that our equine neighbour had found and itch and decided that it was best satiated using the driver’s side of the van. We got up and shared an apple with Rosalind by way of a good morning. Inspection showed the wing mirror folded in and the drive’rs door decorated with white hairs but no damage done. Around us the work had already started. The first catches must have been landed because along the harbour wall the gutting tables were in use. An elderly chap with a wonderful handlebar moustache was working away with pelicans sat around him. The excess he held out to them and they took greedily. No waste for the landfill in this town. Children made their way to school as we washed the wine of the night before away with freshly brewed coffee. Fresh eggs and bread rolls were prepared on the camping stove, cue jokes (we think) about whether we would cook for the workers alongside us. A rather smart lady came by and offered us use of bathroom facilities. Other women came to the fish gutting table and bought the mornings catch just prepared, walking away with it wrapped in old newspaper.
Once dressed we walked the 20 meters to where the fishing boats sat and there were the horses pulling in the boats. I’d read in an old out of date guide book that this is one of the few places that is left where this practice continues, rather than use tractors. I had assumed that it would no longer be the case. What a surprise and it was wonderful to watch. It seemed that the entire male population of Horcon was on the seafront at this time of day. Old men sat or stood around in groups chatting, others were working the fishing boats and catches, some prepared the fish. It was a time warp and I was so grateful to have experienced it. I went back to the van and left Fred and Dean to have some man time with the locals. Fred had a lesson on all the fish they had caught that morning; star fish, hake, sting rays, sword fish, eels etc from a couple of the men. Apparently Fred met all the locals that morning as they asked him to go around a shake hands with each of them.
Before we left we walked down to the end of the bay where the rock pools were accessible. We were stunned to see vast quantities of fresh mussels and other shellfish everywhere. What a rich biodiversity they have here. We bought a few bits of local jewellery from a stall as momentos, and a thank you to Horcon and left to cheery smiles and ‘Adios’.
Next stop was inland and up Route 5 at the thermal baths of Soca. We got there a lot earlier than expected and discovered there was a campsite next to the baths. It was entirely empty but at the hotel next to the campsite they assured us we could let ourselves in and someone would come round. We opted to try the thermal waters immediately at the bargain price of £10 for all 3 of us. Dean was then totally thrown when he discovered that, unlike the Hot Springs of Nelson, he would actually be in a bath with us. Fred thought the whole thing was terribly exciting. We convinced Dean that all his achy ailments would be miraculously healed by the bath. Quite a feat given that Dean hates baths, and if forced to take them likes them tepid. In less than salubrious surroundings we stepped into a very large bath tub of steaming water and pushed the Jacuzzi button. None of us had washed for 2 hot, sandy, dusty, sea salty days. It was blissful to wash that all away and be massaged by the jets. After an hour we showered, washing our hair, and looked embarrassed at the black tide marks and exfoliated skin we were leaving behind in the drained bath. But fresh as a daisy we left for the campsite, free ice given to us by the hotel for our cool box.
When we got the campsite we found another tent pitched and wandered over to check if we were in mozzie land or not. Much hilarity ensued when after broken Spanish all round we discovered they were New Zealanders. We enjoyed our first conversation with native English speakers for a week which was a joy. They were undertaking a bike tour through Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina covering 100km a day for 10 weeks. Amazingly it turned out they had met the same Quebec couple in Boliva that we had spent time with in Mendoza. Small world when you’re travelling.
Dean slept in the tent up top and Fred and I shared a more roomy night in the van. After another comfy great nights sleep we cooked up a breakfast and coffee before leaving for the other purpose of this stop, the Petroglyphs at the Valle del Encanto. The Petroglyphs were created by the aboriginal Polynesian settlers, who had made their way from Polynesia, stopping to populate Easter Island, before setting off across the Pacific for the unknown, finally landing in Chile. We pulled off the main road and followed the signs down a dusty track. Guinea pig like creatures scuttled into the fields as we approached, we’ve no idea what they were but they were shy and delightful sporting long tails. After a bumpy 4KM we came to a barrier and Clemence warmly welcomed us. Apparently we needed to follow him into his wooden shack and sign some papers before we could go into the historical site. My Spanish is now enough to be able to understand some basics, including where are you from. When I replied England I was greeted with a long list of famous English people, of which the first and much repeated was Margaret Thatcher! Paperwork over and map in hand we headed down a steep track into the deep valley. There are 3 main areas where the petroglyphs were created between 200-600AD which we needed to walk between to see. We set off with sturdy shoes, and as we did so another park worker found us and beckoned us to follow him. A private tour of the entire site followed, taking us to places we would never have found and on a death defying route that the National Trust would never endorse! Salvador revealed to us stunning primitive carvings on huge boulders in this ceremonial site. We learnt that the carvings were either of ceremonial leaders, stick men with elaborate headdresses, or robotic aliens, one arm up and one arm down sporting 3 antennae and 3 legs. The aboriginals believed that there were aliens in space populating the stars they could see at night, and they came to this valley to perform rituals celebrating their celestial neighbours who controlled the rain and sun. Intriguingly, in the park other carvings had been made mapping the night sky. Here they had bevelled out deep circles into the rock face. Each boulder was a different star map. One for Earth, Sun and Moon, another for the universe that they could see with the naked eye. Of course they also had a ‘devil’, the anti hero for alien deities, which was represented though a deeply bevelled out face. Finally we got to see, in the hidden depths of the valley (where we climbed and made leaps across huge rock faces) a ceremonial bath. A rock the size of a bungalow had been eroded by spring water over millions of years to create a deep, deep hollow. We could see right into it and there at the bottom was a pool of water, in the midst of desert land, and in this ginormous hollowed out rock was a ‘seating area’. We thanked Salvador for a wonderful tour and gave him a tip which was much welcomed. As we set off for our drive to the next stop for the night we chatted and pondered over the way different cultures explored, populated, and developed. We felt lucky that we saw these ancient, intriguing artworks alone in the middle of nowhere, with a wonderful guide. Yet another amazing day and successful school trip for Fred!
We headed into La Serena, another coastal town but it proved a real disappointment. The sea front reminded us of Zeebrugge / Dunkirk. White bland apartment blocks and an endless boulevard with no character. Although we were getting to dusk we turned around and headed back through La Serena and out onto the road that would take us to Pisco Elqui, our stop for the next day. We decided we would try and find a quite side road and look for somewhere to guerrilla camp. A sign to a village took us up hill on a dirt track and seemingly into nowhere. On the verge of turning back we suddenly spotted a garage forecourt sized triangular patch of flat ground half way down a valley that seemed like common land. As it was now nearly dark, and we had been warned to keep off the road when dark due to bad driving and poor adherence to the zero drink drive laws, we parked up. Just as we did so a pick up came up the hill to where we were. I flagged him down asked with my, by now fluent, Spanish sentence if anyone would mind terribly if we stopped there just for one night. Smiling and laughingly he said not at all. Relieved to have the permission of at least one local we decamped and got the cookers on whilst Dean sorted out the van. Just to be on the safe side we opted to sleep together in the locked van. As I cooked it became apparent that we were parked on an interchange between 3 ‘end of the world’ villages. Cars came past on 3 sides, sometimes dropping off someone so they could walk the rest of the way. Each time they did they slowed, waved and shouted honked their horns, and we waved in our best enthusiastic English way. A lovely couple who had been dropped off walked down past us and we had a lovely exchange, most of which I didn’t understand, but I think they were worried that we didn’t have a toilet and offered for us to go up to their house if we wanted to (but I’m not sure!). Fred decided that he would be in charge of the toilet and set about digging a hole in a suitable place with the shovel we had bought for exactly that purpose. Pleased with his work, and wearing the high vis jacket, he then set about levelling our exit route for the next morning. After a delicious campfire dinner we made the most of some lovely Chilean red before settling down for the night. Deep sleep was broken by the disconcerting noise of something rather large jumping about on our roof. Dean and I were both woken by it, but quickly decided that we had no desire to grapple with any local wildlife, and it soon made a noisy exit. Morning proved that our rubbish bin, hanging on the wing mirror, had been ample attraction for a fox or something similar!
We took our Sunday breakfast on the dusty terrace we had claimed, overlooking the villages below and around us, and got to meet more of the locals. The couple from the day before walked passed, asking if we had a good night, and then back again with shopping, from goodness only knows where. As they did their last pass they asked if they could take a photo of our van and then wanted photos with us in front of the van. A warm and joyful experience yet again in Chile. As we left our camping spot we took a picture of a sign just above us ‘Welcome to San Valentin’, very apposite.
Of course you can’t come to Chile and not experience Pisco Elqui, the home of the Pisco grapes. This was our next stop and we set off into the sunshine looking forward to a meander through ancient villages off the beaten track. En route we came across an enormous dam and pulled into a car park so we could walk up to the footpath at the top of the dam. The snow covered Andes again framed stunning scenery, and we marvelled at the engineering. We made a fuel stop at Vicunia and as we left the small colonial town we spotted a couple of lads on the road side and decided to ask directions for Pisco Elqui. Turned out that they were hitchhiking, very common here where everyone gives lifts, and one of them was looking for a ride to Pisco Elqui and the other to be dropped on the way there. Fred shuffled along and Angelo and Taco jumped in. The next 40 minutes we chatted, courtesy of fairly good English on their part, and learnt a bit about them and the area. Fred had been in search of a football so we asked Angelo if there was somewhere we could buy one in Pisco Elqui. Turned out that Angelo was about to play in a local football derby in about an hour’s time, hence his return home, and he showed us where to go to watch. We then dropped him at home and had a drive around to orientate ourselves before making our way in the van down to the ground. Fabulous new facilities had been built combining school, leisure centre (with pool, basketball courts, sports hall etc), and an astro turf football pitch replete with stadium seating and wooden slatted shade.
A surprising number of the town had turned out, nearly filling the stand. The only non locals we were treated with curiosity but welcomed. We found a shady spot in the stands and settled down with sandwiches we had made in the van. Of course in this hospitable, and wonderfully friendly country, it wasn’t long before we made friends. A group of local men settled beside us and were soon throwing out the names of English football teams and players. Drinking is banned in the stadium and 6 local police were on duty for this village Sunday Derby (2 teams from the same village), however they had snuck some in and were soon offering it to us. Dean did the duty for our team, one of us had to drive later to find somewhere to camp, and was soon best of mates. At regular intervals they would shout “DEEEEEEN” and much amusement followed each time. There were 2 matches played, second teams and then first teams. It was clearly a very serious annual derby, much shouting and riotous jeering and cheering depending on who had scored. Both matches were fast moving and full of skill, a total of 10 goals over the 2 matches. At half times and between the matches the kids came onto the astro turf pitch. Fred joined in and soon was best of friends too with some kids from the opposition. His efforts were rewarded with cries of “WEEYYNNE ROOOONEEEEE’ from Dean’s new best friends. Despite sitting with the losing side for both matches we had a wonderful time and set off to find a stop for the night. Before we did so we met an ex-professional footballer who had spent 2 seasons playing for Auckland FC in NZ. More joy for Fred.
We opted to stop in a campsite for the night that nestled deep in the valley, but walking distance into town. I cooked next to a babbling river that we had had to cross, on a rickety wooden bridge, surrounded by mountains turning pink with the setting sun. Tummies full we headed out to find some Pisco Sours in the home of Pisco. We found a wonderful rooftop bar and had the most delicious cocktails made by someone who’s name we did know, but after a few Pisco’s too many, we have forgotten! We chatted with him and a few more locals who gave us tips on places to visit in Chile and Argentina. Angelo had invited us to hear him play that night at a party but despite being giddy on the wonderful Pisco’s we headed home, admiring the glittering stars in the crystal clear sky.
None too bright the next morning I cooked up some French toast with scrambled eggs and stale bread that I soaked whilst I showered. A pretty tasty and hearty breakfast inside us, and a bucketful of coffee and we made our tracks. On the drive up the Elqui Valley I’d missed most of the scenery talking to Taco and Angelo. On the way down, which is probably the better view, it was revealed in all its contrasting colours; sharp bright blue sky, pink rocky mountains and the lush green of the valley vines. Very little tourism exists in the villages of the valley, instead we encountered men on their horses carrying trays of eggs and other produce, and locals milling about their business.
We headed back to Route 5 and soon passed back into scrub land before hitting the desert that runs along the Pacific. A supplies stop in La Serena broke our 6 hour drive to Bahia Inglesa. Its known for its pure white sand and crystal clear waters, as well has having been named after the English Buckaneers that settled it in the 1500’s. Full to heaving in summer time (Jan and Feb), it was deserted when we arrived at dusk. We drove around a bit looking for somewhere to park and stopped a couple of chaps with a van who directed us to the beach. We drove down but thought better of it, fearful of getting stuck in the sand and then washed away at high tide. Some lights along the long sandy bay drew us to try further along, on the road! Coming to a dead end, next to a large building I decided to turn round, only to take us off the road and into the sand. A less than agile gearbox (if I can claim mitigation) and I stalled it in the sand. Despite knowing better I managed to then bury the rear passenger wheel a foot deep. Whilst Dean, less than happy, inspected my damage I dashed across the road to where a could see a couple of people standing in a yard. A better turn of luck we could not have had. Victoria spoke perfect English and quickly got a couple of lads to help us using their 4x4 pick up. With a few of us pushing and a powerful Dodge RAM van pulling we were quickly out of the sand. Victoria then insisted we should stay on the campsite that we were outside and took me to the managers house, and negotiated a cheap rate. Having parked up Victoria then took us inside the cafeteria where a team of cheery, merry chefs were packing up from a week of looking after 250 mountain bikers who had taken part in a mountain bike desert race. Cristian, the head chef, slapped some huge steaks, sausages and loin of pork onto an indoor BBQ, threw drinks in our hand and made sure we had everything we could possibly want. It was beyond hospitable and unbelievably kind of them, the food was just stunning, the best steak I’ve ever tasted. Fred, having acquired his football in La Serena, made friends with the other chefs who knocked the ball around with him much to his delight. Eventually we said our goodbyes and retreated to our van for a much needed nights sleep, very grateful for the unbelievable kindness of strangers.
The next morning the team had flown home to Santiago and we awoke to a deserted campsite with the most stunning setting. We took a walk down the long beach to the village, bought a local paper which had details of the accident we had passed when we were heading north (a bus and a truck collided on the south bound carriage way and looked pretty serious), and had a coffee. Ready for an early lunch we found a lovely beachside restaurant and I opted for the Thai chicken red curry soup, Dean the seafood soup. Both were amazing yet again, Chileans really do know how to cook. As we left 2 dogs joined us, a blonde and a motley black dog. We patted and stroked them, soon they were following us. We collected the most amazing array of seashells, shellfish, coral and vibrant seaweed, still with dogs in tow. They ran ahead and we expected them to eventually turn back, they didn’t. For the next 24 hours they stayed with us. We had bought some dog food in La Serena, because we didn’t want to feed unsuitable food to stray dogs, like those we had given food to in Horcon. When ‘Dusty’ and ‘Smokey’ negotiated the campsite dogs and made their way to our van, Fred and I cracked open the dry dog food and made a water bowl from one of our pans. They hungrily devoured 2 servings before I called a halt to let their stomachs settle. Over the next 24 hours they followed our every move, sitting at my feet as I wrote, following Dean and Fred as they wandered the site, and sleeping outside the van in sand beds that they dug out to protect themselves from the wind. The guarded us and their patch from the campsite dogs, Dean had to make a midnight flashlight foray to give our new friends some peace. We were greeted every time with happy tails wagging and shy lowered heads beckoning a fuss. We loved, fed, and watered them throughout our 24 hours together, but it was still with a broken heart that we left them. In the shower, before I parted, I sobbed more than I think I have at anything imagining a shattering of hope that we had mistakenly given them. I wished with all my heart they had left us in the night and not shown a loyalty that we could not reciprocate. They will stay with me for a long time. The saving grace was they did not follow us down the road as we pulled out, I hope they may find a new home at the campsite…..
Our next stop was San Pedro de Atacama in the far North East. With little to draw us to stop between Bahia Inglesa and San Pedro, we had decided to do the 1000km drive in one go. With an early start, for us, of 9am we hoped to make it by nightfall. The drive was stunning yet again. We were quickly into the desert, first along the Pacific and then inland. Stunning geology and geography made the drive a lot easier. On the sobering side we passed memorials every few kilometres to those killed on the road. Route 5 has been hugely invested in and is now in great condition, apart from a few areas where we had bone crunching dirt track detours, because the road improvement continues. We’ve since learnt that Chileans believe that those who meet a violent end have confused souls that can’t pass to the afterlife. Therefore they build memorials and houses for the soul left at the place that the person died, to which families of the deceased make regular pilgrimages, even sleeping there. Judging by the upturned cars left abandoned, and the literally thousands of memorials passed, there’s been a lot of lives lost on Route 5.
Full up on stunning scenery we left Route 5 and passed through Calama on Route 23 out to San Pedro. We were racing against the dark, but despite this when we came over the brow of a hill just before San Pedro we unexpectedly saw the Valley de Luna in all its sunset multi coloured glory. Bad timing for getting to our campsite on time, but great for the vista. In the dark we negotiated the back streets of San Pedro, dirt tracks between single storey red mud houses. After a few wrong turns, and trying to drive down the main street Caracoles that is pedestrianised, we arrived at the Takha Takha Hostel and Campsite. What a blissful place this has turned out to be…………!
So I’m writing this in the early morning sat on the terrace of the gorgeous Sant Matre Hostel up in the hills of Santa Teresa overlooking, what must be the most beautiful city in the world, Rio. Birds of all colours and sizes; tiny emerald humming birds, thumb sized golden canaries, and multi-coloured parrots, are singing to one another, and I can hear the cheeky family of monkeys (marmosets that feature in the film ‘Rio’), who live in the palm, mango, banana, and avacodo trees getting ready to steal breakfast from the tables when everyone else gets up. I got up early because I wanted to do Rio justice in my blog, and write it when it still surrounds me.
As news of the Zika virus broke in 2015 we’d curtailed our planned Brazil and northern South America trip, swapping it for Canada and the USA. However, we needed to keep Rio because it was Fred’s ‘deal breaker’, this is a boy who supports Brazil rather than England at football, wearing his Neymar number 10 shirt with pride. As we travelled through the USA, catching the Olympic coverage in the press and on TV, we started to get a little nervous. Our nasty LA motel experience, quickly followed by the Lochte gunpoint robbery in Rio, with the associated alarmist reporting, only served to heighten this anxiety. We, and the press, couldn’t be more wrong. And neither, as it turns out, could Lochte. This is a city of extreme beauty, vibrant diverse culture, gentle and welcoming people, and a natural exuberance for living a joyful life.
(For those of you who don’t know Ryan Lochte the US Olympic swimmer went out, got hammered, picked up some young girls, vandalised a gas station including urinating on it, then because his Mum and girlfriend wanted to know why he didn’t come home he made up a story that he and his mates were held up at gunpoint. His mum then reported this in a Fox News interview and the whole thing blew up. Lochte couldn’t get out of his lie and compounded it, getting all his team mates to join in the lie, which then grew. Cue hysterical reporting about how dangerous Rio was, all based on a grown up man not being able to tell his Mummy the truth. Pleased to say his sponsors have dropped him and he’s subject to a criminal prosecution.)
Having procrastinated about where to stay in Rio, Dean found the Santa Teresa district. It sits above Rio, the magnificent houses were built in the 1700s by rich Portuguese merchants, set into the tree filled hillside, giving rise to stunning views of the beaches, mountains, and working city below. As the fashionable Copacabana and Ipanema districts developed in the 1900s, the middle classes moved out of the stucco, Grecian columned, colourful houses, into modern white tower blocks. Crime followed and the buildings fell into disrepair. In the last 10 years the district has seen a resurgence. Artists, musicians, and artisan crafters have moved into the cheap accommodation, and tiny bars and terraced restaurants started to open again. The old tram line that runs on the old cobbled streets, which have gradients that defeats cars when there is rain, reopened using the original trolley cars. Slowly, a few hostels and hotels appeared. A great Trip Advisor rating pointed us to this hostel, just in budget for a private family room. It came with the bonus of a pool, and a covered veranda with ping pong table and snooker table.
So to Rio. We arrived shattered, after an overnight 9 hour flight from Miami, at 8am. After unpacking for our 5 night stay, we decided that we needed to stretch our legs and get some fresh air. We’d met Janet from New Zealand at breakfast, who had been here for the Olympics, and recommended a walk down to the city. We set off through the tiny winding cobbled streets, grateful that we were going downhill and wondering how on earth we would manage the steep walk back up. Murals, and less creative graffiti tags (the task is clearly to get them as high up the building as seems impossible) covered the neo classical buildings and it reminded me of Havanna. We passed the first of the artist studios, restaurants and cafes, and it was clear that we had found the ‘real’ Rio. We decided to keep on going and soon we were in the heart of ‘Gloria’ with not a tourist in sight. Because we were only really familiar with the images of affluent Copacabana and Ipanema and the run down Flavela’s, it was refreshing to see this part of Rio, the old heart of the city. It’s a surprisingly impoverished economy, with incomes running at a subsistence level. Small shops sit happily with street sellers trying to make a living by recycling stuff that wouldn’t be accepted on a village fete stall. Mothers with babies sit on the street selling a bag of onions, avocados, tomatoes and other produce that they’ve grown or collected. There was a scattering of homeless people sleeping on the pavement, police stood by but not moving them on. Interestingly they were not begging, and locals dropped food and money for them without being asked. We parted with some apples that we had just bought. After a good explore we headed back up the hill and stopped midway for lunch. A set menu of Northern Brazilian food; steak, rice, blackeyed beans, cous cous like maize and salad, revived us and we finished our walk home. Although only 4pm we fell into bed and had an almighty sleep.
The next day was hot, but not a crystal clear sky, so we decided we’d save our trip to Christ the Redeemer and do some other sightseeing instead. We set off on foot for ‘The Ruined House’ and local art museums. The ‘Ruined House’ was a grand residence owned by a collector of art who ran one of the most glamourous ‘salons’ from his home. At some stage it fell into disrepair and instead of renovating it, the city brought in an architect to shore up the foundations and put in glass walkways so you can walk up, and through, the shell that remains. Three photo shoots were going on whilst we were there, which added to our fun. On our way back from our sightseeing we bumped into a man who owned 4 VWs that were sat on his drive. He enthusiastically spoke to us in Portuguese but again language got in the way of a fuller exchange. We all nodded enthusiastically, signalling our agreement that VWs were the best!
On our walk home we opted for a very late lunch / early dinner at a local seafood restaurant. A couple of Cipriani’s warmed us up for a stunning meal. The prices were surprisingly high, so we found a cheap selection on the menu. They still didn’t disappoint. Dean had the seafood soup and it was incredible. It was a bowl full of prawns, mussels, white and red fish, in a lovely bouillon beautifully flavoured. To top it off an enormous Langoustine crowned it.
The hotel had a lovely man, Fernando, who would drive you around even more cheaply than the very cheap city taxis. Fernando spoke not a word of English, but he was a delightful and kind man, sharing his sweets and patting Fred every time he saw him. Fernando took us to see Christ the Redeemer on our third day, this time a beautiful clear day. Our drive was 20 minutes of more insane driving around us, and again we were grateful we didn’t need to drive through Rio. We had an hour to kill before we could board the old train up the mountain so we had a look around the museum of ‘naïve art’. On the second floor a vast mural wound its way along the ceiling. It told the story of Brazil from its discovery by the Portuguese, and alongside the mural a comprehensive history of Brazil was provided, covering its economic foundations, move from monarchy to republic, up to the present day. History lesson over we made our way to the train and up the mountain. We took the lift from the train to the base of the statue and it really is stunning. The statue is just vast, and it has been positioned to give the best 360 degree view of Rio. We took a heap of pictures and then went into the small chapel built in the base. The pious lay prostrate before the alter and we, along with others, sat in the chairs provided to have a quiet moment.
A city taxi took us back into Santa Teresa, more insane driving, where we ate in one of the small restaurants at dirt cheap prices. More Cipriani’s and conversation with a couple of professors from the university made for a fun afternoon, and a better understanding of modern day Brazil. Fred found some kids outside with a flea ridden golden Labrador cross puppy, cue lots of cuddles and one happy boy. We walked off the cocktails, then a game of pool and a session on the ping pong table finished our day.
Of course you can’t come to Rio and not do the beaches, so the next morning Fernando drove us to Ipanema and we settled into some chairs to people watch. Of course on our way we passed a few crumpled cars, and Fernando drove with aplomb tutting at the poor driving. Despite being mid-week the beach was full to bursting of locals. Football, volleyball, beach tennis, surfing all went on around us. The football skills on the beach were astounding. Groups of men and girls volleying a football between them in a circle, a cliché but true, they can play football. A continuous flow of beach sellers marketed their wares; bikinis, food, cocktails, portable bbqs to cook for you at your feet, toys, ice creams, the list was endless. They were respectful and helpful, and trade was good for them. Cheap prices mean that Rio locals don’t bring anything to the beach except their towels, buying food and drink throughout the day from these hard working people. Fred and I played in the surf, but the waves were powerful so we kept close to the shore. Later our caution was proven to be correct. We had just gone back into the water when we saw someone become agitated, his friend had got into difficulty and was 2 sets of waves back. The lifeguards had disappeared, we joined him in running back up the beach for help. Someone spotted the lifeguards walking slowly in our direction and we all jumped up and down screaming for them to come. They took an endless time to realise that they were being called, but finally broke into a sprint. At the water’s edge they put on their flippers and dove into the surf. The swimmer had disappeared beneath the waves. Eventually we saw that a surfer had paddled over to him, pulled him out of the water and onto his board. The lifeguards brought him back in and laid him onto the sand. Thankfully he was ok. The Brazilian lady who had helped us get the lifeguards hugged me. Dean and I had only just been talking about the terrible Camber Sands drowning of 5 young men the day before in England, it was easy to see how quickly these thing happen. I was rather shaken by the whole thing, but it was a good life lesson for Fred. We distracted ourselves with bat and ball, and sandcastle building; much to Fred’s amusement a small Brazilian girl came and joined him to help out. Not a word was spoken but they played alongside one another, very sweet.
That night we treated ourselves to dinner and dancing at ‘Rio Scenario’, a hip nightspot for Brazilians. They happily let Fred in, he was the only child there, and we sat down to a wonderful meal. A succession of bands played Samba with the floor filling each time, showing us how it’s done. My favourite was the groovy 80-year-old who circled the tables, catching a dance with lots of young beautiful women. Fred got Dean and I up for a turn, we did our best to not look like flat footed Brits. I then had the extra treat of Fred taking a turn with me. I don’t think the Repper’s did too badly!
Our final day saw us explore the ‘Museum of the Future’ which sat on the waterfront. A stunning sculptural building, it contained a multimedia collection reflecting our ecological and cultural history, and forecasting the future. More knowledgeable about how to preserve our scarce resources, Fred is now rationing toilet paper and how long we can stand in the shower…….
A walk along the sea front took us past the main Naval installation and training ground. We passed submarines and naval vessels, all very impressive up close. Sailors, dressed in Popeye bell bottoms, bib shirts and white hats that made us chuckle, walked amongst us. With a few more sights to see we grabbed a cab to the modern cone shaped Cathedral. Inside we saw how the four stained glass sides come together to form a cross, which is the roof, and in turn the glass cross in the roof creates a cross on the floor at the heart of the Cathedral. A walk to the antiques shops in Lapa took us past the arched viaduct and Carnival Stadium, more sights from the film ‘Rio’ we could tick off. With lots of sightseeing under our belt we were ready for the now obligatory Cipriani’s, and a bite of food. At the heart of Lapa is an interchange of 5 streets, each with bars that mark the corner. We picked one of these that had been beautifully restored, with the upper floor removed giving double height to the ceiling. Yet more great food, drinks and service kept our warm glow about Rio going.
It was with a sad heart that I woke on the day we were leaving, the day I started this blog entry. So with an early start I got up to make the most of the beautiful weather, stunning vista from the terrace, and company of the monkeys, birds et al. We all had a lovely morning relaxing before our midday check out. Fernando drove us to the airport. As he did so we hit traffic a few miles out from the hostel and queued with the cars, as motorcyclists weaved in and out. Eventually we came up alongside the cause of the delay, the horrendous sight of a motorcyclist dead on the road. I just managed to turn Fred away before he saw it, but I’ve been left haunted by the broken contorted body of a chubby middle aged man.
I loved Rio, it’s a beautiful place with wonderfully warm, kind, outgoing, but gentle people. It may be dangerous if you choose to find danger, but not at all if you have an ounce of sense. The biggest risk probably comes on the road or with the sea, but then that’s true of any city or seaside resort in England. Ignore The Daily Mail and Fox News, I doubt their reporters have ever experienced the place; too much bigotry and fearfulness. Finally shame on Lochte. I hope that people will forget his made up story, I suspect they won’t…. So come to Rio and tell others to. I’ll be coming back; I suspect quite a lot!
After our rich, diverse and exhausting LA trip we retreated to the quiet charm of San Clemente for a night en route to stay with friends near San Diego. We pulled off Highway 1 into this surfers paradise and immediately found a motel, The Boutique Ocean Motel, run by a delightful couple who had left Iran when the Shah fell from power in 1981. It was a short walk to the beach and Fred and I dove into the surf whilst Dean took a stroll around the pier taking photos. We played beach tennis, built sandcastles, and swam until sunset, enjoying the atmosphere of families chilling our around fire pits provided by the town.
A steep walk back up to the motel gave us a bit more much needed exercise before I headed off to get dinner from a grocery store. After a good night’s sleep Dean picked up some take out coffees and breakfast that we enjoyed on the sidewalk terrace of the motel. As we weren't due at our friends till mid afternoon, and I was very behind on my blogging, so we stayed there until 1pm when we set off for Carlsbad and another beautiful coastal journey.
Our friends from Flaine, in France, hosted us for a wonderful 3 nights. In a quiet and peaceful neighbourhood, we enjoyed the communal pool, visited beaches for breakfast and sunsets, and had an abortive trip to San Diego. Traffic got the better of us, and on the outskirts we turned around and headed back. I guess that San Diego will have to have its own trip, people rave about it, so we'll save it for another time. It was lovely to enjoy the company of friends not strangers for a while, you don't realise until you do it that you have missed not having conversations with people who share your culture. Of course we talked British, European, and US politics. It was interesting to get more of an insight into America from Brits that split their time 50/50 between France and America, and who have set up and continue to run a really successful business. They shared their experience of the US healthcare system, the very real impact on Brexit to their business, and it was good to have fact based conversations about issues we only graze the surface of as we travel through as visitors.
With clean clothes, full stomachs, and rested heads we took their advice on the route to Las Vegas. They had proposed a trip over the mountains and through canyons to Palm Springs, and then onto Vegas. What a trip it turned out to be. We left the suburbs and soon came to the countryside we all recognise from cowboy movies. Searing mountains with flat desert valleys covered in cacti and scrubby bushes. The temperature quickly rose from the late 80s to over 100F. We came across a metalwork artist that our friends had told us to look out for. On the roadside in the middle of nowhere we spotted a full sized wagon with horses at full gallop, that had been beaten out in metal. We pulled into the lot to be greeted by a football pitch sized gallery of his work. Although we had parked in the shade, when we got out the scorching heat hit us. We tried to imagine what it must have been like for the frontiersmen and women; no air con to retreat to, no stocks of bottled chilled water, no rest stops to take a break in……. not a landscape for the feint hearted.
Beaten by the heat after 15 minutes, but with amazing pictures, we set off for Palm Springs the home of plastic surgery, and retirement city of choice for the old Hollywood stars. Having ascended to 2000ft, we were greeted by a stunning view of the verdant Coachella Valley into which Palm Springs nestles. As we dropped down into the city we watched the thermometer rise, higher, higher, higher, and higher, until we topped out at 116F. We had thought we might have a night in Palm Springs, but having made good time, and with the scorching heat we decided not to. Instead we decided we’d press on to Vegas and get there a night earlier. With a stop at Starbucks for an iced drink and free wifi access we managed to extend our booking at the Flamingo and book an extra night.
Our journey took us through the Mojave Desert and it was incredible. Dean said the best road trip of our travels so far. The highway had been built alongside the old railroad that had opened up this part of the US, consequently we were treated to not only the amazing geography, but also the sight of ghost towns that now lay abandoned. Our drive took us 7 hours from Carlsbad to Vegas, but it was anything but a chore and I’d recommend it to everyone who gets the chance.
It was dark when we got to Las Vegas, but the sky was lit up by the gaudy, glorious, lightshow that this night time skyline is known for. Fred had cued up ‘Global DJs The Las Vegas Sessions (2014)’ for our entry, so Dean and Fred both shot video of our entry to the city to the full volume ‘Where we Belong’ by Fredde Le Grand playing full blast.
I dropped Fred, Dean, all our bags, and some supplies we’d picked up in Carlsbad, in the stifling heat at the door and went to park up and found what was nearly the last space in the hotels multi story. It was 9pm but still over a 100F, so it was a relief to step into the lobby of the hotel’s ice cold air con. The Flamingo was everything we hoped for, full on Vegas kitsch bang in the heart of ‘The Strip’. It was of the first hotels to go up in what we now know as Las Vegas. From the moment you enter it’s all about getting you to part with your money. Access to anything is via the Casino floor, which is vast, and staff are there in droves working for their tips. Our room was great but we quickly established there was no fridge or microwave, or anything that would allow you to easily avoid buying food and drink from The Flamingo. The price list in the room was extortionate; a delivered bottle of Jack Daniels (which we don’t drink!) would be $127, a coffee $9. With no fridge, but food and wine to keep chilled we set to. Bins were emptied and Dean made a fridge for food with plastic bags full of ice from the ice machine, whilst I made up an ice bucket for the white wine, bubbly and water. For full details, including video, see below!
Not having eaten, we left the Flamingo at 10pm and crossed the Strip to Caesar’s Palace. We love ‘The Hangover’ and it was great to see it buzzing with night time activity as we walked into, and through, it to Cesar’s Forum. This vast shopping mall is full of all the major designers housed in a Vegas take on the Sistine Chapel, replete with the Treviso Fountain and other nods to the great Renaissance artists. Very kitsch but very impressive. We settled on The Cheesecake Factory for dinner and had the most fabulous food and service for $80 (cheap for Vegas), unfortunately for Fred, Penny from The Big Bang Theory didn’t appear…. Instead we had the perkiest of waitresses from Maine serve us. Absolutely shattered we made our way back, and although it was now midnight it must still have been in the high 90sF. Fred had had an amazing few hours and was fully in love with this city already.
Fred and I found the pool in the morning whilst Dean went to drop our car at the airport, we’d figured we didn’t need a car in Vegas when we’d planned the trip. The pool was stunning. One side was for the over 21 party animals, and as we approached we heard the music pumping out from the DJ booth. The family area was right next door and Fred couldn’t believe the waterfall slides, fountains, and rapids that made up the area. We found a shady area next to a speaker to give us the party atmosphere Fred was looking for and Fred headed off to throw himself down the rapids. Free water (amazing!) kept us hydrated in the heat, and much to our joy we managed to avoid spending anything.
As you would expect of Vegas, The Flamingo did indeed have real Flamingo’s in its grounds. In addition, there was an array of other birds, including parrots, and amphibian’s. With Fred now a full on animal rights activist we confirmed that all the creatures at the hotel were, as he thought, rescued. If he had thought otherwise it would have ruined his stay, I hope when he does read this when he’s older he forgives me for this. I’m pretty sure that the Flamingos et al were in good physical and mental health, however I do have an issue with the parrots kept outside, performing tricks and posed on tourists heads for photos whilst doing ‘high fives’……
Our very big treat on this trip was taking a helicopter flight over the Grand Canyon, including Lake Mead and The Hoover Dam. We left it until arriving in Vegas to book and managed to secure a decent reduction which we were pretty pleased with. After a morning by the pool, we were picked up and driven to the airport where we were weighed and processed. I was pretty pleased that the burgers had not taken too much of a toll, a surprising loss of 6lb since I’d left the UK.
Robert, our pilot, greeted us and 5 other passengers. A towering man, he and his family had exchanged the harsh cold of Alaska for the dry desert of Nevada, and he provided us with brilliant entertainment and an informative commentary for the entire flight. It was Fred’s first helicopter trip and Robert kindly sat him next to him giving Fred the full flying experience. Being a small helicopter, it felt surprisingly vulnerable as it wobbled into the air, and as Robert pulled back the joystick (not sure this is the technically accurate term!) we started a roller coaster ride climb up over Vegas. Fred’s face was a picture of joy, excitement and amazement, you really felt like you were flying yourself.
The flight took us over the Mojave Desert first. Small roads and animal tracks crisscrossed below us, interspersed with tiny settlements of gold prospectors living in tents, caravans and tin huts. It’s a region still rich in gold but only those with, hard to secure, permits can mine and pan the landscape. It wasn’t long before we came upon the fabulous sight of Lake Mead. The original lake is fed from the melted snow that has made its way down from Colorado. The construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s, completed in 4 years, taking 2 years less than planned and under budget, doubled the size of the original Lake. This is the water source for Las Vegas and surrounding area. The colour of the lake was magnificent, a stunning aquamarine lapping white sand beaches. A rain squall appeared and we flew into and through it, cue joke from Robert about looking for the windscreen wipers! Out of the squall we came upon the Hoover Dam, the largest man made structure of its kind. It was so impressive to fly over it and get a sense of the size and achievement of its construction.
Of course the best had been saved until last, up ahead the Grand Canyon became visible. We tend to set our expectations low to avoid disappointment, however I’d challenge our flight through the Grand Canyon to disappoint anyone. We soared over the West Rim and the whole Canyon opened up to us. Much to our surprise and delight, Robert then banked at a steep angle, leaving our stomachs on the ceiling, and we swept down into the Canyon itself. It was truly the most incredible experience of my life and everyone in the helicopter gasped at this great wonder of the world. I even shed a tear. We flew up the Canyon, over the ‘Skywalk’ which is run by the Mojave Indians who ‘own’ this land, and then into some of off shoots of the main Canyon. I’ll leave the pictures below to describe the colours and geology, suffice to say if you ever get a chance to do this trip, seize it with both hands.
In need of fuel we left the Canyon to fly back over Lake Mead to a refuelling station. This caused much amusement and a cue for jokes about how much cash we had in our wallets. It tickled me to see, in the midst of desert, a helicopter ‘petrol station’ that is exactly like a forecourt for cars. Robert landed next to an empty lane and we decamped into the boiling heat, whilst he literally got the pump attached to a fuel dump, and started to fill up. A courteous group, we switched seats for the flight back so everyone got a go in the front. By the time we landed back in Vegas we had not only enjoyed one of the great wonders of the world, but also learnt an enormous amount about the start and growth of Vegas, Lake Mead, The Hoover Dam, and the people who inhabit this sparse and harsh landscape.
After landing back, and saying our goodbyes, we took the transport into town and decided to brave the heat and walk The Strip from South to North where the Flamingo sits. We started off in Luxor, walked through New York, Paris and London. We had lunch in a ‘Rainforest’ to the chorus of animatronic gorillas, elephants, lions and snakes, probably the kitschiest thing we’ve ever done and an absolute contrast to the natural wonder of the Grand Canyon. We were just in time for the fountain show in front of The Bellagio which was truly impressive and we preferred it to any firework display we’d seen. As we walked back to our hotel we were treated to a dozen ‘Alan’s’ from ‘The Hangover’ plying their trade, baby dolls dangling from their baby carriers. Dean felt right at home. The bizarre and the crazy entertained us all the way back.
On our last day we took the High Roller at sunset which gave us magnificent views of the lit up Las Vegas skyline. Dean made friends with a Vietnam Vet who had also served in the UK and was smitten with England. He also sported a Ronald Regan badge that read “when America had a great President”. Fred had another treat to come. Dean had found a newly opened virtual reality store where you could experience the latest technology, headset goggles, body sensors and hand controls. He opted to ‘Fly over Vegas’ and was taken through his paces by the staff who familiarised him with the equipment and sensations of stepping into the virtual world. As we waited for Fred to start his flight a woman wobbled out, shaking and in tears. She had just done the same trip as Fred and had been terrified by it, it was so realistic. Fred on the other hand found it amazing, and the experience was a tie with the Grand Canyon for first place.
Dinner was outdoors on a terrace overlooking the live filming of Las Vegas own TV channel, for their weekend show. Numerous celebrities were promised (Vegas celebrities!) topped by Oliva Newton-John who is doing a Las Vegas residency. Whilst we ate Lookalikes appeared with scantily clad Vegas showgirls. Much to Fred’s annoyance he got grabbed by ‘Trump’ for a photo. For the record his smile in the photo does not register his support of Trump!! He was more happy about his photo with Flavour Flav from Public Enemy which he thought was pretty cool. We were entertained through dinner by the filming and various appearances, however much more fun was people watching the Vegas big wigs who were sat next to us. We had the mayor, a retired ambassadress (the most elegant and glitzy 87 year old I’ve ever seen), one of the big hotel owners, plus the ‘celebrities’ who were appearing on the show, with their bodyguards. The men got smashed and the waiflike women sipped their water, no carbs or water retaining alcohol for them. Somehow we had stumbled into the midst of the great and good of Vegas.
Las Vegas, The Grand Canyon, and The Flamingo had given us everything we could ask for and more. Would we go back? Dean and I wouldn’t, we’ve done everything we would want to in Vegas. Fred on the other hand is chomping at the bit for his 21st, to be in the party pool, see Tiesto (or whoever is the biggest DJ at that time) play Caesars cavernous nightclub, and have a little flutter. On second thoughts I might just sneak back with him…….
Our journey to LA started with another repack of the car and, much to Freds delight, a breakfast of sweet muffins we had gathered from other motel breakfast bars. On the way we got another surprise wildlife treat. A packed car park on the coast signalled something worth stopping for. As we made our way to the crowds we discovered that Elephant Sea Lions spent the summer here. Laid out on the beach these huge creatures packed themselves tightly together, noses in the surf and tails flicking wet sand onto their bodies to cool them down. Two youngsters were outside the group, a quarter of the size of the other monsters. We learnt from the volunteers that all those on the beach were male. The females were out at sea for several months feeding themselves up ready for the next breeding season when they would come back to give birth and not feed for several months as they tended their newborns. On the beach in front of us couples of Alpha Males did battle, rearing up and roaring for supremacy. It was absolutely fascinating to watch stunning to watch more wildlife in its natural environment. We loved the enthusiasm of the committed volunteers. Topped up on nature and more beautiful wild scenery we continued on our way.
The sun shone brightly as we pulled into Calabasas, a suburb north of Malibu and West of the city centre. We’d got a bargain 3 nights in this lovely motel with a stunning pool. Early check in meant we were given a poolside room. We decamped all our stuff and I headed out to the supermarket next door to get supplies for our stay, whilst Fred and Dean took advantage of the pool.
The motel was home mostly to tourists, and travellers en route. However it was also home to two African American families who had uprooted themselves from Miami and Texas respectively. The parents were out at work and searching for more permanent accommodation whilst the children, on schools holidays, stayed back at the motel. Fred instantly had 4 playmates in the pool, it only took a short time for them all to connect and start playing ‘Sharks’, ‘Marco Polo’, and some very convoluted game of ‘Swamps’ which involved our two lilos being the base for 2 teams to commence a watery war. We ate dinner round the pool and the heat dropped from a searing 90F to mid 70s. Lots of play and swimming made for an early night.
In the morning we set off for a tour over the Malibu Canyon towards the eponymous Californian beaches. We came first to the millionaires paradise of Malibu. Along the pacific Ocean houses fronted the private beaches. Most had remodelled the original small dwellings, and in their place stood 3 storey glass constructions with decks that hung over the private sand below. Nothing could be bought here for less than $4M, with prices going up to $11M. We saw a couple of residents as we pulled over to look at these homes. A portly man paced his glass deck, mobile to his ear, a mother was the sole occupant of the beach with her young son. Big money busy your privacy round here, perhaps it comes with a bit of loneliness too?
We headed off to Venice Beach. This was a ‘must do’ for me. When we decided to stay a couple of nights in Miami I had mistakenly been under the impression that this was where the muscle beach was located, I guess we’re all improving our geography on this trip! We followed the coast line from Malibu to Venice Beach enjoying the landscape and curiosities of this rarefied part of LA. A game of ‘find a parking space’ lasted 30 minutes before we hit upon a free one 2 blocks from the heart of Venice Beach. Bronzed, toned, hair free bodies, pumped, stretched, balanced, climbed, boxed, shot hoops, and strutted on the courts and in the open air gym. We found a shady spot to sit and watch. Small groups worked out together, discussing the merits of a vegan diet full of protein to fuel hours of working out whilst not laying down any fat to hide the sculpted muscles of their naked torsos. Fred found a group of ginger haired local kids who let him join their game of basketball. We passed another hour watching Fred and his new mates play a competitive but friendly game.
As we watched Fred we had as a backdrop the constant dialogue of ‘Gerry’ (I’ll give him this name as I don’t know what it was). He was one of the many homeless living on Venice Beach. Gerry had a tidy encampment on the grassy knoll next to the basketball court 20 feet from where we sat. He’d found a shady spot under a towering old palm tree to pitch a sun protector tent that was his home. An open umbrella provided more shade for his al fresco dining room, a blanket carefully laid out. Gerry stood over his food supplies, set out in a line on a piece of wall that provided the boundary to his establishment. Swaying from side to side, with a Stevie Wonder rhythm to his movements, he obsessively counted and adjusted the symmetry of his supplies. After 20 minutes he had satisfied himself that his provisions were in order and decided to commence his rounds of his employees. Oblivious to anyone around him, and in a tight boundaried space that didn’t impinge on anyone else, he lived out loud the world that existed in his reality. A scavenged aluminium tube served as his microphone, he held it strongly addressing the employees of “…. Enterprises Incorporated” (I didn’t hear the full title of the corporation that he oversaw). After a stirring address, filled with giggles and anecdotes, he took his microphone and turned it into a baton which he tucked neatly under his arm. Like an Officer of the British Empire; upright, entitled, cane at 45 degrees to his midriff, he moved through his invisible troops, sharing jokes and offering encouragement. Dean and I were struck by his inspirational leadership style. A Chief Executive prepared to leave his Boardroom and move through his troops, connecting and sharing moments with them. This severely mentally ill African American homeless man, in the midst of a psychotic episode, showed more leadership than many Directors I have known…..
We left ‘Gerry’ and the basketball court, Fred in tow after goodbyes, and went down to the beach. The iconic lifeguard station served as a perfect backdrop for Fred and I to act out a ‘Baywatch’ moment. The ‘SloMo’ facility on Dean’s iphone had us giggling for ages, as we replayed it. We then took a stroll down the Venice Beach boulevard. To raised eyebrows I got played beautifully by a burly African American ‘rapper’ who stopped “you too cool family” (Fred’s hair is back in braids with a shaved undercut to set them off), placing headphones on Fred connected to an iplayer which was loaded with his work. He signed a CD to ‘Prince Fred’ and thrust it in our hand suggesting a $20 donation for the artist, whilst bringing in his son who was Fred’s age, to meet ‘Prince Fred’ and the “coolest family you’ve seen”. Dean settled on $10 claiming it was all he had. We parted friends with smiles, and Dean appeased by another story of my naivety to tell at my expense, and Fred bowled over that he’d met a real life rapper. Win win win! On our stroll back we saw another family enjoying the same experience, including the rapper introducing his son. Fred, less naïve than I, smiled and said “I think they’ve got a bit of an act going on” – yup!
Having enough of the seascape and beachside experience we decided to go back to Calabasas via Culver City, Beverly Hills, and the Hollywood Canyons. It was a great drive. We passed the impressive studios of Sony / Columbia Pictures, rode through elegant Beverly Hills passing Chateau Marmont (Hotel California is our US road trip song which we now have word perfect), and took the steep Laurel Canyon Road (on which Frank Zappa had lived, Dean’s favourite musician) up to views across the city. Famous road names and sights made for a fun journey. We stopped right at the top of Mulholland Drive and looked across the city. A small tourist information display had pictures of the city in the 1920’s – all agriculture laid out in blocks. Made us realise how fast this city of 35M people has grown. Of course we couldn’t head back until we had found the Hollywood Sign, which we did within 10 minutes with the help of direction from some lovely local teenagers, with reality TV accents to die for.
After a long day touring the pool was a welcome relief. Fred’s 4 friends quickly joined him. I spent a bit of time talking to Mack. Mack was watching his 2 grandchildren, sporting an oversized Martin Luther King t-shirt, with a picture of the great man and his most famous quotes. He and his family were from Miami. His son had got a job in LA 2 months ago and moved up with his kids. Since the move the family had lived in numerous motels, whilst his son also searched for a long term place to root his family. This was the second time they had been in this motel, and they had a good 2 week deal that would keep them here for another week. It was now getting pressing to find a long term home as the kids (13 & 10) needed to enrol in a school in 10 days time. Mack had left his home to ‘sit the kids’ whilst his son and wife were out at work. He passed his days in the room or by the pool. He yearned to be back in Miami and was “sick of this place”. We talked of Miami, where we are going for 2 nights before we cross into Brazil, and how it had changed in the last 75 years. He’d been in the US Airforce, served in Vietnam, and then been stationed in the UK near Ipswich (Dean’s home town). The constant movement, different countries, and desire to settle down back home and have a family had led him to leave the Airforce. He wished he hadn’t. We chatted as the kids played, Fred the only white kid with 4 African American kids, in a motel staffed by Latinos with the rest of the guests white. We didn’t talk about current race issues or politics, his experience and values were there in his t-shirt, the political eras that his life covered, and that he had met his conscription obligations during the Vietnam draft – something a current presidential candidate managed to dodge….. Nevertheless, as we talked, there was a deference in his body language and eye contact. I don’t know if it was real or imagined. But for his formative years our exchange would not have been possible.
That night I planned our Downtown LA trip. Traffic in LA is truly horrendous despite the 12 lane freeways so I planned a route that would see us drive to the North Hollywood Metro park and ride and catch the Red Line into the heart of Downtown. The Red Line would let us stop off at the Chinese Theatre, with the cement hand prints of the Hollywood stars of the last 100 years, en route to the historic centre, and a self-planned walk around the old warehouse district that has been annexed by artists in search of cheap studio and exhibition space. A sceptical Dean let go of his inner control freak. What a day it turned out to be. We found a rare spot at the Park and Ride and got our Metro day passes. The train arrived and we stepped off the pristine platform into Rap heaven. A small but ear shattering boom box pumped out expletive laden lyrics, next to a group of 3 youths in their 20’s lolling across the seats in the carriage. They sang over the music, adding in some free styling, talked loudly, and swigged out of 3 gallon energy drink bottles. The music was good and the atmosphere was jolly. Unfortunately Fred and Dean didn’t want to join me in a ‘Repper Family Flashmob’ – I think Poppy would have if she was with us!
We got off at the Chinese Theatre stop and walked out to be met by Minnie Mouse, Batman, Spiderman, Marylin Monroe et al plying their trade on the Walk of Fame. Fred got a picture of himself with Minnie, who then held him to ransom refusing to let go until we responded to her hand written piece of paper saying ‘Tip for photo’. Funnily enough she hadn’t shown that to us before she grabbed him to her chest. Of course Dean was nowhere in sight, so it was Mum who had fallen for another play – yet again! We only got Minnie to release Fred with our own play, that Fred had to get his purse out of my bag, once he was out of her grasp we made a dash. I think I’m learning…….!
A few minutes’ walk over the iconic Stars of numerous actors and we got to the Chinese Theatre. I loved it. There was Jimmy Stewart, James Cagney, Rita Heyworth, Robin Williams, and all our favourites from way back. I took pictures a few of my parents’ favourites as well as mine, and Fred posed next to the newly moulded prints of the cast of ‘Hunger Games’. Touristy bit over we walked back to the Metro, dodged Minnie, and rode the train to downtown. Unlike the London Underground, only the working classes or those with nothing else to do, ride the train. A cast of unselfconscious characters boarded the train at different stops. We loved the aging rocker, covered head to toe in tattoos (‘HATE’ on one hand & ‘LUST on the over), in pork pie hat, piercings and goatee. He got on with his liver coloured Pit Bull, that he lovingly caressed as they sat together on the floor. I wondered at his mysterious bloody bruised knuckles and the bling pink diamante collar around his muscular pit bull’s neck.
We stepped into Union Square and the sweltering heat of midday. We had a refreshing stop at a funky café on Gallery Row. On small tables, in the shade, we sat next to a young svelte Mancunian actress devouring a cooked breakfast. She counselled a friend on the phone, who was experiencing a crisis. “You have to remember” she said “that overdoing it can really cause a dip in your Serotonin levels”, her friend was suffering the morbid anxiety that comes with a crashing hangover, caused by a night of letting loose after splitting up from her boyfriend. Drinking my iced coffee, I lived the moment of the stranger at the end of the phone, rather than my own. I love a good eavesdrop, and the young actress beside us was a patient friend, challenging convenient untruths when she heard them. Her friend was lucky.
Struggling to orientate ourselves on Dean’s iphone map, we stepped into a pristine boutique dog store. Two gorgeous young things decorated the desk, waiting for a customer. Joe, it turned out, was from Lincoln and was flat sharing with his mate from Grantham – it is a small world. We were not far from where we wanted to go, but Joe said not to walk, ‘skid row’ was between the store and the Warehouse Arts District 4 blocks away. We heeded his advice “It’s a tough, tough, city he said”, and instead walked via Little Tokyo. What a great village in LA. We chose a restaurant full of people speaking Japanese. Old wizened men sliced the sushi, and we were served by a waitress that didn’t understand our request for water, so loose was her understanding of English. In addition to the water, which we finally managed to order, I asked her to choose a Japanese larger. What great food it was, and Fred has become a real sushi fan. His hair again caused smiles and comments of appreciation, and a rather grand Japanese- American lady sat next to us saw him as she left. “Oh my goodness isn’t he the most gorgeous cutest thing ever!” she exclaimed to her elderly lunch guests. As we left we wondered if we should fly to Tokyo rather than Shanghai and squeeze in a couple of weeks in Japan. We’ll think on that one…..
So finally we came to our destination, as we did so we passed more stunning street art, which we’re finding in all large American cities. We walked up the steps of the ‘LA Arts Co-Op’ and were greeted by Terry. In his 60’s he sported a silver shoulder length bob, with the build of a jockey. He apologised that they were shut on Tuesdays. He took another look at us and said “Hell, you look interesting, come in and I’ll show you around”. What a great 2 hours we spent there. We met artists, saw the exhibitions, chatted, went through the studios, and learnt the history of the place. A painting, rather like ‘The Last Supper’ hung over the office entrance. It was of the artists who, in the 80’s had acquired this vast warehouse for $100k, its now worth $10M. The collective have run it as a not for profit space for artists. Terry asked Fred if he’d heard of Skrillex. Of course said Fred, he’s my favourite DJ. We had to pick Fred off the floor when Terry told us that Skrillex lived and worked in one of the apartments in the building prior to getting his $20M record deal. He still lives in the neighbourhood and you can see him skating around. Terry himself was fascinating. Brought by an aunt in the film business to Hollywood in the 60’s, he’d acted in films and on the stage before becoming involved in the artists co-op which he now heads it up. We had a great time with these generous people, and really felt we had got under the skin of this community who had reclaimed part of LA that had been lost to inner city industrial decline.
Tired and exhausted we made our way home. A well-dressed man with a bike entertained us on the journey. He got on a stop after us, with his bike, and belted out ‘Hey Jude’ at full volume, with passion, and in tune. The passengers stuck to the international public transport rule of pretending that nothing is happening, however wacky or intrusive. We decided he must have dropped one pill too many after a day at work. We worried that he would forget his bike, he broke from singing to search is back pack for something that was missing, but he didn’t. Despite being off his face, he deftly navigated the 150 steps, carrying his bike out of the metro to the road. If he got home safely it would be a miracle.
We rushed to the pool and Fred was joined by Mack’s 2 grandchildren. His other 2 friends, who were our direct neighbours, were not there. We then saw the room being emptied, cases appearing, their mother, who we had not seen until now was in tears on the phone. It transpired that, unlike Mack’s family, she had no one to sit the kids when she was at work. The maids had apparently entered the room and found them unattended. Fred’s 2 friends, that were our neighbours, had an older brother, who we had not seen, and had been left in charge. At 6pm at night they were being evicted. The family moved out with a silently, 3 kids and their mother, their entire life belongings packed up over an hour into an SUV that someone brought to help out. We got the story I’ve just told from Fred later that night, who had got it from Mack’s granddaughter. So here is the starkest reminder of a fundamental difference between the US and the UK / Europe. Here you have a woman working for her family, getting on ‘Norman Tebbit’s bike’ to find work in another part of the country, made homeless in an hour. There is no federal or state provided social net to catch these people, who are doing everything they can to maintain their independence. We pondered if it was a coincidence that the family was evicted on the day when the motel had reached full occupancy and rates had doubled, as we had found out when trying to book another night. It felt a bit flat after that, and Fred was in full agreement, out of sympathy for his evicted friends, that we were also ready to move on.
So that night we started to search for accommodation for our next 2 nights in LA. We had to stay in LA because we had secured tickets for the filming of ‘Wheel of Fortune’ and access to the Sony Studio Lot which Fred, and all of us, were really looking forward to. Budget had been broken consistently for the last 2 weeks so we thought we really needed to challenge ourselves a bit. A Booking.com search turned up a few places under $100, then Dean stumbled upon a total bargain. In Long Beach (okay it was close to Compton and Torrence), but it was only $130 for 2 nights. The ratings were terrible but ‘Hell’ we thought, we’ve seen so many bad reivews of places we thought were ok. To be fair we’ve never stayed in anything with less than a 5 / 10, and this was 3.1. Statements like “Never ever book this place, its hell” made up the reviews. Emboldened by our great experiences to date, and our ability to cope with dirty, stinky, sketchy places, we booked it. I jokingly placed a FB comment “Dean found us a great bargain for the next 2 nights. Really looking forward to spending time in a little place called Compton…….”. It didn’t take long for more well-worn, wise travellers to message back concerned.
We enjoyed a great day at Rodondo Beach, this was a pilgrimage for Dean in search of places in Patti Smith lyrics. A lunch of fried fish on the ancient pier, untouched by modern development, served by Renee. In her mid 50’s with a long yellow blonde pony tail, short mini skirt and sneakers, and broad smile we wondered if she had had a shot at the role of ‘Sandy’, losing out narrowly to Oliva Newton John. Fred loved her. Next to the fish bar was the fishing shack. Faded pictures of sharks landed by the owner lined the walls. Fred was open mouthed and asked the owner about them. We decided he, and his establishment had been the inspiration for the shark hunter in ‘Jaws’. Taciturn but happy to inform, he educated us from his ancient leather recliner positioned behind the chip board counter.
Next to the pier was a water park, where we spent the afternoon. Toyota California were holding a corporate event in a part of the fake beach park, and we watched amused as they limbo danced under a pole. The tallest man beat the smallest woman in the final. So after a restful fun day we set off to find our bargain.
Pacific Highway 1 ran alongside our motel on the corner of 17th, so we took it away from the coastline into the industrial port area. We waited for the neighbourhood to perk up a bit, it didn’t. Instead, impoverished workshops and rackety houses sat in between run down motels. The hum of a helicopter circling overhead met us as we got 5 blocks away. Next to us we spotted a SWAT van on wasteland, police cars with flashing lights lined the road on one side. As we passed it, and sat in stationary traffic, a domestic took place across the road at a ‘Jiffy Lube’ (it’s a place you get your oil changed if you didn’t know!). A man held a mobile as if to throw it and a woman laid in to him with the full force of an irate woman. Men leaned out of cars laughing at the scene. Finally we came to our motel and pulled in. We were all muted. Rooms were laid out around a courtyard, a burly African American in black stood on the gate wearing a black uniform with Security written on the back. He wore a bandana, had an eye patch, and had 2 guns holstered at his waist. He was smoking an enormous spliff.
We went to check in. The owners seemed to have no idea what to do, with it not being a cash booking, and the process took an uncomfortable 20 minutes. During this interminable period, Fred and I browsed the brochures in the office, none were for anything nearby. Keeping a steady hand and a cool head, for Fred, I was conscious that we stuck out like a sore thumb. In the courtyard clusters of people were gathered, a dishevelled elderly woman shuffled along on a zimmer frame, children in nappies beyond the age that children wear nappies jumped in the dirty puddles made by someone washing down the courtyard with a hose. He wore an ankle tag. Check in over we went to our room. Mirrored from floor to ceiling we checked the linen, it was clean. Fred turned on the huge TV. A naked woman writhed naked on a bed moaning with, what I think was meant to pass for pleasure. I grabbed the remote from him with a “crickey she must be hot”. That there was a pool here was one of the things that had made me think it couldn’t be that bad when we were looking to book. In the hot tub, full of bubbles, a young girl of 6 or 7 was sat in the arms of a young man. We said hello and got no response. We left quickly.
Back in the room I picked up messages from friends we were due to stay with in Carlsbad. Both said to get out of the area we were in, I cheerily responded thanking them for their advice but saying we were ok. More cars pulled in. Pimped up SUVs in garish colours joined the beaten up cars already parked up. From the balcony we could see a studio room next to the office. Outside 3 young men hung out, when the door opened we saw into the chandelier lit opulent interior. My nerve was going; the incongruous mix of bling consumable wealth mixed in one place with the nearly homeless who had only this place to stay. We decided to go out to eat, somewhere far away and have a think. Without Fred around I said to Dean I thought we should leave. As we pulled out of the motel the road ahead was closed off. Police cars blocked the road and yellow tape was being dispensed. Up ahead the Motel 6 was clearly a serious crime scene. We found a place back on the coast to eat. My appetite gone I forced down some food and kept a sense of normality for Fred. I barely spoke, my response to extreme stress is pensiveness. Mind made up and out of earshot of Fred I said to Dean we needed to leave. He agreed. Within 5 minutes we had found the Rodway Motel. Dean negotiated a room rate and we left to pick up our things. Only then did we tell Fred that we weren’t staying at the Colonial Motel. We got our things quickly and silently, returning the sole plastic key card that would cost us $1 if we didn’t (the only place we’d stayed in that levied this charge).
We arrived back at the Rodeway and collapsed. The tension left us, and only the exhaustion that follows severe adrenaline peaks remained. Some self-soothing required, I put this down as a hard lesson well learnt and well timed. Next time I read a review that says somewhere is dangerous and “DO NOT BOOK THIS MOTEL”, I’ll take some notice and not assume they’re being a bit of a woos …..
So after some high drama for us, we set off to see others experience high drama for them. We got to the Sony Studios easily and drove through security onto the Lot. It is absolutely huge, staff getting around on bikes and golf buggies. The ‘Wheel of Fortune’ set was an amazing homage to B&B’s as it was ‘B&B week’. It was filmed on Stage 12, where Wizard of Oz was filmed which we loved. We got great seats, enjoyed Jim Thompson the warm up comedian who does the cheesy voice over stuff for the show. Young production assistants took us through the cue cards which we would need to respond to. Everything is shot in tiny segments, but largely one take. It was great fun. Dean was the most enthusiastic of us all which was quite a hilarious sight for those of you who know him!
Pat Sajack and Vanna White have been the hosts for more than 35 years and are American institutions. We were the audience for 3 episodes filmed over 3 hours, and we were struck by what a dull job it must be after all these years. Vanna is famous for her elegant evening gowns and towering heels. With the 3 costume changes we got to see quite a lot of Vanna’s frame, there was nothing to her. In her mid 50’s she has maintained her UK size 4 build, iron discipline seeing off any middle aged spread. Of course she had not a wrinkle. We loved Vanna, Fred wanted to go home with her. Between segments Pat and Vanna took it in terns to talk to the audience and took questions. Vanna was by far the most interesting and ‘bright’ of the two. She showed real warmth and deftness when engaging with the audience. In one of her Q&A slots a boy about Fred’s age asked to come onto the set and hug her, to the terror of those that were sat with him, and she said he could. As he did so it became clear that he was on the Autistic / Asperger’s spectrum, he started to become chaotic wandering around the set, but she managed him with such gentleness and care that he followed her every instruction and he quietly returned to his seat after a very special moment for him, and us. Despite this, for 35 years, her sole task has been to look stunning, stand by a board and turn letters whilst smiling. We pondered if the next set of hosts would see a revision of the gender roles, we suspect not.
Fred got to ask a question, and also won a signed dollar bill from Jim Thompson who had been a voice on ‘Monsters Inc’ so he was a very happy boy. Dean and I enjoyed seeing people doing really odd jobs; the burly man in his 50s who just followed the cameraman holding his cord, the middle aged men who had to throw silver confetti, the military performance coaches that chaperoned each group of contestants drilling them in actions and voice building to the moment ‘action’ was called, the young woman sat next to us who was the social media manager and constantly tweeting / instagramming / snapchatting etc etc……. A couple of people had their dreams made with $90K winnings and a brand new Jeep. In all three shows the contestants showed a careful representation of diversity, but in each game the professional white women won having deployed more artful tactics.
Between shows we got to move through the Lot to get to the restrooms. We saw set builders, actors, and Sony Staffers. Fred got his picture taken with actresses in costumes who were filming ‘Masters of Sex’, I’m pleased to say that this is a fictionalisation of the story of Masters and Kinsey and not a sex show! So Sony Studios gave us an unforgettable experience and another insight into an iconic part of American life.
If I reflect back on LA, it gave us everything we could ask for, and some experiences that we wouldn’t ask for, but which we wouldn’t be without. I learnt some harsh lessons and, before I leave for more ‘dangerous’ countries, they are lessons that are well timed. Perhaps the only way I can sum up LA is to say that it reflects what we have seen of the rest of the USA, it’s a place of absolute contrasts, grappling with big issues. It’s a place of wonderful dreams and terrible nightmares, but I’m not sure how much true wakefulness there is here……..
Having left the leafy riverside idyll of Monte Rio we hit the road for San Francisco. Much to Fred’s delight we crossed into the city via the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge. It was a damp cool day which was very welcome as we were squeezing our San Fran experience into 24 hours, with a single night stop on Mission Street.
San Francisco accommodation is horrendously expensive so we had booked into the cheapest hotel we could find. Fortunately, it was between the two districts we really wanted to explore; Castro and Mission. We pulled into the onsite car park and were greeted by abandoned mattresses and other detritus. One of the mattresses had scrawled on it “Need Milk Ed” which amused us, I think that was the emotion that passed through us…. The back of the hotel was covered in graffiti, quite brilliant graffiti, that started to give us a real sense of the area we had booked into. A man wondered on the roadside with a door jack, circling a car, whilst talking on his phone. We were unsure if he was repossessing or just acquiring. Five minutes of debate about the safest spot to park the car ensued. A horrified Fred took in his environment; his love of the USA, and his intention to take citizenship, started to wane….
We pressed the buzzer on the door of the hotel and were let in through the metal grill door. Mission Street had been one of the most salubrious of districts in the past. Magnificent buildings, like our hotel, lined the broad road. Now it is one of San Fransisco’s few streets not to have been gentrified. It’s a street that the homeless and the ‘just avoiding homelessness’ occupy. El Capitain, our hotel, was an enormous grand building, with sweeping staircases and large open landings. It was, however, a beautiful woman worn out and trampled down. The bone structure remained but the facelift was long overdue. The residents were a mixture of hostel travellers, the elderly and infirm with nowhere else to go, and families between places. A stern notice on the door of the communal kitchen warned that any fighting would result in a ban on using the kitchen, note it did not threaten eviction.
Our room overlooked Mission Street and, whilst the sheets were clean, it was the first place that made me reach for the antiseptic hand gel. Black sticky light switches and unidentifiable markings on the bathroom wall were not for the faint hearted or those anywhere on the OCD spectrum. I got my flip flops out and gave Fred a handwashing lecture. All bags out of the car, we decided that the best place to put our stuff was in the bath and then insert the door stop alarm under the bathroom door. Having done all we could to secure our things we stepped into Mission Street. Fred was agog as we passed dozens of truly tattered homeless and mentally ill. One poor older man on the corner of a street was covered, down his back, in his own vomit. In the midst of this we felt very safe and no one bothered us, but it was a sad experience to mingle amongst this disenfranchised population.
Dean wanted to find the street art and we soon came across Clarion Alley, famous for the most stunning murals. Political, amusing, inspiring, and intellectually fresh we lingered, despite the horrendous smell, even on this cool day. Dean came across Gypsy. A lanky ginger haired bearded street artist, also homeless, he had his work propped up in the alley. For company he had a mangy dog and two rats. The albino ‘Squeak’ had searing magenta eyes and was lazing around Gypsy’s neck, ‘Bubble’, Squeak’s mother was asleep in her open cage. We chatted with Gypsy for a bit, and I think I got a bit high. I wasn’t smoking but he was. Fred beamed and giggled. I think this was because he got to hold and stroke Bubble, any other explanation would make me a very irresponsible parent that might require social services involvement.
A change of direction and we came into Castro. A more different environment you couldn’t imagine. The old wooden and brick townhouses beautifully restored. Colourful frontages and stunning interior décor that only our gay friends know how to do. Of course with this comes heart stopping real estate prices. We passed one building advertising a 1 bed 1 bath apartment to rent. We had to re-read the price a couple of times. $6,400 per month. Two blocks between skid row and the unaffordable.
We spent a couple of hours wandering around Castro, having lunch, visiting the gorgeous Delores Park which gives you a vista over San Fran to the bay, and popping into shops. Dean found a tiny bike shop with a delightful owner who gave us a detailed lecture on Luggs, the bit on the bike frame that fits the bits together (best to look it up!). I think he could have stayed there all day but I dragged him away and we headed back to Mission. Not having had a wax in 6 weeks and due to hit LA in a day I searched in vain to find somewhere to do all the bits that needed tidying up. I could get my eyebrows done and lower leg but nothing else. Dean thought it was because of crabs (not mine). So I continue to rock the 70s look. I’ve decided that I’m going to make it a feminist statement, and ignore the fact that I look like the old ladies at Newark Swimming Pool, who no longer have the flexibility to reach previously accessible places, or who’s consorts are immune to the prevailing modern requirement for all women to be hairless below the eyebrow……
Fred on the other hand did get a haircut. We found a wonderful Mexican establishment (most commerce on Mission Street is Mexican run) where the grandma gave him a number 1 round the sides. Great care and attention was paid by Rosita who only charged us $5. In Castro we had been quoted $40 in a number of places. We gave her $10. As we sat watching his cut take place, in an old barber’s chair, we were smiled at with amusement by the Latino clientele who were clearly unused to gringo tourists stepping into this community hubbub. It was lovely, friendly and different. What you travel for.
After a quick refresh in our room we headed out again to find some food. Turning north on Mission, to get a different take on the street, we stumbled upon the Mission Street Community Market which takes place every Thursday. The street was closed to traffic and musicians provided the backdrop for the food stalls. International flavours abounded, reflecting the melting pot that is America. We bought a trio of Arabic flatbreads to eat on the go as starters. We watched the breads being kneaded, thrown and shaped using a hessian cushion, and then cooked on an inverted black spherical cauldron. A huge wrought iron vat was being used, across the way, to make popcorn. Hand stirred, using a 3-meter-long spatula, by a man wearing a welding visor. The sound of the corn popping was quite shattering. Having watched this heavy work, and videoed it, we felt obliged to buy some for later as pudding. We left the market and passed through more shops in the area of Mission that had the chi chi touch applied. No homeless here, just the affluent middle classes. Just then a blackout occurred. Traffic lights and shop lights all went out. Restaurants shut until further notice so we found ourselves a bookstore with candles. We browsed in the dim romantic light. With no room in our backpacks for books we found titles to download onto our Kindles later.
Finally, we came to a block with power. A run down Senegalese restaurant was full, always a good sign. Just in time for ‘Happy Hour’ we got the $20 meal of 2 courses and a cocktail. Fred got Coke and chips with Guacamole. Language had tripped me up again…. Tortilla chips (very good) arrived rather than the ‘fries’ I should have ordered for him. Fortunately, the food we had ordered for us, Senegalese stews and curries, went down well with him. We got treated to the sight of an enormously tall and imposing policeman sat at the bar, weapons holstered, enjoying a break and the food of his homeland. Full as we could possibly be, Fred nearly asleep after a tiring, at times challenging, but fun day, we hit the sack to the sounds of the street just waking up. I thought I wouldn’t be able to sleep but a few screams of glee and laughter were all I heard before I was gone.
We all woke early and decided to have breakfast out. Dean had found Mission Beach Café with good ratings for breakfast. Rather than an interesting dive, it turned out to be a rather salubrious breakfast restaurant. Great food and service justified the price. The high net worth clientele chatted over food. Then in walked four construction workers that could not have looked more out of place. It was like the start of a bad joke. In walked a Mexican, an African American, a towering burly tattooed white man, and …. Sat next to us they struggled to get service until finally the Mexican, who appeared to be their boss, with gold teeth called over to one of the Mexican cooks passing through the restaurant and remonstrated with him in no uncertain terms. The manager hurriedly attended to them. We exchanged smiles and a joke with them about Fred’s stunning pancake plate. We pondered after if they were over sensitive or if they had experienced a different service, we remained split on this.
We packed up and left the Hotel before checkout time and set off on a driving tour of the districts of San Fran we hadn’t covered on foot. We didn’t like Haight, too touristy, but we did admire all the architecture that we saw. Dean directed me to the windiest (winding not windy!) road in the world. A vertiginous residential street that starts at the top of San Fran and drops down to near the harbour. Lined with tourists taking pictures of this landmark I kept my hand on my handbrake, one slip from any of the cars on this narrow street would have caused a major disaster! We passed through the harbour district, stopped on a pier, took wrong turns, and then finally hit the freeway out of San Fran. As we did so we left the damp cool climate immediately. Hot California opened back up again.
We stopped in an anonymous Motel 6 off Highway 101. With a lovely pool we lazed for a bit before my, now routine, trip to Safeway where I even have a members’ card. As we went to bed at 10pm a coachload of Chinese school children arrived and set to in the pool – extremely loudly. Much to Fred’s amusement, again (see previous Canada blog) I went to the manager’s office to ask that the pool times be enforced and some respect be given to other guests. Sleep is very precious to me. In the morning the ill-disciplined group of children sat at breakfast bleary eyed. Some time ago I taught very rich children English as a foreign language. Rather like those children, this group were oblivious to others and seemed incapable of doing anything for themselves. Someone needed to call Nanny McFee…..
We hit the road again, unsure where we were going to sleep, mindful that it was Saturday high price night. Today was going to be the coastal delights of Carmel, Monterey, Big Sur and San Luis Opispo taking in yet more stunning Highway 1 scenery. One of the biggest Californian fires ever was raging in this region, covering 35,000 acres and being fought by 5,000 firefighters, started by an illegal campfire that had not been properly extinguished. Now 25% under control we would skirt it and, if the wind was in the wrong direction, would get a good dose of the burning woodland. Touchingly, we passed heartfelt handmade signs on the roadside from the residents of Carmel thanking the firefighters. These signs continued all the way down Highway 1. From Carmel onwards we passed the army of firefighters and contractors tackling this blaze. Heavy machinery lined the Highway, being prepared to dig out more fire breaks. The fire was very real and very close and we soon realised that whilst the road was open, only just, we would be taking it in poor visibility and the company of few cars.
Nevertheless, the scenery was beautiful although, with the smoke clouds blocking the sun, we didn’t get the azure coloured sea. Big Sur was strangely deserted. Normally bursting to the seams at this time of year there were vacancies all round. However, it was too smoky to stay. After a coffee and picking up a postcard for Mum (this is another place on her bucket list that I’m living vicariously for her) we headed out. Within a few minutes on the road we came to the Henry Miller museum. We should have known, but we didn’t, that it was there. Tucked into the woodland, this shady delight was a literary heaven. Funded by visitor donations there was no entrance fee, no charge for drinks, a small wooden house staffed by Literature graduates staying in tents, with a stage for performance artists, and a ping pong table, and finally the cat from ‘Meet the Fockers’ (see video below). We lingered here enjoying the slow pace and the sparsity of other visitors. We took pictures, read, played ping pong, and slowed down for a bit.
We wanted to stay in San Luis Opispo and got there about 3pm. However, it was quickly clear that we wouldn’t get a room anywhere near budget. A quick visit to the Tourist Info and a drive through the town would have to suffice. Disappointingly we had to make do with another anonymous Motel 6 on the highway. It did though come with a pool, much to Fred’s delight, and we had the obligatory pre dinner swim. With no cooking facilities, and getting bored of the rotisserie chicken and salad which we eat when without kitchen, we decided to treat ourselves to dinner out. It was Saturday night after all. With extreme luck we came upon a traditional diner ‘The Boys’. We had spotted the sign in the lot when we were pulled up at a 4 way stop. Dean had said he wanted ribs, and when I went in to have a look at what food they did there on the special board was ‘Ribs’. Sometimes good things happen just when you need them. The place was amazing. Untouched since the 60’s, it was well worn but well- tended. We all agreed we were waiting for Tarantino to shout “Action” and ‘Pumpkin’ and ‘Hunny Bunny’ stand up to the soundtrack of ‘Miserlou Dick Dale & The Del-Tones’. As the script is a bit tasty I’ll leave it to you to decide if you want to see what I mean:
The story of this place is inspiring and proudly told on the menus. The current owner came to work here from Mexico with no English. He started as a dishwasher, learnt English, worked his way up, and 30 years later the owner offered to let him buy the place. He has owed it and run it with his family since 2011.
So we started with the divide of rich and poor, empowered and disenfranchised, the free and the stuck, the tarnished ‘American Dream’, and we finish (Part 1) with the up lifting happy ending of the ‘American Dream’ at work for at least one family. This was the tale of only one of our two cities, but that one city soon became a tale of two within one.
LA, well that will be a book in itself……... and as we found out LA is a tale of many worlds within a galaxy of its own that feels, as I write this from the idyll of San Clemente down the coast, like a “Galaxy far far away…….”
So we left behind Oregon and crossed into California with Highway 101 taking us through the majestic Redwood Forests. Ancient behemoths lined the road, towering over us. The size of the trunks have to be seen to be believed. We learnt that these trees used to cover the earth, but due to changes in the atmosphere they now only thrive on the cool northern foggy Californian coast, small parts of China, and a Californian mountain range. Some of the trees are over 2,000 years old, and the tallest remains the tallest despite losing its top 50ft five years ago. Makes ‘The Major Oak’ seem like a poor relation….
We pulled off 101 to take a small turn into someone’s garden where they’ve created a ‘drive thu’ tree. I’m pretty sure it was Dolly Parton that greeted us at her small homemade gatehouse and wanted to chat about where we were from. Like most American’s, she welcomed us warmly to her home, state and country and wished us well for our trip. Obligatory touristy pictures taken we turned back onto 101 within 15 minutes and set on our way.
At an interchange we left Highway 101 and took the turn that would lead us on a stomach churning drive through more Redwoods at the start of Highway 1, until we reached the Californian Pacific coast. As I was driving I was fine, but we had to stop a couple of times to let my passengers out for fresh air, solid land, and to let their stomachs settle. Highway 1 was nearly empty of traffic on this traverse to the ocean, probably because the 10 miles took nearly an hour to cover. Hairpin bends and adverse cambers would slow even the boldest of drivers. We saw only cruising Harleys and Indian motorbikes, and the occasional pick up. In a little gully we passed an encampment on either side that made us think we had landed on the set of ‘Deliverance’. A tumbled down wooden house and sheds, replete with target practices, a dozen pickup trucks in various states of repair, and roaming dogs. We pulled over for a picture and spotted the rather incongruous sign on a table of veg “Free Organic Vegetables”. None of us felt brave enough to leave the safety of our car, we’ve clearly watched too many American horror films…….
Of course none of our journey’s would be complete without the unexpected treat of wildlife. Today it was the turn of 2 majestic antlered Stag’s. We’ve not been able to pin down if they were deer or elk, but it’s hardly relevant. One on either side of the road, gently grazing in the shade. They were unbothered by us or the few other cars that had pulled over. Like the other large creatures we’ve encountered they looked up and held our gaze. Just beautiful.
We finally hit the coast and as we did so and the pacific opened up for us again. Rugged and wild, this time it was flanked by brown grass prairie farms. Cattle strolled by, surprisingly, on the roadside. In addition to the undulating twists and turns, we also got to enjoy a bounty of cattle grids. Dean had the best of this as he was now sat in the back. I’m not sure what they were, but they looked like fields of red and purple lupins, and other colourful flowers flourished amongst the brown grass. More stops and more photos. We’re so used to every patch of beautiful British coast being ‘done up’ and ‘gentrified’, and full of tourists that it’s a real shock to find all the way through this trip, rustic rural life untouched on such an iconic road, with hardly any company. I guess it’s because America’s such a big big place with so much to see.
By 1pm we came upon a tiny harbour town with a single pier used by salty sea dogs for the daily catch. Outside the Inn that led to the jetty a boat full of small children was surrounded by people. It turns out they were about to commence the launch and maiden voyage of a concrete boat built from scratch that weekend. The speech revealed a drunken night in Georgia had seeded the idea, and a year later “having done some math” a group had come back together to fulfil the challenge. With nothing better to do we hung around, avoided the glass that came flying into the crowd from the smashed champagne bottle (not everyone did!), and watched the boat winched off the pier and lowered into the water. Cheers all round as she floated, and more cheers as she continued to float when the first three passengers stepped in. She was then rowed around the harbour, with various members of the team and their families all having a go. It was a fun and motley crew of interesting people. The tattooed motor biker clutching a Chihuahua cross who had its own goggles and rode up front, the elderly Bernie Sanders supporting couple who wanted to get our views on Brexit and talked about their hitchhiking adventures 40 years ago, the man who’s dog wouldn’t go down into the boat so we got a dog for 20 minutes to care take, the weather beaten fisheman who had been out that morning and had his stunningly beautiful glassy eyed catch laid out on the sluice and talked Fred through them all, and best of all the Welshman, fag in hand, who had been in California for 40 years and not lost a trace of his accent. He’d run a Welsh bar and live music venue in San Francisco for years, hosted many UK bands breaking the US, before retiring up the coast and “out of the madness”. A small place celebrating an audacious achievement with an unconventional, creative and thinking crowd. Not bad for an accidental moment on this trip.
Seeing a sign for a lighthouse we took another turn off and found ourselves running north atop a cliff face. An impossibly cute white lighthouse stood at the end of a rocky outcrop. We parked up to take some pictures. As we did so we looked down on the sea and below us lounging on the rock pools were dozens of sea lions. They were excitingly close and we stopped for 20 minutes just watching them, mesmerised. Huge round eyes looked up every time Dean took a picture. I’ve no idea what sea lions hearing is like so it was either a coincidence or we experienced their exceptional hearing. I Need to check it out.
Filled up on our days experiences we started to look for somewhere to stop. We passed through a few coastal towns that we’d hoped to find accommodation in but all were out of budget, or when we drove through we realised they were places with not enough to occupy us. The coast was also shrouded in a fine fog and came with onshore winds that put the temperature at a not very appealing mid 50sF, so we made the decision to peel off Highway 1 and head inland down the Russian River. Within 5 miles of turning inland the fog lifted and blue skies shone down on riverside beaches and kayakers enjoying the late afternoon sun. We passed through Monte Rio and just as we came through it saw a vacancy sign. A quick U turn and we pulled in to the River View Garden Motel. The scene was stunning. Beautifully tended, the garden was a riot of vibrant colours and rich fruit trees which led down to a private riverside beach. Two Pomeranian's were sunbathing in the yard. A look between us and we decided that whatever the price, within reason (!), we were staying here for a few days. Mr J negotiated an out of budget price that we could just about stand, and with a full kitchen we thought we could make our way back into budget with some frugal cooking.
A shop in Safeways in the next town got us stocked up and we quickly agreed that we would stay for 4 nights, taking a break from sketchy motels and the rugged cooler pacific coastline. Mr J has given us free use of 3 kayaks and we’ve spent the last 3 days out on the river, fishing for minnows with plastic cups, catching crawfish with hot dogs tied to string on a stick (that was other more savvy people actually, but Fred and I joined in), taking morning and evening swims, chatting to other river goers, and spotting more stunning wildlife. Our first day kayaking down river for an hour and we saw Condors sunbathing with wings outstretched, rainbow coloured herons, a mink slipping out of the water onto the river bank (apparently a rare sight because they were all but wiped out by the Russian Fur Traders in the 1800s), fish of all sizes, and so on. Taking our water proof ‘Go Pro’ out we’ve swum early morning, mid day and late at night, hopefully capturing the best of our river stay.
Last night as we took a late afternoon swim we were joined by Casey. Pootling along in his kayak he heard us and pulled over to identify our accent. We were soon passing a jolly hour in the warm water chatting about the area, its history, English and American music. Sporting a goatee, tattoos, and a few pirate earrings, we learnt that he was 14 years sober and clean from a crystal meth habit that had cleaned him out. He moved up from LA to this spot of Northern California and rebuilt his life in the woodland. He now works installing and refurbishing septic tanks and, when not at work, takes to the river in his kayak. Still into Motocross, which he had competed in internationally, he helps out with kids who are starting off in Motocross. He wanted to know all about our trip, and was planning to do Europe and South America on his motorbike. It was a lovely time and we were sorry when we started to get too chilly to continue the conversation.
So now we’re on our final day at Mr J’s. Playing badminton on the brown grass, swimming in the cooling river with the fish, blogging in the hammock under the shade of the fruity trees to the sound of the wealth of birds calling. We shall miss the small plates of spicy frittered courgette flower heads, curried cauliflower and peas, and big jugs of Chai he has brought up to our balcony. Yet more fabulous hospitality in a magic hideaway we didn’t know we would wash up in.
Tomorrow we head to San Francisco to stay in the El Capitain on Mission Street. It has the worst reviews on Booking.com and Trip Advisor but is the only affordable accommodation in the area we want to be to explore, the Mission and Castro districts. So for one night we will be back with the crack and crystal meth addicts that haven’t found Casey’s sobriety, and saying good day to the homeless as we come and go from our hotel. We just need to figure out how to keep our empathy in check and our wallets in our pockets……..
Breathtaking Oregon Pacific Coast on Highway 101…..
After the great hospitality of Karrie, Ed and the entire Blackstone-Brothers family in Portland we set off for our Highway 101 Oregon Pacific Coast adventure. We avoided the weekend traffic, thanks to Karrie and Ed extending our Couch Surfing stay, and made it to Cannon Beach via Highway 26 in an hour and half. We quickly parked up on one of the few remaining parking bays, it was Sunday at midday (!), and got straight to the ocean. The Pacific is a glorious sight of crashing surf and endless horizons around. Cannon Beach is a bit like Salcombe or Rock so way out of our budget and a little chi chi for us – we like a bit of rough and earthy in the places we visit – I’m from Morecambe after all……
After coming back to our car and finding a parking violation ticket, which caused me to charge down the road at a sprint to find the youthful attendant doing his rounds on his bike – it was only a warning thankfully – we got on our way. The scenery was breathtaking. Turquoise ocean, white surf, searingly high cliffs, and haystack rocky islands. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting but it wasn’t something as stunning as this. We drove for the rest of the day, stopping continuously for more and more pictures of this beautiful scenery. Finally we came upon the town of Lincoln. We did a tour of motels and eventually settled on the Nordic Viking Hotel (a little bizarre with its life sized Vikings littered around the lot and site), which had – much to Fred’s delight – an indoor pool and Jacuzzi as well as the most amazing beachside location. Being midweek it was just within our budget. Our room on the top floor opened up the entire coast and seascape which we could access on foot in 200 vertical steps.
I went off to Safeway as we had a full kitchen, so money saving home cooking was in order, whist Fred and Dean went off to the pool. After dinner we made our way in the early dusk onto the beach. About half a kilometre down the beach 4x4s had pulled onto the sand and campfires had been lit. We walked down to see this post-apocalyptic encampment of families BBQing and set up with tents around their drift wood fires. It was blustery and wild and wonderful.
The next day we headed down the coast to Depoe Bay and Otter Creek in the hope of seeing some wildlife. What no one knew was this was the day, the first in months apparently, where a pod of Grey Whales we going to come inland to feast on the kelp beds. Before we got to Depoe Bay we saw a few cars gathered roadside with binoculars and cameras out. We pulled in. There in front of us was a lone Whale. Every 3 minutes he surfaced, blow hole spraying, before submerging and then lolling around playing. We had the distinct impression he knew full well he had an audience. Grey whales don’t jump and leap around, instead like primordial beasts they lounge without haste grazing through the ocean. Every now and then, to the delight of all around, he flicked his tail up. Everyone was waiting for the tail as it is such a rare sight. Perhaps the show was more of a strip tease……
Satisfied we set off for Otter Creek, however as we came to Depoe Bay, with parking on it’s sea wall, we saw banks of people. A quick indicator, dash across Highway 101, and I double parked up. Right in front of us again, this time closer, was a pod of 2 adults and a young grey. You cant be anything other than moved and silenced by such a sight. Long ago we decided never to visit an aquarium with Whales after seeing a documentary on the emotional and physical trauma whales suffer in captivity in places like Water World. They are meant to roam thousands of miles a year, and need to be with their families for life. Being in an aquarium is equivalent to a human being kept in isolation and never allowed to leave a room the size of the average house bathroom. When you see them in the wild, you can only wonder that we allow the practice of capturing young whales and imprisoning them to continue…… We got the most amazing pictures and video, but also made sure that we enjoyed this sight with our eyes and not only from behind the camera. Whales at play and in their own habitat really do fill your soul.
We moved on and pulled into Otter Creek. No one around but plentiful ocean birds bobbing on the waves or chilling on the rocks in the cove that is Otter Creek. We took pictures of the rich and colourful fauna, a wonderful old bridge, a house perched on the edge of a precipice, when blow us down a whale turned up. Just us and then a whale, then two and then a third. Unbelievable. To top this all off a lone otter paddled past on his back cleaning his paws. Some days are beyond special.
Coastal area explored, Fred and I decided to go surfing the next day at Broiler Bay by the Devils Punchbowl, whilst Dean enjoyed a day of solitude and writing. The introvert in him was ready for some time off from us all! We picked up our boards from Lincoln City Surf Shop, strapped them to the roof and headed off to meet Dale, Fred's instructor. Dale greeted us with high fives and a wealth of 'awsome's' fulfilling every stereotype in the first few minutes. With boards under our arms we made the rather arduous trek down a couple of hundred steep steps onto the beach. Tidy 2ft waves rolled in, perfect for Fred to learn on, and for me to make my first return to surfing for 10 years. We had a great couple of hours with Dale, and Fred even got to standing with the help of Dale pushing him off in the broken surf. Having practiced my 'pop up' on a towel on the bed the night before, I caught my first wave and curtailed every instinct to steady through my knees. I honestly think my first pop up of the day was better than any I had done before. I was pretty stoked.... (I believe in always adopting the local vernacular). Needless to say the morning came with its fair share of dunkings and nasal wash outs, and I ended our morning session with crystal clear sinuses. Fred had picked up a really bad wet suit rash on his neck which was raw. I'd completely forgotten I had a rash vest for him, and I'd let him tighten his Velcro himself round his neck. A week later he still looks like he's survived a hanging..... But he's rather proud of it and has taken many a photo of his battle scars!
Fred and I chilled out on the beach for the rest of the day resting and surfing as we felt like. By late afternoon we'd had the best of the waves and after sandy sandwiches, and even sandier crisps, we trooped back up (many many times with all the stuff I'd brought down through the day) to the car. I worked out I'd made 4 return journeys up the cliff face and my legs were jelly by the time Fred and I finished our last trip with the boards. After dropping the boards, suits, boots and gloves off (Pacific was that cold and most others were wearing hoods too!) we headed home for a soak of aching muscles in the hot tub. A carb rich dinner of Carbonara with hot dogs refuelled us after the calories spent. Did I know about it the next morning when I woke stiff as a board. Who forgot to warm up and stretch out.....? duh.
We left Lincoln City and headed south on the 101. Our plan was to get near to the California border and within striking distance of The Redwood Forests. Yet more dramatic beautiful scenery made for many stop offs and a journey that passed easy on the eye. We pulled into Brookings, a rather sorry looking large town, and did our standard tour of variable motels, finally settling on 'The Brookings Inn Resort'. Whilst it came with an indoor pool in a large greenhouse in the middle of its parking lot, it's name was rather grand for this less than salubrious establishment. Some nifty negotiation with the surley 80s throwback desk clerk, all bouffant blonde hair and vibrant makeup, by Dean got the rate down from $124 to the in budget $99. With not a lot to do in Brookings, apart from a quick tour of the harbour, we spent the next 2 days relaxing on the parking lot sun deck and refreshing ourselves in the milky pool (I don't even want to know why with goggles you couldn't see your hands underwater). On our second day returning to the sun deck we were greeted with a vomit covered wall and floor - as I said salubrious! - but once it had been quickly cleared up and disinfected by the maintenance man, appalled at the mess and muttering "who raised these kids", we ensconced ourselves for a bit of reading and email catch up.
With some savings made on accommodation over the previous few days, and with no cooking facilities at all, we decided to treat ourselves to a Mexican at the family restaurant down the road. Huge alcoholic Mahgaritas arrived just as the door opened, with a customer exiting, and clouds of black smoke from a fire blowing into the restaurant. I had apparently mistaken an external waste bin for an ashtray and set it on fire. I buried my head in my menu and did my best to look innocent.... A few buckets of water applied by the manager and disaster was averted. It wasn't until I left after dinner that I confessed to Fred who seemed to think it was utterly awesome on my part, and seemed rather proud of me for causing such chaos.
Brookings also saw us surprise Fred with a visit to the local cinema. Housed in the original 'movie theatre' it was all original and still sported the external box office and velvet seating. We had told Fred we were going out to dinner again. We stopped outside the movie theatre and the 'Jason Bourne' poster and asked him to choose from the menu. Blank looks all round. Eventually we had to tell him that rather than booking dinner, Dad had booked 3 tickets for the opening night of the new Bourne film (rating in the US is much lowere than the UK where he wouldn't be allowed to see it at the cinema). We've all been so excited about this 4th instalment from Paul Greengrass so Fred went nuts. It was brilliant. We had real butter popcorn, clothes ruined from the butter but it was sooooooo good! Was delighted to find some down my bra that night as a little extra as I got into bed.
One of our Brookings highlights was the visit to Chetco's Trading, a Pawn Shop, that was still open when we walked past after our visit to the cinema. Staffed by the burley Sam, 6ft 6in and 20st, and owned by LJ we ended up spending nearly an hour with them. Fred negotiated with LJ on a 1st edition Walking Dead comic getting the price reduced from $8 to $4. Then LJ plafully suggested a double turn of the coin bet, $8 or free. Fred rejected this, presumably he thought he already had a good bird in the hand. Fred's counter was a turn of the coin bet but $5 or $3. I kind of liked that solution. Fred lost the turn of the coin, to LJ's credit he let Fred have the comic for the original $4. After all this the conversation turned, predictibly, to Brexit and the upcoming US Presidential election. In this shop laden with guns and crossbows (as well as wetsuits, gardening gloves, memorial coke bottles etc.....) it was good to know that these guys thought Trump was nuts too. LJ took our details and said he would come visit when he comes to the UK. I think LJ and Sam in Newark could be quite fun!
After a glorious 4 weeks in Canada we hopped across the border by bus from Vancouver to Seattle. It was a remarkably painless journey, made easier by the decision to grab a cab from the airport where we had dropped our car to the bus station. Thankfully the inflatable rubber dinghy found a home with the attendants from Thrifty Cars who were delighted to take it, and its single remaining oar off our hands.
At the border we had to get off the bus and go through passport control. We were rather bemused by the lackadaisical and frankly negligent approach of the US border guards who seemed only able to move at the pace of the sloths (if you’ve seen Zootropolis at the Cinema you’ll get the idea!), and in between chatted between themselves about nonsense. Most bizarre given the ‘terror’ that is reported, and a very sharp contrast to the diligence of UK and European border controls! We held up the whole bus due to the driver giving us the wrong instructions, hey ho, and after a mad dash (at sloth speed) we finally got back on. Dean was not in the best of moods, which was unfortunate for the young French couple who had decided to nab our seats which were in a prime spot. They quickly decamped in response to his thunderous “get out of our seats’, and we caused much amusement for the rest of the bus.
Beautiful scenery brought us into Seattle, where our high bridge entry gave us stunning views of the Space Needle and Seattle harbour. We rode the ‘Sky Train’ to the airport through sketchy districts, and a lovely elderly retired microbologist struck up a conversation with me. He was reading the Economist and hearing my English accent asked what I thought of Teresa May and Brexit (it follows us everywhere…!). We had a lovely discussion about the virtues of good leaders, and the paucity of such leaders in the US and UK political parties. A good conversation with a delightful elderly man. As we pulled into the airport Fred was asleep in my arms, nuzzled in my neck. Another sweet moment.
We got to choose our hire car for the next 5 weeks, and we pulled out in a large Toyota that Fred had chosen because his brother Barney was just starting a 2 year placement with Toyota in Epsom. A couple of hours of heavy traffic on the freeway and we pulled into our motel in South Tacoma. We were greeted by fire engines and ambulances, and it looked like some poor old man had started a fire in his room. It proved to be our most interesting stop to date. As we ate our salad and cooked chicken by the pool we were joined by a couple of people, likely on meth, who proceeded to swim fully clothed in the pool and request our food. I’m pretty sure they didn’t have a key card to enter the pool!
The relaxing evening was slightly disrupted when we got notice that our AirBnB in Portland had fallen through. I jumped onto CouchSurfer.com to see if I could muster up a last minute home for us. Within minutes Karrie and Ed came back and said they could do 2 nights but we would be doubling up for one of those with couch surfers they already had booked in. Portland was back on.
We jumped onto Highway 101 after a breakfast swim, this time meeting a lovely African American grandmother who was living at the motel with her daughter’s family including grandchildren. They all joined us in the pool and we learnt about the wider family dispute over a family farm that was subject to probate. She shared her homespun wisdom and God’s blessing for our trip. Yet another lovely set of memories.
Our route, it turned out, took us past the exit for Mount St Helen’s an active volcano. We stopped off at the visitor centre which had a magnificent view of the smoking giant that had last erupted, unexpectedly, in 1986 with the loss of over 100 lives. A quarter of the volcano’s side had been blown out with the eruption, and we had a great view of the huge crater in the side of Mount St Helen’s. Being cheapskate’s we viewed the exhibition from the entrance hall, and looked at the detailed history in the visitor centre shop. Another $30 saved!
Another detour in to the town of Battle Site, because we thought there might be a battle site there (there wasn’t!), a stop at Walmart to buy food to cook for our couchsurfing hosts, and horrendous traffic coming into Portland meant we arrived an embarrassing hour late. Ed and Karrie however were gracious about our lack of punctuality & I set to in the vast kitchen of their lovely home making Spaghetti Bolognese for us all. Caleb their second eldest took Fred under his wing, and much to his delight, they were soon playing ‘Call of Duty – Black Ops’ on the Xbox (bad bad parenting by us!).
The next day we headed out to the park and ride to catch the train into Downtown Portland. Pioneer Square was our first stop with a lovely amphitheatre. Dean and I went into the Tourist Info centre whilst Fred wondered around outside. The delightful Larry, a retired gentleman now volunteering, gave us maps and tips, including hiking for Dean (there’s just something about Dean that makes everyone think he wants to go hiking!!). We came out to find Fred ecstatic that he was in the middle of a ‘Pokemon Go’ meeting place. It was all we could do to drag him away….
Following Larry’s directions, we came to the largest Portland Food Cart site with over 200 on 2 blocks of wasteland. The variety was stunning. Our first stop with Egyptian because Fred loves Egyptian flatbreads. All the way to Portland to get a Kebab, none of us had been drinking, and it was midday! Throughout the day we grazed on a smorgasbord of international food from the carts and all were fantastic.
On Karrie’s recommendation we headed to Powell’s bookstore that takes up and entire block. We were slightly stunned to be greeted at the door by a sign reading ‘no guns beyond this point’ – not something we see on the doors at Waterstones! We left with 3 books. Taking a walk through the Pearl District we came to Blick’s a huge artists shop. The array of paints, brushes, canvases etc were astounding and beautiful to see. On our way to our next stop we came across Portland Art College. The security guy on the desk let us in as ‘visitors’ to view the students work, and pointed out a couple of exhibitions we could go in and see. There was a terrific piece of video and photographic work about the Portland homeless population. It was moving in the way it humanised this large, and marginalised, section of Portland’s society. One person in the film talked about the strength of community that they were part of, how they cared for one another. What stuck was his identification that he sees and engages every day with his neighbours, and this gives him a huge amount of social connection. On the large prosperous estate that Karrie and Ed live on I didn’t encounter one neighbour. It rang true.
As we left the Art college we headed through ‘The Parks’ a series of small parks on a boulevard. The homeless move into these shady spots during the hot daytime. We only had to deviate from our path once and that was to avoid Fred seeing a couple of guys shooting up a young woman in her 20’s. There’s lots of things we’re explaining on this trip to Fred, mostly ahead of his time, but this was one I wanted to skip. We were heading to one of the most famous donut shops in town, Voodoo Donut, and as we worked our way there we came across so many homeless people. The man slumped out cold in his motorised scooter who we thought was dead (he wasn’t), the man who was having a psychotic or pharmaceutical episode in the fountain with his trousers and underwear round his knees, the high black man who wanted a cigarette (which we gave him) who then joyously engaged Fred in a conversation about what sports Fred likes (we passed 5 minutes with him), Cathy in her 50s who can’t stay clean and so can’t get a place in a hostel (Dean sat and shared his lunch with and then went back with a donut). Saddest of all for me was the teenager, with half her teeth missing, with a cardboard sign outside Voodoo Donut. She had been seeking $25 for a bed for the night, as people had given her money she crossed out the $25 and made it $20, then $15. Fred and I decided to break our not giving money rule to beggars, we chose the cheaper dozen donuts and gave the $10 we saved to her. Our resolution to give to a national charity for each country and then not give money to beggars… but when you have so much…….
In the midst of this we had the light relief of Voodoo Donuts. Glitter painted outside walls gave the old building an iridescent glow. So famous that queues were managed around the block. Once inside the visual displays of the donuts were stunning. Each donut, a work of art in itself, danced a pirouette inside revolving display cabinets. Funky pierced tattooed young millennials served us. We left with a dozen inside the iconic pink boxes with voodoo graffiti.
We decided to end our day with a walk along the Portland river front. As we made our way there, balancing our pink box, we came across the Mercy Corps HQ. Larry from tourist info had recommended a stop here. We were the only visitors to this extraordinary charity. Their objective is to address hunger and the causes of hunger, employing only locals in the countries they work. Individual stories of self-sufficiency enabled by Mercy Corps adorned the walls. Most impactful was the three differently sized Perspex cabinets containing grain. Each one contained the average food per capita, represented by the grain, consumed in three different regions of the world. The US box was by far the largest and was treble that of the poorest of countries. We took photos and for one of mine I placed my Voodoo Donut box on top of the US Perspex cabinet. I was feeling inspired…..!
We made our way back to Karrie and Eds and I set about making a chicken curry for us all. We enjoyed more good conversation about American politics before hitting the sack. After a leisurely start the next day we headed back downtown heading for OMSI the Portland science museum. Karrie was picking her 2 youngest Vespa and Laith up from the airport, who had been visiting their grandma for 3 weeks, and they were all going to meet us at the museum. We had a great time exploring the space, science and physics sections. Dean had nipped off with Ed for a cheeky beer. We all met back up and Ed drove us around the East side of Portland, through the famous funky Hawthorne district (apparently where beards, fedoras, tattoos, and the man bun was born) and up to the top of their local city volcano. Apparently Portland has more volcanos than any other part of the US, active and extinct which was a surprise. That night we were treated to marinated ribs cooked by Ed on the BBQ. I don’t know what they feed their pigs, but if I hadn’t known it was portk I would have sworn from the size of them that the ribs came from a buffalo.
We were only supposed to stop 2 nights with Ed and Karrie, but they had offered us 3 and then that evening suggested that we have another night making it 4. They had just found out that Beaverton Diversity Night Market and Festival was the next night. We didn’t take much persuading. In the morning we were treated to homemade waffles which I felt I had earnt with an early morning run around the area. We spent the morning chilling out and catching up on emails, blogging, reading etc before I took Vesper, Laith and Fred off to the local pool. We got a MacDonalds on the way due to me getting the pool opening times wrong (duh) but the kids were rewarded with a ‘Secret Lives of Pets’ toy in their Happy Meal. We had a great time at the pool which refreshed us for the evening fun.
Beaverton Diversity Festival and night market turned out to be a real treat. Food from Somalia, Jamaica, Mexico, Cuba etc and dance displays from Persia, Korea, Hawaii, China, Japan. Last up was a Brazilian band fronted by a long haired, long legged female singer in the biggest stacked shoes and the shortest white dress any of us had ever seen. She looked and sounded fabulous. Immediately the dance area was bursting and the fantastic moves of those that knew what they were doing left me sitting on the side-lines. Finally, Fred, who for some reason adores it when Dean and I dance together, made us get up and dance. He captured it on video (see Fred’s blog) before taking to the dancefloor with me, which Dad caught on video (see below). It was also lovely to meet some of Ed and Karrie’s friends and their children. It really is a community with people from all over the world that works in a very harmonious and affirming way. A great speech was given by the organisers recognising the contribution of the diverse community of immigrants which started with the Europeans. Of course this is a community of prosperity. Nike, Columbia Sportswear, Intel and others all have their global headquarters in Beaverton. Maybe none of this is about race, religion and colour. Perhaps, after all, it’s all about money……
After a wonderful time with Ed, Karrie, Caleb, Laith and Vesper we said goodbye ready to hit the Pacific coastline and Highway 101. We couldn’t have asked for kinder and more hospitable hosts and we even left with a full set of clean clothes!
Below are some more pictures from the Portland visit
Having enjoyed the stunning scenery of the Rockies and following the recommendation of ‘Scottie’ (the Scot we met in the B&B at Valemont who’s name we can’t remember….) we headed for the town of Nelson. Luckily we found an exceptionally cheap AirBnB and were hosted by the delightful Cheryl.
On our way down we crossed a river by the free ferry, that was a surprise in every sense, and wended our way down the Kokanee Rockies. A fabulously hippy ‘wimin’ roadside diner ‘Mama Sita’s’ gave us a sense of the more alternative folk who had staked a claim to this out of the way part of Canada. After 3 hours of driving we came to Cheryl’s lovely home on Stanley Road in Downtown Nelson. A red haired funky granny, whose son gave up teaching to farm cannabis for the legal purposes of medicinal pain relief…! She gave up her entire home to party the weekend away and we settled in J
Nelson was the best of all Canada world’s; on a beautiful lake, surrounded by vertigos mountains clad in trees, with a thriving alternative community – co-op housing, community veg gardens, local co-op radio etc.…. – and great food and entertainment. Our first evening stroll took us to the edge of the lake and we found a man doing his yoga chanting to the hills and the water. We then stumbled across a DVD store which had just been taken over by the most charming young man who had decided it was his mission to screen and rent the best movie ever. Apparently business was thriving despite Amazon Prime and Netflix! We decided this was the best town we had visited so far & we were a stone’s throw from moving here (we do this a lot!!).
Early Saturday morning and I found the Kootenay Co-op store and Bakery. Fabulous fresh food, staffed by funky energetic youngsters. I got the sense that sexual orientation was pretty fluid round here. After homemade pancakes (I’ve mastered the N American pancakes that rise using baking powder – yay!!) we arrived at the local farmers’ market in the Japanese garden. If you’re a hippy this is hippy heaven and you need to come here. Home dried rolled fruit, fresh bread, a Jamaican shouting “cous cous” every 2 mins to get you to come to his cous cous stand, massage, a folk band, wild flower stand, women doing the hula hoop (just for fun), I could go on and on…. Finally, actually first, we came across the most delightful table with a woman sat behind an ancient typewriter who was a poet. You could type your own poem or you could pay her to type a poem for you. Being a supporter of the arts & the independent artist, I wanted a poem. Behind me Dean shuddered as I commissioned my own work of art without asking the price in advance (dear reader, in my naivety I thought that this being hippy heaven it would be ‘pay what you think its worth’). Fred gave our commissioned poet his topic “Travelling round the world” and we left her to compose whilst we explored. 10 minutes later we got back to the poet who read us her labours. It was beautiful and within seconds I was shedding tears – there must be some medication that can cure me of this over emotional response to any artistic endeavour by other…. Anyway see video below of the poet reading this to us.
I’m not sure if there is a DSM II classification for what Dean has but it needs inventing. 24 hours after arriving in Nelson and being smitten, he was experiencing an allergic reaction to ‘hippy heaven’. Having contemplated going to the Kootenay Shambhala Meditation Centre on Sunday morning for a 3-hour meditation, I became acutely aware that he was on the verge of punching the next person that asked him if he needed his Chakra’s sorting (I may be slightly exaggerating for the purposes of injecting some humour – but not much….!)
A lovely antidote was leaving Nelson to experience the Ainsworth Hot Springs an hour away. Taking a winding road, stopping for fabulous coffee and milkshake in Balfour, we arrived at the most magnificent natural hot springs. Sulphur coated caves with Iron rich waters, 45°C in heat, with an ice cold plunge pool got our pulses racing. Fortunately, there was also a pool, heated by the hot springs water, which was a more bearable 35°C that we could lounge in, or by.
Our final day in Nelson saw us chilling out in the morning, changing our bookings for various cars and accommodation – we decided to can Vancouver and Vancouver Island as too expensive & everyone said that if we’d seen what we had of Canada so far we wouldn’t get anything extra from it – before we headed out in the afternoon to the beach on the river. Another lovely chilled time. Great play area for Fred, who made more new friends, and shady tables for Dean to catch up on his blogging. The dingy we had bought in Wasaga Beach had a good outing in the chilly waters, Fred and I mastering the one paddle canoeing, and a refreshing dip got our circulation going. Dean got a free pass and wondered off for coffee downtown. You’ll have to read his blog to get the detail but coffee turned into new friends, a Sunday League baseball game, and beer….!
Nelson, Stanley Street, and Cheryl will have a special place in our trip. It was magical and I may just retire there…... (but only if Dean has his Chakra’s sorted first!).
Click on link below to view more photos from Nelson trip
What a treat Kamloops turned out to be. Yet another great motel with outdoor pool, aptly named the Grand View Motel. What a ‘grand view’ it had. Nestled where 2 rivers meet in mountain country it becomes inaccessible at times in winter, with all roads to it closing. Weather permitting, in winter flights come in and out bringing provisions and tourists who come to ski and sled. With a small airport and beautiful setting it has grown to over 100,000. A vibrant community of people have been drawn here. They have built a stunning municipal park on the water’s edge, with obligatory beach, bandstand, play park, and a wealth of sporting facilities all free. People gather, like Gary, who was playing basketball alone until others joined in spontaneously. Unbelievably every night they host, at the bandstand in the park, a free music concert. We have since found this is pretty much standard. How great that towns get to come together, young and old, and musicians have a wealth of paid work across Canada. But what was really stunning about Kamloops was our insight into 2 contrasting cultures that have built Canada; European settler cowboys and the First Nations Shuswap Tribe that had been here for thousands of years.
Going up to the Tourist Information Office we found out that there was a local rodeo starting just down the road in Pritchard. Off we trotted taking a route through a river gorge reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. Millions of years of erosion had carved out stunning scenery. Arriving at the rodeo we stepped back in time. This was a truly local rodeo and we looked like the only tourists. Women wore their plaid shirts with rhinestone studded jeans. Men limped around battered cowboy boots topped with broad brimmed hats. We would understand why so many limped in a few minutes’ time. Saddled up, cowboys and cowgirls caught up with friends, a few with tiny tots perched on their saddles with them. I never knew they made cowboy boots so small, and it was most endearing when the tiny ones held the reins in one hand and their comforters in the other. They certainly start them early here. I lost Dean at one point and found him at the competitor entry stand. I’m pretty sure he was a few seconds away from entering the steer rustling contest. The lady at the stand was certainly finding him amusing with his man bun, florid Hawaiian shirt and bright red shorts.
After the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new grandstand (think local rugby club size), parade of teams participating and renditions of ‘O Canada’ and the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ by a 10-year-old girl, the contests started. First up was the bareback riding. Unbroken horses were released into the arena mounted by cowboys with nothing but a leather strap to hold onto. Maximum time any of the cowboys lasted was 12 seconds, with most of them tasting the dust in about 4 or 5. Even with body protectors they took a violent battering, none more so than when they were ditched into the aluminium fencing around the arena. Horses definitely won that one. This was followed by steer tethering, steer riding etc etc. As the interval approached we were astounded to find out what ‘Mutton Busting’ was……
To our ‘amused’ amazement and horror ‘Mutton Busting’ is bare back riding for the under 10’s but on sheep. The horror was watching wailing 2 year olds strapped onto bucking sheep, and also tasting the dust in a few seconds. We presumed that British Columbia social services have other concerns! I guess that’s how they toughen them up round here….
Fred acquired a Budweiser cowboy hat for free which he proudly wore for the rest of the afternoon. In the stands we got talking to a family that had just relocated out here from Bristol. All in all, it was a fabulous afternoon, and great to see an authentic local rodeo rather than a big commercial one like the Calgary Stampede. Total cost for this one was £12, whereas Calgary would have been over £150. We finished off the hot day in the pool of the motel and more home cooked food thanks to the kitchenette in our room.
Sunday we headed over the river in Kamloops to the First Nations museum on the Shuswap reservation. We were the only ones there which was surprising. The museum was run on a shoe string but full of fascinating exhibitions. To set the scene we were shown into a small room to watch a video made in the 80’s. Incredibly moving, it described the lives of the tribe before, during and after the European settlers arrived. The history of the European settlers attempts to ‘civilise’ the First Nations people was shameful to watch. Far from being wild savages, the first settlers were welcomed and helped by the Shuswap tribe. They had no need of coal, gold or lead and so let the settlers mine and take it from their land. However, as further commercial gain was to be had and the British and American interests expanded, the First Nation people were removed from their lands. Nomadic by nature, they were corralled into small settlements with their traditional migrations prevented.
With the ‘Indians Act’ in the 1880’s the British Government enshrined in law the right to forcibly remove any ‘Indians’ from settlements over 8,000 people, and children from First Nation families were removed from the age of 6 and sent to religious institutions away from their families to be ‘re-educated’. We met Dan, who was 2 years older than Dean, working in the museum. Fred who was teary after the video and horrific stories told, was stunned as Dan told how he had been removed at gun point from his family in 1970 as an 8-year-old, and sent to the site we were on. This site was a boarding school run by the Roman Catholic Church staffed by nuns and priests. Terrible physical and sexual abuse took place. Children who became ill, which was often as the accommodation was inadequate for the harsh winter climate, died. Families who tried to find their children were told they had been sent to hospital but subsequent research has shown no records of this. What was most astounding was this practice did not end until 1980. A pretty inglorious bit of history for ‘Great Britain’……
After a sobering day we distracted ourselves with Fred’s pool games, and were joined by the son of the Nepalese family running the motel. We then took ourselves down to the park to enjoy a local band. Along with the mixed aged prosperous middle classes of Kamloops, sat out on their picnic chairs, a couple of local drunks were dancing exuberantly at the front. We were very touched to see a large group on a trip out from what must have been a mental health rehabilitation unit. There were some very ill people in the group, one inspecting individual blades of grass on his hands and knees with very bad Parkinsonian side effects of medication, but all given free rein to roam about, and treated gently and kindly by the staff.
As we set off the next morning for the start of our ‘Rockies’ adventure we dropped back into the Shuswap museum. Fred wanted to interview Dan for his ‘Canada Day’ video (he’s just finishing the editing and then we’ll post it) to get a First Nations perspective. Dan was there, but although he had talked freely and confidently to us the day before he was uneasy about ‘speaking for First Nations peoples’. Instead Carol, the archivist for the museum, from the tribe came and did the interview. I won’t say more because you’ll see it on Fred’s video, but again I was reduced to tears by her quiet and moving responses to his questions.
With lots to talk about as a family, we set off in the car to Valemount which is the last town with accommodation before the Icefields Highway. A 5-hour drive through yet more glorious scenery and we arrived in a ski resort with no lifts. It seems that a lot of BC ski resorts have no lifts, instead you need to take a helicopter to the top of the mountains and with a guide ski the backcountry. Not something suited to my race slalom skis!!
Valemount is a maudlin run down small town with little to do. As luck would have it, however, that evening the Tourist Info were running a session on Beavers and Muskrats down at the lakeside. After an A&W burger we met the youthful Sarah at the rendezvous. To our delight we were the only people so had a really personal guide through the wildlife on the wetlands. Accompanied by a wealth of mozzies we spent an hour searching for Muskrats. Dean and Fred were rewarded with sightings, which I kept missing…. Never mind we learnt an awful lot. Fred was amazed that Sarah happily let the mozzies graze on her. She shuns deet products and even in Thailand for 2 months last year she applied no product. They do make them tough out here!
For the second time we were staying in an old jailhouse. Cells are still intact, the owners grown up children have their beds in the cells, so we all made the most of the photo opportunity of being behind bars. We had breakfast with a young Scottish / Canadian couple on their way to a festival in Whistler. Steve recommended Nelson as a place to visit after we had done the Rockies. As I write this we are now headed there for 3 nights. Seems we’ve taken to going where others tell us which feels quite fun J
Unfortunately, as we woke for our Rockies road trip the weather had closed in. Instead of soaring mountains we could only see the foothills and lots, and lots, and lots, and lots, and lots…. of trees. Thankfully we could see the stunning glacial icefields and beautiful turquoise lakes. We were going to stop for lunch in Jasper, but when we drove it we found it very disappointing. It was a poor man’s alpine resort and we couldn’t see the point of it. So we drove in and drove back out. However, the biggest treat came out of the blue. Just after the icefields the sparse traffic came to a halt, we thought there must have been an accident. Then we spotted it. Directly alongside our car, we had a perfect view, a black bear came out of the woods. Ignoring the Japanese and Chinese tourists, decanting from a bus and cars, it foraged in front of us. We were no more than 15 meters away safely shut in our car. Others were within 5 meters on foot …… For bears own longevity you should be 100 meters away and not stop for more than 30 seconds otherwise they become too socialised, which this one clearly had. We had no choice but to stay where we were as we were boxed in by traffic. It was several minutes before it slowly wondered off into the woods. This encounter, which we caught on film close up, made our day. Shy Rockies evaded us, but the wildlife gave us the biggest treat. A few irresponsible tourists being given the fright of their life would have gone down well too!
So we pulled into Revelstoke after 8 hours driving and found a motel with a kitchenette. Whilst Dean unpacked Fred and I went off to the store to get supplies to cook. Thai green curry on the menu, I found a lovely bottle of red to cope with the hefty dose of chili I was going to put into it; taste buds needed reviving after too many burgers. The early night that was planned got canned when we got talking to our motel neighbour Rob. Rob was in town to negotiate permission to mine lead and gold. We passed a couple of hours discussing local and world politics. He sat firmly in the camp that the world needs a policeman and that is the role that the US and UK have nobly taken, and which Canada should support. He was also of the view that the First Nations never invented anything “where are the pyramids they built?”. Despite divergent views we enjoyed his company. When we moved off the politics we got more recommendations on places to visit. A native of Vancouver he suggested we don’t bother with it, or Vancouver Island, if we’d already been to the places we’d described. So now we are going to linger in Nelson (Steve’s recommendation), which we are driving to now, then drop off the car as planned on 19th before we take an earlier crossing into the US. Of course this is liable to change…..!
Yesterday the sky cleared for us. Revelstoke is surrounded by mountains and we decided to take the 23Km drive up the main mountain to then do some hiking. It’s become a running joke that wherever Dean goes and asks what a town has on offer they always recommend hiking to him. Along with hot sandy beaches, hiking is one of Dean’s least favourite activities. As I point out it must be because he looks like he loves hiking ;-) So he finally gave in and decided to please the locals by going hiking. The fact that we’d been so sedentary sitting in the car for hours the 2 previous days meant we were all ready for some serious exercise.
It was beautiful. Gorgeous blue skies, mountains draped in snow thanks to the bad weather the day before, wild countryside, and meadows of wild flowers. The views from up high in the Monashee mountains more than made up for the poor visibility on the Yellow Highway the day before. More mozzies for company kept us moving at a good pace, so much so that at one point we lost Dean again and I found myself wondering around with Fred asking people if they had seen a man with a big beard and a Budweiser cowboy hat…… A young couple pointed us in the right direction – thank God he’s noticeable. After our bear encounter the previous day Fred gave Dean an enormous telling off for being irresponsible. He has very little faith in us!
Free passes for the local pool came with our room. Very well equipped, it included an indoor rapid that you floated through, and with islands to hide behind and in it made for an exciting game of ‘infection’. Quick stop for supplies and we went downtown for another free concert in the square. After music and an explore tired out we retired early to bed to watch a movie. Just as we did so an enormous thunderstorm and flash floods hit. At 8:30 the electricity was cut to the whole town. This lasted till the early hours when Dean was woken by lights coming on in the room & the rings on the electric oven where we’d been cooking. Apparently we’re having unseasonably rainy weather in the last couple of days. After the heat we’re quite glad, and it’s still 20 degrees, but we are feeling for all those camping, which is what most people do in BC. Let’s face it, it wouldn’t be a summer holiday for us Brits without a bit of rain!
Leaving the verdant lake district of the Rideau region we headed to the north east of Ontario where more lakes abound. Based on a recommendation from Annabelle we headed to Lake Simcoe, but never actually made it there…. Accommodation shortages meant instead we found a cheap motel between Collingwood and Wasaga Beach, so that was where we ended up. The minute we arrived the Indian born family were a delight. Four generations lived on site and Josh, the only child of the family, aged 9 became best buddies with Fred from the minute we arrived.
We awoke to eggs boiled by Raisa the grandmother and formidably capable matriarch who ran the motel. This was not a B&B but we were being treated like family. Fred and Josh had decided the night before that they wanted to go to the beach the next day together, permission granted from Josh’s family we drove off to Wasaga Beach. It is the longest freshwater beach in the world at 14km of white sand. Beach 1 had the feel of Skegness, if Skegness had wonderful weather! However, as we walked down the sand dunes we escaped to Beach 2 where trees provided shade and a cooling breeze over picnic benches. Those of you who know Dean, or who have read earlier blogs, will know that this is essential to a successful day at the beach since Dean likes neither sun, heat, sand or water…..! Thankfully the lovely spot we found meant we had 2 brilliant days with an additional family member in Josh for both of them. We also had managed to acquire an inflatable boat and oars which we have since found room for in my rucksack and strapped the oars to the outside, and I’m pleased to report that only one oar was lost between Toronto and Vancouver!
As our first day had been so successful at Wasaga Beach we added an extra night and had 3 nights at the Pleasant Mount Motel. At the end of our first day on the beach Raisa cooked us a vegetarian pasta with chili which was gorgeous, this was delivered to us on our porch as a ‘thank you’ for taking Josh out. So after 2 lovely beach days we left with the boys having had a great time and new friends made. We also left with clean laundry as Raisa had done that for us all for free!!
Niagara Falls was our destination for midday and we took the most direct route through breath taking scenery. The roads were endlessly long and straight over undulating geography. We got some fabulous pictures when we dropped over the top of one peak of the road that stretched ahead for over a 100 miles over the rolling hills.
We arrived in Niagara absolutely starving so on the outskirts we headed into a bar / diner on a parking lot. Dean was convinced it was going to be a strip joint when we approached the darkened windows, having had a similar experience in the States as a shocked 17 year old – this is one of Fred’s favourite stories about his Dad. Relief all round that it was a sports bar where all the women were fully clothed!
Watered and fed we braved ourselves for the onslaught of Niagara Falls. As a person who doesn’t queue I had nearly canned the idea of this visit, however a number of FB friends had said we ‘must’ do it so here we were. Unbelievably, for peak season and at midday, we drove straight into the town found parking and walked 10 minutes along the river that feeds The Falls before we found ourselves alongside the stunning ‘horseshoe’ fall. It really is impressive and certainly beats Iguazu Falls on the Brazilian / Argentinian / Paraguay border. In searing heat, we got the pictures we wanted, wrote a postcard to Grandma who has this on her bucket list & sent it from Niagara Falls postbox, and set off to find a place to sleep that night. We had been told to visit Niagara-on-the-Lake and took a scenic drive along the gorge that leads from The Falls to Lake Ontario. Stopping for fresh cherries on the roadside some helpful ladies from Niagara-on-the-Lake said we wouldn’t get any cheap motels there (it was too chi chi!) so recommended we drive through Niagara-on-the-Lake and carry on to St Catherines, where there were 2 cheap motels on the highway interchange and one with a pool. Hooray!! We were in desperate need of a cooling off, however dodgy the motel or pool may be. An hour later we arrived circa 5pm. Dean had a ‘funny moment’ when I came back to the car with the great news that it was in budget, had a pool, and they had a vacancy, suggesting that it wasn’t to his liking being on a highway interchange. Heatstroke and exhaustion from a long day and driving had clearly got the better of him so he was overruled. Fred and I laid him down in a darkened room whilst I went off in search of supplies ie food, chilled wine and a bar of Hearsheys cookies and cream (this is a combo that never fails to work, but which was not covered in my ‘Far From Help’ medical course in Aviemore……). Revived he joined us in the pool and Fred invented more complicated games with fluid rules. I think banking would be a great career for Fred….
Another solid nights sleep and we set off for Toronto. Being the terrible planners we are on this trip we arrived without tickets or reservation for the revolving restaurant at midday at the CN Tower to a massive crush. Given my issue with queuing, when I identified there was no queue for the line those with reservations for the Tower 360 Degree Restaurant we threw ourselves into that one. We blagged it through the first few attendants and security. It looked like we would be undone as we approached the final hurdle of tickets being scanned. Nonchalantly we tailgated a large family and successfully got through the 4th round. As we stood in what seemed to be a last and unavoidable queue a manager came through the line. I grabbed him did our ‘Bumbling Brit’ bit. Yes, he said, we were in the wrong queue for the restaurant, no I replied we don’t have a reservation, ok he said I’ll take you through as a walk in. 5 minutes later we were seated and it had taken us all of 15 minutes. Perhaps I should go into banking….?!?
Thanks to Fiona, Michael and Annabelle for the recommendation to have lunch in the revolving restaurant rather than just do the visit up the tower. The food was wonderful, sadly we had to enjoy it with tap water as the £30 per head was outside our daily budget, however the wine list for each course and dish looked amazing – another time!
After a jolly good walk round Toronto we drove out through Mississauga to the Super 8, near the airport, where we would spend our last night in Ontario before flying to Vancouver. A lovely small indoor pool with a scalding hot tub set us up for a great night’s sleep.
Breakfast was provided with this accommodation, and we got to make our own waffle’s on a real waffle iron. Fred’s day was made with the discovery of whipped butter to accompany the maple syrup in clogging his arteries. LOL - as Fred would say. With 11 hours to kill before we flew and no appetite for more sightseeing we had a swim and then settled on the local Imax, 2 blocks away, on the opening day of ‘The Secret Lives of Pets’. Fred had been nagging us to see it at some time during our trip and couldn’t believe that he was going on the opening day. Loaded up with bottles of water and unopened cans of Diet Decaff Coke, which we couldn’t take on the flight, we settled in for a low cost movie viewing (half the price of the UK). What a brilliant film! Seats were unbelievably comfy too with tons of leg room.
We then headed to the airport, dropped the hire car off and waited until we could go through security. 5 hours before our flight we settled into the Premium Lounge that Dean gets access to through an anomaly of how long he has had his bank account with NatWest. This is proving to be a real winner and cost saving! Luxurious surroundings with unlimited food and drink. Mindful that 5 hours of unlimited drink prior to flying comes with its own risks, I found the Club Soda. 4 hours before the flight I felt that I had restrained myself for long enough and taught a couple of Canadians at the bar how to make a G&T using ‘farmhouse measures’. Soon they were planning out our British Columbia trip and, with laptop in hand using Bing Maps, we had a complete itinerary in short shrift. I knew there was a reason we had left it until the night before we flew out…..!
The 5 hour flight, landing at 3am Toronto time but 1am local Vancouver time, passed mostly in sleep. So good was the hospitality we had enjoyed at Toronto I don’t even remember taking off. We picked up our baggage (only one of the 2 oars missing) and caught a cab to the dingiest of motels, another Super 8. We awoke to a pigeon roaming the landing! However, sleep was good and we were refreshed ready for breakfast. Fred was slumbering still. We took it in turns to grab the sparsest of breakfasts in a desolate windowless dining room. Muffins and hard boiled eggs were dropped into our, now famous, Wilko bag given to me by Dr Chris for our car journey. We eventually woke Fred just before 11am (2pm Toronto time!) and caught the mini bus to the airport to get our car.
We now have a little red compact Chevy that our things barely fit in. But we love it! Its wonderfully over spec’d with reversing camera, TV screen, great stereo, and sun roof – bizarre.
We headed straight out of Vancouver up through Hope, Chiliwack and other wonderfully named places. After the flatlands of Ontario we were ready for the stunning mountain scenery that started straight away. 4 hours later we arrived in Kamloops and eagle eyed Dean spotted a motel with beautiful views. We pulled in and I was sent in to negotiate. It looked out of our price bracket, but we felt in need of a more aesthetically pleasing stop than the last couple of nights. The lovely owner duly obliged and agreed to a price, plus a kitchen apartment thrown in, that we were looking for. So as I sit here now, we are overlooking the most beautiful town, surrounded by mountains, in ‘Injin Country’ (yes there is a reservation here, a totem pole welcomes and warns visitors, and I was served by a lady from the First Nations in Safeway), having enjoyed a great home cooked dinner, ready to be woken by the sun coming up, and a morning swim in the pool here. Will be hard to leave but we will only have 2 nights here before we head to the Rockies proper, taking the highest road in Canada :-0
We woke up on Friday ready to join our Canadian hosts in celebrating Canada Day. I found out the lay of the land with an early morning run (not as early as previous mornings as sleep now thankfully embraces me till 8am!).
Yet another beautiful village sat on a lake and everyone saying morning to everyone else. There has to be a deep dark secret that these communities have, where is the crack in this perfection?! Speaking to the hip laundromat lady I found out that there was indeed a big village ‘do’ for Canada Day. Well done Dean for getting it so right again. So at 1pm we trotted back into the village and joined the school parade led by veterans into the village centre. Before they set off there was a very touching ceremony presenting an 85 year old lady the award of ‘Senior of the Year’. How wonderful that they celebrated the gifts of the elderly, particularly in this age of youth and beauty being prized by most western societies above all else. A rendition of ‘Oh Canada’ (rather lacklustre!!) and Senior of the Year placed in a John Deere ride-on started the parade off. Hordes of children on extravagantly decorated bicycles were cheered through the town to the Fire Station. All the kids, including Fred, were presented with a ‘Canada Day’ bag of sweets, pin flags, Canada Flag tattoos, and a book mark with the words to ‘O Canada’ on it.
Parade over we went to the local museum housed in the old coffin maker and blacksmiths residence. The building was preserved, including the original floorboards, with all the original features from its 1850 construction. Historical objects packed the small space on 2 floors and gave the history from the ‘First Nations’ original Innuit settlers through to the settlement by Europeans. Fred had decided that his ‘project’ for the day was to film a vlog interviewing locals about Canada Day and where they, as individuals, had come from. All rather pertinent in this time of debate about immigration. Canada, after all, is a country of immigrants; from the First Nations who travelled to Canada from across the ice and waters from Greenland etc, through the Western French and British in the 1800s, to the contemporary Western, Asian, and even 25,000 Syrian refugees who have been airlifted by the Canadian Government under a sponsorship programme. At the museum a rather delightful volunteer Christine gave Fred a wonderful interview.
Having spent time in the town we retired to our Motel for some down time in readiness for the late afternoon into night celebrations on the local beach. As everyone else was wearing red and white we all dug into our rucksacks to find what we could to blend in. Dean definitely won the prize and I did my best, finished off with a slash of classic Chanel red lipstick – I knew I brought it backpacking for a reason Dean!! As we headed back out we parked up behind Ken a local policeman in his very impressive truck. He was Fred’s next interview & even set the sirens off for us. He was pleased to report that he had just 5 minutes earlier ticketed a ‘Brit’ for speeding!
The small beach was sandy, natural, and gorgeous. The Lions Club had a fabulous pavilion and maintained the grounds for the whole community through their fund raising. The Canada Day event at the beach was organised and staffed by them, what a terrific community of people. We walked in to the bizarre sight of a red and white clothed Elvis Impersonator singing ‘My Way’! Within 5 minutes the clouds had come over and were ominously dark. Although events had only started an hour before at 4pm and were due to go on until 11pm people were leaving in their droves. 30 minutes later we found out why. Children were pulled out of the water, the bouncy castles deflated and the food tent cleared. A storm of truly biblical proportions broke out (I know I used the term biblical in Montreal but that was nothing compared to this!). Fortunately we could run to the pavilion where Fred and I took shelter with the 2 dozen others left. Dean meanwhile ran through the torrential rain to help the Lions Club team dismantle the food tent that was about to take flight. The opening scene of the ‘Wizard of Oz’ comes to mind! We caught on film the thunder, lightning and torrential rain and were deeply thankful to be able to do so from the shelter of a very wooden structure….
The scheduled band ‘Dogherty Brothers’ playing the ‘tunes we grew up with’ came on at 7pm with only a few of us to enjoy their great musicianship. That changed as a bunch of teenagers from a local ‘camp’ arrived. They were followed by another group from another ‘camp’. Shortly we witnessed a very skilful dance off between the 2 groups that lasted all night. Remember that the band were playing the likes of Van Morrison!
Fred made friends and soon was hanging out in a group with 2 boys and 3 girls. They swam, danced, ate hot dogs and I was struck by the fact that he’s suddenly at the age where he no longer needs to play tig or hide and seek (though he still loves both), but instead he and his new mates were just standing together talking and joshing each other – next phase has come I guess….!
After a wonderful night where the crowd swelled to about 1,000 we were treated to the most magnificent firework display I have ever seen, which took place over the lake. It was truly and was stunning and never ending. At 11pm we headed home. Now sensible people, having not had a drop to drink all day and evening, would have gone to bed then. Dean and I however decided to open a bottle and enjoy a late supper on the deserted terrace of our motel. One bottle turned in to 2 and very merry we finally hit the sack at 2am. I guess it still takes the Brits show ex-members of our empire how to celebrate ;-)
July 2 Oooooooo Canada……
Bleary eyed we all woke feeling the after effects of the fabulous day (and early hours). Fred because he had had a late night, Dean and I because we had got over excited….. Fortunately, in the parking lot of our motel was ‘Kelly’s Diner’. No morning run today, instead we settled for a bucket of coffee and cooked breakfasts to repair the damage.
In need of a refreshing wake up and to get ourselves moving we went back down to the beach with the local and national papers. Fred and I swam and played catch in the water (gosh that restored me!) whilst Dean caught up on the news. He read a really interesting article on Canada’s immigration approach in the main editorial. Whilst a country of successful integration and resultant diversity, the article acknowledged that Canada only takes those it chooses to. To emigrate to Canada you have to meet the points required (profession, educational attainment and money) and therefore it is not only a self selecting (ie immigrants who choose to travel and come to a place) but also a nation selecting country (ie it only takes those who it wants to take). You need to get on a plane and fly to Canada or cross from the US, and most people who get to the US don’t choose to come to Canada. I have to say that the liberal and positive narrative of the national paper has not been reflected in conversations with Canadians we have spoken to. We have not met any of the liberal ‘Intelligencia’, but rather ‘ordinary’ Canadians. Without exception they have all expressed concerns about immigration. What has surprised us is that this has happened without reference to the fact that all Canadians are de facto immigrants, albeit 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th generation. The Toronto authored article also referred to the ‘identifiable immigrant population’ ie (people of colour or discernible non-European background) as being 23% - I’m not sure what the First Nations people would make of that!!
Enough of politics. With the day clouding over we decided that we would do some sightseeing by car and headed off to Smiths Falls and Perth. Perth was by far and away the most interesting of the towns we had passed through in the region. Settled in the early 1800s by British soldiers gifted land it turned out to be a poisoned chalice. As they tried to farm they discovered that the land was so barren that “A groundhog would need to pack itself lunch in order to make it across a field” (may find myself using that one in the future!). However, the town possessed wonderful Georgian architecture from its time as a British Army garrison town and had its own impressive theatre run by the local amateur dramatics society – I was so disappointed that we were going to miss their next show by a week.
Dean found an art gallery run by a delightful couple. She was of Armenian extraction and was spunky, glamorous, intelligent woman personified. They had fallen in love with Perth and were in the process of moving there permanently due to the great mix of people and lifestyle. Fred made friends with their ‘American Water Dog’ pup who could not only sit and do paw on command, but also high five! Yes I did also get this in video….!
Shattered from the night before (or rather that morning!) we hit the sack after a stunning dinner made on our single electric ring kitchen. Spicy Italian sausage simmered with onions, fresh garlic, mushrooms, fresh pepper and tomatoes, a whole bunch of basil, and a bit of pepper I’d nicked from Harvey’s – pretty impressed with that I was – though I do think a drop of red wine would have helped, if only we hadn’t drunk it all the night before……! Sleep came easy……. As did the mozzies that night…… (I think I’ve found Canada’s fatal flaw!)
The night before we left Knigston and the a Hilltop Motel we decided to head to Montreal to get a taste of French speaking Quebec, and also because Dean had found what looked like a great hostel that had a family room for 2 nights.
Driving through Montreal was very different to other parts of Canada. There was obvious poverty and a ramshackle feel to the city suburbs. Toronto by contrast had been clean, full of middle class suburban 'Bovis Home' suburban estates. Montreal by contrast is characterised by the old buildings with iron staircases on the outside. They were full of people whiling away the time smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. There was even the odd sofa on the pavement!
Our hostel was on Sherbrooke one of the main roads that goes to the heart of Montreal. Despite this we had no problem finding parking. However very confusing parking restriction signs (in French only) seemed to say that for one hour on one day of the week (different days and different hours on the opposite sides of the road!!!) you couldn't park. Turns out that many years ago this was to enable roads sweeping. They no longer road sweep but they've kept, and enforce, the restrictions! The hostel was fabulous. An old Montreal 'mansion' with all original features and a terrace at the back draped in vines, it was staffed by young french people on gap years.
After 4 hours in the car we set off on foot to explore the Latin Quarter via 'The Village'. The gay quarter was beautifully festooned with rows and rows of pink orbs strung across the street that light up at night. Leather Bars, Sex clubs, and shops (there were only a few but their advertising was impactful!) meant that Fred's questioning allowed us to cover off more than the DfE 'Health and Social Education' curriculum requires for both primary and secondary years!
In the Latin Quarter we settled onto a rooftop terrace just as the heavens opened for a biblical thunderstorm. With a local beer we grazed through a platter of deep fried appetisers, I had misread the menu and not realised that the traditional french platter of charcuterie, fromage and accompaniments were going to be treated to a heavy dose of Glaswegian style cooking!
When we got back to the hostel after the storm had cleared we chilled out, got chatting to other guests and planned our day in Montreal city for the next day. Fred's highlight was meeting and getting a lesson in sparring from the Argentinian boxer who is the South American champion. He was staying with his coach at the hostel for a month training for a series of fights in Canada and the USA.
After a breakfast of homemade pancakes, fruit, bagels and buckets of coffee on the terrace we set off for the Montreal Museum of Fine Art. We wanted to see the Pompeii and Tolouse Letrec temporary exhibitions as well as the main collection that stretches from Roman times to contemporary work.
Poor map reading on my part meant a detour and us purchasing tickets at the Contemporary Art Gallery before we realised. The very helpful lady on the desk refunded us and sent us in the right direction! My error however meant that we walked into the centre of The Montreal International Jazz Festival which we didn't even know was on....! We picked up a programme and decided to come back and catch some acts after we had been round the Fine Art Museum.
The museum was stunning, spread over a huge area we took in the fabulous art. It's by far and away the best collection I've seen. We spent 4 hours there and then headed back to the Jazz festival. A great Quebec Dixie Jazz band was playing on one of the free stages and we got seats right at the front. The band members looked like double glazing salesmen and were having the time of their lives. The audience was brilliant and the whole atmosphere was a real unexpected treat. As we headed back to the hostel a 'jazz train', literally a small train with a different musician on each open carriage, came past. They were a Steam Punk band (Vince Ion we thought of you and Chantelle!) who played some ethereal funky music. Unplanned surprises continue to bless this trip
With Canada Day looming and no plans Dean started his search for our next destination. Our original plan had been to head north up the St Lawrence River further into Quebec. However we were tiring of the more aggressive and less welcoming french region and people we spoke to said Quebec didn't celebrate Canada Day in the same way as the rest of the country. Driven by accommodation availability and towns Dean thought looked interesting we booked the Westport Station Motel back in Ontario. We liked the idea of a town with a population of 700 that had had a population of 700 one hundred years ago. It also was in the heart of The Rideau Lakes and had lots to do around it.
We left the hostel the next morning saying goodbye to new friends. Fred had breakfasted before us and we came down to find him holding forth on Premiership football and the reasons behind Leicester's success with a table of lovely young french backpackers. We sat as far away from him as we could!
As it was a beautiful day we drove to The Aquatic centre, built for the Olympics. We watched the Canadian diving team training (presumably for Rio) as we swam and sunbathed - what a treat - it's stunning to see professional divers up close and marvel at what they can do! Five hours of pool fun and reading set us up for the 4 hour journey to Westport.
We got off the highway at Brocksville and took a small road through a succession of hicksville farming towns. Having missed any supermarkets where we had planned to stock up in preparation for the Bank Holiday we finally came across a small store in the town of Athens. Run down and impoverished we both felt like we were in the opening scene of 'Cabin Fever' as we left.....but the people were so friendly. Fred was accosted by a group of older ladies who called out "My what a handsome boy! You gonna have the girls chasin you soon!"
A few wrong turns to Westport and I got out of the car to ask an old man, in a rocking chair on his farm porch, directions. He was delightful, with a long plait down his back under his cap, and set us on our way. We finally arrived in Westport having driven through beautiful countryside, rather like a flat Lake District, passing only pickup trucks on our way. It's a lovely motel with a kitchen this time, great as we're now reigning in our budget to our daily allowance and have to make back the early overspend of the first few days!! A homemade dinner of Carbonara with chicken, mushrooms and onions, and salad washed down with a local Pinot Noir made for a solid nights sleep by 10pm
Waking at the King George Inn, our old prison Inn at Cobourg, to glorious sunshine (nice and early - only 4 am today!) we headed off to find a beach on the shores of Lake Ontario, on our way to Kingston. We decided to book a motel for 2 nights before we left and found a cheap as chips one on the internet.
Deciding to take a local road rather than the highway we passed through a succession of hamlets with traditional wooden farm buildings sporting fiercely pitched roofs to prevent the heavy snow of winter building up on them. By the time we needed a coffee, and having finally bought a route map we hit upon Brighton. Locals sat out in the sunshine enjoying the morning papers, we opted for the AC indoors to escape the heat that was already building. Home made cakes and fabulous coffee restored us. Fred decided that the Chocolate Toffee Brownie was the 'best he had ever tasted'...... again! I had a coconut and lime vegan cake that was beautiful. We popped across the road to an art gallery in someone's house and garden which was really quaint.
We had been planning to hit the beach at South Picton, but in Brighton we saw signs to Presqu'Ill Provincial Park a nature reserve where we thought we'd take some pics. We got talking to a woman who had also stopped her car and she said there was a beautiful beach in the park so we decided to head there instead of schlepping out to Picton.
We passed Beach 1 entrance, Beach 2 entrance was blocked off, so we went in at Beach 3. There was only 1 other car parked which we thought odd but we spotted the occupants making their way through a woodland track to the beach and followed suit in the breeze free stifling heat . As Dean was dressed in a rather 'interesting' combination and doing something he hates, walking to a deserted beach in the heat, I decided I had to capture the moment on camera. As I lined up my lens I realised that I had 2 enormous mozzies feeding off me. The reaction was instant as I saw both bites swell. More mozzies were starting to land at which point I screamed at Fred and Dean to run. My parkrun training paid off and I made it back to the car just ahead of the swarms following me. Dean and Fred were totally unaffected! Looks like I'm going to be the 'Barney' of this holiday (Barney, Deans other son is usually our mozzie bait who draws them all away from us and keeps us mozzie free!).
We canned the idea of the trek to Beach 3 so went back to the Beach 1 entrance. The car park was full! When we stepped out we realised why. A strong cool breeze and no woodland to trek through meant it was mozzie free. So we loaded up and took the short walk through the sand dunes to a fabulous 5 mile beach (not unlike Rhossili Bay). The Canadians seem to provide picnic tables, volley ball nets etc on all their beaches so Dean didn't have to deal with the irritation of sitting on sand with no shade!!
Fred has got so used to travelling alone with us and having to find playmates that within 5 minutes of setting down he had made friends with a Brazilian family who were playing football. Happiness all round! After a lazy few hours on the beach, interspersed with building sand forts and taking refreshing swims in the icy water with Fred, I finished the 1996 updated 'Brief History of Time'. Its apparently out dated in terms of its science but I wanted to read it. Having finished it I moved onto the 2015 'Before the Big Bang' by John Gribbin which gives the updated science of the Big Bang for the first 30% of the book before taking on the time before. My resolution this trip is to get a bit more educated about the world scientific before we get to the Atacama Desert for our visit to the worlds highest observatory. No mean feat for someone who got an 'Unclassified' in my Physics O'level!!
Leaving the mozzize free beach with three stonking bites that had by now developed a full allergic reaction we drove to Kingston, our destination that evening. We had found a wallet saving motel with good reviews (clean, free wifi, and beds!) . As we arrived we were a little nervous. Our prejudices were popped with the service we got from Jim the delightful ex-Hell's Angel (not 100% sure on this but he did have old tattoos, a Harley Davidson ring and the look of someone who could look after himself in a bar so I'm going to make this bit up but secretly hope its true.....!). In addition it turned out that the owner who was also there was originally from Swindon where his son was still running his old shop. Fred was rather taken by him because he looked just as he imagines 'Raj' from the David Walliams books (for those who don't know them this is a good thing because Raj is the true hero through all of them!). The room was also great. New bathroom, 2 large double beds, TV, free WiFi, fridge, microwave and thankfully really good AC.
Ready for a burger we were recommended Harvey's by Jim because you get to design your own burger and they make it in front of you. We all loved it and Fred decided.....(yes you've guessed it)..... that it was 'the best ever'!
As we're on a mission to get around as many iconic places as we can we popped into Tim Horton's for a take out de-caff coffee which we drank on our porch before heading to bed.
Heavy rain overnight had left a lovely freshness when I got up at 5am (slowly improving!). Across the road to Tim Horton’s for a full strength dose of carry out coffee for Dean and I as Fred slept on. We were kept company in the early morning by black squirrels and an extremely tame Groundhog (see pics!). A pint of coffee later I’d finished 4 TripAdvisor reviews, caught up on my blogging, and emails.
When Fred got up we shot some hoops in the yard. I’d like to say I won but you’ll have to read Fred’s blog to see if he agrees. I personally think he makes up the rules as he goes along but we’ll have to get his basketball coach Andy to give an independent view of the video evidence…..!
We decided to catch the local express bus into Kingston to do our sightseeing. Dean managed to break the automated pay machine next to the bus driver who gave up on our incompetence and waved us on for free! Totally innocently he managed the same on the return trip – so buses in Canada are very cheap for bumbling Brits!!
Kingston is the original capital of Canada and contains some beautiful historic grand buildings. We went into the town hall which sits on the harbour. Fronted with an impressive portico we were allowed to go up into the state rooms. The largest of these rooms was decorated with 16 stained glass windows depicting a soldier from different regiments that had served in the 1st World War with the name of the town where significant battles had taken place. Two years ago we visited Amiens and the Somme, including the Canadian cemetery and memorial that contains preserved trenches. Canadian losses in the 1st WW were massive and the Canadians we have talked to still see the connection between Britain and Canada in both World Wars as emotionally, politically and culturally significant. It’s something I reflect on with the recent Brexit result and maybe it explains why the Canadians are perplexed at the result – they see the common ground not the differences…..
Brunch was in Le Matin a small French ‘Nora’s Caff’ type place. Hot dogs (best ever according to Fred…!), bagels, waffles (best ever according to Fred…!), and Eggs and Peameal (a thick juicy bacon / ham type thing), with more coffee hit the spot. As we ate we had the excitement of fire engines charging to an incident in a hairdressers. The street soon filled with ladies in foils much to the amusement of those around us. It was also from here we saw the first beggars. From our spot in the window we saw the Canadians treating them with respect and generosity. When we walked past them later both had veteran and PTSD written on their cardboard signs.
We made our way to the harbour to catch a 3 hour cruise through the 1,000 islands which has become a millionaires playground. Enormous houses and plush cottages have been built on islands of all sizes. One house sat on a tiny crop of rocks with only water access. I loved the fact that in the 1700’s no-one could decide where to put the church in this area so they decided to have pontoon set up that families would row to for Sunday service and the vicar would preach from the pontoon. This tradition continues today.
We were entertained on our cruise by a jazz duo, which was an unexpected pleasure. Ronnie and Spencer were fabulous (see vid) and played a wonderfully diverse (Bob Marley to Fats Waller) set plus requests. Ronnie the singer, keyboard and jazz sax player was a hoot with his ironic but uncynical audience engagement. We reached hysterics with ‘Hotel California’ by the Eagles where he knew only 75% of the words but valiantly made up the rest.
After our free bus ride back we nipped into Fresh Co to pick up a fiberous salad supper to counter the carb and protein filled diet. Thanks Dr Chris for my Wilko shopper bag its getting loads of use and will have its own picture gallery! You can only buy alcohol in specially licenced liquor stores so Dean drove out in search a few bottles of wine for the next few days. We chilled down a bottle of local Prosecco in a plastic pint glass we turned into an ice bucket. Thanks to Jim (again) for coming up trumps and providing free ice J
As we sat out on the porch sipping Prosecco a people carrier full (and I mean full) of Chinese arrived. As one lady walked past she turned to me and said “Pretty, you very very pretty lady” oh what a joy! We spoke to them for a bit and they were all utterly charming and found us fascinating; Fred with his blue hair (now green!), Dean with is beard and manbun, and my blonde hair and red lipstick. If you’ve not heard it play ‘Chinese Child’ by Devendra Banhart, we’d been listening to it just the day before J
A bit more basketball before bed, and I’m pretty sure my game improved after a few Prosecco’s. I wonder if the LA Lakers have thought of that? Another thing to check with Andy.
The journey to Toronto, our first stop, thankfully went smoothly after the drama of the passports in the run up. It was however not without excitement!
Both Dean and I had the early wakening that comes with anticipation at 5:30 am, beating the alarm clock by an hour. Dean made it up first and caught the Brexit result. We were both stunned and rather thankful that we were off to have a hiatus from the commentary (more of that later…). The exchange rate impact was instant though and, having been following the bookies odds, we hadn’t bought dollars. The US leg of our trip alone was going to cost an extra £1,500 – grrrr.
Taxi, train, taxi, Heathrow Express got us to Terminal 5 with 4 hours to spare before our flight. After an hour to get through security (not complaining!) we settled into the Priority Lounge with a glass of Prosecco each (not Fred!) and made the most of the pretty good buffet. Fred decided to introduce himself to an elderly Hong Kong Chinese lady who had been smiling at him and was soon in conversation about Hong Kong and then his travels. As we made our way to the plane we met our pilot and the crew who were short of a co-pilot due to him being stuck on the M25 – Fred offered his services having mastered the ipad pilot simulator. That got him an invite into the cockpit (see pic) with both pilots at the end of our flight.
A 7 hour flight gave me the opportunity to enjoy a smorgasbord of movies. I simply loved ‘The Big Short’ if you haven’t seen it you must. Nails fabulously why the banking crisis happened in 2007 with a great cast and ingenious film making. I wiled away the rest of the flight with the more flimsy but still great fun ‘How to Stay Single’ and ‘Eddie the Eagle’. The best inflight entertainment however was Fred spotting a white blanket of icebergs in the Atlantic as we skirted Greenland. They were stunning and we saw some massive ones which took all our breath away.
With nowhere booked for our first night we left Toronto heading East on the highway and made our way to Coburg which had been recommended by Fiona a Brit who lives in Toronto, a friend of a friend who had connected us on Facebook. Shattered by the time we arrived in Coburg at 9pm (2am UK time!) we checked into a Best Western on the outskirts. Slightly collapsed but starving we were the only people in the restaurant and were looked after wonderfully by Sophia. An hour in Fred’s adrenalin was spent – we had the benefit of a reviving bottle of Valpolicella which served to both perk us up but also sedate us. Off we trotted to our room which had 3 queen sized beds and snuggled down by 10pm (3am UK time).
Rather predictably both Dean and I woke at 3 am (8am UK time). After 3 hours of trying to get to sleep I gave up, pulled on my running gear and headed down to the beach with the map provided by concierge. Dean was also awake and the Canadians, being hugely helpful, had a pot of hot coffee on the go in the lobby which I delivered to Dean before I left.
I don’t think I’ve ever had such an amazing experience. It was stunning and special. No one around, glorious dawn, deserted beaches, a horizon that was indivisible from Lake Ontario, and wildlife in abundance with no fear of humans. I won’t say anymore because you can see and hear it for yourself in the video posted with this blog update.
On getting back to the hotel at 8:20am Dean and Fred were already in the dining room and we tucked into French Toast (Dean), pancakes and syrup (Fed), and a fruit tray (me) NB I had consumed more carbs, Haribos, Chips etc than a I care to remember the day before! Given there was an indoor pool and we’d paid higher rates than our budget we all trooped off after breakfast to get our full value for money. Turned out the pool was like a mini CentreParcs and we had a brilliant time.
After my recce morning run we’d decided to spend the day on Coburg beach. I’ve no idea why it doesn’t feature in the books it’s a perfect location and beats anywhere else we’ve been to date in Europe. Freshwater lake, 2 miles of white sand, marina, totally safe swimming, parkland with play areas and splash parks, on and on. Pics probably do a better job than I can! To top it all when we arrived at the beach so did a Scottish family who were staying with an English friend who had moved to Coburg 2 year before. Fred had 4 generous playmates with inflatable dinghy’s and giant floats. He was in heaven and Dean and I sat on a sand free esplanade reading our kindles. Bliss.
With no place booked for the night we asked around and were recommended the old jail and courthouse that is now an Inn. So we found ourselves at The King George Inn enjoying the hospitality of a ‘British Pub’! The walls were adorned with tributes to Princess Diana and a host of other items paying homage to the Royal Family. It was all rather touching. Republican Dean thoroughly enjoyed the kitsch of it allJ
As we hadn’t been seeking out steak and kidney pie we headed into town and stumbled across a fabulous tapas bar. A bottle of Route 33 Temporillina at a knockout 14% (!) was the perfect complement to crab cakes with salsa, calamari pan fried in Pernod, roasted cauliflower and chickpea in a home made thai sauce, and home made feta cheese bread. Fred finished off with an amazing chocolate pudding cake that he declared was the best ever (you’ll hear Fred saying that a lot!!).
By 9 we were struggling to stay awake and hit the sack to the sounds of a local ‘Shania Twain’ playing on the terrace of the Inn. However not before we had been engaged in another conversation about Brexit – grrrrr!
With less than 48 hours to departure this trip continues to keep us on our toes. However small hiccups like not having your child's passport in your hands the day before you leave are put into perspective with some terrible events in the last 2 weeks, namely the tragic death of Jo Cox and the senseless murders of 50 people in Orlando.
Brexit vote is tomorrow and we're voting for the inclusive society we hope to experience on our travels - I've no doubt that at times the success of our trip will depend on the kindness of strangers and communities who chose to welcome not rebuff us. It is this kindness we have experienced since we moved to Newark 10 years ago, the places that Dean and I have worked, and from the community of Barnby Road Academy where Fred goes to school.
All of us will be going to new things in the next 12 months; new places on our travels, new jobs on our return, new schools as Fred moves up to Senior School, new friends and maybe new family members. Of course as we say hello to new things we also say goodbye to some of the things we are leaving behind (please don't die Mum and Dad (at least in the next 6 months) it would be really, really inconvenient!).
Work has been a dominating, exhilarating, challenging and a terrifically fun place to be for me. I've indulged my workaholic tendencies, learnt an enormous amount, and found energy from the people I've worked with. After 8 years with NHS Supply Chain it was with a churned up tummy that I walked out of the doors of our Alfreton depot yesterday. It is a family of fabulous people committed to delivering absolute value to the NHS and their customers. Having been fortunate enough to work with a large number of the teams in the business I sent out a blanket email of thanks for my time with them. People I know really well, and those that I still cant place (to my shame), sent emails back. I've saved over 100 of the many emails that had really special and moving comments, so that when my resilience may drop I can dip into them and re-charge my batteries. So a very deep 'Thank You' to those at work who took the time out to send those notes. They mean a lot. In this well of generous words there are always some gems, the best of which I feel obligated to share. As it came from a member of the legal team it will have to be anonymous due to the hilariously fearsome caveats below:
"Legal advice for DHL Supply Chain Limited only. Not to be relied upon by, or disclosed to, any other party. Confidential and subject to legal privilege.
All the best to you and your family Rachel. I am looking forward to reading your blog and living vicariously through it for the next 6 months!
Please do not replicate this legal advice without my express written approval."
you couldn't write it could you?!
Fred has also had the most amazing send off from his school. Ms Greeley his form teacher drew the most stunning picture and organised both Year 5 classes to sign a card (see pic) of their recent residential trip to Hallam. Naturally there were a lot of "have a great time Fred" comments, however the prize for the best comment goes to Harry inFred's class who wrote :
Couldn't have put it better myself!
Going on an adventure that leaves the familiar behind and steps into the strange and unknown will trigger a level of anxiety in all of us with normal neurological activity. The passport issues prompted Fred to ask a couple of days ago "Will things go wrong Mummy?" to which I replied "Of course, but that's part of what this trip is all about and what makes it exciting. Stuff happens and we need to fix it. We expect to do A and end up having to do B". This clearly put the issue to bed because the next question was "So what happens if the plane crashes? Will we die?" Expert parental response (listen and learn) "Its unlikely to happen (then lots of stuff about most likely to die at home in a freak Nerf Gun accident in your Tree House, crossing the road to school, bouncing on the trampoline, hanging yourself on a curtain cord......), but if a plane crashes we might be ok or we might die". Fred: "I would be really upset and angry if I died" read and learn fellow parents.... "No you wouldn't darling, because you would be dead". That killed the conversation and I saw his anxiety flood away. Delusion is a state that more parents should master!
So with adventure comes the fear of death. Or maybe not to fear it? My response is to plan for it. Therefore with the gentle and subtle touch I have in all these matters, I decided that we should read through our Wills and Letter of Wishes at the BBQ that the kids threw for us. to celebrate both Fathers Day and our going away. My thinking was if they don't like whats in it, lets get it out now. What could be worse than to lose key family members and then get the shock of a Will you don't agree with. I thought it was a nice touch too :-)
So back to our friends and family who we fear losing because they make our life rich....Inevitably people have been kinder and more thoughtful to us than we have had time to reciprocate. So we say thanks: to Heike and Sarah for the night at Oscars; to Pablo and John for dinner and cocktails on a school nigh; to Fred's school, his Headmaster and his teacher for the effort to make his leaving special and positive; to George at Koinonia for helping us with our visas and organising part of our Kerala visit (including staying with his mum!), to my work collegues for shaming me with their thoughtfulness and great advice (some of which was subject to legal privilege.....); to Charles Street Methodist Church (especially Marilyn & Colin, Carole Rhys & Hugh); our friends who have dropped cards and presents in; our Facebook connections who found a home for Nellie and Patch our Jack Russells,and connected us to people in places we will be visiting; Victoria at The Edge who came in on her day off to dye Fred's hair blue on his Birthday (see pic); Daisy, Barney, Poppy and Chris for a fabulous BBQ, help for the trip and loan of stuff.... the list could go on and on.
We expect to find the world a kind and generous place with the odd aberration (but hey I'm an aberration sometimes too!). How we experience the trip will be all about how we approach it and our own attitude to others. Its up to us now because those we love, those we know well and those we know less well have all done the most they could to give us the best start to this adventure :-)
My reflection is that as we see from Orlando, Jo Cox and other tragedies, much is outside our control. Ultimately I remember 2 much loved NHS Supply Chain collegues; Clare Gardiner and John Vinuesa. Clare died aged 28 of a brain tumour she didn't know she had within 48 hours of becoming ill. John died aged 52 five months after he got a bad back from secondary spinal cancer. They were vibrant wonderful people. So Carpe Diem - we don't know what's round the corner so sieze the day! To John and Clare - I shall raise a glass to you on every contient we visit xx
For me this trip is all about having a great adventure with my family. Its taken years for us to finally stop talking about it and do it - simply because it both excites and frightens the life out me! So I'm stepping out of corporate life, where I singularly failed to achieve a work/life balance....to experience different cultures and spend time with those I love xx