Life on the ocean wave

(Panama to Cartagena, Colombia)

My teeth juddered as we slammed down from yet another eight foot wave in our tin-can of a “speedboat”.  There was no land in sight and my belongings were undoubtedly already drenched as my carefully sourced black bin liner (aka rucksack cover) had torn when my bag was thrown into the back of the boat an hour earlier.  When everything had still seemed so good.

I’d already run through the entire Les Mis/Miss Saigon Greatest Hits in my head, an attempt to distract myself from the apparently endless and terrifying crossing of the Gulf of Uraba, and was about to snatch the bottle of rum from the row of Colombian passengers behind me (they had quietened down in the past half an hour anyway and were looking slightly more green around the gills – they wouldn’t miss it, right?).

And then the engines failed.

And whilst everyone else’s nervous laughter subsided and disbelief worked its way down the steady road to panic, I thought: “well at least this will be good for my blog.”

IMG_6312But let’s rewind 12 months.  It was New Year’s Day 2015, I was poring over the map of the Americas in front of a log fire in the highlands of Scotland, and then I noticed that the road ran out.  Well now this was a bit of a fly in the ointment in my (boom boom) “no fly” rule.  It seemed that I had just discovered, after over 20 years of being a self-proclaimed geography geek, the legendary Darien Gap.  An impenetrable 160km tract of gun/drug-smuggler-infested jungle, the missing link in the Pan-American Highway between America’s top and toe, lying between Panama and Colombia.

In any case, there was an alternative.  Sailing.  It’s a tough life when the only way from Panama to Columbia involves jumping on a yacht through the Caribbean.

At this stage, all the same, I do need to pay homage to my magical Stugeron pills, without which the four days out on the ocean swells really might have been a tough life – a fact to which at least two of my fellow passengers can attest.

IMG_6290So it was that, less than 24 hours after arriving in Panama City, I boarded the African Queen 2 just off the north coast of Panama.  I only discovered later, once well onto dry land, that African Queen 2 did indeed have a predecessor – but our Teutonic German captain Rudy had a close encounter with an unfortunate reef a year earlier.  Fabulous.

For those of you who know about these things (and/or care) – African Queen 2 is a 54 foot monohull, built in Italy 60 years ago from good, solid wood (none of these fibre glass imposters).  It has a maximum cruising speed of 10 knots, though I don’t think we topped 7.  It also has the capacity to carry 600 litres of fresh water on board.  Or indeed none, as it happens.  After some error – still unexplained (possibly, unless you understand German) – we were rationed to bottles of drinking water only.  I know that salt water is meant to be good for you, but I still felt (and probably smelt) pretty revolting after four days.

Still, we were all in the same boat.

Worse things have happened at sea.

(Go on, any more?)

IMG_6295At least we didn’t end up having to pay $100 each to call out the toilet rescue helicopter (after very strict flushing instructions from Rudy on day 1).  On the other hand, we were held hostage on our last morning until we’d paid $100 towards a replacement mattress, after witnessing some German rage when a previous one somehow disappeared without trace during the night.  There is probably a mermaid floating around the Caribbean Sea on it as we speak.

IMG_6218I am, however, disappointed to report that we did not bump into Jonny Depp – though Rudy’s Colombian wife was a dead ringer for Jack Sparrow’s regular fling.  No Long John Silvers emerged from the depths with crabs crawling from their octopus tentacle hair either.  Though I imagine that if I’d joined in with the constantly circulating spliff, I might be recounting a slightly different version of events.  (Sorry, I’m a square – I prefer my zucchini spaghetti to come with mint, not marijuana).

IMG_6200Instead of pirates, we were approached daily by local fishermen in their dugout canoes, fixed up with makeshift mast and sails.  This is the place where the fish market comes to you.  We ate fresh tuna, king fish, dorada, crab and lobster twice a day.

Though after Rudy’s “Lobster party!” two nights in a row (I hasten to add it was more a party for us than the lobsters, despite their happy looking recces of the deck an hour before dinner…) I’m afraid to say that you really can have too much of a good thing.  No really, it’s true.

IMG_6341Having said that, the locals had more luck with their fishing than us.  Despite the 11am “catch-a-fish-beer” rule, and the signs attached to the fishing rods permanently playing out lines behind the boat (dutifully written in Spanish as you have to speak to the fish in their own language.  Of course), we caught nothing.  Still, that wasn’t quite the point.

On our first 24 hours on board, we sailed through the San Blas archipelago – think of the stereotype – white sand, palm trees, turquoise waters, coral reefs.  The first island I swam to, I walked across in less than 100 steps.  And we always thought Tiree was small…  We moored in the shelter of a cluster of similar islands on our first night, spotting a sting ray gliding past the hull of the boat before we went ashore and drank rum around a bonfire…

IMG_6197

…Just in case you are sick of hearing how perfect it all was, fast forward five hours and I was having a minor (and I may say somewhat unexpected) altercation with a particularly serious snorer…  I capitulated and alternated between cramped berth and breezy deck for the next three nights!

IMG_6320Back to perfection (unless you hadn’t discovered Stugeron), day 3 brought our first full day at sea.  We cruised along outside the reef, engines silent, on both main sail and spinnaker.  Boat keeling, sunshine, spray, the Colombian flag fluttering brightly and a school of dolphins playing in the surf around us.  And yes, I was listening to podcasts of Desert Island Disks.  The theme music transported me back to childhood car journeys in Scotland listening to Radio 4 (yes yes…), imagining that sailing amongst desert islands was a luxury I could only ever dream of.  In a bizarre reversal, the guest on the particular podcast I was listening to chose Jerusalem as one of their eight tracks.  So there I was, sailing amongst those desert islands in the Caribbean Sea, sun on my face, wind in my (salt encrusted) hair – but now dreaming about the green and pleasant lands of home…!

IMG_6272Not all of the islands down the Panamanian coast are deserted of course.  It is the realm of the Kuna Yala – an indigenous people who are protected by the Panamanian government.  We stopped off in a Kuna village one evening and enjoyed a stroll down the main ‘street’ passing through the tightly packed houses of wood and palm fronds, hundreds of children milling about everywhere.

IMG_6253One of my favourite images remains the sight of a stereotypically tall, blond haired Swede playing football with the short, brown haired Kuna kids – though I don’t think he showed them any mercy.  Of course, modernity was here too – solar panels spaced evenly along the street, signs for phone credit, and I learnt of Obama’s new Presidential decree on gun laws from CNN playing on the local shop’s TV set.

There were also shades of sailing around the west coast of Scotland (or at least what I remember of it before I stubbornly refused to join the family sailing holidays because they were too scary, too bumpy, and I preferred to spend the week in bookshops with Granny!)  Rain in the air, a warm breeze, the Panama hills disappearing in shades of grey along the coast (possibly the first time the Gairloch has been compared to the Darien Gap?), cups of steaming coffee, scrambled eggs on plastic plates and peanut butter on Kuna bread.

IMG_6247This is how our penultimate day on the boat started.  It ended with us being chased out of Panamanian waters by their marine security forces (at least they gave us a very cheery wave goodbye), though the Colombians were less bothered by our arrival.  As we moored up in Sapzurro, just across the border, I spent my first 18 hours in Colombia as an illegal immigrant.  Always knew there was a rebel lurking in there somewhere.

The actual immigration process the next day, a short hop around the headland in Capurgana, was the friendliest welcome I’ve ever had into any country.  Including the UK.  The Colombian official dispensed with the normal line of questioning – instead he googled my blog as he happily stamped my passport, promising to read it later.  And so if you are reading – hello Mr Immigration Officer!

IMG_6210With the lack of roads out of Capurgana, we did, of course, still have to undergo the most terrifying part of the trip so far across the Gulf of Uraba to Necogli.  But you’ve read about that already.  Long story short, we made it.  Without swimming.  We still had an eight hour journey along Colombia’s north coast to Cartagena – but we were aided by a friendly bus driver, some mercifully smooth roads and relaxing views of endless fields of bananas, coconuts – and the ubiquitous cows.  Only the final leg had the potential to go horribly wrong.  But happily we found a taxi driver at the bus station who didn’t seem to mind a new-found friend’s surf board sticking out of his truck into Cartagena’s teeming traffic for the last 30 minutes of our epic journey…

Frankly it makes my daily packing woes seem positively elementary.

Which is a good thing, as I’ve got three months of hostel hopping through South America ahead of me now!

A little luxury

(Costa Rica to Panama City)IMG_6026_2069
No one wants to read about someone else’s luxury holiday. It is akin with the holiday slide show viewing – everyone suddenly discovers they have to wash their hair that evening.  (Though as an aside, I am currently writing this five days into a sailing trip feeling that clean hair would be a luxury beyond my wildest dreams).

So in an attempt not to completely alienate myself, I will lie.

IMG_5487_1822I did not spend a happy evening soaking in hot springs in the shadow of an active volcano sipping cocktails by moonlight.  I did not spend successive afternoons ambling along golden beaches pounded by surf on one side, lined by palm trees and the lush greens of the jungle on the other.  Nor did I wake up for four mornings in a row in a four-poster bed in a luxury rainforest retreat with toucans perched in the branches outside my cabin and hundreds of bright butterflies accompanying me to my silver service breakfast.

For anyone who is still reading, let’s try the next one.  I absolutely definitely did not get ill and spend 24 hours lying on the top bunk of a hostel bed, too weak to even make it to the toilet in a surfer’s beach paradise.

Sometimes I wish that lies could reflect reality. Just sometimes.

IMG_5472
Bedside light – candles or not, a luxury in itself after hostel dorms

It is worth noting that, to me, luxury has now become anywhere that I’m not in either a tent or dorm, and have access to private transport every now and then.  So it may not exactly represent everyone’s idea of five star treatment.  I’m easily pleased, let’s leave it at that!

For example, the 1km trudge across no-man’s land into Cost Rica, at the most militarised border of my trip so far, was peanuts compared to the journey that the waiting Cuban migrants had already made up from Panama.  Even more hardship awaited them on their own slow journey up to the hallowed realms of the USA – if Nicaragua ever let them in.  The atmosphere was resigned and friendly though, as I apologised for stepping over their cardboard “beds” to get to the ATM, grateful again to be from a country (almost) universally welcomed.

I’ve actually visited Costa Rica twice in the past month (it was like the bread around my Nicaraguan club sandwich) – but in order to avoid total confusion, I’m going to try to pretend it was one and the same trip. Concentrating?

IMG_5210
Cloud forest foliage

Before hitting the beaches, I headed up to the wonderful cool of the Monteverde highlands.  Somewhat inconveniently this involved fishing around in the depths of my backpack for both my waterproof and down jackets, but at least it justified having carted them all the way through the heat of the rest of Central America. It didn’t last though – I was soon sweating along with the rest of the foliage in the cloud forest reserve.

IMG_5410
The “Strangler” Ficus tree

A beautiful hike through amazing biodiversity – tall trees supporting orchids, mosses, vines, palms, ferns and countless other species that this horticultural dunce couldn’t possibly identify.  Though I was very proud of my stick insect (found when I was pretending to be an elephant, using its leafy home for one of my ears.  Obviously.)  So we didn’t see any sloths or fancy brightly coloured frogs – they were probably all sleeping. But I did get dive bombed by a few hummingbirds, which was a first.

IMG_5413
Alice in Wonderland/Swiss Family Robinson

Another first was popping out at the top of a ficus tree, 60-70 feet above the ground, having climbed up the entire length of the trunk – inside.  A cross between Swiss Family Robinson and Alice in Wonderland.  Given that this fantastical event happened the day after the equally unlikely moment where I scaled our hotel’s 10 foot security gate at 2am to break us back in (good security, right?) I was beginning to wonder where the old, terrified-of-climbing Helen had gone.

It’s ok, I found her.  More on that later though.

IMG_5429_1639
Superman!

I should say that the fear of climbing never had anything to do with heights – no bad thing when I found myself flying through the clouds, Superman-style, above the jungle on one of Monteverde’s original zip-lines.  I was soaked through yet grinning from ear to ear non-stop for two hours.  And then someone persuaded me to walk the plank…  When questioned afterwards why I’d not emitted a proud jungle call from the end of my swinging rope, and had my eyes tight shut throughout the whole terrifying experience, I replied that I was holding my breath, just in case (of what?), and didn’t want my eyes to pop out.  I appreciate that this is hardly a rational, scientific response – but frankly agreeing to launch myself into nothingness on a Tarzan-swing was one of the most irrational moments of my life and will certainly never be repeated.

On the other hand, I was missing the jungle later when we arrived in San José, big, bustling, noisy and dirty.  It is a city that I’m sure is not without its charms, but for me the distinguishing features were the sudden appearance of multiple branches of the American embassy (ie. MacDonalds), and a night spent in an Irish pub eating deep-fried Oreo cookies.  Blame the Celt in me.

And so finally onto the luxury pinnacle – my Costa Rican rainforest retreat.  [Feel free to skip this bit if you are already suffering the January blues]. As we white water rafted into our remote jungle lodge (yes, white water rafting – buses are so last year) I was quietly thanking a dear friend whose parting advice to me was something along the lines of: “if an opportunity presents itself, grab it – just sell your soul when you get back”.  I’m not sure how much soul-selling I will be doing yet, but the scores on the doors are definitely totting up.

IMG_5487_1783
Wellies & bikini – rainforest attire

I should also thank Marc, who let a smelly backpacker piggy-back onto his four week luxury holiday – and then let me emerge, victorious, after an epic four-day card tournament (and only threw away one card in disgust…  The ants under our cabin are probably still munching on it happily).  A friendship was cemented, waistlines expanded under the stress of three near-Michelin-starred meals per day, we dutifully wore our his’n’her wellies, each had our own shower and four poster bed (isn’t this how everyone lives?), and drank cocktails to the sounds of the jungle waking up to its nocturnal perambulations.

It was quite a shock to the system when I found myself living in the backroom of Nicaragua’s answer to KFC the following week! (You might have read about that one already.  And if not – welcome to the blog, and you’d better start working your way through the back-catalogues…)

IMG_2057
Cuddly toy making rare appearance with luminescent martini

Back in Costa Rica though, my return four weeks later was slightly less glamorous, with seven different stages to my 12 hour journey from Nicaragua to the Pacific coast of the Nicoya Peninsula. This may well have been the cause of the 24 hour illness that consigned me to my hostel bed the following day.  Or it may have been the questionable luminescent green martini. Either way, it was a great relief/luxury/necessity to be back in a private 4WD two days later, bouncing down the rutted tracks and through the slightly alarming rivers (the locals looked on us with great distain as we got out to recce each one…) en route to our Hogmanay destination, Playa Manzanillo.

And so I spent New Year’s Eve with Martin and Katie, two fab War Child friends, being rolled around in the shallow waves of Santa Teresa, watching a surfer playing in the evening glow. A cheer went up from the beach as the sun finally disappeared on 2015.

 

IMG_6027a
Happy New Year!

If that all sounds rather romantic, the reality of our midnight celebrations were slightly more prosaic.  Rather than heading out on the bumpy roads again, we opted for the pikey version of Hogmanay.  Drinking rum and coke from a spare water bottle on a quiet pebble beach, watching the clock tick down on our iPhones (!), and narrowly avoiding the incoming missiles of the neighbouring Costa Rican family’s fireworks. It was perfect.

Slightly less perfect was the near-death experience of the following day.  We could have done with the rum and coke as our gentle New Year’s Day stroll to a local waterfall and swimming hole turned into a terrifying scramble first up – and then (should have seen this coming) down a near vertical cliff face.  The Lonely Planet should probably check out the fraying ropes and precipitous drops before it makes any further recommendations.  My fear of climbing may have returned.

IMG_1602
On the road

Still, we survived.  And as Martin and Katie continued with the rest of their holiday, for me it was onto another day, another mammoth car/boat/bus journey (a record 32 hours this time), and another border crossing.  Three hours to pass from Costa Rica into Panama – though half of that was spent sitting on the dusty ground at the Costa Rican side waiting for their offices to open. The other half was spent in a mix of confusion, waiting, more confusion, fibbing to the Panamanian immigration officer (actually the stories were all true, but I still feel guilty about the forged email I had to show as “proof” that I would be leaving the country…) and probably more confusion.

IMG_6155
Panama hat

To Panama City at last, and the bus drivers had clearly got the message that my stop-over was all too short, as they drove us first over, then right down the side of the Panama Canal – so I got to see it after all!  A mere 12 hours, but I made the most of it, wandering around the old town, then drinking in the view along with my cocktail from the rooftop bar of my hotel.  The final luxury I allowed myself on my final night in Central America (well, on dry land at least).  I was reminded of Hong Kong, Malta – and (strangely) Brighton.

IMG_6185The bright lights of the sky scrapers across the bay, the lovingly restored colonial buildings, the washing lines strung out under the windows, the music from the seafront bars and restaurants. At least that was what I saw on the surface. But after 2 ½ months in Central America, I was happy not to delve too deep.

After more than five months on the road it is hard to believe that I haven’t even reached the Equator yet.

Time to move on.

Nicaragua – a love letter

(Granada – Leon – San Juan del Sur – Ometepe)

Dear Nicaragua

IMG_4922_1592
Lake Nicaragua

It happened before I’d even crossed the border. I was in love. Maybe it was the familiar chaos of the African-esque passport “queueing” system (or lack thereof), maybe it was the chap who had apparently turned the tedious task of fumigating the arriving trucks into an exciting episode of Ghostbusters. Maybe it was even the friendly nurses who took our temperatures in an attempt to halt the spread of chikungunia – though frankly that the latest threat to your healthcare system sounds more like a delicious chicken curry than a highly contagious mosquito born disease still makes me smile.

In any case, we had a whole month ahead of us, and I knew I was going to love it.

But dearest Nica, before you get too big headed, I should fire off an early warning. I may well always love you – but that doesn’t mean that I will always like you. Just saying.

IMG_5625_1856
The alternative Nativity

Take, for example, the endless repeats of Feliz Navidad on the radio (someone needs to introduce you to Slade) whilst beads of sweat are dripping into the small of my back making me feel anything but festive. Though you did at least get the tinsel right, and whilst I’m not sure that a giant Santa Claus was present at the birth of Jesus, I applaud you for your enthusiasm with the ubiquitous and eclectic Nativity scenes. But I only finally felt that Christmas might be near when I heard a group of children singing The Little Drummer Boy in a dark Leon side street. Turns out parumpumpumpum works in Spanish too.

IMG_5518_1868
Call to prayer, Nica-style

And Nica, whilst we’re on the subject of festivities, do you really have to encourage quite so many firecrackers? Street parties are one thing, and the conception of the Virgin Mary is (I now realise) a big deal to your country. But a large part of me was still fighting the instinct to run a mile from the toffee apples, the bands, and the raspados (slush puppies with pineapple syrup or unexpected cigarette ash – you choose) every time a 12 year old set off another firework in my ear.

IMG_5579
KFC / Helen’s home

As a reward (I think) you allowed me to celebrate this important week in one of the warmest, most chaotic, slightly terrifying households Granada has to offer. Apparently this was selected for me because of my previous travel and work choices. I may be more judicious with the truth in future application forms. With a bedroom by the kitchen of the family’s fast-food business, my clothes were destined to smell of fried chicken and my dreams destined to be filled with the fear or yet another awkward mealtime getting under the feet of the extended family as they prepared endless plates of artery blocking food for the loyal customers.

IMG_5580_1825
The “pet” chicken. At least for now…

Happily I rather like the efficiency of bucket showers (mmhmmm), and with the neighbours greeting me as a local by the end of the week, there was a certain sense of sadness as I moved back to hostel living. There was also a lingering sense of fear for the future of the family’s two “pet” chickens. I wonder if they realise, as they admire themselves in the mirror, that they live in the neighbourhood’s answer to KFC.

Maybe they ought to hop into a chicken bus… Once the U.S. deems it irresponsible to ferry school children around in them anymore, they ship their iconic yellow buses off to Costa Rica. Once Costa Rica has run them to the ground, they slip them across the border. Nicaragua, you are at the bottom of the great School Bus Food Chain. But how do you respond?

IMG_5547
Chicken bus

By decorating them in God fearing messages or gaudy colours (or both), tinkering with the engine, and giving them a whole new lease of life. Locals and travellers packed in like chickens (I get it now), belongings thrown on the roof, horn honking in every village and around every bend. But so far I have always arrived, as has my luggage, always in the same location and (perhaps even more astonishingly) always intact.

And so to Leon, your heart and soul! Don’t get me wrong, Granada is picture postcard perfect – the artists’ obsession with its colourful and decorative doors is fully justified, and sunsets across the lake and churches were beautiful. But in Leon, well you have street food, revolutionaries – and the Flor de Caña rum factory. What’s not to love?

IMG_5698
The proud student revolutionary

By day I talked politics with a 1978 activist (even admiring his old newspaper cutting as a gun-toting student) – before talking 25 year old rum and becoming slightly woozy on the Angel’s Share in Flor de Caña’s warehouses.

IMG_5719
Rummmm

By night I ate rice and beans in the smoky haze of bare bulbs hanging above food carts and talked politics (again) with 25 year old activists whilst becoming slightly woozy (again) in the heart of Flor de Caña’s drinking dens… This place is where history lives and breathes.

Because dear Nicaragua, you’ve not had it easy. Yes your country is now dotted with wind farms, their little red glow worm lights blinking on the horizon. And your roads are the best I have seen throughout Central America. A result, I suspect, of the competing courtship of both China and the USA combined with the sad truth that your biggest (unofficial) export is your people, sending millions of dollars home each month.

IMG_5725
More rummmm…

So you’re beginning to get it good, but with a sting in the tail. The current president has recently declared the constitution illegal – the subsequent rewrite allows him an indefinite term in office. Interesting democracy. Still, it’s a far cry from the 1970s when the borders were closed and the country was effectively a war zone.

Besides which, that you treat your unfortunate position, sitting astride one of the world’s most active fault lines, as a sales pitch for your burgeoning tourist industry, still smacks of pure optimism. Or maybe it’s just fatalism. Either way, you have volcanoes, lots of them. And I love volcanoes!

IMG_5642
Sledging. Without the snow. On a volcano.

So in a nod to Christmas, it was time for a spot of sledging down Cerro Negro. Given the all-in-one turquoise suits and fashionable goggles, not to mention the fairly low-tech planks of wood, we could well have been in the Alps in the 1980s were it not for the distinct lack of snow. And the steaming volcano. And the special lava pebble facial exfoliation. Thanks for that one. No really, thank you.

IMG_5945_5091
Ometepe volcano (#1)

More civilised at the top of Masaya where we heard the haunting echo of our hollers bouncing around the three craters, and stared in awe at the glow from the bubbling lava lake.

And finally to beautiful Ometepe Island, in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. Where all roads lead to (or at least around) a volcano. Where there are Ruta de Evacuation signs everywhere. But where the most dramatic rescue the rapid response team has dealt with in recent years was the removal of some cows from a particularly gaseous field. Maybe it was those potent Nicaraguan beans again.

But it’s not just volcanoes you have a lot of…

IMG_5028
Horses…

There are the horses, hundreds and thousands of them – cheaper than cars and, along with the many, many cows, turns out they’re jolly useful for keeping the verges tidy too.

IMG_5780_2006
…and rocking chairs

And you have rocking chairs. Even more than the horses. Millions, I’d wager. In fact, I suspect that, if anyone counted, they’d find that you have the highest number of rocking chairs per person of any country in the world. You’ve got your priorities right.

Then there are the voluntourists. I have some views on them too, but this is a love letter. It is neither the time nor the place. I shall move on.

Besides which, I haven’t even mentioned the beaches. Big, beautiful, empty…

IMG_5890
Santa’s little elves

But not the place to spend Christmas. The voluntourists were one step ahead and booked everything up two months ago. Now this rather caught me by surprise – I have become so accustomed to planning no more than a week in advance, I took rather an affront to discovering that, having previously been known for my planning abilities, I was being usurped by a bunch of 20 year olds. Happily hippy El Zopilote farm in Ometepe doesn’t believe in planning. No reservations allowed. And besides which, I have a tent – ta dah!

IMG_5894And so you gave me a Christmas that started with the resident shamanic healer removing an enormous toad from my shower (stranger things may have happened, but…), continued with a trip to the sparkling Ojo de Agua springs for coconuts and swimming, and ended with card games and rum.

IMG_5930
Unhappy bull

I’ll be honest though, I didn’t much like your idea of a Christmas rodeo. The booze-fuelled aggression, the obvious discomfort of the bulls and the near death of one of the riders wasn’t exactly my ideal alternative to the Downton Abbey finale. But on the other hand, the local brass band balanced precariously on the crowded wooden stands, the horses lined up with the scooters in the car park, and an enormous Christmas plate of rice and beans began to make up for it. And when one of my new found friends delivered my very own Flor de Caña tank top from Santa, happiness and order was restored.

IMG_5945_5049
Happier cows

My last day with you, dear Nicaragua, was spent pottering along a dark lava sand beach on a rickety bike, white horses rolling into the shore, egrets startled into the air, shining white in the sunlight against the deep blue sky, cows ambling down through the vibrant greens of the lakeside foliage to the water’s edge, the occasional truck passing on the road, some carrying bananas, most carrying families on their own Boxing Day outings. A perfect ending.

IMG_5945_5096I came to relax, celebrate and learn Spanish.  I leave having achieved at least the first two.  And what of the third? Well it went a little bit like this. First I learnt how to describe myself as a babe.  And then to explain that I’d just done a shit in the street. Two phrases that I can’t help feeling are somewhat mutually exclusive.  Though also fairly redundant to me in any case.  (Can but hope.)  Glad I got my money’s worth out of all of those private lessons anyway.

IMG_5758
Nicaraguan dreaming…

Nicaragua, you’ve been great.  Feliz Navidad, Feliz Ano Nuevo – y hasta pronto!

Hx

Beans, beans…

(Belize – Guatemala -Honduras)

…are good for your heart, the more you eat, the more you:

  • ingratiate yourself with the locals
  • are likely to be ostracised by fellow travellers
  • also end up eating an awful lot of blackened poached eggs (they float in the blackened soup – strange but true)
  • discover that (c ) exacerbates (b) thus in fact making (a) a necessity.
IMG_4804
Beans, beans, beans…

Whilst not quite an obsession (yet), this has been a running theme through pretty much all of the countries I’ve visited in the past month.  Add to that my daily search for a bowl for my oats whilst everyone else is making do with dry toast (and, most likely, more beans), and it now seems that I have a bit of a reputation to uphold.

In any case, here I am in Nicaragua, guts still intact, having already been to Costa Rica and back, plus Belize, Guatemala and Honduras since I left Mexico.  I am now so confused about where I’ve been (and don’t get me started on the currency exchanges) that I don’t hold out much hope for anyone else.  So I have decided to only give you the first three countries for starters.  The other two can wait until I’ve done some more exploring.

IMG_4198
Travel companions?

And a brief note on my travel companions.  I decided to join a group tour for this bit (an attempt to avoid getting stuck anywhere – intentionally or otherwise), and the past month has been spent with an eclectic and lovely bunch of people including, amongst others, three paramedics, two teachers, a male model (well ok, ex, but why ruin a good punchline) and an Irish Catholic priest.

Which definitely has the makings of a decent joke…  Or at the very least an alternative version of “Twelve days of Christmas”.

Thanks to all of them – I’ll try to do our travels justice!

Belize

IMG_1326
Stubbornly British

A little smudge of land tucked in along the Caribbean coast, wedged between the Spanish lands of the Conquistadores – yet remaining stubbornly attached to the Brits.  Belize’s official language is English, the Queen’s head still appears on the bank notes, Prince Harry turns up to boogie with the locals, there are brass bands marching through highland villages, and poppy sellers appear just in time for Remembrance Sunday.

IMG_1321
Conch kebab

There are, however, some stark reminders that you haven’t just landed in St Mary Mead.  Tropical islands, Caribbean reggae, iguana petting and conch on the menu.

After hundreds of years of piracy on the Caribbean coast (and make no mistake, the “great explorers” were pirates too – just pirates with a license), the Spanish ‘gave’ Belize to Britain in return for the promise of a new railway line across Central America.  Quite what the locals thought of all this is anyone’s guess, and in good colonial style, the railway was never built.  Nonetheless Britain kept hold of its Caribbean coastal jewel until 1981, when Belize became one of the last Commonwealth countries to gain its independence.

IMG_4102
Local Belizean

Now the locals are a hugely mixed bunch – descendants of Spanish, Mayan, British, German, Amish, African slaves, the list goes on.  And they are all squished into a total population of only 368,000. Around the same size as Cardiff.  They had their general election when we were there – only 31 MPs in the entire parliament.  I’ve made dinner for more than that in the past.  I wonder if they like beans…

 

In any case, politics was a long way from our minds as we spent some happy days luxuriating on Caye Caulker.  Golf buggies instead of cars, sand instead of tarmac, bright colours, tropical rainstorms, rum, rum and more rum…  Which makes for some questionable decision making when the captain of your boat suggests that you jump into the water with a shoal of sharks half way through an afternoon of rum punch.  Happily the sharks appeared to prefer rice (and beans) to human flesh, so I made it out with all fingers and toes – and not even a love bite to show for my 15 minutes of fame with Jaws’ cousins.

Time to leave whilst the going was good.  And so we headed inland to…

Guatemala

The first thing that struck me in Guatemala?  To be honest, the same as Belize – it’s a bit like, well, erm, home.  The landscape at altitude could easily pass for our green and pleasant lands – well tended fields, cows, horses, pigs – the only give-away is that instead of the big old oak tree in the middle of the field, there are palms swaying in the breeze.  However, Guatemala’s current agricultural issue is the introduction of palm oil crop – much more lucrative than pineapples, but with a much more damaging effect on the thin layer of soil above the Yucutan limestone plate.

IMG_4604
Beautiful Antigua

Who are we to preach though?  I have travelled to and lived in a fair handful of “developing world” countries, but Guatemala has so far felt the most extreme in the contrast between the tourist set-up along the major routes, versus the underlying poverty of the rest of the country.  Hospitals close as staff aren’t paid and patients have to provide their own drugs, and families in the highlands struggle to survive on less than $1 per day.  Yet if you didn’t look, or ask any questions, you might be forgiven for thinking you’d just stepped into a slightly more Hispanic version of middle-England.

IMG_4243
Tikal (or Star Wars)

Before the Spanish arrived though, there were the Mayans.  In a calculated attempt to avoid temple-fatigue, I had so far managed to avoid visiting any since arriving in Central America –  time to finally embrace it with Tikal, one of the most important cities of the Mayan world.  It was a pretty astonishing civilisation.  You can read about it on Wikipedia of course, but to put things straight, it is now generally accepted that their demise was due to extreme El Nino/Nina weather patterns, with the subsequent impact on food production and uprisings against the ruling classes. . The lack of “biological evidence” was due to the warm, wet climate hastening the speedy decomposition of bones.  So with regret to the conspiracy theorists, the only spaceship that ever came near Tikal was the Millenium Falcon, captained by Hans Solo, as they arrived at the Rebel Base…  Or that is what I have been reliably informed anyway. (Disclaimer:  No, I have never seen Star Wars).

IMG_4230
Tikal: 1200 yrs of not mowing the lawn

I explored (only) a tiny portion of the (only) 11% of the city that has been excavated.  Tikal was “rediscovered” in the 1800s, but most of it is still under big lumps of jungle, accepted as being the best form of conservation.  1200 years of not mowing the lawn… Still impressive though.

We also have the Mayans to thank for introducing the Spanish to the wonders of cacao.  (Or cocoa after the Spanish got a bit funny naming brown sticky goo after caca.  Look that one up yourselves).

After all of this travelling, I finally arrived in Paradise as I entered Antigua’s Chocolate Museum.  The smell was overpowering – and bizarrely reminiscent of vegemite?!  I actually became quite an expert on chocolate whilst I was in there – but sadly I can’t really recall much.

IMG_4507
Cacao paradise

By the time I’d made my own,  then drunk my daily liquid intake of various cacao teas (how the Mayans made it, how the Spanish made it, how the Mayans taught the Spanish not to make it, how the ignorant Europeans make it, and how the American’s don’t make it – no cacao bean has ever been harmed in the making of a Hershey bar…), the only fact that I could remember was that the Brits are the second highest chocolate consumers in the world, with 9.7kg per person per year.  Three hours later, as I stumbled, buzzing, out of the door, I couldn’t really argue with that one.

(In case you’re wondering, Switzerland is number 1, though probably unfairly skewed by the Toblerone tourists).

IMG_4463
Corn, corn & more corn

Away from the chocoholic’s paradise, we headed up into the highlands, above Lake Atitlan, where things are a little different.  Spending a night with some local families, dressing in traditional clothes (I know, tourist cliché, but…), and sharing in a village dinner of corn (soup), corn (dumplings) and more corn (sweet cinnamon drink).  Where were the beans?!.  I still can’t really speak much Spanish, but it’s amazing what Duolingo, a spot of cooking, and a fine rendition of the Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond on the marimba can do to break down cultural barriers.

IMG_4616
Rubik’s Cube party.  Someone else didn’t get the message either.

On the other hand, the Rubik’s Cube “farewell to Guatemala” dinner was a great plan, but lacked a little in the execution.  Having said that, I’m almost happy that I didn’t get the “oh, did nobody tell you?” message until it was too late (Bridget Jones eat your heart out)… Antigua is a colourful city – I feel I did it proud!

Though time to make a speedy escape to…

Honduras

IMG_4633
Mayan calendar

With more Mayan ruins!  The rationing had paid off though.  Copan is a much smaller site than Tikal, but with incredibly well preserved stone carvings, and the Mayan’s advanced date and hieroglyphic systems allow us to learn a huge amount about their culture, wars and dynasties (I feel exonerated for my diary writing now, which feels meagre in comparison!).  Copan has also achieved World Heritage Status thanks to its 62 step carved staircase, reconstructed in the 1920s, though someone has since worked out that only the first 14 steps were put back in order – the remainder is one big higgledy piggledy jumble.  Woops.

IMG_4113
Banana Republic

Today, Honduras remains geographically beautiful, but it has a terrible socio, political and economic legacy.  Pirate attacks on the gold routes along its long Caribbean coastline have now been replaced by drug smuggling from South to North America.  It was exploited as the original “Banana Republic”, and the main town of San Pedro della Sula is the current title holder of “Murder capital of the world”.  Who wouldn’t want that claim to fame?  With my War Child hostile environment training still ringing in my ears, and spotting our driver’s nervousness, I elected not to follow the rest of the group off the bus to have my photo taken by the town sign…

IMG_4697
Rainbow Macaw

All of this seemed a long way from the colourful, cobbled streets of Copan where the only dangers were twisting an ankle on the steep hills whilst narrowly avoiding being taken out by a speeding tuk tuk – or being pooed on by a rainbow coloured Macaw.  Even on the Caribbean island of Roatan, we managed to escape from a local karaoke bar without bottles being thrown after a pretty appalling rendition of Fairy Tale of New York (sorry – couldn’t help myself).

IMG_4753
Watch your head!

Though there was a strange juxtaposition of smartly dressed police officers doing their rounds along the fine white sandy beaches in starched shirts and black polished shoes, and a soldier riding pillion on a scooter, complete with AK47, to the backdrop of turquoise waters, chilled beach bars, and coconut palms.

And then there was the rain.  Rain rain rain.  It started in Belize, it continued into Guatemala, and Honduras gave us the best of the lot.  We were only there for six days, but the weather did its best with sudden downpours, dreich drizzle, bright sunshine in between.  Undaunted, I whipped out the brolly (yes, brought from home) leaving the others to their over-priced cabs.  Just call me Mary Poppins.

IMG_1463
Sunrise over Lake Atitlan (pre-rain!)

However, the smug bubble was burst two days later, when I thought it would be a nice idea to accompany a fellow travel companion to church on our last night in Honduras. As the Bishop warmed to his subject – whatever that might have been – one stray dog settled down to sleep on the flagstone floor, whilst another decided he’d had enough and padded out, lifting his leg on the pew in front of me as he went.  I think it’s called karma…

IMG_1507
Back in a boat: Caribbean vs Canada (give me a paddle, any paddle…)

 

Lo siento – hablas ingles?

(Mexico: Nuevo Laredo – Mexico City – San Cristobal de las Casas – Playa del Carmen – Tulum)

Mehico!
Mehico!

What was I saying?  French with a Spanish accent?  For the record, no, this does not work.  Thanks for nothing, whoever gave me that advice.  (And whilst we’re on the subject, from what deep and distant recess of my brain have all of these Italian words suddenly surfaced to confuse matters even further?).  I have also discovered the fib in the assertion that anyone who lives anywhere near the border with the USA will speak English.  Though the nagging cynic in me suggests that my taxi driver’s English might only just have escaped him when I started negotiating the fare into Mexico.

Guacamole - delicious in any language
Guacamole – delicious in any language

In any case, nearly three weeks later I am now equipped with a small smattering of the language – and at last count, no less than six apps/downloads on my iPhone designed to infuriate me daily with their reminders that I’ve been neglecting my homework…  My personal favourite so far is Coffee Break Spanish – a podcast hosted by Mark from Glasgow which will ensure, if nothing else, that I come away speaking pigeon Spanish with a broad Scottish accent, even if I have spent most of the past 20 years defending myself against the allegation that I don’t speak English with one.

Night time colonial wanderings
Night time colonial wanderings

Where the language barrier was the first challenge to my trip through Mexico, the long and winding roads have been the second.  Despite the advice from numerous guidebooks, I am determinedly sticking to my no-fly rule.  Which has so far involved three 15-20 hour bus journeys across the country, all of them through the night – again flying in the face of most of the advice I was given before setting out.  At this point I should thank (a) my parents for my early endurance-travel training (36 hour bus rides to the Alps in the days before cheap charter flights…); and (b) War Child for my hostile environment training.  As I boarded my first bus in Nuevo Laredo on the border, I tried to recall a few important precautionary and defensive actions that I’d learnt in the classroom over the years.  How to recognise an IED.  How to act at a hostile militia checkpoint.  How to land when throwing your body away from a live grenade.

In the end, I fastened my seatbelt.  And then smiled apologetically during the one gentle police checkpoint we went through.  “Lo siento – hablas ingles?”

Viva La Revolucion!
Viva La Revolucion!

And with no further dramas, I arrived in Mexico City – into the complete cacophony of noise that greets travellers to any of the world’s capital cities.  Sadly not quite the bagpipes of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.  But instead three different mariachi bands of varying talent competing against each other in the main square with all the sounds of a Latin American football match; wind up harmonicas out of tune (and for that matter, out of time) with themselves; and street hawkers selling all sorts from tourist tat to pillow cases before being moved on by the police.  Mexico City is also a town full of history, colour, and flavour.  I wish I’d found a few more vegetables – but instead I made do, on my first day, with deep fried crickets (crunchy… better with a squeeze of lime!) and a strange tequila-based drink called pulque.  I went for the oatmeal flavour.  Come to think of it, there may have been no bagpipes, but what with deep fried snacks and alcoholic porridge, I may as well have been back in Edinburgh.

Folk doilies
Folk doilies

That night I managed to keep myself awake during a performance of the National Folk Ballet in the main concert hall – an impressive array of enormous doily dresses and AK47s (surely an occupational hazard?), with lots of “Viva Mexico, Viva La Revolucion!”.  The dancing was good, but the most breath-taking performance of the evening came from the two harp players in their own Mexican-harp version of a rap battle.  Simply brilliant.  I went back to my hostel humbled but happy!

Rivera murals - Mayans to Marx
Rivera murals – Mayans to Marx

Over the next couple of days I probably avoided all of the cultural sites you’re meant to visit in Mexico City (sorry) – but I did at least visit the cathedral and witnessed a little drama as a couple of policewomen rushed in a few moments after a clearly guilty teenager had taken refuge in Mass.  However, I also made a point of visiting both Frida Khalo’s “blue house” and the Diego Rivera murals in the National Palace.  For anyone who has ever read The Laguna (Barbara Kingsolver – highly recommended, though the Poisonwood Bible still beats it hands down), visiting these places felt like reaching out and touching the ghosts of history.

Frida y Diego - y Trotsky
Frida y Diego – y Trotsky

Rivera’s murals are a huge colourful jumble of Mexico’s long and convoluted story– from the Mayans to Karl Marx.  And in the Casa Azul (which is really, incredibly, very very blue!) I wandered into the room in which Trotsky slept in the years before his assassination at the hands of Stalin’s henchmen, and then tied my hair up in Frida Khalo’s bedroom mirror.  I noticed a little too late that her ashes were sitting in an urn on the dressing table in front of me…  A slightly spooky feeling of being watched (!)

Medicine man pharmacy
Medicine man pharmacy

Having also subjected myself to the metro at rush hour though, I realised it was definitely time to wave goodbye to the capital – and so to the next looooong bus journey to San Cristobal de las Casas, a beautiful old colonial town in the highlands towards Guatemala.  Narrow cobbled streets, colourful two-storey buildings, old VW minis competing with their more modern upstart versions, friendly locals, fresh fruit and veg, afternoon snacks of fried banana covered with condensed milk (feel all of that camping diet goodness seeping away…) and a plate of tacos for 9 pesos.  The annual music festival was also ongoing when I visited – so we had the fun of dodging fireworks in the street (though I can’t help feeling that setting them off in broad daylight may have been a bit of a waste of a good ooooo-aaahhh moment), and the dubious pleasure of a free evening “rock” concert in the main square from the local celebrity band.  As for the lead singer, picture a cross between Slash and Johnny Depp, in a questionable spangly T shirt, after a few too many pies.  We didn’t stay long.

Cooling highland waterfalls
Cooling highland waterfalls

The highlight of my trip to Chiapas province was a visit to the church in San Juan Chamula, a small village up in the hills above San Cristo, 45 minutes ride in the local chicken bus (due warning – no chickens harmed, or indeed present, on the journey – but stop reading now if poultry-cide might cause you any upset or alarm…).

The church in Chamula is fairly unassuming from outside.  White washed walls with colourful reliefs around the doorway.  But walking through the door was like walking into another world.  No photos are allowed inside the church, so you’ll just have to make do with the (abridged!) description from my journal instead.

San Juan Chamula
San Juan Chamula

“Smell of pine needles across the floor, completely carpeted; thousands of flickering candles, some in glasses on tables around the walls, lighting up cabinets of wax effigies of multiple saints, all the way up to high altar.  Lighting the dark church with a warm glow.  Jesus a side show against San Juan Baptisa.  Huddled groups – children playing (some sliding on the pine needle carpet), women using their scarves to shield thin candles stuck to the floor from draught, wax pooling on tiles, caretakers scraping it away.  One group – two women muttering prayers on floor, young man looking awkward on chair, two sacrificed chickens – and a Coke bottle.  Another group now in process of sacrificing chicken.  Held over flames, squawking, clearly knows his time has come.  Neck quietly broken.  Guy (with Bluetooth phone headset!) now holding chicken upside down going through death throes.  Young kid inspecting chicken’s head.  Very weird Catholic-Pagan strangeness…”

Skirts of Yak or Highland cow?
Skirts of Yak or Highland cow?

And with that, it was probably time to leave!  Astonishing experience though it was, I decided I preferred doing battle with the live chickens slung from the arms of the local women in the markets with their amazing black hairy skirts. (On that note, I searched in vain for the yaks, or at the very least black Highland cow equivalents, as I travelled outside San Cristo – but I am afraid that I am still none the wiser as to what these skirts are made from.  If I’d had space in my backpack though, I’d have bought one.)

Finally leaving the relative cool of the highlands, I made my way down to the hot and humid coast of the Yucutan peninsula, my $4 Canadian pillow proving itself one of the best purchases of my trip yet again.  No particular dramas, though we did have to travel in convoy with another coach from 11pm – 3am after hearing reports of another hold-up by local armed groups near Palenque.

Market colours
Market colours

Where Mexico City is a noisy, dirty capital, and San Cristobal is a charming colonial hill town, Playa del Carmen is on its way to becoming Mexico’s answer to Tenerife.  Having said that, given the difficulties I had finding a bar showing the rugby World Cup final, I am pleased to report that it probably still has some way to go until it reaches the “Brits-Abroad” zenith.  I even managed to find relatively quiet stretches of beach for some quality time with my Kindle.  But there was a limit to how long I could endure the inflated prices and the mozzies from hell.

Cenote Azul - home to a thousand nibbling fish
Cenote Azul – home to a thousand nibbling fish

So I spent my last couple of days in Mexico being eaten by monster bugs – and, as it happens, teeny tiny fish.  Some people spend a fortune on dangling their feet into fish tanks for novel pedicures.  I just went swimming in a beautiful turquoise blue limestone sink hole near Tulum.  The fish found my feet all of their own accord.  A slightly tickly though not unpleasant sensation…  But frankly I drew the line when one of the wee critters went for my bottom.  Seriously?

Next stop, Belize!  (Proud members of the Commonwealth – I am hoping the fish will be politer there).

The weird, the wonderful… And American football

(Utah – Arizona – New Mexico – Texas)

Weird, wonderful, breathtaking
Weird, wonderful, breathtaking

Last week I drove over a tarantula.  He was happily going about his business, pootling across the road in search of breakfast, leaving me to perform a magnificent swerve across the road to avoid him.  This would have seemed odd enough, if it weren’t for the fact that the next day I drove over a tortoise.  No, really, a tortoise.  I couldn’t even make this up.

IMG_3380I hasten to add that no creatures were harmed in the processes of writing of this blog (other than the multitude of monster bugs and butterflies that have met their sticky end on my windscreen – the car’s scooshers shrugged and gave up about 8 weeks ago).  Though I still live with the guilt of not turning back to carry the tortoise to safety on a road more commonly used as a short-cut by speeding oil trucks…

Can dinosaurs read?
Can dinosaurs read?

But given that I arrived in Utah to signs warning me about Pterodactyls and Diplodocuses, the odd tarantula/ tortoise road crossing probably shouldn’t have seemed much out of the ordinary.

And you thought this country was all about Broadway shows and cowboys.

The post card that started it all
The post card that started it all

In any case, leaving Colorado, I was leaving the (vaguely) familiar – mountains, forests, endurance athletes (I only said it was vaguely familiar) and entering into the magical world of the south.  This was where it all started.  I returned from a whistlestop tour of Utah’s National Parks last year, armed with a post card urging me to See America.  It taunted me from my bookshelf in London for months until I finally succumbed.

When you stop following Google Maps and start following the Colorado
When you stop following Google Maps and start following the Colorado

Following a short detour to the graveyard that is Dinosaur National Monument (another “oooh look” moment when staring at my map), I found myself driving along more flat, flat, endlessly flat plains.  Hold on, this wasn’t the Utah that I remember – all red rock, towering buttresses and pinnacles, breathtaking natural arches – what?  Where? And then I spotted, just over on the left, a yawning great chasm opening out of the ground…  So I stopped following Google Maps, and started following the Colorado River instead.

Still trumped by the Hebrides!
Still trumped by the Hebrides!

And this is the point at which the superlatives run out, and even I, Helen ‘Visit Scotland’ Ord, can no longer utter the phrase “it’s amazing, isn’t it?  It sort of reminds me a bit of X, Y, Z…”  (Though to be fair, the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico is still trumped by the beaches of the Hebrides!)

Utah in particular is absolutely out of this world.  It seemed somehow appropriate that I went to see The Martian with some new hostel buddies the following week – the same red sand, the same desolation, the same weird and wonderful shapes of wind-blown rocks glowing in the evening sun.

A photographer's wonderland
A photographer’s wonderland

Having visited both Arches NP and Monument Valley last year, there was a definite sense of déjà vu – but still I found differences.  Not least the multitude of Japanese tourists performing star jumps on precipices, making my legs turn to jelly – I know they are into their photography, but surely there are limits?!  And with both Monument Valley, and then the Grand Canyon, the changes were somewhat starker.

Monument Valley - August 2014
Monument Valley – August 2014

Still breathtaking – but I’ll let you see for yourself what a difference a month makes…

Monument Valley - September 2015
Monument Valley – September 2015

One National Park we didn’t spend enough time in last year was Canyonlands.  And with good reason – it is way off the beaten track, and nigh on impossible to secure a campsite.  Hence why I found myself sharing a pitch with retired brothers Bill and Bob and their dog B (yes), who took pity on me after I’d missed out on the final site by 2 minutes – at 7am.  We spent a happy evening discussing squirrel hunting and commercial deep sea diving around the campfire.  Knowing very little (ie. nothing) about either subject, I reciprocated by telling them about the lives of children in Afghanistan.  Well in my defence, they did ask!

A break from rock scrambling
A break from rock scrambling

The next day I spent eight hours walking in 30C+ heat, scrambling up and down the sandstone rocks, feeling more and more like I was in a Challenge Anneka treasure hunt as I sought out the cairns marking the way up over impossible ridges and down through dark canyons.

IMG_3454Huge thanks to my RGS friends Adam and Eve (no, still not making up names!) who coaxed me up rock faces back in Kent a few months ago – my fear of climbing apparently conquered just in time to actually relish this part of the trip, and go exploring.  Not that hanging around by the tent would necessarily have been a bad thing.  With the famous “Needles” as a spectacular backdrop, this classed as the most picturesque camping spot I have found to date.

Canyonlands - breakfast view
Canyonlands – breakfast view

If it weren’t for the sand, it would have been pure bliss…  I admit that it has been a delight not to be hurrying out of the tent to warm up in the car at 6am every morning anymore.  But the pay-back is sand, sand and more sand…  Though I learnt my lesson about being careful what I wish for.  Within 6 hours of thinking “wouldn’t it be nice to have a bit of rain to wash some of this sand off, well, everything”, I spent the night cowering in my tent, fingers in my ears, during a frankly terrifying thunderstorm.  Instead of washing the sand away, I just ended up with red cement on my tent.  Not happy.

IMG_3501On the plus side, the desert also gave me hardy (and surprisingly colourful) plants, animals scuttling everywhere, a comforting silence broken only by the beating of wings from soaring birds, and the most astonishing night skies, with stars so dense that I felt they might fall in on us.

Driving into Arizona I assumed I would find the same – only to discover a ski resort.  What?!  Flagstaff is a cool college town on Route 66, and along with neighbouring Sedona (with its vortexes – look it up, this is big, crazy business), feels more like Tuscany than the desert wasteland I was expecting.  Though the home-grown wine possibly has a little catching up to do. (And I am being polite).

IMG_3793At a slightly lower altitude, Pheonix was more like it, with temperatures up to an unseasonable 35C – during which I went to an Oktoberfest and watched college kids prancing around in German Lederhosen.  To be fair, I ate bratwurst rather than ice cream, so I did my best to embrace the occasion despite the beads of sweat…  The temperatures had thankfully cooled by the time I spent a few hours periodically skimming oil from our entry to a local chilli cook-off in Fort Worth a week later (give me a job, any job…)

IMG_3677Working east, somewhat ironically, actually appeared to entail heading back into the Wild West.  Saguaro National Park has the highest concentration of perfectly photogenic cacti in the USA.

Can't help feeling the gunfight might be a bit of a damp squib...
Can’t help feeling the gunfight might be a bit of a damp squib…

Just down the road, Tombstone is now a living museum – I drank Sarsaparilla at the bar of kitsch having politely applauded the re-enactment of the infamous shoot-out at the OK Corral.  (It was OK.  Boom boom!  Sorry – dad joke…).  And then in New Mexico I crossed the Rio Grande!  Though frankly I could have done so without the bridge.  It was bone dry.

Heading into Texas also meant heading into oil country.  There was a strange juxtaposition of oil pumps dotted across cotton fields, with a backdrop of windfarms as far as the eye could see.  And the petrol prices started dropping below $2/gallon.  In normal language, the cheapest I have paid for petrol so far was 32 pence/litre.  I know I have been travelling huge distances (7,400 miles at last count), so don’t get me wrong – part of me loves these prices.  But I can’t help feeling it makes a slight mockery of all of the wind farms.  (On the plus side, more Americans seem to be driving smaller and even electric cars, so maybe Obama is getting somewhere.)

Seriously...
Seriously…

And oh, Obama.  Politics.  Somehow I have managed to stick to my British principles of only talking about the weather…  But with the heat building around the Presidential Primaries, the lack of any decent radio stations (NPR is the equivalent of Radio 4 and is great – but frustratingly difficult to find in the car – Country & Western stations were the least worst alternative), and at least three “notable” gun massacres in the less-than three months that I’ve been here, I can’t help but share Obama’s frustrations.  (In the UK we had a similar massacre in 1996, which we all remember well.  Within a year we had a gun amnesty – that actually worked – and a change in gun laws.  It “only” took one massacre.)

Pumpkin avalanche
Pumpkin avalanche

Keeping a lid on the rest of my rant though (see how good I’ve been?), as the start to my adventures, I have loved North America.  I have taken advantage of the kindness of strangers, I have caught up with friends I haven’t seen in anything from 1 to 8 to 25 years, I have experienced sub-zero camping and even become quite adept at it – just have to learn not to breathe now (condensation is the enemy…).  I also discovered composting loos, which give a whole new meaning to “drip dry”.  Enough said.  And strangely I haven’t really missed anything – it has been very relaxing to realise that I can be content with so little. Though I do miss people.  And wine.  And Downton Abbey (note: no spoilers please).

So enough of this solitary camping nonsense.  I have discovered quite how much I talk to myself when alone.  I’ve also had some fascinating conversations with many of you too – you’ve all been very engaging in my imaginary world, thank you.  Though I’m afraid to say that I still won every argument…

Time to head into Central America and some slightly more sociable hostels!

Training up the next generation of dancing girls
Training up the next generation of dancing girls

And so my last few days in the USA were marked by aliens and American Football.  Each as bizarre as the other.  I admit to some disappointment at missing a rugby World Cup on home soil – though given that penalty, it is actually quite a relief to be here, instead discovering a whole new world of College Football complete with marching bands, dancing girls, huge TV network dollars and even a sack race.  I don’t know any other game where 1min 30 secs turns into 9mins 50secs though (yes, I timed it), so I’m probably not entirely converted yet.  Still, I’m a lot better informed now.

Take me to your leader
Take me to your leader

As for the aliens – all I can say is that they are weird.  Possibly only surpassed by UFO Museum curators themselves.  Whether you believe the myths or not, there are some strange things going on in Roswell…

And so to Mexico – where I’m hoping that “it’s ok, just speak French with a Spanish accent” really does work.  Bueno.

Roaming in the Rockies

Roaming in the Rockies

(Montana – Wyoming – Colorado…  Roaming for 2,100 miles.  No, was not lost.  Much.)

IMG_3046So driving south through the US, most people generally assumed that I would take the coastal route – San Fran, Highway 1, the Artichoke Capital of the World (knew I could slip that into a second blog).  And I’m sure that’s all delightful.  But I’m afraid national parks and mountains trump cities any day.  So it was back to the Rockies again.

The thing is, all of those people road-tripping it down the coast in September might have had a point.  The Rockies are awfully high, and with altitude comes early snow, sub-zero temperatures, storms… (On the plus side, I am now back down at a mere 1,200 metres and all of this oxygen is making me feel quite giddy!  I’ll try to contain myself.)

Welcome from car having emerged from tent (after the sun had already started to warm things up)
Welcome from car having emerged from tent (after the sun had already started to warm things up)

Anyway, my geography brain just remembered all of that sedimentation, uplift, glaciation stuff – and conveniently forgot about the climatology bit of the A level.  So armed with my fleece lined mittens, which have now been elevated from luxury item to necessity, I headed from Canada straight into Glacier National Park.

Now before any clever clogs says “listen to the name, Helen?” – no!  In fact it was around 30C during the day, and although there are a few small glaciers left, they are expected to be gone within the next 15 years.  Which is not only worrying the environmentalists, but also the water companies all the way down the west coast, whose cities are almost entirely dependent on snow and glacier melt from the Rockies.

Spot the iceberg (or mountain sheep)
Spot the iceberg (or mountain sheep)

In a hike to Iceberg Lake, you had to strain your eyes to spot the measly bergs trying to live up to the name.  Instead I strained my eyes watching a family of acrobatic mountain sheep somehow clinging to the cliff-side in a hunt for their lunch.  Laughing in the face of that sheepy field and grass myth.

IMG_0996Glacier NP, and also Grand Teton NP where I found myself two weeks later, were hugely reminiscent of the European Alps.  Yet again, I was in my happy place.  Stunning, dramatic, steep sided mountains with snow-capped peaks and turquoise lakes.  Even the lodges (part of my pre-freezing-night-in-tent warm-up routine) were designed to replicate Alpine hotels in an attempt to keep the rich American traveller at home.

Bear defence. On reflection, cuddly toy may not actually be that helpful.
Bear defence. On reflection, cuddly toy may not actually be that helpful.

Whether you see it as a good or a bad thing, the European Alps are, of course, pretty much devoid of hungry bears, unpredictable (and really not very friendly, despite appearances) moose, lone wolves…  When I became the proud owner of my very own bear spray, I realised that camping just got serious.

And running, for that matter.  I have now perfected my bear call (for those of you not au fait with wandering around bear infested woods, this is a call designed to let them know you are coming so they get out of the way, not to tell them that dinner is round the corner).  It is currently something along the lines of the old Kia-Ora advert “eh-oh” – though I am also considering throwing in a couple of Mozart arias having heard this tactic from another hiker on one particular path.

Trail running...
Trail running…

Either way, my new trail-running hobby brings not only the beauty of dawn or dusk light slanting across stunning mountainsides and through the branches of lodgepole pine and aspen…  But also the necessity to (a) “eh oh” every couple of minutes despite the lung-busting altitude, (b) kill (sorry, strengthen) my arms by carrying the bear spray with me at all times, and (c) accept the risk that I might just get held up for 15 minutes, as happened one day, whilst waiting for a family of moose to move on.

Now spot the moose!
Now spot the moose!

And in case you think all this talk of wild beasts is a bit overblown, consider the poor park rangers in Yellowstone whose car I watched being charged by a particularly aggressive bull elk one morning.  Other rangers were cowering in the shelter of the visitor centre, unable to get to work until Mr Frisky had been chased back to his harem on the other side of the road.  Rutting season.  Not a friendly time.

Yellowstone road patrol
Yellowstone road patrol

Yellowstone.  Right.  Now at the risk of being met with howls of protest, I’ll say this very, very quietly… Might it just be a teeny tiny wee bit overrated?  Ironically, for a national park that sits in the (allegedly) most sparsely populated State in the USA, I met traffic jam after traffic jam.

Endless, endless...
Endless, endless…

What I would have given for those endless, endless (really, really endless) long, boring, sun in face for six hours, not a car nor town in sight, only scrubland, endless, endless scrubland roads of Wyoming… that I had already travelled through (with still more yet to come) – once I hit Yellowstone.

Yogi?
Yogi?

I realise that it was the very first national park, which is a special claim – but it was the feeling of safari: one poor grizzly bear (was it, could it have been, maybe, Yogi?) surrounded by around 50 other cars – and one poor park ranger herding, not rampant wildlife, but long lenses.

IMG_3014On the upside, the cold and snow did get me up early in the mornings, so I got close-ups of the park’s famous herds of buffalo, bathed in golden light with the steam of the geysers and hot springs as a backdrop.  Beautiful, but frankly enough to get the picture.  ie. Thousands of us, happily pottering around in the crater of an only-slightly-slumbering volcano.  Which I guess just makes me one of the dumb tourists too…

IMG_2635Happily Glacier and Grand Teton NPs provided wonderful contrasts, and by the time I made it to Colorado – yes, back in my happy place again.

Colorado mail boxes
Colorado mail boxes

A State that is laid back, outdoorsy, whose car number plates depict mountain scenes, whose road signs face existential dilemmas (“Icy conditions may exist” – the UK’s “Ice” may be more succinct, but definitely less philosophical), with cyclists climbing up ridiculous mountain passes (what do they think they are, Canadian?), and where I found a little bit of paradise.

IMG_3212I almost don’t want to tell you about it, lest you should all flock there in droves, but happily their reservation system is still stuck in the dark ages (no, I couldn’t send them a cheque in the post, yes I would just turn up and try my luck) so I don’t think there is too much chance of them becoming overrun.  For an extra $5 I eschewed my trusty tent, which had been covered in snow and seen me through many a sub-zero night further north, and stayed in a wild-west wagon instead.  That wasn’t even the best bit – at Strawberry Park Hot Springs there are, yes, hot springs.  As a method of warming up before bed, gently progressing up through the heated pools akin to the boiling-a-frog scenario, by moonlight, miles from the nearest town, was pretty perfect.  And I was able to dispense with at least one pair of leggings and one down jacket that night.

Tent just got bigger
Tent just got bigger

Otherwise it has been proper camping (almost) all the way – only retreating to an empty events shed once when gales thwarted my tent-pitching attempts (he’ll never read this blog, but to the campsite owner – again – thank you!), plus two nights in a hostel after all of the campsites in the park shut for the winter (?) season.

I have also driven along three alleged “most spectacular” roads in the USA.  Sadly the alternative moniker could be “most crowded”, and it is usually only by avoiding the guidebook’s suggestions that I have found the most spectacular scenery.

IMG_3231Open prairies with the shadows of the mountains in the background, oil derricks pumping away and hay stacks piling up in the foreground.  Or looming limestone cliffs, with the autumnal aspen woods glowing in the sunlight.  I have also driven frankly the worst paved road in the USA, which may as well have been in DRC.  But in this road’s defence, it had been built on a (moving) glacial moraine…

IMG_0948And then cowboy country!  Cody, in Wyoming (named after William “Buffalo Bill” Cody) gave me an all-you-can-eat night of beef brisket and beans (cooked upside down so you only burp.  Think about it…),  whilst the local (from Arizona?) cowboy band kept us brilliantly entertained.  Cody also provided a real, live shoot-out – about as authentic as the inside of the Irma Hotel that staged it.  The rosewood bar and Buffalo Bill’s rifles may have been the originals, but I’m not so sure about the sparkling Stars & Stripes and Polish waiters…

Insight into Helen's diary writing (compare & contrast with another friend's!)
Insight into Helen’s diary writing (compare & contrast with another friend’s!)

In contrast, I spent another evening warming up in the dark corner of a locals’ bar, writing my diary whilst the solitary bar girl filled shot glasses of tequila and whisky and the five other customers, who may have been there some time (!), alternated between shouting at each other over the (fairly low) country music, and playing on the slot machines along the far wall under the spluttering neon lights. All the while watched by a series of stuffed heads – elk, bison and, inexplicably, a mountain hare with antlers.

Practically a local
Practically a local

And then there was the night at the Stagecoach Inn in Wilson, Wyoming – much to the bafflement of the hostel receptionist: “but tourists don’t go there” (exactly).  Having parked the car next to a bemused moose (the feeling was mutual), I had a spin with an 83 year old cowboy who told me he’d only hung up his skis three years ago as he was finding it tricky getting up again, and he didn’t want to risk it ruining his dancing days.  Nice.

IMG_3119Finally I know, it should really be “Roaming in Wyoming”.  And so I did.  In a bright orange hat.  Well the horse didn’t seem to object (though the same couldn’t be said for me when I overheard the wrangler daring to call it pink!  Huh, honestly.)

A Fernie Farewell to Canada

As Christmas presents go, a huge map of North America was pretty exciting – particularly for a geography geek about to start planning an adventure. And so my poor family spent last New Year stepping over me and my map, spread out across the floor, with little sticky labels marking the homes of friends and bucket-list sights.  A fairly obvious route presented itself – which passed through a dot marked “Fernie”.

IMG_1030For the non-skiers out there, Fernie is a small town just north of the US border with Canada.  It is notable for some of the highest snowfalls in the country (yes, more skiing), a population supported by the mining industry, and fly fishing. So far, so Canadian.

But it is also notable for, in no particular order: mountain biking, trail running, beers, bears, slightly crazy people, and the home of my old school friend Abi.  Amazingly, Abi and I hadn’t actually caught up with each other for 25 years – yet, in a demonstration of the power of social media (Facebook has a lot to answer for), she wasn’t far wrong in telling everyone that I’d planned my whole Alaska to Argentina trip around a Fernie stop-off.

Of course, our friendship 25 years ago had also been cemented through shared humiliations of (a) playing leading (?) roles in the local village hall “cabaret” every New Year; and (b) supporting each other through miserable school cross-country runs where we would consistently take it in turns to come last/second last…

…In an astonishing turn of events, 25 years on, Abi, along with her husband, Mike, are now two of Canada’s top ultra-runners.

What did I say about the slightly crazy people?

IMG_0856Their house welcomes you with an equally enthusiastic dog, a porch full or running shoes, cupboards full of healthy living, and a fridge full of – well, beer, wine, curry and pizza!  Thanks to Mike’s parents who had also come to stay, we lived off a perfect athlete’s diet – with Abi becoming increasingly concerned about her lack of training for a 100km race the following weekend.  Yes, I said 100km.

Let’s discuss ultra-running for a moment.  Technically, 28 miles is an “ultra” marathon, being slightly longer than your standard marathon.  But now think extremes. The average Joe might think “I’m doing a 10km race at the weekend, I know I can run 1km reasonably easily so I just have to repeat that 10 times.”  With ultra-runners, just multiply all of that by 10 again and throw in a few mountains for fun.  Abi and Mike weren’t the first I’d met in Canada who followed similar pursuits – in fact, most people I’d met gave extreme sports an amazingly good name, given that any hospital visits had usually been alcohol related (hmm) rather than through kite surfing, downhill mountain biking, ironmanning, ultra running, etc.

Ready, steady...
Ready, steady…

But even writing about all of this makes me feel exhausted – so bringing us back to my Fernie days.  In an attempt to keep up with the athleticism of the household, I had planned my trip around the annual Tears & Gears duathlon, organised by Abi and her friend Krista for the past 6 years.

I’d been doing a few mountain runs in Banff, I’d gone on my wine tasting cycle in Penticton, and like a true athlete, I was ready!

If only those racers knew who/what was really in charge of their times
If only those racers knew who/what was really in charge of their timing

So Abi put me in charge of a stop watch.  Yes, along with Mike (who was actually the responsible one with the magic excel spreadsheet), I was on timing duty.  This largely involved dancing around in a particularly fetching pair of yellow wellies, doing my best to keep warm whilst the real hard work was done out on the course by the 130 or so runners and riders.  There was a lot of soggy paper involved, and safety pins and freebie socks.

And being on the other side of the table for once, I had an awesome time!  To be fair, when someone gives you a flask of coffee laced with Baileys at 7am, and that is followed by donuts and smiles and burgers and dancing and beers and cheers for the next eight hours, you can’t help but have fun.

The smiling face(s) of officialdom
The smiling face(s) of officialdom

This was regardless of the mud, the wind and the rain, which phased no-one – least of all the kids, dashing off in their race as if they were doing a 100 metre sprint (minor shudders, again, as I experienced flashbacks to that humiliating school cross-country…)  During his winner’s interview, the victorious 12 year old then proclaimed (unprompted) that the best parts of the race were the sponsors and volunteers.  Following on from their muddy Saturday, most of the kids were to be found on Sunday competing in a BMX bike “dirt jump jam”.  Clearly bred on mountain air, no fear, and a healthy dose of pure wholesomeness.

IMG_2559From one extreme to the other, my wholesome Saturday was followed up by a Sunday of watching bashed up cars bash each other up even more in a (now very) muddy ring, surrounded by crowds of Fernie-ites in various stages inebriation.

IMG_2551We got to the “Demo Derby” just in time to see a big green van being rammed into the concrete barriers, clods of mud flying everywhere from the spinning wheels.

I refer you back to my earlier comment about slightly crazy people.

In an attempt to at least vaguely live up to these Fernie-ites, we did spend one afternoon climbing up above the tree line, across rock falls, to the background of squeaking Pika rabbits and bear smells (it’s true, what they do in the woods).

IMG_0860

But my most oft visited place in Fernie was not the mountain, nor the river – not even the museum or Starbucks.  It was the City Council depot – helping haul around trestle tables, race barriers and (apparently hugely valuable) traffic cones.  Well I was worried that all of this travelling would make me idle.

I did, however, also enjoy a private tour of Fernie Brewing Company – micro-brewing being a huge and still growing industry in every place I’ve visited so far, from Alaska to Oregon to Canada.  FBC is doing a roaring trade, but still feels home-grown.  It was only the start of September, but they’d already sold out of their pumpkin brew – where most of the pumpkins had been roasted in the employees’ own ovens (ie. including Abi’s!).

And this is what Canada has been to me – fun, hard-working communities, completely engaged with the outdoors, and endlessly friendly and welcoming.

I did discover a darker past however, in a hidden museum up in Banff, with the struggle of immigrants from the 1890s to 1920s.  In a climate of fear, exacerbated by the First World War, many eastern Europeans were interned and forced to work in the harshest conditions, building roads and rail routes through the mountains to help create this new country.  Given that their jailers were, themselves, immigrants (largely western Europeans), this must have been a hard pill to swallow – and is strangely reminiscent of the same debates happening across Europe at the moment.

But the Canada of today feels very different.  Award winning vineyards owned by Ukrainians, world-class ski resorts seemingly run by a small army of Australians – and those with Scottish heritage inevitably popping up all over the place.

IMG_2522A little bit of homework for you though, as I’ve not even mentioned the First Nations.  When I had that big map out on the living room floor, I spotted the best place name so far: Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump.  I pointed it out to anyone who would listen – “look at this, it’s hilarious!”.  So of course I had to visit.  Turns out this is a world heritage site.  Look it up – it’s not hilarious, it’s fascinating (and the name even more tragic than it sounds).  And my own camping rations are Michelin starred compared to the dried beef and porridge flapjacks (hmmm, delicious) the Indians survived on all winter.

Which was a reminder that it was time to wave goodbye to Canada, and to comfort, and set off for the next month or so of camping at altitude down through the Rockies of the USA.  As autumn is drawing in.  With snow already on the hills.IMG_0844

This sleeping bag had better be good.

(Photo stolen for this blog by proud friend!)
(Photo stolen for this blog by proud friend!)

PS. In case you were wondering, the pre-race wine and pizza diet was obviously a good one. Four days after I left, and in 28C heat, Abi and Mike smashed their 100km, both achieving podium finishes.  For Mike, this even included a mid-race nap in the late summer sun.  Apparently this was some form of recovery, but I can’t help feeling that I might have followed his lead and probably asked for an ice cream at the same time…

Road trip part 2 – Style of travel: Back to basics

(Oregon, USA – Penticton, BC – Banff, Alberta – Pincher Creek, Alberta)

Home...
Home…

Some people are kind and praise me for taking my time to consider all angles.  Some people are more honest and call me indecisive.  Either way, choosing what tent to buy had consumed an inordinate number of hours back in July and so I resolved (in a rare moment of decisiveness) that it was about time I stopped sponging off friends and started sleeping in it again.

And so I set off from Oregon, heading north, past the 45th parallel (proudly announced by a passing road sign), towards…  Hold on.  North?  What?  I’d already made it half of the way from the North Pole to the Equator and I was turning around and going back again?  Though if my Scottish blood was afeart of the warm weather of the south, it was going the wrong way.  As I made my way back into Canada I was heading straight into some of the worst wildfires in the USA’s recorded history.

The 9 hour drive from Bend, up through Oregon and Washington states, started with hazy views of endless straight roads, endless electricity pylons, endless dry prairie lands.  And endless streams of huge trucks, RVs and Harley Davidsons.

(Minor digression:  On the subject of the RVs, my biggest gripe to date has been discovering that most advertised campsites won’t accept tents.  Seriously.  Forget health care reforms, someone needs to start petitioning the Senate to get the humble canvas shelter back where it belongs.)

Back-country Oregon’s road signs announced that I was making a Journey Through Time.  I had a feeling that this probably wasn’t only geological, with escarpments and canyons appearing and disappearing in dusty fields, but also societal – small towns of clapperboard homes, shops closed for business, tumbleweed… (OK, not quite but you get the picture).  As I moved north into Washington, I was excited to stop for lunch in Ellensburg, which apparently claims the highest number of coffee shops per head of population.  Must be a pretty small population.  Somewhat disappointed, I carried on.

Smoky haze
Smoky haze

The road took me through forests and canyons, as the smell of smoke got stronger and visibility poorer.  I had the radio on constantly, listening out for road closures.  Fortunately for me, there were none.  Unfortunately for others, I heard half-hourly broadcasts warning whole communities to leave their homes immediately.  Finally driving through some of the worst affected areas, trying to ignore the headache and sore throat that had been worsening for the past 3 hours, I witnessed the aftermath.  The whole of one side of the road nothing but charred stumps of brush and trees, with the odd abandoned home somehow miraculously saved from the flames.  And the other side of the road green, the tarmac having provided a barrier to the advancing fire.

We hear about wildfires in Australia and the US.  In the UK, heather burning sometimes gets out of control and makes the local news.  But driving through the devastation (and only a small part of it at that) was a sobering experience.  Three weeks later and the smell of smoke has only just cleared from the car’s air filters.

IMG_2404On a lighter note, my destination that day was Penticton, in the heart of Canada’s Okanagan (no, not Okavango, disappointingly no giraffes in sight) valley.  Where the endless days of sunshine and the sandy soils have resulted in thousands of acres of orchards and vineyards.

IMG_2409

Sadly the sun was obscured for the first few days by the drifting smoke, but that didn’t stop me paying due respect to the many, many (so, so many) wineries.  I may have bought a freshly grown peach in a vague attempt at being healthy too, but the best day was definitely the one where I pottered my way along the disused railway line through the vines.

IMG_2411I was quietly amused when one of my camping neighbours later asked me if I was in town for the Ironman competition that weekend.  He had seen me doing some mediocre yoga and returning from some fairly average runs over the previous couple of days.  What he clearly hadn’t seen was my slightly more wobbly return, under cover of darkness, from a few hours of wine tasting on my Mary Poppins bike…

IMG_0693
Camping luxuries (pink tumbler enhancing the taste)

Having enjoyed possibly a little too much of the good life (chocolate truffles and locally made Brie only adding to the enjoyment), it was time to head back up into the mountains again.  Only this time, in contrast to my merry few days in a Whistler heatwave only 10 days earlier, Banff decided that it was time to give me a good Scottish summer.  At this point I should remind you that in Whistler I was lodged in great comfort in a modern apartment.  In Banff I had a tent.

Morning run (clouds just teasing)
Morning run (clouds just teasing)

Five nights later I checked into the youth hostel.  Ironically this was the one night when it didn’t blow a gale nor chuck it down with rain.  And actually I’d rather enjoyed the evenings spent huddled by my bubbling ratatouille, dressed in hat, mittens, thermals and down jackets (yes, plural), reading my trashy book by torchlight.  But for an extra £5 I decided to treat myself.

(Another digression – on the morning I checked out of the campsite, the park rangers asked me if I’d been disturbed by the wailing banshee and police visit during the night.  I had vague recollections and asked what had happened.  A bear?  An elk?  Some squirrels getting out of control?  No, apparently it was a cold teenager.  Phew, a good thing I’d also spent an inordinate number of hours selecting my super amazing goose down sleeping bag…)

Geologist's playground
Geologist’s playground

Happily my memories of Banff also consist of a fun 24 hours catching up with one of my travel buddies from last summer.  About to start an exchange year studying geology in Calgary, she was able to give me the dummies’ guide to Banff’s spectacular limestone back-drops – as well as introducing me to the Canadian delicacy of poutine: chips, curds and gravy.  (Glaswegians have nothing on this).  Then there were the hours I whiled away on hikes, sitting in hot springs, and watching countless squirrels hard at work storing nuts for next spring, only narrowly avoiding the campsite’s carnivorous crows.  It’s a brutal world out there.

IMG_0816
Highest paved road in Canada. Rain, sleet, snow…

Finally though, it was time to head down into the valley, and away from the constant anxiety of my single-hooped tent collapsing in the winds.  So I made my way across the highest paved road in Canada (not that I saw much of it through the driving rain and snow) into the plains of Alberta.  Only to discover that this side of the Rockies is one of the windiest places in Canada.
IMG_0782

With great fortune, and having almost pitched my tent under my car in my desperate attempt to find shelter, it turned out that I’d lucked out and enjoyed one of the rare “14% of calm nights in the year”.  Combined with the warm evening sun and the elk and beavers splashing about in the neighbouring creek, this was one of the most relaxing nights of the road trip so far.

And what of the road trip?  The scores on the doors so far are around 2,600 miles by car, plus around 2,400 miles by train, bus, boat and canoe.  (Map enthusiasts will spot that this is not exactly the most direct route from Alaska…)  I have been judged by my Californian license plate – which turns to reserved surprise when I explain where I’m really from but then agree that nonetheless, like Dorothy, I really am an awfully long way from home.  I have been totally baffled by the switch from metric to imperial to metric – Canadians and Americans utterly determined to be different (and not that I’m going to get into politics here, but choice of measurement scales is only scratching the surface).

IMG_2433
You can take the Scot out of Scotland…

And the road works (yes, the road works) are a constant source of amusement.  It’s not that temporary traffic lights haven’t replaced the STOP/GO sign yet.  Nor that said sign is often “manned” by a woman – all of the men are apparently in the mines or timber yards, and in any case, why not?  It’s just that it appears that there is no point unless everything is done in the extreme.  On the way to Banff I sat in a queue of stationary traffic for 30 minutes.  When we eventually got going, I realised why.  In an attempt to widen the highway, they had, quite literally, just blown up the cliff.  Boulders the size of my car were being carried away by a small army of trucks.  And back in Alaska – en route to my cruise, we passed some contractors who were about to dig up the road.  No drills nor diggers here though.  Instead we passed row upon row of carefully laid sticks of dynamite… Taking a leaf from the Road Runner’s book, we made a jolly swift getaway.

Road trip part 1 – Style of travel: Comfort…

[Bowron Lakes – Whistler – Vancouver – Oregon]

So where was I?  Somewhere up in British Columbia, in the wilderness, communing with nature and basic living. Nothing but mozzies, a canoe and one long suffering friend to keep me company.

But enough of that.  My pretence at being hardy can only go so far, and frankly I’d had enough of the lentil stews, pit toilets, and desperate attempts to dry out the tent (in the rain, whilst paddling across a large expanse of, well, water…) each day.

There's gold in them there hills
There’s gold in them there hills

And so naturally my next stop should be one of the most expensive playgrounds in North America – Whistler.  Time to rub shoulders with Justin Timberlake and Hillary Clinton over a couple of vin chauds.

Except that it’s summer.  There’s no snow.  Apparently the celebs aren’t around, and instead the winter playground is filled with mountain biking dudes and dudettes performing terrifying stunts on the double diamond black runs.  And one of them, could it be?  Yes, an old KPMG colleague from London who now embraces the Vancouver lifestyle in full – where talk at the bar after work isn’t about careers or salaries, but instead a (very) thinly veiled competition to out-do your neighbour for extreme weekend activities.  Raise your eyebrows at the gap yaah career-breaker if you will, but I can’t help feeling that they’ve got something right there…

IMG_0643
Well brainwashed, 10 years on, still coordinating in K-blue

And so he very generously hosted me in both Whistler and Vancouver – not only lending me his car for 10 days, allowing me to “crash” (in some serious comfort!) at his apartment(s), accompanying me to wallet draining outdoors shops – but also introducing me to the best ice cream I have ever had the pleasure to, well, dribble all over my chin, my hands, the pavement and probably a couple of passing dogs too.  Mint choc chip needs to make a come-back, that’s all I’m saying.

IMG_2370Whistler itself was a dream.  Alpine peaks, lakes and glaciers; 30 degree heat (happily slightly cooler at hiking altitude); gondolas to whisk you up to said altitude with minimal effort and a delightful lack of the usual bulky skiing paraphernalia; high ridges where I could nibble my lunch whilst friendly bees nibbled at my suntan lotion (best not to dwell); and even a whistler scooting behind the rocks.  A whistler being the much politer title for the rather unfortunately named hoary marmot.  Really?  They couldn’t have called it something else?  No wonder it kept trying to hide itself from view.

IMG_0647I also think fondly of Whistler as it was where the road straightened out.  Now I appreciate that this may sound a little dull, and perhaps not the best advertising tag line (what can I say, I’m an accountant not a publicist).  But after a six hour drive down through deep canyons, up vertiginous hair-pin bends, across rickety wooden bridges (note: this is Canada’s “highway 1”…), and stuck behind weekender caravans – I genuinely can’t describe my gratitude to the IOC for awarding the 2010 Winter Games to Vancouver. The subsequent investment in a newly straightened, flattened dual carriageway was our saving grace on the way south.  The poor driver of the vintage Ford that we had passed earlier, refilling his water tank half way up a terrifying gradient north of Whistler and only just starting his journey into the bad-lands, was quite possibly contemplating a U turn.

All of which brings me onto the road trip.  Up until this point I had progressed most of my way south by cruise ship.  In fact my trip to the lakes had actually taken me north again, and whilst certainly not the last detour on my journey, it was time to get back on track.

IMG_0609So tearing myself away from the mountains, I spent a happy Sunday afternoon people and harbour watching in Vancouver – kayaks, paddle boards, yachts, speedboats, pleasure boats, water taxis (in the shape of margarine tubs – still not sure if this is a work of engineering genius or madness), jet skis, cargo ships, sea planes, cruise liners, canoes.  And an escapee rabbit on a lead.  Well I suppose if you think cats too aloof or dogs too slobbery, a rabbit is the answer?  In any case, if you’re missing her, Flopsy was last seen bounding west along Vancouver’s Sunset Beach…

Obligatory cuddly toy
Obligatory cuddly toy

And then it was time to hunt down my own trusty steed to get this road trip started.  Astonishingly managing to wrestle all of my belongings back into two rucksacks and one shopping bag (I know I still haven’t given you a decent kit list, but to explain the challenge, this includes: tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, camping stove, tarpaulins x 2, water filter, saucepans x 2, cooking utensils, cutlery, cool bag stuffed with porridge and trail mix (of course), Tupperware pots, dish cloths, assorted water bottles, clothes and shoes for all weathers, toiletries, laptop, kindle, teach yourself Spanish books (still not opened) – and a cuddly toy), I set off for the train station and my four hour journey to Seattle.

IMG_2372The last time I was on a train in North America, it was an 84 hour jaunt from west to east 15 years ago.  And we were delayed by 24 hours because of slow running/broken down freight trains.  Nothing much seems to have changed – the freight trains are still sharing the same tracks, they are still breaking down, and the passenger trains are still half empty.  But rail travel still beats the bus any day. Besides which, I was able to check in my luggage (36kgs in case you were wondering) and a nice man delivered it onto a carousel in Seattle at the other end after a beautiful journey along the coast in the early morning sunlight.  For some reason I then foolishly decided to carry all 36kgs all the way (3km) up to the car rental depot in 26C heat in a busy, noisy, fumey city.  But the chap in the office was very polite and didn’t pop a clothes peg on his nose as soon as I walked in the door.  Instead he got rid of me as quickly as possible and gave me the keys to my very own Ford Mustang!  Or not.  But who needs a Ford Mustang when you could have a Ford Focus anyway?

In any case, it didn’t dent my delight at getting on the open road.  The sun was shining, the ocean breeze was blowing, The Proclaimers started singing 500 Miles (iPod on shuffle – it has been well trained).

And then I hit a 3 hour traffic jam.  Oh well.

IMG_0648Finally arriving in the imaginatively titled Seaside (Oregon), I was greeted by an ex-War Child colleague and we sat on the back of her dad’s trailer, on the beach, watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean.  Mustang or not, I had been transported back into an American coming-of-age movie, living the dream.

IMG_0680
What, no canoe???

The next day it was inland and on to Bend, and to the home of yet another ex-colleague (Goal this time, in case you’re counting) for some fun times playing up on the lakes, sampling local beer, and enjoying burgers and ice cream as a mermaid swam past.  Still reading?  Yes, a mermaid genuinely swam down the river as we were eating dinner.  Musing later about the genesis of this particular town’s name, I rejected any idea that it might be something to do with a bend in the road or a meander in the river, and decided that perhaps it might instead have something to do with the people.  Or the mermaid at any rate.

But really this blog should be about the generosity of friends – and the obvious importance of getting on well with your colleagues!  I haven’t quite gone through my whole CV yet, but with friends that I have worked with over the past 13 years now dispersed around the world, I have been the lucky recipient of high class restaurants, bars, B&Bs, concierges, laundries, and complementary car rental services…  Gilles, Erika, Angela and Travis – in good Canadian style, you are all awesome!

And today’s final word (this is actually why I hope you keep reading).  You know you’ve arrived in the USA when you pass a road sign for the next service station:

“BEER, BULLETS AND BAIT – GET THEM HERE!”

Thank you America.  Truly a winning combination.

IMG_0642