Thursday, December 30, 2004

Walking In Patagonia

Before I start I would like to offer my sympathy to the people affected by the tsunamis caused by the earthquake on Boxing Day. I hope none of you have friends or family there and if so that they are safe and well. Boxing Day really doesn't seem to be a very happy day lately, as only a year ago there was the earthquake in Bam which killed around 40,000 people (it also made me sad because Bam was a beautiful city that I had not yet had the chance to see, and now never will).

Anyway, back to the journey. You only truly appreciate the size of Argentina once you get down into Patagonia: it took us two long driving days (made all the longer by one puncture and one complete blow-out) to get from Bariloche to El Chalten, which is next to the great southern ice field, a vast expanse of along the southern Argentina-Chile border. The landscape is impressive by its size and uniformity; huge undulating plains, covered only by hardy grasses, stretch out as far as the eye can see, with the odd mountain peak way off to the west. The wildlife is also correspondingly bare, with only a few groups of rheas and the odd guanaco punctuating the monotony. El Chalten is a strange town: it is Argentina's youngest and was quickly cobbled together (and it shows) so as to have the upper hand in a land dispute with Chile.

The town is next to the Los Glaciares national park where there are some beautiful hiking trails taking in some of the most stunning scenery in the continent; glaciers and their associated lakes, sheer, craggy mountain peaks, and gnarled old forests. I got to see my first glacier up close and personal (well, from a distance of about 100m. Any closer and you're at risk from falling ice) and it didn't disappoint. I also tested my walking limits. Just after 2pm I reached the turnoff to head back to town (distance: 10km, walking time: 2hrs), but I thought that that would get me back too early and I'd spend the rest of the day twiddling my thumbs (as there is absolutely nothing to do in El Chalten). So I decided to add a detour to my ramble and take the long way home. Perhaps not the wisest decision I had ever made as by the time I got back to camp it was half past seven and I had covered well over 40km, some of it over difficult terrain (up and down steep hills, along large boulder-strewn moraines, and even through a marsh), and had accumulated 3 blisters (which have gone away surprisingly quickly). Ah well, at least I know roughly how far I can manage to walk in a day.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Why I'm An Atheist; Or It's Been Far Too Long Since My Last Rant

I think the title is rather self-explanatory, so if you aren't interested, can't be bothered or might be offended, feel free to skip this post and move on to the previous one which talks about Christmas, Santa and dogs.

Seeing as it's the holiday season, and the time for introspection amongst other things, I've been thinking a bit about religion and suchlike. The majority of people in the world profess some sort of religious belief or faith, in fact us atheists are a statistically insignificant minority. So why do I persist in thinking as I do? Well there are several reasons which I shall try and put forward as best I can (by the way, if you have any comments or disagreements please feel free to voice your opinions, as there's little I love more than a good discussion). Now although most of my remarks are based on my knowledge of Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), I'm sure that with a little bit of tweaking they could be applied to other religions as well.

1) The Diversity Of Religions
There are so many mutually exclusive religious belief systems in the world. It's impossible that every single one of them is right, yet it is possible that they are all wrong. Even within one religion there can be many different viewpoints and interpretations. As somebody clever once said: "you tell me why you don't believe in every other god, and I'll tell you why I don't believe in yours."

2) The Self-Perpetuating Dogma
Many people profess to belong to a certain religion, and yet when asked why, the best reason they can come up with is "I was brought up in it (the religion)" or "my parents are...". There their religion is due to their cultural surroundings. And when you consider that most religions were spread down the barrel of a gun (or the blade of a sword) it makes you wonder if anybody anywhere ever browsed through all the possible religions and chose the one they liked best. But surely that's what belief ought to be: a conscious choice. You can't choose where and when you're born or your family, but you sure as hell should be able to choose what you think.

3) Inability To Stand Up To The Light Of Science
Religions are old, and therefore the knowledge of the world upon which they are based is old as well. When Copernicus first proposed his heliocentric model for the universe, the church fought tooth and nail to discredit the idea. When it became obvious that it was true the church just changed its doctrines as if nothing happened. Similar examples can be found throughout history. If a religion has to change its tune with every new scientific discovery how can one trust anything they say? Just as our knowledge of geology and astronomy has shattered every creation myth, our understanding of evolution, genetics and DNA have blown away the special pedestal religions hoist our species onto (and the creationist argument that evolution evolution is "just a theory" holds even less water than Higgs' elusive boson). The problem with religions is that they are dogmas that cannot bear being questioned because they don't have adequate answers for the discoveries made by science. And it's not just questions posed by science that make religions uncomfortable, very often questioning from within is also heavily suppressed.

4) The Moral Fallacy
Many religious apologists will perhaps agree with what I've said above (or at least parts of it), but still argue in favour of religion saying that religions always preach moral and social rules and codes of conduct, and therefore are important in maintaining the social fabric. Although I agree that religions contain moral rules I disagree with the argument. Consider the following hypothetical situation. You bring up a group of people, but without teaching them either morals or religion. Now if you give them enough time these people will almost certainly develop moral rules and probably religion as well. The moral rules will probably be familiar to us: treat others as you would like to be treated (the Golden Rule), don't kill, don't steal, don't lie, etc. The religion will almost certainly be something new that we will not have seen before. Therefore the universal human constant isn't religion, but morals. In fact organised religions often obscure moral principles when it suits them (see next argument). Furthermore the hypothetical example above shows that religions that profess to be The Truth (i.e. immutable, constant and universal) are false because universal truths should be able to be independently arrived at, whereas religions only exist by continually promoting themselves. By this measure the only Truth is morality and not religion.

5) The Hypocrisy Of Religion
The majority of people who claim to follow a religion do really adhere to the precepts in either spirit or deed. Similarly, an uncountable number of reprehensible, evil and self-serving acts have been carried out in the name of religion that I would much rather not be associated with them. Although this is more of an argument against the people that follow a religion and the leadership of religions rather than the founders and the philosophy of a religion, but for me mud sticks, especially when caked on over centuries and millennia.

6) The Underlying Motivation Behind Religion
Religions generally exhort their followers to behave in a certain way: do good deeds, don't steal, don't kill, etc. This is thoroughly laudable, however when one looks at the reasons given by religions to persuade people to carry out this sort of behaviour they invariably appeal to peoples' sense of greed and self-preservation. In the Abrahamic religions if you do something good you are rewarded with Heaven, if you do something bad you are punished with Hell. And in religions that believe in reincarnation a good deed improves karma leading to a better life next time around, whereas a bad deed does the opposite. Therefore a thoroughly religious person, when helping someone (cross the street lets say) wouldn't be helping them because it's the Right Thing To Do, but rather to further their own spiritual points tally. The atheist, on the other hand, who believes that death is the end, is the only one who carries out truly altruistic acts because they do not believe they will reap some future metaphysical reward.

That's about it really. I know it's very easy to criticise without offering a solution, so I only think it's fair that I give some alternative to religion seeing as I've tried my best to knock it down. Personally I would consider myself a secular humanist. I'm not going to bother explaining it when the link above does it far better than I ever could (by the way, that site is a mine of objective information about all sorts of things concerning religion and philosophy and I highly recommend it if you are at all interested in that sort of stuff). Another article you might find interesting is the following speech by Richard Dawkins (the biologist who coined the term Selfish Gene) just after the World Trade Centre attacks; for me it is incredibly impelling and impassioned.

Crimbo

Christmas Eve and Day were passed in San Carlos de Bariloche, a town that really takes the biscuit for Alpine-ness. Of course it has the obligatory chalet-esque architecture, but it also has fondue restaurants, chocolate shops aplenty and even saint Bernard dogs with casks of brandy round their necks. I decided to break with tradition and had a steak for my Christmas meal, seeing as I'm in Argentina, the land of the steak, and I wasn't at all disappointed; it must have been the tastiest steak I have ever eaten (and I'm looking forward to trying some more).

Christmas Day was surprisingly traditional (especially given the absence of TV) in that most of the day was spent doing very little, and what little activity there was usually centred around food. Instead of a bird though we opted for another spit-roast, and although we started at 7am (and when I say we, I mean other people from the group, as I was sound asleep until way past 10 o'clock) the meat wasn't ready until half past four in the afternoon.

After dinner we all got together to get our presents. We had organised a secret santa, whereby people pick a name out of a hat and have to buy a Christmas present for that person. I ended up being given a big bucket of random snacks from Lorna as I have acquired a reputation within the group for being a consummate glutton.

P.S. It is now a few days after Christmas (I didn't get to finish writing the post in Bariloche) and we have penetrated deep into Patagonia, but I'll recount what has happened there in my next diary post (as I've still got my rant to finish).

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Hydrospeed

A few days ago if you had mentioned hydrospeed to me my probable response would have been "huh?". In fact hydrospeed is a sports activity where participants don wetsuits, flippers and a helmet and plunge headfirst through white water rapids clinging on to a polystyrene board reminiscent of those you're given when you first learn to swim. I don't know what crazy individual first came up with the idea, but I'd like to shake him (or her) by the hand, as it is definitely one of the best adrenaline rushes you can get, especially when you get submerged by oncoming waves and buffeted around like a little doll. So if any of you get the chance to try this exciting new activity jump at the opportunity, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Otherwise I'd like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas (especially to those that I have not managed to send a Christmas e-mail to), I hope you all gorge yourselves on food and wine and yet remain free of indigestion and hangovers.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

River Deep, Mountain High

The adventure sports capital of Chile is, without a doubt, Pucon, some 500 miles to the south of Santiago. Sitting in the middle of verdant, rolling countryside, on a large lake and with the ever-present Villarica volcano keeping watch over the town, smoking to keep itself occupied. For many the volcano is the main attraction as it is one of the few in the world to have a permanent lava lake, which contrasts with the permanent snowcap around the summit. Climbing the beast was too tempting to resist and so I signed up for a tour the other day.

We were kitted out head to toe in climbing gear, including mountaineering boots, gaiters, an ice axe, heavy duty trousers and jacket and crampons, and then headed off to the base of the mountain. There was a chairlift that could take you up the first 400m, but I decided not to take it because I thought $5 really was far too excessive, and so I had to trudge up along with a handful of other misers, and it was no mean feat as mountaineering boots are fantastic for walking up snowy slopes, but are absolute hell for scree and rocks because the sole is completely rigid. Once we reached the snow the going was much easier, but there was still over 1000m of mountain to climb, trudging Indian file through well-worn tracks in the snow, zig-zagging up the mountainside (I was quite surprised that there was still that much snow on the slopes). After 4hrs we finally got to the caldera and were greeted with lungfuls of noxious gas that billows out of the caldera, but through the billowing smoke we could also see the lava spurting up in irregular bursts from the pool at the heart of the mountain. We couldn't stay at the top for long though due to the smoke and the piercing wind, so we headed down after about 15mins ... and that was the best part of the whole excursion. Whereas climbing was a slog, the descent was ridiculously easy as we spent most of the time sliding down through the snow on our arses. Definitely the highlight, even though by the end my bum was soaking and numb from the cold! and at least now I can say that I've looked into an active volcano.



Other activities in the area include cycling, hiking, lounging in thermal springs, rafting and hydrospeeding. A few days ago if you had mentioned hydrospeed to me my probable response would have been "huh?". In fact hydrospeed is a sports activity where participants don wetsuits, flippers and a helmet and plunge headfirst through white water rapids clinging on to a polystyrene board reminiscent of those you're given when you first learn to swim. I don't know what crazy individual first came up with the idea, but I'd like to shake him (or her) by the hand, as it is definitely one of the best adrenaline rushes you can get, especially when you get submerged by oncoming waves and buffeted around like a little doll. So if any of you get the chance to try this exciting new activity jump at the opportunity, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Otherwise I'd like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas (especially to those that I have not managed to send a Christmas e-mail to), I hope you all gorge yourselves on food and wine and yet remain free of indigestion and hangovers.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

More Oddities

Before leaving Santiago the other day I tried out another Chilean oddity: one of their notorious coffee shops. The coffee shops in Chile are famed, but for a different reason to the Dutch ones. In Chile the coffee shops are recognised by their tinted windows, and inside you'll be served by young women...wearing nothing but skimpy bikinis or underwear. Apart from that they are normal cafes (albeit with a decor relying heavily on mirrors) with nothing untoward happening there. I actually got talking to one of the servers (seeing as we were the only people there because it was midday on a Sunday) and she was quite friendly and hospitable. The rest of the day in Santiago was a bit of a downer as a group of us went to the municipal park that occupies a hill on the northern edge of town, however the things we wanted to see were either closed or horribly overpriced, and then we got lost and so we were walking for ages.



Anyway, we've left Santiago now and also had our final change of members on the group until we reach Rio. Now we are in Pucon, the adventure sports capital of Chile nestled between the (still-active) volcano Villarica and a lake of the same name. Pucon had many Swiss and German immigrants at the end of the 19th century and so it has a distinctively Alpine feel, with wooden chalet-like houses. So I might try out a few new activities before we head over the border to Argentina where we will be spending Christmas.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Change In Chile

We are now in Santiago, Chile's bustling capital. In fact, more than anywhere else so far, Santiago could easily be mistaken for any European metropolis. It's chock full of shopping malls, department stores, pedestrian zones and the like. The feeling is heightened because it's so close to Christmas, and so all the shops are packed not only with people, but also decorations and special offers. Despite being the capital (with a population of around 5 million) and almost 500 years old, Santiago doesn't have any outstanding sights as such. It's pleasant enough to walk around the streets and parks, and there are a couple of hills that can be climbed to give you views of the city, but nothing really stands out and grabs you. Therefore I'll mention a few Chilean oddities that I've noticed so far.

So far on my travels in Latin America I've been overwhelmed by the variety and quality of the food and regional specialities, from tamales to tortas and caldos to cuy it's been a taste adventure; until getting to Chile, where the national dish happens to be hot dogs. Ah well, at least the wine is decent (and very cheap, of course!). Another Chilean oddity is change. The unit of currency is the Chilean peso, and there are almost 600 pesos in a US dollar, and furthermore the 1 and 5 peso coins are in rather short supply (they probably cost more to make than they are worth). This fact does not stop Chilean shopkeepers from marking prices to the nearest peso (especially for groceries). When, however, you go to buy said groceries, and end up being owed 3 pesos change, very often there is no change small enough there, so instead you get given a sweet in lieu! Ah, poor Chile, it seems rather hard done by as they are disliked by most of South America and need to look far afield (Britain and the USA) for friends: Peruvians and Bolivians still bear a grudge after losing wars (and territory) to Chile in the late 19th century (depriving Bolivia of its coastline) and some of the epithets I've heard used to describe Chileans by people in the two Andean countries are quite vitriolic to say the least; and the Argentinians aren't too fond of them either as Chile supported the UK during the Falklands war.

Our group is also changing a bit here in Santiago as a 10 of them are leaving to be replaced by another 10, so there'll be fresh faces and new stories, which I'm looking forward to.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Means And Ends

Pinochet was finally charged yesterday for murder as part of Operation Condor (although of course he is appealing). This has got me thinking. Chile is easily the most developed country in South America, but a lot of the progress occured during Pinochet's reign after he (along with the help of the CIA) toppled a democratically elected government. Not only did he instigate a coup and rule as a dictator for over 15 years, but during his rule many political dissidents "went missing" and were horribly tortured. Though it's also true that Chile wasn't in a great shape (economically at least) when he took over. So my question is: do the means justify the ends?

As a political liberal and idealist I would say no, but what do ordinary Chileans think. Should one follow a purely utilitarian philosophy where one must try to do what benefits the greatest number of people, whilst doing the least harm to the smallest number of people (a simple equatyion really: Benefits x Number > Harm x Number). But then again what is the value of human life? how many people need to be able to go on holiday abroad and buy Levi's to outweigh a political assassination? I really ought to try and ask some local Chileños.

Enough of my political ramblings. This part of Chile is also an astronomers' mecca due to the clear night skies (although the mornings on the coast are more reminiscent of Britain: grey fog every day until midday), and so there are many observatories dotted around the countryside, such as the imaginatively named VLT (Very Large Telescope). So last night we went to an observatory to have a closer look at the stars, where we had the good fortune to come on one of the most astronomically interesting days of the year because it was the day of the Geminid meteor shower and so we saw lots of shooting stars. It also rekindled my childhood interest of astronomy, especially when the guide showed us one of the computer programmes for identifying the stars at night (it would make a lovely and original Christmas present if anybody's stuck for an idea (and if you're as tight as I am you might also be able to find freeware versions on filesharing networks)).

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Dry And Chile

In the evening of the same day that we visited the geysers the group went to a small national park close by called the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley, there seems to be a moon valley in every South American country) with big sand dunes to watch the sunset and have a cheese and wine party (because we're that posh). On the way back several of us ran down the dunes back to the truck. However this is forbidden in the park, although there are no signs or anything to inform you of this and there were a great deal of footprints already leading down from the dunes. Consequently our truck has been banned from several Chilean national parks! Woops.

We left promptly the next day (it probably wasn't best to stick around) and headed south. It was a long drive through the desolation that is the Atacama desert, the driest place on earth (it hasn't rained in places for about 400 years). As far as the eye can see there's just rocks and dust. There was a bit of light humour on the truck when somebody put on a Christmas songs CD and it played "Let it snow", something that it almost certainly wasn't going to do there.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Geezah

San Pedro is a small, sleepy town on the western edge of the Andean cordillera. It's very dry and dusty and everything is made of mud-brick giving it a Middle Eastern feel to it. There is, however, very little in the way of on-site entertainment, although there are a couple of natural sights not too far away. One of these is the geyser field at El Tatio, which has some of the highest geysers in the world. Unfortunately they are only active around sunrise, this therefore requires a 4am departure from San Pedro to be able to observe the spectacle. This leads to a lot of yawning and sleeping on the minivan, which is a pity as the surrounding countryside is quite spectacular. The geysers are very pretty, but also dangerous, as the water in them is boiling (though only at 85 degrees due to the altitude) and several tourists have actually been boiled to death when they fell into them. I'm no geologist so I can't tell you why the geysers only spout at sunrise, but it is quite impressive to see them all begin to bubble as if someone had flipped some giant switch. There's also a pool fed by a couple of geysers up there and it made a pleasant change from the sub-zero temperatures of the high Andes to take a dip in the hot mineral springs.

Tomorrow we head down south through Chile and in about 5 days or so we should be in Santiago. I hope you're all having a good run up to Christmas, although it certainly doesn't feel like it's December here with 30 degree temperatures.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Cumpleaños

Happy birthday to me!
Happy birthday to me!
Etc, etc. Yay, I turned 24 yesterday, although I don't feel mature enough to be that old, but anyway... It turned out to be a rather pants day, though not through anybody's fault. It just so happened that my birthday fell on a rather long driving day (and there will be more of these now as the distances between destinations in southern South America become ridiculous) from Salta to San Pedro in northern Chile. All in all it took 14 hours to get to our destination, however this was partly due to a very long and stringent border control, mainly because of an outbreak of foot and mouth (aftosa) in Bolivia that the Chileans are hell-bent on keeping out.

Once we finally arrived at the campsite at 9pm, we quickly set up our tents and headed out to a (overpriced) pizza restaurant. There was also a bit of acrimony at the end about how much should be paid and by whom (your standard bistronomics situation). The day, luckily, did have a silver lining as at the restaurant there was also a group of college girls out on a field-trip and so there was a bit of dancing and chatting before the restaurant closed.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Extreme!

The past couple of days have been rather extreme, both in my activities and the elements. I've ticked off a couple of things off my list of "things to do before I die", namely white-water rafting and paragliding (actually, I'm not even sure if my insurance covers paragliding, I'll have to look it up). Both were sufficiently exhilarating, although I personally preferred the rafting, even though it wasn't sufficiently life-threatening (the river was graded 3 on a 6-point grading system; next time it'll have to be 5!). I also got some kick-ass photos that I shall post as soon as I am able. The paragliding experience wasn't perhaps as intense as the rafting, but sitting strapped to a piece of cloth whilst floating hundreds of metres above the ground is a feeling that's very hard to describe. It's difficult to tell whether you are climbing or descending, or whether you are going fast or not. It was quite relaxing yet eerily scary at the same time.

Last night we also had a bit of unexpected (and unwelcome) excitement when a heavy thunderstorm decided to unleash itself upon us in the middle of dinner. Understandably dinner was cut short and we rushed to put everything away (including ourselves) to wait for the storm to abate. Unfortunately it didn't and the ground soon became waterlogged and the water level kept rising; this led to some desperate rescue operations as people strove to save possessions from fast sinking tents (my passport got soaked for the second time on this trip and I'm unsure as to whether it will survive it intact). This led to the night being spent either in the truck or in the shower building of the campground.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Little Europe

My first impressions of Argentina are very positive: the people are very friendly and laid back, things are generally well organised, the music is good, and lets not forget that they have paved roads as well. Actually Argentina seems, in many ways, to be very much like Europe. There's a large middle class, a more predominantly white population (the only area where indigenous people form a sizeable portion of the population is here in the north west) and a strange fondness for French cars. This Europeanness is a source of dislike for some other Latin Americans who regard the Argentines as being quite snobby and "too good for the continent", but to me they don't seem big-headed (although that could have something to do with the economic crash of a few years ago which may have humbled them). Similarly I thought they might harbour some resentment towards the English/British as demonstrated by a sign at the border: "Las Islas Malvinas apartienen a Argentina" (the Falkland Islands belong to Argentina). But they seem genuinely phlegmatic about that and the only dislike I've heard professed by an Argentinian has been against the Americans (and I can completely understand that).

My only problem with the Argentinians is the way they speak: far too fast and very often missing the end of the word (especially if it's an "s"). This has been one of my bugbears whilst travelling through Latin America; I thought that having got with the lingo in Mexico I'd be fine for the rest of my trip, but no, not only are the accents different (annoying but understandable) but several everyday words are completely different as well. For example parking in Mexico is estacionimiento, in Peru it's playa, and in Bolivia it's parqueo. Luckily for me I don't drive. What's more the slang is different too, so even though I can insult people pretty well in Mexico (which of course I wouldn't do, this is only a hypothetical situation you understand) the same words mean nothing in South America. Ah well, I'll have to learn to be rude in every country's particular slang then.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Faded Splendour

I am writing to you all from Salta in north west Argentina, but a lot has happened since leaving Sucre.

On leaving Sucre we travelled to Potosi (along, what is a rarity for Bolivia, tarmacked roads), which has the distinction of being the highest city in the world at 4090m. Potosi also has a very turbulent history. The Spaniards found silver in the mountain overlooking Potosi (named cero rico, or rich mountain) early in their conquest of South America, and it turned out to be the richest silver mine in the world. By the end of the 16th century silver from Potosi was underwriting the Spanish monarchy and the city had become one of the largest in the world at the time (third I think). Conditions in the mines were incredibly harsh and in the 300 years that the mine was exploited on an industrial scale it is estimated that 8 million people died as a direct consequence. The silver gradually ran out and the city's fame and wealth faded with it. Lately other minerals such as zinc, tin and lead have been found and the mountain is home to small-scale co-operative mining.

The buildings of the old town point to its glorious past, but most of them need slightly more than a lick of paint. The town's main highlight is the old mint which has been converted into a museum chronicling the history of Potosi and the mines there. One of the major ironies is that for about 250 years a lot of Spain's money was minted in Potosi, nowadays most of Bolivia's money is minted in Spain.

On our second day we went on a tour of the mines, which was a real eye-opener. After getting kitted out in boiler suits we headed off to the miners markets to buy some provisions for the miners we would meet. The miners market in Potosi is probably the only place in the world where you can buy dynamite on the street, and since we can't pass up an opportunity like that we duly bought some! Then it was on to the mine. The work conditions are horrible: low ceilings, constant dust in the air, oppressive heat that sometimes exceeds 30 degrees and long hours (working in excess of 12 hours a day is not uncommon). Although the conditions in colonial times must have been far worse at least it gave an idea of what it must have been like. What was perhaps most shocking was the fact that some of the miners were as young as 10 years old! To see these children (because that's what they are) push heavy carts full of ore and weighing over a tonne was quite difficult. However after the grimy horrors of the mine there was place for some light entertainment when we blew up our dynamite. The highlight being when someone had the bright idea of shoving a stick up the ass of a stuffed toy (Pooh) that we happened to have with us. Contrary to popular demand Pooh survived the dynamite encounter unscathed and so we stuck a blasting fuse in the poor bugger and finished him off.

After our mining adventures we were back on the road towards Salta. It's amazing that the main road between Bolivia and Argentina is little more than a dirt track. Due to this we were unable to reach the border before it closed and decided to camp by the side of the road. When we finally reached Argentina the next day (today) we were overjoyed to be greeted with tarmac. Aaaah, I had missed the luxury of being able to sleep on the road.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

New Pictures

I've just uploaded some more pictures to my album again. These are considerably smaller so should take less time to upload. Look out especially for the Uyuni and guinea pig photos.

Also we've just spent the day in Sucre, Bolivia's constitutional capital i.e. seat of the supreme court. It's an OK town I suppose, it's main attraction being the well-preserved colonial era buildings in the town centre that, by law, must be painted white. Apart from that there's nothing particularly special about it, but it's good enough for a little wander. The day was enlivened by a political demonstration. Although I didn't find out what they were protesting about the procession had a carnival atmosphere, with erratic bands playing as they saw fit and lots of good-humoured shouting and joking. From here it's down to Potosi and then on to Argentina.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Uyuni

Uyuni is the name of the largest salt flats in the world, which is where I am at the moment. Seeing as it's in the south west corner of the country (i.e. very far away from La Paz) all of yesterday was spent travelling here along some pretty atrocious roads. I have been asked by an avid reader (OK, my dad) what we do on the truck on these long rides. Most of the time is spent either sleeping, reading - for example on yesterday's ride I started and finished "How To Be Good" by Nick Hornby (which I would wholeheartedly recommend to everybody) - or just watching the amazing landscapes trundle by. The altiplano is quite an unforgiving environment and so very few plants are able to survive; one that thrives however, is a grass that forms characteristic pyramidal tufts that make the hills look like an enormous troll graveyard. We also had our first falt tyre on the way down to Uyuni, which added a welcome break to the monotony.

Today, however, was spent out on the salt flats. When the Andes were formed the sea became trapped between the mountains with no outflow, and so the water gradually evaporated leaving just the salt, and a lot of it. At over 10,000 square km the salar is over half the size of Wales and contains a staggering 10 billion tonnes of salt. They form a very spectacular landscape: bright white ground and bright white sky. This produces some strange optical effects that make it difficult to judge distances, but also allows for some pretty cool staged photos (see below). There is also a hotel on the salt flats made (almost) entirely of salt, much like the ice hotel in Sweden although less glamourous. Unfortunately we only spent a day there (on the salt flats, not the hotel which we only visited for 20 mins) when I'd love to have spent at least one more to see some of the many strange geological formations. I also seem to have been made unofficial Spanish translator of the group, which I'm quite chuffed about as it shows how much I've improved my Spanish.


Saturday, November 27, 2004

Death Road And Other Bolivian Oddities

Well, I've survived Death Road, which rightfully deserves its name: on the descent we saw a lorry being hauled out of a ravine (the circling vultures adding a bit of atmosphere) and many wrecks littering the forest below the road. The road itself serpentines its way from the high Andes, at 4700m, all the way down to the rainforest at 1200m. The start is deceptively easy as it's paved, however soon it becomes a lethal dirt road clinging to the edge of very sheer mountainsides, with about 10m of guardrail for every kilometer, more as an afterthought than for any safety reasons. What's more, since this is the only road that connects La Paz to the jungle there is a fair amount of traffic in both directions. The descent itself was far from being fun the road gave a new definition to the term bone-jarring (my upper arms were still vibrating half an hour after finishing the descent), and the rainforest was also true to its name, with a horrible two-hour downpour turning the track into a mud river, with the odd temporary waterfall soaking us to the bone. Nevertheless we arrived at the bottom safe and sound, though not a little dusty and and with excruciating hand cramps from holding on for dear life to the vibrating handlebars and pressing the brakes for all we were worth; and were rewarded with a much appreciated shower and lunch. Then came the really dangerous part: the drive back along the Death Road. You see the vast majority of cyclists make it down alright, the vast majority of casualties come from vehicles falling off the road. When we finally got back to our hostel in La Paz there was a great feeling of elation and achievement, as well as many oaths of never repeating the feat again!

The rest of the time has been spent in La Paz, just exploring and chillin'. The night before braving the Death Road we all went out to say farewell to those of us who are leaving the tour in La Paz (including our fantastic tour leader Oscar who must be glad to get away from my incessant Spanish vocabulary questions). It was therefore an opportune time to hand out various dubious prizes. Funnily enough I got quite a few, namely for eating anything and everything and generally being a communal waste-disposal unit (I'm sure my Mum would be surprised at that as she never wastes an opportunity to remark that I never eat enough), and also one for excessive swearing (which surprised me a lot, although it probably wouldn't surprise any of my ex-pupils!).

Other highlights here in La Paz include the coca museum and the Moon Valley. The former gives a good insight into the history of coca use among the indigenous population and also the West's hypocritical stance towards it (as well as showing you how to make cocaine from raw coca leaves!). The Moon Valley is a small patch of badlands (apparently that's the technical term for the type of rock and sedimentary formations) very close to the city. The terrain is just out of this world, with large clay pinnacles that look like huge stalagmites or termite mounds just sprouting out of the ground. Although the area is quite small it is remarkably breathtaking.

Other general oddities that I have noticed in La Paz include the following:
-a large number of men walking around with balaclavas. At first you might be excused for thinking that La Paz is the terrorist capital of the world, until you realise that they are shoe-shine boys and wear the balaclavas so that they are not stigmatised by such a demeaning job.
-people wearing fluorescent green vests. They perplexed me to begin with until we asked them what they were, and it turns out they are walking telephone booths, which I found highly amusing.
-many old(er) ladies in traditional dress, the most arresting feature being a sort of bowler hat several sizes too small. I'm continuously amazed at how they manage to keep them on.
-the local buses, or micros. Usually they are small vans (Japanese car makers seem to have cornered the market) that can pack a deceptively large number of people on them, and each one contains a "wingman" who perpetually shouts various destinations as the van drives past. Personally I love these buses, because not only do they have several points of their route variously displayed on their windshields, but if you're not quite sure if it's the right bus you just ask the wingman if the bus goes where you're headed and he'll usually help you out.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Superlatives

So here I am in La Paz, the world's highest capital city, although that there could be some debate about that as Bolivia is one of those rare beasts: a country with two capitals. La Paz is the seat of the government, and Sucre is home to the supreme court. But then again, if it's not the world's biggest, highest, tallest, smallest, silliest, etc. then it's not worth visiting. La Paz is actually situated in a steep valley below the surrounding altiplano to escape the biting winds, and as such it is one of the few cities that I know of where the more expensive areas are lower down and the poor ones high up. There are not many traditionally touristy things to see in La Paz, it's crowded, noisy, ridiculously hilly; and yet I really like it. It has a certain vibrancy about it, and you actually feel quite safe walking around, even at night when the city seems to get especially crowded and lively. Plus it's got tons of street stalls that remind me of Mexico where, along with sundry knick-knacks, you can buy all sorts of tasty morsels, and that I had been sorely missing in Peru.

Just to show you why Bolivia seems to be the land of superlatives, in the 10 days that I will be here I will also be visiting the highest city in the world (Potosi), the largest salt flats (Uyuni) and cycling down the most dangerous road in the world (sincee that's for tomorrow I might not actually get to do the first two!).

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Rude Lake

This is my last day in Peru as we leave for Bolivia this afternoon (although there is a chance that we might not get there due to a general strike here in this part of Peru). For the past two days we've been on lake Titicaca (which has been high on my list of places to visit since an early age, although this probably has a lot to do with its name, which contained two of the rudest words I knew as a little kid!) the world's highest navigable lake. Don't ask me what that means exactly, although it may mean that on higher lakes your more likely to get lost. Personally I think the title is a bit of a cop-out, although it truly is the highest lake of comparable size, at almost 4000m above sea level. An interesting fact for those of you who are interested: even though lake Titicaca is a freshwater lake it contains sea-water that was trapped as the Andes were formed; the salt, however, has precipitated out of the water and is found in a layer at the bottom of the lake.

The first day on the lake was spent visiting two islands: Taquile and Amayanti. The former is a chauvinist throwback where the women are not allowed to speak above a whisper, must walk 3m behind their husbands, are not allowed to use chairs and aren't allowed to knit! (knitting is the sole domain of the males on the island) The latter is much more liberal when it comes to equal rights and it was there that we spent the night with a local family. We also had a game of football against some locals, and boy can you notice the lack of oxygen: after running around for only 5 minutes you're too knackered to carry on. Then in the evening we had a fiesta with some locals where we got to dress in their traditional clothes (a poncho and woolly hat with earflaps for us blokes and a patterned blouse, three skirts and a shawl for the girls) and they showed us how they dance. It was good fun as everyone (at least all us men) just looked like walking tents!

The next day we said goodbye to our new families and started heading back to Puno (the Peruvian port town), but before we got there we stopped off at the Uros floating reed islands. These people fled the Incas 600 years ago by hiding amongst the reeds of the lake and have lived there ever since. They make everything out of the reeds that surround them: their boats, houses and even the islands themselves. And when they aren't making things out of reeeds then they are eating them instead. When walking on the islands it feels like the ground is one huge mattress; plus it's rather unsettling to know that there's only a few metres of plants between you and some very cold and very deep water.

Hopefully we'll have no problems in getting to La Paz and my next post should be from a new country.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Bill Hicks RIP

This isn't a post. I had some time to kill online (you pay per part hour so you might as well use it to the max) and rediscovered some Bill Hicks transcripts from just after the first Gulf War. They are still so relevant today it's uncanny. Not only was he a great comedian but he also added acerbic social commentary as well. So surf on over to the Bill Hicks site (you can find the link to your left) and read the Revelations transcript. I guarantee you'll be in stitches in front of your computer monitors.

Inca Trail

I wrote a post just before heading off on the Inca Trail but somehow it didn't get posted, ah well, I suppose you can't fully rely on this new-fangled technology, but here's what I can remember from it (for those of you who are interested it was called Coca In Cusco).

I had a day to explore the city. There aren't any complete buildings left over from the Incas as the Spanish tore them all down, however they did keep a lot of the original foundations, and it shows that the Incas knew a thing or two about architecture. The foundations are built with stone pieces that fit so exactly (just like jigsaw pieces) that they didn't use any mortar or cement to keep them together. What's more, over the centuries Cusco has experienced numerous earthquakes and each time most of the colonial buildings have had to be repaired or completely rebuilt whereas the Inca constructions are as good as the day they were built.

Another quaint tradition that is quite common up here in the Andes is the chewing of coca leaves to help with altitude sickness and as a stimulant when walking long distances. I don't know what it is about traditional drugs, but they always taste foul. And as if chewing coca leaves on their own isn't bad enough the locals here have found a way of making them taste even worse: along with the coca leaves they chew a black paste (which, amongst other things, contains ash, lime and salt) that acts as a catalyst for the drugs inside the leaves. Personally I'd prefer altitude sickness any day.

So after 4 days on the famous Inca Trail (3 days walking and the final day at the ruins) to Macchu Picchu I am back in Cusco. The trail itself wasn't particularly difficult, although there were a couple of tiring climbs (especially on the first couple of days), and the altitude wasn't a problem as I had had plenty of time to acclimatise. However, saying that, it probably wouldn't have been that easy if we didn't have an army or porters to carry most of our belongings, tents, foods, etc. They are really quite impressive: managing to run up hills that we have a hard time slogging up, and all the time carrying 25kg (whereas I doubt I carried more than 4kg at any one time). What's more some of them weren't that young, with the oldest porter being 64 years old! The trail itself is very pretty, with some stunning views and interesting Incan ruins along the way.

On the final day we got up at 4am so that we could hike the few remaining kilometers to the Sun Gate from where one has an unparalleled view of the sun rising on Macchu Picchu. In the end it was in vain as the only unparalleled view we got was of a combination of mist, fog and low-lying clouds. Macchu Picchu, however (once we got to see it that is), was definitely worth the trek. Not only is the setting, high on a hill surrounded by rainforest, beautiful, but many of the buildings are still in good condition because the site was only discovered by Westerners in 1915. Although the site still poses many mysteries as no-one really knows why it was abandoned all those years ago, and they aren't even too sure as to its purpose (though it's probable that it was some sort of spiritual centre).

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Crook In Cuzco

I have just arrived in the old Inca capital of Cusco after a 12 hour trip from Arequipa (it's not all glamorous jet-setting you know) which is at 3300m above sea level, although during parts of the trip we reached heights of over 4200m (just 600m shy of Mont Blanc). Luckily the scenery has changed from the drab, depressing deserts around Arequipa and the Cuzco area is pleasantly green. Unfortunately I was unable to ascertain the effects of altitude sickness as I have also caught a cold/cough, which is annoying the hell out of me, and I only hope that I'll be over it in a couple of days time when I start the Inca trail. Cusco itself seems quite pretty (although I may change my mind yet) but it's horribly touristy as the foreigners outnumber the natives in the town centre.

Anyway, seeing as I don't have much to say about what has happened today (basically nothing) I might as well educate you a bit. It's a common held misconception (at least it was held by me) that the Incas were pretty much the only indigenous people here in the Andes. In fact there were many different tribes, and even though the Inca empire was the largest in the Americas it only existed for 100 years. Before then the Incas were just one small tribe amongst many, but within 25 years they had conquered an area larger than the Roman empire. Neat, huh? So I hope you've all learnt something today.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Boo's Dead

IMPORTANT NEWS FLASH: MORE PICTURES HAVE BEEN ADDED TO MY ALBUM!!
Check them out.

After my last post yesterday the group went out together for a meal, which enabled me to tick off another animal from my list of culinary victims. I tried out a local Peruvian speciality called cuy, or what we call: guinea pig. It looked a bit strange at first as it was laid out spread-eagled on the plate (or as our tour leader Carlos described it, "looks just like road-kill", but I'll let you decide for yourselves: see the picture below), but once you start ripping it apart you soon lose all inhibitions. Personally I think it tasted like chicken thighs but others likened it more to duck, but either way it was very tasty, and the skin as well was particularly yummy (and chewy). So if any of you have any of the little critters at home and are feeling rather bored with them now you know what you can do (and I suppose it could be done for any rodent).



We then left early in the morning to travel to the Colca canyon (allegedly the deepest canyon in the world, and twice as deep as the Grand canyon) so that we could hopefully get a chance to see the second biggest flying bird in the world (with a wingspan reaching 3m): the Andean condor. We got to the lookout point at 9am and after an hour got a few fleeting glimpses of the majestic bird (when looking at them from above adult condors have spectacular black and white markings on their wings), with one bird coming to within 30m of us. We then took a short walk along the edge of the canyon and within the space of 20mins we got to see several groups of 3-5 condors wheeling next to us and overhead and sometimes only 5m away. It was absolutely breathtaking, and definitely something I will remember for the rest of my life.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Arriba Arequipa

We've finally started to head inland, and uphill, towards the Peruvian altiplano. At the moment we're in Arequipa, Peru's second city, and whilst it's less than 2500m above sea level (still 1000m higher than Britain's highest peak) it's surrounded by some (still active!) volcanoes that tower over 6000m. And soon we'll be heading to places well over 3000m so I'm looking forward to experiencing altitude sickness firsthand.

Arequipa is called the "White City" by some due to the heavy use of a volcanic stone, called sillar, in many of its older buildings, although personally I don't rate it that highly in terms of beauty. It does have a couple of interesting museums though. The first houses "Juanita", an Inca girl who was sacrificed atop a mountain over 500 years ago and was only found in 1995 when the snow that had encased her melted (due to a volcanic eruption nearby). Due to this she is the best-preserved mummy in the world (although theoretically she's not a proper mummy because she's not dried out, as all her internal organs are intact and still contain the liquids that they contained at her death; but that's just semantics) and the guided museum is very informative (not to mention macabre. An interesting little tidbit of information that I picked up on the tour was that the Incas used to carry around their dried umbilical cords with them throughout life, and would chomp on a little bit when they were ill, a practice that is still carried out today in some parts of the Andes. Yummy!). The other museum is a huge convent, which takes up several blocks, that was closed to outside influences up until 1970. It's like a little city within a city and it's interesting to see the nuns' interpretation of their vows of poverty: some of their "cells" comprising of several spacious rooms, with kitchens and servants' quarters, as well as rather tasteful china and other mod cons.

One thing I've also noticed here in Peru is that many modern buildings have discrete yet conspicuous signs reassuring you that they are safe zones in case of earthquakes. Unfortunately, instead of reassuring me they have quite the opposite effect, as now I'm worrying about earthquakes whereas before I was blissfully unaware of them (apparently we had a little tremor early this morning, although I didn't feel it).

Monday, November 08, 2004

Board In Peru

Over the past couple of days we have travelled south along the Peruvian coast, stopping at Pisco, home of Peru's national drink - Pisco Sour (Pisco brandy, lemon juice, bitters and egg whites) - yesterday and Nasca today. The countryside around here is far from what one might expect to find on the coast in the tropics; instead of lush forests it's a desert moonscape, with sand dunes and rocks as far as the eye can see.

Yesterday we visited the Ballestas islands, also sometimes referred to as "the poor man's Galapagos" due to its sheer rock faces and abundance of bird life (especially cormorants and boobies). There were also a large number of sea lions (one of the highlights of the tour being when surprised a pair in the middle of a "Barry White moment") lounging about on the rocks. The islands are also renowned for having been one of the main centres for guano harvesting at the start of the 20th century (the industry is still carried out on a small scale to this day). Guano used to be a major natural resource and was exported all over the world to be used as fertilizer due to its high nitrogen content until a chemical process of nitrate production was developed. As such the odour of the islands was rather overpowering for some (there's so much bird shit about that the islands are surrounded by a barrier of floating white foam).

Today required an early start to head off to a local oasis and go sandboarding in the surrounding desert. The sandboards were pretty basic, being little more than planks of wood with straps, but the experience was very enjoyable. Manoeuvring was nigh-on impossible and so you are pretty much restricted to going straight downhill. So after seeing that that was the case I decided not to bother with bindings and standing up and just went down on my belly, which turned out to be far more satisfying (and not to mention faster as well). We even had chauffeur driven dune buggies to ferry us from one dune to the next, so there was no tiring traipsing up dunes either. The only drawback was that by the end each and every one of us was completely covered in sand, which has a nasty habit of getting into crevices you never even knew you had! 8 hours, a swim and a shower later and I'm still extracting sand from my ears.

Later on we travelled down to Nasca, famed for a series of pre-Hispanic geoglyphs (the images are mainly geometric but also include images of a monkey, a condor, a spider and a "spaceman" amongst others) drawn into the surrounding desert (known as the Nazca Lines). The shapes are huge (between 50 and 100 metres in length) and have remained intact for over 1500 years due to the unique climate of the valley. But probably the most mysterious thing about the lines is the fact that they can only be properly viewed from the air (from the ground it is impossible to recognise them from the rest of the desert landscape). To find out more about them and to see some good pictures check out the follwing site .

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Flagging

I have finally met up with the tour group with which I will be spending the next 3 months. First impressions seem positive, as everybody seems thouroughly decent. There is a very high proportion of Brits, a couple of antipodeans, an Austrian and even a Czech (so at least my dad should be alleviated that my Czech won't get too rusty). See the map below for a rough outline of the planned itinerary.



One thing that has made me smirk here in Lima has been the custom to fly the Inca empire flag from the presidential palace. Now this in itself isn't extraordinary, it's just that the rainbow design of the Inca flag is identical to another, more contemporary, flag espoused by the gay community. I'm not sure that that's what the great Incan leaders had in mind, but it's coincidences like this that make travelling fun.

Since this is quite a short post, I'll leave you with a couple of news stories that I have found interesting: one is rather sad and illustrates a case of ideology and political correctness gone mad, and the other is quite amusing and shows what happens to sane people in an insane land.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Lima, Darkest Peru

Well, here I am in Lima. The flights passed without major incident, although the flight to Lima was delayed by a couple of hours. However this had a silver lining as we were offered a meal at the airport restaurant worth up to $25 (bonus! thought the Scotsman in me).

After quite a few scare stories I was rather apprehensive about Lima, but so far it seems perfectly alright. Lima itself seems an architecturally schizophrenic city, with a bewildering hodge-podge of styles: colonial buildings with impressive wooden balconies, haciendas, modern buildings, art deco (even an art deco Macca D's), and even a few mock Tudor buildings, all randomly interspersed. There are also ultra-modern beachside shopping and entertainment complexes that wouldn't look out of place in the more expensive European rivieras. The only aspect of Lima I find mildly annoying is the traffic. People here seem unable to drive without regularly honking their horns for no particular reason. Crossing the road is also mildly risky, although I have come up with a way of getting around that, which I have dubbed The Peruvian Shield. When attempting to cross a busy intersection just place a handy Peruvian between you and the oncoming traffic; and if you do happen to be run over, at least you've got some cushioning.

Today I visited the much vaunted Gold Museum and its sister museum: the Weapons Of The World museum (why these two rather incogruous museums share the same building is a mystery to me). The Gold Museum was interesting enough (with lots of various archaeological objects from all over Peru), including, of course, Incan treasure hordes, but what fascinated me most was the Weapons Museum. I don't know why, but I'm always amazed at the skill and effort put into devising more effective (and beautiful) instruments of slaughter. Never in my life have I seen so many different sharp, pointy objects reunited under one roof: from Nepalese kukris to skean dhus and everything in between, as well as weapons of the rich and famous. So on that note of death and destruction I shall leave you all till next time.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Day Of The Dead Stupid

The 2nd of November is a day of celebration in Mexico as people celebrate their dead ancestors and generally have a party (Mexicans seem to have a rather more optimistic view of death). Families set up altars to the dead (pretty nifty and colourful) and get together for a bit of a party and general gaiety and frolics (under increasing American cultural influence the Day of the Dead has merged somewhat with Haloween with kids going round the neighbourhoods doing something akin to trick-or-treating). It's quite fun to watch and it presents a refreshing perspective of death and mortality as opposed to the depressingly dreary aspect it has in our culture.

Unfortunately, for me at least, this Day of the Dead was marred by events in America. Those of you who know me will also know my views on America and its politics (or lack thereof), which I don't really keep to myself. So instead of talking about Mexican culture this is going to be a rather partisan rant. Yesterday was an opportunity for Americans to turn things around and maybe make a start at repairing the mess that they have made in the world. (To name but a few issues that have raised my ire over the past 4 years: Iraq and the so-called War On Terror; non-ratification of Kyoto; the tearing up of the ABM treaty; non-ratification of the Ottawa treaty on anti-personnel mines; refusal to recognise the International Criminal Court (an institution that would help spread the rule of law in the world, something that Bush proclaims to be for); Guantanamo Bay and the complete disregard for international law and due process; the removal of the head of the UN comission on chemical and biological weapons and a reduction of its budget (before this became a handy excuse for attacking Iraq); I could go on but I think you get the picture.) The mind just boggles at the electorate's inability to remember anything but the last soundbite (and that goes just as much for Britain as it does for the States).

Not only has Bush not made the world a safer place place, but exactly the opposite is true. By invading a sovereign country on false pretences and trumped-up charges against the will of the international community, he has not only set an incredibly dangerous precedent, but also increased the wrath of many people around the world. Apologists counter with two arguments; namely that it got rid of a mad dictator who was a threat to the world, and that this may help spread democracy in the Middle East. In response to the first argument one could say that there are many dictators around the world, some of whom are even worse than Saddam was; and as for being a threat, it is now eminently obvious that he had no WMD (although of course he had aspirations to one day have plans of WMD programs) and was very effectively contained. But it is the second argument that is most pernicious. First of all democracy imposed from the outside is not only a contradiction in terms, but is also very likely to fail. And secondly it has never been in America's policy to spread democracy (the USA has overthrown more democratically elected governments than everybody else combined: Chile, Nicaragua, Iran and El Salvador to name but a few) and the fact that they continue to support autocratic, dictatorial regimes with dubious human rights records (Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia...) makes it all smack of hypocrisy.

As for the real problems that plague the world, such as grinding poverty in third world countries that is maintained by agricultural subsidies (a topic that will almost certainly require a rant for itself in the future) whilst the first world preaches free trade; climate change and the resultant natural disasters and destruction of biodiversity; the fueling of conflicts due to arms dealing, just to make a quick buck; and the complete disregard for international law and justice to further ones own interests.

I suppose that's what comes of founding a country with a group of crackpot religious nutcases. Although personally I think that the whole world should be allowed to vote for the American presidency, as it affects everyone quite directly. That way hopefully we wouldn't get religious fanatics, with irrational and uncompromising world-views, in charge of world affairs (despite what the American constitution clearly states about the separation of church and state).

I had better stop there as my blood is beginning to boil and I will surely start using profanities (I'm amazed that I've lasted so far). Although let me reiterate that the world is in for another 4 years of hellish conflicts and chaos, and, just on a personal and selfish note, it's going to be more dangerous for people like me to travel as people in many developing countries will be liable to lump all Westerners together and blame them for the perceived injustices of the United States and so be more hostile towards them.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Last Days In Mexico

I'm finally back in Mexico City preparing to head off on Wednesday, however I've been up to quite a bit since Chichen Itza, so I'll get you all up to speed first.

From Chichen I travelled to Campeche, a port city on the Gulf. The historic centre is rather pretty, with low houses in many different pastel shades and the whole thing surrounded by the remains of a large defensive wall that protected the city from the many pirate attacks it suffered in the 16th-18th centuries (however I wasn't impressed enough to think it deserved its UNESCO status). It was also a little too hot for me. All those people who complain about the British weather really should try and live for a bit in a place like Campeche where it is so ridiculously hot that you can't do anything between 11am and 5pm. There's a limit to how undressed you can get, but it's very easy to put on another jumper.

From Campeche I returned to Mexico and then went straight to Guadalajara to visit Karla, who had offered to show me around now that she had some more free time (having quit her job to pursue her ambition to get her master's degree); and since I'm not one to turn down an offer of a guided tour I jumped at the opportunity. So the past 3 days I've been in Guadalajara, Mexico's second city. In many respects it's a lot like Birmingham in that it's bustling and pleasant city, but isn't a tourist hotspot. Nevertheless there are things to see and do: Chapala lake, which is a favourite local weekend break destination (although unfortunately another one of those places in Mexico that is plagued by a large gringo community), and Tlaquepaque, which is an arts and crafts centre, with many galleries and ceramics stores (it reminded me a lot of Santa Fe in New Mexico).

Well, seeing as this is my last posting from Mexico I think it would be appropriate to add some more general comments and obervations, however this time I would like to mention some things that I have found annoying about Mexico (lest anyone think that I am biased and/or have a government minder standing watch over my shoulder lest I should write anything derogatory). My first couple of complaints are rather trivial perhaps, but I found them grating nonetheless.

Taps, or as our Yank cousins call them: faucets. (Actually, that's one thing I never understood. I can see where most americanisms, such as sidewalk and pants (for trousers), come from, but I am completely baffled as to the origin of the word faucet. It's not like it's even a French word. Anyway, back to the story.) Taps. I haven't seen a single tap here in Mexico that announces the relative thermal properties of the water it discharges i.e. they don't say whether they are hot or cold. Now I know that convention has it that the hot water tap is on the left and the cold on the right, but this isn't always the case (and lets not forget the instances where the taps are aligned vertically). I mean it's not particularly difficult to make a tap with a little 'C' or 'F' (caliente and frio) on it, or even colour-coded red and blue. Numerous have been the occasions where I have stood under a shower, waiting in vain for the water to turn warm, when actual fact it's the other tap for the hot water!

My second gripe is with the ubiquitous obsession with crap TV, namely telenovelas. This wouldn't be too bad if TVs weren't so omnipresent: even market stalls that litter the streets often have a small TV blaring away in them.

But my final annoyance is the one that has caused me to gnash my teeth in frustration on a few occasions; namely the Mexican propensity for vagueness. Let me explain. If you happen to ask a Mexican on the street a question, and they don't know the answer, they won't say that they don't know, but instead will obfuscate the fact with a vague and useless answer. Below is a typical example.

Arriving at Palenque I decide to ask a guy at the bus station about local ho(s)tels.
Me: Excuse me, but do you know if there are any hostels or cheap hotels nearby?
Bloke: Yes there are.
Me: Where?
Bloke: In the town.
Me: But where exactly?
Bloke: In the centre.
Me: How do I get there?
Bloke: Go down this road and hail a cab, the cab driver will tell you where the hotels are.

But all in all I've really enjoyed myself here, and not least I've learnt enough Spanish not to have any more worries travelling in Spanish speaking countries. So many thanks to all the people I've met here, and till next time.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Chicken Pizza?

A rather poor title, being a play on words with the name of the latest ruins I visited; namely Chichen Itza. Chichen was one of the last great Mayan cities and its claim to fame lies in its grand pyramid (Palacio Grande), which, in actual fact, is a building version of the Mayan calendar. It is also so designed, that at every equinox the shadowy outline of a snake is cast upon one of its staircases (an event that attracts upwards of 80,000 spectators each time). The ruins, probably due to their younger age (only around 1,000 years) are very well preserved with particularly clear and complete murals. The backpackers' grapevine helped me out whilst visiting Chichen: in Creel I had met a Singaporean couple who told me of a section of ruins that were off limits to visitors but could be reached without much difficulty. So with their makeshift map I sneaked down an innocuous little path with a no entry sign and after a mile or so of dense jungle I came across a group of buildings that were still being excavated and reconstructed. Although not as complete as the main ruins, the absence of busloads of Yanks and Italians bawling at each other made it that much better. Whilst there one of the workers came up to me, and I thought I was in big trouble, but instead he offered to show me some more ruins hidden deep in the jungle. So i was pretty chuffed, and it also made me realise how much bigger these ancient cities were than the few paltry ruins that are put on show to the public.

Well, my time here in Mexico's drawing to a close, and I'll be sad to leave but I'm excited that in a week I'll be in Peru and, for the first time in my life, in a country where the water goes down the plughole the wrong way.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Beach Bum

I can definitely see the attraction of beach holidays after spending a lazy day yesterday just sitting around in the shade and swimming in the sea. Today was equally languorous, although it involved an early start to see the sun rise out of the Caribbean (unfortunately marred by clouds) and to see the nearby ruins of Tulum. The ruins themselves are nothing to write home about, but their location, perched on cliffs overlooking a pristine beach, is tremendously beautiful. Another geographical peculiarity of the Yucatan is the abundance of so-called cenotes, which are underground cavernous lakes or sinkholes. Today Tom, Julian (an Israeli and German who I've been staying with here) and I rented some snorkels, masks and flippers and spent a couple of hours checking them out. I was perhaps a little disappointed, although that is probably because I was expecting a lot, but still enjoyed myself. The water is very clear, and you get to swim between stalactites that pierce the water, and swim to air pockets in the caves (rather scary at first because you're not exactly sure where the air pockets are and you don't know if you can make it). There were also plenty of little fish and even some bats flying around in the caves. Not only that, but I also learnt a very important lesson of cave swimming: always keep your hands out in front of you whilst swimming (as can be testified by my rather prominent, yet temporary, cranial swelling.

However not all can be perfect, and that is abundantly demonstrated by the aforementioned mosquitoes, and their friends the sand fleas. Although luckily for me I had a decoy in Julian, who suffered considerably more than me!

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Anopheles v. Mephistopheles

Alluding to the title of my post, I would much rather sell my soul to the devil than have to live with mosquitoes. Yesterday I counted 10 bites on each of my feet alone, and a couple of days before that I had 17 on just my left arm. But I'm not here to gripe about my hardships; these are all sacrifices I willingly take to discover the world for you people sat at home, going to work (ha ha ha!).

In the course of my aforementioned research, I have come across an amazing discovery, that, I'm sure you'll agree, will have profound repercussions on Mexican archaeology. And that is, that the ancient Mayans were, in most probability, either aliens or mutants. How so? you might well ask, when so many people have been studying them for so long. Well, it's quite simple really, and anyone who has visited any Maya sites will corroborate my evidence. You see, all the stairs in the Mayan pyramids and other buildings are both ridiculously high and narrow, especially if you look at the modern day descendants of the Maya, who are generally on the short side. Therefore the ancient Mayans must have had disproportionately long legs and small feet, or they walked on stilts, or they just had a hell of a lot of trouble climbing their own buildings. Anyway, I'm beginning to babble, or have been for some time. It would be better if I actually talked about Palenque, which is a really impressive site, with many ruins, oxymoronically (if such a word exists), in a rather good state.

The Mayan civilisation was one of the most important of the Americas and predated the Aztecs (who lived mainly around central Mexico) by about a millennium. They were quite advanced, making discoveries in mathematics, astronomy and had the only pre-colonial writing system (which was subsequently lost and is still being laboriously pieced together) in all of the Americas. Their civilisation had largely dwindled from its zenith (around 900AD) before the coming of the Spanish, although their language, ancient beliefs and traditions still live on to this day, though in altered forms. The ancient cities were also largely lost to the world as they became engulfed by the forest and weren't rediscovered until the end of the 19th century. In fact many of the archaeological sites have only been partly unearthed, with large sections still overgrown by trees and thick undergrowth. Palenque was also submerged in a green shroud, but many of the buildings survived incredibly well and you have to marvel at the feats of engineering that have survived, trying to guess at their way of life and trying to imagine the majesty of the giant palaces and temples during their heyday.

But Palenque isn't just old ruins. There is also much natural beauty in the surrounding countryside, and so many tours will also take you to several nearby waterfalls as well. One, called Misol-Ha, was an archetypal waterfall where you could walk right behind the curtain of falling water and feel refreshed by the invigorating spray, and another was a long series of cataracts spread over 2km with many ideal spots for sitting down and having a picnic (or even having a dip, if you hadn't forgotten your swimming trunks that is).

At the moment I am staying in a cabaña on the beach in a town called Tulum on the Caribbean coast, which has very little going for it except for the beach and (another) Mayan ruins right by the ocean. Anyway, I think it's time I had a little R&R.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Ruinous Habit

Hi there, sorry to disappoint those of you hoping for my colourful demise, you'll have to wait some time yet. Actually, despite some scare stories (mostly from sheltered locals who have become paranoid from the scare stories they hear on the news) I find Mexico to be a very safe place to travel, and the only disagreeable event to have happened to me being the theft/disappearance of a bag of 3 plums and a bunch of grasshoppers from the hostel where I was staying in Oaxaca.

Back to the story in hand though. For the past 3 days I've been travelling along the border between Mexico and Guatemala so that I could see some rather out-of-the-way sights. (Oh, before I carry on, I have some more praise for Mexico's public transport system. Even when travelling between some rural backwaters over here, the frequency of buses, or colectivos, is surprisingly high, so you don't have to wait for ages, or plan your day around departure times, like you do in most of Europe.) First off were the Lagos de Montebello (Montebello lakes), each of which is famed to have a different colour. It may or may not be so, but they were pretty, usually a rich, clear blue or green, and it was even possible to go swimming in one that was formed in the extinct crater of a volcano.

The night was spent close to the lakes (taking great care to apply lashings of insect repellent, as I had now descended into midgie-land) in a rather rustic guesthouse. The next day started early as I woke to catch the 6am bus (actually it started an hour earlier as I forgot that this insignificant rump of the country doesn't bother with Summer time!) for the 6 hour trip to Frontera Corozal, which, as the name suggests, is a border town between Mexico and Guatemala on the Usmacinta river. From there a 1 hour boat trip along the border is the only way to access the haunting ruins of Yaxchilan, deep in the heart of the jungle and hidden from civilisation. However, due to the late time of my arrival, I was afraid that I'd be the last person to arrive and would therefore have to pay for a boat just for myself. Luckily I arrived just in time to tag along with a group of Lithuanians (why not?). It was definitely worth it as we were the only people there, and I soon peeled off from the group to go and explore by myself. You would think that in a place like this it would be very quiet, but in fact the opposite was true because of what sounded like a rally of Harley Davidsons, which in fact turned out to be howler monkeys living up to their names with their raucous growlings from the treetops.

The next day I popped over to a nearby indigenous village in the Lacandon rainforest where I managed to hire a guide for a trip into the forest. Now for years I have wondered what could possibly attract people to botany, when you can study animals, which are far more exciting and do stuff, instead, but on this little sortie I finally understood, as the little buggers kept running away, whereas the trees behaved themselves and stayed put so that they could be inspected. Nonetheless I saw a whole bunch of weird and exotic animals and plants as well as some supremely well-hidden Mayan ruins (the damn things are everywhere). However there were 2 things that really fascinated me whilst I was there: the first was a monstrously huge spider (about 15-20cm) catching and packaging an unlucky fly; and the guy sitting at a shelter in the forest collecting a small fee for visiting the reserve and writing your name in a log book. Now the latter event in itself is not particularly interesting, but what intrigued me was the fact that the previous visitor to arrive before me was there 5 days ago, and I was just wondering whether he goes out every day to his shelter in the forest and just waits. And waits. And waits. And maybe, one day, if he's lucky, someone might turn up so that he can write their name in his log book. And then he waits some more.

Finally I arrived at Palenque and tomorrow I will visit the ruins here, which are said to be the most spectacular in Mexico, so I'll pass my expert eye over them and give you my verdict.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Trigger Happy

No, don't worry, I haven't gone on an anti-US shooting spree (although it does happen to be one of my favourite recurring dreams!), instead I visited the nearby Cañon de Sumidero, a little known natural wonder, and shot off nearly a whole role of film. The trip involved a boat journey along the Rio Grijalva between cliffs up to 1000m high towering on either side and with the river reaching depths of over 200m! You truly feel dwarfed by the power of nature as you glide under the rock walls. But the landscape wasn't the only amazing thing about the canyon: it also has an abundance of wildlife that is remarkably accessible due to the topography. Therefore you could see, on the same, tiny spit of sand sheltered under a cliff face a group of roosting cormorants, a handful of basking crocodiles and a family of squabbling spider monkeys. The canyon was also particularly popular with vultures who would float on the rising thermals between the cliffs.

Tomorrow I'm off on a bit of an adventure as I plan to visit some lakes close to the Guatemalan border and then take the carretera frontera (border highway) which hugs the border between Mexico and Guatemala to the ruins of Yaxchilan and Bonampak, which, due to their out of the way location, are seldom visited by tourists. So if you don't hear from me after this you'll know that I've been kidnapped by either drug smugglers or bandits.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Coke, Hippies And Chickens

Eeek, it's been a few days since I last posted and so I might have a bit to write today. I spent another couple of days in Oaxaca visiting a place called Hierve el Agua (the name means boiling water, a bit of a misnomer really as the water from the springs isn't really hot but it just effervesces due to the dissolved minerals), which has some beautiful rock formations that look like petrified waterfalls (by petrified I of course mean turned to stone, and not scared, although I'd quite like to see what scared water looks like). And from there I stopped off at a town called El Tule, which claims to have a tree that is the largest living biomass in the world. I'm not too sure about that claim, but it certainly is a bloody big tree! My final day was spent in the main market in Oaxaca (not the one selling touristy crap, but the one where locals come to shop), where it is ridiculously easy to get lost among the maze of covered stalls selling everything imaginable under the sun: from food and spices to bridal wear and cheap plastic sandals.

At the moment I'm in San Cristobal de Las Casas (SC), a pretty town in south east Mexico in the state of Chiapas and home to the Zapatista movement. Luckily for me Lisbeth (a Mexican ex-flatmate of mine) has a couple of good friends (Tammo and Luz and their beautiful little girl Paulina) here in SC who were not only kind enough to welcome me at the bus station and show me around a bit, but also gave me a great deal of information about the indigenous peoples (Luz works job is to help with their economic development, sort of like the Gramin Bank) and Tammo about the wildlife (as he is a conservation co-ordinator in El Triunfo bioreserve). Anyway, not only does Chiapas have the best preserved Mayan ruins and the greatest biodiversity in Mexico, but the indigenous people have preserved their cultures more than most. And so with a view to seeing this first hand I went on a tour of a couple of local villages.

The first one I visited was called San Juan de Chamula, which is a very singular place because it remains autonomous from most of the federal and state laws and they have their own traditional justice system. Policemen have no powers inside the village boundaries and instead justice is dealt by a group of elected villagers armed with big, heavy-looking, sticks. Not only is their status within Mexico unique, but so is their religion, which they call "Traditional Catholicism", which is a very strange syncretism of Catholicism and Mayan pre-Hispanic beliefs. The only parts of their beliefs that would seem familiar to European Christians are their acceptance of baptism and the saints, other than that it is completely foreign. They have no priests, instead they commune directly with the saints; they carry out shamanistic healing rituals in their church (many of which include Coca Cola as an integral part of the ritual!) going so far as to sacrifice animals (to my great disappointment, while I was there I didn't get to witness any); they include many Mayan religious symbols (e.g. instead of Jesus on the cross they have a corn plant); and they hold John the Baptist in much higher esteem than Jesus himself. So understandably the church is quite a chaotic place with literally thousands of candles all on tables, on chairs and on the floor and pine needles strewn all across the floor, unfortunately, however, you can't take pictures (due to them thinking that it steals power from their guardian angels, and you'd be in physical danger if you tried) inside or of the people themselves, although I was able to find this site with some pictures from the outside along with some of the Authorities (local police) in their white woollen ponchos.

My visit to the second village of Zinacantan was cut short by a couple of Dutchmen in the tour group who complained that it was going on for longer than advertised (heaven forbid) and that they urgently needed to get back to SC for important business (which turned out to be the visiting of a church). This has made me decide to try and cut down as much as possible on organised tours where I am at the mercy of other peoples' fancies. If I'm going to suffer from whims they may as well be my own.

I'd like to finish today's post with a small(ish) rant about hippies and gap-year travellers. Now it may seem odd for me to lump these two, seemingly disparate, groups together, but there is a reason. You see I don't understand them. The hippies get up at midday, smoke some weed, play the guitar, talk about the deeper meaning of life, and never leave the hostel. Gap-year students, on the other hand, head down to the coast and just get hammered every day. Both of these activities can so easily be done back at home; you don't need to be here in Mexico to do it. On the other hand there's such an amazing country out there to be discovered, with an incredible diversity of wildlife, peoples, cultures and traditions. It just seems to be an amazing waste of a golden opportunity. Initially I thought that 7 weeks would be too much for Mexico and that I'd get bored, and now I'm having to rush to fit half of what I want to see into my schedule, and I just know that I'm going to have to come back at some point to finish it off (and pop down into the rest of central America).

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

It's Just Not Crickets

You'll have to bear with me today as I have quite a few disparate ideas running around in my head and I'm going to try and get them all down.

I'll start with the easy task of recounting what I've been up to since my last post. I visited the legendary ruins of Teotihuacan close to Mexico City (it took me this long to go there because of the time it took me to learn how to pronounce it so that I could buy the bus ticket! ;-P). The amazing thing about Teotihuacan is the sheer size of the ruins and the pyramids. The Piramide del Sol is the 3rd biggest pyramid in the world after Cheops and Cholula and the city ruins cover an area of some 30 square km. Perhaps most fascinating about the site is the mystery surrounding its founding, its inhabitants and its abrupt decline and abandonment. For reasons still unknown some time in the 7th century was abandoned and the civilisation that flourished there disappeared. The site, with its ritual processional way and its two gigantic pyramids remained a place of pilgrimage for the civilisations that followed (like the Aztecs), and it is easy to see why just from the monumental layout of the place. The setting itself leaves something to be desired though, as the modern day town of Teotihuacan is right next to it and dispels some of the magic of the place. It was also the first tourist place that I've visited where the foreigners outnumbered Mexicans (as most foreigners don't bother heading north and stick to southern Mexico).

The next day I headed south-east to Oaxaca (pronounced wahaka) through some of the most gorgeous landscapes that I have ever seen (so gorgeous that I would love to have the time, and Ray Mears survival skills, to just head off into the wilderness for a week or so). Here I visited Monte Alban (White Mountain), so-called because of the whitish colour of the local rocks, an ancient Zapotec city (the oldest city in the Americas). Although not as grand as Teotihuacan it is very well-preserved and therefore retains a charm missing from the former. But probably more exciting for me here in Oaxaca is one of the local delicacies that I have been dying to try for some years now. Here they call them chapulinas, but you would call them grasshoppers. They are a very odd taste sensation indeed; there are 3 different types that you can get: pequenos (small, about 2-3mm long), medios (medium, up to 1cm) and grandes (large, about 2cm) and you can have them with chili or without. The small ones are so small that it's almost like eating some sort of powder (until you look closely that is) and taste like an Iranian dish called ghormeh sabzi (for those of you who don't know it, it's like salty oregano). The other two are more similar and are more lemony in taste, although I prefer the larger ones as they are crunchier (actually I've got a small bag of them in front of me now and am munching away as I'm typing). Tasty!

The other thing I wanted to write is more of a rant, although I hope I don't sound patronising. When I was in the Copper Canyon I couldn't help noticing that there was a fair amount of litter strewn about and it made me rather angry to see that people had so little regard for a place of such beauty (because for me untouched and unspoilt nature is the most beautiful thing in the world, no matter what it is, and anything that people do automatically detracts from it, and so all we can try and do is minimise our impact). Now initially I thought it was just tourists, but then I went to a place where tourists would not go and it was just as bad, and so it had to be the people living locally. The thing is that poor people who live in places of such natural beauty rarely have an incentive to protect it as it doesn't bring them as many material gains as exploitation, and of course they have as much a right to a decent life as anybody else. It's really important that such people are educated and adequately remunerated to preserve their surroundings, otherwise they'll go down the same route as western Europe, where the areas of unspoilt nature are so pitifully small, and we are the worse off for it. This idea was reinforced when I visited Teotihuacan, where the foreign tourists were by and large OK, but a number of Mexicans were clambering over walls and I even saw one guy pissing against one of the ruins, even though there was a toilet not 200m away. Now I don't have any solutions or answers, but it's important that we do something soon before we really kack this place up beyond all repair. And the West ought to be proactive in funding and promoting the clean up, otherwise it just smacks of hypocrisy.

OK, that's about it, apart from a small request. I was wondering whether those of you who read this blog could, every now and again, just let me know what is going on, etc, etc, with a short e-mail, as they are very much appreciated. Now I know that my Dad is going to say that this is karma and poetic justice because I never write to him and he'd be right, but still... Anyway, I'd better stop there and save the rest for another day.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Miscellaneous Mexican Musings

Well, I've been back in Mexico City at my cousin's, just chillin' for a bit before I head off south. In the end I didn't visit Mazatlan or anywhere else on the coast, as I really couldn't be bothered and I was beginning to smell and my clothes needed washing (for those unfortunate enough to have lived with me before, they will know that things must have been getting pretty malodorous for even me to notice that). So instead of regaling you with my exploits, in this post I shall talk about things that I have noticed here and thought somehow odd or different or unexpected.

First of all, I have come to the conclusion that Mexico is a nation of hypochondriacs. How come? I hear you ask, surely it must be the Yanks that are the world's master pill-poppers. My conclusion stems from the incredible profusion of pharmacies. Almost every other shop here in Mexico is a pharmacy, it's ridiculous; I don't understand how they can all make a living. I mean, having lots of food stalls, restaurants, etc. I can understand because everyone needs to eat, but not everybody is ill (or they might just be sick?).

Secondly I have had the dubious pleasure of watching a bit of Mexican TV, and even after a short while something becomes quite apparent: almost everyone on TV (from the actors in the execrable telenovelas to the kids in adverts) is pure Caucasian (i.e. only of European descent), whereas about 80% of Mexico's population is actually mestizo (i.e. of mixed European and indigenous ancestry) and only 10% Caucasian.

Then there's change. Well actually there isn't. Nobody ever has any change and people in shops seem particularly insulted if you happen to only have large denominations. So quite often I'll have to ask taxi drivers before I get in whether they have any change. Though this can sometimes work to your advantage when, for example, paying for a museum entrance. Sometimes the person on duty just can't be bothered running off to his neighbours to see if they have change and may let you in for a rounded-down fare.

And finally for those of you back in Blighty who drive and complain about traffic calming measures, well you ain't seen nothin yet. Although here they are generally confined to the main roads. It seems as if the authorities couldn't be bothered with traffic lights, and so just put sleeping policemen before junctions and let the people sort it out themselves (the apparent philosophy being that if/when they do crash, then it will be at a slower speed and so it won't matter as much).

That's about it, and I'll probably be off south in the next day or two, as I find it difficult motivate myself to do anything constructive when I don't have to pay to stay the night.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Beanless In Mexico

I've finally managed to tear myself away from the Barranca del Cobre, even though there were a few things that I wanted to see (ah, the sacrifices I make in the name of exploration and the advancement of human knowledge). I caught the Copper Canyon railway (or the Chepe as it's known locally) from Creel to a suitably awful town on the coast called Los Mochis (stopping to catch a view of the actual Copper Canyon itself, and going a bit trigger-happy with the camera as a consequence, at Divisadero on the way). The railway really is a feat of engineering as it winds through the least railway-friendly territory known to man. What's more, when they were building it I think they were given all the reject track pieces from the Americans after they had built their own railways, because there is not a single piece of straight track on the whole line! Not only that, but there are some incredibly tortuous meanderings and doubling-backs to accommodate the ever-changing topography. Not only is their track-laying incredible, but the speed and and punctuality must be the envy of Virgin Rail: with an average speed of under 30km/h and a delay of just under 3 hours, it's a record Mr Branson would be proud of! (For those of you (luckily) unacquainted with the British railway system, this final remark will probably be rather obscure.) However all that can be forgiven because of the stunning scenery through which the railway passes, which must surely rank it alongside one of the rail journeys of the world.

I arrived at Los Mochis at 2:30am and decided to save money on a hotel room by getting a bus to the town of Alamos and sleeping on it instead. Alamos itself is a small town, with charming colonial architecture that reveals its important history (another mining town, and also an important stopping point on the Camino Real). But more important to me is the fact that Alamos is the epicentre of the breeding range of the small moth Carpocapsa saltitans (again ex-students should note the italics, capitalisation for the genus name but none for the species name) that lays its eggs in the seeds of a local shrub. When warmed the larva pulls on threads that it spins within the seed, causing it to move around. That's right folks, they are Mexican Jumping Beans, and unfortunately this year's crop was a complete failure and so there are none about, and consequently I am not a happy bunny. Ah well, some things are just out of our hands.

The next couple of days are going to be a bit bus intensive as I return to Mexico City via Mazatlan, each time taking the night bus to save money on accommodation. But since I'm not much of a beach bum I doubt I'll stay long on the coast.