Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Back For Breakfast

My last days in America heralded the coming of winter, with heavy snowfalls and freezing temperatures. On the one hand I was glad, as low temperatures mean more layers of clothing, which in turn leads to a lighter backpack. However that does not help balance out the discomfort of colder and shorter days. Plus I had reached the end of the road on the American continent. The only way was back to Europe. It was time to go home. Not that this was a decision that had pounced on me suddenly out of the blue. In fact I had already decided a year before that I would be home for Christmas 2013, and was sticking to my plans.

My only possessions (apart from my backpack) to have survived the entire, 45 month circumnavigation: my sleeping bag, my sleeping bag liner, a base layer shirt, my Czech passport, comb, razor and my toothbrush.


Sunday, December 08, 2013

Not The Home Of The Braves

From Montreal it was due south to New York, my last stop, not just in America, but of the entire trip. It was strange for me to be thinking about being back home after so long on the road, so I decided not to think about it and instead concentrate on exploring New York. For many New York is America. Its dominance, both economical and cultural, is unparallelled. Its locales made famous from innumerable Hollywood films: Times Square, Wall Street, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, Fifth Avenue, the brownstones of Greenwich Village, the Empire State Building, and Central Park are as well known to people from Panama to Peshawar as much as they are to the populace of Pensacola. I had, actually, been there before, way back in 2001, as a young student on my summer holidays (ah, how innocence fades) and was interested to see how I would see it with more jaded eyes.

Manhattan's exclusive 5th Avenue looking uncharacteristically empty on a Sunday morning.


Monday, December 02, 2013

The Real Melting Pot

America is famous for being a melting pot of ethnicities and cultures. And it is true that it is a nation of immigrants from all corners of the earth who have come, throughout the past few hundred years to escape persecution, gain an education, live in peace, and work towards a better life for themselves. Americans will regale you with details of their ethnic stock (one sixteenth Sioux, another English, one quarter Irish, one quarter Polak, and three eighths Chinese) and proudly proclaim that they are African-, German-, Chinese-, Italian- or Irish-American despite a complete lack of connection to this urheimat except for dressing in green once a year during Saint Patrick's Day, a penchant for sweet and sour stir fry, or a little more rhythm than your average citizen. Canada must be just the same, right?

"I am Canadian!" Canadians are quick to distinguish themselves from their southern neighbours. This beer add humourously captures these differences in a proud ode to Canadia. (Just a shame the beer itself is so bad.)

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Rusty

That America is the richest country in the world is well known. It manifests itself in towering skyscrapers, the car culture, its gargantuan military, its army of labour-saving devices, the dominance of Wall Street and American corporations throughout the globe, and, of course, the American Dream. Convenience is king, and, if you have a decent job, life is comfortable and easy. This big, bold brashness is evident in Chicago, the Windy City, and acknowledged capital of the Midwest. Lazily sprawling westwards from the shores of lake Michigan, the skyscrapers of the Loop (the central business district). Indeed, although may think of New York and Manhattan when talking of skyscrapers, it actually Chicago that is the spiritual home and birthplace of the skyscraper. The first steel-framed skyscrapers were built there; the revolutionary tubular design that allowed even taller, more efficient towers was developed there; and of course it is also home to the Sears (aka Willis) Tower, which, up until recently, was the tallest building in the Americas.

The lakefront skyline of Chicago with its huddle of skyscrapers.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Paradoxysms

Countries often have deep, internal divisions that cleave the society in two. Often the divide is between a poor, religiously conservative rural population, and an urban, middle-class, educated, liberal one. I found this particularly apparent in countries such as Iran, Turkey and China, which are still undergoing transitions towards more industrial economies. In America the transition has occurred but the division still exists to a large degree, and somehow the rural poor have been duped into voting for rich corporate interests. But taking pot-shots at American political dysfunctionality and woeful health provision is too easy and instead I want to look at the quirkier paradoxes and polarisations that exist within the US.

For poorer Americans access to fresh fruit and vegetables is not only severely restricted, but food education is of a very low standard. Whilst wandering the African-American museum in Chicago I stumbled across this educational play aimed at younger children about the benefits of fresh fruit and veg using hip-hop and gospel music. Here the hero (a broccoli) is being led astray by a couple of rashers of bacon. (Though it seemed to me that the bad foods had the best tunes.)

Monday, November 11, 2013

Straight Up The Middle

From Texas the logical and reasonable thing for me to do would have been to hug the southern states up until the coast before heading north to New York, so as to stay in a band of temperate weather for as long as possible. Logic is not my strong suit and so instead I headed, more or less, straight north cutting through the much-neglected Midwest. This large, flat expanse, right in the middle of America, is oft-overlooked by visitors to the country who tend to gravitate to the coasts. for me that was reason enough to visit as I was curious to uncover (if only a small part of) the hidden heart of America.

For many towns around the world 4pm on a Saturday afternoon might be considered the busiest time of the week, but not so in Lufkin, Texas, which resembled a ghost town. In the 2 hours that I walked its streets I literally saw less than a dozen other people walking.

Monday, November 04, 2013

I See Dead People

My time in Huntsville proved to be unexpectedly eclectic, however my initial reason for visiting was simply to visit the prisoners' cemetery, where all those who die whilst in the "care" of the Texas justice system, and whose bodies are not claimed by family, are buried. Now it may seem like a macabre thing to visit, but I found it a sobering and important place to have seen. The cemetery is surprisingly large, unadorned and unmarked, occupying a wasteland between two nondescript roads on the edge of town. No signs announce or inform the passer-by as to the site's identity, no fence separates it from its surroundings. Every expense has been spared. So much so that up until 2000 the graves were marked by a simple concrete cross inscribed with a date of death and prisoner number. Nothing more. Not even a name by which the deceased could be remembered. As if in death these people are no longer considered humans but simply numbers, a burden to be placed in the ground, a sack of shit that has the temerity to waste our tax-payer dollars.

A sea of concrete crosses devoid of any embellishments or even names to distinguish them, just a date and a prisoner number. According to Dostoevsky a society can be judged by how well it treats its prisoners, in which case America ought to perhaps take a look at itself.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

America, F#@k Yeah!

From Monterrey I caught a bus to take me over the American border and into Texas as I thought hitching might be problematic due to (perceived) violence from drug gangs. Having procured myself an online visa waiver I expected the crossing to be a formality. It wasn't. Unfortunately I hadn't read the small print on the customs website and the visa waiver doesn't apply to land borders and so not only did it cost me money for nothing, but I confused the hell out of the border guards who almost never see non-Mexicans crossing. This resulted in substantial attention from the immigration officials who interrogated me, took my photo as well as an entire set of fingerprints. Of the 65 border crossings I have had on this trip it was the most intrusive and time-consuming, even more so than upon entering and leaving North Korea. It took so long that my bus carried on without me, leaving me stranded at the border until the next bus came past eight hours later. Needless to say I was not impressed with my first contact with America. To be honest America is not the most compelling destination for me, the history isn't all that old, the culture rather mainstream, and the cities a bit too cookie-cutter. I would like to explore the natural sights, but it's too late in the year for that. Instead my two main goals are to see friends and family who I seldom get to see, and to try and winkle out a few experiences of Americana, the quirky, small-town, Midwest of America that makes the country so different from Europe.


A little clip of American cliches to get you into the mood (warning, NSFW).

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Heavy Industry, Light Art

During my previous Mexican jaunt I had spent quite a bit of time among the northern, colonial mining towns such as Zacatecas, Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende. I had, however, missed out the largest of them all: Queretaro. I have no idea why I didn't go there the first time, but was glad as it gave me a point to visit on my way north as well as an opportunity to revisit the region with older, more understanding eyes (I'm a little mortified when I read what 23 year-old me was writing about the place). It also allowed me to meet some local people, and here I was really lucky to stumble upon Clara and Mario, a wonderful young couple who not only showed me the town, but also its varied culinary delights; the dry, semi-arid landscape of the central highlands; family life; and even the less picturesque, but deeply atmospheric, legacies of the mining history that can be seen in the ghost towns that dot the region.

The abandoned smelting furnaces of Pozos, one of the many ghost towns left over from the mining boom in Central Mexico.


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Mexican Interlude

I spent a few more days in Mexico city with my parents seeing some sites, spending time with my cousins who live there, before they had to fly back home. It was important seeing them again and knowing that I'll be back home with them soon. As well as revisiting family I had mundane matters to take care of, such as repairing my laptop screen and finding another rucksack buckle for the interim one I had bought back in Lima and that had cracked in El Salvador. I didn't feel the need to do much sight-seeing though, having been in Mexico City before. In fact it was here that I started my first round the world trip, all the way back in 2004, and it was the first time that I had ventured out of my Europe-USA-Canada comfort zone. It was here that my worldly learning curve began and so returning was thought-provoking exercise in reviewing past experiences and opinions and seeing how much my thoughts had changed in the intervening years.

Big public education sign exhorting people to pay for their electricity and to adopt a more "legal culture". The non-payment of taxes and services is a huge burden on many developing countries where the bureaucratic infrastructure often can't cope

Monday, October 07, 2013

Pyramidal

At Chetumal, on the Mexican side of the border with Belize, I was met by my parents. Although I had seen my father a year ago I hadn't seen my mother in two and a half years ... and well, family is family. So my parents had decided to come out and travel with me for a while, see me and use my services as a tour guide in Mexico. They had already driven down from Mexico City and together we were to drive back up, catching some sights along the way. Of course with a hired car and staying in hotels this was not the sort of travelling I was used to, but I was determined not to let the softness get to me and tried to gently nudge them a little bit towards the edges of their comfort zone.


An advantage of travelling with my parents is that I get to eat far better than I usually do. Here we stopped at a lovely little seafood restaurant on the Caribbean coast in Veracruz.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

You Better Belize It

Belize is an odd country. In pretty much every way imaginable it is different from its Central American neighbours. Geographically firmly ensconced in the Central American region, but culturally much more Caribbean. Surrounded by Spanish-speaking countries yet anglophone. It remained a colony until 1981 whilst the rest of the region gained their independence 160 years earlier. Though partly thanks to that it has been a haven of stability whilst all around there has been turmoil and strife. It's a midget in terms of population, with fewer inhabitants than the Bahamas and fully an order of magnitude less than its neighbours. But what's it really like?

Although I missed Belize's independence celebrations by a day the bunting was still up during the length of my stay (do they ever take it down?). Here you can see that there is still fondness and attachment towards its ex colonial master.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Pirates Of The Caribbean

When the Spaniards first colonised the Americas their primary interest was gold and silver. Initially taken directly from the local civilisations, such as the Aztec and the Inca, and then extracted from the rich mines of Potosi, Guanajuato and Taxco. Once every year two great convoys of ships would sail from Cadiz to Havana before splitting up, one heading for Portobelo in Panama, and the other to Veracruz on the central Gulf coast of Mexico. For centuries these were the only Spanish ports in the Americas allowed to trade with Europe.

Even for Latin American standards the pace of life on the Caribbean coast is slow. It may seem idyllic, but the heat, humidity, sand flies and mosquitoes


Friday, September 20, 2013

Guat's Up?

Of all the countries of Central America Guatemala is hands down the richest in terms of cultural heritage. Not only was its territory was the cradle of the classic Mayan civilisation but, what is less known, it was also the seat of the Spanish viceroyalty that consisted of the entire region, from southern Mexico all the way to Panama. This is where the rich and powerful of colonial Central America lorded it over their indigenous subjects. Even post-independence Guatemala was the dominant country amongst the small statelets of the region. It wasn't until the inevitable civil war of the second half of the last century that pitted left wing intellectuals, reformists and guerrillas against US-backed right wing genocidal military dictatorships and death squads that the country became a byword for violence, danger and rural misery. Things have quietened down a bit over the past 10 years (a lot less violence but still plenty of rural misery as the right wing military elite are still in power) and the tourists have returned to see what they had been missing out on.

Quiche Maya lady in traditional costume selling embroidery to tourists.


Friday, September 13, 2013

Same Same But Different

Same same but different. It's a phrase many people who've travelled through southeast Asia will be instantly familiar with, where the pidgin English of the local touts isn't nuanced enough to incorporate the word "similar". The phrase is equally applicable for travels in Hispanophone America. The common language and shared colonial history unites the 18 countries and almost 400 million people. Yet despite the very obvious similarities, there are many differences, both profound and frivolous. The profound are the subject of many a book (I'm guessing) and scholarly essays. I, instead, would like to take a closer look at the frivolous and arbitrary.

Although maize is the basis of much Latin American cuisine from Bolivia all the way up through to Mexico the way it is prepared varies significantly. As you get closer to Mexico the slap slapping sound of tortillas being moulded becomes ever more ubiquitous.


Sunday, September 08, 2013

Meeting The Maya

Ever since leaving Peru and its rich archaeological heritage the historical remains on offer have been somewhat underwhelming. All that has changed now that I've reached Honduras and El Salvador, whose western edges mark the easternmost limits of the Mayan empire. Of the "Big 3" indigenous American civilisations (from north to south the Aztec, Maya and Inca) the Maya are undoubtedly preeminent both in terms of longevity and cultural achievements. The Maya first appeared around 2000 B.C., were still around when the Spanish conquered the Americas, and are still here today (although not doing human sacrifices anymore). The Aztecs and Incas by comparison were mere flashes in the pan, existing for no more than a couple of centuries, and whose culture has almost completely disappeared today.

Spotting the main temple complex of Copan through the trees.


Monday, September 02, 2013

Danger Zone

Central America does not get a good press. Apart from Costa Rica there is a pervading stereotype of violent crime and gangs. some of that is justified. Honduras's economic capital San Pedro Sula has the unenviable distinction of being the most violent city in the world with a murder rate of almost 170 per hundred thousand inhabitants (to put that into perspective there are more murders in San Pedro Sula, a city of some 720,000 inhabitants, than in Germany and Italy together, with a combined population of 160 million i.e. a 220 times greater murder rate). Most of this violence is perpetrated by gangs on other gangs and so does not generally affect normal people. Nevertheless there is a level of violent crime that is of an order of magnitude more than in most other parts of the world. Why is that?

The ubiquitous razorwire gives Central America a war zone feel.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

South America In 20 Photos

I thought I'd share with you some of my favourite photos from South America that didn't make it into a blog post. I hope you like them and don't forget that they (and many more) can be found in the country albums on the right hand side of the blog.

Ladies shooting the breeze by a window in the colonial quarter of Cartagena.


A yucca-type plant in one of the many ephemeral ponds that form atop Roraima.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Virgins And Volcanoes*

Nicaragua is known as the country of lakes and volcanoes, as it has the latter in abundance, and although the number of lakes may be few, they make up for it in size: lakes Nicaragua and Managua are the two largest (by far) in Central America. Activities in the country revolve either around one or the other. Isla de Ometepe, with its twin volcanoes emerging from the waters of lake Nicaragua like a pair of lopsided breasts, is a popular spot for people to go and chill and do nada, or, if they're feeling the need for physical activity, to scale the crater rim (though in the rainy season nada is about all you get to see at the top). And on the shores of the respective lakes the two great colonial towns of Granada and Leon battle it out for visitors' affections.

The wonderfully named volcanoes of Momotombo and, a little smaller and to the right, cutely-named Momotombito, on the shores of lake Managua.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

America For Americans

I did, finally, go to a national park in Costa Rica. It would have been scandalous not to. Though in the end it turned out to be neither cloud forest nor volcano, which are the usual natural suspects for tourists to Costa Rica. Instead I opted for a dry tropical forest at the Guanacaste biosphere reserve in the northwest of the country. Of course, with my knack for mistiming I of course turned up in the rainy season when the dryness of the forest is not really appreciable. The park is home to the standard roll call of mesoamerican fauna, of which, as per usual, I saw precious little. It's also an important nesting site for marine turtles, and the beaches can see thousands of females coming up to lay their eggs in the season. Instead I saw a few spider monkeys swinging directly overhead (which was pretty impressive), iguanas basking in the sun, and a whole host of crabs infesting the mangroves. I went with my host in Liberia, Laura, a young Aussie girl. A fascinating character who has the fortitude to follow through with her convictions to make the world a better place, she has spent time living in protest zones and organising activist movements. And although I don't see radical activism as a sustainable way forward, I admire her principles and how far she's prepared to go to defend them. It's perhaps fitting then that the national park is also home to the hacienda Santa Rosa, an ordinary-looking old farmstead (well, it was an old farmstead up until a decade ago when some poachers burnt it down, but since it's been lovingly rebuilt) that saw its own protest against imperialism back in 1856, in what was perhaps the most pivotal episode in Costa Rican history, when the Costa Rican army defeated the invading army of the American filibusterer William Walker. His name may not be well-known outside of Central America, but his episode is familiar to everyone here as the start of US attempts at hegemony of the region.

Red-legged crabs scurrying into their burrows amongst the mangroves.


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Tico Time

Costa Rica is the most stable, prosperous and visited country in Central America. It's also probably the most boring. Named the Rich Coast by Christopher Columbus it proved to be anything but, with next to no mineral wealth, and not even much of an indigenous population to enslave it became the forgotten backwater of Spain's American colonies. This proved to be beneficial to the country's future stability as it made the agrarian society, made up mainly of immigrants and their descendants, more equal; unlike other Central American countries where a coterie of families controlled the vast majority of political and economic power. It was so far-removed with what was happening in the rest of the colony (it was nominally a province of the Captaincy of Guatemala, but had very few dealings with the leadership there) that it was informed of its independence from Spain by letter a month after it theoretically occurred. Fast forward to the present and Costa Rica has been spared the wars and internal turmoil that have plagued its coregionists. It also embarked on an enlightened, somewhat socialist (though don't tell the Americans), path. In 1949 it unilaterally got rid of its armed forces, the only country of any consequence to have done so in the world (the other ones are all tiny and usually island nations in the South Pacific). Then in the 70's, seeing that it had little to offer the world other than coffee and bananas, a conscious decision was made to preserve the country's forests in an attempt to lure foreign capital via tourism.

In a country devoid of historic monuments the rather ho-hum national theatre from the turn of the last century is the most grandiose historical building.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

In The Zone

Panama is known, of course, for its canal and hats, the latter of which, paradoxically, are actually Ecuadorean. Its strategic location as the shortest route from the Atlantic to the Pacific has always made it an important place on the geopolitical stage, which has been both a blessing and a curse. The country gets substantial revenue and employment just from the simple fact that it is where it is, but that has also made it victim to the whims and caprices of greater powers throughout its history.

Despite the Spanish language American influence is more predominant in Panama. Not just the predilection for  skyscrapers, but also fast food, bland urban architecture, and shopping malls.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Mind The Gap

There are a number of famous roads whose names alone evokes exotic, dreamy images amongst all travellers: the Karakorum Highway, Route 66, the Transfăgărășan, the Pamir Highway and the Panamaerican Highway are all the stuff of legend. The latter extends all the way from Prudhoe Bay, in northern Alaska, to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego ... well, almost. The Panamerican is rightly famous for crossing the length of the Americas and traversing a multitude of landscapes and climates. But what is less well-known is that it's incomplete. It has a chink. The road doesn't link North and South America, instead there is a gap of about 160km across the Panama-Colombia border where there is nothing but impenetrable rainforest. This is the Darien Gap and is one of the world's great travelling challenges. But before I figured out how to get past it without flying, I had one last stop in Colombia.



Monday, July 29, 2013

Colombia's Twin Crops: Coca And Coffee

Before Shakira came along with her truthful hips and waka waka'ed her way into the global consciousness, the most famous Colombian in the world was probably Pablo Escobar. Even though he was shot dead in 1993, when I was only 12 years old, the iconic image of him with his moustache and 70's pornstar hair are deeply seated in my popular culture unconscious. Perhaps because he has been used as the template for every Latin American drug baron in every single film since then, from the low budget El Mariachi, to big, Hollywood blockbusters. Often they'll have an exotic eccentricity, like a a killer pet iguana, just like Pablo who kept a small menagerie of hippos (who have since escaped and become a feral nuisance on the lower Magdalena river).

The modern image of Medellin that the authorities want to promote: vibrant, affluent and cutting edge.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

I Heard It Through The Grapevine

Getting information about where to go whilst travelling is always an interesting process. The first port of call for many (including myself) is some sort of guidebook. These are useful places to start, with a lot of info in a single place. A mistake many people make though is to view guidebooks as some sort of Bible, as the sole, unquestionable, infallible source of facts. Mistakes can, and often do, arise and should be expected. Not only that, but in limiting yourself to a single, popular source of data you end up following a well-worn path taken by many other travellers (an entity known as the Gringo Trail here in Latin America, and the Banana Pancake Trail in Southeast Asia), staying in the same guesthouses and hostels, and perhaps only interacting only with other tourists. Instead you should spread your net wide in your search for travel tips: trawl the net, talk to friends, other travellers, locals, read books and articles and generally keep your eyes and ears open.

Sometimes more than one source of information is required.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Western

You don't have to spend much time in Colombia to notice that there is a sizeable middle class. More so than anywhere else I've been in Latin America, except for perhaps Argentina and Chile. On the one hand this means that things are generally more expensive than in other countries, but on the other hand there is a nascent internal tourism culture with a reasonable number of camp sites to be found throughout the country (Colombians aren't so much into hiking and camping, but prefer to drive to the camp site and unpack from the comfort of the car boot). Colombians also seem to take pride in being the most Spanish and Western of the Hispanophone countries of the Americas. Following a series of discussions with my wonderful hosts in Bogota (Tristan and Jenny, who are my brother's friends), I started wondering more closely about what it actually means to be Western. It's a term I use quite often in this blog (with a capital so as to differentiate it from a purely geographical adjective) and feel instinctively that I know what it means, but do I really? or is there a consensus about what it truly is.

The royal Spanish coat of arms of Castilla-Leon hangs proudly on Tunja's town hall. Such a flagrant symbol of Spanish colonialism would be hard to find anywhere else in Latin America.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Sweet Introduction To Colombia

You might change money, political system and even the time on your watch when crossing borders, but geography is hardly ever that abrupt, and so the fertile, green slopes of the Andes continue their northward march into Colombia. The mountains are a little lower, the valleys a little deeper, the vegetation a little lusher, and the indigenous presence a little less noticeable, but apart from that much the same. The southern mountains of Colombia house the country's most important archaeological sites, at San Agustin and Tierradentro, and so I decided, for the sake of completeness, to put on my Indiana Jones hat (which happens to be a rather funky kangaroo leather cowboy hat) and investigate.

The Rio Magdalena valley near its source at San Agustin. The Magdalena is Colombia's largest river and bisects the country neatly in a south-north line before it reaches the Caribbean at Baranquilla.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Journey To The Centre Of The Earth

Although Guayaquil is the biggest and richest city in Ecuador, the cultural heart of the country lies inland, in the mountains. The country is split down the middle by two parallel mountain ranges about 80km apart and peppered with still-active volcanoes, creating a long, high valley nicknamed the Avenida de los Volcanos (Volcano Alley). It is this valley that is home to the iconic peaks of Cotopaxi and Chimborazo (the latter's peak being the furthest point from the centre of the earth thanks to the equatorial bulge) as well as the cultural poles of Quito in the north and Cuenca in the south. The Incas also mainly stayed there when they came conquering through*, as they were not big fans of the lowlands.

The iconic domes of Cuenca's cathedral dominate the city's skyline.


Friday, June 21, 2013

Banana Republic

I had imagined Ecuador to be little more than an extension of Peru in terms of landscape and culture with a strong, Andean-indigenous influence; instead the balance between European, indigenous and even black are quite balanced. I entered the country along the main coastal road, the Panamerican Highway, that snakes down the west side of the continent all the way to Tierra del Fuego. As it was a Sunday getting across the border involved some closed offices, hitching, getting taken the wrong way and some more hitching before I finally got my entry stamp and could continue on my way. The desert that defines Peru's coast had by now petered out and had given way to verdant, tropical fields. Not that it wasn't any more tedious on the eye: vast expanses of sand were replaced by vast plantations of banana monoculture that stretch as far as the eye can see. Not surprising considering that this small country is the world's largest exporter of bananas. But surprising given how large a part of the coastal diet is taken up by the yellow funny-fruit. Not a single meal is complete without a helping of verde (unripe) or maduro (ripe banana). Although that is an over-simplification as they can be fried, mashed into flour, baked and steamed. Plus there are far more different varieties than the boring Cavendish banana that we are swamped with in the West.

Grilled maduro street snacks.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Eye Of The Beholder

Ever since entering Paraguay the ethnic composition of people on the street has changed dramatically. In Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil diversity is the name of the game, with a heady, heterogeneous mix of black, white and brown and every shade in between. Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru are predominantly indigenous or mestizo (mix of indigenous and white) with only the odd white face to be seen on the streets - usually in the classier upmarket districts of the bigger cities*. Perfectly normal given the more populous and advanced cultures that thrived in these regions before the arrival of the Europeans. Whatever the actual statistics, it's fair to say that white people are a minority.

"They all look the same to me..." You're not likely to see many Caucasian features in the Andes.


Saturday, June 15, 2013

Ignore The Inca

Peru has, undeniably, the richest history of any country in the New World. Everyone has heard of the Incas, of Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail, and they are (quite rightly) very popular destinations for visitors to Europe. And although the Incan heritage is interesting, I don't find it that special. Many of their technologies had already been developed by previous Andean cultures and the Inca did little more than refine them a little. The reason for its lasting impression in the popular consciousness is that it was the final, large, South American civilisation and the one that the newly-arrived Europeans had to contend with. But it had only been in existence as a larger empire for a mere hundred years and was conquered by a mere 168 conquistadors. Not really all that impressive, especially considering its global contemporaries:  the Ming dynasty was building the city walls of Nanjing and reinforcing the Great Wall north of Beijing; the Sistine Chapel was being painted in Rome; the Ottoman empire was at its zenith; the Duomo of Florence had been completed; and Granada's Alhambra palace was already old. For all Cusco's fancy stonework (and it is remarkable) and Machu Picchu's mystique, the Inca's had already fallen way behind the civilisation race. It wasn't always so.

The obligatory photo of Machu Picchu taken when I was last in Peru, back in 2004 (and I still had a crappy little 35mm film camera).

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Coming Up Blanca

When people ask me where I wish to go, I often reply "wherever I haven't been yet". I'm always curious about what is over the horizon, around the next corner, or on the other side of the hill. This is why, having already visited the south of Peru back in 2004 (can it have been that long ago?), I sped from the border straight to Lima, with only a brief stop in Arequipa to reacquaint myself with its pretty colonial heart. In Lima I had work to do though, and so stayed a little longer. When travelling for a long time things, inevitably, begin to fall apart. And so it was with me: in the few days following my departure from La Paz my watch strap broke, a drawstring on my backpack snapped, the zips on my daypack and camera bag gave up the ghost, one of the holes in my trousers expanded to embarrassing (and perhaps arrestable) proportions and, more importantly, the buckle on my backpack's belt snapped. The latter widget is one of the most important parts of a backpack as it transfers the load away from your shoulders to you hips and legs. Without it carrying your backpack for any length of time becomes agony and an unholy proposition.*

As you can see my the two outer tines of my buckle have snapped, rendering it useless. My boots have also taken some punishment, but will hopefully see me through to the end of the year (I just hope it doesn't rain much where I'll be going).

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Not A Peaceful City

La Paz is not just the highest capital city in the world, it towers over its nearest rival (Quito) by a full 800m. It is a city that takes your breath away. Literally. People who fly in directly from lower altitudes often suffer headaches, pains and other symptoms of altitude sickness and need a few days to acclimatise. At ground level La Paz is anything but peaceful: traffic-clogged streets, old buses belching fumes, poor homeless sleeping on the street, rubbish. Yet I love this city. There is a vibrancy and industriousness that many places lack. A hearty snack (though often of dubious benefit to the well-being of your stomach) is only a few footsteps away, markets spill out onto the steep streets, Aymara women tend stalls where you can buy traditional herbal and folk remedies, from coca leaves to dried lama foetuses, old and new jostle for position on an all-out urban assault on the senses. Then climb up the hillside to El Alto (The Heights), the slum that has metamorphosed into a thriving city in its own right, and peer down at the metropolis, not quite unfolded, as the sheer valley topography creates creases and crinkles in the patchwork of brick houses. Terracotta is the dominant colour, shining in the high altitude sun, as most can't afford to paint or plaster their walls. And above it all, lording over the fine panorama, is Illimani, Bolivia's second-highest peak. Only down in the teeming calles of the city proper can you get away from its hypnotic presence. And then you wonder whether you're out of breath due to the altitude, or because of the view before you.

Illimani looming over La Paz, as it tries to squeeze into every last nook and cranny afforded by the valley topography.



Friday, May 24, 2013

Cocha Cuisine

Santa Cruz may be a pleasant place to spend a few days, but it's not the "real" Bolivia. The real Bolivia is all about mountains, thin air, pan-pipes, woolly ponchos and llamas. So I left the lowlands and headed westwards and upwards. My intermediate goal was Cochabamba. Not just because the city has one of the best names in the world, but because, sitting at a major transport crossroads in the country it is the most important market town in Bolivia, the gateway between the mountains and the lowlands. At "just" 2500m altitude the weather is mild all the year round, making the surrounding countryside particularly rich and productive, and able to churn out up to three harvests a year. Historically this was also the frontier of the mountain Inca empire, and the valleys leading east to the plains are host to important archaeological sites that protected the kingdom from the jungle barbarians below.


The ruins at Incallajta are the largest Inca-era remains in Bolivia. They're not particularly impressive, but their location in a remote valley that can't be reached by public transport (the nearest you can get is 9km before you have to start walking) make them worth visiting.

Monday, May 20, 2013

It Makes The World Go Round

Almost any article written about Bolivia will mention that it is the poorest country in Latin America (and so here I am perpetuating that trend). Of course, like everywhere, wealth is distributed unevenly. Bolivia's richest region is that of Santa Cruz, in the lowlands in the east of the country, whose prosperity mainly derives from oil and gas that is to be found in the plains. Yet despite being the richest and largest city in the country Santa Cruz looks and feels more like a small town than a metropolis: in the city centre few buildings are more than a couple of stories high and there doesn't seem to be much in the way of large-scale business going on. Nevertheless it is a pleasant place to spend a few days, trawling the used clothes market, where traders sell second-hand clothes that have been donated to charity in the West, for bargains (I picked up a nice fleece jumper for only $2 to replace the one that I had inadvertently left on a bus in Brazil); people-watching in the main square in the evenings where families and lovers congregate and old men play chess; heading out to visit the gorgeous Jesuit mission churches of the Chiquitos; and waiting for the inevitable Bolivian strikes to end so that the road-blocks can be lifted. Many of these aspects form facets of what I want to write about in this post: money.

The sumptuous Jesuit mission church in Conception. OK, it's been seriously restored, but faithfully according to old plans and using traditional methods.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Chaco Church

Among South American countries Paraguay probably has the saddest history. Coming down from the zenith of the Jesuit utopia there followed colonial stagnation, then independence that brought on a trio of dictators who, successively, hermetically sealed the country from the outside world, turned it into a personal fiefdom, and finally dragged it into a suicidal war against the combined forces of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. It would be no understatement to say that the War of the Triple Alliance absolutely annihilated Paraguay. Out of a pre-war population of some 500,000 Paraguay lost 300,000 people, or about 60% of its population, giving it the dubious distinction of being the most destructive (per capita) war of modern times (and possibly ever). Towards the end there were almost no men left in the country and little kids were sent to the front lines wielding little more than sharpened fruit and domestic utensils (hence the well-known phrase regarding kitchen sinks). And all this over an issue that didn't initially involve Paraguay at all.

Stained glass window in the national pantheon depicting Francisco Solano Lopez, Paraguay's dictator who plunged the country into the disastrous War of the Triple Alliance. Recently his historical legacy has been reviewed and he is now a national hero.


Monday, May 06, 2013

Missionary Opposition

You don't have to know me (or read my blog) for long to know that my views of organised religion are sceptical to say the least. I have seen far too much intolerance, violence, fear, hatred, bigotry and plain ignorance stemming from religious faith for me to want to have anything to do with it. Sure, it can be a force for good, though it seems to me that those are always individual cases that probably occur in spite of religion rather than because of it. Paraguay's history, however, provides one example of a religious organisation living up to its promises of fairness, justice, betterment. Sadly the temporal success of the Jesuits amongst the Guarani provoked the jealousies of the stronger colonial powers. Nevertheless their achievements still live on in today's Paraguay and form an integral part of the national narrative.

All that remains of the vast Baroque church at Jesus de Taverangue, a church that would have been considered grand even in a large, European city of the time, but built  entirely by Guarani.


Friday, May 03, 2013

Tererism

Paraguay is something of a black hole as far as Latin America is concerned. Despite being in the centre of the continent and part of the Mercosur block, not only do we hear little about it, but even within South America it's something of an unknown. Furthermore it lacks any major tourist draws and so it gets bypassed by most visitors to the continent even when they're doing a so-called "Grand Tour".What actually is there in Paraguay? what are its people like (because I had never met a Paraguayan before)? how do they differ and how are they similar to their South American neighbours? These were all questions that were impatiently straining at the bit in my head; desperate to see what all the lack of fuss is about.

The spillway of the Itaipu dam, used on the rare occasions when the water level is too high. The main dam with its 20 turbines can be seen in the background.


Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Tale Of Two Cities

Brazil is dominated by its two largest cities: Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. The two are eternal rivals and are as alike as chalk and cheese. Rio is the star of the show, the prima donna, the cool kid on the block; whilst São Paulo is the plain one that does all the work and gets none of the credit. The images of Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf rock and the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana are iconic, conjuring up fantasies of caipirinhas on the beach, suave maestros playing bossa nova into the wee hours, and harems of girls from Ipanema. This is the Brazil people dream of. The only associations people have with São Paulo (if they have any at all) are traffic jams, hordes of busy, unsmiling people and polluted air. Of course there are truths behind these cliches, but also much more.


View of the Guanabara Bay, the older part of Rio, and the unmistakable Pao de Azucar rock on the right.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Brazilian Gems

Brazilwood and then sugar cane may have been the initial sources for Brazil's wealth, but they did not last long: you can't build an economy on a pretty tree and the uptake of sugar cane in the Caribbean was far more successful. To understand Brazil's success you need to head inland from Rio to the hills and mountains of Minas Gerais. Initially all development was along the coast, but soon explorers, the so-called bandeirantes operating out of São Paulo, moved further inland. The initial motivation was to find indigenous slaves, but soon the bandeirantes found that the vast interior was home to unimaginable mineral wealth. The gold deposits in and Ouro Preto were discovered in the late 17th century (they were hard to miss as gold was found in large nuggets in the streams) and soon people were flocking to the region to get a piece of the action.

View of Ouro Preto, once the richest city in the world and the epicentre of the world's largest gold rush that formed the basis of Brazil's wealth.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

More Than Just Samba

Travelling through the northeast has helped shatter two preconceived, stereotypical images of Brazil, of landscape and culture. Brazil is often viewed as being synonymous with the Amazon rainforest and perhaps, for those who have a penchant for nature documentaries, like myself, with vast wetlands like the Pantanal.  But there is far more to it than that. The wetland theme started off well as I left Belem, almost all the way to São Luís, but as soon as my road turned inland, into the heart of the northeast that soon gave way to the dry savannah of the cerrado and the scruby, caatinga forest of the sertão. This vast, dry hinterland is reminiscent of the American wild west, and the small, dusty towns towns that dot the rolling hills need only a couple of gunslingers to complete the picture. This is cattle country and last year's drought was tough, as evidenced by the verges populated by rotting carcases and their attendant flocks of vultures. Lonely escarpments and odd rock formations dot this forgotten landscape, until you finally approach the coast again and sugar cane plantations take over.

Brazil isn't just the Amazon and Pantanal. There are some incredible landscapes, such as the multitude of crystal-clear pools amongst the white coastal sand dunes of Lençóis Maranhenses national park.


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Amazoning

The Gran Sabana continues for several hundred kilometres south of Santa Elena. The Brazilian border though is much closer. It's so close, and so porous, that regular taxis shuttle back and forth from Santa Elena and don't even bother stopping at immigration. I only realised I was in Brazil when the driver told everyone to get out and I had to walk back to the border post to get my entry stamp (I didn't bother with the Venezuelan exit stamp though, so as to save as much precious space in my passport as possible). The Brazilian savannah is much like the Venezuelan one: dry, dusty and sparsely populated by Pemon, the same indigenous tribe that lives across the border. The main industry consists of smuggling heavily subsidised Venezuelan petrol across the border and selling it in Boa Vista, the nearest town of any note. The Brazilian authorities probably turn a blind eye to it as it saves the government substantial sums of money and provides employment in an otherwise neglected corner of the country. It's a further 1000km due south before you get to Manaus, the first major city. 1000km and you're still very much in the north of the country. Brazil's a big place.

The grandiose Teatro Amazonas, an extravagant masterpiece of European high culture in the middle of the rainforest.



Monday, March 18, 2013

Lost World

The name Roraima may not be familiar to most people, yet nevertheless it is a place that is famous throughout the world. It is one of the largest and tallest of the hundred or so tepui that are found in southeastern Venezuela, spilling over into neighbouring Brazil and Guyana. Tepui are geological formations unique to the area (known as the Guyana Shield): large, sandstone mesas that rise many hundreds of metres, vertically, out of the surrounding countryside. When they were first 'discovered' by European explorers in the mid 19th century they fired the Victorian imagination. The remoteness and inaccessibility of these 'islands' in the jungle, along with the exciting new theory of evolution, led to fevered speculation as to what may live on their summits. The most famous example is Arthur Conan Doyle's book The Lost World where a group of explorers finds a surviving population of dinosaurs (or a more recent incarnation in the animated film Up). When real life explorers finally did make it to the top of some of these tepui they may not have found any dinosaurs, but what they did discover was no less incredible...

Roraima (to the right) and Kukenan (to the left). Still quite a long way to walk to get there.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The President Is Dead! Long Live The President!

Hugo Chavez was pronounced dead at 4:25pm on Tuesday, the 5th of March. My bus arrived in Caracas at 6pm. I didn't realise until I was on the local bus and heard it on the radio. Although I might have doubted my Spanish skills I couldn't doubt my eyes when I arrived in the city centre and saw it invested with police and national guardsmen at every corner. Every shop was shuttered and there was a sense of an impending storm on the streets. I couldn't find the hostel that I had noted from the internet and was wandering around trying to find somewhere affordable to spend the night without being too conspicuous. Caracas has an unenviable reputation as a dangerous city, and whilst I would scoff at such safety paranoia in Asia my experience of Latin America is not my area of expertise and so I thought it better to play it safe. After a deal of blind wandering I came across an open doorway in a deserted back street with people loitering on the threshold and the word hotel above the door. It looked like a den of ill repute but I was past caring, the rucksack on my back was making me feel uncomfortable and the price was reasonable.

In Venezuela Chavez is everywhere. The cult of personality might not be of Turkmenistani proportions, nevertheless it is hard to get away from him, especially in Caracas. (These posters declaim: "From your hands comes the water of life. We love you!" No false modesty there then.)

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Festival Of Colours

I started my South American by sticking to the Caribbean coast, visiting first Cartagena and then Maracaibo, the major ports of Colombia and Venezuela respectively, though their histories and characters are quite dissimilar. Cartagena was, for over two centuries, the most important Spanish port in the Caribbean, with imposing sea walls and fortresses protecting a sheltered lagoon port (not that that stopped it from being sacked by Francis Drake in 1586). Long regarded as the Pearl of the Caribbean it enjoys its status as doyenne of Spanish colonial culture and is one of the most visited tourist sites in the region. Maracaibo, on the other hand, was long nothing but a provincial backwater. Quite literally as it sits on the shore of Lake Maracaibo, South America's largest lake. It wasn't until the late 19th century, when substantial petroleum deposits were discovered beneath the lake, that the town's fortunes changed overnight, turning Venezuela into one of the world's leading producers of the black stuff. The town has little to recommend itself to passing tourists who rarely stop, except to change buses for somewhere more enticing, where it is not so hot or humid.

Cartagenas old fortifications looking out across to the modern, upmarket Bocagrande neighbourhood.


Friday, February 22, 2013

Groundhog Day

Just a quick, initial message for those who surf on in and don't receive Facebook or e-mail updates this is to let you know that a) I have added several posts about New Zealand that can be found below (although they were written after I left New Zealand I have placed them before so as to be in the correct chronological order) and b) there are new photo albums, of East Timor, Australia and New Zealand available to view from links on the right hand side of the website. But now back to the blog:

So, here I am, back on dry ground. 21 days, one ocean, 12,000km, a new continent, and a new hemisphere later. It was certainly an interesting experience. There was nothing for me to do, the views were about as monotonous as you can get, one day merged into another, each indistinguishable from the next. In one case that was more true than usual. On Monday the 4th of February we crossed the international date line and so we had the (dubious) pleasure of experiencing two Mondays in a row (the crew were not impressed, although in the other direction they get a 4-day week). And yet the time, if you'll forgive the pun, just sailed past. I suppose that I get along quite well with myself and took the opportunity afforded me to catch up with some reading, writing and working on my knowledge of pop culture by watching a slew of films that have accumulated on my hard drive. And I also discovered what life is like for a modern-day sailor.

Not another Monday! we just had one today.


Thursday, January 31, 2013

Contained

Dear readers, you may have noticed that I've fallen somewhat behind with my blogging of late. Sorry. Unfortunately that will continue to be the case for the next three weeks when there will be no more updates. The reason is a happy one though, because I will have succeeded in my plan to cross the Pacific without flying. I will be aboard a container ship bound from Australia to North America, embarking here in New Zealand, and alighting in Cartagena, Colombia, just past the Panama Canal. Many people have asked me how I arranged such a thing and whether I will be working aboard. Sadly, gone are the days when you could just turn up at a port and ask around the ships to see if they would be willing to take you as a deckhand for free passage and board. These days the sums of money too large and bureaucracy too stifling* to allow anything like that to happen. Instead you have to pass via dedicated freighter travel agents who facilitate the booking of a limited number of berths on regular cargo routes (and when I say regular I mean that there may be only one or two sailings a month) plied by transcontinental container ships. The number of available spaces is small, but then again not many people want to travel in this manner. Not only does it take substantially longer than flying (19 days instead of 19 hours), but it's even significantly more expensive. My ticket to Colombia is costing roughly twice the equivalent air fare. Instead container ships are for those who stubbornly refuse to fly, are concerned about their carbon footprint (an extra person aboard a container ship has no effect on the amount of fuel used), or perhaps have a shed-load of stuff to take with them (I get 150kg free baggage allowance - it's just a shame I'm going to Colombia rather than from, otherwise I could have defrayed my costs by taking along some of the country's choice export products). Nevertheless I am sure it will be an adventure and certainly a unique travel experience, though perhaps somewhat monotonous. Yet I have prepared myself for that and have several hundred books with me and over a hundred films as well, so should be able to while away the hours at sea. I suppose it's also a good opportunity to see whether I really get seasick or not...

Distance marker in Auckland. So I will be covering a little over 12,000km in the next three weeks.

*Among the hoops I had to jump through to book this passage (the process was started back in the start of December) was to prove I had insurance, have a medical certificate, and even have my name sent off to the US Department of Homeland Security. I'm now on their books and am looking forward to the American visa application process.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Once Were Warriors

Having been to the far south of New Zealand I thought it only fair to make my way to the far north as well. Unlike the South Island, which was sparsely inhabited by Maori, this has always been the Maori heartland. To this day the region is home to the highest Maori concentration in the country and is an essential stop for anyone wishing to try and understand the two sides to New Zealand. I find it useful, when thinking of New Zealand, to compare it to Australia. Of course they vary markedly in size and geography, but their recent histories share many similarities that do make such comparisons meaningful. Both were inhabited by indigenous populations that were isolated from the rest of the world until their contact with Europeans in the 18th century (not 100% true for the Aborigines of the Top End who traded with the Makassarese, but good enough as a generalisation); became British colonies; indigenous people were greatly dispossessed by the colonists; gained independence in the early 20th century; economies are mainly based around primary resources (mineral for Australia, agricultural for New Zealand). Yet despite these similarities there are glaring differences between the two, most notably with regards to their indigenous peoples.

Australian and New Zealand road signs share a common design, but instead of kangaroos you have kiwis, and instead of wide, flat, limitless expanses you have volcanoes.


Monday, January 28, 2013

Relocation, Relocation, Relocation

There's a well-known expression  that asserts that it is not the destination, but rather the voyage itself that make travelling worthwhile. The travelling has certainly been fun here in New Zealand. Intercity public transport is absolutely god-awful thanks to a small, dispersed, population that is affluent enough for almost everyone to be able to afford private cars. Even the significant numbers of tourists are almost all obliged to hire cars or camper vans (those that don't generally join tours). As you know, neither option suits my temperament - or my budget - so that left me with hitchhiking. Not that I consider it a bum option. In fact, apart from a couple of occasions where I was standing by the side of the road for three hours slowly getting cramp in my left upper-arm muscles, it has been a fun, varied and quite an adventure.

I got dropped off at this bus stop on a lonely road in the mountains. There are two buses a week. Luckily I only had to wait 30mins for a ride though.


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Profits Of Doom

Whilst I was tramping in Fiordland I quickly realised that the month I had given myself for New Zealand was nowhere near enough. Certainly not enough to do half as many of the hikes as I would have liked. But, not being the master of my destiny on this occasion, there was little I could do but return quickly to Christchurch, retrieve my belongings, say my last goodbyes to Liam and Eila, and make my way to the North Island.* Although I was reluctant to leave the south so soon I was, at least, glad to experience the genuinely aestival weather of the north that allowed me to finally stow away my jumper.

Two ways of getting to Wellington: the Interislander ferry from the South Island (on the left), or on a huge cruise ship from Australia (on the right).

Monday, January 14, 2013

Sounds Good

As pleasant as New Zealand's towns might be, a visitor to the country would be severely short-changed if that is all they saw. There is less than a handful of buildings that surpass 150 years. In terms of style or architecture there is nothing that doesn't mirror some British style (except for a few Maori offerings, but more on that later). New Zealand's true allure stems from its natural beauty, dynamic geology, and unique flora and fauna. If you don't like or appreciate the outdoors then don't even bother coming here. And of all the wild places in New Zealand, the southwestern corner is the wildest, ruggedest, harshest, and undeniably the most breathtaking.

Views like this are what draw people to New Zealand. The Routeburn valley of Mount Aspiring national park.