Monday, November 29, 2004


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


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

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


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.