Sunday, November 25, 2007

Colca Hole

Colca Canyon is located just outside Arequipa, Peru, and is touted by the local tour companies as the second deepest canyon in the world (the deepest is next door and has an extra 130 metres of down). But when I saw it, I realised they were pushing the boundaries of the correct definition of canyon. The hole is clearly a valley, at least to my eyes. But I’m not a geologist, or a tour guide, so I don’t get a say. Anyway, we walked down the thing.

We set out hopelessly unprepared, deciding along with our friends from the recent pampas trip, Paul and Charlotte plus Chris, that we’d make a camping trip of it. But nine-thirty in the evening is no the ideal time to go out trying to hire tents and other brightly coloured outdoors equipment, so, the next day, after a six hour bus to the starting point, we began walking minus sleeping gear. But that didn’t matter so much, as there were a number of small, roadless towns on our proposed route around the Colca Valley.

The walk down was scenic at first, but soon turned into a punishing, sweaty dust march under an unforgiving Peruvian sun. It was two and a half hours of dry, steep, slowbaking switchback downhill that left a crust of dirt on our teeth and throats and an awful notion wailing loudly in my head- ‘we still have to come back up this thing’. The idea of walking into a valley only to stop, turn around and walk back to again struck me as extremely ridiculous about halfway through the monotonous descent. Walking up a mountain seems genius in comparison, with a clear goal reached after the hardest part, the reward being able to be enjoyed in the knowledge that there is a slightly easier journey back home. Putting the hardest part at the end of the trip just seemed silly, and it played uneasily on my mind the entire time…

We arrived at our revised goal for the day. Originally, we were going to walk to the hotel with a pool on the valley floor, lunch, swim and then continue to a town further up the other side of the valley wall. The next day we would complete a loop back to our starting point. That idea was scratched pretty soon into the piece, after we really started to comprehend just what we’d gotten ourselves into. For the last half of the trudge, we were able to see the lush green grass of the hotel and the shining emerald of the pool, but it seemed like an eternity before they actually started to get closer. Once there it was like a different, less punishing world. We swam and relaxed on the grass, massaged the downhill-induced RSI from our legs, drank 500 litres of water and tried desperately not to think about the next day.

We sat down for dinner, which was spaghetti with a tomato sauce. Earlier in the day, I had caused major panic within our group when, after misinterpreting the cook, returned from the kitchen bearing the news that we would be eating asparagus and tomato sauce for dinner.

After dinner, Chris returned form the bathroom with an awkwardly parted gait and a darkness in his eyes- both sure signs that something had gone terribly awry in the toilet block. Before I go further into this amazing story, it is important to realise that a group of backpackers often resembles a gaggle of new mothers in that there is one topic, universal to all, that is discussed ad-nauseum and which seems completely disgusting and inappropriate to outsiders. Poo stories, they are called- everyone has a couple and after a few of beers they come flooding out as people try to outdo each other with disgusting tales that only a continent with such a poor sewerage system and such lax food safety standards can produce. So, before we go any further, be warned. It’s perfectly acceptable to tell these tales in backpacking circles, but as I remember from the civilised world, these things are usually taboo and tend to stay in (water) closet (I think in New Zealand it’s also accepted dinner party conversation-looking at you, Ben). So the squeamish should steer clear of the following couple of paragraphs and just look at the photos….

Anyway, the toilets at the bottom of the canyon were clean and apparently safe. When Chris returned from this particular ablutionary excursion sporting the emotional and haberdasheric scars so obvious, we knew that in fact it was far from harmless. He then related a story in which the elements of plumbing and timing collaborated in what can only be described as a miracle…

Chris had been sick. Icky in the toilet sick. It happens to everyone here. You don’t feel sick, but a doctor would look in the bowl and whip out a prescription for something, for sure. It had been like this for a few days and Chris had made a courageous effort in leaving civilisation and regular intervals of flushing toilets so far behind. The mens toilet in Paraiso Hotel was situated right next to the pool- the pool that was filled with fresh water that was slowly growing slimy. To clean the pool, the caretaker simply empties the pool through a pair of pipes in the bottom corner of the pool and then puts the plug back in, letting one of the natural creeks refill the pool at it’s own leisure.

It was nightime when trouble struck- we had just finished dinner and Chris had gone off to take care of his business. Halfway through the process- past the point of no return- he noticed through the open door, the curious sight of the attendant tugging at some kind of rope leading into the bottom corner of the pool. When the whole situation clicked- large volume of water about to enter pipes, toilet close enough to pool to be plumbed into the same pipes, toilet full of disgustingness- it was too late to do anything but let out a Hollywood-style, slow motion…nooooooooo!!!! From beneath him Chris felt a violent upsurge of fluids as a pool load of water flooded the system.

What I like to think happened is something akin to one of those cartoons where the character is spat up into the air, somersaulting on top of a column of water or newly discovered oil. Or maybe the character is pinned to the ceiling by the uprush, leaving a hilarious silhouette above the source of liquid. Chris assured me it was nothing as funny as this, but his body and jeans were covered with the contents of the toilet bowl as it erupted beneath him. Of course Chris let out a string of brutal expletives, sending the caretaker scarpering, never to be seen again for the length of our stay.

The devastating scene

Chris performed the best cleanup he could, and rejoined us at the dinner table, gloomy and uncomfortable although smelling surprisingly fresh. The mens toilet was now out of bounds.

The next day we woke up and procrastinated for as long as we could, but there was no way out of this hole except for up. We plodded off, again under a brutal sun, trying hard not think about what the next few hours had in store. Our included breakfast of two bread rolls and jam hadn’t really fortified us for this journey, and it was a convoluted hike upwards as we had to constantly stop and regain our breath in the ever-thinning air. After about four hours- four disgusting hours- we reached the top. I’d felt like passing out for the last hour, and everyone else was in varying states of sun-dried exhaustion. We tried to celebrate reaching the top, but nobody had the energy, and also we had a bus to catch in fifteen minutes. It was the last one of the day, and the edge of the valley was about twenty minutes from town. We hurriedly navigated through rice paddies and irrigation ditches, getting lost and taking a shortcut through someone’s backyard. After a frantic, Amazing Race style bolt to the bus stop, the driver informed us that we had juuuuust made it. The bus left twenty minutes later.

More unmentionable mishaps on the bus home.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Leaving La Paz

La Paz Outskirts

What a trip this was. One day, three busses, minimal enjoyment. On our final Bolivian bus, we were treated to one last piece of the mischief so often wrought by the Bolivian Transport Gods. Our ride out of the city had been overbooked by one seat, and the last one on the bus was an English backpacker. He had his ticket in hand, and was most upset when told that there wasn’t a corresponding seat anymore. He asked if he could sit up front in the stairwell, but we had the only bus driver in Bolivia worried about the police, and apparently sitting there is illegal. Having pre-paid for his seat, the guy was awfully put out about having to stand on this four or five hour trip, but, there was a Plan B. Much to the bemusement of the upstanding, the driver magically produced a camping stool from behind his chair and presented it as the solution to everyone’s problems. ‘What the f*** is that?’ was the ungracious, bewildered response. What it was was the kind of folding stool made from two staple shaped pieces of steel with a piece of canvas between the horizontals- something designed and marketed for ease of portage, not for it’s ergonomic qualities.
Reluctantly, our plus one took the stool and sat in the aisle next to his friend. Frustrated, he lamented his situation to a giggling crowd of seated passengers. Finding little sympathy, he put on his iPod and took out a copy of Wuthering Heights. For a while he seemed somewhat contented, but this fragile state was shattered soon after when the attendant redrew attention to his plight by handing him a dirty, smelly, stained pillow. Just exactly what he was to do with it nobody was completely sure, and he ended up gingerly resting his head on it as he lay down, defeated in the aisle.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Disposable

La Paz is fairly tame as far as South American cities go. Crime only seems to happen to those who are very careless, very unlucky or very drunk. Still, pulling out a couple of grand’s worth of camera to take a shot isn’t a great idea (it’s very careless), so I bought a disposable to get some of the shots I was too afraid to take the big camera out for. The lens isn’t quite as sharp, but it’s nice to be able to take photos without worrying about losing a backpack full of electronics around the next corner.

These are road safety zebras. They tell people when it's safe to cross the road. The police try to do the same thing, but nobody takes notice of them.

A La Paz bus stop.

Bolivia is the abused runt of the litter that is South America’s countries; at some point in history, Bolivia has tried to assert itself in a warlike fashion against most of it’s neighbours, each time copping a whipping and leaving the arena with a nasty new grudge.
The unfunny repercussion is that many Bolivians have died in these wars, which have been fought over things such as the (ex-Bolivian) Chilean coast and non-existent oil in the Chaco region of eastern Bolivia. In the centre of the city is a memorial commemorating the dead. It’s a rare example of this very specific kind of sculpture, because it in no way, not even in an stealthy way, does it glorify what goes on in war. Instead, it mourns the dead people (as opposed to dead soldiers). The figure is face-down in the mud, shirtless and ingloriously anonymous while his rifle is flaccidly aimed at the ground. There’s nothing whatsoever heroic about the sculpture, it’s all about the tragedy of people dying at war, and not concerned with whatever political cause they died for.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Twin Lanes Bowling

Most people spend their time in La Paz coked to the eyeballs and getting up to all kinds of ‘tolerated’ illegalities. Not us, you’ll be pleased to know. Aside from shopping and pancake breakfast competitions, we spent a good deal of time with Sam and E-J at ‘Twin Lanes’- the premier (only) location for ten-pin bowling in La Paz. Apart from the intense competition on offer, the main reason for spending so much time there was the $1.80 games and the quaint, old-timey atmosphere.

We scored on a piece of paper mounted on an angled wooden bench, while the ovular balls shook and rattled down the lanes, which were smoothed to the steady level of spent minefields. And waiting at the end of each lane- real life pin monkeys! Not actually animals (though in La Paz I’m sure they’d employ uniformed primates if it was viable), they were humans who risked untold levels of lower leg destruction each time they moved in to restack the pins by hand. I’d never seen these guys in the flesh before, and I’m sure they must be an endangered species.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

San Pedro Prison

For everyone who’s read Marching Powder, we did go and see the San Pedro prison, but tours around the joint have been stopped since the release of the book. We sat across the road from the entrance, watching the parade of visitors and residents passing, but the concentrated stares of the guards outside were enough to stop me taking photos. Bit of an anticlimax, really.
(For everyone unfamiliar with the book, it’s about a naughty man who got in trouble for smuggling cocaine out of Bolivia and started giving tours around the prison as a way of earning money so he could buy food and pay for his cell).

Friday, November 16, 2007

Pampas Tour Day 3- The Final Harrasment

The shrill of a digital watch alarm urged us out of bed and into the pre-dawn darkness to go and hunt down some howler monkeys. As we stumbled into the canoe we could hear their hoarse bellows barreling down the river like warcries from some psychotic troop of warriors suffering from laryngitis. If you were trapped in the jungle and had never heard of howler monkeys and their calls, it really would be a worrying sound. Freddo motored toward them, and we soon arrived at the colony, where a group of the burnt orange monkeys were cavorting through the greenery of the treetops. Daz, an Englishman on the tour, made the nearly disastrous mistake of watching the animals from directly below their designated toilet spot (the monkeys don’t go to the toilet just anywhere), narrowly avoiding the need for an early morning wash in the river.

The orange thing is a monkey

After breakfast back at mosquito central, Freddo decided that the sun was shining strongly enough to dry the pampas out sufficiently enough for us to go and pester an anaconda. Ill-fitting gumboots squeezed onto our feet, we trudged off through some shoulder high grasses and then into the pampas proper, which was basically an enormous expanse of spindly grasses and water plants existing in about a foot of dark, smelly, watery mud. After about an hour of marching uncomfortably through this muck, Freddo called a halt and then pounced on a surprised juvenile anaconda that had been napping quietly in the sun. The two-metre five-year-old was subjected to being passed around the group, looking mighty annoyed to be put in this position. Mission accomplished!

Not quite the anaconda Ice-T had to deal with, but an anaconda nonetheless

Double Strangle

Apparently we were very lucky to be able to badger an anaconda like this, most groups that go through the frankly unpleasant trudge, never to find an animal as cooperative (consenting or otherwise) as the one we encountered. We walked around for another couple of hours, which was more than enough in the children’s boots we’d been supplied. Angie suffered a nasty bug attack, when two ants crawled into her gumboot, inflicting pain far beyond what we thought possible for such tiny little creatures. Or at least Angie acted like they did.

By the time we got back to camp, my feet had permanently altered their shape and the resulting pain had pretty much crippled me. Personally, getting those boots off was the highlight of the entire trip. After lunch, we climbed aboard the canoe for the last time and set off downriver towards our jeep pickup point. As is typical in Bolivia, the day’s bus to Rurrenabaque was delayed, which meant our jeep was delayed, which meant we were treated to another hour or so of battling mosquitoes to finish off the trip.

Angie and Freddo

The next morning we got a flight out of Rurre, this time on a 35 seat plane- a hulking mammoth compared to our ride into the jungle. We were flying with TAM- which stands for Transporte Aereo Militar- the commercial wing of the Bolivian Airforce. It was a bit if a novelty to be flying on a Military plane, but it was decked out like any other commercial aircraft, except for the numerous utilitarian hooks and loops attached to every surface inside the cabin- painted white to blend in but obvious signs that this bird had seen other kinds of service before hauling gringos to the jungle and back. It felt marginally more airworthy than our Amazonas flight, and we landed safely in La Paz an hour later, gasping at the cold and thin air, and quite glad to not have any miniature plane rides planned in the near future.

Cheers to TAM for not crashing

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Pampas Tour- Day Two. The Annoying Continues.

Bats sleeping on the ceiling

This is our camp. In the wet season, there are even more mosquitoes and the river rises up to floor level.

We awoke to a day with none of the warmth and humidity we had so enjoyed previously. The cool air and grey sky were the aftermath of a storm that meant the pampas would be even further underwater than the usual gumboot depth, so we went piranha fishing instead.


Much to the amusement of onlookers, our group descended the muddy bank to the canoe below. The normally simple process of getting down became a convoluted ordeal due to the rain-soaked mud which at once had the consistency of both Perkins Paste and motor oil. After twenty minutes of near-misses with the slick slimedirt we found ourselves aboard and relatively clean. Freddo proceeded to motor us ten metres- literally- down river to the fishing spot. People watching were rolling on the walkways laughing at the sight of us so desperately clambering to get into a boat to get to a place that we could have walked to in thirty seconds. Thankfully, nothing was biting there and we had to move on.


When we found a good spot, lines went out and the frustrating process of being outsmarted by fish the size of pikelets began (not for me- I just took photos and commentated). The little fish were very adept at eating bait without actually touching the hook, a skill that resulted in much angst amongst the group. Freddo managed to haul a few in, then Angie landed a beast, letting him go minus the Rex Hunt kiss. Once everyone whose sense of worth depended on catching a piranha had caught one, we putted off to lunch. The catch turned up at the end of the meal, deep-fried whole like fishy Pringles-devoid of meat- all head, bones and skin.

Meet Pedro

Following a rest to recover form the morning’s battles, we once again boarded the canoe and motored off to one of the most popular pink dolphin hangouts. We were there to swim with these weird fish, but first we had to be introduced to the resident crocodilian life. Pedro was the main man in these parts, two metres of prehistoric handbag fodder that would come when called like a big, ugly waterborne dog. With a few taps of Pedro’s snout, Freddo introduced us and declared the dull brown water safe to enter.

Getting acquainted.

Look just to the left of Angie's head...

Tentatively, three of us stripped down and edged into the water. The dolphins had a cursory glance, but seemed uninterested in a few pale bipeds, and they quickly got back to the business of floating around being dolphins. At the forefront of our minds were not these examples of river fauna; we were more concerned about the piranhas, alligators and any number of insidious parasites that also inhabited this body of water.

The highly excitable Bird of Paradise. They freak out at everything, squawking and flapping about in a most unprofessional manner.

A much more composed bird

After a few minutes of swimming, there was no sign of malicious gators or urethra invading microfish, so the others joined us. The tranquillity of the scene was interrupted by a series of yelps that rose into a panicky crescendo, climaxing with the sight of a thong surfacing next to Angie’s thigh. It seemed that her footwear had secretly removed itself from her foot, and then repeatedly barged into her leg as it shimmied up to the surface. Angie’s terrified shrieks of ‘ohmygodsomethingjusttouchedmeonthelegwhatisitshititdiditagain!!!’ put everyone on edge, and we retired to a riverside pub soon afterwards.

After looking around the hostel/pub for a while, we decided that the people here got a better deal and returned to our dilapidated mosquito nest. Dinner was served and Freddo deemed tomorrow a 5 a.m. start, so we cocooned ourselves soon after.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Frog's Dinner

The camp was lit at night by two, bare electric bulbs. Massive swarms of bugs buzzed and fluttered around the lights, often getting a bit to close and crashlanding into the ground below. These guys were waiting underneath to clean up the debris. They'd sit perfectly still for a few moments, then bounce off when something landed near them. This meant that often, they'd only be in frame for a short portion of the 30 second exposures, leaving only their ghost-like images visible in the photos.

Gator Night

The orange streaks are the eyes of alligators watching us as we floated past through the darkness.