Saturday, 21 February 2009

Easily the stupidest thing I've ever done!

On arrival back in Santiago, I left straight away. I would be back for a day or two before flying to Sydney, so wanted to head south to Pucon, so I got another overnight bus, this time for 11 hours. By the time the bus arrived I could barely move my legs; Chilean buses are ok but not as good as Argentinian ones.

Headed straight for my hostel but although I was in the right place, I couldn't find the entrance, so had to carry my stuff back to the main street to go on the internet to get directions. This was a pain as it was already pretty hot even at 9am and certainly too hot to be carrying big backpacks around. And sure enough when I found the entrance I had walked straight past it earlier. Muppetry strikes again.

Didn't do too much the rest of the day except organise a couple of trips, have an afternoon sleep and chill around the hostel. The hostel was great, it was more like a posh house than a hostel. Big garden with pool, big rooms, proper mattresses, and the plushest bathroom I've ever seen in a hostel, very good.

Next day I was up before 6 to climb up Villarica, an active volcano near Pucon. We had crampons but never needed to use them as the climbing boots we were given gripped the snow fine. Took about 4 hours to get to the top, and it was a pretty gentle climb with very few steep bits unlike Cotopaxi. And the altitude wasn't a problem as it was only 2,840m high.

Had lunch at the top and wandered around the volcano crater. There was a steady plume of smoke coming out which when you stood in the wrong place you could really smell the sulphur, which made my throat sting a bit. We were lucky it was a clear day though as the views were really good; Pucon is in the Chilean lake district and you could see lots of mountains and lakes.

By far the best bit was getting down though, because you slide down on your bum! We wore these bizarre things round our bums and also had a plastic tray type thing for some runs. There were lots of grooves in the snow already kind of like mini toboggan runs where people had already slid down. But as with driving a car I had two big problems: steering and braking!
Admittedly braking was no fun, much better to go fast, but steering and staying in the grooves was harder, possibly due to lack of braking. I managed to perform an audacious overtaking manoeuvre on the first run, going 'off piste', overtaking and then back on, and all complete luck! On other runs whenever I came to a bend I tended to end up going straight on despite my best efforts to turn. While this was fun, a couple of times I needed to roll onto my front and adopt the emergency stop position using the ice axe. It also hurts when you fly over a bump, get some air then land. But great fun.

When we were almost back at the bottom, we looked back up and there was loads of smoke coming out the volcano, way more than when we were at the top. Not a real eruption, but it was a few moments of excitement nonetheless!

Met up with Nikki, my Patagonia tour leader, that evening for a drink or two, which was good. The full tour was Santiago to Ushuaia and back again, doing six back to back in the season, and the northbound tour that had started when we finished in Ushuaia happened to be in Pucon at the same time I was.

Although I could possibly have waited until Oz, that would be no fun, so decided to risk another haircut – you never know, something could get lost in lack of translation and it all get shaved off. Not $1.50 like Quito, but 3,000 Chilean peso's is about 3 pounds 50 so still wasn't bad. But nothing went wrong, and Edith did a fine job, and I had another smart numero dos.

What I did later that day easily ranks as one of the dumbest things I've ever done. I had seen adverts and the odd picture for hydrospeeding in some of the tour agencies, and not ever having heard of it much less done it I thought that was reason enough to do it - always up for trying new activities after all. It was clear from the pictures that you're in the water with some kind of polystyrene float, but that was all I knew. The true stupidity of this only became clear when it was almost too late.

As I'm standing there putting on a set of knee pads, three (yes three) wet suits, a wet suit jacket, a crash helmet and some flippers, the penny dropped (something that should have happened much earlier, like before I booked it for example): we were going to go face first down a white water rafting course. I don't mind rafting, but I'm not its biggest fan and can take it or leave it. Getting stuck under water (a la Kris's near death experience in New Zealand) didn't appeal much, nor did the idea of falling out and getting bashed into rocks, but here I was about to go down a rafting course without the raft and with little more than a few layers of wet suit between me and pain. I wasn't filled with confidence either by the fact that there were lots of tears in the wet suits. I wasn't about to ask what caused this, but was guessing rocks. The guide's wet suits were so torn it looked like he'd been in a fight...and lost. I was seriously starting to think that I'd definitely gone and done it this time.

Something else that emphasises how insane this is, it completely contradicts the logic of what you do when you fall out of a raft: you lie on your back and go down feet first in case you find rocks. With hydrospeeding you go down on your front face first. Clever.

We had a quick demo in some still shallow water, where we were shown how to unflip if we turned over. This was difficult enough in water that wasn't moving, so decided I was properly screwed if I tipped in rapids. It would definitely be the end. Decided I would really have to not tip. Was bricking it by this point.

When we set off it didn't take long to whack some rocks pretty hard with my legs, and land on a rock with my balls, which for the avoidance of doubt, hurt. A lot. And this was before the proper rapids. The guide soon announced that the rapids were about to start, and they were grade 3! I have only ever rafted on grade 3/4! Significant steering would be required to avoid hitting big rocks and going through the dangerous bits of the rapids, and this was pretty hard work with just flippers against grade 3 rapids; your arms are inside the polystyrene thing and are used just for balance mostly. Course, to know which way to steer required seeing the guide up front pointing which direction to go, not easy when you have loads of water crashing into your face constantly.

Having successfully negotiated a couple of these, we were then told we needed to kick hard as there was a small hole we could get sucked down. I didn't quite catch what we should do if we did get sucked down, or how far it went, but decided the best plan was to kick hard and not end up in it.

Somehow though I managed to get down the full course which was 13km long with nothing but minor cuts and bruises. Of the five of us who started, only three of us made it to the end. Its not that they weren't seen again, but they didn't fancy it and rode the rest of the way in the rafts that were going down the same course with us. At times it felt like I was being dragged along the river bed as it was quite shallow in parts, but it was quite fun when I wasn't crashing into rocks, and getting thrown up in the air by the rapids was pretty exciting. Rafting is definitely for wusses!

So believe it or not I would recommend doing this! Just like crawling through the mine in Bolivia, there is nothing quite like scaring yourself half to death! I did vow afterwards to never do it again, but that would be grossly underestimating my own stupidity, so I think it is more a Steve Redgrave style "never", so if anyone ever sees me go near a hydrospeeding foam thing, you have my permission to shoot me.

That night in the hostel a few of us chipped to buy some meat etc and had a really good barbecue, and drank in the garden until late. Welcome relaxation after the excitement of hydrospeeding.

Rapa Nui

Having worked out that I would have about two weeks in Chile after visiting Mendoza, I read the guide book to see where was worth going. A lot of stuff sounded good, but also sounded like a lot of the stuff I'd already done on my trip. Easter Island though sounded pretty unique, so decided to head there. The flights were pretty pricey, but thought it would be worth it, and I may not be back in this part of the world so should go while I'm here.

It took almost five hours to fly there, but you had your own entertainment system, so for the first time in months I'd be able to watch films, so I decided to take full advantage. After watching some random action movie, there were a number of high brow offerings to choose from, but it was a no brainer, and I opted for The Simpsons Movie. Unfortunately though due to a technical malfunction I would have to wait until the flight home to see the last half hour and whether Homer could save Springfield. Doh! The suspense!

Easter Island - which is apparently in Oceania and not South America - is known locally as Rapa Nui. Its airport was little more than a small building and a big piece of tarmac. Someone from the hostel was there to meet me and immediately I had a big garland of flowers around my neck! I was actually staying at a camp site but it had a few dorms, so I was in there. It was a really nice location right by the sea. After an afternoon sleep, I went for a wander around the 'town' of Hanga Roa. It was the only town on the island and was more of a street with a few shops and restaurants on rather than a town, so was very uncommercial and very pleasant. The annual festival started a week later, so we were able to watch the rehearsals of the traditional dancing that evening, which was pretty good.

Just chilled around the campsite that night, although accidentally drank half a bottle of vodka. Andy, an English guy from my dorm (who actually dislikes scousers more than me!), had what I thought was just the end of a bottle of vodka (stored in a plastic bottle to avoid the attention of customs), but I found out the next day it was a full bottle of cheap, nasty vodka. Oops.

Still, was up at a decent time the next day for a day of culture, a full guided tour of the island to get all the history. The main attraction of Rapa Nui are the moai, giant stone statues of people. There are numerous ahu's on the island which are the stands on which the moai stand, and lots of moai's strewn around the island. Some were just sitting there as if in transit and many were face down and pretty eroded. Some years ago there were no standing moai at all, as they had all been tipped for some reason, but some sites have been restored and seeing all these huge statues was pretty spectacular. It was an interesting day.

Historians and archaeologists aren't agreed on how the huge stone statues were transported from the quarry and eventually stood up, as they weighed anything up to forty odd tonnes, but the guide said it definitely wasn't aliens. Not sure how he know though, because personally I saw absolutely no evidence to suggest it wasn't aliens. It seems like the only rational explanation.

Watched some more of the dance rehearsals that evening, and after getting some food we headed to try and find some open air concert we'd heard about. Unfortunately, we got soaked before we found it. Easter Island can certainly generate a proper rainstorm! After having to shelter for ages, and failing to flag down a taxi back, the rain stopped long enough to get back to the campsite. There were discussions of going out later, but given the weather, we took a raincheck (excuse the pun). Decided to have a brief kip instead and reassess the situation later, but inevitably trying to have a short sleep at 10.30pm ends one way: waking up 4 or more hours later! That put paid to going out.

That day I was barely capable of walking though. I think my feet had reacted badly to all the hiking in Patagonia as when I wore my flip flops in Mendoza, I got loads of blisters on the bottom of my feet, and they seemed to be getting worse. I thought it was just the odd blister, but there were loads on both feet. Perhaps there was some sort of religious significance, but one of the disadvantages of travelling alone is that there is nobody to check whether there are images of Jesus on the soles of your feet.

Had a surfing lesson the next day. I had a surf lesson in Sydney a couple of years ago, and I have definitely got worse since. Completely failed to get anywhere near standing up. There were some pretty big waves and all I really succeeded in doing was getting hit in the head by my board, getting hit in the head by someone elses board and getting sunburnt. I had been given some t-shirt to wear that was at least two sizes too small and it kept riding up; I had to keep pulling it down just to avoid nipple chafe, but lying face down on a surf board (on the rare occasions I hadn't fell off it) meant my back got pretty badly burnt.

Went to a show that evening with Andy which was traditional music and dance. Was really good as they were all in costume too. The bloke's costume was little more than body paint and an ill-fitting pair of swimming trunks, although fellas, I think everyone would appreciate if you did your bikini lines a bit better next time...

Hired a mountain bike the next day and cycled round the island. Its probably only 30k all the way round so very do-able in a day. Stopped at one of the beaches for lunch and a nap, but within minutes it started raining, putting a dampener on that (another pun I hope you'll excuse). Not the first time on my trip I've arrived at a beach and its started raining. It didn't get a lot better either as it rained pretty heavily for two hours so in the end I was completely soaked. My cheap digital watch from Costa Rica, which it is worth pointing out is 30m water resistant, died as water got in it, although it did recover a day or two later. The watch I started my trip with was 50m water resistant, and it died in the rain too!

Went into 'town' that night to a couple of night clubs and its a pretty lively night out for such a small island. Was out until the early hours, but still made it to church on Sunday morning! It is one of the main attractions of the island apparently. Could only stand outside as it was full, but was quite interesting anyway. Went to the museum after then walked up volcano Rano Kao, now extinct, to the ancient Orongo village, now uninhabited.

Sunday was football day, so watched two of the local teams in a six-a-side match. For all I know they were maybe the only two teams on the island. The standard can best be described as shocking! I've never seen such an insistence on playing high long balls in a six a side match. It might have been more successful had anyone been able to trap a ball. But what it lacked in quality it made up for in entertainment value. I felt sorry for the horse though because it normally lives on the football pitch but had to be moved to the side.

My last full day on the island I went horse riding, as this seemed to be the best (i.e. least strenuous) way of seeing the northern part of the island. I had precisely zero control over this horse as it refused to respond to any of my instructions. I think it must have skipped breakfast too as it just kept stopping to eat grass. I tried pulling the reins but it was having none of it. When I did hold them so it couldn't pull its head down, it just sat on its front legs almost throwing me off over its head in the process! And it would only respond to noises made by the guide so I was pretty helpless.

When we got to the volcano - Maunga Teravaka, the highest point on the island - we got off the horses, but I kind of fell off. The ground wasn't where I was expecting so ended up lying there with one foot still in one of the stirrups. I'd love to say I got dragged for several hundred yards at speed before hauling myself back on the horse, but it just stood there eating grass generally uninterested in my clowning around.

When we got back I fared little better trying to get off as when I tried to move my leg over the horses back I got cramp, so had to climb off the horse onto a fence! Was good though and the horse actually properly ran, which was good as it is really smooth. When it galloped I was bouncing around loads, so speed was good. Pity I had no control over it though as at times when I was bouncing around I was pleading with it to go faster but to no avail.

Went snorkelling later around a tiny island just next door called Motu Nui. Not an abundance of marine life but the water was crystal clear, and the contrast in colour when the reef finishes and there is nothing but water (you can't even see the bottom) it looks really spectacular. And with the sun shining down into the water and the silence, it was almost like you were hallucinating, although Mum, if you're reading, I am only guessing because I have never taken hallucinogenic drugs.

And that was pretty much it, as flew back to mainland Chile the next day. Would have been nice to have walked to the airport, just to say you've walked to an airport but it was far too hot, so rode there in the back of the hostel pick up truck. It might have been pricey, but Easter Island was really good and was well worth the visit.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Several hundred feet off the ground, the man strapped to my back who has my life completely in his hands says "do you like acrobatics?"

For reasons I'm not quite sure of – although smart money is on the fact I'm a muppet – despite knowing for months that I'd be in Ushuaia on this date, I hadn't done a lot about working out how I was going to get out of there. My next destination was Mendoza, pretty much directly north but a good two or more days away on buses. Decided I didn't really have this time to spare so ended up flying back to Buenos Aires - changing time zone - then jumping on an overnight bus as soon as I got there (and changing time zones back when I arrived). A roundabout route, but reasonably quick as I got to the bus station a bit before 7.30pm and was on a bus by 8pm...and was playing bingo within the hour! One of the bus staff handed out a load of cards and starts pulling numbers from a bag! Most surreal, but quite good entertainment for a bit. Andesmar was the company for future reference.

I'm sure it said when I booked it that my flight to Buenos Aires stopped off in the Falklands, which would have been quite cool, but it stopped somewhere else in the end.

Got to Mendoza early the next morning and signed up straight away on a Mountain Bike tour of some wineries. At that point I didn't have any accommodation sorted as everywhere was full but thought I'd worry about that later. Mendoza is a wine region so it would be rude not to, although how good an idea it is drinking wines while cycling is debatable. In the end we (disappointingly) didn't spend that much time on the bikes. It was ok though as we visited three wineries, an olive oil factory and what we were told was a chocolate factory but was in actual fact someones house who made chocolate there. And jams. And sauces. And grappa. And absinthe. We sampled some of the grappa and I also tried the hot chilli sauce which had a pleasant kick without blowing your socks off.

Luckily a bed became available at the first hostel I had gone to so didn't have to spend the evening looking for somewhere to sleep. The hostel did a barbeque so went to that.

Was planning on doing a trekking/rapelling/rafting tour the next day but it was sold out, so after chilling in Parque General San Martin for a bit I went paragliding. I had done this in Lima in 2007 and it was fun. There I did it over the sea so we were never that high, but this was from up a big mountain, and was decidedly scarier just standing looking over the surrounding area.

After waiting for the wind to get up, we were ready to take off, and just like Peru I was told to just run that way and don't stop...and sure enough we took off.It felt like we were just hanging there motionless until occasional gusts of wind come along. After floating pleasantly for 15 or 20 minutes, the landing zone was in sight, and the person strapped to my back, who its worth pointing out had my life entirely in his hands, says "do you like acrobatics?" This isn't the easiest question to answer when you're several hundred feet off the ground - it kind of depends if you're going to live through it or not - but I decisively responded "maybe", to which he replied "hang on". The next few seconds, feeling more like a few minutes were spent with me seeing ground and sky interchangably. At one point I could see ground and parachute together which can't have been a good thing. But when we finally stopped said acrobatics we were considerably closer to the ground. Watching someone else later they just spiral down to lose altitude quickly. Was good but I did feel a touch queasy afterwards!

Then he - stupidly - let me take the controls kind of. After a minute or two though he said something that had clearly been lost in translation as in English it made no sense. I subsequently worked out that it meant give me back the controls as he wrestled them back off me in the end as we needed to land. He should have said! Enjoyed it again although if anyone ever does it, leave plenty of time between having lunch and doing acrobatics!

Went out that evening with Gerd, a German guy from my dorm, and two Americans he had met. These Americans were the good kind, not the fat loud old ones who have been mentioned on these pages previously. We went to a restaurant where I had one of the best steaks I have had yet, a 600g Bife de Chorizo, perfectly cooked to medium rare. My plate was a bloodbath at the end. Delicious!

Next day I did a bus trip to the base of Aconcagua, which at 6,962m high is South Americas highest mountain. Tours to climb up it generally take 14-21 days. The view we had wasn't especially spectacular but we stopped off at a few places en route including Puenta del Inca which was quite pretty, so it was a nice way to spend a day.

That evening before getting another overnight bus into Chile I just chilled out in Mendoza's main square. It was really nice as there were lots of people out including lots of families, and there was lots going on such as tango shows, a drumming group, artists who use nothing but spray paint (producing some amazing pictures) and other performances. I was even willing to tolerate the person who paints himself silver then stands perfectly still - I've never seen the point so when I see one of these in London I want to kick the guy square in get picture. The square was really nice anyway with fountains and plenty of places to sit and people watch, and all these shows made it even nicer. Its a shame you don't get this back home - instead we get chavs making the place look untidy.

So onwards to Chile. Just as I was about to fall asleep on a very uncomfortable overnight bus, we arrived at the border. It became clear that we weren't going through any time soon on account of the queue of traffic, so went back to sleep only to be awoken a short time later by the conductor checking I had my passport. In the end we got through at 4am, three hours after we got to the border, but it has been known to take six apparently.

Argentina was good and there is some great stuff to do, but did find the people a bit frosty. The Lonely Planet has some Argentinian jokes, and all revolve around how arrogant Argentinians are. The steak there was good though, and I managed to have steak the vast majority of days I was there! Although it was good, and better than any steak you generally get in the UK without paying a fortune, it wasn't quite as good as I was expecting although maybe my expectations were too high due to reputation. A few times it came out overdone, and I thought that was pretty much treason in this part of the world.

One thing I wasn't going to miss about Argentina though was having to tip absolutely everything. I arrived at a bus station in a taxi and some guy opens the cab before I have even got out and without being asked to takes my bag out, then expects to be paid. Thanks but I'll do it myself. When you get your bag out of the luggage hold off the bus, the bloke doesn't give you it until you've crossed his palm with silver. Not a big fan of tipping for nothing. I blame the Americans.

I´d bought a ticket to Valparaiso but was going to spend that night in Viña del Mar to meet up with Andy from my Patagonia tour. Had I done my research properly (as usual) I would have realised they were so close so it would be easier to go straight to Viña del Mar (VdM), dump my stuff and just get public transport to Valparaiso. But when I got off the bus thinking it was Valparaiso but was actually VdM, I stayed off so it worked out ok.

Got the tube to Valparaiso, and the Northern Line it is not - it was clean, spacious and efficient. Valparaiso is a very pretty town and I spent a few hours generally wandering round and riding the ascensors, which are antiquated lifts that take people quickly up some of the many steep hills. There are about 20 of them but I only rode a few. At the top of one Coca Cola were filming a commercial. I was debating whether I was going to try and appear in it, but having suffered from overexposure in the media before - being interviewed for Brazilian radio at the World Cup in Germany, and accidentally walking in front of a camera outside Scotland Yard and subsequently appearing on Sky News - I decided not to bother.

Then I headed back to VdM. This is a seaside resort and quite a nice one, considerably less tacky than Mar del Plata, the Argentinian beach town I visited. Although neither can truly call themselves proper seaside towns for the simple reason that neither has any crazy golf courses. Disgraceful. That evening I met up with Andy from my Patagonia tour. He is a keen Poker player, and his reason for being in VdM was because the Latin American Poker Tour was in town and he was going to enter the tournament. So having paid his US$300 entry fee, the game began. Unfortunately for him though it ended five minutes later. He was quite unlucky though, as he lost with pretty good hands and didn't do a whole lot wrong. We stayed and had a few beers and ended up watching the Poker until 3am; it was really interesting. The only food we could find on the way home though shamefully was McDonalds.

Next day we just had a wander around VdM, chilling on the beach and visiting the main tourists attraction, which is a flower bed that is also a working clock! After this I bid farewell to Andy; VdM was pretty nice and would have been good to spend a bit more time there, but I had to head to Santiago as I was flying to Easter Island early the next morning.