Monday, 9 March 2009

The sad, geeky stats summary bit

Come on, you knew it was coming, after all Microsoft Excel geek is my job title! So since last September when I left the UK (which seems a very long time ago now) I have travelled over 31,000 miles through 9 countries over three continents not including the start and end points, England and Australia. Ok so two of those countries – Brazil and Uruguay - were only day trips but still got the passport stamps! It would be ten countries if you count the fact I was in US waters at one point, but that is pushing it! I have now visited a total of 34 countries - 35 if you count the US...and 36 if you count the People's Republic of Tooting! See map for full route

I was away for almost four and a half months, which was 19 weeks or 135 days. By Andy McBean’s calculations (see earlier blog entry) in that time I would have spent over 40 hours going to the toilet! And you probably don't want to know this, so apologies, but three of those were in one session in a hotel room in Cuba, something that could be verified by Wim, my Belgian roommate, who could hear the whole episode through the wall. Poor guy is probably still mentally scarred.

I took a total of 14 flights, quite an impressive carbon footprint, and countless bus rides. The longest bus ride was only 23 hours which is pretty lame really compared to some of the rides that can be done in South America. Its bizarre, in the UK there is pretty much no way I’d even contemplate travelling by coach under normal circumstances, yet double figure hours duration journeys became the norm. The buses are better certainly in Argentina and Chile though.

Bolivia was my favourite place – did some enjoyable things you can’t really do anywhere else and met some good people. Chile was probably my second favourite place as really enjoyed San Pedro de Atacama, Torres Del Paine and Pucon. But there wasn’t anywhere I actually disliked.

I wouldn’t pick any one moment as being the best, but highlights would probably be

- Canada – the wapiti having a wander round our bus - Cuba – the whole time was just great fun with a great group

- Costa Rica – carrying the baby turtle to the water, and getting variously attacked by monkeys and racoons was pretty funny

- Ecuador – getting to the top of Cotopaxi, riding on the roof of the train in Riobamba, and the first day in Galapagos seeing so much stuff

- Bolivia – the slat flats trip was amazing scenery all the way and the mine in Potosi while scary was not something I’ll ever forget

- Argentina – the atmosphere at the Boca game, and in town when they won the title and the spectacular view when you first see Iguazu (although that was from Brazil!)

- Chile – sandboarding in San Pedro, the scenery in Torres del Paine, and Pucon generally from the people who were there to sliding down the mountain to the relief of finishing the hydrospeeding.

And travelling on my own was brilliant too. Won’t deny I wasn’t a little bit anxious about it before I went away, but ended up meeting so many people; barely spent any time without someone to talk to. Staying in hostels it’s pretty impossible not to meet people if you want to, although you do end up drinking too much because you inevitably end up drinking with whoever you meet! It was just really good meeting and talking to so many different people all the time. There are disadvantages to travelling alone but these were vastly outweighed by the good stuff.

Was also a bit anxious about not speaking any Spanish when I left beyond yes, no, please and thank you, but getting round was also much easier than I thought. I probably had get-by Spanish by the end in that I could always sort out what I wanted – food, accommodation, bus tickets….haircuts – without any major problems. English was spoken by some but I tried to have a go in Spanish in the first instance when I could. And at no point did I have to shout loudly in English about three inches from someone’s face to get them to understand me, a tactic that has been known to work in Europe (because everyone understands English if its spoken at the right volume) but with limited success in Latin America!

Now I just need to get used to not travelling, i.e. it's no longer ok to wear the same clothes for several days. On a couple of occasions when I was getting laundry done having not done any for a couple of weeks, I would have seven or so t-shirts that needed washing, yet could only find two pairs of boxer shorts that needed washing. Oops!

So the whole thing was great and really enjoyed it (and is much better than work!) Will have to start thinking about where to go next now!

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

One last attempt to hurt myself so I don't have to go back to work

Not happy with having escaped death doing hydrospeeding, I decided one last attempt to hurt myself was appropriate; work was after all just over a week away and I had to try something to get out of it! I did canyoning in Costa Rica, and wasn't very good at it for no good reason really, so decided to give it another go. The tour agency had two trips on offer, one was river trekking and the other was rappelling down waterfalls, so signed up to the second one.

Turned up the next day only for the agency to realise that they'd booked me on the wrong one, and the one I wanted had left an hour ago. So had to postpone until the next day. Caught the bus to the Parque Nacional Huerquehue instead and walked around there. Was quite picturesque with forests and several lakes. Walked about 17km in 5 hours.

Next day did manage to do the canyoning though. The guide explained that we would rappel down three waterfalls, one 7m high, one 10m high and the other 85m high! Yikes. We were given wet suits, helmets and gloves and off we went. The 7m high one was a bit tricky because it was so slippery and did lose my footing and swing into the rocks once. The 10m one was ok, but el Puma was saved until the end. The first few steps were quite tricky as you had to put your feet in pretty exact spots, but after the first 10m you couldn't touch the rocks and was I just lowering myself down a rope with a really spectacular view. Pretty cool - I even dared look down a few times! Was great fun and glad I did it, and was in properly in control of my descent mostly, so a big improvement from Costa Rica.

Chilled on the beach for a couple of hours after the canyoning. While I was on the beach there was an aerobatics display by what I assume was the Chilean equivalent of the Red Arrows which was pretty good, especially when it looked like one of the planes was just falling out the sky towards the beach before the pilot the took control again. A big military helicopter also flew by a few times.

That night I left Pucon on an overnight bus back to Santiago. Would have loved to have stayed longer as this was one of the most fun hostels I stayed in on my whole trip. The people in my dorm were really good fun too. Sarah and Damien were kind of like two characters from Father Ted (description courtesy of Wikipedia): "'John and Mary O'Leary', a married couple who own a hardware shop on Craggy Island. The pair utterly hate each other and are constantly insulting and devising ways to maim and kill each other, yet they behave like a happily married couple to Ted." Brilliant. Charlotte was French but spoke in the best English accent any of us had ever heard (and one which we had never heard an English person talk in!) There were two English girls, Nicki and Susie, who were a good laugh too.

One night, Damien got asked to leave the room because he was snoring so loud so had to find a sofa. Next morning, there was an inquest as there was a crescendo of snoring going on apparently. Susie pleaded guilty and asked for two counts of talking in her sleep to also be taken into consideration, but outrageously I got accused too, allegations I strongly deny! And it was never proven! It was a really good laugh. I was sad to leave Pucon because it was a nice town, there was loads of good stuff to do and met some great people.

Got the overnight bus back to Santiago and generally just spent a couple of days wandering around. Did the walking tour suggested by the guide book which takes you via some of the main sites, then went up Cerro Santa Lucia, a small park in the middle of the city that gives pretty decent views over the city. The view from Cerro San Cristobal was even better though, as I got the funicular railway then a cable car to the top. Did an open top bus tour the next day to get a bit of history and see some of the more suburban parts of Santiago. Got off at the Museum of Fine Arts but didn’t really last long in there! Spent the rest of the day chilling on the roof terrace of the hostel before going to the airport to get my flight to Sydney.

Check in was slightly hairy. I was travelling on a dodgy student ticket as this saved me about a grand and a half, but that wasn’t the problem. For some reason the ticket wasn’t electronic so I’d been carrying around a paper ticket for my whole trip. It was still in tact, but apparently wasn’t actually a ticket; arguably I should have noticed this by the words “void for travel” plastered all over it. The check-in woman seemed to also be concerned by the lack of visa in my passport for Australia. If there was a problem with the visa work had organised, then I would have tried to organise an electronic tourist visa which tragically would have prevented me from working. But in the end she seemed happy that I had a visa and not bothered by my lack of proper ticket (although not sure why this wasn’t a problem), so I got through.

The plane was disappointing to say the least as it was the worst entertainment system ever (short of it being broken). 18 hours of flight and a choice of six films according to the brochure, but in reality one wasn’t anywhere to be found and four weren’t even remotely watchable. The airline was LAN who I flew with to Easter Island - what happened to the choice of 44 films they had on those planes? I’d almost planned what I was going to watch too. Luckily I managed more sleep than I normally do on flights.

We landed at Auckland at about 3am and were kicked off the plane. After a brief moment of panic when I got stuck in a toilet cubicle with an electronic lock – it took several attempts to get out – I was on the way to Sydney. Arrived at 7am, and I got through customs in no time, surprising considering I had ticked “yes” to five out of 11 boxes on the customs declaration form. But they weren’t concerned about my wooden moai from Easter Island, the mud on my shoes, the fact I’d come from South America, or anything else and pretty much waved me through.

It was nice to arrive at an airport and not have to size up the chances of the taxi driver robbing you, as my employers had laid on a car (there is probably less risk of that in Australia than the places I’d been the last few months). The driver was a bit late, and proceeded to tell me he was up late the night before. He didn’t say if he was drinking or not, but decided it best not to ask! Got dropped at an internet cafĂ© where I could leave my bag while I went to purchase some work clothes, as due to various cock ups, my stuff that was being shipped over would arrive almost three weeks after me. Was pretty much sorted by lunchtime though, possibly my most successful shopping trip ever! I did though say "si" and "gracias" a few times - being in an English speaking country for the first time in 4 months will take a bit of getting used to again!

It was really hot when I arrived, so after meeting up with Al went for swim at Bronte, then had an $8 steak at the pub, the first of many hopefully. Over the next few days, went for a couple more swims, watched some English sport in the middle of the night, and went to the one day cricket game between Australia and New Zealand at the SCG. Unfortunately Australia won but it was a good game. I might be here for two years but I have no intention of supporting Australia at sport, at least not most of the time, and definitely not at cricket.

The cricket was the day before my first day back at work and had it been a typical day at the cricket in England, I might not have created the best first impression next day. There have been times where I was struggling to even talk the next day after a full day session at the cricket. But aside from the fact I deliberately took it easy, this is Australia, where all they serve at cricket is mid strength beer, so all that happens is you go to the toilet a lot and run out money. The likelihood of getting drunk is slim. This was a big problem when I was over here in 2006/07 watching England take a 5-0 thumping in the Ashes – you need full strength alcohol and plenty of it to watch England play cricket. But in this case it was nice to enjoy the game and actually remember it.

And that was that, back to work!