A Travellerspoint blog

Chapter #6: The White Continent - Antarctica

An expedition to the polar circle

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Dear all,

I've been looking forward to write this post about what I consider the greatest adventure of my life. Yes, even better than the Galapagos. I had the luck to embark on a 12-days cruise to Antarctica, the white continent. The only problem is that I just got back to Ushuaia 1 hour ago, and I am still a bit under shock... and kind of sad. So I apologize if I'll be a bit emotional with the descriptions... but let's start:

What is Antarctica?
Many know "it" as the South Pole, even though that is only a geographical point in which all the longitude lines converge, and the latitude is 90 degrees South. However, this point is placed in the middle of a pretty big continent, which offers more than just ice and... ice. However, reaching this unique place has been proven to be a one of the greatest adventures in the last century, with the first man ever to reach it in 1911, namely Mr. Amundsen. Another fellow named Scott reached it after a few weeks later (it was almost a race between the two), but this last got more famous as he died on his way back. In the following decades many other expeditions tried to reach the remotest place on this inaccessible continent, that doubles it size during winter given the sea freezing along its coastline. Scientific bases were founded in strategic places across Antarctica, which up to now still remains a nobody's-land, meaning that no country is allowed to claim any squared meter of this land. Many research stations are operative today, scattered around, in which projects about climate, ice and wildlife take place. We got the chance to visit the Vernadsky Ukrainian station that focuses on the Ozone hole, and we were warmly greated with a shot of Vodka! People can stay segregated the whole winter in these stations, accessible only during summer months when the pack ice melts. Weather conditions can get extreme - Antarctica is the coldest (min -89 C at Vostok base), the windiest (351 Kmh at Belgrano II base), the driest (it never rains at the georgraphic South Pole), and, funnily enough, also the most intelligent continent, as its population is about 1000-2000 people mainly composed by scientists. Researchers say that the first time they go to Antarctica to overwinter and conduct research is for the adventure, the second for the money, and from the third year on is simply beacuse they do not socially fit anywhere else anymore! They might be considered crazy, but having had the opportunity to talk to a few of them that were our guides throughout the whole cruise, I need to add that they are just some of the most interesting and funny persons I've met. Great guys. You could sit for hours listening to their stories and adventures, and never get bored.
Apparently, all of them got the "polar bug", and once it infects you... you have to return to one of the two polar regions! I think I might have been infected myself on some level, beacuse I am already planning a trip to the Arctic!!! If you keep on reading, you'll get some reasons for why everybody that was on board of our ship loved every second of it, even when the sea was rough, even when the snow storm hit us, even when you walk in penguins' poop for hours - Antarctica is amazing.

SO, why is that? I will give you my three reasons:

1 - The landscapes.
Breath-taking. When people imagine Antarctica they think about snow, wind and ice. And in fact, that is the typical Antarctica. 80% of the days you get a grey sky, a strong wind and some snow flying around, like this:

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However, there are days that are simply surreal, days in which the water is calm and reflects the surrounding peaks and glaciers like a perfect mirror, days in which the wind decides not to blow if not to clear the sky from every cloud, days in which the sun is the king. And those days are like a diamond, something so precious that you simply cannot believe your eyes - it's TOO beautuful to be true. If you think I am exaggerating, look at these pictures:

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2 - The wildlife.
Exciting. The wildlife of Antarctica is unique, and the fact that these animals are some of the most spectacular worldwide makes every encounter special. The first category goes to the seals - big and goofy out of the water, a mass of fat that however gets extremely gracious when underwater. The most common to be found on land is the fur seal, which is big enough to scare you with an angry look even at 20m of distance. However, they look friendly enough when juveniles:

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Even though the majority of the seals have a fish-based diet, there is one - the Leopard Seal - that is a whole other story. It can get to 3m long, it's extremely agile underwater and has a huge mouth that makes it look like the Joker or a snake. It's the typical animal that when diving in Antarctica you don't want to come across, as they could be aggresive enough to bite you. And for sure, they hold the power underwater, so if they want to, they will. The characteristic that set it apart from the other seals is that they also hunt penguins. They swim by the coast where penguins enter the water, and these poor fellas might not have an easy swim as they planned:

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The next category is obviously whales. I will honestly say that there are other places worldwide where the same whales can be seen (as they migrate for long distances, sometimes even between the two polar regions), even closer than what we experienced. However, it was the first time for me. And we saw many - fin whales, minke whales and humpback whales. This last specie is the most fascinating as they are the ones that pull the tail out of the water when they dive, as in this picture:

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However, the most exciting encounter was with a dolphin. Actually, a group of dolphins. Mmmh, better put a group of large dolphins. The Orcas. Yes, they are not whales but part of the dolphins family instead! They are also called Killer Whales, and the name might be confusing, but what is really meant is Killer of Whales. And that is what we experienced in open sea, a group of Orcas killing a Arnoux's beaked whale by drowning it (pushing it underwater for more than 1 hour and prevent it to breathe). According to our expedition leader and seasoned expert in whales, it was one of the first time anyone ever heard of orcas killing that particular whale, so our excitment was doubled! This picture is them swimming away after the snack:

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3 - The Penguins
Extremely funny. With them, I had the best moments in the whole trip. Penguins, penguins everywhere!!! Chinstrap penguins, Gentoo penguins, and Adelie penguins... not the usual King/Emperor that you see as main character in the movies or the cartoons, but the funny smaller ones! Every landing we had on the coast was welcomed by hundreds of penguins. And believe me, they are way more curious than shy - you can sit on a rock, and they'll come at you, tilting they head as they think "what's this weird-looking big thing?". They might peck your boots and jacket, and when they lose interest in you they just walk away. And the way the walk away is absolutely hilarious, with their open wings and goofy walk!

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They just look funny.

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When together, they look great. It's extremely interesting to watch a large colony of penguins, in which a lot of interactions take place. You have those that just stay still. Those that are agitated and start flap their wings like crazy. Those that start shouting for unknown reasons. Those that are molting their feathers, and stay hidden between the rocks because embarassed to walk around (not true but it looks like it sometimes). The juveniles that for the first time enter the cold water and get all excited and start jumping around. Those that chase their mother running, so that she can be sure that the chick she is gonna feed is her own. Those pooping all around in circles. Those taking masures to jump between two rocks, and then falling in between as it was broader than expected. Those sledging down a snowy hill. Those that think they are king of the world, and those that feel different (on the right there is a lonely Macaroni penguin, alone in a Chinstrap penguin colony):

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When they swim however, they make up for their goofiness and might even look elegant:

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I think that more than 50% of my pictures is of penguins, in all the possible posistions and perspectives! I even have pictures of me taking pictures of penguins... yeah, I love them. Sometimes I just stopped taking pictures and sat watching them for an hour or more, and had so much fun I had to laugh out loud most of the times!

Now, I have given you 3 distinct reasons of why Antarctica is awesome. However, to have the real picture, you should put all 3 together - landscapes, wildlife and penguins. That is Antarctica. It's a whole another world, don't you think?

Besides what written above, I would like to mention two additional things.
The first is that we were able to cross the antarctic polar circle (66*44'33'' South), and even land on Detaille Island, something that due to the extreme weather condition or frozen sea is rarely possible! I did not care about it that much, but now that I have done it I feel like I need to cross the northern one!!! Someday (anyone wanna join?)
Second, is the polar plunge - take a swim in <2*C cold water!!! We did it in beautiful Niko Harbour - you strip, jump into the water and quickly get out, to suddenly realize you are not that cold. So a polar plunge is well worth the try! However, something that is not good is a second polar plunge. I was not happy with the picture they took of me the first time, and since I was feeling fiiiiiine, I decided to jump back in and swim to a small iceberg in front - bad idea. Entering such cold water when your body temperature is already lower than normal causes... extreme shivering and feet so cold that they hurt for half an hour!!! But hey, at least I got a better picture:

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So... this was my polar experience. I think the following caption that simply captures the essence of the bad and the good of Antarctica:

An expedition to Antarctica is the worst way to have the best time of your life.
(Apsley Cherry-Garrard from his book "The Worst Jurney in the World" - obviously his was a real historic expedition compared to ours, but still!)

I hope I was able to share a bit of my enthusiasm for this great adventure I just had. People told me that it did not make any sense to go to Antarctica when you can just have the same conditions by putting your head in a refrigerator - I hope that with this post I could prove them wrong, and maybe even make them interested in this remote paradise =)

Cheers from Ushuaia, a place that 2 weeks ago was the end of the world, and that by coming back from Antarctica this morning was more like the beginning of it!

Un abbraccio,
Jack & the penguins

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Posted by jack87jack 09:28 Archived in Antarctica Comments (12)

Chapter #5: Into (and out from) The Wild

The wonders of the Salar de Uyuni, and the beauty of Buenos Aires


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Hola all,

with the last entry I got to write what happened until La Paz. With this, I'll tell you what happened between then and a few days ago, when we could relax for a few days in the beautiful Buenos Aires. I say "relax" even though we are 100% in vacation. Still, being always on the road, travelling overnight while sleeping on a (sometimes) comfortable bus, and only occasionally sleeping for two nights in a row in the same place calls for a slow down from time to time... to then start the exploration once more.

This entry is mainly about the astonishing trip to the Salar of Uyuni and the colored lagoons.

We got to Uyuni in the morning, as always with an overnight bus, with a 3-days tour already booked in La Paz. The idea was not to lose any time in Uyuni itself, as our schedule was quite tight. We left a sunny and charming La Paz, and we got to cold, wet and... muddy Uyuni. We got it right - good idea not staying there any longer. So, we found ourselves on a jeep, with a local guide, an argentinian couple (that we would then meet for a tasty sandwich in Buenos Aires) and two guys from Andorra, headed directly for the Salar. When planning such a trip you more or less know what to expect, you've seen some pictures and heard stories, but you are not ready to what presents itself in front of your eyes when you leave the bouncy road and get to the Salar limit: you are surprised, you just cannot believe what you see. It is simply not possible. But there it is, extending itself for kilometers, a huge flat desert of white salt covered with 10-20 cm of water, flowing down from the nearby mountains thanks to the first rains of the season. It is a giant mirror, reflecting the blue sky and the white clouds, doubling them in a simmetric picture deserving to be drawn, photographed or simply remembered forever.

It was S.Valentine. I got a red rose for Terry, my girlfriend, and this is a picture we took:

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Obviously, such a place demands a series of pictures, so I will post another fun one:

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We spent a long time jumping around, and when the time was up and we needed to move with the jeep somewhere else, my shoes were gone. We were alone in this "desert", the next jeep was 1 km away from us, and nobody could find the shoes I took off while taking the pictures. That was a funny moment, I was in disbelief. I even though they could have been grabbed by an underwater animal and pulled down... well, that was not the case. I found them 200m away, floating on these 5cm of water, being pushed by the wind. The story of the shoes-grabbing monster would have been cooler though.
Next stop was a train cemetery, a place where old locomotives were stationed after their use, and left there as maintenance became more expensive than buying newer ones. It was just a big amount of rusty wagons, but all together, in such a scenic setting, they made their good figure:

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The night, similar as the following, was spent in a small house hosting these kind of trips, where we got to know better the other trip participants and actually having a great time thanks to them. I do not know if it is because there is nothing else to do than get to know each other better, or that by participating to such a trip you need to be a certain type of person, or pure luck, but it is very easy to meet great people even in the remotest places like this. It is also easy then to believe that your group is the best, and that all the others you see... suck. It happened to me while at the Galapagos, happened to us here, and will happen in the future.

The following day was even more surprising. Of this, I had not even see a picture before and was completely unexpected. The lagoons.
After leaving early in the morning, you get on the road and start your day happiliy: the surrounding pampas are filled with funny-looking lamas, and the mountains/volcanoes have their first hint of snow, adding something to a landscape being brightened by the first sunrays:

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Suddenly, the valley opens up and there it is, paradise: a small lagoon, with green bushes and moss on the side, a smooth peak covered in white and half hidden by soft clouds, and in the middle... pink flamingos. And your breath, once again, is gone. Your skin gets goose bumbs, and your excitment has never been so high. I know mine was sky-rocketing. It is just b e a u t i f u l:

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The wonders during the day do not stop, just crossing these large plains, with mountains and hills changing colours every few kilometers, would be enough. But no, you also have wind-shaped rocks that look like a tree, you reach the 5000 sms and the sky is just so blue (and the oxygen so rare - tried running, not a good choice), the mood is just so good in the jeep, that you could go on for hours. And you do, when everything opens up to let your eyes lie on the Laguna Colorada:

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A lagoon that with the right wind conditions, have its algaes moved on the water surface, that together with a series of microorganisms, give the whole the red color. These microorganisms are also what the flamingos feed of, giving them their famous pink colour (they are white when young). I've seen thousands during these days, but they never stopped to amaze me:

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The third and last day was nothing less of the previouses. The reason is the Laguna Salada, a lagoon that because of deep ground activity, has... thermal water of 35 degrees. Oh, and you can relax in this water in a small pool at 8am, when the temperature outside is so cold that the whole laguna is a giant pool of vapours. And the landscape is just beautiful. And did I mentioned the flamingos?

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This was the trip to the salar and the lagoons. It was definitely one of the highlights up to now, something that in terms of landscape and natural amazement can compete with the Galapagos.

Mine and Terry's adventures continued down in direction Buenos Aires. After the worst bus night ever (I choose the front seats thinking the bus would be a double-deck like usual, but it was not. So I had the door separating us and the driver opening in between my legs the whole time, everytime somebody got on or down the bus) we got very relaxed to the border at 6am on a Sunday morning, right when argentinian couples and drunken guys were going back home after a crazy night in Bolivia. Even the border's officials, that did their duty with faces covered with cheeks and hair covered with little stars. From there, we travelled by bus to Salta, a nice city in the north of the country that we will remember mostly because of a (finally) nice hot shower and some good sleep. We continued overnight to Cordoba, visited during the day, to then travel again overnight to Buenos Aires. Cordoba I have to say was extremely pleasant, we visited the third-oldest university of South America, and its famous room where PhD students have defended their theses for conturies - a look into my future? Anyways, we got the capital, and we loved it:

Buenos Aires is probably the nicest capital so far. Its european flavour, mixed with its variety of quartiers, make it extremely interesting and welcoming. If you then add the the colours of La Boca, the tango on the streets, the meeting with the great Mafalda (in the Quino's stripes, she is from San Telmo, and a statue is placed at a street crossing in her honour), the many antique shops, the bitter mate drunk in the typical cups (I've tried it and I am not a fan for the moment, but everybody loves it donw here. I think one has to get used to it, like coffee) and, of course, the tasty meat - well, you get an extremely sexy, romantic and lively city:

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This was the end of my adventures with Terry. This is not the place to write how much I miss her, but let's just say that it has been an incredible journey for the both of us, and that I loved having her as my travel partner. I'll see you in China ;)

To conclude this chapter, two things. The first is to say that I am now in Ushuaia, the sothernmost city in the world. From here, my dream would be to emarque on a cruise to Antartica, but it looks like it will take me more time and money than expected. Second, is to please my mom that asked me to post more pictures of me in this blog. I can only agree to that, so I searched for the picture that best represent my personality and the son that she loves:

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Cheers you all from the deep south!!!
Jack

Posted by jack87jack 13:02 Archived in Bolivia Comments (4)

Chapter #4: High in the Sky

The road from Peru to Bolivia


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Hola all,

how are you doing? Time for another blog entry, this time describing what happened between Lima, capital of Peru, and La Paz, capital of Bolivia. The main difference of this trip, compared to the others, is that this time I have not been travelling by myself, but together with my girlfriend Terry, something that changed... everything. Travelling alone or with someone are totally different experiences, both with pros and cons. When you are by yourself, you are one among many, so it is easier to mingle with other travellers, to get to know people, to be more open so to say. When together with someone, you already have someone, and it's sometimes easier then to relax and not look for any other company, since you already have it. This is of course a generalization, as there are many moments where the opposite happens: while travelling by yourself the solitude you have is like a gift, a pure break from everything and everybody - on the other hand, when travelling with somebody you really do enjoy the company, and so you start to enlarge the group and enjoy the many stories told.

One thing that however only travelling with your girlfriend can give you is the opportunity to share the most amazing adventures and moments with your favorite person in the world. And that is absolutely an irreplaceable feeling. But let's see now what we actually experienced travelling from Peru to Bolivia.

The trip started in Lima, capital of the country, and... with all respect to my peruvia friends, not much remained impressed in my mind from this city. It is also true that we did not visit much of it, only the areas of Miraflores (the rich one) and Barranco (the artistic one). One of the problems that probably biased us was knowing how dangerous the city is or is supposed to be. I've met a few people in my trip that told me how their camera or their friends' was stolen, how unsure to even take a taxi is as it could take you far away from your destination so that you can be more easily robbed of your belongings. And so you are around, without camera, always watching your back. We nevertheless enjoyed a lot the great sunset in front of this city that looks like hung on the cliffs above the sea.
From Lima, there were two ideas: either Islas Ballestas (aka "Galapagos for the poors") or Nazca, where the famous lines are. Well, we went to neither, but went to Huacachina instead, a lovely natural oasis in the middle of sand dunes. Islas Ballestas were not that appealing after having been to the real Galapagos (for the riches), while for Nazca you need to take a plane and fly over the desert to actually appreciate the lines, but it sounded a bit expensive to our hears. So, we ended up here, mostly relaxing and enjoying the location:

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From Huacachina we travelled, as always overnight, to Arequipa. Arequipa is the second-largest city of Peru, and it definitely has another feeling to it: lined up colonial buildings create pleasent streets to walk around, maybe leading to a market where you can have the nicest meal for a tenth of the price you'd pay in a restaurant. Interesting was to see the city light up with candles as the electricity suffered a total black out, allowing us to have a very nice candle-lit pizza on the main street.
The next stop was Cuzco. Cuzco is absolutely the nicest city I've seen in my trip - high 3400sms in the Andes, it has almost a european feeling with its cathedrals, big squares and streets going up and down not necessarily crossing at right angle like everywhere else. We stayed at a small hostal called Hotel Magico, wich supports a social project for children in Cusco (Aldea Yanapay, together with a restaurant where we got to taste some of the famous peruvia cuisine, surrounded by stuffed animals - felt like a child myself and loved it. May be beacuse I'm still a child inside! Cuzco was the starting point to visit the famous Machu Pichu.

Machu Pichu is something. In the end, you hate it and you love it. Let's start with the hate part: it is so unbelievably expensive. The common way to reach Aguas Caliente, the town below the ruins from where you then climb up, usually costs almost 200 dollars. There are some cheaper trains that depart half-way to which you can get by bus, but we are still at 70 dollars one way. Those who travelled in South America know how much this money means in these countries, you can live comfortably for a week with such an amount. And this does not cover the entrance fee to the ruins themselves, 50 dollars more. You really start to get nervous and wonder if the trip is really worth it. We started searching the web, and finally found a cheaper alternative - a day-long travel with bus, taxi and walking, that should not cost more than 15 dollars. Now we are talking! We started then in Cuzco, got by bus to Santa Maria, got on a taxi till the hydroelectric plant, and walked along the railroad till Aguas Caliente, in an extremely scenic setting:

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After a 3 hrs walk we got to Aguas Caliente at dusk, wet from the rain it started a few minutes before. There, we discovered that the half-way train we wanted to get back to Cuzco was double the price we expected, we could not find the hostel we wanted, we had some food sickness going on and that was enough to have us pissed off. Anyways... we woke up at 4:30am, to be among the first to climb up the mountain (1.5 hrs) where the ruins are, and it was pouring rain. So what to do? We waited an hour or so, and then jumped on a small overpriced bus to get us there - nobody could have forced us to hike up the 500m of altitude gap after all of this. And there we were, Machu Pichu, and it was finally clear that we could have not missed it for anything in the world, it was breath-taking. I got goose bumps, and we just sat there, taking pictures of it, sketching it in our diaries, but mainly, just watching it:

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The clouds just made it more mysterious, like we were really in some Inca's story. I have to say, I was afraid of visiting Machu Pichu. I was afraid of it being a tourist trap, a waste of money, something not original anymore - and it's true, eventually the waves of loud and noisy tourists get on your nerves, but... it is just SO great. and that's why, in the end, you come to love it.

The typical stop after Cuzco is the Lake Titicaca and its floating islands. We skipped them, as we got reports that that is really a touristic trap. We opted for the bolivian side of the Lake Titicaca, namely the city of Copacabana and Isla del Sol. We were happy to discover this amazing place, where the landscape is just stunning, the sun shines brightly and people are so nice. We visited Isla del Sol, a place where it is said Viracocha, the Incas' god, created the sun itself and so the whole Inca's mythology. Obviously, besides this island is the smaller Isla de la Luna, where the moon was created. The historic perspective was absolutely interesting, but what will stay impressed in my mind is the clear sky, the crispy landscapes and the encounters the hiking on this island gave us:

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After Copacabana and the Lake Titicaca we went to La Paz, capital of Bolivia, from which I am now writing. It is not difficult to say that Bolivia is a country easy to like, even though it is still unclear why... are the people nicer? Are the landscapes more beautiful? or is it just that it is cheaper than the other countries? I cannot say, it is too early for a final judgment, but both me and my girlfriend feel that "we like Bolivia", for whatever the reason might be. This is not to say that we did not like Peru, we loved it and loved everything we did and experienced there... but we are happy to be now in a new country, ready to discover its wonders. We will leave La Paz tonight, travelling down to the Salar the Uyuni, apparently a "must". I know I will not be disappointed, but how the people say here, vamos a ver...

Here I conclude this chapter. I feel like I am living a thousands and one thing everyday, but then I look at the calender and just a few days have passed... I am happy about this! It means I am not wasting my time around but exploiting every day... sometimes too much, I wish I could stop for a while. Maybe in 6 months!

I leave you with a picture that really reminds me of home - it's about carnival. I've seen countless pictures of my friends partying and dressing up like animals, having the best times, and I would be lying if I said I did not miss it a little. Here is what I had on the other hand - local ladies drinking beer, offering me a glass and pouring coriandoli (streamers) over my head!!!

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I send you all a big hug, and I look forward to know everything that happened to you in these last weeks!

Cheers,
Jack

Posted by jack87jack 13:36 Archived in Bolivia Comments (4)

Chapter #3: Crossing Borders

Or what happened between Quito and Lima


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Dear all,

here I am again, with a new entry about my travel around the world. I am now in Lima, capital of Peru, and I would like to tell you a bit of what happened after Galapagos that brought me down here, where soon I will also meet my girlfriend joining me from Switzerland. I realize that it is not easy to keep the excitment as high as after the last post, with great stories and pictures, but I'll try nevertheless my best to engage you in my adventures... even if they might only be limited to sit in a bus for 8 to 18 hours, as it happened almost half of the days lately.

After leaving Quito for the second time it became quite clear to me that I am in kind of a rush, and I am not travelling to let the time pass and days go by. As you might remember, I will spend 8 months travelling through a lot of countries. This means that I might be spending no more than 2 nights in the same place, if not only 1. Of course I wake up early and spend the whole day visiting and walking around, eating in the markets, talking to people, and so forth. I exploit my days at the fullest. But many travellers I encountered lately told me that I am going to fast, that I should spend days and nights to savour all a place can offer. And I totally agree. BUT it also true that I am extremely excitied about seeing all that I planned before leaving, and call me eager or fool, but I am not ready to give any place or country up. So what I tell people that are staying for 8 months only in South America is that their way of travelling is different than mine and that I wish I could do the same someday, but that I first need to satisfy my desire of exploration of the whole world to then, in a few years, dive deeper in those areas that fascinated me the most now. ...does it make any sense? Maybe for many it does not, but as for now it does to me, and being the concept of travelling very subjective, that is what matters. I'll rush through the world till money and time last, and that's just it.

About what happened between Quito and Lima: I directly went to Banos, a small town on the other side of the mountains of Ecuador, meaning that it faces the amazon basin and not the coast. Banos is considered a backpackers center of activities, so there is plenty of them hanging around, paying for those activities that just do not inspire me: kayaking, rafting, etc. It's not that I do not like them, the point is that they are "tourist-tailored", and so they cost a lot for... nothing. They obviously need to be accessible to anybody paying for them, and so they tend to be fairly easy/boring stuff... and don't get me wrong, it's not that I am a superman that only wants the extreme, I just say that if you make me pay 3 nights worth of accomodation, than let my soul shake in excitment! So I just spent my days hiking the mountains and biking to the waterfalls... and here I soon noticed that my physical condition had been lost on the way, something that I also noticed two days ago surfing in Mancora, but later to that.
From Banos I travelled to Macas, the town I chose to be my destination in the El Oriente, the part of Ecuador part of the Amazon. Here, I guess I was the only tourist there ever was after the brother of my girlfriend that told me about this place he visited a few years ago. And being the only gringo in the city is always the best! You know that you are in the right place when you sit in the market and eat with the locals (their food at their price), when you wander in the only square around and young girls ask you to take a picture with them (not because you are handsome but because you simply are a guy from somewhere else and that makes you special eheh), or when it is so damn difficult to organize a trip to the joungle (in a touristic place you are overloaded with options from agencies that could even pick you up at your dorm room in the morning). after a daz or so the only agency I found could not find a guide for me to bring me to a certain place, but fate made me meet a woman sitting nearby that told me "oh, come to our cabin! I am the wife of a local shaman" of the shuar culture (indigenous of the amazonian Ecuador). And so I went. And so I was in the joungle! The cabin she talked about was the central building of a 4-houses complex, all for the shaman and his family. This is how it looked, with fireplace and "beds":

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I spent two nights in this cabin, and in this time I rapidly started caring for the numerous children with which I spent most of my time with, as there was not that much else to do. We spent hours playing football, divining in the river, and taking pictures of hourselves. Here is one of all of us together that I wish to share:

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And then, the night of the Ayahuasca came. While travelling I got word of this famous Ayahuasca, so I informed myself a bit before about what it was, and what the effects are. If you are interested, have a look here. I never considered it as a drug per se, rather a deep experience given that I would have never thought of taking it outside of the following circumstances: the local shaman is a healer, who inherited the power from his father who inherited it from its ancestors. At the time, there was an old granny in the cabin with me, wishing to be healed. And the shaman though of healing her when I was there as well, which turned out to be... pretty interesting. He asked me if I wanted to sit when he would be healing her, which also includes drinking the ayahuasca. Being extremely fond of what can be considered original and local, I said yes to it. So we sat, and we drank it together:

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When the effects of the hallucinogen started, he switched the light off. And started the healing process, which consists in having the patient lay down, while the shaman suck the evil out oh the body, to then vomit it back on the floow. Now imagine me, alone in the middle of the Amazon, high on the ayahuasca, seeing this. I would call this experience deeply intense, and extremely interesting. So interesting that I got my journal out and started taking notes about what I saw, real and not real. It kind of got out of me my nature of researcher and writer ("I think I am a writer in the middle of the joungle" is the last line of my notes, while I was out wandering along the river).
You know, I pondered a lot if I had to write something about this experience on my blog or not. People will say that I took a drug - let them. I wrote about this experience because it was amazing, because I will forever remember it and because I am not ashamed of it.

After Macas and the jungle, I went to Cuenca, probably the nicest city in whole Ecuador, with his colonial style, the beautiful and clean roads, and a lovely walk along the river so perfect that I thought of being in Switzerland. After a night spent there, I travelled to Peru and the first city I stopped is Mancora. Ah... good times in Mancora. 10 dollars for a bamboo dorm in a surf camp 30m from the beach, cold beers at the beach watching the sunset, waves crushing and surfers riding them (me included, even though I still suck at it - but I will get better!), and the sweetest mangoes cut with my swiss army knife in an amaca under palm trees.

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I called this chapter Crossing Borders for the following reasons: the first border I crossed was that between the regions of Ecuador. I travelled in the country for almost a month now, and it is now clear of different it is among its regions: Galapagos, high mountains and the amazon basin. The second border is crossed is the one between Ecuador and Peru, the first of many. The third, was that of the spiritual experience of ayahuasca, that on some level made me cross the border of reality. So, many borders crossed, and many still to be crossed in the next chapters. Stay tuned!!!

As I did last time I would like to leave you with my favourite picture of this period, which is always difficult to choose. I decided for this because I fell in love with this small girl, the daughter of the Shaman, and because it is for me representative of a more meaningful experience than other pictures, maybe nicer from an artistic perspective. Moreover, I started taking pictures with them with the tongue out, as I did once in Cambodia, and we all have a lot of fun. So, here she is, Daniela:

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I wish you all good times wherever you are, and an amazing carnival for those living in Ticino, Switzerland! Drink a fragolino alla mia (e per la mia eheh) salute!!!

Best,
Jack

Posted by jack87jack 12:41 Archived in Peru Comments (5)

Chapter #2: Galapagos, Land of Encounters

A dream come true

sunny
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I had to wait a while before writing this entry for several reason, but here it is: my Galapagos story.

I will summarize it as I did in the subheading: it was one of my dreams as a child to go to the Galapagos, and so... I did go. And it was amazing. I fantasized about this place, supported by my desire to become biologist/zoologist, before the boring lectures of biology about seeds and tree branches killed it without mercy. I guess I imagined the Galapagos as something enchanted, extremely remote, land of volcanoes with dozens of iguanas scattered around this inhospitable land... and guess what, that's exactly how it is!

Before the rest, just a brief summary of what Galapagos are: islands that are the result underwater volcanic activity in a specific place... so yeah, they are all volcanoes. As soon as one is born, it is shifted to the right because of tectonic movements, freeing the space for a new volcano/island. This has been going on for quite a long time, so you have older and younger islands. What does it make them special? The animals. No animal that developed from dinosaurs and friends was on these islands, as the islands were never attached to the mainland. So, all of them have come in the last thousands of years on rafts of earth from the mainland (imagine a piece of land that detaches itself from the coast during a strong rainy season as it is eroded away...with a tortoise on it. poor little fellow), has been transported by the wind, or by some other mean. Not all of the animals landed on the same island, leading some species of that particular island to evolve differently than those in another one. This is what Charles Darwin found in 1835, tortoises with different shells adapted to different diet, as well as finches with different beaks, something that inspired him to come up with his evolution theory in the book The Origin of the Species. As for now, a great deal of animals&plants have been found that have been introduced later by humans, as for examples goats and rats by pirates in the 17th-18th century. The islands were a perfect hideout, and provided with giant tortoises that could live below the decks of their vessels for almost a year without water, and still provided fresh meat: you cannot ask for anything better! That is why the rangers of the national park today not only support the breeding of this unique giant tortoises, but also try to eradicate rats, goats, and all that is not endemic to Galapagos.

What about MY Galapagos?
It was great, an experience that I'll bring in my heart forever. And it's not because I was excited about the first experience on my own in my trip, it's just that I know already that this will be one of the highlights overall. I had planned to stay a week or so, but things turned out that I stayed almost 2 weeks. Why? Because of the cruise. What cruise? The one that guides and internet said to be totally worth doing if you want to get the best out of the islands. To save money you get to the "capital", and look for a last minute offer there: I found one, but was leaving a few days later and a few hundreds bucks more expensive than planned, but offered the best itinerary ever. So I told myself: "when are you going to come back? Wasn't this your dream? Fuck the budget, you'll leave under the bridges later, and enjoy Galapagos in the best way possible!"- and so I did. Don't think I spent thousands of dollars, I spent 1300 for a 8-days cruise that usually costs 2600, and got confirmed by everybody I met that it actually was a great deal. But the cruise come later, first is the first week in Puerto Ayora. Capital,but small city, you go around it in 10 min, and you can savor the relax and easiness of the islands. And here started the encounters I talked about in the title:

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Iguanas, giant tortoises, and many more. Everywhere. There are two main reasons why Galapagos are different than any other place on earth in terms of animal, and it's something that goes beyond the uniqueness of some of its species. First is their extreme variety that can sometimes overwhelm you: I remember my dive at Gordon Rocks, where for the first time I saw 8 big hammerhead sharks swimming by (I was at the same time afraid and totally excited!), and at some point one of them came closer, with his weird head, and between him and me there was a sea turtle swimming and a few eagle rays... and you are like"oh cmon, really? all of them all together? that's overwhelming". Second is their incredible tameness: they have evolved with almost no fear from humans, and this allows you to approach them in a way that is difficult to believe (e.g. walking between myriads of birds, nesting their first-borns, and they don't mind. Swimming by two sea turtles mating in the water, or having a happy time as we said, and they don't mind as well.) And all of this kept on getting more incredible by the day - first day you stop for 30 min taking pictures of the silliest iguana, while at the end you just mind the iguanas because you don't wanna step on them. The first week passed in relax, sharing experiences of the different islands and other tips for the whole South America among travelers (with the exception of a great but very rainy/muddy bike ride in the highlands), and the second brought me on that cruise I talked about. Here I spent 8 days with some great people, with which I shared the beauties of some of the most remote places in Galapagos.

The things I'll remember forever are for sure the hammerhead sharks encounter, the hours spent swimming behind/beside/above/below the sea turtles, that even after having seen more than enough still remain my favorite animal in the Galapagos, and the last day in Rabida Island - I saw many sea lions in two weeks, but I never spent almost 1 hour sit on red sand taking photographs of this small puppy posing like a model for me,

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as well as the final moments spent playing in 1m of water with two juveniles, diving and chasing and escaping them like we were just enjoying ourselves and having fun. Beautiful, and the perfect way to finish my Galapagos adventures.

I apologize if this post is extremely long, but... you can imagine how much more I would have liked to write, I even decided to wait a few days to cool down and not get too emotional about it. But I guess I still am =) I really hope you'll keep on following me, it's so great to know you read my stories... and as a reward, I'll post my favorite picture of the whole trip, that finally does not include me, but it's just... a beautiful picture of a sea lion puppy and his mother. Enjoy, and cheers from Ecuador to you all!!!

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P.S. now I'll be travelling in the East of Ecuador (Banos, Macas, Cuenca, and finally head south to Lima in Peru where Terry will be joining me for a few exciting weeks leading to Buenos Aires, Argentina!)

Posted by jack87jack 19:27 Archived in Ecuador Comments (11)

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