Author: Angela (page 2 of 3)

THE RIVER OF LIFE (& DEATH)

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Varanasi is a very sacred city sitting along the Ganges river. There are Hindu temples lining the riverbank as far as the eye can see. What made Varanasi so compelling for us was that there was so much happening every moment of every day; it was impossible to put the camera down! I think between 2am and 4am things quieten down, otherwise the following is being played out in the water:

  1. Cows taking a cooling dip
  2. Boys leaping in for fun
  3. Men washing clothes and linen for a living
  4. Small candle lit offerings being set adrift
  5. Dead bodies being ceremoniously dunked in
  6. Men and women bathing and cleansing themselves of sins
  7. Sewage being pumped in
  8. Fish leaping out to catch a glimpse of the world
  9. Tourist boats gliding past in awe
  10. Locals in boats selling bits and bobs to the tourists in boats.

If that wasn’t enough, on the steps of the temples pooja (prayers) are given and large religious ceremonies, with bell ringing, clapping and singing take place every single day. There are also open air yoga classes, dope smoking Mums and Dads and very imaginative and dedicated salesmen doing everything in their power to persuade you to part with your cash in exchange for something you do not want.

Of all the amazing and unusual things we saw the most extraordinary was the handful of bodies being cremated in bonfires on the riverbank and steps. The bodies are wrapped, however the limbs and heads protrude out of the flames. The cremations are done in full view, with no attempt at privacy and the mourners are indifferent to the many onlookers.

The openness of life and death in Varanasi is a powerful experience which left its mark on us, probably forever.

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HOW I BAGGED MYSELF AN INDIAN BRIDE

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OK – so technically Maura isn’t Indian but we are in India and she isn’t a bride yet, but fiancée isn’t quite as catchy, so please allow me some artistic licence.

The first step in my master plan was to quit my job in order to go travelling for a year with Miss Brickell. The second important step was to agree to visit India during that year. Admittedly Miss B. had to persuade me of India’s merits as I had some big reservations. (I’m very glad that she did as it’s turning out to be a mind-blowing experience). The final key stage was slotting a trip to the Taj Mahal into our heavy schedule. I was more than happy to skip the Taj as I thought it might be one of those overstated cliched attractions that could never live up to the hype. However, I accepted the advice of friends who have been before and it was added to the ‘To Do’ list.

Although my journey to the Taj Mahal was a somewhat reluctant one, my decision to ask Maura to marry me was much easier. Anyone who knows Maura will know what an amazing person she is and I realise that I’m very lucking to be travelling through life by her side.

Obviously I wanted to hold out for the right moment to ask. After being reminded of the story behind the building of the Taj Mahal – it is a monument to testify to the King’s love for his wife – combined with Maura’s excitement about visiting the place meant that it was a no brainier to ask her there.

Upon entering the site the size and beauty of the place takes your breath away. It’s beauty lies in its perfect symmetry and positioning which means it’s only backdrop is the sky. The few hundred people in front of us failed to spoil the view or feeling of serenity that the place exudes.

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Sharing the view with a few others.

Surprisingly I was able to find a quiet corner to say my piece and ask the critical question. Maura was shocked, but not too shocked to say yes. What had started out as an awesome morning visiting the Taj Mahal turned out to be one of the most memorable days of my life.

THE PROPOSAL

She said yes.

 

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Maura recreates the infamous picture of Lady Di at the Taj Mahal. Nailed it.

LADY DI AT TAJ

 

Spot the Maura.

Spot the Maura.

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HOW TO SURVIVE BOGOTA

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1. On arrival to Bogota airport or bus station take a taxi to Sayta (see below) Insist on using the meter to calculate the fare. Argue with the driver until you are blue in the face. Eventually concede to a fixed price, as the driver will refuse to use the meter and accept the inevitability of being massively ripped off.

2. Check into Sayta hostel for the friendliest welcome in Colombia.

3. Go on the graffiti tour. Take hundreds of pictures for Instagram/Tumblr/Facebook and pretend to be cool. 

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4. Arrange for a couple of friends to join you; one Scottish and one English. For this step we called upon Emily and David. Not only did they meet the nationality criteria but they were also very good company. 

5. Go to Monserate with your friends. When being sent on a mission to find the quickest way to the top get the information confused and join the slowest moving queue in the world for 2 plus hours. Use that time to dwell on your mistake. It’s preferable to chose an unbearably hot day for this.

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 6. Go to the gigantic gay club Theatron De Peliculia with your friends. Drink as much rum as humanly possible from the free bar then proudly showcase your basic Spanish skills to lovely Colombians who speak perfect English and would prefer you also spoke English too. (NB. You don’t have to be gay for this step, but accept that someone of the same sex might try it on with you – after all, gays have good tase).

7. Cancel all plans for the day after step 6. You will not be able to achieve anything other than the most basic functions needed to stay alive. 

8. Depending on what age bracket you are in you might be restricted to only light tasks 2 days after step 6. Either way, muster up the strength to go to a supermarket. Buy some steak and red wine. Go back to your hostel to prepare dinner with your friends then enjoy one of the best meals you have ever had for £5 a head. 

9. Go to the Police headquarters for a guided tour by a student who is completing 1 year of compulsory police service. Here you can see some interesting/amusing exhibits relating to Pablo Escobar. If you are lucky you will get a guide who will spontaneously quote poetry to you on the rooftop and then declare how much he loves his home city by saying in very clear terms that he intends to die there. 

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10. End with a very sad farewell to an amazing city that is thoroughly underrated but get sent off with lots of fanfare from Jin from  Sayta (via South Korea). 

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FINDING THE PERFECT BEACH

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With 3 weeks on Colombia’s Carribean coast we decided to task ourselves with finding the perfect beach on which to down tools and set up camp. After some research we picked the following contenders, which I have judged and marked accordingly:

PALOMINO (3rd place)

Looks: See pics – jokes… it’s like an old school version of a caribbean beach, e.g. old wooden fishing boats and no dick heads on jet skis to spoil the view.

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Swimming: Impossible – just standing took all our concentration as the currents and waves were so strong. Felt like you could be pulled to your death.

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Locals: The Kogi tribe were magical and mysterious flocks of nature loving beings. They all carry shoulder bags filled with secrets.

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Feel: A rough charm.

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Summary: Good for avoiding crowds but lacking any luxury or wow factor, except for the Kogis.

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TAYRONA NATIONAL PARK (2nd place)

Looks:  Like the set of Lost

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Swimming: Easy in the bays – apparently deadly anywhere else.

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Locals: None that we saw, other than a polar bear, and some hidden Kogis up a steep hill. Oh, and lots of lizards and crabs.

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Feel: Like discovering paradise, except for the 100 other campers who have also trekked for 2 hours through the forest to get there.

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Summary: An amazing place, well worth the trek for its stunning beauty and wildlife. N.B.: We caught a boat back, which almost capsized, but I would have died happy.

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PLAYA BLANCA (Winner!)

Looks: Like heaven.

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Swimming: Joyous – zero waves or current

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Locals: Feisty. No charm school graduates here.

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Feel: Almost like heaven, only the jet skis holding it back and it is critical that you schlep down to the quiet end of the beach – the busy bit is much closer to hell.

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Summary: This place comes close to greatness – have rarely felt so chilled out – but it is necessary to brave the crowded end of the beach for supplies or variety of food.

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COWBOY HATS, COFFEE & FALLING OFF THE WAGON

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I didn’t exactly fall off the wagon, instead I gently climbed down the side to take a hit after 17 years. When I started my first full time job at 19 years of age I was pleased to discover the office drinks vending machine which dispensed various teas and coffees, hot chocolate and tomato soup, all through the same nozzle. I consoled myself with the hard reality of full time work with early morning cappuccinos from said machine.

At the same time I began to get frequent migraines. After a few head-splitting weeks I realised that my new coffee habit was the cause. I immediately stopped drinking coffee and remained abstinent until arriving in the laid back town of Salento (aged 36 and 3/4s) which is hidden in the countryside hills of middle Colombia.

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We had heard of the legend that was Don Elias – a small time coffee farmer but big time personality and local legend. We took a serene country lane walk to his farm to take a tour. Don lived up to the hype: he wore a well worn cowboy hat, an ingrained smile and he greeted us warmly with handshakes and lots of chat.

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We then took the tour with Don’s son, who had learnt his Dad’s charm but was also a bit left field. I’m pretty sure he was stoned judging by the many references to weed. At the end of the tour of their small but beautiful farm and a go at grinding sun dried beans Don’s seemingly pissed off wife brewed up some coffee. We drank it black with no sugar and it went down easily.

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My 17 year abstinence was rewarded by a complete lack of migraine so we had time to explore more of the countryside, the good looking town square and the array of boutiques which didn’t stock the usual tourist tat. Despite being caffeine fuelled the town is a chilled out cowboy sorta place with beers being drunk slowly in the town square. We spent 2 days here and wished we could have stayed longer.

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QUITO: IT’S COMPLICATED

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Quito is a heady cocktail of braun and beauty. We spent a week there being confronted with its contrasting charms.

On arrival we took the obligatory ride in a cable car to see the entire city from above. It looks spectacular sitting in a dip within the mountain tops, partly due to its huge size and partly due to the collision between man-made habitat and Mother-made nature. 

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We stayed in a rougher part of town as the nicer areas were out of budget or too far away from where we wanted to be. However the hostel we stayed in was great (La Casa Tolena) – massive corner room with our own balcony and friendly owners. 

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The view from our balcony / small city fire.

The view from our balcony / small city fire.

The old town has an abundance of beautiful buildings which you can visit for free or very little money. It also has an abundance of armed police officers and prostitutes. The prostitutes, particularly the transsexual women,  appear to have had lots of sub-standard plastic surgery. We didn’t see any crime being committed but there was a tense, edgy feel to the city centre. 

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We took a top-up Spanish lesson whilst there and were generously lectured by our tutor on the narrow-mindedness of Europeans not wanting to visit South America. We were criticised for opting not to go to Venezuela; the country with the second highest murder rate in the world and which is currently experiencing a peak in violence due to civil unrest. 


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Whilst here we bumped into Stuart and Lucy, a lovely and very funny couple from Manchester who we first met in Peru. We took the opportunity to venture into the Foch area together, which is a newer part of town also popular with backpackers. There are lots of modern and pricey bars but we managed to find a cheaper American dive bar where we ordered too many chicken wings and washed them down with plenty of happy hour drinks (soda for me). It was great to see some friendly faces again – we took this picture to mark the occasion and promised to stick them on this blog. Job done.

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Quito is a complicated place because of the strange mix but if you’re in Ecuador you should definitely check it out for yourself.

THAR SHE BLOWS

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Puerto Lopez is a scruffy little fishing village on the Pacific coast of Ecuador. The port was busy every day bringing in a fresh haul of fish, a large amount of which were carried only a few metres to be cleaned, cooked and eaten moments after coming to shore. Blue Footed Boobies sat nearby to pick up the scraps.

At the weekend people flooded in from the surrounding towns to play on the beach and then party in the evening. For a small village it packs quite a punch, but the main draw for us was the Humpback whale watching and island nearby known as the ´Poor Man’s Galapagos´. My excitement was mixed with a tiny bit of trepidation as, by some strange coincidence, I also happened to be reading Moby Dick. 

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Check out those Swordfish heads (bottom left)!

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At the first opportunity we jumped on a boat to try and spot a whale. Barely ten minutes into our boat ride, a fellow tourist alerted us to a whale surfacing in the distance, but the captain just sped on leaving us a little disheartened. However, our own captain Ahab obviously knew his Humpbacks as soon we were surrounded by enormous* whales leaping out of the water, splashing their long fins and generally larking about as though no-one was watching. To say we were delighted is an understatement.

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We could have watched the whales all day but we had to move on to the island. We saw some turtles in the bay and a variety of sea birds on the island, however, I have to confess it was quite an anti-climax after the leaping whales. But to be fair, anything short of sloths juggling with fire was likely to seem unimpressive after the spectacle we had just witnessed.

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*Measuring up to 52ft and weighing between 30 and 50 tons!

BUTCH ANGIE AND THE SUNDANCE KID

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Tupiza is a tiny “city” at the southern end of Bolivia but feels more like the middle of nowhere. It is very rough and ready, however locals still take time out of their day to dress their dogs in clothes – these people definitely have their priorities in order.

Its claim to fame is that it is where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid´s robbing spree was brought to a gruesome end. We were there to kick off a 4 day jeep tour to the salt flats (epic blog to follow) however we had some time to kill so we found a couple of trusty steeds and headed out of the city into the surrounding scenery.

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Other than being amongst the beautiful red rocks contrasting with the never ending blue sky a highlight was getting to pick up the pace to a full gallop. Given that neither of us have any riding experience to speak of we just held on for dear life and squealed a few “yee hah!!!”s
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I LOST MY HEART (AND iPHONE) IN SUCRE

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We went to Sucre directly from La Paz, which, if you have read Maura’s aMaZiNg post you will know is a massive sprawl of a city with a bit of a bad reputation. Sucre therefore provided us with a breath of fresh air and we instantly fell in love with it.

Sucre looks like an immaculately preserved European city from a few hundred years ago with a lush central plaza and and pretty streets heading off in each direction. As well as its obvious aesthetics we appreciated being able to take things more slowly as there were less people, less rush and a real sense of ease about the place.

The plan was to spend one week learning Spanish. We ended up spending almost three weeks because we loved it so much and because it meant we got to hang out with our friends Julien and Lina.

Team photo Lina & Julian Ice cream instead of lunch. Lina on the top of Sucre We were told not to go near the bell... On top of the monastry just as the sun was setting Token nuns The view from the top Beautiful tiles and some weirdo's feet

We became friendly with one of the vendedoras in the local market selling fruit salads and visited her most mornings to have a salad the size of your head with yoghurt, granola and cream poured on top for good measure. We also became regulars at a great bar called Joy Ride Cafe, partly due to the heavenly chicken wings and partly due to the free cinema on the top floor.

A cholita taking a break Getting her weave on Food hall in the market Breakfast! Lunch in the market - not bad for less than £3.00 Traditional Bolivian dish of Pique Macho - basically meat in beer sauce with chips and egg. The meat counter. Toy chair not included. That is a lot of meat

As we had spanish lessons most afternoons we didn’t venture too far from the city centre. On a free day we took a bus to the outskirts where there is a much bigger and busier market, selling everything under the sun. It was quite a hectic experience which evidently enabled someone to cut my bag open and take my phone. On the bright side this gave me the opportunity to brush up on my spanish skills at the police station.

A highlight of our time here was joining in the Gay Pride Parade with a few hundred Bolivians. Needless to say we stuck out like sore thumbs which resulted in us being interviewed for TV and radio en espanol! Despite my extensive media experience it was Maura who shone and really stepped up to the plate, advocating the importance of equal rights for gay Bolivians, or at least we think that is what she said.

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LAKE TITICACA

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Of course I’d heard of Lake Titicaca but I wasn’t sure if it actually existed or where to find it, a bit like Timbuktu or Coventry. However, it turns out that not only does it exist, it does so in a stunning way.

Titicaca sits high up in the Andes mountains at 12,500 ft and at its longest stretch is 190 km long. It contains a number of islands that people continue to live on and some of those “islands” are made of reeds which float on the water.

The lake is plonked across the border of Peru and Bolivia. We decided to boat out to Isla del Sol from the Bolivian town of Copacabana – not the one from Barry Manilow’s classic hit, but weirdly, for a town thousands of feet above sea level, they have cultivated a little beach town vibe where Barry’s song wouldn’t be too out of place.

Isla del Sol is a proper island made out of rock and not one of the floating variety. There are about 800 people living on the island, farming the land and providing basic services to tourists like Maura and myself. The locals are as rustic as you could wish for, to the untrained eye they look as though they haven’t changed their lifestyles for centuries. The women wear traditional dress, with a hat firmly on at all times, even when coaxing laden donkeys and tired children up the steep sides of the island.

There are llamas waiting around corners to surprise you as you trek around the island, plus the aforementioned donkeys, the usual array of farm animals, some of which have the freedom of the island, and various birds of prey circling and swooping overhead, presumably eyeing up the tiny piglets wiggling about.

The real gem of this place is the expanse of beautiful blue water which has the sun beaming down on it all day. Add to this the backdrop of the Andes peaks and the feeling you can reach out and almost touch the thick blanket of stars in the evening and you’ve got yourself a place that feels quite mythical.

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