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Monday, 28 March 2011

Crossing the Andes

Believe it or not, the entire reason that this journey took place was due to a bet in a bar. An American called Sean asked me if I'd like to ride a horse with him from Cusco to Bolivia and someone told us that we would die trying. CHALLENGE!

About two weeks later we set off. Cowboy hats, horses, leather saddle bags and the open road of the second highest plain on earth. It is every man’s dream to be so carefree and on an adventure that will be remembered for years to come. Little did we know that the fairy tale would be soon over and that one and a half months of hardship lay ahead of us.

It actually took almost two days to fully get out of Cusco. It stretches far out into the valley, squished between mountains on all sides. The first night was spent in an abandoned house, something that would become quite regular on our trip. The rest of the time we stayed either in my tent or with whoever was kind enough to put us up for the night.

The temperature at night was generally well below freezing. Everything was encased in ice every morning, even to the point where sometimes the horses had ice on their manes. There were no trees and we had to rely on burning dried manure for warmth and my petrol burner to cook the food. I had come fully prepared for this sort of trip from the start whereas Sean often had to wear as many clothes as he physically could to keep out the elements and use the saddle blankets for extra warmth at night as he didn't have a roll mat.

The terrain varied quite regularly on our trip. We would find ourselves in amongst endless rice paddys for a few days, then nothing but mountains and then finally nothing, all the way to the horizon. We tried following the railway lines, power lines, rivers and sometimes roads; always heading south (ish)

We found the local people to have odd advice for us. Our general meetings would go a little something like this. We'd round a corner and there would be a local person gawking at us with their jaw on the floor. (Guess there weren't that many six foot white people on horses in the area.....) "where are you going?" they'd ask. We'd tell them and they'd smile and retort "You and your horses are going to die, would you like a drink?" So whilst hospitable they really were under the impression that what we were trying to do was impossible, yet the Spanish must have done something similar.... that thought always kept me going....

Riding into towns was an even more complex affair and usually involved being surrounded by the entire population who wanted to know everything about us and to help by giving us food for the horses. The further along we went, the less we were told that we were going to die, in fact once we’d passed the half way mark, it was barely mentioned. This definitely boosted our moral. We even had to change the horses shoes around a town called Siquani and people kindly enough offered to help us which was a huge bonus!

The main thing that struck me about this trip was how much people who had nothing were seemingly willing to give to strangers. They were more than happy to let us put the tent up on their land, show us the nearest abandoned house, invite us to stay at their house even! There was more to it than that though, they were genuinely pleased to help, in some cases sharing what little food they had, their cigarettes, getting alcohol and inviting us to drink with them! In return, we shared what we had as well, even helping to sheer a lama at one point!

Our food sources were often few and far between and overall I lost around 12kg on our trip. The main things that we could buy in towns were sweets, bread and tins of fish. I can’t stand fish and never eat it but obviously had to for sustenance! I still have nightmares about tinned tuna/sardines in tomato sauce! Occasionally we did come across the wondrous tinned peaches..... When we got hold of them it was like my birthday and Christmas all rolled into one. Opening the tin with a gigantic machete and slurping down the sugary mess whilst sharing out the dividends between the two of us was just magical.

We also found the Church quite helpful along the way. There was at least three separate occasions when we were allowed to sleep in spare rooms within the church/monastery. This was very different to what I had imagined our reception would be but I was very grateful. Its certainly the only times we really ate properly without the help of the locals.

As our journey progressed onwards, things got slower and slower. The mental strain of the task ahead as well as being ill, not having enough food/water and just being exhausted due to the altitude was really taking its toll. The combination of the extreme sun light and lack of oxygen had led to us progressing at a trudge. We were covering a maximum of 20km a day. At one point i actually passed out whilst riding and fell to the floor unconscious, Sean organised someone to drive me to the nearest doctor/medical station, where I was rehydrated, diagnosed with a flesh eating parasite, pumped full of anti-biotics and sent on my way. We stayed put for the next few days with the most amazing local family; so that I had a chance to gain some strength. We were less than 150km from the finish line and there was no way I was giving up now!

The final stage of the journey was down the valley towards Lake Titicaca. We had to pass through both Juliaca and Puno to get to the border. This almost proved to be the hardest part of the journey. Walking the horses through a bustling city, with no way round was very stressful for both them and us. It was also very difficult to find somewhere to keep them over night. We eventually made it to the other side of Juliaca and decided that enough was enough. Once we got past Puno there was no more major settlements and we wanted to make sure we had time to sell the horses. We found someone local who looked like they needed them and sold them to them at a massive discount so that they would be able to afford them. It was a shame that we didnt make it all the way but it was still an incredible journey.

Its by far one of the hardest things that ive ever done and something that I will always remember. This was one of the first really challenging that I had ever undertaken and by the skin of our teeth we had made it work. It taught me that the native people were everything. They were the knowledge, the hospitality, the comfort and the help. Without them, the trip would have been impossible and we would have had to turn back or died in the process. This has meant that on all my other trips I have strived to learn the local language and customs and have as much interaction as possible. Because of all of these experiences, I have come to the conclusion that the poorest people, are the ones who have the most to give and the are the most willing to share it!

This was painted by a local, whilst we slept in an abandoned house. It currently hangs in The Point Hostel Cusco.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Monday, 14 March 2011

Inspirational Videos

I want to post a few videos that help me get out of bed in the morning. That help me remember that I need to push myself every day.

"Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved."

"It is impossible to fulfill oneself in comfort, one gets lost in it. One is overfed and becomes disabled – lack of difficulty means boredom. The harder the effort is, the better the reward."

‎"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."

"Dont wish things were easier, with you were harder."

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Coffee that really matters...

This top is quite close to my heart to be honest.

I volunteered for two different disaster relief agencies after the Sumatran earthquake of 2009, one American and one Indonesian NGO. Both groups eventually became like family and I thoroughly recommend doing something similar should you get the chance.

The Indonesian NGO is called the IBU foundation and one of its members decided to try something, that for Indonesia, is very radical. They opened up a Coffee shop and a Charity shop in Bandung; about an hours drive from Jakarta. Bandung is much nicer than Jakarta and well worth a visit anyway.... Nestled among a huge volcanic range and every house covered in gorgeous terracota tiles, even though its a major city, it looks like a small village in Italy.

The Coffee shop is unique. It has prices that cater for the volunteers working with the NGO and locals alike. The coffee is fair trade and sourced from every corner of Indonesia. Finally, their profits are shared among humanitarian organisations throughout Indonesia. If ever I have needed a reason for a morning cup of Joe.... thats got to be pretty high up on my list. So why not pop by, have a coffee, get to know some local people and maybe even try and volunteer? Who knows.... this coffee shop may be the start of something fantastic....

They have outdoor and indoor seating PLUS: FREEEEE WIFI!!! so go sit down, grab a cup of amazing coffee for $0.30 American and call home.

Check out their facebook page for address and prices (its in both Indonesian and English so dont be scared!)

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Desert Island Distractions

New Years 2011 on an uninhabited island...

How did this come about? Well: During the time spent volunteering, there was a lot of work done in collaboration with other organizations, one of them being an Indonesian NGO called the Ibu Foundation. Over the months we formed some fantastic friendships and they invited us to spend new years with them. A plan was set in motion to spend two days on a set of uninhabited islands off the southern coast of Pariaman.

Widhie was my closest friend from Ibu and he helped us organize transportation and logistics. The plan was fairly simple; hire some fisherman/boats to take us to the islands on new years eve and bring us back late in the day on new years day. Supplies required: beer, small amount of food and something to sleep on/in. We rushed around grabbing weird and wonderful varieties of cheap alcohol, ranging from beer to weird flavoured mixtures. Food was mostly snack food as other stuff was being brought wish us as well.

We all met at the IBU Pariaman headquarters and then set off down for the docks. It was nice to get away from the volunteer base for a change and have a bit of freedom, as well as spend some time with some local people. After a fair amount of faffing around, we set "sail" on our mighty voyage.

The sun was fast setting over the islands but they were only a few kilometers off shore. The journey was a little choppy but everyone was in a fantastic mood and very jovial. Within an hour and a half we were coming up to a tiny jetty that the fisherman had built to take shelter in rough weather. We grabbed supplies and jumped off. The rosy sky had all but vanished, leaving a fantastic silver like veneer to the clouds. The other islands were visible in the distance as well as a large portion of the Sumatran coast line. Ibu had a large tent to sleep in, we pithed up my small tent and my jungle hammock just inside the shelter of the trees.

A large bonfire was lit and we started our festivities. The view was spectacular and the company was even better. It was difficult to believe we were really there. The fisherman brought us some fish they'd just caught and we cooked them on sticks over the enormous fire. I'm not a fan of fish and rarely eat it but this tasted fantastic, I even used a knife to cut out its eyes and slurped them down; delicious! Everyone else seemed less keen to try this....

The later it got the more merry people became. As it neared midnight, we were a little spread out. Some people had stayed round the fire and others, like myself, had spread out into the ocean. It was the perfect temperature, lovely and warm. You could see all the lights down the coast of Pariaman and Padang from where we were sitting. The waves occasionally lifted us up and down on the spot and I allowed my beer to float around whilst i relaxed. When the fire works started we were able to see every single display down the coast. This magical moment lasted about 15 minutes and was a great way to bring in the new year. Exhausted, I head off to my hammock for an amazing nights sleep, the sounds of the waves the only noise for miles.

In the morning, people woke up in a staggered fashion. Having no schedule, this was not a problem. Some of us had yogurts for breakfast and others had more fish. We relaxed and took in the sights and sounds of an island on the first day of the year. The sun was bright but not too hot and the sky was cloudless. We decided to play around for a bit on the beach, climbing logs and swimming around a bit, before we headed on to our next destination.

Widhie pointed to an island in the distance and told us that we were going to get on the boats again and head over there for the day. Three of us decided that this would be a fantastic trip to make in a dug out canoe. I will admit it did get towed across but it was still a great experience. Three blokes in a tiny canoe with a couple of beers, every wave nearly capsizing us.

It took about 40 mins but we arrived at another incredible island. Not another person in sight. There was no jetty at this island so a few front flips were performed and a swim was required. The sand rose up at a very steep angle to form the island, it was almost as if it had been dropped there. The water was as clear as I had ever seen it and there were fish everywhere. There was even a decent sized reef on the back of the island where i saw a turtle!

The day was spent between two groups of emotions, utter awe and extreme excitement opposed with a serene sense of calm and solace brought on by the sheer beauty of the place we were sitting. A fantastic quote from the book "The Beach" sprung to mind:

"The only downer is, everyone's got the same idea. We all travel thousands of miles just to watch TV and check in to somewhere with all the comforts of home, and you gotta ask yourself, what is the point of that? I just feel like everyone tries to do something different, but you always wind up doing the same damn thing."

This was definitely not just the same thing. We had traveled to the other side of the planet, to help people we'd never met before and our reward was a well earned break on an uninhabited island. Jackpot.

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