Hitting the road again

Every time I go somewhere, I meet all these travellers who tell me things about places they’ve visited in Australia. Places they have loved, places I have never seen and sometimes never even heard of. Astounded with the wonderful things backpackers and tourists have had to say, to show me and to teach me about the place I call home, I have since made it my mission to slowly see Australia. Sometimes you have to leave home to appreciate all that is going on back there, all the beauty, the simple things, the obvious. I’ve done that, and since have had a deep fascination with this island-continent that is my home.

This all started with a visit to Tasmania shortly after my year travelling South America. Tasmania was another place I had never been to and only under two hours away by airplane. After almost a half-decade of talk and intent, I completed the Overland track and spent a week roaming the remarkably beautiful southern island. I later checked in with long forgotten New South Wales national parks and road tripped from Melbourne to Adelaide and back. In the new year I got news on a job I had really been hoping to get, and I wound up moving to Tasmania to work as a guide on the Overland track which I have come to love so much. Months on, the season is over and I am itching to move again. I’ve managed to stay mobile. To not get stuck in big cities or the regular, comfortable and repetitive flow of life. I had thought long and hard about the travel I recently done and how it made me feel, how exciting life can be with only what you can carry on your back, with little or zero planning, living in a state of total open-mindedness, with no restrictions, no limits, in complete freedom. Moving about so that the only place you really ever remain is outside of the comfort zone, away from the stink of the familiar. The crest I have been riding feels far too good to get off, to abandon, to pass up for places and processes that just make me feel bored and less human.

In the spirit of travel and adventure, I have decided to take a flight from Launceston to Perth, check in with a few friends in Western Australia’s capital, friends from long ago and also from recent travel, and then head north up the coast or through the interior, into the northern parts of Northern Territory and then south to Alice Springs where a few friends are working for the winter, and finally east back to Sydney. I’m intending to only use my legs and my thumb, to hitch hike, hace dedo, the whole way – not to use any paid public transport like buses or airplanes in order to complete what will be between a gargantuan 7000-8000km journey through the vastness of Australia in order to get back to the east coast. Yeah, I could have spent a fifth of my airfare to Perth and bought ticket that would get me from Launceston to Sydney in under two hours, but really, what fun would that be? What would I see that I hadn’t seen before? I wouldn’t meet anyone, it would be easy and not difficult. There would be no waiting, no hitching on dusty roads, no tests of my patience, my determination, no satisfying my lust for the outdoors and nature, no outback, no town pubs and no characters, no odd accents, no rocks, no lakes, no eucalypts, no backpackers, no vans, no trucks, no stars, no sunsets, no moon rises and no stories. There would be no uncertainty and no time to stare out to a place you have laid eyes on for the very first time in your life.

I had originally intended to hitch directly across the country from Perth to Sydney, but heading north makes it more interesting, lengthier and gets me into more uncharted territory. Having two housemates and some other friends working on the Larapinta trail outside Alice Springs made an excellent reason for making that the only planned stop along the way. The other things that inspired this trip were traveller’s yarns, globally, camper van graffiti on the inside of Wicked vans that had journeyed all over Australia by people all over the world, having never been to WA and NT, two weeks of hitching and road mayhem with a good mate in New Zealand and a love for the vastness and unpredictability of life on the road.

I haven’t felt this excited to travel in ages. This is one of the first times such a long journey doesn’t require a passport and an airplane ticket worth a few thousand dollars. It’s home, but it’s so new and unknown and massive. I have no idea what to expect and no idea what will really happen or where I will end up (apart from Alice Springs I guess), but this is really what makes it all so exciting. Sometimes it’s good to just pick up your backpack and go for it. 

IMG_1234A long and lonely road through Argentinian Patagonia. May 2013.

 

South American hospitality

You’re going to South America for a year on your own? You’re crazy!
You went to South America? Was it dangerous?
You’ve been to Colombia? Isn’t it really dangerous there?

Many of us have heard all this nonsense before, but for some, this is how Latin America is blindly perceived, hopefully this post will shed some light on the real South America. I did spend one year there and it was by far the best year I have ever had in my life. Below are ten short examples of the finest hospitality, which, no word of a lie, I was treated to year-round.

1. Victor, Ecuador
I met Victor through my mate Jake who had been living in Ecuador for about two years, we went to visit Victor’s organic farm on a small town to celebrate his birthday. The night I met Victor he treated us all to a wonderful, wholly organic home cooked meal and a solid night of partying on the farm. Victor was an incredible host and we bonded instantly, he offered me work on his farm for as long as I wanted. I instantly took up the offer, and after a week on the coast I returned to the farm and spent a month there, with Victor and his family, learning to work a farm, be on the land, in the sun all day, using my hands and my body. It was excellent. I started to study Spanish there, had my own room, ate with Victor and his family at every meal, as I was part of their family. It was one of my first big experiences,in South America and one of the most fulfilling. I had been received with the warmest, most welcoming arms and felt completely at home in an Andean mountain town in the Chimborazo province. We all wound up on the coast for a blinder new year, and I went back to the farm for a weeks in the new year. I have made a friend, a brother for life with Victor.

2. Eliana, Colombia
A few friends and I met Eliana on the coast of Ecuador, and we stayed in touch as she knew I would visit her country. The moment I arrived in beautiful Popayan Eliana was on the case. She went out of her way to make sure we met up, ate, assisted me with learning Spanish and communicating with the hostel staff, showed me around the city, took me to her faculty at the university (we both study architecture) and many other landmarks, I went out with her friends, she even took me to her dad’s photography studio where her dad happily cleaned my lens, as well as to her family’s house before going out one night, where her mum and brother were just as friendly and patient with my early and terrible Spanish. This reception was the start of a long standing love affair with Colombia and it’s people.

3. Poliana, Raquel and family, Colombia
Two mates of mine had met Poliana when she worked at the Media Luna hostel in Cartagena the year before, and had suggested I check in with her when I got to Colombia as she was ‘on our level’. To keep a long story short, we ended up travelling together for about a month and finished at Bogota, where I stayed with her step-sister Raquel and her dad Jesus. ”You can stay here as long as you want”. This wound up being such a typically South American line. Need anything? Ask us. Wanna go somewhere? Ask. It was as if they were there to make sure you had the 100% best and most fulfilling time. Poliana had to get back to the coast. I stayed about a week in the capital and got to hang out plenty with Raquel, who took me all over Bogota, showed me buildings, museums, places to eat, graffiti, helped me with my Spanish, I could go on but I will keep it relatively short. Again I was blown away but such warm, caring hospitality. I even met their mum who as you would imagine, was another wonderful human being. By this point I had been in Colombia almost four months and was completely infatuated by the country and the inhabitants. Funny, I told Jake and Victor I would be ”back in a month” when I left Ecuador. But hey, that is Colombia for you.

4. Eduardo, Galapagos Islands
I was lost on my bicycle trying to make my way inland to one of the craters when I asked a local man near the town of Santa Rosa for directions. We got talking and apart from giving me the directions to where I was trying to go, Eduardo remarked that he had wanted to host an Australian in his house, and instantly offered his home to me for a few days. The man was all smiles and incredibly pleased to have an Australian on enjoying the islands. Sadly I had to get back to another island the following day, so in this case it wasn’t to be, but the heart was all there. Eduardo knew I was super grateful that he had wanted to have me over for, once again, however long I would have wanted.

5. David, Chile (Easter Island)
He was one of the first Chileans I ever met. I had pitched my tent near his when I arrived at Easter Island and he was, of course, friendly as. We got talking and David was working for the head chef at the hostel before heading back to work in Spain for a few months. Within minutes he got me stoned and was sharing food from the kitchen: We had a blast across the week I was there, he was always generous and willing to help in any way, we laughed our asses off and had a pretty swell time around Minihoa. He left me all his details as he would be back in Santiago for a few weeks to visit family, and said to get in touch if I was there at the same time. He told me in Spanish that I could stay with him and his family, and begged me to visit some of his favourite places in wonderful Chile. Otherwise, catch him in Spain – same deal!

6. Rosa Marie and Rene, Chile
I had just arrived in Chile proper, having spent about two days busing from Lima. Exhausted, I hauled myself off the bus and started looking for campsites. I found one and there were a lot of Chileans lying about, hungover, still partying – whatever (they party). I noticed Rosa Marie and Rene cause Rosa Marie has the most hideous cough. No one was in their tents (it was about 9am) and everyone was drinking wine. They called me over and we got talking. They showered me with food, I mean a lot of food as they were leaving, gave me a pocket knife and bottle opener to keep, Rene gave me the last of his weed. A bag of fruit. Vino? Hah! You can’t turn down Chileans when they offer you anything. And they will offer you everything. I wound up having quite a few glasses of wine with them and talking for ages. They left me their details and said I could check in and stay with them any time, should I pass through Calama again. The last thing they gave me was a magnetic travellers charm and a Bolivian coin that stuck to it, even though tried to refuse their excessively overwhelming and endless generosity. I will travel with that thing until I die.

7. Nat, Kelly, Lorena and Carolina.
I met Nat and Kelly in Vicuña and us and a few more Chileans who I am still in touch with had an absolute ball for several days, it got a bit wild at times, all that cheap and nice quality wine, weed, pisco. Endless. Nat and Kelly set me up with two of their friends, who had me over when I got to Valparaiso for eight days. They gave me a couch, fed me, had me perpetually stoned, took me out, gave me a key and said do as you please, our house is yours. And they mean this when they say it. Not only do they mean it, they show it. I had a kicking time in Valparaiso and it was all cause of my Chilean hosts.

8. Daniel, Chile
I met Daniel and his girlfriend in Vicuña too. They pitched their tent next to mine and we got talking. They loved that I loved Chile, that I was learning to speak Spanish. Daniel immediately offered me a canister of gas he did not need any more. We hung out for a few days and I had to go, but Daniel insisted that when I come to Santiago, I stay with him. He put me up in his apartment with great views, again gave me a key, my own room, food, drink, you know how it is. Showed me Santiago, the gardens, a few bars, even took me to an antique fair and lunch at his grandparents place where I had wonderful Chilean food and talked football and travel with him and his grandparents.

9. Anita, Chile
Anni and I met on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. We shared the same dorm and got talking. She was from a place I had never heard of before, Pucon in Chile. Although she left the next day she was interested in my travellers and had been a few places I was going to visit, so we kept in touch – I was also going to pass through Pucon most likely. By the time I got down there she gave me a couch for again, as long as I want. Another key. More food. Wine. Use of her bike. Whatever. The moment I got in the door we smoked a joint and went out around the lakes (it was about 9am). Later we went to one of the national parks with a friend of hers. She invited to me to a friends party, we saw a bit of Pucon, she minded my gear while I disappeared for days in the Huerquehue national park and generally had a great time. She was one of the best friends I made there. Pucon was beautiful. I went back and stayed with her for a few more days after wrapping up Patagonia entirely. Chilean hosts. Epic.

10. Juan Carlos, Chile
I took the Navimag boat from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales to get to the Torres del Paine national park. Feeling on top of the world, and endless creativity, I was on the top deck before we set off when an older male saw me drawing and approached me. Juan Carlos was a comic and landscape artist from Punta Arenas. We got talking of all things. Showed each other drawings, photos we’d taken. In short, we got close, and Juan Carlos instructed me that when I got to Punta Arenas, I was to contact him and he would have a room for me with his family. I stayed with them for a week, and again I was treating more like a son than a traveller. His mum reminded me of my grandmothers – her kindness was simply infinite. She fed me the most amazing Chilean food every day, washed my disgusting load of hiking gear, even knitted me a home made Region XII flag (Chilean Patagonia and Antarctic territory). I spent my days relaxing, photo editing, drawing a lot with Juan Carlos. It was great. He had mates over quite a few times and they wanted to hear all my stories, and I equally wanted theirs. All these older Chilean mad cats, wild characters, brimming with the raw pulse of life. It was the farthest south I have ever been in the world, and I had a damn swell time.

11. Fernando, Argentina
I had spent about 11 hours on a 300km hitch hike. It was one of those days where the going was slow but numerous Chileans and Argentinians had helped me along my way and given me their stories and I say in the passenger seats of an off duty taxi, a delivery truck and two cars while soaking in the immensity that is the Patagonian steppe. I wound up crossing the border into Argentina really late, at about 9PM. This did not go to plan, but that didn’t matter, all the best experiences has been unplanned and in the precise moment that is life. Two friendly Chileans had helped me across the border, they were heading into Argentina briefly, as Chilean border folk do, for cheap cigarettes and cheap fuel. So there I was, in a city I had never been to, at 9PM, in the rain, with nowhere to stay. I walked around looking for places. Nothing. Rio Turbio is not a huge place. I was about to spend the night in a half constructed house near the bus terminal so I could hitch hike out in the morning when I decided I should ask one local about cheap places for backpackers. I asked a sprite man who was passing by on the street, who, upon being asked if he knew of any cheap hostels or guest houses, promptly replied ”come with me, I have a room and mattress at the back of my restaurant, you can stay with me, welcome!” So, it was one of those times where my western conditioning got the better of me. Why was he being so nice? Is he gay? Am I going to be robbed? I quickly silenced my conscience. In the end, I spent two great nights with Fernando and his girlfriend. They fed me the best restaurant food, every day and night. Introduced me to all the staff, friends and family. Refused to take my money. Threw beer and wine at me. On my second night I had dinner with Fernando’s entire family. He said I gotta come back and visit one day, so I can properly see the Rio Turbio and around. And here I was worrying about him, after I almost slept in an abandoned house. Idiot.

12. Mauro, Sebastian and Marian, Argentina.
I had spent my second day at the Perito Moreno glacier after about six weeks of a lot of hitching around the south of Patagonia, and I had to get a ride back into town. There was a beautifully painted Kombi van outside the entry to the glacier. I hung around, liking my chances, knowing that soon a few hippies or travellers would appear. A gaucho like Argentine guy showed up, bearded, scruffy looking, like me really. I asked if the van was his, and when he said yes I asked if I could hitch a ride back into town. Of course! Once my cousin and friend get here. Not only did I get a ride back to El Calafate, but I wound up travelling with these guys twice. They had spent two months seeing their country and had picked up a few travellers, loved that I spoke Spanish, they kept doing Spanish Godfather impersonations. They gave me whisky, pipe tobacco, fed me constantly. Top blokes, I had the best time with them. We stayed in touch in order to catch up back in Buenos Aires. The van was sick. They loved singing ACDC. We saw Esquel, El Chalten and a bit of El Calafate together. I got to travel with thee legendary local boys throughout Patagonia in a Kombi. I’d thank thank them for dinner or something and they would roll their eyes, as if I was paining them, and it was their duty to cater for a guest in their country. Nooo! Por favor! Por nada! Noooo, please! Thanks for what! Love ’em.

I could go on, but I’ve kept it at twelve. This happened throughout the entire year, in every country, some more than others, but all in all, Latin American hospitality is the finest I have ever experienced. How could I possibly get home sick? The continent and it’s people showed me a lot of love, I mean a lot, and in turn, they changed how I saw the world and the people in it, they evidently taught an already generous and good natured person even more about generosity and kindness. The showed me how you should treat guests, treat anyone, with endless friendship. It was a truly profound and joyous experience from start to finish. Forget what you think you know about South America.

I am still in touch with most of the people, and I know I will see many of them again one day, either here in Australia, or in South America, or somewhere in the world, that’s the kind of friends they are. My travel diary is littered with contacts and addresses of people who gave me the ”when you come to xxx call me and you can stay with me/use, come have dinner with my family” etc. What a time, what great people.

Enough for now, I have been offline for too long and forgot how long it takes to put up a blog post. But there will be more from me from now on. In short: go experience South America – it fucking rocks.

Perpetual solace

For some people, a prolonged period of being in a city, from it’s frantic centre to the quietly homogenised outer suburbs will ultimately lead to a disconnection from nature and in turn create a fading sense of self. You are your job, then you are your family, you are also your friends, you are your colleagues and your lunch, your university, your gym, your outings at bars and museums and cafes and whatever else. How many people are you? When, if ever, are you yourself?

…but how often are you the sun? How often are you the stars, the planets, the moon? Have you wandered alone in a forest of thousand year old giant trees, standing apparently motionless as ever, having watched conquests won and lost, man rise and fall. Does your lifestyle allow you time to stop and feel the wind on your arms, to stare at the goose pimples on your skin and the shiver at chilling sensation of the elements? Can you lie on grass and stare at the sky, to gaze at the never ending story that is the clouds, their endless movement across vast skies an abstract art story of colour and form. Have you sat and stared out to the great seas as a costal storm unfolds; ceaseless energy in the form of lightening, thunder and rain. Nature constantly marvels all around us, though the only ones who know this secret are the ones who stop and take notice. Feel her, in all her forms, and let her energy flow through your veins. This is the energy of life. Of eternity.

How many times can you say you have gone weeks without hearing the rolling hum of an airplane’s jet engine? Or the collective din of car motors along a city street? Have you ever been free of your digital devices, those ever present screens and the orgy of cataclysmic mass-information that we seemingly value so much? Have you not looked in a mirror for over a week because there were none to look into? Have you enjoyed a place for the fact that there is no electricity and that the sun and the moon are your guides by day and night?

To be connected to nature is to form a relationship free of complexity. To realign your soul with the greater consciousness and the universe in which you were born from. In nature, there is no jealousy, no lies, no hatred or malice. Nature is pure, and by acknowledging this, by being aware of this, one may purify him or herself. Do not neglect your money, your job, the city, your life; these are signs of a long and great endeavour of human achievement. Instead, find balance. Find nature. Love her, exist with her, Live full.

Nature is the great mediator in life. A quest to know and be at peace with nature is a lifelong journey to understand yourself, a journey we all share and a journey already billions of years old, reaching its pinnacle at the miraculous moment where the most complex arrangement of atoms is formed and a human being is born.

Some feel an imbalance in their lives and choose to address these unusual feelings of uncertainty and displacement. Another person may live their entire life unaware and die in the same fashion. Others may simply spend their lives attempting to survive and never find any time to time to ask such questions.

Who are you really?

El otro lado: caras de los pobres, (the other side: faces of the poor), Cuzco, Peru

I got into Cuzco three days ago from La Paz. Without going into too much detail (maybe in another post), La Paz was an eye opener. Places like La Paz and Cuzco are the reason I left Chile and Argentina. I wanted to get in touch with the raw and gritty side of South America again. I had gotten too comfortable in Chile and Argentina, especially Patagonia. While the cities are immensely beautiful, crazy, buzzing with activity and commerce, there is an extremely sad side to them. I’d felt a little unsettled in Cuzco and I didn’t know why. The more time I spent walking around the historical centre and observing people’s way of life, the more unusual I felt, but I couldn’t work out why. Today it struck me: the divide between rich and poor in these cities is vast, and evident almost every ten to fifteen meters on the sidewalks. I couldn’t ignore it or look at anything else. For almost eleven months I have been spoiled with the natural wonders and beauty of nature in this continent. Now I had become fixated on the other end.

Westerners like myself walk around toting smart phones and digital cameras while cripples and homeless people beg on the street for money in order to scrape out a living. It’s happening on every block, every street, in every square or park. I think Peru and Bolivia are some of the worst examples I’ve seen. For days I passed by these people trying to shut out the sadness in their eyes, in their lives. What could I do?

I had lunch with my friend Clare today and was talking about my lack of camera use since arriving. Cuzco should be a wonderland for an architecture student, but for some reason I was just not interested in the city’s architecture. Something struck me at lunch and I decided, telling Clare also, that I was going to spend the afternoon with my camera, capturing the other side of Cuzco, of South America.

All I have really exposed my friends and family to are the beautiful points and places and experiences in these countries of South America; the great volcanoes and snowy mountain peaks of the Andes, the lakes, the forests, deserts, salt flats, animals, plants, flowers, gorgeous architecture. I think I felt sick of capturing the same thing. I decided to try something different. To talk to the beggars, to get their stories, to capture their sadness and hopefully get a point across that is not just historical relics, mountains, beautiful sunsets and clear star-addled skies by night. All this poverty is as real as everything else. It matters too. I love Cuzco, but there is more than just the tourist attractions and beautiful historical centre. There is a world of sadness and poverty here, and it’s not unique just to Cuzco and Peru.

In the following photos are some of the people I encountered. They were all mostly friendly, some I got to sit down and talk with for a while. One homeless man, when I asked if I could take a photo, had no idea what I was saying, perhaps thought I was trying to threaten him, lashed out and scratched me in the face with his long unkempt nails. I was fine. I left him some change and moved on.

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Three Cuzcqueña women take a break from hounding tourists to take photos of them with their baby llamas outside the Iglesia de San Francisco.

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Benito, a Cuzqueño, makes a living by hand-fabricating beautiful coloured bags, beanies and bracelets.

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A homeless woman crosses Iglesia de San Francisco with all her belongings on her back.

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A woman who sells bananas on the street stops for a break and something to eat.

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A homeless woman walks amongst locals, carrying all her possessions on her back.

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A street vendor hides from the camera.

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A woman and child both clean nuts to sell to people passing by on the street. They sat meters away from the beggar who swiped at my face. She laughed at the scene. I saw the humour in it too.

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A man organises his products on the street near my hostel.

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A blind man sings loudly as he begs for attention first, and hopefully some money.

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Children play around their mother who waits patiently to sell street food to locals or tourists.

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Another woman waits patiently at the Plaza de Armas to sell street food.

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A woman spends her days selling sunglasses to tourists.

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An aged and frail, homeless beggar-woman who was incredibly grateful of my attention and generosity, despite having to do this every day of her life.

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This incredibly friendly woman makes her living selling delicious plates of food on the street for less than $1 USD.

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A woman and a child beg for money on a busy Cuzco street.

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A lovely woman whom grew up in a small town just outside of Cuzco now makes her living selling Artisan products to tourists on the street. She said she does okay and is happy.

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A boy studies while tending to a street cart.

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Business as usual for this man and his street cart.

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A lone child sits outside the Iglesia de San Francisco and waits for her mother whom is nowhere to be seen when I took this photo.

***

These are all photos from your world. Our world. This is not television. This is not MTV. This is real. This is all happening right now, not just in Cuzco, but in many, many parts of the planet. As I said on Facebook, it was the saddest day of my almost eleven months travelled. Despite the hardship, the struggle for life, these people all maintained an air of respect and friendliness towards me – something, that sometimes, people who have everything in more fortunate societies seem to lack. We live in a strange world.

One year is not enough…

Not in a place like this. A place so rich in everything, right down to suffering and poverty and perfectly less comfortable than the life of luxury I led back in Australia (it was too comfortable for me – that is one reason why I left). South America will captivate you in ways unimaginable. Unexplainable. I’ve been travelling for ten months now and have got to see Colombia, Ecuador and Chile very well. I just spent a month in Argentina. Summer in Chile was the best in my life. My main aim was Patagonia and I spent just over two months in what you could call greater Patagonia, from Pucon as far south as Punta Arenas, Chile and from Rio Turbio up to Bariloche in Argentina. It was an amazing, beautiful, challenging time.

Ever since I left Patagonia I’ve felt a bit lost. It started after Torres del Paine. I haven’t known where to go, what to do, with time running short my life of slow travel is coming to an end. With all the things I’ve done I’ve still not been to the Amazon, have only been to Lima in Peru and have not visited Bolivia. I miss those big, mad, Andean cities: the noise, the chaos, the food, the indigenous, the rawness, the bit of danger, the soul. So kicking and thriving.

I’ve even considered going back to Colombia. I want to experience that brilliant country now that I can speak (I am still learning) Spanish. One of my best mates just moved there. A girl I love is there. Colombia was one of the first places in South America that really helped me wake up, grow, realise what is important in life. Changed me for better. Forever. An amazing land full of amazing people. But I could say that about every country I’ve been to. South America has something we don’t have in the west. I can’t explain it, can’t put it into words. If you’ve been and you’re reading this then you know what I mean. If you’re wondering, don’t wonder any more – go.

Twenty minutes ago my Peruvian friend Julio sent me this brilliant video on Peru, it goes for two and half minutes, watch it here.

It almost made me cry. Nostalgia from the last ten months and my journey slapped me hard in my face. It took me back to my early days in Ecuador. In Quito. In Riobamba. It blew my mind. I realised I had missed a great land (Peru). Then I realised, I have two months, and this video is a few weeks in Peru. Chance moment? I think I’m going to Peru and Bolivia. Call it fate or something, call it whatever. But I think I am going to travel fast for once and spend a few weeks in these countries.

So a year, it’s been wild, crazy, fun, scary, challenging, demanding, loving, up, down and around again. Two would have been ideal, even a year and a half. I’ve never felt so alive as I have here in South America. So what is it about this place? I’ll go home soon, but I will be back. I love South America – it has shown me so much love and I will show it back, wherever I am in the world, and to whoever is in my company.

Thanks a lot Julio, it was timely, and touching.

After three days of waiting I’m going to get my bus across to Mendoza from Santiago. Paz.

The lower end of backpacking… long buses and borders

It’s not all amazing mountains, wild animals, raw nature and beautiful Pacific sunsets. If you’ve been following my activity on Facebook you probably only see my photos and rarely hear of the delays, long bus rides, being seated next to stinking toilets, people trying to scam you at borders, forgetting toilet paper (that’s breaking the number one rule :p ).

When I left Ecuador for Peru back in January, I said goodbye to one of my best mates, Jake, after a blinder new year and a lot of fun in Quito, Riobamba, Alausi, the coast. I got on a bus from Quito to Guayaquil at about 1pm. I plowed through Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in a few hours and listened to music, failing to drain out sellout Hollywood movies dubbed in Spanish and an Indian man who was singing loudly. I got to Guayaquil at about 10pm and had to take a taxi for two minutes to the terminal. The woman drove an absolute bomb of an 80s Charade or similar and tried to rip me off at $3. I had to do something between charm, beg and bargain with my poor Spanish to get her to lower the price. I got into the terminal and bought a ticket to my next bus off a suspicious character with a solid moustache. The bus was bound for Huaquillas, near the Peruvian border, where I would cross into Tumbes and then take another, long bus, to Lima. It was late, I was already tired, and had a long way to go. The bus was full of suss cunts, as we say in Sydney, or rather suspect people – all men, Ecuadorians, Peruvians, no woman. Lots of rats tails, mullets, men old and one, and young gringo. Me. There was an empty seat next to an old man with a crooked smile at the back of the bus, there was one more row behind, and an old man sat with his shirt covering his face to mask the shit and piss smell eeking out of the toilet. There were people standing, but the seat was vacant? I wondered if it was defective or covered in shit or something absurd. A young guy offered me the seat and I took it. Five hours next to a toilet. Nice. After some bullshitting about we left, I got some crappy sleep, clutching my backpack, hiking boots and other assorted items in another bag above me (I was carrying too much at this point). I was hugely suspect of the crossing  and have heard some stories. Jake advised me of this route, but before I left his mate from Otavalo had turned up and was laughing saying it was no better at this time especially. Jake. Haha.

I woke confused and stumbled off the bus at between 4 and 5am glad to be in fresh air, but was presented with a small and mostly deserted border town. I was tired. I was fucked really. A fat Peruvian changed my USD for Soles (at a shitty rate, I was half asleep and my sensible was too), I had forgotten to get my Soles out of my large backpack and wasn’t going to attempt to do so here. His mate, another Peruvian character was being super friendly saying he could take me to immigration and across the border. The other people on the bus had disappeared, there were no connected buses to get to the border. What was going on? In a haze, I agreed, and he took me into a gated property into a nice, almost new Honda. Wait, what the fuck am I doing? Why did I agree to this? The guy was friendly but I was in semi panic mode and started to wonder where I would end up. We got to the border, I took all my bags into customs with me cause I was not giving him the chance to drive off with everything, he said I could leave, but I deflated the situation saying my passport was in my big backpack. He had been asking me all these questions about money, cards, how I travel etc on the way in, so I felt hugely stupid for the situation I put myself in and massively suspect of him.

The border was full of sleepy travellers and families, and immigration officers who did not give a fuck about anything and didn’t even say hello or thanks. A sharp contract from the reception in Colombia. Anyway whatever. Signed out of Ecuador and into Peru. Buses full of smart people that had taken one single bus turned up, filtered through customs and left. Why did I not do this?

The driver had agreed to take me to Tumbes, where I could get a colectivo to Mancora and then a bus to Lima. When we got to the car he wanted $20USD. I got into an argument with him, took him back to a tariff notice at customs where he tried to mask the price at $20 per colectivo meaning $5 per passenger, in front of a Peruvian cop, who I asked what the price was – he wanted nothing to do with me, didn’t say a word and perpetuated the rip the gringo show. Fuck these people.

To be fair the cabbie had waited a while, but that’s the way it goes at borders. We had the shits at each other, I wanted to get to Tumbes and leave, so I offered $10 and no more. He took me to Tumbes and we sat in silence. To be honest I was super pissed too, after months in Colombia where everyone was so honest, my patience for this was slim. We got to Tumbes, I took my bags and bailed. He added more USD to his ever growing stash of paper and took off. Not a word was spoken. Dickhead.

It was now between 5 and 6am and I was in a dive Peruvian border town. A man was mixing some kind of drink for people on the street. There were a lot of construction workers eating at a street-stall. It was all typically South American. I had a while to go. I paid for my next colectivo. A black woman with several kids vomited rapid Spanish in my face but I asked her to slow down as I was learning. She was from Tumbes. She said there were too many mal gente around, bad people, and that I should be careful. We took off to Mancora. I was retarded from lack of sleep. The sun had come up and was blazing. I was in a large van rammed with Peruvians. I love the road but this journey was just total ass.

I was woken by the family in the back, who told me we were at Mancora. What?! I got off and took my bags. This is Mancora? It’s a small, very small, mainly one street town on the northern coast of Peru, popular for surfing. The place seemed full of people who also did not give a flying fuck about anything, locals, and travellers too. All I saw were waster gringos, drifter hippies and surf types bumming about. There was nothing going on. I spent hours trying to get a bus ticket to Lima while everyone tried to rip me off. The power in the town had gone out and all the booking systems were down. Goddamnit. Never before had I wanted to leave a place like I had in Mancora. Hours passed, hours and hours, I bummed around town tired and frustrated. I decided I would not commit to staying here a night and had to get out. Eventually I got a ticket at a reasonable price and the owners let me bum out on their couch until the bus came at 5pm. Power came back on at about 3. I had killed about 7 hours here and finally got a bus. Never before had the road seemed so appealing…

Though, I had an 18 hour journey to Lima ahead of me, and once again, I was seated next to the toilet. 18 hours. Not 5. 18 hours of people pissing and shitting in this thing. Damn man. I sat next to a filthy but friendly construction worker from Lima who kept waffling about things beyond my Spanish comprehension at the time. This time I had remembered to bring my Valium on board, so I ate something like 3 or 4 tablets intending to hit a state of heavenly bliss before drugging out to sleep for hopefully a huge distance. Fucking buses. Toilets. The smell of urine. Mancora. Border hounds fixated with hoarding USD and shafting gringos.

I had no idea the desert was so huge in Peru. The coast is littered with tiny fishing towns and many smaller towns a little further in land with no electricity, very basic, basic, sometimes only stick-housing or stick and board housing. The things I saw on that bus ride were crazy. People living like that. Among all the crap, it was incredible to see. Jake had said it would blow my mind. The desert, and its inhabitants up there really did. The sunset was ace too. I had to leave the window open all night to help ease the toilet smell but late on the air was damn cold. And loud. But I’ll take that over 18 hours of toilet smell.

At some point I fell asleep, waking up like an utter cripple about ten hours later. Not bad, about 8 to go and this ridiculous journey would end (I had to get to Lima to get my flight to Easter Island and I had fucked about having the time of my life in Colombia and Ecuador for six months haha, this is why I was rushing). Eventually, we approached Lima. Insane poverty and shack housing on the fringed of this incredibly massive city, huge, huge, huge, on the coast, surrounded by red desert. Chaotic street scenes, mental South American traffic. What a buzz. Buildings got bigger and more dense and we came further into the centre.

Feeling like a new man I got off the bus, having now travelled about two full days and spent  something like 36 hours in buses and colectivos. I played the rip the gringo game once more with a cabbie (I rarely take cabs, I usually walk or save money by using buses or whatever) as I was not getting on a packed Lima bus in a post-Valium haze and having to watch all my stuff when my guard was still so low. Finally I got to Che Lagarto. I was able to wash days of bus and scum and sweat off me and relax for a day before going to Easter Island. I met up with my friend Nicolle who showed me around Miraflores and took me to a see an excellent Afro Peruvian band play. Peruvians are a solid bunch. Lima was cool but my time was short.

Lesson? Get a bus that does all the crossing for you – not three or four buses and ridiculous AM border crossing when you’re a total zombie. That’s just stupid. I was lucky, sort of.

When I came back from Easter Island I took another lengthy journey – from Lima to Tacna on the Peruvian border with Chile, in order to cross to Arica and get to Atacama to meet Poliana from Colombia in the Atacama desert.

I didn’t have to sit next to the toilets but I almost missed my bus from Lima cause the girl at the hostel got the terminal wrong. I took a fucking wild, wild cab ride to the terminal with a cabbie wanted to hear about Colombia and especially its women. He drove like mad. But he got me there just in time. He tried to rip me but I laughed at him and told him I was not an ordinary gringo and paid him the normal fee plus a tip for his fine driving which got me onto my 20 (!!) hour bus to Arica. The woman I sat next to lived in Tacna, she was super nice, dug that I was learning Spanish and left me her number in case I needed anything. She said I could crash and eat with her family at the border but I wanted to move on and get to Atacama, get stoned and stare at the stars and not think of the smell of urine and of crossing borders, people trying to rip me, lengthy bus rides. At Tacna, she assisted me in getting a colective to the border. The drive was a woman who was also obsessed with USD. Fucking money.

I crossed into Chile. another full day behind me. From Arica I had to wait from about 11am to 8pm for my 8 hour bus to Calama. I spent the day trying as much Chilean beer as I could, remained on a bar stool for the entire time bottle after bottle talking to a bunch of friendly Chilean characters as best I could. The bar staff were awesome too. I’d heard Chilean empanadas were best and it was true. Anticipating another bus ride I hoarfed a Xanax before I got on. By the time I went to board I had a cigarette and was a floppy mess. I got on the bus and my head started spinning from all the beer. I almost yakked. Soon the Xanax kicked in and I blissed out and woke up at the freezing mining town of Calama in northern Chile. There were a lot of happy, friendly dogs at the terminal. After about 1.5 hours I got a two hour bus to Atacama and arrived at around 9am. It was quiet, cold, eerie. But I was finally in Atacama and could stay put for a while. More on Atacama later.

I am currently in Santiago, having come from Pucon (10 hours) yesterday, arriving at 8am, and having to wait to 9pm to get a bus back into Mendoza in Argentina (all this is actually cheaper than a bus from Bariloche to Mendoza). I crossed from Bariloche to Osorno (almost got caught with 5g of weed at customs – another story for another time) then took a bus to Pucon to get my USB and check in with my wonderful friend Anita for two days. Last night, after killing a day in Santiago I was told the border was closed due to snow. I checked into a hostel for the night. At 4pm I find out if the border is open.

In the end, none of this matters. I should have been a little more careful crossing into Peru, but it worked out. The road, as always, remains one of the most electric and exciting parts of the whole journey. Getting on a stinking bus full of crazies, Indians, even a chicken or whatever, and just going. All that really matters is that which is ahead. Whether I am on a bus, in a Kombie, hitched with a truckie in the south of Argentina or Chile, the road is always one of my favourite places. That point in-between destinations where I am taken back to my childhood, eagerly staring out the window and admiring everything around me, everything new, places I’ve never been before. Ten months in and I still love the transit phase. I always will.

I thought I would share a bit on the not so glamorous side of backpacking. The year thus far has been full of things like this. From the northern coast of Colombia to Punta Arenas in the far south of Chile, I traversed one entire side of the continent all by road. It’s been immense.