Category Archives: Travel blog

Barcelona Blog: Bad hair in Barcelona

 My hair doesn’t like Barcelona. It never has. I spend a fortune getting it cut. In England it looks like a million dollars. After 5 minutes of being outside in Barcelona I look like I’ve just been locked in a cupboard for the night with a victorious rugby squad. In less humid, sweaty climes with better water, I straighten my hair and it stays straight all day. Here, the humidity turns it into a wavy mop that birds could live in. Even as I write, I’m sporting a flick with undulating side bits worthy of a photo in a hairdressing salon window cerca 1977. It gets even worse at the beach.

Oh darn it, it’s easier with pictures. So here’s how it should look on the left:

Barcelona blog: good hair day

And this is it in the middle in Barcelona. Check out my waves:

Barcelona blog: bad hair

I once yearbooked myself  for a laugh and several Catalan friends believed I really looked like this back in the day. I hung my head and semi-curly locks in shame (the perm is not real folks):

I quite clearly have English hair. It’s not suited to hot humid weather. It wants to feel the wind in it. It has the texture of baby bird feathers. I don’t think it wants to behave badly; it was just given too easy a start in life in cloudy England and is having trouble adapting.

Still. It’s not all bad. My feet are very happy to be back in flip-flops and a diet consisting entirely of bread and olives rather than Dairy Milk and Chicken Tikka Massala is doing wonders for my figure. Until the winter I shall just have to wear hats, look on enviously at others’ thick glossy locks and pray for rain.

 

For more thoughts on Barcelona hair (mullets to be precise), go here, although you’ll need to be patient, it’s an old-fashioned cut out and keep scan.

If you’re a hairdresser who can help with free product samples, sponsorship or tea and sympathy, feel free to get in touch.

If you have a body part that doesn’t suit where you live, leave your ‘clean enough for my mum to read’ comments below.

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Filed under barcelona, blog, Travel blog, Uncategorized

Barcelona blog: Benvinguts!

Barcelona modernista chemist

Barcelona: It’s been a while, but I’m back. I spent 4 years in this great city before an aching heart and itchy feet took me to the big mountain ranges and red wine of Chile. After a year in the shadow of the Andes, I returned to European shores in January to be met by a gregarious Scottish customs official, heavy snow and comforting roast dinners. I dallied for a while in Windsor (living round the corner from the Queen) before fate and a temporary contract at a magazine brought me back to the Catalan capital. Barcelona sure is one hell of a magnet.

Not much has changed. The streets and houses are still being noisily drilled. Old ladies still dye their hair burgundy. Little shops that sell nothing but coat hangers, door knockers or shower curtains are holding their own against the giant shopping malls. People are still smoking like chimneys and wearing too cool for school specs. Kids eat giant croissants in the street at 6pm. Women clean the same rectangular shaped patches of pavement in front of their buildings, swivelling their mops dry between two hands as if trying to start a fire. And tourists, prostitutes and bag-snatchers still rule the roost on La Rambla, with not a Catalan in sight until the clubs chuck out at 6am.

Barcelona

Barcelona’s streets are just as filthy as they once were, despite being washed day and night by an army of cleaners who wilfully hose you down when you’re wearing flip-flops. And that’s all some people wear. I’d forgotten about the naked men. I caught a glimpse of one them taking a stroll by the marina the other day, but sadly it wasn’t the guy with the tattooed speedos.

Nothing has changed on the beach either. Women whip their tops off without a moment’s hesitation, while South American men, unused to such pleasures at home, can be easily recognised by their propensity for wearing dark glasses and lying on their fronts.

Prices have shot up while I’ve been away but the bars and restaurants are still full and somehow people seem to manage. Unlike in Chile, there’s a large middle class here. The rich aren’t as well off as the wealthiest Chileans but there’s not the grinding poverty either. No one can afford to buy a flat so the theory goes that you might as well accept it and go out and have fun.

Barceloneta beach, Barcelona

One thing I never liked about Barcelona was that people didn’t smile much. It took me ages to get this, but people here just don’t feel the need to grin like fools at strangers. It can smart when you smile at someone’s cute baby or happy dog and the owner scowls back, but that’s just the way it is here and you best get used to it if you’re going to stick around. It’s simply too darn hot to be warm and fuzzy all the time and Catalans don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves – at least not unless FC Barça are playing.

As a city, Barcelona shows you affection in the same way my dad does. It doesn’t scoop you up into a big, slightly suffocating bear hug like South America would. There’s no firm English handshake and a fight to buy a round. In Barcelona you just get the equivalent of one of my dad’s shoulder squeezes and a self-consciously mumbled “aye, yer not so bad lass”.

I’ve missed it.

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Filed under barcelona, blog, Travel blog

10 things that make Britain weird

Photo by Spratmackrel Flickr

Britain is a strange place. Especially when you’ve been out of the country for 5 years..

 1. Ice-Cream Vans

When you think about it, ice-cream vans are pretty strange. For those in the dark, ice-cream vans are trucks that drive round the neighbourhood selling Mr Whippy to young kids and they play a song from loud-speakers as they go. It’s always a really rubbish song like ‘Greensleeves’ or ‘The Entertainer’ and it usually sounds like it’s been recorded at the bottom of a well by narcoleptic rabbits. The ice-cream van round my way came by on Tuesdays and Thursdays, much to the excitement of Sandy the Labrador who lived two doors down. No matter how fast I ran, I never managed to beat Sandy to the queue. After bouncing up and down excitedly for a while, he would stand patiently in the queue with his bowl between his teeth, waiting for his two free scoops of vanilla. I loved that dog.

2. There are no bins in London

 In Central London a few years ago, a South American friend was looking for a bin. “They took them all out” I said, “…they were worried the IRA would blow them up.” He thought I was winding him up, but no, it’s true. Since the IRA ceasefire, we’ve made new enemies and we’re still bin-less.

3. This Coffee is Hot

Britain is obsessed with health and safety. It’s impossible to have fun in this country now without some jobsworth filling out a risk assessment and deeming it dangerous. Hot water is labelled ‘HOTTTT!, wet floors are ‘WETTTT! and concerts are LOUDDDDDDDDD! How we ever managed to hold our forks or leave our houses of a morning before all this nonsense is anyone’s guess.

Photo by Frankly Richmond

 4. Sunshine makes the front pages

 “OMG! SCORCHIO!” The sight of a thermometer hitting 30 degrees in this country is enough to have journalists and photographers scurrying to the beach to snap happy looking Brits getting their kit off. Good weather is so shocking in this country, it’s news. Go figure.

5. Don’t Walk. Oh Ok.

One of the things I loved about Chile was its people’s utter disregard for the law. Underneath a large sign saying ‘STRICTLY NO CAMPING OR PARKING’ would be 32 cars, a bus and about 50 people having a barbeque. ‘One-way street signs’ were thought to be advisory rather than obligatory and CVs were rampant flights of fancy. Here in Britain, we take the law seriously. We’re a nation of Rainmen stuck on the pedestrian crossing with the sign flashing ‘Don’t Walk’. They banned smoking so we stopped. They put cameras everywhere so we drove nicely. They made so many laws that we have to go on ‘blow-out’ holidays to Spain, Greece or the Czech Republic where we throw-up, black out and offend the locals. They’ve legislated so much; we’ve forgotten who we are.

6. Must-have moisturiser on sale now!

In other countries, people have hobbies. Of a weekend they go skiing, play bowls, visit the country or have long lunches with family or friends. In England, we go shopping. When we’re not actually in shops, we read magazines that tell us what we should be buying if we want to keep our friends and find a mate, we fill out credit card application forms and we show other people what we’ve done with the rent money.

7. How much?

I know tourists have been saying it for years, but sweet Jesus England is expensive. After earning Chilean pesos, the prices here actually make my eyes water. Last week, two newspapers and four stamps cost me £8. I started taking the shirt off my back assuming they wanted that too. In London pubs, I implode into a ball of Northern rage and have to be dragged out screeching ‘How much?!’ at the bar staff.

Photo by DavidHC Flickr

8. Which Northern Line exactly?

Whoever came up with the Tube map in London must have taken a lot of drugs. Poor tourists have it the hardest. On the Tube they have to remember to stand on the left in the corridors but right on the escalators, struggle with anarchically pronounced place names like Leicester Square and then have to figure out the map. Here, it’s not enough to know that you need to go south on the Northern Line, you also need to know which branch. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve confidently hopped on a train only to find myself shamefully having to sneak a peak at the map and ending up in Essex.

9. No alcohol=No fun

It’s a fact, but we British are completely incapable of having a good time without alcohol. We get all geeky and awkward without a pint in front of us. Once started, we also have absolutely no idea how to stop.

10. We worry about stupid stuff

Do my pores look big in this? Does decaf skinny cappuccino give you cancer? Will that reality TV star’s ex-boyfriend’s next-door neighbour win Celebrity Big Brother? Is that I-Phone application any good? Who cares? We do apparently. For want of anything better to worry about (we live in a relatively rich democracy devoid of big weather or regular natural catastrophes after all), we find other insignificant things to fret about. I have absolutely no idea why.

 And 5 things I’ve missed:

1. Everyone’s a comedian.

2. Living in a cultural melting pot of different nationalities, races and religions.

3. People aren’t afraid to look different. Fashion is anarchic here.

4. New music is treasured (even if the BBC has got some balls trying to get rid of alternative radio station 6 Music, the backlash against them makes me proud to be British).

5. Old ladies struggle onto buses and 10 people offer them their seats.

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Filed under blog, britain, england, Travel blog

Chile’s Earthquake From Far Away

Photo by Luis Iturra

I was in a hotel room in Doncaster, England when I heard about the earthquake in Chile. I’d got a few days work and had woken up late after driving through the night. My mum texted me the bad news.

I’d been living in Santiago until early January and had missed being in the middle of the quake by a few short months. The badly damaged art museum in central Santiago was round the corner from my old flat. While I was living and working in Santiago, locals kept telling me they were expecting a big one (Chile, located on the ‘Ring of Fire’, seems to get hit every 20 years or so) but I don’t think anyone was really prepared for this. Chileans joked at us foreigners for being so nervy about the tremors, telling us that if things weren’t falling off the walls, it wasn’t worth waking up for. Saturday morning’s 8.8er certainly made them sit up and pay attention.

My initial reaction was fear – fear that my friends might have been injured or worse – followed by shock, sadness and, I have to admit, a little bit of envy. Here was the biggest news story to come out of Chile in decades and I’d just missed it. I’d experienced a few girly tremors but nothing like this and the trainee journalist within felt a bit duped.

I have no doubt that Chile will bounce back from this. Chileans are a stoical bunch. They’ll rally round to help and many have survived worse (the 1960 quake in the south was the biggest ever recorded anywhere). It’s the dogs I’m worried about now. The shelter where I was volunteering is now in ruins, and in a country where the majority of the people don’t have a great deal and will be struggling themselves, I fear the stray dogs of Santiago and the shelter in Melipilla will be forgotten about.

Here below is how I experienced Chile’s big earthquake, through the emails and status updates of friends on Facebook. These small snippets of information were way more informative than the BBC, newspapers or other media networks. 3 simple words – SAFE AND SOUND – were all anyone wanted to see. Other updates and emails were terrifying, while some expressed panic, resilience or good humour. The ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ award goes to a British colleague, who, much to everyone’s disbelief, managed to sleep through the whole thing on the coast…

From my inbox

Don’t worry, we’re both all right. I spent a few hairy minutes standing in my bedroom doorway – thankfully I live in a modern building and there was almost no damage (although the burglar alarm which reacts to movement spent the next couple of hours crying). It hit around 03.40am so I was a little drowsy and went back to sleep for hour or so afterwards though there were a few aftershocks. Xxx was at her mum’s and there’s plenty of glass that needs sweeping up but otherwise they’re okay. Both her parents have seen worse than this – her dad was in the south during the big one in the 1960’s. I haven’t been able to phone England. My mum is probably going mental. :S

Hey! Please tell Lemmy Killmister that Chile ROCKS!!! (Literally)

Thanks for worrying about me. Mobiles still don’t work. I was in a basement watching some bands. The earthquake was incredible and I had to walk a really long way home. Luckily though, I’m OK. Thanks.

I’ve just talked to him. He’s in the city and fine. His cat threw up though.

The tsunami now going towards Hawaii, thoughts and prayers going out to them.

I’m ok. Everything looks ok around providencia. not too much damage, we have eletricity, water, internet… supermarkets are open. Thanks for your concern.

It was at about 3:30 in the morning. I had just seen some friends off at the door of my building which is in the very centre, overlooking the Mapocho. At the beginning it felt normal, but then it started to shake so heavily that I decided to get up. I live on the top floor, so I though that if I tried to go down, the building would fall on me, so instead I decided to go into the terrace, which has a view of the Mapocho and north, and then I panicked! I saw how the pavement moving like melted chocolate and the traffick lights blowing up. Everywhere I saw flashes of light and then a general blackdown… And it didn’t stop. It went on for a couple of minutes (or at least that’s how it felt) and the only thing my panicking nervous system managed to do was dial my boyfriend’s mobile. No answer. The city was entirely dark. When it stopped, I hurried downstairs I don’t know how. On the way ddown, people with mobile phones to lighten up, or candles, or flashlights, most of them in pajamas. I went out of the building and the only thing I could hear was people crying, screaming. HORRIBLE!! I was shaking… I managed to take out a cigarrette and light it, and I sat down, still shaking: I couldn’t control myself…

My neighbour, a very nice man who I now wish I’d more of an effort to know, has given me his wifi key and also let me use his blackberry.. His entire family is in Conception, apparently their house is destroyed but they’ve survived okay. He’s waiting to get hold of a friend who was living in beach area that’s been 90% washed away by a tsunami!

The Lider has been looted!

It was a distressing night as it was about 4 am. The apartment shook violently, it was impossible to walk, everything fell off the walls, the electricity went so we were in pitch dark and the aftershocks continued through the night and still are. After that we spent the next few hours outside. The next day we noticed massive cracks in the walls, the corridors windows were cracked and water was coming through the ceiling in the one of the rooms.

I was in Viña asleep in a hostel and didn’t know anything until I got up at 10 am and asked why there was no water or electricity. No one can believe that I slept through it!

Thanks for your concern. I’m alive & well. Lost all glassware and some furniture but the building seems to be fine. I moved to my parents though, ’twas reaaaaaally terrifying to be on a 13th floor. The important thing my girlfriend and my family are alive.

I’m OK. There are some cracks in the flat and I’m sleeping outside in the square because my building is old and likely to collapse.

OK everybody, alive and in one piece, was in Valparaiso while all the shit happened, so the floor was moving from before for me.

(Description of a video link): The first impression I got of the earthquake was a river of water coming down the emergency stairs…

and yet another aftershock…just when I was starting to relax

SAFE AND SOUND

Was on an island when quake hit, spent hours in a hill billy truck “reading” the ocean, finally got back to mainland when found out landing strip wasn’t damaged. Flattened villages, crevasses in road, boats on land and houses in river. Friends flat pretty damaged, slept in car outside Conce… no water, gas, electricity. Pillaged supermarkets, riot police, more flattened villages and broken roads. Just assimilating the fear now my family know am fine and all friends here in Chile are ok. Now looking forward to some fine wine and a Chilean bbq. Love to all, will be back in touch when the hangover subsides!

It’s a bread frenzy, buy bread, forget the tinned tuna, buy bread!

I can’t sleep with all these aftershocks!! I’ve got a headache, there’s no internet or hot water, but I can’t complain. There’s a lot of people worse off than me..

Electricity, check. Water, check. Gas, check. Swaying building from aftershocks, check. Life is almost back to normal

Xxxxx and xxxxx, please, if anyone knows anything about them, let me know.

 Be careful if you’re wandering around the city- there are lootings at shopping centres and scuffles with police.

The animals were behaving weirdly ’cause they could feel it. Then, there was a creepy low-pitched sound from underground. The first tremors appeared while everything started to shake and, after an apparently short retreat, the huge wave was unleashed, striking us all without mercy.

In Santiago everything is OK, no visible damage in our neighbourhood and all our friends are OK, just very scared. Our flat has some minor creeps in the inner walls, the only problem was that our front door got stuck and we had to break it down. In the south, things are much worse. Let’s hope for a quiet and shockless night

If you’re near the coast i.e. viña, valpo, try to make your way towards the hills because of the tsunami warning- DON´T try to come to Santiago- highways are damaged and buses aren’t running.

Xxxx has never been so scared before. We are fine, our flat only has minor damage…update follows

Guys stay away from the coast they’ve issued a tsunami warning

Massive earthquake last night….but we are fine. Lots of broken glass in the apartment….i prefer my Iowa tornado over the earth shaking violently…and at 4am on sat morning…no where to hide.

With thanks to my brave friends in Chile.

P.S. If any of you would prefer not to see your words here, please let me know. x

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Filed under chile, Santiago de Chile, Travel blog

Bolivian border, headaches and Lake Titicaca

Bolivian/Peruvian border. Photo Natasha Young

Peru stuck its fingers up at me as I left. Twice. On my last night, the girl at Interbank gave me fake money and I was in too much of a rush to realise. The taxi driver and I had been getting along famously until I tried to pay him with the Peruvian equivalent of a Monopoly note. Then, just as I was about to board my bus for Bolivia, I was told I needed to exchange my ticket shaped piece of paper for a completely different ticket shaped piece of paper. Well obviously. What I didn’t know until I reached Puno was that in fact I should have been given two tickets, one for each leg of the journey. Nobody told me that part. And so it was I reached Puno on lovely Lake Titicaca at 5 o’clock in the morning with a purse full of joke money and no ticket to Bolivia. The unhelpful girl at the Tour Peru office (may she burn in hell) refused to help or call the office in Cusco. Peru 2: England 0. Take that you Chile-loving Brit.

Lake Titicaca, Copacabana. Photo Natasha Young

I was rescued by a lovely man at  a different company (I wish I could recall which one) who saved me a seat on his bus in case I needed it (I did), clucked in disapproval at his rivals and generally made me feel all special and warm. A few hours after arriving, I was finally on a bus leaving Puno. The road out of town hugged the lake like best friends after 4 bottles of wine. It was a slow, dusty and pot-holed ride and although I was desperate for sleep I didn’t want to miss the view. This was the real Peru, where women wore traditional dress for themselves rather than the tourists. Kids chased scampering sheep, men tinkered with fishing boats and women nattered to their mates as they went to market. Just as I was nodding off to sleep, I was delighted to spot 3 flamingos.

Copacabana. Photo Natasha Young

At the Bolivian border we all shot through customs with barely a cursory glance at our passports and an inky stamp. Except the Americans. They were in there for nearly an hour and had to take out wads of cash to pay the fees. “Everyone hates us” whispered one of them to her friend when they eventually boarded. The bus driver definitely did. Half an hour earlier he’d asked his assistant what the hold up was. “Americans” was the snarled reply. The driver raised his eyebrows, sighed and harrumphed off the bus for a cigarette.

It was around that time that the headache started. I’d not had altitude sickness when I was at 4600m in the Atacama Desert and Cusco’s 3000m hadn’t bothered me a jot. Clearly Bolivia was in a league of its own. The headache began at the border and didn’t disappear until my plane landed back in Chile a few days later.

I’d been looking forward to seeing Copacabana on the Bolivian shore of Lake Titicaca. Instead I arrived shattered, sweaty, hungry and with a cracking headache. We were dropped off in a busy square where taxis, vans and buses belched their exhaust fumes as they vied with each other for business. I jumped and staggered into my giant backpack and tried to figure out where the hell I was. I had planned on slumming it in a cheap dorm bed, it but I felt horrible and decided that only the best – at $10 a night – would do.

 

View from la Cúpula. Photo Natasha Young

La Cúpula (when I eventually found it) was just what I needed. With views of the lake, this was a hostel pretending to be a boutique hotel. The simple clean rooms were surrounded by gardens where guests loafed about in hammocks reading books and snoozing. As I checked in, a woman popped out from behind the clothes line and herded her sheep past reception and down the lane.

I was feeling decidedly ropey. Rather than go shopping for food, I went to La Cúpula’s restaurant and gorged on salad, local trout, potatoes and corn, all washed down with homemade lemonade. I felt like I hadn’t eaten properly for days. Dessert was a big mug of coca tea.

In a bid to find an ATM (there isn’t one) and get a feel for the town, I went out. It’s distinctly different to Peru. Here there was rubbish strewn everywhere and weeds growing through the broken paving slabs. True, there were touristy souvenir-selling streets and hotels that served pancakes for breakfast but unlike Peru, it didn’t feel like Bolivia had sold its soul to tourism. Many of those splashing about in the lake or renting pedal boats on the beach were city-dwelling Bolivians. In the square outside the cathedral, cars covered in gladioli and ribbons were being lined up for the daily vehicle blessing ceremony and old men dressed in black huddled together in the square to smoke cigarettes. In the market, burly women in thick skirts and bowler hats swatted the flies off the meat.

Bolivian rubbish. There's a lot of it. Photo Natasha Young

After an hour or so I headed back to the hostel. I wanted to find out about trips to Isla del Sol and buses to La Paz but my head was throbbing and I was starting to feel sick. I’d been travelling on a punishing schedule, determined to make the most of my 3 weeks holiday from work in Santiago and I was nearly at the end of my trip. The altitude was killing me. I just needed a little lie down for half an hour and I’d feel right as rain. Fourteen hours later I woke up. For a brief moment, I thought it had done the trick. Then I sat up and my head thumped.

So what can I tell you? Copacabana. It’s in Bolivia. It’s quite dirty. It’s next to a really, really big lake. You can eat trout. I came. I saw. I slept.

Beach at Copacabana, Bolivia. Photo Natasha Young

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Machu Picchu without the walking boots

Machu Picchu. Photo Natasha Young

I’ve never been a walker. It’s my parents’ fault. They met over a soggy map at the Ramblers’ club, admired each others jazzy hiking socks and that was that. Later they chose to torture their children by taking them on walking holidays, dragging us up wintry peaks in the driving rain as fast as our little legs would carry us. There was a holiday in France too. I saw a lake, a beach and happy children eating ice-cream, but no, we had to have a walk first. Of course we got lost and we trekked for miles through dense woodland and brambles. By the time we got back it was dark and the ice-cream shop had shut. In my small world it was nothing short of child abuse.

I did think about walking the Inca Trail I really did. Then I realised I could just get a comfy train and a bus up the mountain and I thought no more. My friends had already been to Machu Picchu before I got to Cuzco. They’d all loved the Lost City but had gone by car (the newest and cheapest option of getting there) and  their stories of disaster, woe, vomit and dodgy fly-by-night tour operators had put me off. With time short and the Christmas holidays making organisation difficult, I opted to sod the expense and pay for a tour that included the train. I’m so glad I did.

Peru Rail to Machu Picchu. Photo Natasha Young

A bus took us in the pouring rain to the station at Poroy, passing though the real Cuzco as we left town, a place where people got up early to trade goods at the local market and ramshackle houses perched on the hillsides. The train, a classic well-appointed model with comfy seats chuffed out of the station right on time. This was Perú for tourists with expensive sandwiches and excellent coffee served up for breakfast.

We were an international carriage. My companions were Colombian, Uruguayan and American and when we weren’t gazing out the window at spotted piglets, cows on chains and ruddy faced children who stared back, we chatted about our lives and adventures. It was a beautiful journey. After the never ending desert between Chile and Arequipa, the green mountains between Cuzco and Agua Calientes were a joy. As the train snaked up into the hills and low cloud, we passed families washing their clothes in the stream, working the fields and chopping firewood. There were oddly shaped cacti, grazing donkeys and then, suddenly, a row of nodding, cheerful sunflowers.

Machu Picchu. Photo by Natasha Young

When we pulled into Aguas Calientes, there was a scrum of guides waiting to meet the train. We dutifully trooped after Victor and his brown flag. Before my inner traveller could get depressed and start screaming ‘tourist! tourist! tourist!’, I noticed where we were.

Although I’d been prepared to be wowed by the ruins of Machu Picchu, I hadn’t anticipated quite how spectacular the surrounding area would be. We crossed a footbridge over a raging brown river, guarded on both sides by masses of dripping green foliage and majestic mountains, and hopped onto a waiting bus.

After a never-ending series of hairpin bends, we pulled up at the entrance to Machu Picchu. For those walking the Inca Trail, to arrive at this point takes 4 days. It had taken me a few hours and although I didn’t have the smug satisfaction of having done something stupendous, I was warm and dry and had even managed a short nap on the train. Weather-wise, it was bucketing it down. This was rain poncho weather and despite the presence of a few unsuitably dressed American exchange students, the look of the day can best be described as ‘wet condom’.

Poncho action. Photo Natasha Young

Machu Picchu is every bit as beautiful as you expect it to be, although having seen so many photos of it over the years, I felt as if I’d somehow seen it before. I could hear complaints about the weather, but to honest the low clouds just added to the mystique of the place and as a Brit, you learn not to let the rain spoil your day.

In the Inca language of Quechua, Machu Picchu means ‘old peak’ but the site itself is surprisingly young. Built in 1430 AD it was abandoned by the Inca rulers a hundred years later. To be fair, it can’t have been easy nipping out for a loaf and a paper living all the way up there and they must have got well fed up with the commute.

In my travels, I’ve often found that the big draws – the World Heritage Sites and must-sees – turn out to be a bit disappointing, and the places that you least expect, knock your socks off. Machu Picchu did not disappoint. It’s stunning. A grey stone city, hidden on the top of a mountain in the middle of dense vegetation, that not even a thousand ponchoed tourists wandering into your photos can spoil.

Machu Picchu. Photo by Natasha Young

On the way down the mountain I got chatting to Gerrard, a commerical artist from New Zealand who was on his way home from a salsa competition in the States. We had lunch in Agua Calientes in a hotel that had a fine view of the ferocious rapids. Gerrard’s tour had included lunch there but mine hadn’t. It was a typically Peruvian place where no price is ever really fixed.

“How much for me?”
“55 soles” the reception replied solemnly.
“Sorry but that’s way too expensive for me, I’ll go and buy a sandwich and catch up with my friend later.”
“Ok, 50?, 45? 40, 35?…….. 35 is my final offer”.
“Ok, 35 it is”.
35 soles was still outrageously expensive for me on my budget but it was a small price to pay for a decent lunch, good company and fine views. Aguas Calientes isn’t exactly bargain central. On the way back to the train, I could only laugh at the prices being charged at the tourist market. If Cuzco was twice the price of Arequipa, this place was  shamelessly charging triple.

Machu Picchu. Photo by Natasha Young

The train ride back to Cuzco was just as splendid  as the trip out. I was sitting next to a lovely Colombian couple (is anyone unfriendly in Colombia? I bet even Pablo Escobar asked about your family, gave you a broad smile and bought you dinner before he put a gun to your head) who were enjoying their summer holidays. They insisted I share their wine with them and told me proudly that their country was every bit as beautiful as Chile. I told them how much I wanted to see Colombia and they immediately pressed business cards into my hands, making me promise I’d come and visit.

Photo by Natasha Young

From the window, I spotted a snow- covered mountain I’d missed on the way out. In the valley, a group of kids were playing football under the setting sun. Intent on their game, they didn’t turn to look at the passing train or the tourists who had their cameras pressed to the windows. I felt a brief pang of envy for this poor but simple way of life, played out against those dramatic and sacred mountains.

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Christmas in Cusco

Cusco in the rain on Christmas Day 2009. Photo Natasha Young

Arequipa to Cusco

And so it was on to Cusco. I had been hoping to get a bus that arrived at a sensible check-in-friendly time, but as it was Christmas, I was lucky to get on a bus at all. I was moaning inwardly at the fact that it arrived in Cusco at the anti-social time of 5am, until I found out later that the Inca Gods really had been smiling on me. Another bus that left Arequipa at around the same time that night had plunged over a cliff, killing 40 people.

To be honest, I’m amazed we got there. As the grumpy driver crunched through the gears on hairpin Andean bends in the driving rain, the bus sounded like a jumbo jet struggling to take off on only 1 of its engines. In fifth gear, it sounded like a wheezy tractor. Some of the windows didn’t quite shut and the speakers for the DVD (I didn’t miss much it was ‘The Little Princess’) only worked on one side.

Cusco. Photo Natasha Young

My companion was an elderly Peruvian lady who was going home for a family Christmas with her grandchildren. When I confessed that I hardly ever managed to sleep on overnight buses, I was delighted when she told me that she never slept a wink either. Finally someone I could chat to!  Eleven hours later when she woke up from a sound sleep, she rather shame-facedly admitted that she’d had a very busy day.

Cusco

I’d heard good things about Cusco. True enough it’s a pretty town but for me it sums up everything that’s bad about mass tourism. My by now quite perky bus companion had told me not to pay more than 3 soles to get to my hostel. At the bus station I was the only tourist face among many Peruvians and every taxi driver for miles around was keen to take me. They were all trying to charge 8 soles or more. When I told them to dream on, they simply shrugged and wandered off. The hostel was terrible (more on that later) and when I went into town I saw a man almost lose his watch to a young female pick-pocket within the first 5 minutes.

What Cusco looks like. Photo Natasha Young

There were tourists everywhere. From rich Americans and Japanese families to doddery guided groups and penny-pinching backpackers. To help part them from their cash, Cusco was full to bursting with tour agencies, camping equipment stores, souvenir shops, luxury gift emporiums, money exchanges, English pubs, international restaurants and mediocre hostels and hotels. Sellers wouldn’t settle for you simply walking by, they’d grab your arm, crying ‘amiga, amiga, mira!!!’ trying to steer you forcibly into their shop. Or they’d see you looking at their selection of hats and immediately point, nodding sagely as they said the word ‘hats’ in a variety of languages. Morose looking girls in traditional dress pulled along even more depressed looking llamas, hustling camera-toting tourists for money to take a picture. If there’s any kind of authentic experience to be had in Cusco, I’m not sure I found it. The nearest I got were some temporary food stalls away from the main square where locals were eating guinea pig, chicken, black corn and other regional dishes. For 4.5 soles (most tourist menus start at 8 or more), a woman scooped chicken and rice out of a bucket and cleared me a space on a shared table. It was delicious and all my fellow Peruvian diners seemed pleased as punch that I thought so. Other than that, I got the impression that real life happens somewhere well outside the city, where prices are cheaper and the people are poor. I wished desperately to be back in Arequipa.

Happy Christmas from Peru. Photo Natasha Young

Salvation was to come the next day in the form of friends. Five of us had agreed to meet for Christmas in Cusco and we spend a very happy December 25th comparing stories, indulging in English food cravings and catching up. I’d never normally venture into an English pub outside of England but if you can’t beat them, you may as well join them. As much as I hate overly touristy places, I can’t pretend I wasn’t excited about going to a cafe that sold English breakfast with real baked beans or a pub with Christmas lunch and all the trimmings.

We were all staying at the Flying Dog hostel, a place with decent reviews on Hostelworld. It wasn’t the worst place I’ve ever stayed but it wasn’t far off. Everything seemed to have been designed for the fun of the rather sleazy male staff. There was always at least one of them sleeping on the sofas in the small common room, using the internet or playing computer games on the TV, while guests wandered around, hoping one day soon to check their email or watch TV. The shower leaked, so did the ceiling, walls were paper-thin and in the end, it felt like we were paying through the nose to stay at someone’s house rather than in a hostel.

Cusco and a sorry-looking llama. Photo Natasha Young

It was the hostel staff that had recommended the launderette two doors up the hill. I dropped my washing off on Christmas Eve morning for a 2 hour service. The 2 hour service turned out to take 36, but as they were opening on Christmas Day, I didn’t like to complain. When I went to fetch it, I opened the bag and pulled out a rather large pair of boxer shorts.

“Urm, these aren’t mine. In fact none of these clothes are mine”. 

Oh. Are you sure?

 “Yes” (holding up a t-shirt that said ‘the man, the legend’ and a large arrow pointing south). 

“Oh.” She grabbed another bag. This one contained what looked to be like most of my clothes, all damp, a yellow thong (not mine) and some mens’ socks.

“Urm, this is all still wet”. And so it went on. Many hours of toing and froing later, I was eventually reunited with my washing, although I’m quite convinced that somewhere in the world, there’s a man I’ve never met who is struggling to recall how he came into possession of a pair of size 12 M&S knickers. Scary to think that these people also arrange tours.

Inca Wall, Cusco. Photo Natasha Young

All in all, it was an unusual Christmas, especially as Boxing Day was  to be spent at Machu Picchu. More on that to come.

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