Stuff your rucksacks with pens, bras and the Economist

www.stuffyourrucksack.com puts travellers in touch with charities that need help

BBC TV presenter Kate Humble came up with the idea for stuffyourrucksack while stuck in a small Saharan village. Invited to a local school, the kids asked her how many hours it would take to travel by camel to England. Wondering out loud about how camels might cross the sea and whether they were allowed on ferries, a little arm went up: “What’s the sea?” The teacher asked her if she had a world map. Humble was humbled. If you grow-up in a land-locked country with no access to maps, books or the internet, how do you learn about the ocean? If only she’d known the school needed a map, she could easily have stuffed one in her backpack and opened up the world to a bunch of kids somewhere near Timbuktu. www.stuffyourrucksack.com was born.

The idea is simple. Small charities (or travellers who know about them) use the site to post wishlists of things they need. You check the site to see who needs what near your next destination, pack a few bits and pieces for them and then see what the organisation do when you drop them off. Travellers can feed back on the places they visit and are encouraged to keep their eyes peeled for more organisations that deserve support.

“The beauty of it is that it gives equal value both ways” says Humble. “The community benefits from something they actually really need and you get a local experience that you just can’t buy or get out of a guide book”.

Marybeth Gallagher from an after school programme in Namibia says: “The children have benefitted greatly from this website. I cannot begin to tell you how much loot people have hauled from all parts of the globe to donate to our kids. They have also come to visit and to spread the word about our work. It’s a brilliant idea!”

The site is currently getting a revamp and due for a re-launch in May. The hope is that it becomes a vast self-policing message board between travellers that extends to include more information about volunteer work. Aware that many big projects need volunteers to commit to 6 months or more, Stuffyourrucksack wants to hear from smaller organisations that would appreciate even just a few hours help as travellers are passing through town.    

To give you an idea of what you could be stuffing your backpack with, here are just a few ideas to get you started:

A doctor in Chiang Rai in Thailand needs ibuprofen

A charity that helps street kids in Guatemala needs more sleeping bags

A deaf school in Kenya wants toys

An animal hospital in Sri Lanka needs dog collars

A school in Cambodia needs English teachers (minimum 1 week)

A hospital in Malawi wants cell phones

A school in Cuba would love some musical instruments

A university in Macedonia is desperate for copies of The Economist

A school in China needs balloons

An organisation in South Africa wants your bra

And if you’re travelling across the Sahara, there’s a school out there in need of a map…

Visit www.stuffyourrucksack.com for more information and join them on Facebook.

Read the article on Matador or here.

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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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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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20 Random Acts of Kindness for Backpackers (Matador)

Photo by Daniel Gasienica

Imagine a hostel in which revellers tip-toe silently through the dorms, cups of tea appear beside your bed while you’re in the shower and your bill has already been paid when you go to check out. Inspired by Danny Wallace’s book ‘Random Acts of Kindness: 365 Ways to Make the World a Nicer Place’, here are 20 ways to spread the love this February. 

1. Do the washing-up in the hostel, even when it’s not yours.

2. Write up your top tips for nearby places and post them on hostel notice boards.

3. When you’re hostelling with friends, invite solo travellers out for dinner and drinks.

4. Travel with a plug-in mosquito repellent and keep the dorm mossie-free. Raid do a good one.

5. Offer to guard other peoples stuff at bus stations while they buy their tickets.

6. Buy a CD from a local busker, copy it onto your itunes and leave the CD in the hostel.

7. Pack some biscuits and a magazine from home and give them to a compatriot who has been travelling for ages.  

8. When you’re heading out for a heavy night, leave your toothbrush and whatever else you need out ready on your dorm bed so you don’t have to rifle through you backpack at four in the morning.

 9. Offer to make the hostel reception staff a cuppa.

10. Call or Skype your friends on their birthdays. It’ll mean all the more that you’ve remembered to call from the Amazon.

11. If you’re next to a nervous flyer, keep them talking during take off and landing to take their minds off the flight. Hold their hand if need be.

12. Rinse the hostel shower after use and clean the plughole.

13. Use cloth bags for your stuff rather than plastic ones. Your dorm mates will love you for not rustling in the morning.

14. Pack a few pairs of extra ear plugs and offer them to people trying to sleep in noisy dorms.

15. When you get on a local bus, pay for the person behind you too.

16. Buy a bag of dry dog food and feed the strays as you wander around a new city.

17. When you leave a country, give your left-over currency to travellers heading in the other direction.

18. Support new businesses that aren’t in the guidebooks.

19. After you take photos of other travellers, email them your pics. If you take a great shot of a local, consider printing off the photo and taking them a copy.

20. Call your mum and tell her where you are.

Got one of your own? Add your random acts below.

 See it on Matador here.

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How to Couchsurf Without a Couch (Matador)

Santiago’s party people. Photo Natasha Young

You don’t need Couchsurfing’s most famous accessory to take advantage of the site. Here’s an overview of how to couchsurf sans couch.

When you’re tired of traveling thousands of miles across the globe only to be faced with a hostel-full of your loud drunken countrymen, it’s time to join Couchsurfing. No matter if the idea of staying on a complete strangers’ smelly sofa fills you with horror; you can still use the site to meet knowledgeable locals and avoid all those hostel ‘have you done Peru?’ conversations.

Better still, if you’re moving to a new country and don’t know a soul, Couchsurfing meetings are a great place to start making friends. Here’s how.

Once you’ve joined the site and created your profile, your first stop is to check the CS communities. Most big cities have their own group/forum on the site and even if they don’t, it’s worth checking the events page to see if anything is going on nearby. If a meeting is listed, you can generally assume that everyone and anyone are welcome.

The Meetings
Couchsurfing meetings aren’t (just) about trying to cop off with handsome foreigners although they can sometimes feel a bit like speed-dating. In big popular cities like Buenos Aires, Paris or Barcelona, meetings may be so packed with eager residents and traveling Couchsurfers that it’ll make your head spin. Wherever you are in the world, you’re likely to meet some of the following:

a) The Party People. These young kittens have no job. They probably study astronomy or anthropology. They don’t care who you are or where you’re from. They’re just delighted they have a new friend to soak up the gin with.

b) The Lechers. “Mmmmm, you’re new”, they purr, as they clumsily brush their hands across your knee and look down your top. Couchsurfing may not be a dating site but no one has told them. In their profile shots, they will be wearing the very shortest shorts. They will only want to host girls.

c) The Knackered Travelers. They want to like Couchsurfing they really do, but before they came to this bar, they spent 3 days hiking up a volcano and then got on a bus for 32 hours. They were hoping to collapse into bed when they got here but their host is one of the party people (see above) and now they’re going to a club…

d) The Ex-Pats. When they first arrived here they were full of gleeful wonder but they’ve waited in one long bank queue too many and now they’re all bitter and twisted. They will take real pleasure in telling you everything that’s wrong with the place you’ve just landed in.

e) The Professional Couchsurfers. These will be the people who organized the meeting or answered your question on the forum in 30 seconds flat. They will make it their life mission to make you, and any other newbies, feel all warm and welcomed. They will have 543 positive references and get very cross when they read newspaper articles that describe Couchsurfing as a free alternative to hostelling rather than a cultural exchange.

The City Forums
When you need up-to-date local info on your destination of choice, there’s nothing better than an active Couchsurfing forum. Residents will know exactly how much the airport bus costs, where the drum and bass clubs are and if you need to include a photo on a local job application. Just be sure to ask them nicely, thank them profusely and return the favour to other travellers when you get home.

You can pretty much find anything on a Couchsurfing forum, but if what you want to see isn’t being organized, consider doing it yourself. From camping trips to city tours, piss ups to opera outings, language exchanges to sex toy parties: someone somewhere is planning it. Recent posts in Santiago de Chile included a trainee masseuse looking for people to practice on for free, Chilean Couchsufers and their families taking in solo travelers at Christmas and everyone rallying round to help one of their own who had taken ill in Brazil.

The Groups
Like listening to The Grateful Dead when you’re naked? There’s probably a group for that. Couchsurfing lindy hoppers, gay cyclists, handsome lawyers and high maintenance male backpackers all have their own groups, so why can’t you? For a walk on the wild side, check out funny negative references.

The Private Messages
If big social gatherings aren’t your thing but you want to meet people, it’s worth searching the list of local Couchsurfers for like-minded souls. Look for those with positive references that have logged into the system recently. When sending them a message, be sure to mention something from their profile; nobody likes a cut and paste. If you don’t need a bed for the night, check ‘coffee and a drink’ to find eager tour guides and drinking buddies.

Good manners and positive traveling karma underpin the ethos of Couchsurfing. Don’t forget your pleases and thank yous, and when you’ve been around long enough to know the answer to a question on the forum, be sure to dive in and answer. If you meet someone and have a splendid time, consider leaving them a positive reference. Equally, be honest and leave a neutral or negative one if you don’t.

In a perfect world, every Couchsurfer would want and be able to host and surf but it’s not always possible. If you can’t go the whole hog but want to get involved, remember this: sleeping over can be awesome but just hanging out can be fun too.

Read it here on Matador.

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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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