You don't have to mentally unstable to live here, but it helps...

Day 380 - Margaret River

It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair.

It was a Tuesday, it was like any other. Me and the Cornish lads had slogged through another day on the vineyard and were driving home. I switched on my phone to check messages, my housemate Emily had text

"All our stuff's on the street. Martina showdown."
It had been building to this but with 3 days left before we left Margaret River she'd actually done it. Perhaps I should recap?

The housing situation at Tunbridge Street had been deteriorating since, well, since I moved in really. I'd have to say that this was in spite of rather than because of my presence. I hadn't met the landlady before I took the room so my first contact with Martina was after work one day. Walking down the drive, she was stood on the roof of the house with a hosepipe.
"You must be Ben?"
"Yes, hi."
"You're better looking than the Irish boys."
"Er, ok, bye!"
I'd been warned she was mildly quirky but this was just the tip of an eccentric iceberg. Martina was on the property a lot, always unannounced, always eager to disparage my housemates to me, 'the only one [of us] she could talk to.' There were a couple of ongoing disputes I had walked into about damage to the property and the need for professional cleaners to come in, I steered clear of these subjects as much as possible and when I couldn't I attempted to mollify and cajole her into reason. I thought I was fighting a winning battle or at least promoting a civil peace that would hold until we vacated. But her general annoyance was twisting into a burning indignation at our 'behavior', it was fomenting into a bilious outrage at our occupation of her house. Most of all she was affronted by the general wantonness of our collective character and our propensity to 'lie' and 'steal'. One sunny day a notice was posted on the door outlining the many and varied ways we had broken the adjacently affixed contract and informing us the 2 month lease (crudely amended from 3) on said contract meant we would have to leave the place immediately, and preferably sooner. Given that there was still 3 weeks until we departed having to find new accommodation now would be an inconvenience none of us needed. James, Rob and Tash presciently chose not long after this point at which to continue their lives on the east coast of Oz leaving myself, Emily, Bryan and Tully with the wicked witch of the west. Another departure was that of Frodo the sheep. He had been removed to pastures new owing to the fact we had attempted to extinguish a cigarette on him. None of us recalled doing this (or made a habit of torturing animals) but Martina was adamant. As I was the only resident she deigned to communicate with it fell on me to negotiate our stay and the admission of new occupants to cover the rent of those leaving. She ranted, she raved, she slandered. With tongue clamped firmly between teeth I nodded and attempted to explain the merits of our continued rental. And...amazingly, she assented to all my wishes (barring the unstated one to have herself sectioned under the mental health act).
"no wonder europe is in a crisis. the future doesn't look good for it either if all it's occupants are like you lot."
The peace accord had lasted a week. We had politely cited contract law and declined to pay extra rent for the remainder of our time there.
"stop acting the bully boy with your crim mate who you boogie with coz she gets you the jobs."
The 'crim mate' referred to was Emily whom Martina was convinced had tried to steal our rent. The 'jobs' were vineyard work that Emily apparently booked for me despite the complication of us being at different agencies. The slightly unhinged missive was from a woman (Martina) who claimed to be a qualified lawyer. This same woman also claimed to be a Buddhist, indeed when Bryan was rushed to hospital with a serious heart condition she attributed it to karma, well he did owe her $20 in rent I suppose. By this time we had persuaded 2 new people to move in. Wayne was a South African and Oliver was from Montreal in Canada. Perhaps we should have given them more warning about the acid-tinged miasma into which they were entering? Well Wayne had met Martina, Oli was Wayne's friend and we needed the money, my conscience is fairly clear. Indeed, who were we to deny them special memories to put in the 'you'll-look-back-and-laugh' category or madcap stories without the slightest need for embellishment. It wasn't long before I had lost my role as mediator by taking Emily's side in another of Martina's accusatory rants joining the rest of the "selfish", "bothersome", "unruly", "immature", "renegging" [sic], "dishonest", "disrespectful", "stupid", "druggie" residents of Tunbridge Street. There would be no talking her round now.
"Pls vk8 property asap. Thrz 2 much damage dun. M."
She repeatedly asked us to leave, we stubbornly stayed and as our final week approached everything had gone quiet, ominously so. Did we assume she had finally accepted our ongoing presence? Did we think reason had prevailed and Martina had decided it wasn't worth the fight given our impending departure? Did we truly believe we had won the battle of wills? Folly! Like a whispered curse uttered by maddened tongue a shadow fell over the house...

Saturday, 6 days to go, the lights went out.
Calls, texts and emails to our suddenly absent landlady went answered, our pleas to fix the electricity unheeded. As the sun's illumination was swallowed by the horizon we ate steak by candlelight and wearily laughed at our plight in a show of blitz spirit.

Sunday, 5 days to endure, the gas stopped working.
At least as we stumbled around in the darkness we could locate each other by our unshowered odour (gas boiler) and the rumbling of stomachs empty of cooked food (gas oven).

Monday, 4 dark days remain, a response.
"whr r th circuit breakers n fuses frm meter box? M."
Despite repeated investigations of the box we hadn't clocked the absence of these vital components. Martina naturally attributed their loss to us or one of our unsavoury friends, which is logical...if you're Martina. No further action seemed forthcoming on her part so it looked like we'd see out our time in Margaret River in these debased conditions.

Tuesday afternoon, 3 days to basic amenities, back to the start of the tale.
Our possessions dumped unceremoniously in the verge, the house locked (we never had keys), Martina had gone nuclear. If there was one element of fortune in the situation it was that Emily was employed by Vinepower (a regional work agency) and her colleagues had kindly helped pack our stuff into various vehicles and transported it to the office. Mel, who would shortly be replacing Emily, was extraordinarily generous in offering to house myself, Em, Oli and his girlfriend Jenn who had unfortunately chosen this day to arrive in Margaret River. Without all this assistance our position would have been, to say the least, bad. Mel fed us, watered us, gave us a most comfortable port in a tumultuous storm. Once assorted belongings in assorted bags had been sifted through we found ourselves short a couple of laptops and a camera. A message arrived from our erstwhile landlady advising that these items had been kept as 'collateral' but could be retrieved with a payment of $800. Her actions to this point had fallen into the grey area of the law but this was outright theft and the police swiftly persuaded her of the wisdom in returning the items. She did, however, in the name of reciprocity demand we give back the plastic sheet she had kindly used to cover the ejected materials of our life. We kept it, ha! As if to cap these crazy days Martina also told Oli that it was her that had taken the fuses from the electricity box, words just fail me at this point.
And that, to the best of my memory, was that. Friday came and myself, Emily and Matt struck north for Perth, Oli and Jenn east to places unknown, Wayne was already in Bali and Bryan and Tully were staying in Margaret River a little longer. I never got to say goodbye to half the people I intended to but I certainly won't forget them. Nor, I commit, my time in Margs for those four and a half short months. That life lived between July 27th and December 14th 2013. I like to imagine it still going on there as if nothing had changed and we'd never left. As if I had a ribboned box, a grand doll's house I could peek into now and then and see all of us going about our day to day in the little town, our loves and adventures and minor tribulations, all carried along on wispy clouds as if nothing really mattered. It is fated, in time, to seem ever more a product of my imagination but I know at the instant of recollection my heart will throb a little and the reality of then will still sneak a nostalgic smile onto my face now. It was the best of times.

365+88=?

Day 365 - Margaret River

A couple of notable milestones had passed. The first was the completion of my 88 days of regional work. This was a cause for relief and elation given the slender margins of time I had to get it done. Despite the sheer monotony of each working day the weeks had zipped by at an acceptable pace. Despite the specified 3 months seeming to stretch endlessly into the distance on that frigid first morning in the vineyard I could now thumb my nose at Labour Solution's exploitative employ and return to the cosmopolitan splendor of Sydney. Except I couldn't. Whilst I would consider it an appropriate gesture for the Australian government to buy you a plane ticket back to civilisation at the completion of your regional work this doesn't appear to be official policy. So, though I calculated that I had pruned, wrapped, pulled, thinned, constrained and otherwise manhandled in excess of 21,000 vines up to this point I would need a few more to return east. The other notable milestone? 365 days on the road. In truth I didn't even notice it pass. This blog is the only means by which I register the accumulation of days and I was so woefully behind in my writing in Margaret River that the anniversary of the trip's beginning elicited only an 'oh' when I did realise a week later. But...a year on the road. It feels like words are needed, a weighty treatment or microcosmic summary. And the question hangs in the air like a fresh piñada....why? What is it to travel? What is it to move? What does it give us? More to love or more to hate? More to pity or more to envy? Does it place us in the world or does it break us from our bonds and cast us adrift? Am I running from the inevitable or chasing the impossible? Neither I hope. Perhaps the roads and rails and waterways of the world are my bloodstream. Is this the imperative vitality of perpetual motion? I've noticed that It is hard to define oneself during a trip such as this. Where I'm from, what I do - these markers fade in significance. My goals become amorphous and scattered by the wind, the fragments land in England and India, Asia and Australia. They fall down the cracks between rocks and hard places. How you judge your success at this life is hard to know, there isn't an easily applicable template for the wanderer. I hope I'll know it when I see it but I'm a long way from home.
My final weeks in the little town in a quiet corner of Western Australia were nothing if not dramatic, I recall feeling at the time as if my life had been set on fire. Set on fire partly by events beyond my control, partly by events...not beyond my control. I met some great people, I said goodbye to some great people saddened by the probable finality of it. I made dubious decisions in the name of chivalry, I played diplomat and cuckold on the stage of the world. I strengthened then scuppered relations with Italy while Germany warmed. I left the 'entente cordiale' a shunned shadow, I uneuphemistically drove a tractor. Interspersed with the flames of diminished responsibility were some more genteel highlights. There was sea fishing from the rocks at Conto beach as the sun went down. There was the night we had Japanese friends round to create fantastically fresh sushi, my stomach still growls at the memory. There were some enjoyably rudimentary barbis in the back garden and tear-drenched laughter at the musical stylings of Rappy McRapperson and his track 'Fishsticks' (Spotify, you won't/will regret it). There was the day 5 of us piled into 3 inflatable dinghies and paddled up the eponymous river, hot sun in the sky and cold cider in the hand. It was Matt's idea to recreate the 'River of Golden Dreams' from his time in Canada. He and I both bagged a dinghie and decided the tallest member of our group (Emily) should pile in with the smallest (Oli), thankfully the craft's rated carrying capacity wasn't too strict. We didn't get very far upstream despite, oddly, being assisted by the current. After about half an hour of paddling we spotted something worthy of investigation. A ruined mansion sat ominously on the riverbank, devoid of roof and window and certain to be stalked by ghosts and apparitions, we moored up. The grounds surrounding the building were immaculately cared for, as if the long gone occupants had forgotten to give the gardener his notice. The flowers in the border were tended, the grass precision mowed and yet not a soul (or ghoul) in sight as we trepidatiously explored. The property would be worth millions, just the land thousands, why did it lie in crumbled waste? Perhaps a victim of the bushfires that tore through the area a year past? Suddenly we heard voices and aware that our trespasses might not be forgiven (based on the 'no trespassing' sign) scuttled back to our boats. Scuttled was an operative word as mine had seemingly sprung a puncture in the landing and now lay disappointingly deflated. So 4 went into 2 and we swiftly paddled away to the safety of open water.
All these things were very pleasant, in stark contrast to the drama shortly to unfold as my time in Margaret River drew to a close...

Why so blue?

Day 333 - Margaret River

Despite the inestimable pleasure of sleeping in a bunk bed, sharing your toilet cubicle with wildlife, bare concrete floors and Gwendal, it was time to leave the hostel. And yet I did so with an amount of reluctance. I'd become used to the place, a part of the worn furniture, institutionalised you could say. So when the offer of a room in a house came I clung fiercely to what I knew and shied away from a new place and new people. I'm not sure that fear will ever entirely desert me, my nature is my nature, but at least in my age and my wisdom I can push through it with a modicum of sense. The house was familiar, I'd been there before after a night in the pub. As had most of the other patrons once word got around of a party at 46 Tunbridge Street. The 100 or so unexpected guests were soon surreptitiously pointed in the direction of another, 'better' house party at an unsuspecting and unfortunate address down the road. Poor Frodo didn't know what to make of it all, Frodo being the resident gardener. And also being a sheep. Life at Tunbridge Street would be interesting. Coincidentally the weekend of the move was the same as that of another houseparty, though this one was at an abode on the Leeuwin Estate, one of the major wine makers in the Margaret River region. Being Halloween there was a fancy dress theme, my new roommates had opted to go as a gaggle (herd? horde?) of Smurfs. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, as the saying goes and beating a smurf just seemed wrong, although I wouldn't feel that way all night... So, slathered in blue paint and with a jaunty little bonnet popped on my head off we went. Perhaps I felt the need to make an impression, to announce my arrival to this new social sphere in definitive fashion. Thus by the end of what was, overall, a pleasant evening I had called one of my new roommates a bitch, smashed some glasses and got into a fight with another Smurf. In my defence -

1, The bitch comment was a first, rescinded impression.
2, The glasses may not have been (just) me.
3, The fight was more pushy-shovey than fisty-cuffy.
4, There was free wine.
Time passed much as before though, I toiled in the vineyards under a now-baking sun and turned a very non-English shade of brown. I worked with two Cornish lads called Mike and Oli putting wire up to contain the now abundant summer foliage sprouting from the vines in every direction. We hardily battled our own apathy and the swarms of flies that gave the vineyard a low, constant hum from their incessant buzzing. Leisure hours were spent, thanks to Nik and Matt, enjoying drinking games such as 'wizard staffs' where you drink your height in beer cans, each fresh one being gaffa-taped to the ones before it.
Another game was 'centurion' where you drink 100 shots in 100 minutes (better done with beer rather than Passion Pop eh Nik?). We also fit in the occasional trip to Perth in order to sample big city novelties such as McDonalds, late closing bars and staircases (i'm not sure I ever used one in Margaret River). Also a birthday was once again upon me, from Prague to Margs in a year. For some reason it aged me more than the big 3-0. Maybe it was being surrounded by people in their early twenties but I couldn't help but pause to wonder what I was doing here? Everyone back home was leading very different lives and I didn't feel like the clever one so much these days. One day you wake up and you aren't so young anymore, you aren't the one gently mocking your elders 'cause you are the elder. It seems time had plucked at my hair and marked my step. It had produced a whole new generation of adults a decade after me. Age is said to be relative but it is ultimately absolute and I wondered why I couldn't leave a version of myself at home to ruthlessly pursue a career, another version to start a family and leave this final version to continue the adventure. It is a desire to have it all I grant and that is such a contemporary dissatisfaction I also know. I suppose in essence I don't want to leave it too late to realise what I truly want. On the other hand I must take gratification from the fact I have made it to 31 at all. Given my proclivity for accident and illness it can't have been a certainty. There is also thanks for time's gentle erosion of sharp edges and its lessons both harsh and benign. This blog, at its most ambitious is a search for an understanding of the world and an understanding of myself though I suspect these are essentially the same thing. Sometimes I feel like there is a part of my brain set to perpetual daydream, conjuring a world my fingertips can only brush at full stretch. It is bright and woven with poetry, every feeling , every experience so visceral and fulsome, it is beauty. Sadness is born there, sadness is borne here.
"Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be."
-- William Hazlitt

I love blue sofa

Day 282 - Margaret River

'Saturday night tears at the thin fabric of human culture, exposing the beast beneath.'

-- Margaret River Lodge motto
The hostel was quite unlike any I had stayed in before. Monday to Friday its residents dutifully rose early to toil in the vineyards surrounding the little town. To endure biting wind and stinging rain while working on grape vines that produced wines that they couldn't afford. Come the weekend though there was full-scale rebellion against this government-ordained monotony. A cauldron brought out and placed in the centre of the kitchen, goon and evil spirits cast into it for unholy concoction and ungodly intoxication. We whooped, we caroused. We painted our faces and shaved our heads. We steeped ourselves in wine, (lack of) women and song. We played topical drinking games like 'wine waterboarding' (not me) and entered the swimming pool via the shopping trolley delivery method (me). In short we were frothing. I had swiftly (well it may have taken a couple of applications of this particular truth) learned that midweek revelry was to be avoided. Lack of sleep and 7 hours manual labour mixed about as well as the various drinks in my stomach and after the previous night's alcohol had worn off about an hour into the day...oh, the horror... Thus the hostel resembled a community, a group of indentured workers united in purpose. People came and people went but a core remained. Battling shyness and mild social ineptitude I made good friends and memorable acquaintances in due course and relaxed into the pleasant simplicity of small town life.
45 days had passed since I had arrived in Margaret River and by my reckoning I was halfway through my regional work. I had moved on from pruning the vines which was something of a relief given the vicious electrical secateurs we used for the task. They hadn't the slightest reluctance in detaching a misplaced finger as an unfortunate girl on another team could attest. Though, Labour Solutions, the agency I was working through was locally referred to as 'Slave Solutions' they had thus far given me exactly what I needed in the form of consistent work. Okay the pay didn't buy many $9 pints of Swan Draught beer in the Settler's Tavern (best, almost only pub in town) but it bought enough and my confidence was increasing that I might just get a second year out of this country yet. My job now was 'wrapping' - each year the vine is chopped back to leave just the trunk and 2-4 strong shoots growing from it. Once these shoots reach around 3 feet in length they are wrapped around a wire running in line with the top of the trunk so there is formed a rough T shape, see here. You didn't know THAT 5 minutes ago did you? You wouldn't want to devote much more than half a minute to this process given that the pay for 1 vine was about 20 cents. In fact I had gotten quite adept at the work (doubling my weekly wages compared to a month ago) for a white person at least. Labour Solutions workforce was, at a guess, 95% Asian and they brought a furious, effortless energy to their endeavours that left us indolent Europeans trailing. At least I had company among the vines in the form of Matt and Nik a couple of Geordie lads (or thereabouts) arrived in MR not long after me and a large part of the reason my money saving had thus far gone not well. But all in all I was having a blast, allowing myself a measure of pride in my bootstrapped social scene. My enjoyment was only tempered by a survivors guilt, amplified and refracted by a guilt at not feeling guiltier. The sweeping command I exerted over my own life in stark contrast to the complete lack of influence I had improving another's...

Pitted road and darkened dreams

Day 257 - a black hole

To put it in the common parlance 'shit just got real.' If that phrase has a flippant air then it is unintended and unwelcome, I just don't know how else to put it. Likewise what do you say to your best friend, your constant travelling partner of the past 6 months, when they call to tell you they are being deported? Do you say "It'll be alright.", 'cause it won't, certainly not now, maybe not ever. What words soften the blow of accusing eyes delivering a fast-track conviction, how do you comfort a person become a...criminal in the blink of an eye? You only need have an immigration official cast an eye over your passport to know they are not from an organisation to be crossed, be you on the border of Australia or Zambia. A sullen, unflinching seriousness must either be rigorously instilled in them or else the recruitment process heavily selects against individuals displaying more than a ounce of levity. Withering stares are their weapon, suspicion their sixth sense. I can't imagine the feelings that must course through a person pulled aside at customs, knowing that they had something to hide. How difficult it must be to conceal your body's reaction to the stress, sweat pin-pricking the brow and palms, the face flushing red or draining white, words tripping over each other and tumbling from your mouth like passengers from a sinking ship. The ache in your stomach as fear closes its grip around you. Maybe a small voice inside desperately clutches at ration, meekly insisting that this is all an inconvenience of routine, an unlucky hitch to be politely passed. Perhaps the immigration officials say the same, reassuring you of the weary banality of their task, the box-ticking formalities before you are on your way. Do they mean it as a slight kindness or a cruel trompe l'œil? They probably take you to some anonymous room few travelers will lay nervous eyes upon, magnolia'd to nothingness, the walls dripping with portent. There would be questions I imagine, innocent and probing, scripted to subtly unwrap your story and peel back your deception. To see through the hand close to your face. You are all in, your current life the wager, the stakes never higher. And then it is over, now there is merely the admin of tearing you from dreams and happiness, a heartrending reset. And...and...nothing, enough, this disrespectful conjecture has gone on longer than I intended. I can no better put myself in this position than I can that of a man in the dock shuddering at the crack of a judge's gavel. But since that dark day I've felt a kind of ethereal detachment or impotence that I've failed to allay or, perhaps worse, adequately express. And for that I am sorry. Hoping things will work out for the best without actually doing anything to influence their course is building a house on the shifting sands of serendipity. And for that I am sorry. That you aren't in the only place in the world that you want to be. For that I am truly sorry. I miss you man.

River of golden dreams

Day 237 - Margaret River

The train cut through an orange land so sparse that not even clouds bloomed in its yawning blue sky. It passed stations so small that the platforms could hold 3 or 4 people at most. I saw dwellings here and there, each a battle against nature won though the ongoing war still inevitably lost. From the eastern hubbub to this western desolation I wondered, as I would many times over the coming months, how on earth I ended up here. I carried a knot in my stomach, whether from fear or food deprivation I couldn't be sure. This was new, this was different. Barring a few days in Brazil I had never so boldly struck out on my own. Leaving behind a pleasant Sydney existence, friends, a well paid job, the comfort of familiarity, to start again on the other side, to create a life over again. Yeah it was probably fear. I changed from train to bus at the end of the line and the landscape softened as we continued south. Wetter and greener, life returned in the form of new and exotic birds and the yin-yang of friesian cows. But I was not here for the fauna, rather it was the region's flora that had pulled me 2500 miles across the continent. The first vineyards I spotted were at a place called Wilybrup, the vines as bare of foliage as the rows were of workers, not a great sign of impending employment. The bus deposited me, appropriately enough, at a bus stop in the centre of Margaret River. I was struck by a wave of uncertainty over what I would do next. Were would I live? Were would I work? Who would I drink with down the pub? Nobody could answer these questions but me, I was going to have to take full responsibility for my own life for once. I gathered my luggage, I gathered myself and set off for a hostel whose name I had noted down in a sole concession to planning. The Margaret River Lodge YHA would be my home for the next 3 months but as I strode down its driveway I could have no idea of the bacchanalian chaos that lay ahead. All was quiet for now though so I dropped my pack on my bunk and decided to swing by the various agencies in the town that organised vineyard work. "Have you got any experience?", "No". "Have you got a car?", "No". The look that resulted from my regrettably honest answers to these two standard questions did not fill me with confidence with regard to my employability and, by extension, my second year visa. But the agencies took my name and number and sent me on my way damned with faint encouragement. After covering them all I retired to the pub in the knowledge I could do little more to secure appropriate work. As if to amplify my home-from-homesickness the song 'Mr. Brightside' played as I drank my extortionate pint. Were people looking at me as I mouthed the words? Was the lump in my throat as visibly big as it felt? It wasn't the first TBS (take me back to Sydney) moment I would have here, it wasn't the last.

Low winter sun

Day 201 - Sydney

A solitude wraps me as I walk, the ferries blow their funereal horns as if through some foggy dock on the eve of war. I turn up the collar on my favourite (only) winter coat and press on over the swing bridge and past destroyer, submarine and magnificent 3-masted sail ship. Wooden boards give a resonant thud as my smart-shod feet strike them and ibis stalk the grassy swath to my left. The sun traces its shallow arc in the sky as I arrive at the office and day two hundred and one stirs to life. The transience had paused and routine replaced it. Faces and places became familiar and relationships lasted past a day or two of crossed paths. Heck, such was the order of my life I had even taken to eating muesli for breakfast (with soy milk, natch). My job was going well, I worked with Kim and Lorraine auditing the company's Australian contractors and daily impressed my colleagues with technical wizardry and savoir faire. On the home front myself and Michael had moved into a hostel for the general well-being of all involved in our previous accommodation and we passed the evenings eating kangaroo and watching the dirge that Australian terrestrial TV stations deem suitable for broadcast. CBH continued to lubricate our social interactions and despite numerous ejections never held a grudge. The weather was improving such that a dip in the sea became a pleasurable pastime rather than a masochistic trial. In short life was pretty good. I have, in the past, wondered at the draw of Australia. Having seen several friends visit never to return to the motherland I was curious to understand the country's enrapturing power. It didn't take long before I was experiencing such emotions of my own, I felt the pull. My imagination was swiftly crafting a life here, so far from everything I had known for the last 30 years. And that, I think, is what it was for me. 30 years living in the same country, the same continent, the same hemisphere suddenly seemed like a long time, too long. Here was a brave new world abundant with possibilities that maybe I wouldn't have seen ensconced in my English groove, ever ploughing in the same direction. I felt like I had straightened my shuffling hunch, had lifted my eyes from the road. I found I liked Australia not for what it was but for what it wasn't. My mind raced ahead - I could extend my visa for a further year provided I undertook 3 months of 'specified' work. What this amounts to is going to Australia's more rural regions and doing jobs the natives don't want to do, I would have to work on my Polish accent. The black fly in the chardonnay was the fact that second visas are only granted to people under the age of 31. Some quick calculations gave the following result -

Months of regional work required = 3
Months until I turned 31 = 3¼

Time was, to put it mildly, tight. This would be a high stakes gamble as I would need to leave my job at Accenture, book a flight to the boondocks and pray I could pick up work immediately. More than a week spent without specified employment and there would be no second visa for me not to mention the cost of the plane tickets to bear. My attempts to secure a job before I left Sydney were coming to naught so on the advice of a drunken man in a pub I would soon be travelling to the other side of this vast country and the vineyards of Margaret River. Wish me luck...

Bullet points

Day 181 - Sydney

13 days into this unexpected tangent in the trip and some notable achievements could be listed. We were now regulars at the Coogee Bay Hotel (henceforth CBH), a bar known (to locals at least) as 'the animal pen'. We had taken in the famed Bondi Beach. I had swum on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. I had a job. Once more I had plunged into the masked ball of interviews where every interviewer pretends that they are offering the world's greatest job and every interviewee maintains the fantasy and professes to have dreamed of one day having such a position. I could now add 'Senior Administrator' to my garlanded résumé. The company? Accenture Plc., a multinational management consultancy firm with 250,000 employees worldwide. Well to be accurate 250,001. Not bad in less than a week. with a view from my desk of Sydney CBD 'fallen on my feet' would be an apt phrase to use. Before I started though myself and Mike found the time to catch up with our Irish partners in (petty) crime from Bolivia and Chile. Little had we expected to meet Dee and Darren again so soon when we bid them farewell at the bus station in Santiago and what a pleasure it was to see familiar faces. Another old face (30 to be precise) was Jon, a friend of mine from back home. A full ten years had passed since we went our separate ways after college. He had settled into life on the other side of the planet with a girlfriend, baby on the way and the hint of an Australian accent to complete the look. Me and Mike attended his 30th birthday party in the King's Cross area of Sydney. There is also an area called Paddington though I failed to find Fenchurch or Marylebone (yeah, yeah Paddington isn't on the Monopoly board, creative license innit). I also temporarily suspended my contempt for rugby league as a silly, bastardised form of the game in order to watch State of Origin, an annual competition between New South Wales and Queensland. The three match series resulted in a heartbreaking last game loss for NSW but myself, Mike, the girls and their posse of Irish friends drowned our 'sorrows' at CBH regardless. We had (we thought) ensconced ourselves back into normal life rather well. Australian bank account, phone number, a necktie or two and a local - all the trappings of civilised existence were obtained and all my earnings squandered at the aforementioned public house. Plus ça change...

Continental drift

Day 168 - Sydney

Surprising fact about Australia #1: It has seasons.
Surprising fact about Australia #2: Some of those seasons are cold.
Surprising fact about Australia #3: I was in it. And cold.

Everybody likes surprises don't they? Unexpectedly finding two men in your flat when you return from work qualifies as a surprise right? The alarmed screams seemed to indicate so. Scaring Amy and Jayne has proved to be one of life's simple pleasures but traveling nearly 5000 miles to do it could be deemed excessive. Myself and Michael would have to find something else to do in the land of Oz. That something else was the perpetuation of travel by way of the accumulation of capital. Gainful employment in short. Like a bombshell we had exploded back into the girl's ordered existence and with the shrapnel flung wide we settled into catching up over a couple of boxes of goon. Bangkok's sweltering temperatures and dollar beers lay far behind us though we were as culturally, economically and meteorologically as close to home as we had been so far been on this trip. And yet despite the cold (have I mentioned that it's cold?), the cost and the (temporary) abandonment of a life of perpetual leisure there was a strange thrill in me. A thrill of a new life to be created and all the possibilities that lay therein. Do we ever give up on reinvention of ourselves? Or if not reinvention then refinement, the smoothing of rough edges, the banishment of undesirable traits? Do we all hold dear the promise that a better us lies inside and if only the conditions were just right that person could be realised? People rarely change fundamentally so why do we strive for an unreachable goal? But we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past (Fitzgerald, 1925). It seems driven by a difficulty in accepting ourselves as we are, as we ever were, as we ever will be. Travel is the perfect foil to this frustrated vision. Another place, another person. Throw off your rusted shackles, climb from the indenture of your rut, feel the warm sunlight of possibility upon your face. We all seek our own particular brand of reinvention. Mine is best described as wanting to look into a mirror and see myself and not a vampiric transparency. But the only mirrors I look into are those in friend's and foreigner's faces and the reflections define the person I see. It is a self-worth dependent on others, it is an unhealthy stare. It is rabid insecurity alleviated by adulation. I once suggested that praise fell on me as lightly as snowflakes but I was wrong. It nourishes a ravenous beast, a dead-eyed monster with poisonous fangs. I don't know if that is a harsh assessment composed of words better suited to hyperbole than honest analysis. I don't know if this is catharsis or needy evisceration. I don't know if it is harder to forgive oneself or others for character flaws and failings. I often find myself trapped in the foolish notion that every feeling ostensibly manifested must be the opposite inside, that every weakness we perceive in other peeple must be present tenfold within ourselves. We care so inextricably deeply about what other people think of us but to successfully reinvent yourself it is only necessary to change the opinion of one person. And that person is you.

Sparks

Year - 0

We all, no matter the person, find ourselves at a point. The moment I started writing this - a point. The moment I finish - a point. The moment you start reading this - a point. The moment you finish - you get the idea. And a myriad of events but moreso decisions lead us to these variad points. Our decisions but, again, moreso other people's decisions brought us to this crossroads. A crossroads unlike any we've seen before and, with apologies for being obtuse, unlike any we'll see again. And this laboured point springs to my mind as I walk outside everyday, as I walk out onto the streets of Bangkok and look across to the Khao San Road. It forces me to question my own imagination, I read 'The Beach', I dreamed of the viscerality of this place, I dreamed of the real world no matter how fake it actually was. In a previous life I dreamed of another thing, a world that lay beyond my own that I promised myself I would see, that I would drown in, in the utter bliss of something else. And so I suppose that explains the mild lance of electricity that passes through me everyday as I walk barefoot into the chaotic vivance that greets me. How the tamest inclination shapes our weaving path, malleable beings are we not? If I have learned anything, it is one thing. There is no freedom in location. Our prisons follow in persistent troop behind us. We can choose to look only forwards and that may work but more likely a fool's paradise is sought, a white beach with blue seas and coconut heaved palms absent of any ill but, more pertinently, absent of ourselves. For we are a troubled generation, corrupted by ease and blighted by want. There exists a wonderfully pertinent line that has America being the only country that went from barbarity to decadence without civilisation in between. What a microcosm this generation is. And so we spread across the globe in search of something the homeland couldn't provide, of a future our parents granted us but for innumerate reasons chose not themselves. But nonetheless I have outdone myself, I think a little of my delight in standing each day in Bangkok's stifling heat is the realisation that somehow through poor velocity and great fortune I am in the place that I desired to be. Damn my incapacity to roll around on the floor kicking my heels and whoop! Though we must return to freedom. What freedom I have now, a terrifying freedom, a license to ill, an absence of reason not to make myself happy. Who else can we blame now? If I may speak for the general population I'd say the blanket of discontent is a reasonably warm and comfortable one. It is a patchwork of obligation and imperative. How does this lost generation find itself? In the anarchy of Khao San or in the peace of a Buddhist temple? I fear we know too much and know too little. We have the world at our feet and we trample it in selfish search for fulfillment. The noblest of aims drives our parents to give us this gift and yet it is simplest of evolution's gifts that we have it. We all play this zero sum game, the environment varies but the rules endure. You can't help but laugh at life's unblinking stare.

Never mind the bollocks

Day 155 - Bangkok

If there is 1 place synonymous or perhaps infamous with the backpacker circuit then surely this is it. If there is 1 place whose reality so precisely matched my expectation of it, whose sights, sounds and smells mirrored those of an imagination fed by popular media then surely it was here. I woke after the first proper sleep in days and walked out onto the balcony of the Romruen Resort. Beyond the sliding glass door was a wall of heat, thick air enveloped me and mocked sweat glands sprung desperately into action. We had arrived in the world's hottest city or its outskirts at least. Eschewing originality the bags were repacked and the two of us headed for the traveller's rite of passage that is the Khao San Road. It isn't Thailand, it isn't really Bangkok, it is something else. A road constructed from dreams of escape and the unquenchable thirst for the exotic. You could write it off as a parody of travel, a hollow shell of culture that ceased long ago to represent anything other than the human desire for hedonism. But hate this place and you must hate your own hypocrisy because you created it, you, me and our kind. Personally I was torn. Sipping a Chang outside one of the road's numerous bars my eyes roved for vomiting revellers to disdain while I hoped for a divine wind to lift me above the plastic chairs and the predictable. But I also savoured the unbridled, unabashed vigour of the place. From the tattoo parlours (was 30 a little late to be getting inked? I decided not) and bootleg DVD stalls to the on-street massages and fried insects it is a rough symphony of experiences.
Tania hooked us up with a friend of hers called Prim who took us to what was reputedly the best place for Pad Thai in the city of 50,000 places to eat. After months in South America's culinary monoculture spices and fire filled my mouth and dormant areas of my tongue awakened. Perhaps though the novelty was over-exploited a few days later when I loaded a dish so heavily with chilli that it scalded my tongue. The Taling Chan Floating Market was another haven of fine cuisine. Fish pulled fresh from the water were grilled by wizened women on small boats moored to the bobbing pontoon on which we ate at tables so low Borrowers would stoop to them. A motorised launch took us around the back canals among wooden houses teetering on the edge and past local children frolicking in the murky waters. Huge shoals of catfish tussled over the pieces of bread thrown from our boat, the scene was a writhing silver mass of contorted scale.
The dawning reality of diminishing funds had made it clear that our plans for a grand tour of South America and South East Asia were unrealistic. At least consecutively unrealistic. The galling spectre of work was rearing its ugly head. The two of us would have to sweat and strive for money, not something we had had to do for yea....months. Discovering the average wage in Thailand to be around $6 a day it didn't seem the likeliest of countries in which to fill the travel coffers. Neither myself nor Michael, despite having checked, found ourselves qualified English teachers either (the Thais are getting awfully bureaucratic these days) so that avenue of employment was uncompromising also. We had no choice but to go to a distant outpost of the Western world. A country, nay, continent that lay essentially unclaimed by colonising Europe well into the 18th century. It hadn't featured prominently on any 'must-see' lists of mine but travel is an unruly beast and try to control it as you may it never ceases to surprise. So we were off to see the wizard in the land to the south, to seek our fortune and renew old acquaintances. Speaking of which we'd met by this time a couple of expats from way back. Ali and Jo had been living and working in Bangkok for some years and furnished us with friendly company, extensive recommendations and, kindest of all, accommodation for our final few days there. A great night out in the Patpong area (the 2nd syllable of that name will give you a clue as to its fame) granted a slightly scary glimpse at what this city has to offer, but only a glimpse. I eagerly await the day I can return here but for now we go south.

The best bits of the Americas

In no particular order other than chronologically.

McSorley's Irish Bar

“...36 beers stagger us but not as much as the $90 bill...”
Our first night on our first day in our first country of many to come found us in this Irish bar whose history dates back well over a hundred years. Presidents, poets and paupers drank here and now so had we two peripatetic Englishmen. Conversation was struck up with locals on the timeless and ever novel subject of differing nationalities and backgrounds, a scene to be repeated again and again on this trip. We staggered home happy, drunk and with empty wallets, a scene to be repeated again and again on this trip.

Snorkeling in Belize

“...I felt as if part of the ocean.”
I must confess to an apprehension of the water borne of watching a particular film as a child, I believe the medical condition is known as 'Spielbergian scarring'. I didn't realise though that Mike's watery inhibitions put mine to shame. But he did it and he loved it and little did he know that it was to be the tip of the (defrosted) iceberg.

Scuba in Utila

“The best left turn I ever made.”
Though I hesitate to rank these experiences, if someone put a gun to my head (which surprisingly hasn't happened on this trip yet) I would say Utila is primus inter pares. The bubble of our brief existence there reflected in the bubbles floating up from our breathing apparatus. The joy of the unexpected, the unplanned, suffused the two weeks and we took away great friendships, description-defying sights and fond memories of the time we became divers.

White water rafting

“The raft bounced, yawed, pitched and....flipped.”
I generally make a basic, and flawed, assumption of instant aptitude at any activity (sporting or otherwise) that I am about to try for the first time. I also exhibit a reliable irritation when it turns out I am no good at said activity. On the downside I was no good at white water testing. On the upside I was so bad it didn't leave a spare second to indulge in annoyance, I was too busy trying not to drown.

Quad biking in Nicaragua

“...roads whose condition could only only have been worsened by the addition of landmines.”
It's not that I can't drive, it's simply that no country in the world legally recognises my ability to do so. Thankfully quad bikes come with no such restrictive licensing conditions putting one at liberty to climb on with minimal instruction and be endangering pedestrian lives within minutes. If only it were so easy with cars...

Horse riding in Colombia

“We were disappointed not to be supplied with Stetsons...”
Sweeping vistas at a canter and a bit of Inca shit thrown in for good measure, this was a delightful morning spent in the hills of western Colombia. If there is any theme about the best bits I have listed so far it's that most of them could, fortune being cruel, have resulted in serious injury or death. I'd have to say though that any part of this trip that didn't result in serious injury or death was a best bit for me!

The Journey to Macchu Picchu

“...it was scenery you could not tear your eyes away from.”
Alright it didn't have the physical endeavor of the Inca Trail but the bus journey over the Andes providing awe-inspiring scenery and a reverence for Mother Nature in her rugged glory.

Jungle trekking

“...an inner bellow to the jungle at the sheer bloody masculinity of it all.”
It was hard but it was real...ish. Alright we would have probably died if Pedro wasn't with us but we did our own walking, caught our own fish and sweated our own sweat. I loved every torturous minute of it. In retrospect.

Santiago

“...fueled by Heineken and Clos we rolled back the years...”
It wasn't big, it wasn't clever, our parents wouldn't have been vastly impressed but we had the craic in Santiago alright! We also did nothing for the reputation of the English and Irish abroad, of that I can be sure.


And what was lacking...

Cider
This drink seems to have entirely failed to penetrate beyond England, Ireland and Northern France. A minor tragedy.

Rugby
Okay the Argies have it but no other countries seem to appreciate the glory of this sport. As for trying to watch the Six Nations...

Curry
South America, it's better if you just stop trying in all honesty, my tastebuds may never forgive you.

Quilts
17 blankets vs 1 quilt. Embrace the duck-down will you?

Good sandwiches
See: Curry.

Beer with gas
Chile, Argentina, I'm looking at you.

Adios/Sawatdee

Day 153 - Beijing

Our next journey was longer than average. 14,000 miles separated its beginning and end, or rather its end and its beginning for we were leaving this new world and returning to the old. From Rio to São Paulo and a couple of days in Bogota of table-tennis (82-0 Michael, eighty two - nil) and quinoa education before another flight north to Los Angeles via Miami. 24 hours in the city of angels gave enough time for a stroll along Santa Monica Boulevard with its parade of entertainers, freaks and pot peddlers. Tanned, athletic bodies pumped volleyballs back and forth on Venice Beach. Clean streets, straight lines, faintly familiar conventions. Even my fingernails, usually blackened with transit, were a pristine white through no doing of my own. Skateboarders looped and leapt along the promenade, sharks fought over morsels at the aquarium and the Hollywood sign remained elusive. After a wholesome dawdle there were two happy travellers when a pub was found stocking both cider and Newcastle Brown Ale. The novelty pushed us slightly toward overindulgence considering the next flight was mere hours away. In fact a couple of audacious queue jumps were required at the airport to ensure we made our flight and the third we did just for fun. I hadn't seen a place like this since my first visit to India in 2009. Viscous noise, a language in an unfathomable script and people...everywhere. Beijing wrestled with my senses in a way that perhaps nowhere else has in 3 years. I felt again like the green traveller I was back then, taking childish delight in things like Coke cans in hanzi (Chinese script). I recalled the feelings I had on first stepping into India's hot, smogged sun. The wonderous foreigness of it all, the world upside down that lay before me. It was heady and headaching (the car horns anyway) but intoxicatingly moreish. I hope I never run out of places like that to visit as I hope I will lever run out of adjectives to draw them. There was only a waking day to pass in China's heaving capital so we beelined for the people-lined Tiananmen Square. Indeed a long line of people jagged back and forth across the square like a game of snake got out of hand. Officials desperately laid more rope barriers at the rear to contain its rapid growth. Other party workers barked through megaphones at anyone who strayed from the state-sanctioned path. Out of the naivety created by Lonely Planet's cruel abandonment or maybe just because we're English we joined the queue in ignorance of its destination. And we shall ever wonder for we were ejected from it 5 minutes later, Michael for wearing flip-flops (a thing of no little wonder in Beijing) and me, well I guess the official just didn't like me. Dismayed but unbowed (probably a cultural faux-pas) we set off in search of the Forbidden City that alledgedly sat somewhere on the square's perimeter. A tourist information centre that spoke no English, a helpful but similarly linguistically limited tour guide and several maps failed to aid in its locating. We did eventually find the city under a giant portrait of Mao, a great leap forward after an hour of searching. Walking among its cypress trees was a pleasant respite from the press of people outside. We discovered the little red flags on sale from street vendors outside the walls were due to the fact it was National Day and wasn't just regular patriotic fervour. In contrast to the square the Forbidden City was relatively quiet, perhaps on this of all days reconciling the Communist (ish) present with the imperial past is more difficult? Maybe it also explains the rather shoddy presentation of artifacts within the old palace and general lackadasical maintenance. Better that though, I suppose, that the over-enthusiatic restoration that has blighted other Chinese sights like the Great Wall. The vast National Museum provided more hours diversion that we had remaining (and covered more miles than Michael had left in his feet) but a brisk pace took in the hundreds of thousands of years of history contained in the basement. The Cultural Revolution received its own treatment on a separate level, its coverage, at times, almost amusingly incomplete. China, from the briefest of glimpes that I had seen is an entralling country. A country in which high idealism battles human desire and the old certainty of control cedes to new, neon-tinged freedoms. But I wax lyrical, I know not enough, necesito regresar. That, I say with a note of sadness, is the last Spanish I will use for sometime. Back to loud, hopeful English and creative gesture for as we make the short hop from Beijing to Bangkok the Americas are truly, distantly behind us. And what of these 5 months? Those 150 days? How does one summarise 16 countries and so many miles of travel? What pathetic fallacy can do it justice? Am I the wiser for it? Heavens if not! But still, everyday life finds new ways to test your wisdom, to throw all certainty into doubt and confusion. And sometimes the more you see the less you understand and I have surely seen a lot. But see you must. Sweat and shiver, laugh and cry. Walk until your feet burn, swim until your hands shrivel. Listen until your eardrums ache and stare into the sun until your eyes scorch. Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience, and if it hurts, you know what? It was probably worth it (The Beach, 2000). So the only wisdom or advice I could offer you is to see the world for yourself. Because it is there, because it is beauty.

<insert rio-lly bad pun here>

Day 143 - Rio de Janeiro

It was early morning in Rio and Christ peered through the mist. Text messages flew back and forth.
"I'm here"
"At the hostel?"
"Yeah"
"Are you? Which room?"
"6"
"The girl at reception days you haven't checked in and they don't even have a room 6"
"Oh. Where am I then?"
Not at the right hostel as it turned out. Still, I had a welcome little sleep in one of their beds before sheepishly leaving. Little else of blog-worthy note occurred for the rest of the day. Mike and I watched Barcelona cede the La Liga title to some awful team from Madrid and got drunk with a pair of English girls whilst espousing the joys of our jungle tour (moreso me than Mike) as they were headed to Bolivia next. We did manage to find diversions other than football and intoxication (important though they are) in the rest of our time in Rio and spent a peaceful few hours striking around a tropical rainforest within the city limits. Hummingbirds buzzed around us as we are lunch in a restaurant in the forest, hovering at feeders hanging from the ceiling (the birds, not us). You had to marvel at the ferocity with which they fought the earth's inner pull. As we walked back to the bus stop we witnessed a creature defying gravity with rather less success. Ambling along, the trees above us shook and a drizzle of leaves fluttered slowly down to the road. Small monkeys leapt nimbly from branch to branch before, out of nowhere, a furry shape plunged onto the hard concrete with a resounding slap. Did he jump or was he pushed? Either way the little ape lay still before the two dumbfounded big apes. A bit like a cat landing on its back this seemed to defy the laws of nature as we knew them. After a few astonished moments there was a twitch and a painfully slow clambering back onto feet (and hands). How he survived the 50 foot drop I don't know but he now gingerly hobbled across the road and began to climb a tree. Another monkey came down to meet him and he climbed on its back seemingly shaken but without serious physical damage. We swung by the Maracana Stadium on our way home, one of football's meccas, that is under extensive redevelopment for the World Cup in 2014.
The next day saw an ill-fated attempt to visit Christ the Redeemer but he was too thickly wrapped in opaque cloud to make the view from the top (one of the redeeming features) worth the ascent. Instead another green excursion was taken, this time to the city's botanical gardens. Their tranquility was shared with Dennis, a Turkish man in Brazil for studying purposes. As is traditional myself and Michael found an Irish pub in the evening whose entry fee and stunning prices necessitated a short stay. Long enough though to appreciate the live music provided by a young girl on an acoustic guitar. Perched on her stool and playing to muted applause she had a curious solitude to her as she broke the still air with her lonely strum. The following day I walked the famous sandy swathes of Copacabana and Ipanema with Camilla, a Polish girl who had been in the same hostel as me in São Paulo. We drank from fresh coconut, watched people plucked from the sea by helicopter and met a friend of hers called Estefania. Hot sun, cold beer and a free (if painful) massage from Ipanema's powerful waves. That night the 3 of us and Michael hit Lapa, a lively neighbourhood popular with local muggers. It seemed that they, and indeed all its usual inhabitants had taken the evening off though and the wild revelry was sadly missed.

Sampa, oww, low

Day 140 - São Paulo

Tears of frustration and pain lurked threateningly at the corners of my eyes. An overnight bus journey to South America's largest city had turned into a trip of torment. Whether it was my hours of walking the previous day or another, unknown cause I was in a bit of a sorry state. My right leg, from top to bottom, was a barely functional mass of discomfort. The muscles howled with indignation at every attempted movement. I shivered uncontrollably for several hours as the bus bisected São Paulo's vast suburbs and now I struggled to stand at the terminal as I waited for my bag. Porters descended on the bus, jostling in their hurry and running over my foot with their trollies. Eventually the crowds dispersed and I managed to retrieve my luggage. Doing my best to swallow self-pity I hobbled to a taxi and headed for a hostel Mike had recommended having arrived there the day before. Several hours of sleep proved somewhat restorative despite loud jazz music outside the room, screaming children in a school next door and pounding roadworks in the street!
Despite lacking any standout attractions and a rather shaky start (which I think I briefly mentioned?) my few days in São Paulo were enjoyable. After my afflicted limb had regained most of its strength and the shivers had stopped I was beset by a turbulent stomach and pounding headaches meaning I barely made it further than the hostel courtyard for the first 2 days. Thankfully I was staying with a sociable bunch of people who seemed to share my disinclination to stray far from the accommodation. We did make it down to the corner café where an amusing, improvised game was devised involving a small basket, a person's head and some scrunched up bits of greasy paper. Sadly it is probably too late to be included in the 2012 Olympics schedule. The following day I roused myself to serious movement by taking a walking tour of the sprawling metropolis with Rosa, a Dutch girl well versed in the art form of 'glitch' (I have no idea either). She had been to São Paulo many times so proved an able guide. Owing to my leg's fragility frequent stops for beer were an unfortunate necessity. We perused shops selling stuff and things, wondered at the compete absence of billboards, saw neatly dissected animals at the market and studied strange, cryptic graffiti plastering tall buildings. There was enough time for a detailed chat about chlamydia with a pair of Swedes back at the hostel before I had to get an overnight bus to Rio. Retrieving my bag from the hostel storage bunker I was saying my goodbyes when there was a tickling sensation on the back of my neck. A flick of my hand sent a cockroach flying to the ground, lovely. A circuitous route via bus and subway left me once again haring it through a terminal with minutes to spare. Thankfully if there is one thing reliable about South American buses it is the unreliability of their departure times. Next up - the marvellous city.

10 things I hate about this bus

Day 139 - Automotive hell

1, lights off from the off.
2, no movies.
3, people are playing music off their phones
4, no food provided, I want my packed lunch.
5, aircon is set to stun.
6, the decor is shit.
7, I want to go somewhere snowy and it's taking me to Sao Paulo.
8, the woman that has just spent 20 minutes in the driver's cabin may have been administering executive relief, this service is not available to passengers.
9, not enough stops.
10, the conductor is forced to wear claret trousers with a salmon pink shirt and a claret tie, that is cruel.
11, the seat next to me isn't occupied by a pretty Brazilian girl with tight clothes and loose morals.
12, too many stops.
13, it cost eighty dollars.
14, it's trying to kill me.

Goosed

Day 136 - Foz do Iguazu

I wouldn't have thought it odd had a church bell struck a single, sonorous note right at that point. For I was alone, frighteningly literally. The Argentinian-Brazilian border was at my back, the bus I crossed on at my front, going at 40mph and not turning around. "What are we going to do now?" I could only ask myself. I had just set foot in a country whose language might as well have been Sanskrit for all I knew. Looking about for a clue, the merest hint of what I should do next having discounted my initial idea of getting into the foetal position. I noticed a fellow former passenger had also been deserted and approached with my best 'help the poor gringo' look. Rudimentary Spanish gleaned the information that more buses were imminent. He also informed that should I need a hostel his friend was picking him up shortly and they could take me to such a place. I had to question the merits of my decision as I sat in the back of the car heading to the aforementioned hostel but, I reasoned, Stevan and Diego seemed nice chaps. When decisions like this pan out you attribute yourself a wonderful judge of character and not a little intrepid. When they don't, a hopeless (and hopefully still living) knave.
I had judged well, both men were as they said they were and it was indeed a hostel to which I was brought. It was a backpacker factory for sure, the slick operation, the wallpaper of signs and notices left no doubt as to that but I found it unexpectedly agreeable. Perhaps its quiet appealed, a limited residence left me talking primarily to Stevan (in Spanish), Diego (in Portuguese) and Luisa the chef (in gesture) both nights I was there. After a first couple of hours at the bar of being entertained by some dubious musical choices and far too many UB40 tracks (i.e. more than zero) I felt Stevan required the benefit of my DJ'ing expertise *cough*. We tried Irish punk and some Jay-Z before a bit of American heavy rock piqued his interest. I retired to bed feeling my work was done for the day.
War had broken out again between Argentina and Britain. Again it was over a tiny, insignificant patch of green in the middle of nowhere. Again the sly South Americans were first to the scene, again the British were not far behind. With surprise the aggressors struck the first blow raining down exocets from every direction. Britain was shaken, doubting its resolve, its ability to protect its own territory from the assault. But slowly, but surely with a stiff upper lip, blitz spirit and other worn clichés it clawed itself back into contention. Guile and persistence and a healthy dose of spin ensured the day was won. Stevan, you must play on that ping-pong table everyday, forshame!
Time moved at its constant metre and I could spend no longer gathering my senses. I was here to see the Iguazu falls. Vast torrents of water surge over 275 sheer drops falling 260 feet into the eroded river bed below. As I waited at a lonely bus stop between the sight and the city where every passing motorist looked at me with an odd curiosity I planned the full day that lay ahead. The falls were for the evening before I got my next bus, first stop - Paraguay. Just over the river from Foz lies Ciudad de Este in South America's 2nd poorest country (after Bolivia). A bus took me from Foz city centre up to and over the international border without a single "passaporté señor". With no Brazilian exit stamp in my passport mild concern at the possible difficulties involved in reentry couldn't help but strike me. Oh well, I was here now. Here in a bustling city of commerce inundated with malls and stalls. Vendors proffered their wares in the welcome tongue of Spanish as I strolled the main thoroughfare. But I had little time for window(less) shopping so purchased a computer cable and sat down over a beer to plan my clandestine return to Brazil. As chance would have it the Paraguayans hop over this most porous of borders in great numbers and with apparent ease on the back of motorbikes. This would take the different means of transport I have used to swap countries on this trip to 7. My rider weaved through oncoming traffic slowing for not a second as we passed customs and immigration offices and I had made it back without Brazil ever knowing I'd left.
The sun blazed and a slight limp developed. Sitting on the bus to the waterfalls back in Foz I suddenly remembered a monument in the city that I wished to see. But after an hour of walking there was still no sight of it. Reasoning that I had enough time to reach it on foot if I got a taxi back, I could then fit in the falls and get my bus to Sao Paulo at 7pm. When I did reach the monument I stood at the meeting point of three countries, to my left the land of Argentina and to my right Paraguay, my feet planted firmly on Brazilian soil. An interesting location with one major, potentially ruinous problem - it was near deserted. The odd car came and went but not a single taxi in sight, another 90 minute walk would blast a giant hole through my packed itinerary and necessitate missing the main sight I was here for in order to make my bus on time. A minibus arrived with a couple of Japanese tourists in it. They came, they saw, they were swiftly leaving, no time to waste. Emboldened by desperation I negotiated a free lift back down the road and fortune had me on track again. Fortune bestowed greater gifts still when it transpired that the falls were also their next destination and they would happily take me all the way there.
I stood alone for the first time since I had reached this world-renowned sight and as the sun sank slowly in the sky I contemplated. Having done the tourist shuffle, having waited for a gap to open up on the viewing platform so I could take an identical picture I was left feeling unmoved. Standing solitary on another viewpoint further downstream little lizards scuttled back and forth, dragonflies buzzed around and around, hawks wheeled circles in the air. All of them in their circles just as the water below was in its circle, flowing to the sea where it will return to the sky and plunge down onto the mountains once more. Every creature in its own little circle, every element following its cycle. It is all circles really, life and death, decay and rebirth, growth and retreat, erosion and eruption. What is the point if everything ends up where it starts? What does it all matter? Nothing and everything. All matter returns to the earth and all earth returns to the stars, just as we erect monuments to perpetuity so we tear them down, or nature does it for us. All is just matter so nothing truly matters, but what else can we do? I felt, as I often have at these major sights, underwhelmed. That a lone little waterfall hidden somewhere secluded amongst the trees could have the same impact on a person as these mighty falls. That it isn't about the size of the location it's how you use it.

Na Trioblóidí

Day 131 - Buenos Aires

I think I finally put my finger on it in Buenos Aires. An explanation for a malaise grown over recent weeks that niggled and pricked my waking hours. I thought I could shake it, I just needed a bit more sleep. But it was emotional lethargy that saw days pass in this coolest of capitals without the slightest endeavour to sample its 'je ne sais quoi'. There were broad boulevards, architecture redolent of Paris and beautiful public spaces but somehow the city lacked something. It was I that lacked something though I realised. It suddenly struck me that we all form a connection to the place in which we live. We invest something in our home and it in turn invests something in us. The wandering alien severs his connection and loses a certain sense of belonging. I had no door to shut the world behind, no space to claim as my own. I was caught in a river whose course was unknown but whose current was insistent. Despite the new-found clarity and understanding I stood, or rather lay, surprised at this revelation. I hadn't anticipated a form of homesickness and certainly not so soon. It seems the wider world had taught me something about myself, fancy.
The hourglass didn't cease though even as my activity did. Every hour another grain of sand. 17 days left, 3000 miles to Bogota. I couldn't hang around the hostel all day plaguing Leon with music requests and bothering Cecilia with psychoanalysis. Make hay. So I ate fantastic steaks and monotone pizzas. I saw the tombs of San Martín and Eva Peron. Perused quirky antiques and drank endlessly flat beer. And edged inexorably towards a reckoning. A violent putsch and a nearly punch. Spite laden eyes narrow and black. Desperate remonstration fought chilling logic. A sudden crossroads without traffic lights or speed limits. The great unraveling or an inevitable check? Absolute or absolution? Reality swirled like a stirred cappuccino. It melted like the persistence of memory. Simple streaks of variance contorted into gaping, fanged mouths poised to devour us whole.  Gravity slipped Newton's leash and quadrangles twisted like a Rubik's cube. A volcano had erupted and I knew not how long its ash would cover the sky. I followed a faint light in the gloom, it pulsed, it flickered, it dimmed beyond sight at times but I followed. What else could I do?

Fissures

Day 127 - Mendoza

I'm desperately searching for an emotion, be it sadness or gladness, regret or disdain. There is no clarity only a vague nagging feeling that something is not right, the world is never as it should be but even less so right now. It tickles the back of my neck, it sours the beer in my glass, it stymies all action and makes every notion impotent. Do I attribute it to events still in motion? To dark days of high consequence? Is it the slow breaking of my heart or a great brittle chunk cleaving from the glacier of my being? My hand picks furiously, uncontrollably at my nails, discomfort in all but words. And words, words, how they fail me. Not with pen in hand but in situation out of hand. Do I lack emotion or do others have too much? No matter the rights and wrongs of that preposition logic always loses to emotion, the needle of ration crushed by the sledgehammer of feeling...

Drink! Feck! Spoons! Potatoes! Maggie Thatcher! Simultaneously!

Day 123 - Santiago

"No" was the answer to my request.
It was hard to pinpoint exactly what the 4 of us had done the previous evening to warrant the Hotel manager's curt response but it could be any one of a number of things.
"This is not the way people behave."
His English was impressive. I had been sent down to the lobby to ask humbly, futilely if we could stay another night. I was beginning to get the impression we could not. The seeds of this behavioural nadir were sown several days earlier when, having come to the end of our Bolivian tour, we found that Darren, Dee, Teresa and Sofia were also heading down into Chile. Our collective first stop was San Pedro de Atacama, a little tourist town on the edge of the world's driest desert. After washing the dirt of the road from ourselves myself and Michael decided a spot of lunch was in order. Having located a pleasant venue on the main plaza we were joined before long by, as chance would have it, a couple of Irish and a pair of Germans. 16ish pitchers of beer later we had negotiated San Pedro's odd licensing laws, almost stopped moaning about Chile's high prices and, most miraculously of all, booked our onward bus for the next day (thanks Teresa!)
The German girls had perhaps felt a prophetic twinge and elected to go their own way after we reached Santiago; the Anglo-Irish connection remained strong. Grand plans to see the capital's sights were made as the 4 of us sat outside a bar, grand plans were unmade as we ordered another round of beers. Waiting for the Irish outside Burger King a drunken Englishman provided entertainment by taking a running dive into a large pile of rubbish. I can't say which drunken Englishman it was. It wasn't me. Video coming to a Facebook near you soon. We returned our hotel provisioned with wine and snacks and continued our libations (bender). We found a small patio area with some fellow guests who quite obviously hadn't had the tiring, emotional evening that we had. The only conversation I can remember is Mike and Darren convincing them that the latter was a 'Cheese Mechanic' en-route to Australia by request of the government to teach the country how to make...well...cheese. All I know of the other conversions were that they were of sufficient volume to draw complaints. Darren had run out of cigarettes so I accompanied him on a foray to the local shops. Having purchased the smokes and insulted the football team of every male member of staff in the store we returned to find an asleep Mike, slumped in his chair and a bored Dee inserting cheese puffs into his nose, mouth and ears.
"Lo siento". It was no user, my tardy, poorly pronounced, apology would sway the manager not one bit. Hotel Londres in Santiago would not be accommodating us again. Okay so I knew about the noise we had made the previous night. I was aware the manager had witnessed me and Mike wrestling over who got the better bed. What I did not know until I had returned upstairs to deliver the bad news was that a drunken Englishman had urinated in front of the night porter. I can't say which drunken Englishman it was. It wasn't me. Alas, video not coming to a Facebook near you soon. Had I realised the cause of the wet towel lying on the bedroom floor in the morning I might have spent the time wasted negotiating with the Hotel manager packing my bag instead. Turns out (after we were turned out) that a major music festival was being held in Santiago that weekend and hotel rooms were, to say the least, in demand. But for a husband and wife team who packed all 4 of us and all our bags into their jeep and drove us from hotel to hotel we might have been sleeping in the park. Which is ironic given that the park was where we spent most of our remaining time in the capital. Our new accommodation was near to a pleasant green area replete with bars, restaurants, market stalls and a playground. A playground where fueled by Heineken and Clos we rolled back the years to careen down slides and soar on swings, to climb trees and hurl fistfuls of dirt. We ate picnics on the grass and Mike gave haircuts by lamplight.
And that is all can really tell you of Chile. Of its sights, its culture I am ignorant. Of its landscape and nature I know little. Of the fact it was one of the highlights of the trip I am certain.

Dark Heart

Day 120 - Somewhere in the jungle

A beast as elusive as the jaguar was our quarry. As rare too as the spotted cat in these modern times; we hunted for it in the rainforest. Three days and two nights we would spend on its trail, a search to test the body and mind to their limits. We chased the real, we sought a prize no less than ´The Authentic Experience™´. Not for us the comforts of a jungle lodge. Nor either the luxuries of meals thrice daily or bottled water in our bag. There was no bag in fact, only a mosquito net and a guide named Pedro. Everything we needed, food and drink and shelter would come from the forest. A casual, curious click on the ´Extreme´ section of the Mogli Jungle Tours website was all it was. Alcohol is a substance of many abilities but I am ever astounded at the way it turns bad ideas into good ones, questionable into compelling. As another glass of red wine slipped down in a restaurant in La Paz far from the jungle my life suddenly became incomplete having never held a tarantula or eaten a termite. No other tour would do, it was ´Survivors´ or nothing. Rurrenabaque sits on the banks of the River Beni and would be the jumping off point for our Amazon adventure. A turbulent hour by propeller plane from La Paz we left behind the chilly altitude of the capital for beating sun and thick, humid air. The town seems to exist solely to send tourists off into nature’s sweaty embrace. Tour agencies throng the high street outnumbered only by outfitters selling anything and everything an intrepid explorer might need, from repellent to rubber boots. And knives. Big, mean knives that Mike persuaded me were essential to our survival. So there I stood in my new wellies wearing a shirt last owned by someone from, judging by the arm patch, the German Federal Agency for Technical Relief. I gazed upstream to where the jungle swallowed the river and, in my head, beyond that to the living hell where our steel would be put to use. On one shoulder a mosquito net, the sole concession to comfort allowed, on the other a camera to record our daring exploits for posterity. At my feet a murky flow that would cross a continent to find a great ocean. In front of me the rickety launch that would speed us 3 hours along the Beni to a remote jungle camp. The launch drew a slow arc in the water, the engine fired and that would be the last we’d see of it for 3 days. As I watched its departure burning pinpricks of pain erupted across my hand. I pulled it away from the tree against which I had leant to find both the hand and the tree festooned with the insectoid agents of Satan (they even sport his team colour) that are fire ants. Named both for their red hue and the flaming viciousness of their bite they attack without provocation, hang on with fierce tenacity and probably taught Pedro a whole new set of English language curses he’d never heard before. ´Lesson 1 - Mind your manos (hands)´. It was quite a nice jungle camp as it turned out, or so it seemed for the 30 seconds it took me, Michael and Pedro to walk straight through it. Our first challenge came within another 30 seconds. Pedro waltzed over the log laying some 5 feet above the stream and with an instruction of "tranquilla" (calm) beckoned me to follow. I looked at the trunk that seemed to grow more slender before my eyes, I looked at the stream and its unknown depth, its unsighted bottom and I....opted to wade. Fortunately our knowledgeable, experienced guide assured me that this would not be a problem. Unfortunately, I discovered as the water slipped over the top of my boots, that this was not true. A trail snaked, no, sneaked into the green maze. From the clutter of bended branch decked with leaves to the loamy leaf-littered soil, it was a wall of nature. It burst from the ground and covered the sky, it ensconced with a brutal edge. Our party was not the only using the trail as a large paw print attested, a jaguar had been this very way of late. Onward. And onward. Beads of sweat raced each other down my forehead before dropping off the end of my nose like it was a leaky tap. Trails were fond morning memories, Pedro hacked out a path seen only by him through grasping, snagging, scratching growth. The occasional fire ant hopped aboard for a stinging ride and proved as adept at biting through our clothes as they had our skin. Sustained by what forest fruit we found, hunger was nothing to the all-conquering discomfort of thirst. Water poured from every pore and my mouth ran dry. Fantastic images of cold Fanta straight from the fridge occupied my thoughts. Torturous remembrances of frosty beer straight from the tap dominated my conscious. And suddenly the most rhetorical question I have every heard rang out "agua?" Cool, fresh, slightly woody water bubbled out of the hefty lump of tree I suspended above my head and down into a parched desert held wide open and grateful for every drop. Pedro had identified the exposed roots of a tree that was not entirely unlike every other tree around us and with a few dashes of his machete furnished me with a rather unconventional drinking vessel. The sound of wild pigs nearby even failed to distract from the liquid bounty. ´Lesson 2 - Drink as much as you can, when you can´. A more interesting four-legged discovery of rodential significance was the capybara wallowing in a pool next to where we pitched camp for the night. As interesting as a glimpse of the world’s largest rodent was darkness would soon be upon us and a shelter was needed. A simple but sturdy construction of wood and fronded leaf was soon thrown up. As the night began its songs and its screams I stretched weary limbs and closed tired eyes. The night survived I rose, squeezed reluctant feet back into ill-fitting boots, packed my mosquito net into a backpack that Pedro had crafted, with considerable skill, from palm leaves and prepared to set out for another day under the canopy. It seems though that our jungle trekking stripes were earned on day 1 (the imaginary stripes that I now wore on the arm of my imaginary combat fatigues) for after a couple of hours walking we had already found our next campsite. We dropped our gear, hung up a ´Gone fishin´ sign and went hunting for bait. Bait, it transpired, would be the classic, cliché even, earthworm dug from a muddy bank and threaded onto sizeable hooks. The equipment was even simpler than the bait, line wound round a wooden spool. The fishing technique beat everything for its uncomplicatedness, after locating fish-filled pool (ask your guide to help in this), toss in hook and line and sink ´er. Slowly pull the line back to you and if you feel a bite give a mighty heave and pull the fish onto the bank. Easy. Or so I thought after Pedro had, with his very first cast, pulled in a 7 inch catfish. My catch took longer to come, in fact it needed a change of pool. A second location was so inhabited by buzzing, airborne nuisances we might as well have been fly-fishing! Arf! Our haul was OK so far with a few little roach added, but it was only likely to arouse our appetites without bedding them back down. I gave the line a sharp yank and out of nowhere a healthy, hearty catfish lay wildly flapping on the bank. I took the back of my knife to the unfortunate creature’s head and unleashed an inner bellow to the jungle at the sheer bloody masculinity of it all. ´Course Pedro came back from his spot with a whole string of fish and managed it without looking half as pleased with himself as I did but then again I expect he’s done this before. We washed and gutted the catch down by the river, scales glittered like sequins as the flow carried them away. After an hour or so of cooking in bamboo over an open fire I savoured the freshest fish of my life in all its succulent, flaky perfection. Dessert was a writhing white grub I found in a log. It had a delicate, buttery flavour I think would go well with steamed spinach. I watched the sunset through a peach-coloured sky scored by dashes of burnt orange and pink. Light peeked over the distant tree line to subtly illuminate the waters of a river that will, many miles from here, flow into the mighty Amazon. The cicadas had started their chirruping in the darkening jungle behind me while squawking macaws flew overhead in pairs, always pairs, returning home to roost. A waterfall downstream provided a low but constant thrum as the two fishermen were silhouetted against the shore (this part I imagine as I was one of those men). Some of the earlier catch had been reserved for bigger quarry and now myself and Pedro whirled weighed lines around our heads like lassos and out into the river’s powerful pull. And then we waited, in a meditative silence, for a twitch or a quiver. It never came. I didn’t care one bit. There was such peaceful solemnity to be found sitting by that river a fish on the line might only have disturbed it. The sun died after a last gasp of searing colour and compelled us to end our sojourn. But it had soothed my soul, if only for a while. It was beauty. The previous evening had been rounded out with a night walk in search of nocturnal animals. Apart from an endearingly cute tree mouse and a nearly sighted ocelot there wasn’t much to see, apart from a pristine darkness, a blacker-than-black, an absence of light as I have never seen before. Day 3 dawned and owing to our campsite’s proximity to the river I was able to drink most greedily of its muddy water. Suitably refreshed so began the trek back to civilisation. Time passed quickly as the terrain changed, one minute sandy and firm the next a glutinous orange bog. We passed a fallen log covered in thousands of tiny mushrooms not bigger than a pinhead. We passed trees with giant buttress roots taller than a man. We passed the tracks of pigs moving at speed and the jaguar tracks beside them from the animal no doubt inducing their haste. I was sad to be leaving the jungle despite the deprivation and discomfort. I wanted to see more, to see the weird and wonderful that may lie through the next thicket. But I took pleasure from having completed the tour, from having ´survived´, from having done all that was asked of me by man and by nature. ´Lesson 3 - Do that which you cannot in order that you might´. Next time 20 days, now that would be a test.

Red, white and blue

Day 117 - Salar de Uyuni

Traditional Bolivian recipe -
Take 1 large, flat plain (about 4000 square miles)
Add a few pinches of salt (about 1 trillion)
Leave to bake under a hot sun for a few years (about 10 thousand)
You're done, tourists will eat it up.

The salt flats south of Uyuni are a remorseless sheet of crystalline white formed by the drying of a lake. Perpetually clear skies mean the sun bounces blindingly off the highly reflective surface and wearing sunglasses is a near necessity in this sterile emptiness. We stood outside the office where we had booked our 3 day tour awaiting our fellow tourees, people came and people went though two parents and their 3 boisterous children seemed to be lingering, how I prayed it it wouldn't be them. When our 4x4 did arrive it was preloaded with 3 girls and a boy of similar ages to ourselves, no guarantee of good times but a welcome start nonetheless. Darren and Dee were a couple from Ireland, Teresa and Sofia sisters from Germany. Myself and Darren discovered quickly that we both supported football teams from the north of England who wore red and were managed by Scots. Alas he had chosen poorly but I resolved to treat him with the kindness and respect that have always marked English-Irish relations. After a scenic graveyard of trains and a little too long staring at the flats the evening was drawing in. The place we stayed for the night was a ghost town in all but population (though I include stray dogs in the census). The building itself was a simple concrete hall with dorms leading off it and fronted by an enclosed courtyard for vehicles. The toilets flushed by means of a jug of water and the fact that hot showers were charged for allowed me to continue my soap dodging for another day. Our group seated itself at one of the tables in the *ahem* dining room and feasted upon a welcome snack of tea and dry crackers. we were eventually served a proper meal and having sourced some social lubricant in bottles stayed up talking about families and the Irish gave us an overview of the little town in the Emerald Isle from whence they came (and its eclectic cast of characters). The generator flicked off but the conversation continued by torchlight while outside a starscape of startling density covered the sky. A thousand twinkling dots broke the black canvas and my eyes swept back and forth without cease over the universe's infinite light show. It was an eloquent, wordless explanation of mankind's drive to explore space. Morning came to Nowheresville, Bolivia and found a tour party starting forlornly at a stricken 4x4. Luckily it was not our tour party but another one who had shared our breezeblock palace for the night. Our tour guide Pedro (no not the same one) endeavoured to assist in their hour of need. Deducing that it was a battery issue his solution appeared to be to remove the working one from our vehicle and give it to them. To collective relief (from one group anyway) he was only using it to jump start the other car with a couple of spanners and his body as a human electrical conductor. The second day of the tour took in rock formations carved into bizarre shapes by grating winds. Pedro never missed an opportunity to point out their vague resemblance to native animals. Lagoons provided occasional respite from the deserted land. They took a variety of hues though variety is probably too strong a term, after seeing our 5th green-blue pool of water Pedro's inquiry of "photograph?" was met with a resounding "no". One lagoon was different though. The colour of sacrificial blood dripping down the steps of an Incan pyramid, icebergs of white borax ringed its shores. Flamingoes stalked the shallows filtering out whatever goodness they could find in the seething water. It was a justly rewarding sight for enduring the (relative) monotony of the other lagoons and one I shall not forget. Our evening's rest would be taken in a building of striking similarity to the one of the previous day. The major difference being that it lacked any kind of town surrounding it. It lacked any kind of anything surrounding it. Isolated though we were Darren and I had located the the corner shop cum off-license within 10 minutes of arrival. Our group reconvened around the dining table and wearily munched on more dry crackers. The next table along had been laid out for a tour group that had yet to arrive and it had a noticeably higher class of biscuit on it. Theft is perhaps not the most appropriate word, a temporary and highly subtle switch was effected though. Anyway it was clear by this point that we had no good will to lose. The girl in the kitchen met the simplest and politest request with barely suppressed contempt. Our cheery (and slightly ironic) smiles as she passed the table actually elicited a snarl. If I were being charitable I might say that the fact she had to share a room with Pedro that night may have been weighing on her mind. The previous evening's leftover food was presented to us as dinner (I cannot prove this) and the night played out much the same - wine, laughter and mild, good-natured racism. Darren shivered in a sleeping bag in the front seat, Mike wrapped himself in a picnic rug in the back and and all of us wondered what what earthly purpose being up at half four in the morning in freezing temperatures could serve. The purpose, it turned out, was hot geysers, gas bursting from the earth with a sulphurous tang. We gladly huddled around one to feel its warmth. Next stop was a hot spring whose steaming surface promised respite from the frigid air. There was only the small matter of stripping off behind a hut to change into swimming shorts. Dee led the way and spent a quarter of an hour trying to persuade the rest of us it was a worthwhile experience. And it was. Warmth seeped back into my bones as the sun rose over the horizon. The tour was almost done, we were bearing down on the Chilean border where Pedro would leave us. Far less that the sights it was the sounds that will define my memories of these 3 days. The sounds of bottle tops popping and laughter erupting.

This trip sponsored by Clos

Day 103 - La Paz

After a morning of syringe shopping and staring at baby llama fetuses in the witches market we relaxed over a pint in the self-appointed ´5th best bar in La Paz´. Notwithstanding the use of Comic Sans for signage and its Lonely Planet declared infamy as the worst cultural experience in the city ´Oliver´s Travels´ was an agreeable watering hole. Staffed by a Brummie named Kass we managed to find our way there on each of the 8 days we spent in the capital. It certainly merited several more visits than a nearby curry house who, close to closing time and after the promise of a sizeable tip, served us some of the most unpleasant Indian cuisine I have ever tasted. Convinced the bill we were given included the aforementioned tip we calculated our debt sans an unworthy tribute and made a hasty exit. Two waiters dashing out into the street after us insisted that was not the case and we reluctantly coughed up the money (I would have happily coughed up the food). Our efforts to watch England in the Six Nations had been on a downward curve of success since the first game. From live in Bogota to stuttering streaming in Popayan, a few hours after the fact in Huanchaco to this. Days had elapsed since we had played France and, having studiously avoided the result, footage of a quality that would be unacceptable to Mongolian pirate TV was now downloading. Through blocky frames and amidst bemused waiters who indulged our need for power and wifi amiably we observed a fine if belated victory. Comforted by the fact the Oliver´s had the final game live a few days hence we chose to forget the fact that the plane tickets to Thailand we had just booked left us only 7 weeks to cover the rest of South America and that tarrying was obviously inadvisable. The time was used by repeatedly failing to get yellow fever shots, watching terrible films and eating cardiac-arresting amounts of fried chicken. Oh and booking tickets for a tour in the Amazon Rainforest. A fierce physical challenge lay ahead. Our flight to a little town on a tributary of the world´s greatest river left at 8AM the next morning. The final day of the world´s greatest rugby competition began at 8AM 24 hours previous to it. The date - 17th March, St. Patrick´s Day. Oliver´s was holding a ´Plastic Paddy´s Day´ celebration in which all non-Irish people present in the bar would be given a shot every hour, on the hour. This would not aid us in catching our flight.

Cuphut

Day 101 - Copacabana

It may have fallen short of outright murder but manslaughter might have been on the charge sheet if we hadn't released the old man from his duties. An impromptu, rudimentary and seemingly insurmountable roadblock had seen us halted in a little tumbleweed town on the Peruvian-Bolivian border. Around 50 people stood in the road a quarter of a mile ahead of the ever-growing convoy of lorries and minibuses. I strolled under the dry sun to their fleshy barricade. Debate calmly and unhurriedly continued as the reassuring sight of a police car formed in the distance. The crowd calmly and unhurriedly parted as if Moses himself was driving and reformed again behind the unfussed and departing officers. Eventually some maverick among our fellow passengers suggested taking the road around the unfathomable hindrance. And so it was we were deposited next to an wisened old Bolivian a kilometre or so from the border. How bad I felt as he struggled up the hill having had his fare negotiated down to a pittance, his pedal rickshaw slowing as his wheezing grew ever faster. About halfway through the journey we thanked him for his labours, tipped and hopped off.
We sat in front of the setting sun on Lake Titicaca eating a second identical burger provided courtesy of the fact that 'dos mas' is, it seems, an ambiguous request that can as well apply to dinner as it can to beer. My travelling companion held court on the simplicity of manning sailboats and insisted we should rent one the very next day. The former Sea Cadet assured me we'd not get lost due to the fact that boats have 'udders' by which one steers (or dictates the direction you want the boat to moove). He seemed less certain of his seaworthiness a couple of days later as we rocked uncertainly across a slender stretch of the lake on our way to the world's highest capital.