A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: WrightA

A Homecoming!

(Sort of...)

After a few tearful farewells in the Galapagos and Quito airport, and some bittersweet reunions in Quito, I woke up with a nasty pulled muscle in my neck. I say nasty but it wasn't anything special. I'd just managed to get a crick in my neck which made finding a comfortable place to sit and lie down pretty difficult. Also, I was being a big baby so I found it uncomfortable to move and stuff.

Georgie and Alex and I went for breakfast before waving Georgie off on her bus to Buenos Aires. None of this was particularly fun, and now my head had started throbbing - a cruel meal made from cruel ingredients: hangover from the day before, alcohol from the night before, sleepless night from the stupid crick in my neck. But Alex, always a plan in mind, had figured out getting a massage would be a cure for whatever ailed us, and I found it difficult to disagree. Little bit of exhaustion, a lot of emotion. What would be better than a nice massage, a dip in the pool and the Jacuzzi? We even finally convinced Sam to join us after he'd waved Bryony off at the airport.

Sadly the pool was closed. It was some public holiday in Ecuador which I knew very little about and cared even less for, especially as it inconvenienced me. Thankfully the masseuse was still about and willing to touch me for money (this was a classy joint and it definitely wasn't that sort of massage, but then this is South America so who knows what the dollar could have bought you!) I figure technically speaking she was pretty good at her job except my neck still ached, my head still ached, and now I was getting tired and hungry and oh so very grumpy. Considering I had an 11pm flight of several hours to look forward to, this was possibly as good as it was going to get.

But I was coming home!

Of that I was most certainly excited. I guess it's hard to convey, especially as all I'd heard from everyone I met is that they didn't want to go home, or if they were frequent travellers, never liked going or being home. I kind of thought when listening to most of them that maybe they needed to find a better place to call home if it didn't do anything for them. But I was excited. I had two weeks of TT to look forward to, I had friends I was super excited to see, and I had some planning to do before flying off to Korea and Southeast Asia (of which I'm pretty sure Emma Borch had been to before).

So I endured the airline messing up my baggage allowance, I endured the costly airport food, the lack of leg room, the outrageously expensive neck pillow which provided zero relief or comfort, I endured forcing myself to sleep in order to reset my body clock. I endured American immigration and their zealous scrutiny and distrust, more security, sleeping across three curved seats (which helped my stiff neck massively...), finding no food in the airport worth eating, and my constantly changing gate. I endured being stopped three times in Ireland because I looked like Rick from Rick and Morty (having travelled now for the second straight night) and having my passport full of South American stamps. I didn't so much endure Dublin as I enjoyed it - I went out to meet Eamon (who I met in Medellin and Cusco) for a couple of drinks. Because I was tired and had a whingingly sore neck and head I probably wasn't firing on all cylinders. But it was great fun, and I was getting more and more excited about being home that very night! And so I boarded the final flight from Dublin to Ronaldsway.

Then, like that, I was home!

In true Nicola fashion, she was excited about seeing me, but the excitement quickly turned to frustration when everyone was walking out of the airport and I was still waiting for my bag! "Where the fuck are you?!" was the gist of the first message I received when landing back on the Isle of Man for the first time in 2016. But I forgave her, because she was picking me up and dropping me home. I'm too much of a gentleman to mention that her driving around corners did nothing for my neck, but ho-hum, I was home!

Mum and Dad were waiting for me at the door and so was my dog. Slightly disappointing that Meghan took one perfunctory and disinterested sniff of my leg and then walked past me to greet Nicola. Brilliant. Hadn't seen her in months and she'd already shunned me. Canine mutinies aside it was great to be back. The sun was shinning and the air had a warm summer smell that only the Island seems to produce (though I'm sure this was mostly just my own sweat and excitement). I had a short time to clean and freshen up before heading to a meal and DRINKS. You see Bushy's beer tent was calling my name and I would feel just awful to ignore it.

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Harris was playing at the tent that night. Sean was down there amongst a few other faces not seen in a while. It felt like I'd been away for years and years, and also that I'd not been away a day. We had a dance, more than a few drinks, some great laughs. A shame that the night ended so soon, but there were plenty more nights ahead. A fortnight of parties and beer tents to look forward to! Just needed to get a good night's sleep and sort this neck out...

...which was planned conveniently as I had an appointment at my regular osteopath. She had always sorted out my injuries, like my knees or thumb or back. I figured since I'd sprained my ankle 3 months ago while messing about in Ushuaia, it was timely to get that sorted out, so I'd arranged an appointment for my return. It just happened to be good timing that my neck was sore too. Kill two birds with one stone, was my thinking. So she went to work sorting out the crick in my neck.

And then my face felt as though I had hot needles in it. Sort of like pins and needles, only hot. And sore. This struck me as odd and despite every British-gene in my body urging me not to mention anything lest it be rude, I tentatively managed to voice "My face is somewhat sore". Probably, she said, she had pressed against a nerve, which seemed legit to me. Until I tried to sit up...and couldn't.

Like being struck with a sudden and massive rush of blood, I felt the mother of almighty head rushes and couldn't stop giggling. The laughter didn't stop either when I tried and failed to get my wallet out of my pocket. It turned out, having finally managed to sit up, I couldn't move. The positive to this was that I was struck with how amusing it was. The amusement faded somewhat when my cloudy and dream-like thoughts coalesced and I realised it wasn't a benefit to be immobile. Thankfully I quickly regained movement over my right side and, between sporadic laughter, I managed to say I was fine and quickly urged my mum to drive me back home where I could regain my composure. As a slight wound to my pride, I needed both my mum and a rather shocked and paled osteopath to walk me to the car. But once in the car, I was more comfortable if a little confused and weirded-out that previous movement was now denied to me. Confused and weirded-out but not really much concerned. This was, after all, the effects of a trapped nerve caused from a pulled muscle. It'd pass in no time!

After some heavy and worried frowns by my parents, they eventually managed to help me to get on to my bed. My left side still stubbornly frustrated my efforts to move. Well, not entirely. I could lift my elbow occasionally, though it just sort of jerked itself at a sharp angle and then flopped back to reality like a landed fish. With admittedly Herculean effort I could raise my leg off the bed to all of an inch or something, but it was progress! Sweaty, annoying, and difficult progress but still progress! And I won't even mention how much effort it took for me to undo my belt and shorts with the intention of having a piss!

When my right leg wouldn't stop twitching randomly, and usually into the wall, my attempt at having a little power nap (with my medical assumption being that I would wake up fine and dandy) became an exercise in futility. Still trying and failing to move the digits on my left hand and foot and some 2 hours after feeling all funny and numb at the osteopaths, I begrudgingly agreed that mum could call the doctor. After all, why struggle to fix what a doctor could just poke or something and make all better? I might even get a lollipop...

But the doctor said to call the hospital, who called out the paramedics who were brilliant and before I knew it I had begun explaining "What Had Happened" to what would turn out to be the first of an innumerable number of doctors and nurses. The paramedics figured it to be some sort of trapped nerve and helped me walk (controlled fall) down my stairs and drove me to A&E where I was stuck with various monitors that all, for no medical reason I could deduce, had to be placed over what little chest hair I possessed.

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I didn't quite mention at the time what was only starting to dawn on me. I couldn't really speak very well. It wasn't as though I didn't know what I wanted to say but when asked a question I had to focus very hard on what I wanted to say and to say it with the upmost haste. As if I only had a certain amount of time and muscle usage in order to form words and sounds. So when they asked me a question invariably I chose a simple Yes or No. It was only after having to explain over and over again what had happened to me that I was suspicious I may not have been up to my eloquent best - of which my best falls far below acceptable.

Nobody seemed particularly worried and neither was I. Sure I couldn't move the left side of my body and I wasn't going to be giving a speech anytime soon, I could feel everything a-okay and I didn't have any trouble thinking or being rude. In fact what I was most concerned about was missing my lunch appointment (that I cancelled with ridiculous levels of mumbling incoherence, which was cringingly laughable when played back to me) and making sure I was ready for the next beer tent trip! With such thoughts in mind I was constantly trying to move my toes and fingers. So long as I could move them, my thoughts were that everything else would fall into place. Blood samples were taken and my various levels of alive-ness were read. I don't know what my levels were or what they should have been but everyone was musingly happy with the results, and so was I.

Even better, having now been less than semi-mobile for the best part of 5 hours, two of those in A&E, I suddenly felt a twitch in my thumb and finger. Having spent 5 hours trying and failing to move, my fingers were now shifting about. I looked down at my toes and those happy little bastards were wiggling free and fancy too! My smile dropped a little bit when I got up ready to leave and the doctors gently eased me back to bed as they still had "tests" to run. "It" was still a curiosity to them. Sure things were looking good that I was fully mobile (although they now didn't appreciate how verbose I was; so swings and roundabouts for them, I guess) but "it" had happened and whatever "it" was they wanted to prevent from happening again. Fair play, I reckon, but I carefully reminded them about the presence of the beer tent. They didn't feel this was a primary concern. Eager to have things done and boxes ticked, I was excited to be wheeled to my scans. I was feeling fine and happy and very much able to move about.

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So it was a little pause-inducing when the doctors came back to tell me that I had had a stroke. Not quite a stroke, actually, but a stroke. Which seemed confusing to me and, to be fair, they didn't seem to be very clear on what had happened themselves, but stoke was their initial diagnosis and stroke they went with. Well, several strokes all at once. Acute was the word they used, and when that's used in conjunction with "multiple" and "stroke" it tends to dampen the mood somewhat.

But, like an excited Labrador, I still wanted to know if I could go out and play. This confused the doctors who narrowed their eyes suspecting some degree of brain damage. But Mr Wright, you've had...a stroke. Several, in fact. And you won't be going home tonight. Phooey, I thought. But I guess one night isn't too bad and it'll be a story to tell, I guess.

So I was stuck with needles for more blood tests. More scans due the next day. It was pretty good staying on the ward in that it wasn't dreadful. I mean, it was no beer tent, but perhaps given the floor of the beer tent, that was a good thing. The nurses and doctors were all really nice and made me feel damn comfortable considering I had wires pulling at my chest hair all the time.

Sadly though, one night turned into two nights, which then turned into being flown to Liverpool on the Air Ambulance to be admitted to Walton hospital, which is a neuro specialist hospital. This wasn't exactly ideal for my TT plans. Having flown back from South America to be closer to the fun and festivities I was now edging further and further away. Although, I guess, what could I do? I was being treated and taken care of.

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Walton took no time in setting me up with some rocking stockings and a fancy drip to thin my blood. The idea being if I had several blood clots in my brain that maybe my blood should not coagulate. Try and break down those pesky clots. I'd had various tests up to this point and seen A LOT of different doctors and nurses, and I must admit it still wasn't perfectly clear what had actually happened to me. I knew pretty much what: I'd suffered a trauma to my neck which had caused blood clots to rush to my brain and temporarily starve it of oxygen. But it was a vague sort of understanding and the specifics of it seemed to change.

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All that changed with the arrival head Head Doctor coming out. This was one of the top dudes at one of the specialist hospitals in the UK for neurological problems. So he'd know what was what and he'd sort it out no problems. Only thing is, I didn't expect him to be so happy about it (that's a joke, he was humourlessly serious).

Technically, I didn't have a stroke. Although technically I did. It's hard to categorise but medically speaking, apparently, it technically wasn't a stroke. It was not congenital; it wasn't a hereditary disease or the result of a health problem. It was a provoked transient attack causing vertebral artery dissection. This part is the only point they're not sure of, and never can be, but it is their strong diagnosis that this is the cause. When I bungee jumped off the bridge in Banos a month ago and embarrassingly buggered my shoulder, they believe that caused the trauma to my neck. It then got worse and worse over the following weeks as I continued to do more and more active things and refused rest. That's what they think caused it.

This is what they told me actually happened: There are two arteries at the back of my neck, and each artery has an inner and an outer layer. The inner part of my left rear artery, due to trauma, burst (dissected), filling the outer part with blood clots. When I told the osteopath I had pulled a muscle in my neck and she worked on it in an attempt to fix me, the outer artery burst and all the blood clots rushed to my head along with some blood and nastiness that tried to fuck my shit up. What they didn't know at the time of my A&E admittance was that the right artery at the back had also dissected and was full to bursting with more blood clots. Thankfully this didn't burst. The reason, he explained, that I was surprisingly mobile and not suffering any ill- or side-effects was because the two carotid arteries at the front of my neck were still working fine. Somehow, the connection between my broken arteries at the back and my working arteries at the front had remained intact (a feat of some luck as it's a normally weak link that breaks during an event like mine). It's this link that I largely have to thank for staying alive--

--say what? I asked him. Yeah, the main doctor was quite emphatic that I should have died. What happened was not really something he would expect to see someone be lucky enough to live through let alone have no side effects. I was a lucky, lucky man. Trying to raise the tone a little I suggested I was doing well and that was a good sign then. I laughed. He didn't. He said that I could die any moment. While he acknowledged I was past the 48 hour mark, I still was not out of the You-Could-Still-Die-At-Any-Moment woods. That was less good but I wouldn't be beaten. I nodded to the drip on my arm. Least I was on the good stuff, huh? This was helping. Oh yes, he said happily. That was working just fine. Which was good, because getting the levels correct was a dangerous tight rope. If my blood levels were too low (i.e. normal), my right artery would probably burst and I'd die. If my blood levels were too high, I'd start bleeding in my brain and then, well... Wait! I told him. I knew the answer to this one. It was that dying thing again, wasn't it?

It's easier to look back and make light of it all, but that Monday afternoon was a right shitter. It wasn't like I was having the time of my life in hospital up to that moment, but I'd been in for 5 nights at this point and I'd not had a moment of feeling even slightly less than fine since recovering movement way back in the Isle of Man. To be told quite plainly how fatal this should have been and still could be was not a panacea to my ears.

But thankfully, and I really am thankful in ways I can never repay, I have great friends and great family. After hearing the news and being a little blue and miserable, I went and had an angry power nap. Again, I hoped I'd wake up feeling better. It didn't work, but I did wake up to find my mum sat by my bed. Having followed me over in the Air Ambulance, my mum had been to see me every day making sure I could want for nothing. I promptly and grumpily relayed what the doctor had told me. Can't say she took it well - she hadn't taken any of this easily - but she was great company too and always picked me up. After I asked to not try and find the silver lining quite yet we just sat and played on her iPad for a the short hour remaining for visitors. But it was happily distracting and my mood began to lift. I'm not sure what I would've done after that without having friends to message. Nicola and Lou were watching Danny play at the Bushy's stage on Port Erin beach. This was one of the very specific events I was most looking forward to so they kept sending me videos and snaps of the music. Gina sent me a care package filled with things to keep me busy, as well as chocolates and superman pyjamas (yes I put them on straight away). I had messages making me laugh, others telling me I was being thought of. Silly pictures and a few to make me smile. Messages of strength and others of determination. I had a visit from my niece, who was more interested in her tablet than me, but she's a cute little bastard, so I still love her.

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I'm really not sure what I would have done without them all. I just wanted to lie down. The ward wasn't the cheeriest of places at the best of time but on that Monday night I felt like wallowing in my darkening mood. Just my friends and family had other ideas. I can't really thank them enough for getting me through it, but through it they got me. Eventually that night my mood started lifting. It was a miserable set of facts for me to hear, but I couldn't exactly escape it either. The truth was I was lucky. A lucky bastard. When I played it back in my head I was stupefying lucky. Somehow this had not happened while I was in South America, or in the middle of a flight somewhere, or scuba diving! Somehow this has happened while I was home and surrounded by friends and family. Happening where it did was lucky enough, but I didn't have any side-effects and, going strong, I still don't have any. I didn't lose my memory and haven't got any madder (that I know of). I didn't need physiotherapy to move again.

When I woke up the next morning I figured if I was that lucky then I owed it to myself to fucking smile and make the most of being fucking alive and able to fucking smile! There were more than a couple of people in my ward that couldn't even do that. So what was the next step? That was making sure my blood was at the right levels (and not too high or too low, cheers doc!) which I couldn't really do much about. But I didn't complain about being woken in the night for more blood tests, or having my cannula dressing changed every couple of hours because my blood was so thin it leaked everywhere. Aside from bantering with the nurses, I stopped trying to get out of the hospital as soon as I could. Aside from it being depressing to think I was getting out only to be continually kept in longer, I figured I should probably stay in as long as I needed to get better. I had tests all the time making sure I was coordinated (when was I ever coordinated?!) and still had full use of my body. I started to delight in the doctor's surprise that I didn't have any loss of movement. The phsyio came to check on my shoulder and was very happy that I had no lasting problems with my joints of movements. Whatever else I'd been through, my muscles and joints looked like they'd be fine. Already on the constant drip of heparin I was now on warfarin tablets to aid in the thinning of my blood. Once the warfarin levels had been perfected, I was off the drip and homeward bound.

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Eventually, after nearly 2 weeks in hospital, my blood levels were at the correct levels and I was to be discharged. This was a logistical nightmare but mum and I finally made it to the airport and got on a flight home. Almost immediately after having the drip taken out of my arm I began to experience neck pains and headaches like I had right before all this started when I woke up in Quito. I didn't realise at the time - and neither, it turns out, did the doctors - but as soon as I was disconnected from the heparin IV my bloods had dropped from where they needed to be at 2.0 to 1.2 (the normal level is 1.0 but mine needed to be between 2.0 - 3.0). Thankfully the anticoagulant clinic sorted me out and got my levels back to where they needed to be, but it took over a week for things to level out properly.

I have to stay on my warfarin tablets for at least 4 months, with another MRI scan due in 3 months to see how my neck has healed. I would hope that I'd be healed by then but who the bloody hell knows? The best I can do is follow the doctors orders and try to make sure I don't fuck my neck up. That means no driving, swimming, running, cycling, or bungee jumping. And it means no more travelling until I'm all healed. I've had to cancel any plans of Korea and Southeast Asia for the moment. I may have missed out on TT and I can't drink until I'm off the meds, but I'm fucking alive. There is always next year. I still have my friends and my family and after a trip like I've had in the Americas, I am eternally grateful for every silly little part of my life.

Stephen King said it so well in the closing of his latest book, End of Watch, but (and I won't go into too much about in case my dad reads this) it relates to someone in hospital:

"See past the earth's dark curve to the next sunrise. Which always comes, if one continues to draw breath."

Posted by WrightA 05:30 Comments (1)

Galápagos

So. The Galápagos, then.

Big expectations from this place: the culmination of my time in South America. This without even considering how I had idolised the islands as a child while watching documentaries, right up to my (relatively youthful) adulthood, still watching nature documentaries.

And, as with most things about my trip, I had researched the place very poorly and planned it even less.

I wasn't aware, for instance, that, before flights to the island and your accommodation, you need a minimum of $120 to actually enter the Galápagos. $20 at Quito (or Quayaquil) airport and then $100 when on the Galápagos to actually enter the ecologically unique group of islands. Which might seem a lot until you hear the rumours that the price will likely soon rise to $200.

But, still. How often do you get a chance to visit the islands from your childhood dreams? Money was not going to stop me!

If the cost of getting to Galápagos doesn't put you off (really, don't let it) then prepare yourself for the commute. After landing at Baltra, a deserted island (it looks like a barren landscape from some western movie, and I assume acts as a natural quarantine zone for tourists), you have to get a bus from airport to dock (sometimes included by your airline, sometimes not) and hop on a quick ferry across to the north side of Santa Cruz. From there you need to get a taxi all the way to the south of Santa Cruz, which is roughly a 40-50 minute drive. Plenty of nice places to stay in Santa Cruz, but we were staying on Isla Isabella. That meant another ferry - but first you need to get a little water taxi from the dock, change to a larger boat, then sit and enjoy the ass-numbingly long 2 and a half hour boat ride.

What struck me as strange was the fact that people lived here! Okay, I expected a few people to live here. Scientists. Fishermen. The occasional British ex-pat who forgot to leave ten years ago. But the islands (other than Baltra) have towns and roads and shops and bars and ATMs and cinemas and people!

Again, had I researched the place even a little I would have known this. So it was a shock to see this bio-reserve with actual residents and human life, though not distractingly so. Once out of the towns it's easy to forget there's a town around the corner.

Which is because the Galápagos Islands are beautiful. Stunningly, jaw-droppingly beautiful. From the fauna to the flora to the sea to the sky. It's hard to find a spot (out of the towns, obviously) that aren't beautiful. Even in the towns you can expect to see iguanas just chilling obstinately in the middle of the path, or particularly cute sea lions lazing about on a bench or, again, on the path. Go for a a stroll and you'll be bombarded with birds, fancy a swim and you'll be surrounded by fish; maybe even turtles, sharks, and rays - and if you're super lucky, perhaps a sea lion will play around you in the water. It's a magical, colourful, life-affirming place.
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The flamingos are particularly bright, as one might expect of flamingos. One of the main rules of the Galápagos that is repeated again and again is not to touch any wildlife or the plants and trees. Any spot you go to where you can view wildlife is specifically built around their natural habitat and as such you can't get very close to animals like the flamingos. Everything is designed around not encroaching on the wildlife's natural habitat - we are merely there to view, and from a distance if preferable.

We all hiked up to - and you'll have to pardon my lack of clarity as the national park guide was somewhat confused himself - either the world's largest active crater, or the world's second largest crater (well, caldera technically). Sierra Negra was it's name, and wow. It was a beast of a view. The crater (caldera) was over 10km across. The one that's bigger (but not active) in Tanzania has a crater (caldera) or 22km! Insane. The fog was just starting to lift when we arrived and revealed more and more of the vast distance. Walking around the lava fields was incredible, and sounded as though I was walking on hard glass or plate china.
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We snorkelled a little way off from the main beach area and I was instantly in love. A sea lion was resting just under a bench and decided that was the moment he was going to have a little swim. He slipped into the water without the slightest sound or splash and danced under the waves, occasionally popping up to say hello. When I finally got in the water, my mask kept leaking because I couldn't keep the grin from my face. A giant turtle grazed along the bottom of the sea bed and kept coming up for air. The few of us in the water swam around her until the sun began to set. At which point we all ventured to the main beach, sat at a bar, failed at slack lining (the locals easily put me to shame, and Rashid nearly broke his balls), and swam in the Pacific, waves smashing over us, until the sun finally set.
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The next day we left Isabella to return to Santa Cruz. It was a brutal 4am start to make sure we got to the docks in time for another 2 and a half hour boat ride. Thankfully, this allowed us a view of the most amazing sunrise you could hope to see. I even think my camera managed to capture its essence a little!
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Santa Cruz has a wonderful little town on the seafront, and no end of places to eat and drink, arrange the various tours, or buy Galápagos-related merchandise.

Santa Cruz is also home to Tortuga Bay. Which is perhaps (there's no perhaps about it) the most beautiful beach I have ever seen. The sparsely attended "main" beach is long and, with the red-flag waves, a bit of a surfer's paradise. The different blues of the sky and sea were staggering and not always clear where the horizon split the two.
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But it was the smaller beach, closed off from the rough tides by the volcanic rocks, that really knocked me flat. It was something like being in a film. Pure white sands, green mangroves around the bay like a horseshoe, and perfect turquoise water as calm as a millpond. Well, as calm as a millpond until we rented goggles and went out to find the rays and sharks. Must have seen dozens and dozens. White Tips (because their fins have a white tip!) lying on the bottom, swimming around, frustrating my efforts for a shark selfie. Sadly, being a national reserve, it closes at 6. If only we could have stayed on that most beautiful of beaches forever.
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Santa Cruz is also home to the Darwin Museum. Now, anyone who read my post about Ushuaia will know I'm more than a little fanboyish about Darwin, but I wasn't super excited about the museum. I kind of assumed it would be a dark, little building with some dry info carved into a plaque under the bust of the main man.

Thankfully, I was wrong! I more than geeked out being in there. Pictures and exhibits and skeletons and information about the man himself, the history and influence of his famous theory, work the Charles Darwin Foundation does, and the animals all over and around the Galápagos. The only thing I found slightly strange was they didn't have a copy of his book (Origin of Species) available in the gift shop - I figured that would be a no brainer.
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How could I come to the Galápagos and not scuba dive? I couldn't! Despite the slightly high cost, I did get taken to two dive sites, all the necessary equipment, full transportation, and snacks and lunch. Those who hadn't their PADI were given a discovery dive, and in between each of our dives there was plenty of time to snorkel - if the waters were a little warmer, that is!

Diving in the Galápagos was something else. I don't think I've seen quite as many fish in one place as there. I was literally surrounded by and swimming through schools of fish with no beginning or end. When I looked up, the sun broke through the surface and silhouetted the marine life. A completely different experience than of diving in Belize but no less wondrous.
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And then, like that, our time together, my time in the Americas was coming to a close. When we met in Cusco all those weeks ago, we were fifteen strong. Sadly, Katie had to leave early (we miss you Katie!); Sara, Sarra, and Yas left next halfway through Sacha Yacu; Tom left us only a few days ago before the Galápagos. Our guides already gone having lost Stefan with Sara, Sarra, and Yas, and Frank going home as we flew towards the Galápagos. And now we were all saying farewell. A couple of us will be seeing each other in Quito, a few are still travelling, most are headed home. Myself? I am going to that most remote of islands, that most dangerous of lands, that almost mythical of fantastical places. It goes by many names but the Spanish simply call it..."Isla de Hombre" - stay tuned for what happens there!

It's hard to say goodbye and harder still when you wish you had more time. It doesn't get easier the longer you travel to say goodbye, but I was reminded of something recently: don't say goodbye, say farewell.

Goodbye means you will likely not see the person again. Farewell says you're headed on different paths and you'll see them again somewhere along the road.

You were all as much a part of these last two months as the locations and experiences. None of the things happened without you and you will forever be inextricably linked to my memories and laughter. I can only thank you all for what we shared and hope you enjoyed the road as much as me.

I hope I see you all again, I really do. So until then,

Farewell

Left to right:
Frank, Sarra, Aaron, Tom, Georgie, Bryony, Sara, Alex, Eleanor, Sam, Emma, Yas, Rashid, Ellie, Katie, Me, Stefan
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"Travel brings wisdom only to the wise; it renders the ignorant more ignorant than ever" - Joe Abercrombie

So I wonder, which am I?

(I know, I know: ignorant)

Posted by WrightA 16:11 Comments (0)

Another Brick In The Wall

I wasn't holding my breath for Quito. After Lima's city centre (not to be confused for the gorgeousness of Miraflores) I can't say I was expecting much of Ecuador's capital. But I was pleased to have my expectations surpassed.

We stayed at a great hostel called the Blue House (well recommended if you find yourself in Quito) and the area around us was bustling with nightlife and swarming with activity - but I'll come back to that shortly.

We'd heard about a volcano with a crater we could walk down to. Alas, when we got to the top, the "crater" below was nothing more than a green village with mountains around it. It wasn't an impressive sight. In fact, for me, the best thing was the organic chocolate and orange cake I procured at the summit's cafe. Deciding this would not be a great deal of fun, we headed instead to the centre of the earth!

Mitad deal Mundo was a great surprise. In fact, I hadn't expected more than paint on the equator line and a picture moment. But they had an excellent monument constructed at the site which housed a cultural and science-based museum. You were faced with fun little experiments and facts about magnets, gravity, and the effects of the equator on the world. As you ascended further there was information about the history of Ecuador, particularly the tribes within (apparently Shua is actually Shuar - oops, my bad. I stayed with them, too, so I should've known better!) The top offered excellent views of the surrounding mountains and city below.
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After you're done with the museum and have taken all the snaps you want of lying on the equatorial line, there's still more to do. A visit to the chocolate factory (yep, it tastes excellent), as well as several art galleries, a planetarium, information about the French missionaries, and a handful of shops and cafes - all included in the entrance fee to the museum. All in all, Mitad del Mundo was well worth the visit and highly recommended.

So, having seen what nightlife surrounded our hostel when we arrived late on Friday, we were eager to sample it ourselves the following night. Which we did! Though drinking out in Quito can be expensive, like many places geared in a similar way, there are countless two-for-one offers, happy hours, and free shots to find! The atmosphere was great and, despite some suggestions it wasn't completely safe, we didn't have any trouble and everyone returned to the hostel in one piece, albeit a little late...

...which made the early 5am start the next day a little interesting. With blood-shot eyes, cracked lips, and breath that could melt an ashtray, we headed to Mindo.

Mindo was a bit like Baños in that the town seemed geared towards extreme activities and having fun. There were a lot of choices of things to do and tour companies to book them through. In the end we settled on three options:

1. Visiting a butterfly farm. While not exactly extreme, it was not to be missed. You could easily get them to sit on your fingers while they ate the banana goo from your skin. But the real joy came when they spread their wings - those little butterflies are colour as fuck! Unfortunately, you need to be careful walking around. We were warned early that some of the butterflies would by lying on the floor. I didn't really notice where I was going, and, well, one thing led to another and...I still maintain it was the butterfly's fault! Yes, yes. I killed a beautiful butterfly. But my guilt (guilt, hah!) lasted all of a second before my eyes were caught by the plethora of colours whipping through the air around us. Incredible!
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2. Incredible, but not adrenaline-pumping. Which is why our next activity was tubing. For those that don't know (like me), tubing is effectively white water rafting without all those pesky safety aspects like paddles and steering included. If anyone remembers me gushing over the fun I had with the rapids in Baños on the raft, you might remember how shocked I was at the apparent lack of health of safety. Well, if anything, tubing was even worse. We were given a hard hat and a floatation vest and basically told to hold on and not fall in. As our guides (who didn't have hats or vests) pushed us down this river, we were bashed from side to side, spun in a constant rotation so nobody could see what was coming for very long, stuck on rocks, and occasionally submerged under the white waves. But that only made the whole experience even better! Like with everything in South America, the apparent lack of health and safety just added adrenalin to the danger.

3. Which was why the next task was so fun. We were supposed to go visiting several waterfalls with the prospect of maybe jumping in one. Unfortunately, pushed for time, I gravitated towards the one waterfall I could jump in. The path to the jump was special in and of itself - slippy and wet steps worn smooth many years ago, a metal railing that was one push away from collapse, and needing the use of a rope to scramble up the side of the cliff. The waterfall was a roaring and churning mass of water, smashing down over giant boulders, boiling and bubbling into the relentless current below. It looked perfect. I couldn't understand *all* of the "safety" instructions the man explained to me, but neither of us were particularly bothered by this fact. I understood the basics. I would jump straight, not hit the rocks, and - most importantly - not drown. He had a rope tied around me to prevent me getting sucked under by the current. So, having paid my $3, what else was there to do but jump? The fall was further than the bungee jump I did off the bridge and the impact was so forceful it dragged the air from my lungs. After hitting the rocks at the riverbed, I pushed myself to breathless surface. I wasn't expecting the current to be so strong and suddenly the water dragged me under and along the floor. I surfaced again and was suddenly glad of the rope tied around me. Between a mixture of swimming and (mostly) the rope, I managed to reach the shore and safety. Possibly the least safe thing I'd done thus far in South America. Now I wanted to do it again. Shame I ran out of time.
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Monday morning came and brought with it it's own particular brand of fears.

I was on my way to teach English to children as part of an outreach programme.

We arrived at the school (Fundación Honrar la Vida) and shown around by the director. Basically, the school worked with disadvantaged children who suffered at home because of their parents' domestic violence, drug and alcohol dependency, and even prostitution. The director explained that the children aren't shown much affection and his goal in the school (aside from education) was to teach them how to express themselves through art and music, how to have a happy place they can come to, to be shown affection and love. We ended up meeting the children during their break time and playing with them. Initially they were a little recalcitrant, but maybe that was because they were suddenly faced with an enormous idiot who couldn't speak their language. But, being a child at heart myself, I soon got through to them by giving piggy back and shoulder rides. Next I was lifting the children up and helping them do pull ups to ring the school bell - very soon, a line of kids appeared (with a Suspicious Tom waiting in the line too...) all wanting to be picked up and flown around.

Despite being a wise-assed cheeky bastard, this all tugged quite hard on my heart. I felt a tragic helplessness. How was it that such lovely and happy children could come from homes that were a polar-opposite reflection of their personalities and energies? I really wanted to help and figured if someone wanted me to teach, I would teach!

Thankfully (for the children) the director had a better idea than for us to teach English. With a view that he wanted the children to have a pretty place to come to, somewhere they were happy to attend and felt safe inside, he asked if we would paint the wall outside the school. Where it wasn't covered in graffiti the wall was crumbling and dirty and grey. The whole area was largely unpainted and unappealing concrete structures. We wanted to give them a school they would be happy to see!

So, the next morning while Georgie and Bryony finalised the design of the mural and theme, the rest of us white-washed the wall. Rashid and I scraped the spray paint off the windows. Tom and Alex set to work playing guitar and teaching the children music. Within four seconds of picking up a paintbrush and roller, I was covered in splats of white paint. By the end, I was almost certain I had half a tin of white paint over me instead of the wall.
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The next morning we were met about 3am with another earthquake. Nothing was damaged or broken but I was woken by a rumbling in the night, though (being me) I wasn't aware of it until the following morning when I was told it was an earthquake. While painting the school, what we thought was an aftershock was actually another earthquake. It was fairly strange feeling the whole street move and shake. It wasn't too bad if you were moving but as soon as you stopped it was instantly noticeable. Everything was shaking! Given this was my first real, conscious, experience of a proper quake, and considering it was a relatively weak one, it was a little disturbing. It didn't last long though, and we continued our painting.

I personally (and unfortunately, for all lovers of art and aesthetics) painted a rainbow, a sun, Tom and I collaborated on a colourful macaw, I splashed on a couple of trees, helped finish the waterfall, a lake surrounded by mountains and a volcano, and generally made a mess! It was a fun way to volunteer, but oddly (or maybe not oddly, considering) uplifting work. I get a real sense of pride as the wall came together.

Georgie and Bryony's designs were incredible! Georgie's outlines and placements were perfect. She nailed the giant school logo of five giant hands in a circle, of which the director was very particular about and ultimately very impressed with. Bryony smashed the jaguar, monkey, and condor. Aaron's sloth was awesome, as was everyones work.

The final morning we finished the wall. We all placed our hand prints under the school name and asked for the children to do the same. Every day I would look at our paintings with a new sense of pride and fellowship. Everyone helped, even those of us who can't draw to save a life. But on the last day, I was more than a little overcome. Not wanting to labour the point too much I genuinely feel as though we created something beautiful for the children that will improve their lives. If only a little bit, I think we made their world a brighter place.
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A few of us went to visit an outdoor climbing wall in Ecuador. Sadly, the main wall was being worked on for a competition at the weekend so we couldn't use it, but we were allowed to use the bouldering wall and brick building. Which we did. Aaron and Bryony are fucking gods on the wall (at least compared to my feeble efforts) but myself, Rashid and Sam still made it up to the top of the brick building. We were impressed with ourselves, having never free climbed before and certainly not to these heights. There was nothing below us but gravel and hard floor. Nothing holding us on but our own grip and balance (my balance was clearly on point that day). We were ultimately told off for climbing without using ropes and belays, but that only made us feel prouder for climbing it all without any safety. To our defence, the man who told us we could climb it offered us no ropes or harnesses and told us to just go for it. Given the lack of safety apparent through South America, we accepted this as the way it was! It was initially daunting to climb without any support (especially with my ankle and shoulder still playing up) but so worth the effort at the top.
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And because I love bikes, I was more than a little excited about our next activity. A shame it wasn't quite as good as I'd hoped, but in hindsight it should offer a little chuckle. I hope.

We took a cable car up to 4100 meters on the path of sea volcano. Here we met a man who was kind enough to provide us with several bikes in order for us to race down the mountainside. As we started, the views were concealed from us because of fog and rain, but that didn't stop me.

What did stop me was my chain breaking. That isn't an incredible issue when cycling downhill, but it does pose a problem when cycling through Quito city to get back to the rental shop! I had to use my feet to propel me onwards if ever I found myself on an uphill or level path. But that's by the by. What really became a problem was the lack of brakes. That and the lack of grip on the tires. If it wasn't for the frame, you couldn't possibly have guessed these were bikes built for mountain biking. So from the beginning I found myself without a chain, without brakes, without grip. If it wasn't for my natural sense of balance and coordination (if you're reading this, Tricia, stop laughing!) I probably would've fallen off more than the four times I did do! Still, I survived, and while the ride wasn't as if hoped, it was still an amusing experience. If only in hindsight.
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Otavalo (pronounced "ota-barlow") market was next. The most famous and colourful market in South America, and one of the top 15 places to visit in Lonely Planet's guide to South America. I've got to say, as far as markets go, I was pleasantly surprised. It was certainly colourful and certainly active. There were hundreds and hundreds of stalls. A lot of the places sold similar (if not identical) things but you could find the odd stall that has unique items. Everyone was ready to haggle and I'm certain we all came away with some decent purchases. It's just trying to figure out how to get them all home that's the problem - Heaven only knows how Aaron is going to manage with his metal tree!

We ended the day visiting Laguna de Cuicocha, a natural yet sulphurous lagoon formed on the crater of a volcano. Considering how I started this blog post, I think this is a nice way to bring it nearly to an end. This is how a volcano crater should be dammit (I'm joking - I don't really expect craters to stick to the way I want them to look) and it was fully glorious. The sulphur in the water prevented swimming but we went out on a boat to get some nice snaps of the crater and the water shimmering with sunlight. Beautiful and with no fee to enter a definite must if you're in the area.
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And on Sunday night, we had a bittersweet meal. We had a meal to say farewell to Frank. Like Stefan before him, this would be our last night with Frank. Frank has been a great guide to us, taking us to places off the tour map, helping translate for me when I was hopeless, putting up with our demands and requests and generally just helping us through Peru and Ecuador. Frank is heading back to Lima now while we go elsewhere...
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...because that's it with Quito, and Ecuador, and mainland South America. Now I'm off elsewhere. Now I'm off to a place I didn't think I could actually get to. Now I'm off to a place I used to watch in nature documentaries when I was a child (all those long years ago).

Now I'm off to the Galápagos Islands!

Posted by WrightA 17:42 Comments (0)

Tribes and Tribulations

The overnight in Puyo was, well, meh. It's a nice enough town but there's not much there to do. We are at a couple of nice places (Esco Bar was the a great cafe/restaurant, and not just because of the clever name) which was good enough for me.

The next afternoon (after securing a few hammocks to sleep in, and some needlessly needful supplies) we headed off back into the Amazon to stay with the Shua tribe.
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Now, as I pictured, an Amazonian tribe would have me living in rustic huts; hunting, catching, farming our own food; cooking over bonfires; washing in the stream. That sort of thing.

However, it turns out that tribes aren't what they used to be. Or, more accurately, they're not what I thought they would still be. We were actually staying with an Amazonian community. Don't get me wrong they still lived quite basic, but not as "tribal" as I had imagined. We had access to electricity (though it was dangerously and poorly wired); we had a kitchen of sorts which we stocked with food from a nearby town (we even had a fridge!); there was a shower, yet it was so weak I still used the river to wash in; the rooms were very basic, in that if we hadn't had hammocks we would have been sleeping on the floor - I think they only had one bed for the whole of us! - and the gents' building was not sealed to the elements, but sill hardly the tribal huts I had imagined.

I wasn't disappointed exactly, but I wasn't far off. I had expectations of one thing but that wasn't the reality of it. But once I (stopped acting like a baby (most of the time) and) accepted that I'd be staying for a week with a farming community in the Amazon, I relaxed a little.

I was given the Shua name of Jempe (hemp-ey), which means Hummingbird. I quite liked it but not sure they'd ever watched me trying to be as swift or speedy as a hummingbird. And then I realised that the names we were being given bore no reflection on the recipient but were just being assigned in the order of the line we stood in. Still: Jempe!

The Shua community painted our faces on arrival (I sweated it off before very long) and in the evening we were treated to a local dance. It was great fun! They quickly asked for our participation and it didn't take long for me to jump up and dance in a poor imitation of their movements. Really enjoyed dancing and got me very much into the mood of the place. The effect was slightly hampered when, after it was all over, they asked if we could buy them a $100-300 speaker so they could have louder music to dance with. Hmmm, we are broke-ass travellers: not the best crowd to ask for a handout.
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Our days would start out with farming every morning. The first load of farm work wasn't particularly hard but it was long. We would measure out roughly 4 metres, mark with a branch, and continue for roughly a hectare of land. At every branch we would dig a hole and plant a shrub/herb/tree. Trouble is, the hectare of land was covered in sugar cane plants, which if the leaves didn't cut you, would leave fibre glass insulation-type needles in your skin (like I mentioned from Sacha Yacu), on nearly every leaf was a spider web with nasty poisonous spiders, and, as is the reality of things, it would chuck down with rain. It was decent enough work to get stuck into, and I do prefer labour-intensive work over intricate and/or subtle work.

Another job was cutting down over a hundred sugar canes and carrying them from the field to the road, where they would be driven off for sale in Baños. One sugar cane isn't particularly heavy (though it is cumbersome to navigate the mud paths, especially when they grow twisted) but after one hundred they do start to weigh somewhat. Not to mention, yes, the needles getting everywhere! Thankfully someone (guess which genius. Go on, guess. No? Ah, phooey...) had the idea of doing a human train and instead of one person carrying one sugar cane the whole distance, we'd just pass it to the next person down the line like a relay. It worked a treat but by the end I was drenched in sweat, mud, and cobwebs. Still, nothing a glorious wash in the river could not cure (I have not had a shower here, preferring to wash myself and my clothes in the fast flowing river - it's fucking gloriously refreshing!)

Axing trees into sizeable logs for a fire is another task. I got blisters on my blisters (literally) and the logs rubbed raw the skin on my neck as I carried it back. But it's more fun for me to do heavy work than light work, such as clearing the leaves and weeds from around the sugar cane - arguably the hardest and most monotonously dull job I've ever been tasked with. By the end, I was literally swinging the machete around and hoping I didn't cut down too many sugar canes. It was pleasant however when it started raining as the downpour was instantly cooling against my sweaty flesh.
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Apparently, someone thought it would be a good idea for us to teach the children of the community English. Now. I'm supposed to be teaching English to kids in Quito next week, but that's at a school and I will (I bloody hope) be provided with a lesson plan. At the community we had to make it up on the spot and I failed to hold, for any discernible period of time, the attention of the four 5-10 year olds. It wasn't without its amusements though, and a couple of the kids even seemed to hold some of what we taught them - no idea for how long... In the end, Alex was a bloody star in teaching and subsequent lessons went better and better.

We were given the chance to carve our own spears. We cut down the tree (a bloody tall bastard, of which we wastefully used comparatively little) and carried it back to camp, where it was split in readiness for us to carve. A whole lot of blister-inducing fun, but sadly my first spear ended up wonky and half a foot shorter than all the others - but I carved it with my own two hands and a machete! Manly stuff, even if the end result was shite, and at the very least it'll make for a pretty fire. Still, first spear done. Just need to get off my lazy arse and try a second time.
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Which I did do. I was quite proud of my second attempt. It took me about a third of the time from my first try to carve out the basic shape, smooth it, and then finish it off with shorter, neater slices. I even engraved my (Shua) name into the tip, and a Rorsach quote into the handle - "I lived my life free of compromise and step into the shadow now without complaint" - which I stole unashamedly as its one of my favourite quotes. Depending on the cost I might even try to ship this home (along with my hammock) so I can finish it off with polish and maybe make the engraving somehow more prominent.
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On Wednesday, half of us accompanied the local shaman for an ayahuasca ritual. For those that don't know, ayahuasca is a particularly potent hallucinogen. The hallucinations would show us our future and/or reveal to us that which we knew but didn't know - I was intrigued by this. There is quite a lot I don't know, so I concluded there must also be a lot I didn't know I knew; that and the future might reveal to me winning lottery numbers!

We lined up at the house and said a chant, then walked through the fields into the Amazon under a darkening sky. We cut leaves to lie on and lay on the floor under a corrugated roof. We chanted some more, the sky now nearly black, and each took a turn taking a shot-sized drink of the ayahuasca. We lay down on the leaves, the shaman lit the bonfire, and we watched the stars appear and patiently waited the thirty-odd minutes for the hallucinations to appear. And we waited. And waited. And waited some more. And then...we waited still more. I started to feel sleepy. In fact I fell asleep at one point, notable by my snoring. I still maintain it was someone else and I was awake and stargazing, but it was 5 against 1, so I accepted my sleeping status. But still no hallucinations. Perhaps I might have seen some stars move or rings and lines appear if I focused on one star for too long, but certainly nothing I would call an hallucination. I didn't even so much as see a colour. Nobody else in the group had any real sights, either. We felt "high" in various degrees of potency but I'm not sure, for me, I wasn't just tired and sleepy and hungry from having fasted since breakfast. The shaman told us that being sick would forewarn the hallucinations, but I wasn't sick and a few of the others that were still didn't experience any visions. He also told us if it didn't work we could have a second drink, of which there was none. So all-in-all, no hallucinations, no visions, nothing.
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Nearly 4 hours later, we decided to leave the forests and fields and head back to our hammocks for an actual nights sleep. Not exactly what I'd hoped for, nor what I'd been led to believe would happen, but I guess this experience sort of encapsulates my week with the tribe. It's not been *bad* exactly, just not what I had thought. As an experience, I'm glad I came, but I wouldn't recommend it and certainly don't think I'll return.

Next to Quito, for fun, frolics, and being a teacher!

Posted by WrightA 12:38 Comments (0)

Amazoning Again

Baños is a hub of activity for extreme sports. Canyoning, paragliding, rock climbing, mountain biking, quad biking, bungee jumping, white-water rafting, and more besides!

Except the first thing we did upon arrival was to eat some meat. Our diet in the Amazon had been without meat. A steak house was needed and a steak house it was. To eat meat for the first time in a week just proved to me what I already knew inside - a vegetarian I could not be.

So, fully loaded on protein and ice cream, we retired early (well, past midnight) in order to take full advantage of the white-water rafting the following morning.

In traditional South American style, there was very little by way of health and safety. That's not to say it was unsafe - we had wetsuits and flotation jackets - just that there was very little explanation or instruction provided (aside from "don't drown" and "you won't drown") and definitely no forms to sign that would cover them in the event of our deaths. But it's fair to say that the guides worked very hard to not make us drown...apart from when they thought it was amusing to push us into the rapids as we sailed down river! Still, we didn't drown, so I guess they knew what they were about.
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The rapids themselves were a category 3-4, which is two categories below the most dangerous. So I'm told. The guide showed us how to go forward, how to go backwards, and how to brace ourselves when we done fucked up and needed to hang on for dear life so we wouldn't drown. And boy did our guide like to kid around. Often he would have joke that we were terrible and 10 year olds could row better than us. Imagine!

So as we smashed through wave after wave and the current dragged us ever onwards and we rowed fairly ineffectually, the guide would either push us into the water himself or instruct one of our group to push another in. Fairly soon we didn't trust each other. Sitting at the front I was in a constant state of suspicion about the people sat behind me. When finally I was pushed in I made sure to drag the bastard (Eleanor!) in with me. At one point our guide made us all jump into the rapids. Again, safety first...

We finished off the trip by landing safely at a beach some miles and an hour or so later. It was then that our guide told us to climb along the rocks beside the river and swim into the rapids and current. He told us it would be fine and we should swim back when the current had dragged us adjacent to the beach. This we did. Well, the others did. I sort of forgot to swim back to the beach and went with the current a bit longer. Which meant I overshot my landing a little and had to catch the rocks on the riverbank and haul myself back over. Still, I didn't drown and I think the guide was happy with his 100% return. Who needs health and safety?

We finished off the day with a visit to the Swing at the End of the World. This has nothing to do with Ushuaia (the End of the World) but is simply a swing on a mountain overlooking Baños. When on it, it looks as though you're swinging out over nothing, hence the name. And is very much worth the $2 return trip and the $1 entrance fee. I'd heard about the Swing from somebody (actually a complete stranger working on the phone at my bank) but strangely heard very little about it from any other travellers. I was quite eager to check this out but hadn't really included it in any of my travel planning, so I was very glad I had the opportunity to come and ride it. There's quite a lot of stuff to do up there too, for a family, including some very low zip lines that do not work so well when I lie on them and try to fly across like superman.
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The evening meal was another steak house but sadly the food was overshadowed by a nasty incident. Tom had his bag stolen by a little shit cunt who sat behind him for all of a minute, grabbed his bag and fucked off. Thankfully his phone and camera weren't in there but his wallet and passport were, to say nothing of the bag itself. Still, Tom handled it like a boss and didn't let it cloud the rest of Baños.

While a few of us scoured the nearby streets for the culprit (we initially thought it might have been one of the tip-requesting musicians) Rashid and I came across a completely reputable DVD store. Attracted inside by the big Captain America: Civil War poster, we joked about being able to buy it. When I pointed at the poster the amiable woman behind the counter said "Si". Rashid and I exchanged a dubiously amused and suspicious glance. The woman obviously noticed our disbelieving looks, and so put a copy into the DVD player. It was indeed the brand new Marvel movie. The quality wasn't the best but I've seen way worse copies. We broke down laughing when she told us the price: $1.25. I asked her if the copy was legit and legal. "Si," she repeated. Naturally I do not condone the making, distributing, or purchasing of pirated movies. So we definitely did not purchase any of her products and I informed the good woman neither of us would frequent her shop again, and bade her good evening. Please, therefore, don't ask further questions about it or check my bag for any DVDs. Because they're not there, obviously...

We had hoped to do some downhill mountain biking the next day but the company we went to were a bunch of lying arseholes. They lied to us that we could do it and lied to us that we would have transport. It turned out that instead of being driven to the top of the mountain in order to ride it all the way down, we would be able to cycle it up and catch a bus down. Not quite the same thing, so we buggered off from there (after a lengthy argument and loosing $5 each) and rented some quad bikes and buggies to have a little race around the roads.
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Talking about health and safety, I'm pretty certain these machines were not street legal. For one thing, Tom's buggy didn't have any brakes or seat belts. But who needs either of them? Our (mine and Eleanor's) buggy had very weak brakes and almost non-existent steering. Aaron's...well, Aaron's was fine by comparison. But let's just say he had a couple of shaky moments in traffic due to its stability. It was great fun to bomb about on the open roads trying to overtake the others and, y'know, not cause an accident. But the real fun came next...

We went to bungee jump off a bridge!

Now, strictly speaking, this wasn't a bungee jump. It was rope tied to a bridge that swung you underneath the bridge after a fall of 35-odd feet or so. There was no bounce back up, there was no elasticated attachment. But in the regard that you had to jump off this bridge into empty air, it was a similar experience.

And it was fucking brilliant!

I was nominated as the first to go, obviously. I was double-harnessed and the guy even tied a little string around my GoPro as an extra security measure (shame I didn't catch my jump on it). I eagerly stepped over the railing of the bridge into the minuscule jumping square, and then with excessive care, I gingerly shuffled towards the edge.

It was then that I realised just how stupid this was. I was literally jumping off towards a fall of certain-death. None of the harnesses or attachments behind me provided any reassurance. My legs trembled with adrenaline though I wasn't particularly scared standing there. I just didn't know how I could bring myself to jump off.

Yet, I figured to myself that countless people have done the same jump as me. In fact, I'd just been speaking with a couple of people who'd literally just done what I was standing to do. I thought if they had done it, and countless people before me, there was no reason I couldn't do it.

So I counted down from 3, bent my legs, let the momentum carry me down, and pushed out. I can't remember if I screamed in excitement or fear, but probably both. Looking back, I don't remember feeing too afraid - it was exciting and adrenalin smashed through my veins! The rope caught me and swung me under the bridge so far and fast that I appeared on the other side, watching my friends cheer me on for being stupid enough to jump off a bridge.
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Little tip is not to fit yourself a wrist GoPro, or if you do, not to tense your arm for the whole jump. Turns out you can make your shoulder sore by doing that...

Anyway, shoulder aside, I think the adrenalin from the jump is still racing through my body. Loved it completely! Can't wait to do another in Quito and I hope one day I can do a full bungee. Highly recommended - just remember to jump. You'll be fine!

That night we headed back to Sacha Yacu, the animal sanctuary in the Amazon for another week of work and bonfires. (Pretty certain the film on the bus was the Spanish dub of the Point Break remake. It looks ridiculously shite).

It's hard to write about the week without going over the same ground as last week. The tasks are pretty much the same, and though we lost some volunteers from the previous week, we'd also gained a couple of new ones.

I figure, therefore, that I'll talk about any new things I got to do. One of which was feeding Kitasha, the ocelot. And she makes some beautiful purr/growls, but the meat smells worse than my t-shirts after a week in the jungle. Both the ocelots in the sanctuary are gorgeous and are captivating to watch, but Kitasha is so playful and utterly stunning.

Feeding the squirrel monkeys is an happy little job too. The cute little bastards climb all over you, rest on your shoulders as they eat, even nuzzle into your arms and look as though they would never consider escaping. Sadly the wild monkeys that live around the sanctuary are not as comfortable being close to me (maybe it's my smelly t-shirt?) but they will drop leftovers on my head if I'm daft enough to walk beneath them.

Cut down sugar cane for feeding to the animals. Turns out the sugar cane plants (?) have nasty tiny needles on their leaves that prickle your skin the way fibre glass insulation does. Can't wait to do this job all the time when I visit the tribe next week...

A snake blocked the path on our way to feed monkeys. It wasn't a poisonous snake but it's bite could still lead to a bad infection with all the bacteria. And the big bastard was curling up with the angry intent of pouncing. We waited it out and the snake finally moved enough for us to get by without getting bitten (I kept thinking of Douglas Adams' "Last Chance to See" that I alluded to in my last post about the best advice for creatures is simply to not get bitten).

Another new job was to find and catch all the turtles we could from their fairly overgrown enclosure. I built a little wire pen to keep them in one place temporarily while we painted numbers on their back in bright blue paint, weighed them, measured them, and checked their gender. The idea being that next week/month/whenever another group could catch the turtles and weigh-measure them again to see how well or poorly the tortugas are fairing. The only problem was that no sooner had we finished did it start raining. Heavily. Oh well, so much for the paint...

15ish kids (the total school population) came from the nearby school to find out about the sanctuary and learn about animals. I'm not sure quite what they learned as we ended up playing games with them and then most everyone jumped in the pool and splashed each other, but I'm no animal expert.
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We needed to build shelters for the birds, around the perches and feeders we built on day one. This was because when it rained in the RAINforest the birds were stupid enough to wait under the deluge and become avatars of cold and wet. Apparently not good for the birds, we proceeded to machete down trees of varying sizes, cut down hoja (this means leaf in Spanish...apparently) to weave atop of the shelters for a roof. It worked surprisingly well and I must say I'm quite proud of the results.

One of the birds needing a shelter was a particularly annoying toucan. It frequently fell of balconies and got itself trapped in its own enclosure. It would peck at you (virtually painlessly) and chirp: All. Day. Long. Unfortunately it was not this toucan that became sick and died, it was the other, nicer toucan. I know I'm volunteering at an animal sanctuary but sometimes I wished for a particularly savage and precise jaguar to rescue me of this annoyance...

Another bird of note would have to be Pascal. This parrot, for whatever the cause, possesses the most sinister phrase and laugh of any animal. When entering the cages to clean and feed the birds you would hear, "Hola Pascal" followed by a laugh so pitched and menacing it reminded me of the Judge from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Pascal the Parrot even had the pointy blood-red eyes. Once you heard his catchphrase followed by that laugh, you knew the feathered fiend was about to swoop in and attack - those claws and beak are no joke. So we entered that cage armed with branches meant for playing Bird Baseball. Conservation only goes so far, this was self fucking preservation!

So far I have not found any bullet ants in order to feel "the most excruciating pain a person can feel" (I use speech marks as I become more and more dubious as to the level of pain (which in fact itself just false bravado engineered by feigning doubt (meaning: it'll be fucking painful and I'm an idiot (and just like the bridge I'm still going to jump)))) BUT Raul (the head guy at Sacha Yacu) did find a particularly beautiful caterpillar, a bright turquoise colour with spines like Christmas trees all along its body. He told me not to touch it because the spines cause pain and inflammation. I asked him if I could touch it. He said "Si" and a few minutes late my wrist was hot, itchy, and swelling nicely. Thankfully Raul had the necessary remedy: apparently if he cut open the caterpillar and rubbed it's shit on my wrist, all would be well. He did and it was was! Hardly on the same level as a bullet ant sting but I'm building up to it.

I need to say for the record (like this nonsense will last for eternity!) that we ate SO well the second week. Somehow Alex managed to cook incredible meals with just a few basic ingredients. We had starters, we had desserts, we had fried cauliflower and potato pancakes, we had garlic sardines, chocolate mouse, rice pudding, and broccoli soup! It was incredible. I feel ashamed at how poorly I ate the week before. Well, not really. I'm too lazy to do what she did with such scant supplies. But I appreciate it entirely and I send my endless gratitude to the chef.

Eleanor tried to hack her thumb off with a hatchet while cutting corn. Thankfully, she didn't cut it all off, but she did slice through the nail and the end of her finger. She didn't need stitches and didn't appreciate my suggestion that she should have aimed for the corn, not her thumb. Some people just can't take advice...
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And that's really about it for Sacha Yacu and the animals. Aside from being smelly and sweaty and having no meat and being constantly bitten and stung and wearing the same shirt while rotating the same two shirts & pair of underwear for 8 days, I'm actually going to miss this place. Looking forward to staying with the tribe in the Amazon next week, but first an overnight in Puyo for showers and food!

Posted by WrightA 11:24 Comments (0)

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