One day, I went food shopping at the local bazaar. Before I left, Lola told me that I had to be careful as they were laying cement in the hallway, so I must just watch where I step while it dries. When I got back, the power was out and the hallway was very dark. And, you’ve guessed it, I stepped in the cement.
Luckily the only witnesses were the two little daughters of the family. At first they stood wide eyed and then one said: “Oh-oh.” A very universal term! While I was standing on one leg with a cement covered foot in the air, the more industrious girl went to fetch some wet wipes. We managed to clean my foot and to press the cement back down into my footprint, carefully covering up my crime scene.
I left for Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, the next day. I’m not sure if our crime was ever discovered and if it was, I hope that my two brilliant accomplices didn’t get into trouble and that they could successfully blame it on the tourist.
Our bodies contain about 60% water and we need to drink water everyday to replenish our cells. Our planet’s surface is covered by 75% water and our search for hospitable planets are governed by the search for water. Waterfalls are the perfect metaphor for how powerful and beautiful water can be.
In this post I’d like to share three amazing ways in which I have experienced the power of waterfalls on my travels. Of course, I have to start off with the question:
Awkward or Amazing?
1: Sitting underneath a waterfall
In Brunei, my brother and I hiked through the jungle to the Teraja waterfall. En route I had to remove several leeches from my breeches. The waterfall plunged into a small lagoon, which we had all to our selves. After a brief picnic, we swam to the waterfall. I decided to get as close as I can and sat down right underneath the waterfall. The water came down thundering and the droplets pounded my shoulders and back like rubber bullets. The experience was exhilarating and cleansing. I wanted to scream at the top of my voice to compete with the thundering sound of the water coming down on my head with a surprising amount of force for such a small waterfall.
2. Sliding down a waterfall
In the jungles of Ecuador we visited a lagoon for a bit of swimming. The lagoon was the last pool of water in of a cascade of waterfalls leading up to one of the Amazon tributary rivers. We wandered a bit deeper into the jungle to explore some more lagoons. At one point we reached another waterfall and the guide showed us that it was possible (if you are brave) to slide down the waterfall and to follow the current back to the lagoon. Our G-Adventures tour guide seemed a bit skeptical, but I decided to take the risk. So I had to sit on a very specific rock and then let the water take me. The slide itself was only about a meter before it dumps you into an abyss of water. The pressure of the water was immense and it took me some time to get up (I also had to adjust my bikini). My exit was graceful with all my hair slapped over my face, but it was one of the most adrenaline-fueled experiences I’ve ever had.
Canyoning involves repelling down waterfalls whilst strapped in a harness. In Baños, Ecuador we went canyoning with José and 2 dogs. We scaled four waterfalls of 8 m, 12 m, 18 m and 25 m respectively. The first two waterfalls was small enough that we could scale it down directly in the stream of water. It’s an amazing experience to lean back and skulk down the waterfall while the water splashes in your face. For the larger waterfalls, we came down the sides, but trust me, you get an amazing amount of respect for the force of the water crashing down next to you. For the fifth and final waterfall, we slid down like a water slide – a very bumpy one!
Life List Entry: Slid down a waterfall
If you can think of any other ways to enjoy a waterfall, drop a comment. Otherwise head to the About awkward and amazing page or the Hire Me page to learn more about the blog and my freelancing career
This weekend I’m going to visit my friend in Johannesburg. My plan was to take the train from Cape Town to Johannesburg on Thursday and to fly back on Sunday. Unfortunately, all the train tickets for this weekend was sold out! So, instead of writing a post about South African railroads I’ll give you a list of sites that will inspire you to pack a bag and hop on a train.
Best Train Journey Resource of All Times: The Man in Seat 61
Mark Smith has compiled the most comprehensive train website in existence. His website name – seat61.com – refers to his habit or requesting seat 61 on the Eurostar. The aim of his site is to inspire travelers to throw away their plane tickets and hop on trains instead. He explains in meticulous detail how to do all the big journeys across the world, such as the Trans-Siberian Railway. If you want to travel by train, seat61 should be your first destination.
Trains and Travels with Jim Loomis
Jim Loomis’ Trains and Travels site is an excellent blog on train travel around the world. He mostly specializes in North American train travel, so if you want an unbiased opinion on Amtrak rail travel from a real rail enthusiast – this is the place to go. When Jim’s convinced you that train travel is for you- head down to Amtrak – the national train network in the United States. With interactive route maps and a killer mobile app it’s super easy to plan your route. On Amtrak trains you can book a base fair which gives you a lounge car seat – which is very comfortable and the equivalent of a business class seat on an airplane. If you’re planning a cross county journey, such as riding the California Zypher from end-to-end, you can add as sleeper compartment for an additional fee.
The Savvy Backpacker’s Guide To Train Travel In Europe
The Savvy Backpackers, James and Susan, believes that traveling in Europe should not break the bank. They have posted a comprehensive list of pro’s and con’s to train travel in Europe as well as a very detailed section on getting and using train tickets.
Train Travel in Sri-Lanka by Nerd Nomads
Espen and Maria shared their off-the-beaten rail journey from Ella to Kandy in Sri Lanka on their website – nerdnomads.com. The article features photos of the beautiful scenery, interesting historical facts and important practical information.
Thailand by Train
A Train-Lover’s Guide to Thailand is a short, but entertaining piece on train travel in Thailand brought to you by Budget Travel and Tucan Travel. It describes the train riding experience, details around ticketing, popular routes and interesting routes like the Death Railway (Thailand-Burma) build by Asian and Allied prisoners of war during WWII.
Six of the Best by G-Adventures
A summary of the six most iconic train journeys in the world with links to G-Adventures tour packages, of course.They basically listed my bucket list along with dangling carrots:
Toy Train (Siliguri to Darjeeling, India)
Trans-Siberian (Moscow to Vladivostok)
Trans-Asia Express (Budapest to Tehran)
Trans-Karoo (Cape Town to Jo’burg, South Africa)
Orient Express (Paris to Istanbul, Europe)
Glacier Express (Zermatt to St. Moritz, Switzerland)
The most iconic train in Africa – a perfect symbol of colonial style and ultimate luxury. Recently, I went to Matjiesfontein and the train was stationed there. I was lucky enough to get a tour of the train – it is beyond beautiful. There are several routes, but the iconic route is Cape Town to Dar Es Salaam.
Life List Entry: Traveled by train (Trans-Mongolian; California Zypher; Paris to Prague)
Horse Trekking in Kyrgyzstan – Awkward or Amazing?
Amazing and so very very awkward.
The Song Kol horse trekking expedition departs from a tiny town called Kochkor.
One of the main highlights marked on the tourist map of Kochkor is a three-story building. While the building is not pretty, it was pretty easy to find; unlike the town’s obligatory Lenin statue. This is a particularly good example about why Kyrgyz towns are not the main attraction of this beautiful country.
In Kochkor, one can arrange a horse trek to Song Kol with several service providers. I used the CBT (Community-based-tourism) branch as I already had good experiences with the other branches. I’ve heard good reviews of Shepard’s Life as well. At the CBT I rented an English-speaking guide and two horses (one for me and one for my guide) for a four day trek to and around Song Kol (or Lake Song in English). To cut down costs, we agreed that I would provide my own lunch and that my guide and I would arrange our own transport to the summer pastures and back.
On the day, we easily found a taxi that we shared with some additional passengers. En route we stopped at someone’s house to deliver a package, a convenience store to buy a sim card (not for me) and a random stop for a cigarette and a hug at the taxi driver’s friend’s house. All the other passengers got of and by the time we reached our destination, I realized that no-one else had paid, so I guess I paid for everyone’s errands.
Topics of conversation while horse trekking
We got our horses, saddled up and head into rolling green hills. My first impression of the horse was that it was very responsive. It took a while to teach him that I was in charge, but on Day 1 we got on just fine. The first part of the trek was up a very steep hill to a viewing point. En route, my guide tried to make some light conversation along the lines of Islamic believes (his) vs. Christian beliefs (mine), the existence of heaven or an afterlife of some sorts. We talked about my marital status and then ran out of conversation. I noticed that he had a well-worn book with him and realized that it was a school exercise book for English vocabulary. It nearly broke my heart to see him go through his notes while riding.
Our first pit stop revealed a big mystery
When we first mounted our horses, I was curious about the size of my guide’s backpack relative to mine. I had a small day pack (10L) and he had a large military style duffel bag. At our first pit stop, he packed out his lunch and urged me to eat mine. He then excused himself and plucked a prayer rug from his bag. Mystery solved! He disappeared to do his thing and while I guarded the horses. I took some time to revel in the beauty of the landscape and had a quiet moment with my own God.
Horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan involves yurt stays
Our first host family was an absolute delight. Mother, father, older daughter and two young tomboys. At first it was a little awkward, there’s not much to do besides admiring the scenery. But the family was prepared – the young ones are tasked to entertain the tourists. I was sitting next to the guest yurt when suddenly two little faces popped out the yurt next door. They immediately asked if I had a camera and we spent some time taking selfies of each other and pictures of them goofing around. This quickly escalated into games, which mostly involved me carrying and swinging them around.
After a while, I was exhausted and decided to join the adults in the kitchen. The mother kindly allowed me to watch her make dumplings while I played at building blocks with the kids. I was offered some kumis, fermented mare’s milk. I’ve had it before in Mongolia, so the taste wasn’t completely surprising. It’s definitely not something that I see myself growing an acquired taste for.
After dinner, which was delicious and served with copious amounts of tea, it was time to go to bed. I actually loved sleeping in the yurts. The bedding consists of multiple mattresses and blankets piled on top of each other. It’s very warm and comfortable. Not all yurts have lighting, so I was thankful for my mobile phone flashlight (and my solar panel phone charger). I shared a yurt with my guide, and the next morning over breakfast he said that I look very beautiful in the morning. I (secretly flattered) called him a liar. Awkward.
Day 2: Destination – Song Kol
The next day we saddled up to trek through a mountain pass to finally reach Song Kol. On the way we met up with another group on a horse trekking journey to our destination and we decided to ride with them. Today my horse kept falling behind, so it was a constant cycle of strolling/trotting to keep up with the group. I didn’t mind, it gave me time to take pictures. I’ve become quite the horse-back photographer. Then, all of a sudden, my horse got down on its knees. I jumped off and immediately it started rolling on his back, saddle and all. Once he was done I caught the reign and got up. And in all this time, my guide didn’t even notice that I had an incident. When they turned around, I was on the ground trying to get the horse to stand still so that I could mount it again. So everyone thought, I got thrown off and it took quite some time to explain that the horse had actually very politely given me the opportunity to exit gracefully.
Once we reached the lake, the other group pressed on, while my guide and I decided to have a lunch picnic. As we sat down he realized that he had to go back for something – and off he went at full gallop – the image of a Central Asian warrior on horseback. I took a little lie-down with my head against his duffel bag, the soft sunlight stroking my face and the smell of grass and fresh water filling my senses. When I woke up, I was surrounded by horses and cows looking down on me. Clearly, humans taking a snooze next to the lake is a rare occurrence. Once I stood up, they realized that I wasn’t as interesting as they thought and scampered off.
Horse trekking and dress-up parties
When we finally arrived at our accommodation for the night, we met our fellow horse trekkers again. This family’s little one gathered up all the traditional Kyrgyz outfits and we went on a fashion parade at the banks of Lake Song.
The family that we stayed with on the third night was under the impression that I could play the guitar and insisted that I try out one of the other travelers guitar. I clearly explained in English to the traveler that it was absolutely not the case- music is definitely not in my repertoire of skills. I got quite a few questions from the family on why I’m traveling by myself as a woman and why I’m white if I’m from Africa. Sigh. I did meet some very nice fellow travelers who were at the start of their trip to Kyrgyzstan, so I was able to give some advise. The next morning that group was surprised by a visiting cow in their yurt!
On the fourth day, my horse was pretty over it, and I struggled to keep it on the path. It kept wanting to go uphill and when we were at the top, he didn’t want to go down and my guide had to come save me. It was a constant struggle! Finally we reached our end destination – a teeny tiny little hamlet where I saw the tiniest woman I’ve ever seen in my entire life! Here we had a final meal with a host family. I paged through their visitors book and noticed that they have received a lot of post cards from previous visitors. All the post cards were pasted in a book, with the message part facing forward. I found it interesting that the family valued the message more than the picture and this was very much in line with my observation that the Kyrgyz people are warm hearted, generous and welcoming.
Since I was too cheap to pay for a taxi, we had to hitch a ride back to Kochkor. As we walked to the main road, my guide had a very long conversation with someone on the phone. By the way that he walked and grazed his fingertips through the long grass by the side of the road, I thought it could only be a girl. I might not speak Russian or Kyrgyz, but I understand the language of love when I see it. At the main road a big Soviet-style truck picked us up. It was a long and slow ride home, but I was deliriously happy to have this perfect ending to my four day horse trek in the Kyrgyz jailoos.
Kyrgyzstan is a country of contrasts
Its cities are an eye-sore, but its landscapes are breathtaking. Its people are poor, but generous with the little that they have. Even with the language barrier, I have discovered an amazing people and have seen the most beautiful landscapes in the world.
I’ve made a collage of pictures from my Kyrgyzstan trip for my office wall. Everyday, I imagine myself back at Lake Song, snoozing in the sun and surrounded by horses and any troubles I might have just washes away.
Life List Entry: Went horse trekking for four days in Kyrgyzstan
With the approaching Eid holiday break in Dubai, I decided that instead of sitting in the searing 40 degree heat feeling sorry for myself for 5 days, I will take a short solo-break. My amazing wife and I have been privileged to see many wonderful places over the last 10 years, but rarely if ever, have I traveled alone (apart for business trips, of course).
So, due to some passport-fullness constraints I had to find a place where us SAffers do not need a visa. So I asked the internet and decided it will be Georgia. I read a bit and heard it has some good wine and great scenery and after a little bit of a search found a Dutchman (yes really) who rents motorbikes there. So thus the plan was made for a 3 day trip, which was to include 2 days of biking. I decided to take a mixed dorm room in a hostel, as Leanie made it sound quite appealing, and knowing it will ensure that I would at least interact a bit with other two-legged creatures.
Excited from booking my trip I told some of my colleagues about my plans and they all responded in some version of the following: “Wow, yeah…Georgia is great for wine and strip clubs….” Eh…? “So is your wife joining you?”…”Er, no…” Awkward…
First impressions of Georgia
Anyway, so I arrived at Envoy Hostel after being ripped off by the taxi (trip should be 20Lira, not 50 FYI). Next morning my ride, a Honda 1100 Shadow, arrived. My plan was to do about 160km out and back from Tblisi to Kazbegi – which is situated towards the northern border in the Caucasus mountains. Traffic was a bit daunting at first, but once you get out of the city the number of cars reduce rapidly and although the road surface is a bit bumpy, it’s fine for cruising at 80-90kph.
I have been struggling to find the right superlative to describe how breathtakingly beautiful Georgia is. Not just the scenery, or the mix of modern and old in Tblisi, but also the simplicity with which Georgians embrace life and their circumstances. The people are also more friendly and hospitable that anywhere else I have visited in Europe.
Instead of ringing off a list of adjectives I will rather explain it in a different way. Christianity was first preached in the first century BC and officially adopted as a national religion in 337 BC. Since then, in spite of multiple invasions, Georgia never ceded Christianity as their main religion. I just think that God decided that this most beautiful piece of His earth He would like to keep to Himself.
The road to Kazbegi Monastry and a lesson in motorcycle rental
The road to Kazbegi is essentially one long mountain pass. En-route, rolling hills, snow-topped mountains, waterfalls and Caribbean blue rivers form the backdrop to a mixture of unfinished concrete structures, small villages and friendly people. I made three planned and one unplanned stop. The first stop was a bit of a leg-stretch at a local restaurant half-way up one of the mountain passes where a stream allows travel-weary visitors a chance to re-fill their empty water-bottles. Here was the first chance to embrace the natural beauty that surrounded me. Second stop was at Kazbegi to see the famous mountain monastery set against the backdrop of the snow-covered mountains.
It was here that I learned two valuable lessons about renting a motorcycle:
Always ask how far you can ride with one tank of fuel
Not all motorcycles have GS-like long range fuel tanks…and Shadows definitely do not! End result was me literally coming to a stand-still without fuel within the forecourt. Close call. More about lesson 2 later.
Next stop was at the Russian Georgian Friendship Monument, a semicircular mural perched on a cliff overlooking a few-hundred meter drop. This was probably one of the highlights of the trip – not necessarily because the mural is so amazing, but the setting is just enormous.
By now I had gotten quite comfortable with the Shadow and the traffic and was starting to relax and I enjoyed the experience thoroughly.
Which brings me to lesson 2:
Never leave home without your toolkit.
I was still about 100 kms from Tblisi when my clutch cable broke. Now luckily – for those of you who are not bikers – one can change gears on your bike without a clutch, as long as you do not have to stop. I was tracking back on the same route I came, so I knew I could pretty much get to within 20kms of Tblisi without having to stop. I decided to keep going as far as I can and stop when I could not go any further and would then call the rental guys.
About 25kms outside Tblisi I saw 2 mechanics’ garages and decided to stop and see if one of them can help me. The gentleman who assisted me was extremely helpful, despite the obvious language barrier, and after having a quick look at the damage calmly told me: ”No Problem – I fix”. 25 minutes later the job was done and I was on my way after some hefty hand-shakes and smiles all round.
More of Georgia by motorcycle: Wine and ancient hill-top towns
The plan for day 2 was to do a triangular route to the Alaverdi wine-making monastery outside Telavi via the Tblisi National Park. From there I planned to travel the wine route and finally to lunch at the ancient hill-top town of Sighnaghi before returning to Tblisi. Both sites are well worth the drive and visit. Once out of the city traffic is virtually non-existent and the twisty roads make for great biking.
Signaghi was quite a surprise. Perched on top of a hill, surrounded with the ancient stone city wall it reminds very much of the small towns in the French countryside (without the tour buses). Its cobble-stone streets are surrounded by parks and restaurants and wonderful views.
On the Honda Shadow
Now I can hear the bikers reading this blog shouting: “So when are you going to tell us about the bike!!” So – to the non-bikers, please bear with me…
As already mentioned my weapon of (not so much my) choice was a 2007-ish Honda Shadow 1100 – a two cylinder sport-tourer.
As this is not a bike review I am not going to spend a lot of time to evaluate the pro’s (comfy seat, low-end torque) and con’s (small fuel tank). I will rather tell you how this bike feels to drive.
Upon reflection I think the name ‘Shadow’ is perfect. Think a bit about the word ‘shadow’ – In most of our minds a shadow is the dark place where something sinister and scary lurks. It is the dark alleyway or underpass you have to walk through on the way home from work – and even though you have done it a 100 times – the mere thought of it raises the hair at the back of your neck as the adrenaline starts to flow through your veins.
It is the place where our worst nightmares lie and wait. A shadow is something you can see and feel but cannot touch. It made me think – what would that shadow sound like…what if that feeling can be expressed as sound. The sound of all our collective nightmares roaring into life. As I pressed the starter button and the beast roared to life sending flocks of doves into the sky I realized – this is exactly what a shadow sounds like.
At low revs it’s the deep throated purr of a 500lbs lion walking past your tent in the middle of the African night. Twisting the throttle turns it into a WW2 Spitfire rattling off its 20mm gun into its fearful enemies. As you devour mile after mile of mountain road your distant growl and echo bouncing of town walls is a rolling thunderstorm threatening on the horizon – waiting at any moment to light up the night sky with a crack of lightning.
It is the roar of the unknown approaching disaster that makes horses bolt and dogs pull their tails between their legs as you pass by. Rolling into town you see on the faces of those next to the road the relieved excitement – you were heard and felt long before you were seen. I believe it is one of the reasons why in most of our hearts we are still just a little afraid of the traditional image of a big-bearded, tattoo-covered leather-clad biker.
The Shadow is all of that. It is a feeling of falling towards our most primal fears – entering the deep dark cave where generation after generation have told of the murderous beast lurking there. It is the excitement of hearing the bellows in the depths of the mountain and reaching that moment when you realize that your worst fear is about to come true – but somehow you just cannot get yourself to stop.
It is that beast of the deep that I was riding and it is was breathtaking and glorious.
Back to Tblisi
The city is mixture of old and super-modern which makes for an interesting contrast. Roof-top bars are plentiful and small outdoor restaurants line the inner-city streets. Weekend evenings are bustling and it is well worth staying 2-3 days. The Georgian wine is good and the cuisine mostly international. The most famous local dish is a strange cheese-pie topped with an egg. My advice is to order a small one, share it between 4 friend and have your ENO’s ready.
The final awkward
So after 3 days wonderful days in Georgia I was in a (20 Lari) taxi back to the airport. The driver strangely looked a lot like my late grandfather, and he was intent on finding out exactly how much I enjoyed my visit to Georgia – even though he spoke no English. After about 5 minutes (in which time he smoked 3 Marlboro’s) I got to tell him that I really enjoyed the Georgian wines – which made him very happy.
Next he made a strange gesture that looked like a lot like what I can imagine it would look like if you dragged a hippo very fast over some speed bumps. At first I did not quite get it, but my mind was taken back to awkward moment number one. The question he was asking was, yes you guessed it, “How was the sex!”. I laughed and shook my head – showing him the wedding ring on my finger. At that point he let out the type of laugh that can only be generated in a substantial belly, shouted “No problem!” and grabbed my leg and squeezed it like I was his son!
At the airport I was given a big bear hug and was reminded again of my grandfather who passed away more than 15 years ago.
A lasting impression of Georgia
It is not often that you travel with little to no expectations. Georgia was supposed to be an anonymous breakaway, spending time with myself and my own thoughts. And there I found God’s most beautiful canvas with good-hearted people in a country where ones riches are not necessarily measured in dollars. And best of all, I found a new two-wheeled friend who reminded me that beyond the project plans, Powerpoints and business meetings there is inside me still an African soul that remains ultimately Wild at Heart.
Mihan’s Life List Entry:Explored Georgia by motorcycle
My Life List Entry: Posted a Guest Blog on Awkward and Amazing AND convinced my brother to stay in a hostel.
This is the part of your brain, the brain stem, which is responsible for basic functioning such as breathing as well as for your flight/flight/freeze response to, I’m guessing in my case pretty much everything. I kind of like the idea of going through life altering between states of minding my own business like a gecko in a sunny spot and responding to life with the passion of a fire-breathing dragon.
Zip-lining at Parque Aventura San Martin in Baños, Ecuador.
The service provider, going by the name of José and 2 Dogs (although I have it on good authority that there are actually 5 dogs), showed us a video of the zip-lining adventure that they offered.
Basically, it was an AC-DC pumped-up action extravaganza showing how we would be zipping at breakneck speed over a massive canyon and through a gorge after which we will oh so casually cross a shifty-looking suspension bridge above a raging river, climb up a perpendicular cliff and then zip all the way back to civilization.
Reptile Brain: EPIC!!!! Let’s do this!!!!
Rational brain: Don’t mean to interrupt, but you’re terrified of climbing remember
Reptile Brain: I don’t see a threat. I only see epic glory.
Rational Brain: But…what about when you’re actually doing it?
Next day we were lining up to zip across the canyon.
Appearing pumped up and ready for action due to over-active reptilian brain chemicals, I was (unfortunately) the chosen one to go first. As I was being strapped into the harness, it occurred to me that I’ve never zip-lined before. I had no idea what to expect. I was being held by strangers, facing a gigantic canyon, seconds from being rocketed straight through two cliffs. Naturally, I went from gecko to dragon in a millisecond dropping a fiery hell of swear-words until I was unleashed.
And it was actually quite okay. Not even scary at all. I even got a few whoops in as I flew over the canyon.
Next up: bridge of suspended suspense.
After taking a few corny group shots once everyone finished zipping, it was time to cross the bridge. Seeing as we were getting photos taken, I had to go first again.
Nothing to worry about, just crossing a wonky bridge over a raging river with a metal cable as a security blanket. No biggie. Rather not think about the sizeable gaps between the platforms making the bridge a bridge. Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. Reached the end, phew.
Now there was a little ledge serving as a waiting station
We were a group of seven plus two guides and a camera man. The ledge could maybe fit four people. So there was not much time for the guide to give a step by step instruction on how to step by step climb up the via ferrata (iron steps hammered into the mountain side). He explained how to work the safety chains and left me with a “up you go”.
Reptile brain: Oh, f*ck. I can’t climb.
Rational brain: Told you so.
Reptile brain: Freeze
Rational brain: Only way out is up.
Reptile brain: I said FREEZE!
At this point, a line had formed behind me
The guide: “What’s up?”
Me: “I can’t go up.”
The guide: “Why not?”
Me: “I’m scared. I can’t remember how my limbs work.”
After some arguing and persuasion, the guide agreed to climb up with me so that he could handle my safety chains so that I could focus on figuring out how to put one foot up above the other.
Reptile brain: Oh man, left leg, right leg, don’t look down, breathe, left leg, right leg, never-a-flipping-gain…..smile at the camera (you kidding me?)…
Reptile brain: Breathe…nearly there, just breathe. We made it!
Rational brain: Told you so.
Reptile brain: And I told you epic glory. I’m the Dragon Master of San Martin! Oh look, another zip-line. Wheeeeeeee!!!
Let’s be honest.
If my reptile brain wasn’t in charge, I wouldn’t even have attempted the adventure. I would have rationalized my way past AC-DC to my fear of climbing. And yes, it was scary as hell, but I made it.
The San Martin canyon is not the bravest thing I’ve ever done.
Not by a long shot.
I can’t say for sure which part of my brain I used to find courage to face the worst task of my life. Or which part I used to endure the almost equally horrific aftermath. But I’d like to think that it is because I live close to my inner dragon that I was able to find courage where others could not.
Life List Entry: Zip-lined at San Martin Canyon, Baños, Ecuador
Disclaimer: This post has is not about Machu Picchu or hiking the Inca Trail; it’s about a string of random stuff that happened to me on the way there.
Not everyone gets to do the Inca Trail and see Machu Picchu
One might not have the means to travel to Cusco or one might be physically unable. Maybe you thinking the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu is too mainstream. Perhaps you don’t want to walk four days to see old buildings. Or you may have a relevant phobia such as a fear of llamas.
The main reason why folks who do have the opportunity to go and the interest to do so don’t get to do the Inca Trail is because they weren’t able to secure a permit 3-6 months in advance.
Now, despite having a permit and a fairly neutral attitude towards llamas, the fact that I made it to the Inca trail still feels like the end result of a collision of incredibly random events. An act of altruism, spotty knowledge of South American history and geography, a missed sailboat, and an avocado-eating Finnish dancer. But wait, I’m getting way ahead of myself.
Like any good story, this one starts with a bad plan
My original plan for conquering South America was to travel (mostly) overland from Cartagena, Colombia to Ushuaia, Argentina. En route I would live my dream to see Colombia, do a package tour with G-adventures in Ecuador because it looked cool, swing past Machu Pichu, somehow make my way down to Bariloche, Patagonia and finally Ushuaia where I would board a ship to Antarctica.
A grand plan that was ultimately unrealistic. Apart from somewhat underestimating the size of the continent of South America, the ultimate downfall of my scheme was overestimating my ability to keep food down on long-distance bus journeys.
Confession: Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail have never really been on my bucket list.
It’s not that I didn’t want to see it. It was rather a case of “Yeah, that sounds cool and all, but look at all this other stuff.” When I worked out my preliminary route for South America, my decision to book a permit for the Inca trail was driven less by a sentiment of must do than a why not do it while I’m at it.
Maybe, if I had considered my predisposition for travel sickness in relation to the size of South America when I dreamed up my grand overland scheme, I might not have planned for the Inca trail in advance, since it wouldn’t necessarily have been on my way. As it were, thanks to not thinking things through properly, I set out from sunny South Africa with a pre-booked ticket to see the lost city of the Incas.
Fast-forward several months to Cartagena, Colombia and the dawn of my great South American journey.
About half an hour after I checked in at my hostel, I met C at reception where he, fresh from London, was frantically looking to exchange dollars for pesos to pay the cab driver. When I realized that the girl at reception had no interest in helping him, I decided to help him out and in the process we became friends. What I didn’t know was that making friends with C nearly meant the end for my Inca trail plans.
One day, he told me that he met this sailor from South Africa who wants passengers to join him on his sailboat to Panama. Did I want to come along? Of course I did. What kind of question is that? But. There was a big but. Even though it would only have taken a week or two out of my schedule, said schedule was pretty tight. I would have to skip a significant part of Colombia in order to be on time for my tour in Ecuador which I had already paid for. I could go back to Colombia after Ecuador, but then I would not be in time for the Inca Trail. I couldn’t go back to Colombia after the Inca Trail, because that messed up my plans to get down to Patagonia (really a life-long dream) before I catch my ship to Antarctica. Not to mention that the South African Rand just hit 14 to the US dollar for the first time ever and money was getting tight. I told C that I didn’t think I could make it.
Having said no to this opportunity really bothered me.
Wasn’t the whole point of long term travel that you can decide to just jump on a boat and go to Panama if you want?
I spent a sleepless night trying to work it out. Okay, the sleepless part had more to do with the fact that my room was right above the hostel bar and that I was out of ear plugs. I tried to wrap my mind around my Panama dilemma. Something had to give, but what? The best plan I could come up with was to skip Machu Picchu. After a lot of consideration I figured that Machu Picchu is on most people’s bucket lists and I was pretty sure I would be able to convince someone to do this with me at a later stage. I made the decision: Forget the Inca trail, I was going to Panama!
Ironically, the next day, C and I found out that the South African sailor found a Brazilian dude to take my place. Having missed my boat to Panama, I was once again set on course to the Inca trail.
Some weeks later I crossed the border into Peru
At this point I had some very real and very unpleasant experiences of the twists and turns of the Pan-American highway and I have since given up on my overland travel plans. I swallowed my pride and forked out an exorbitant amount of money for a 2 hour flight from Quito to Lima to save myself the ordeal of a 36 hour bus ride. I spent some days in Lima and bought a bus ticket to Cusco where I would meet my G-Adventures group and set out on the Inca Trail.
Now the bus terminals that I’ve traveled from in Colombia and Ecuador were all small centers of commerce, so I was quite surprised to discover that Terminal Terestre Atacongo where I had to board my bus was pretty much a shed with buses waiting outside. I got onto the bus and found my seat number in the second row from the front. I remember being really proud of myself for remembering to check the seat numbers – I got told off so many times in Colombia for just sitting in random seats! I established a nest and settled in for the 20 hour ride to Cusco. A guy sat down next to me and I gave a friendly nod of acknowledgement, silently thankful that he was slim and wouldn’t be hogging my space. A woman sat down in the seat opposite the aisle and after a few minutes she tried to communicate something to me. I had little to no Spanish, but eventually figured out that she wanted me to swap seats with the guy next to her. I guess it did make more sense to have women sitting together on a long haul bus journey and agreed to do the seat swap. As I re-established my nest in my new seat, the guy in the seat in front of me turned around and offered me a slice of avocado, which I politely declined. All these little interactions quickly established a sense of familiarity among the first two rows of the bus.
Perhaps there was a little bit too much familiarity
The woman in the seat next to me, who so kindly suggested the gender segregation turned out to be somewhat of a snorer. Which was a little better than her habit to sleep with her hands behind her head and her elbows very literally poking me in the ear. The more I tried to make myself smaller, the more she stretched out into the additional space.
The next morning I woke up and was amazed to see that we were riding above the cloud line!
Soon we had a pit stop for breakfast and an opportunity to brush our teeth. I chatted with some of my fellow passengers, most of whom were also traveling to Cusco. A group of guys told me they were planning to go to Machu Picchu by train instead of the Inca Trail.
Up until that time I haven’t considered that I could see Machu Picchu WITHOUT having to do four permit-requiring days of hiking to get there. Somehow, in my mind, Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail was all rolled up into one. I guess it is like how many people talk about Darwin’s theory of evolution and the Big Bang theory in the same breath, even though the only connection between the two is that they both make Creationists uncomfortable.
Regardless of how I missed that little detail, suffice to say that I had an awkward internal moment where I realized my mistake. Suddenly I was facing all sorts of doubts. Was I ready to do a multi-day hike that included the so-called Dead Woman’s Pass? Did I even have the right shoes and backpack? What the hell was I thinking?
I’m not sure if I would have opted for the Inca Trail if I had thought about the train. After all, I am on a mission to complete all the epic rail journeys of the world. Luckily, the package that I booked for the Inca Trail included a return trip on the train, so I got to do both. But somehow I think that my lack of planning and gross ignorance of the options available to visit the archeological highlight of Peru got me on the right track.
Later in the day, the bus stopped.
I was in a riveting part of my book so I didn’t immediately notice. After a while I got off to join the rest of the passengers in getting some fresh air. Turned out that there were massive strikes in Cusco – our bus was going nowhere anytime soon.
This is when I started talking with the avocado sharer who turned out to be a dancer from Finland. I told him that I was a writer (which was true at the time) and for a while it was nice to sit on the grass next to a bus, talking about the creative process while the smoke from burning tires rose to the skies in the distance. Perhaps I didn’t have time to go to Panama, but I had plenty of time to get to Cusco and it was nice to just be someone else for a while. And if I could be a writer, then maybe I could be a hiker as well. One of my best friends was on her way to scale Kilimanjaro and she was most certainly not a mountaineer – if she could do it, I could do it.
Many hours later the bus finally made it to Cusco
Due to the strikes I had to walk all the way to my hostel – no taxis for me! I had a serious talk with myself regarding the weight of my backpack. Once at the hostel, I was desperate for a shower. Alas, I seemed to have forgotten my padlock key in Lima. Reception lent me a big-ass bolt cutter with the promise that they’ll send the handy-man up in a minute. I attacked the padlock with everything that I had, but no luck. Luckily the handy-man brought a bigger, better bolt cutter with him and managed to clip the lock in one swift maneuver. Show-off.
After one of the best showers of my life, I treated myself to some fine dining with really good red wine and a gorgeous alpaca tenderloin cooked to such perfection that I could have written a sonnet about it. And with that I was ready to take on all that Cusco and the valley of the Inca’s could toss at me.
I’m really glad that I did do the Inca Trail.
I think my Machu Picchu experience would have been a lot less rich without it. I’ll save my story on the trail itself for another day. For now, I’ll tell you that I loved the experience. Here are some pictures to prove that I did make it to the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu in the end.
Life List Entry: Made it to Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail
This post is dedicated to adventure biker Tibor, whom I met while backpacking in Kyrgyzstan.
My family loves two things: travel and bikes
My mother loves nothing more than the cobblestone streets of Paris and Rome. My father and brothers’ hearts soar on solo trips on obscure South African gravel roads on his 1100 GS. While I scratch out countries on my scratch map of the world, my father highlights dirt roads on his map of South Africa.
For a brief period, I tried being a biker. I bought my brother’s old 650 GS and my dad tried to teach me to ride on our farm. I did okay on the gravel road and even managed to ride standing up, but once I hit the tarmac my brain short-circuited. When I eventually got better at picking up a bike than riding it, I gave up and sold the bike. It wasn’t a total fail. Picking up a bike turned out to be a useful and transferable skill.
This weekend two bikers visited our farm
My parents turned our old manor house into an agri-turismo styled, biker-friendly guest house. It’s not a full time endeavor and sometimes we forget that the house is advertised as such. Yesterday, a biker couple called my mother and I was promptly put out of my room – the official guest room. I didn’t mind so much. After all, I haven’t stayed in one room for more than a week since May last year.
It can be awkward to open your house to strangers
We initially decided to make ourselves scarce so that the visitors can enjoy the peace and quiet of the farm. When the visitors arrived, my parents welcomed them and made some small talk. About bikes of course. Very soon small talk turned into long conversations. When my dad discovered that we might not have enough beer in the house, he came up with the ingenious idea that we should all go to the Darling Brewery for a beer tasting. The five of us squeezed into the car and set off to the Tannie Evita’s little town, chatting all the way. As we tasted great beers with quirky names (my favourite being the Rogue Pony ale) we shared stories about everything from our New Year’s Eves to devastating illnesses.
Now, I know the difference between being polite and really getting on like a house on fire
At a lakeside yurt camp in Bokonbaeva, Kyrgyzstan, I had a really hurtful experience when I realized that my fellow guests were only speaking to me because I was forcing them to. So I know that this instant friendship with our biker guests was real.
This made me think that bikers and backpackers are not so different
All of those people who excluded me from their conversations in Kyrgyzstan were there for short trips. The people that I’ve met that I did get on with were all backpackers on extended trips in Central Asia or round-the-world travelers like myself. Somehow these individuals were easier to connect with than the holiday makers. Okay, maybe the holiday makers were just trying to unwind and didn’t feel like talking to strangers (even delightful ones such as myself). Maybe backpackers are just starved for company and therefore willing to take the risk to engage.
More likely, backpackers are all kindred spirits who rejoice when they find each other. And I think it is the same with bikers. Just as you cannot understand what it’s like to float around from hostel to hostel with nothing to root you to the ground if you haven’t done it yourself, it’s impossible to understand what it’s like to be a biker if you’ve never been on one. If you’ve never smelled foliage from an open visor or rode standing up on a sandy road.
Backpackers don’t ask other backpackers why they want to travel to remote regions of the world. Bikers don’t ask other bikers why they take the long way to some hole in the wall. They know.
The camaraderie between bikers and backpackers are different than what you’d find between cyclists or vegans or martial artists or other groups of people who share a particular passion. Backpackers and bikers are driven by the pursuit of freedom that can only be found on the open road. When you find a kindred spirit who understand your particular brand of adventure, it’s impossible to remain strangers.
I’m not surprised that our guests this weekend turned into friends. Just like I’m not surprised that one of my dearest friends that I’ve made in Kyrgyzstan happened to be riding a 650 GS through Central Asia. It’s in our blood, after all.
About a year ago I signed up for a kayaking trip in Antarctica
At the time, I have spent exactly zero time in a kayak. According to the brochure, you didn’t have to be a pro, but you had to have at least some experience. No problem, 11 months is a long time to learn how to kayak.
As luck would have it, my mom’s best friend’s daughter raced with the Maties Rowing Club and their kayak base was on my way to work. One beautiful autumn afternoon she took me out paddling to show me which side was up. I immediately fell in love with the sport. There is something amazingly therapeutic about paddling and I have to admit that having the Stellenbosch mountains as a backdrop definitely added charm to the exercise. As an added bonus, it turned out to be one of the few sports that I actually had a knack for. I walked away from the session with a host of paddling tips and a key to the club house which (to my shame) I haven’t used yet.
My next paddling session was in Aruba
My guesthouse in Savaneta, Aruba overlooked a bay that was simply a slice of Caribbean heaven.
On my first day there I spotted some kayakers and immediately enquired. In the afternoon the weather picked up quite a bit and the sight of the waves had me more than a little nervous about my upcoming paddling session. But, alas, the kayak has been delivered before I could cop out. Luckily I met a wonderful Canadian lady who was an equal mixture of kayak-keen and nerves. Together we decided to just do it. It was her first time kayaking ever which made me the resident paddling pro. Lack of expertise aside, it was quite enjoyable. The scenery was simply amazing! My favourite part of the morning was listening to her life story – how she ran off to Mexico with just her dog and the clothes on her back in an attempt to deal the death of her son. She was now taking a much deserved break from writing her memoirs and had literally asked an airline agent to book her a flight to the furthest destination from Canada. Which, lucky for me, turned out to be Aruba.
Next up was beautiful Bariloche in Patagonia
If you think kayaking in the Caribbean can’t be beat you’re making a big mistake. This was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. The day was a bit on the windy side, but still good weather for Patagonia. I was the only paddler for that session and I told my guide, Paulo, (who happened to be an absolutely gorgeous pro-kayaker/rugby player) that I was scheduled to kayak in Antarctica in 2 weeks. As a result, what would have been an awesome kayaking trip turned out to be an outrageously amazing one-on-one kayaking class. I got a single kayak which initially scared the hell out of me, but once I hit the water I was in heaven. Half-way we made a pit-stop for medialunas (croissants) and hot drinks (coffee for me, mate for Paulo). We talked about anything and everything and I allowed myself to be smitten for the afternoon.
Afterwards, when he took me back to my hostel, Paulo confessed that it was his dream to kayak in Antarctica. I felt oddly moved by the idea that I was living someone else’s dream, especially considering that kayaking was his life and I simply chose to live his dream on a whim. With less than two weeks to go, kayaking in Antarctica was now about more than just me. It was for Paulo and all the other unnamed paddlers out there who longed to paddle around the frozen continent.
Finally it was time to board the MV Ortelius
All that stood between me and kayaking in Antarctica was the Drake Passage. And ice and wind and a 120 other passengers who also wanted to paddle. A monstrous storm on the Drake Passage delayed our arrival by a day and effectively robbed us of 2 paddling time slots. I made sure that the expedition staff knew that kayaking was a high priority for me and that I would be willing to sacrifice some of the other activities for a guaranteed spot. After an agonizing wait the activities list were put up on the board and we all crowded around like high school students trying to find out whether or not we made the team. And yes! My name was listed under Group A – the very first kayaking spot. Less than 12 hours before paddle time! In a rush of excitement I collected my kit: wet suit, booties, water/wind-proof jacket, life jacket and spray skirt.
The next day I woke up beyond excited. Unfortunately, the weather gods did not look kindly upon us and shortly after breakfast the announcement was made that Group A needed to return their kit to the hangar – there would be no kayaking that morning.
I was devastated
My dream – and Paulo’s – had just collided with an iceberg of Titanic proportions. To add insult to injury – I didn’t make the list for any of the other adventure activities. There were still shore landings and zodiac cruises to be had and I tried to remind myself that those are freaking amazing in and of itself. Even so, the tears were welling up and I was fighting a frightening battle to keep from bursting into sobs.
Later that day, the kayak leader appealed those passengers who got onto all the activity lists to donate their kayaking spots to those of us who had “lost everything”. My roommate immediately offered me her spot and I will always be immensely grateful for her generosity.
Over dinner I shared the good news with the group of great guys I have befriended on the Drake Passage. I later found out that, after seeing devastation written all over my face, two of them had been wheeling and dealing with their activity time slots all day to find a way to get me paddling. I was truly overwhelmed by the kindness of all these strangers.
On the final slot on the final day we were good to go
We got into the zodiac and cruised off to a suitable paddling spot in Paradise Bay – kayaks trailing behind. The conditions were perfect. The sea was flat as a mirror and the sky slightly overcast creating an otherworldly atmosphere as we paddled past icebergs. We were surrounded by spectacular shades of white and grey and black and blue. It was simply glorious.
I really hope that Paulo will be able to paddle in Paradise Bay one day. And I hope that when he does, that he will remember me.
As for me? I’ll be paddling in all the most beautiful spots in South Africa remembering all the great people who helped me on my journey to paddle in Paradise Bay.