Thursday, July 31, 2008

And on the Third Day, They Rose Again

It was always part of the plan. The first two days in Puno were supposed to be all about getting an altitude attitude. The third day was to be all business: Onto the Lake Titicaca to see the floating Uros Islands, and then by land to the so-called Temple of Fertility in nearby Chucuito.

It was clear as soon as we arrived in Puno that it was nothing like Arequipa. If Arequipa is the White City, then Puno is the Brown City. Its bleak look is reinforced by the universal use of corrugated iron roofs. Nothing says shanty-town like those wavy lines. But we weren't here for the city - we were here for the lake. Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world, shared between Peru and Bolivia. Its most curious feature, at least for me, is the group of 42 islands floating half-an-hour off the the coast of Puno, called the Uros.

The name of these islands derives from the the name of the people who inhabit them. The Uros people lived happily alongside their other neighbours on the patch of land that is now the northern edges of Puno. Then the Inca came. The Uros felt the need to put some space between themselves and the spreading influence of the Inca, a reaction that can be readily understood. The only space they could find, however, was on the lake itself. At first they took to boats, then built little houses on those boats. In the case of both the boats and the houses, their primary construction material was the totora - a reed that is found growing in the waters all around the edges of the lake - right out as far as the current location of the islands themselves. In an excellent example of making the best of what you have, the Uros people used this reed for food as well. They took things further again - one might argue in a somewhat obsessive way - to devise a mechanism for constructing floating platforms from large blocks of roots of the totora. The Uros islands are a 600-year-old refugee camp.

Today, most Uros leave the islands at school age and don't come back. Why would they? There's no running water, precious little electricity (a few solar panels) and in any case, the Inca have been gone for quite some time. Those who remain on the islands live mostly by grace of the tourism they generate. Conservationism, this time of a unique human culture rather than an endangered species, owes much to the positive power of tourist dollars. There was no pretence in our encounters with the Uros. It was clear that they were used to boatloads of visitors, and they greeted us with song, dressed in colours that were sure to dazzle. They showed us, though the interpretations of the guide (they spoke neither Spanish nor English, but a pre-Incan dialect called Aymara) how they lived, what they ate, and with whom they traded. The experience was choreographed, neatly arranged for easy consumption. But there was no getting over the fact - we were on a floating island. We visited three of them in fact. It was home to these people. This was a way of life that was very real, totally unique and had been in place for 600 years or so.

Nina and Sara loved it. The softness of the upper layers of reed underfoot was a delight. What could be cooler than a place where you could do the jackass as much as you want and fall flat on your back with impunity. Dry land seemed unreasonably hard and unforgiving after a few hours with the Uros.

Sara is usually the dressing-up kind, but this time it was Nina who volunteered to try out the Uros traditional dress.

The islands are a living museum, a tribute to innovation in the face of adversity, and a simple undiluted pleasure for visitors.

Our afternoon program took us south of Puno, along the shores of the lake to a small town called Chucuito. There are a lot of interesting corners to this otherwise quiet and neglected town. There is the church of Our Lady of the Assumption, from where the local platoon of the Inquisition maintained adherence to accepted orthodoxy on the part of the colonising Spanish, much like the Gestapo kept the National Socialist line in Wehrmacht outposts a few centuries later. It occured to me that I wouldn't have fared very well in Chucuito at that time. Not for my agnosticism in particular, but because of my perverse ideas on what constitutes humour: Sooner or later I would have thought it a jolly jape to ask the Grand Inquisitor exactly what it was that Our Lady was Assuming.

My daughters, who if they could would have built their own Uros islands a long time ago to take refuge from my 'jokes', were less impressed with this part of the days activities. Not even a field of stone penises could impress them. The Inca Uyo, sometimes known as the Temple of Fertility, is actually a solar observatory which was probably built to indicate the beginning of important moments in the agricultural calendar. The dozens of stone phalluses seem out of place (well, yeah!) and were perhaps taken from elsewhere and put into the Inca Uyo by well-meaning locals trying to reconstruct Inca heritage destroyed by the conquistadores. As such, they stand there in an act of defiance - one bunch of pricks against another.

But the idea of the Temple of Fertility stuck. Even today there are reports of women who visit the place in order to increase their chance of getting pregnant. The reports don't mention if they take their partners with them (which would seem like a sensible backup plan). Whatever erotic charge the temple might posess is undone by the belfry of the church of Santo Domingo, which peers in from across the road, silently outraged but too elderly to quite remember why.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Caption Competition

Perhaps I can get the ball rolling (npi) with "Spot the Difference".

(Get stuck in - this chance will hardly come again)

Monday, July 28, 2008


There are more ancient civilizations in South American than I can hope to remember. They all had their time, location language and culture. Some of them spread out from their points of origin and submerged others, like the waves I watched racing to the sand on Iquique beach a few days ago. The winners are the ones that we tend to remember. In Peru, the last two big winning waves were those of the Inca and the Spanish Conquistadores. On my one healthy morning in Arequipa we got a close up view of the faces of both of these cultures.

Juanita, as she is known to us today, was an Inca noble. She was about 12 years old when she walked hundreds of kilometers from Cusco to the volcanic mountain called Ampatu, about 100km from Arequipa, in the company of adults. Priests. They all climbed this mountain of more than 6000m, in sandals, using rough paths previously laid out in straw. In reaching this height - challenging even for today's well-equiped mountaineers - they were entering the world of the mountain gods. The rarefied air and exhaustion had already altered their states of mind. For Juanita, the privilige of walking amongst the gods with the priests, and the thoughts of what lay ahead, took her even further into a state of trance.

When they eventually reached the summit, Juanita was given some chichi, a beer made by the Incas. In her weakened state, the chichi made her lose consciousness. She wouldn't have felt a thing when one of the priests made a single blow to the right side of her head, just above her eye. That was all it took to end her life. In all probability, she was always destined to die this way. As part of a noble Inca family, she would have been selected early and educated with others like her about her role. She was priviliged. Her fate was to join the gods themselves, who according to the Inca priests had an appetite for young, beautiful and pure children, especially girls.

Almost six hundred years later, in the Universidad Católica di Santa María, at the end of a well-guided tour, we came face to face with Juanita. She never made it to the realm of the mountain gods. She lives in a Japanese-designed transparent freezer unit, alternating between the display location and the reseach lab (a routine she shares with the remains of several other sacrificed children of Inca times). She still bears the marks of the final blow. And you can still tell that when she was alive, she was very beautiful.

Not long after Juanita's death, a new wave broke on the West coast of South America. The conquistadores were armed with better germs, weapons (including horses) and political organization administered through the written word. The Inca were swept away.

About four blocks away from the Universidad is the Convent of Santa Catalina. It was founded a mere 100 years after Juanita's death, as part of the cloistered Dominican order by a wealthy widow of Arequipa. Aristocratic Spanish families would pay massive dowries to have their second daughter accepted as novices as the age of 12. This daughter would remain enclosed within the ever expanding walls of Santa Catalina for the rest of her life. Once a month she would be allowed a monitored 15 minute conversation through opaque grills with her family. She was permitted no news of the outside world. If she considered leaving the convent, her shamed family would have disowned her. She had nowhere else to go. She would live a comfortable life, with servants and even slaves (some of the servents were lower-class, Indian nuns), silently praying, conversing only when sewing. When she finally died, she was laid out for a day in the mortuary before being buried in the convent's own graveyard. Her family was not invited to the funeral.

As I stood looking in though the mortuary door, with my own two daughters beside me, I noticed it was lined with the portraits of many nuns, each with their eyes closed. The guide explained that while they were still alive, it was considered vanity for the nuns to have their image painted. Only when they were dead was this permitted.

Then the portraits were sent to the dead woman's family.

This last detail hit me like rabbit punch. Up until now I had been scoffing my way through the tour, making all the predictable comments that you'd expect from an unbeliever when shown the harsh and pointless regime of a misguided cult. But sending the portrait of the freshly-deceased daughter to the family that had gone without her company since she was 12!? This seemed like the unholiest of cruelties. Spiteful. I remained silent for a while, trying to collect myself, and looked at my own second daughter, shuddering at the idea of her being born into another place or time than 21st century Europe. Into Juanita's time. Into the time of Santa Catalina.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Hello Peru, Goodbye Stomach

I've been a bit quiet for the last few days - at least on this blog. In real life I've been making quite a variety of noises, most of which are associated with an infection of the digestive system. Yup - not twenty-four hours into Peru, I suffered the revenge of Atahualpa and two days later I'm starting to recover. The problem was made worse by a sequence of misdiagnoses. After a fantastic morning in Arequipa (more on that in a moment) I started to feel aching muscles and fatigue. Arequipa is at almost 2500m so I figured that this was the beginning of altitude sickness. I took one of the pills we had bought in Chile - the nuclear option of soroche remedies. It did absolutely nothing but demonstrate its most clearly posted side-effect as a diuretic. I then moved on to the sunstroke theory. We had spend much of the morning outdoors and I was wearing heavy clothes, a small rucksack, but no hat. It was only when the floodgates opened on all access points to my alimentary canal that I conceded that I must have eaten somthing rum. Quite possibly back in Chile, but I can't say for sure.

Thanks to the various wrong turns down the diagnostic decision tree I have taken more medicine in 2 days - both in terms of quantity and variety - than in the previous 2 years. I am not exaggerating. In fact all I have eaten over this period of time has been pills. I'm not a traveller, I'm a bleedin' astronaut. (The matter is made worse by the fact that according to Letizia the food here is excellent). The final insult was having to take a 6 hour bus trip from Arequipa to Puno, with a corresponding altitude increase of about 1300m. When all you want to do is sleep and return to the sensation of being human, being driven for 6 hours to a place that promises to starve you of oxygen is not high on the to-do list.

Like bungy-jumping, these things can be overcome simply by doing things one step at a time without overly morbid thought for what lies ahead. We are now in Puno, acclimatizing nicely to the altitude (though I still wheeze when I try to shave) and with a full day program laid out in front of us tomorrow: The floating Uros Islands on Lake Titicaca, and the nearby Temple of Fertility (which promises to make the Penis Forest of Waitomo Caves' stalacmites looks like a nunnery).

Medical bulletin concluded.

Arequipa is known as the White City because of the stone it is constructed from. Viewed from a landing plane it did not appear to live up to its name. On our approach, all we saw were shanty towns strewns across small canyons. Canyons can be very inspiring to look at, but when you're down that low, and all you really want to see is a runway, they lose some of their charm. The aircraft stormed over the ridge of one such canyon, swooped over the last few corrogated iron roofs, and landed with zero panache but considerable velocity. Welcome to Peru.

The Peruvian Paradox: Peru is a much poorer country than Chile, but if you are a tourist you'll find it easier to deal with. Tourism must be high on the national priority because everything seems geared to a much greater extent to visitors from abroad. So far we have found more english spoken in the hotels, airport pickups (which we normally consider to be options for octogenarians - that reminds me: Happy Birthdays Uncles Jerry and Micheal :-) are typically free, as is wifi (though the latter is also true of Chile). It's a lot cheaper here than Chile as well, and if you're not addicted to international hotel chains you will find many excellent hotels to choose from here, with excellent friendly service. These things matter a lot to the weary traveller.

Our pickup from Arequipa airport was well organized (and I could even fit my Zimmer frame into the boot), and after ten minutes in the car we understood where the city got its name. The historical centre of Arequipa is eye-wateringly beautiful. When we hit the steets after checking in, every turn of a corner commanded a new photograph from Letizia. I should remind readers that every picture you'll see on this blog is taken by my talented wife, and the only role I play is to hold her coat and handbag, and get the hell out of the shot. Nina, Sara and I know the drill by heart now. Tenetemi questi e spostatevi.

In my next post on Arequipa I will describe the fantastic morning we spent there before medical matters intervened. My memories of the place will be enduringly positive. In the meantime here are some of those photographs. Great credit must be given to the handbag holder.

From Arequipa

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Recuerdos de l'Atacama

The Valley of the Moon doesn't need any words from me:

Friday, July 25, 2008

I Lique Iquique

"I like Iquique". I don't know how many times I made this pronouncement over the last 2 days. Mostly because I'm surprised. This was supposed to be a place to sleep and eat for the last few days in Chile before flying on to Peru. I was expecting a place that smelled of fishmeal, and looked aged and delapidated (smelly and crumbling - just like me!).

Iquique (Ee-key-kay) used to be one of the wealthiest places on the planet. They dug their wealth out of the ground around here. More salt. Saltpetre to be precise. The nitrates that were exported to Europe from here at the turn of the 19th century were used for the complementary purposes of blowing people up, and disinfecting their wounds. The nitrate boom (npi) lasted until the end of World War I, and then the town went into decline. Valparaiso started its decline when the Suez canal was completed, and still looks ragged today. But Iquique found a replacement industry. That's why I was expecting the place to smell of fish.

What we found on arrival (which by the way was at five in the morning after sleeping on the bus for 7 hours from San Pedro) was a beautifully preserved town centre and a moderately built-up beach area about 2km out of town. Our hotel is on the waterfront and looks out over a little flotilla of red fishing boats - so red that you can even make out their colour by night - as well as an even smaller flotilla of pelicans and a lone visiting seal. From our balcony we can see the beach stretching away, the city behind it, and towering above everything, an 800m mountain range that surges up behind the city.

The most interesting road in the city is Baquedano, which is made up of the mostly restored mansions of the nitrate era. Given that the Internet in our hotel isn't working properly, we spent both of our afternoons here sitting in the sun outside Ronny Tequila's, enjoying a good lunch and using their free WIFI to upload photos and bore the hell out of you.

Because Chile is long and thin, and because there don't seem to be that many gringos on the tourist trail here, it's natural to bump into the same people time and again as you travel through the country. On the trip to the observatory I met a girl from Reunion called Nicoletta, and next encountered her on top of sand dune in the Valley of the Moon outside San Pedro. At that time she was talking to an English girl, who we briefly chatted to. Today, outside our favourite WIFI spot we bumped into the English girl again, this time with her boyfriend. From...Dublin! They are in their final three weeks of a one year journey. I asked him if he was the chap I had seen with the Dublin colours in San Pedro - apparently not. No shortage of Paddies in these here parts, it appears. (Hi Peter and Roxanne, if you get around to tuning in.)

Were looking forward to, or dreading, their return to normal life? I inquired. I had a particular reason for asking. Because our trip has always had a shape - a beginning a middle and an end - as the clock has ticked on I've found my attitude towards it changing. I remember telling my dad a few months back that if I had the money I'd happily stay out for another year, work- and school-life notwithstanding. Back in Oz, the only consolation on leaving one beautiful place was the knowledge that I was moving on to somewhere new. Well things have changed. South America was always going to be the last lap, and because that has always been its assigned role, I find that my attitude towards returning home is changing, dutifully following the curve of take off and landing that has been programmed years in advance. I hereby publically admit that I'm beginning to look forward to coming home. Funnily enough, that's what Roxanne and Peter reported as well.

Don't get me wrong. Once we recovered from our jet lag and moved on from Santiago, we've had a terrific time here in Chile. It has the flavour of real adventure that New Zealand, unmissible and rewarding though it is, didn't have simply because of its cultural familiarity. I expect even more of the same from Peru. But this time next month we´ll have spent one night in our own bed in Cork. And strangely, I'm very OK with that.

Perhaps I'm just getting old.

Same mierda, different day?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Unsavoury Tales of Salt

In an interesting coincidence, during our visit to San Pedro de Atacama and its Salt Flats, I was reading a book about the history of salt. I picked up Salt, A World History by Mark Karlansky in Auckland airport during one of our long sojourns there. A cover as umpromising as that, I reasoned, was sure to hide an excellent book. Only a publisher who was very confidant of their author's ability to truely facinate the reader would risk their money on 450 pages of a book like that. (The same auther has a track record - a biography of the cod. As in fish. Seriously.)

But usually the simplest explanation is the correct one. A book about salt is, well, hard to swallow. I'm on page 256 now, and I feel like my brain has been pickled in brine. I have been almost entirely leached of my will to read. On the bright side, the book did help somewhat with my Santiago insomnia. And I have learned a few things, though painfully (like, not to buy the book about cod).

Why is the sea salty?

I'm very comfortable with the answer "I don't know" to most questions that anyone, especially my daughters, might put to me. I like the ring of it. I like its simplicity. And it suits me. But the nature of my children is to abhor this vacuum. When given the choice between idle and ill-founded conjecture on one hand, and the honest admission of ignorance on the other, Nina and Sara generally opt for the former. In face, in the absence of an answer to a question like "Why is the sea salty?" they are capable of constructing a complete mytholigical edifice involving princesses and tyrannical kings (who knows why, but hard-done-by princesses and tyrant kings feature regularly in their stories...)

But the answer to the above question was answered for us in, of all places, the desert. When you visit the Salar de Atacama despite being in one of the driest places on Earth you'll find salty lagoons with shrimps swimming in them, and three different species of flamingo that feed on the shrimp. Around the lagoons there is nothing but jagged salt-encrusted plains. Around the salt there is only the rocks and dust of the desert. And all of this is enclosed by the Andes on one side and the Cordillera de la Sal (yes, salt) on the other. Where does the water, and the salt come from?

I don't know.

Just kidding. Force of habit. It's meltwater from the Andean snow peaks. It flows downward like a river, but under the surface of the ground. Like any river, it carries along with it the minerals of the soil through which it runs. But this river never gets even close to the sea. It hits the high plains between the two mountain ranges, where the impermeable rock pushes it to the surface. 96% of the water evaporates, depositing the salt crystals in ever-growing clumps. The remaining 4% creates the lagoons.

The effect that this produces is best told with pictures - Letizia's of course. Looked at closely, the Salt Flats aren't really flat at all. The surface looks like badly-ploughed earth, sprinkled with snow. And when the sun goes down, the colour of the salt, and the reflection of the reddening mountains and volcano in the lagoon outdoes even Uluru. Even without the champagne.

What's that? Oh - what does make the sea salty? Well, just allow a river to reach the sea (many do, apparently) and the same process of surface evaporation, carried on over eons, makes for a salty sea. Well that's one explanation. Another one is that the evil king, punishing his two poor innocent daughters for not eating their dinner, makes them fill the sea with the kingdom's salt, teaspoon by teaspoon.

You choose.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

I Spy

I though I had seen desert. Our trip to Australia´s Red Centre was my first time in such an arid part of the world. Nine months without rain, we were told, and it looked it too. On the bus between Alice and Uluru, some parts were particularly sparsely vegetated and completely unsuitable for cattle stations. Then I saw the Atacama.

We´ve been brushing the edges of desert or semi desert for a few days already, as we´ve been making our way North aboard countless buses (well, 4 buses actually). After 2 days in La Serena we took a night bus to Calama and onwards to San Pedro de Atacama, forsaking the coast in order to follow the strongly worded advice of Iain Ballesty (I got the feeling he´d track us down and hurt us if we bypassed S. Pedro) and the gentle prodding of `Nonna Carla`.

I´ve never seen a place like the Atacama, or a town like San Pedro. San Pedro is an oasis. Literally. Everything else is dry as toast. This is not a place of little rain. It simply doesn´t happen here. You´ll appreciate that for an Irishman, this is a hard concept to register. It offends my Celtic sensibilities. Believe me, I´m not fond of rain, but I feel it may have a role to play in earthly matters. If the lunar features of the Atacama are anything to go by, I might just be on to something. Australia was just barren. The Atacama is dead. Some isolated parts are sandy in the way one would expect (or in your case David French, in the way one has experienced) but mostly I saw hard rock with a dusting of, em, dust. It´s a brave individual indeed who would try to hammer a tent peg into the Atacama ground.

Back in Santiago, Iain had told the girls how they might play I Spy in this part of the world:

"I spy with my little eye somthing beginning with S." "Sand." "Yes. Your turn."
"I spy with my little eye somthing beginning with S." "Sky." "Yep. Now what do we play?"

If you look through any edition of the Rough Guide (and we're on our 4th so far), you'll become familiar with the light brown tone of their city maps. Flicking from map to map, you could be forgiven for thinking that every city looks much like the other. Especially in Chile, where a grid layout centred around a Plaza de Armas is standard. According to the map of San Pedro, we had to walk three blocks East and three blocks South to get from the Tur-Bus terminal to our hosteria. One small but important feature of the map, that might have hinted at how different San Pedro was from all those other maps, was the scale. A San Pedro block will take you all of thirty seconds to walk. Stroll. But if you are wearing a rucksack and dragging two wheeled samsonites (admitedly much lighter than when I was dragging them through China) across dirt-track streets, spending as much energy in balancing them as dragging them, the blocks start to look big again. Even the Tur-Bus terminal itself isn't much more than a dusty corral lined with rough wood fencing. We were spared the journey by the arrival of Señor Samuel in his taxi - indistinguishable from a big city taxi in colour and model except for the fact that it took up the entire road, adobe wall to adobe wall. Our three block by three block journey, made longer by the necessary one-way system, effectively spanned the limits of this town. We weren't in the city any more.

Our time in San Pedro organised itself as follows: On both evenings we left the village on a tour bus, first to the Salar (salt flats) and then to the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). But our mornings and afternoons were spent browsing the streets, this time without the samsonites. As you might have understood, this doesn't take a lot of time. But that was fine - we weren't in any hurry. Nothing is taller than one or one-and-a-half floors high, except for the steeple of the church of San Pedro. Almost every single door is open, and shows a cafe, a shop of artisan goods, or a tour operator behind it. If this doesn't sound very enticing, you have to allow for the atmosphere. Yes, it's full of tourists, but anyone who makes the trip to a place so isolated really wants to be there, and everyone seems to fall under the same spell. There is no sign of boxer shorts emblazoned with national flags here, although I'd swear I saw a Dublin GAA jersey.

We tried out a lot of eateries, either early before our tours, or later when we returned in the dark. Not every experience was positive but my favourite was the first one we stumbled across was Bistro Les Copains on the corner of Tocopilla and Caracoles streets. A shallow room opening directly onto the street, it can fit about 10 people. The owner speaks good english makes you feel genuinely welcome. The fare is simple but good. And to top it all off, they offer a very cheap laundry service as well. Beef sandwich and clean knickers. What more could a traveller ask for.

As I said, I'll blog separately about the two tours we took. But hopefully the following pictures, courtesy of Letizia, will give you a feeling for the sand-stroked genteel nature of San Pedro de Atacama.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Rabbit in the Moon

On the evening of our second day in La Serena we were collected from the hotel and brought by minibus to a town about 40 minutes inland by the name of Vicuña. From there, a road of sorts led up. Up through the town. Up the side of a hill. Up through the fog that was beginning to envelope Vicuña. The road was just a dirt track, sometimes with high banks of recently cleared earth. No street lighting. This should have been well off-piste, but bit by bit our minivan was joined by others. Cars, vans and buses joined their headlights together into a slow procession upwards, until finally we all came to a stop in the carpark of the Mamalluca Observatory.

There are dozens of large telescopes pointing skywards in Central and Northern Chile. The skies here are famous for being clear. Many are European, or American or international collaborations. As our guide would later say, Chile doesn't have as much money as Europe or America, but it has lots of sky. The Mamalluca Observatory was established with the hand-me-downs of larger installations with the express purpose of acting as a public access site. Whereas bigger sites with enormous lenses will let you look in, they won't let you look up. Mamalluca's modest 30 cm reflecting telescope was more than enough for us. We were able to look at Jupiter and make out its layered surface and four of its moons. I have a starter refracting telescope at home which I've pointed on occasion at the planets (not that they've noticed). Cold hands, rickety tripods and no tracking device to keep you on target means that most of the time is spent twiddling knobs and stamping feet, and only a very few seconds actually observing. Jupiter through the lens, until my trip to Mamalluca, looked like a distant stale biscuit. Rich Tea, at a guess.

There was a full moon that night. Not ideal for looking into deep space, but nice for looking at, well, the moon. So we did. The best place to look, according to Alfredo our guide (who for some reason spoke with an accent precisely the same as my Norwegian friend Kaare - either Alfredo is Norwegian or Kaare has been having a great laugh at my expense for many's the year now) is at the edge of the moon, where you can see the details stand out in three dimensions. We studied an intriguing pimple on the lunar surface only to be told later than it was 3km deep and tens or even hundreds of km wide.

After a powerpoint presentation on the lifecycle of stars and an introduction to the "humourous" naming convention of telescopes (let's just say that astronomy nerds make us computer nerds seem like real wags), we went outside to some other less powerful scopes with wider fields of view - perfect for more moongazing. Letizia took some great pictures through the lens. Then something happened to make me lose track of the astronomical goings on: we met an Irish family of four who were on a ten week tour of South America. Their children were close in age to Nina and Sara and so before long, the four of them were running around like feral llamas, while Letizia and I compared notes with the parents. It felt really good to find someone doing something as daft as we were. I never did get around to asking names, but I did write down this blog address and I hope they get the chance to tune in (hi there family from Meath, if you're reading!).

Since arriving in the Southern Hemisphere, as well as performing important experiments in fluid dynamics, we noticed how different the night sky is down here. The Southern Cross, as its name suggests, is not visible from Ireland (unless you are looking at an Australian or New Zealand flag in Ireland). And Orion - an easy constellation to spot back home - is harder to find due to the fact that he's generally standing on his head down here. ("Silly Orion, always drunk" - Nina and Sara's interpretation). Now Alfredo (or Kaare as I had by now come to think of him) pointed out something which, in all my beer-fueled discussions on matters austral with Simon Pett, I had never noticed. The moon is upside down here too. The Man in the Moon that you can make out from the Northern Hemisphere is nowhere to be seen. In his place is the Rabbit in the Moon. And I have to say that the Rabbit is much more convincing than the Man. Find a picture of the moon (chances are it'll be a Northern Hemisphere one), twiddle it around and hold it at arms length.

What's up doc?!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Darwinism and Table Soccer

The seven hour bus trip from Santiago to La Serena was a piece of cake. We took a taxi to the terminal of Tur-Bus, and found there a level of organisation as good as any airport. Our tickets already specified the bay number that the bus would use. We bought some food for the trip and got settled in on board. No checkin, no security - and no delays.

The place that 'Nonna Carla' had chosen for us was outside the centre of the town, just by the beach. It's clearly not swimming weather right now, but the seafront made a good place to walk. I noticed a blue sign right by the water with a picture of a huge wave on it. On closer examination it turned out to be an indication for the escape route in case of a tsunami. Nothing is left to chance in La Serena - the sign pointed away from the ocean. Darwin, like God, is being relegated to ever smaller spheres of influence by modern man.

Our hotel was actually a park of cabañas - tiny self-catering cabins that are perfect for Summer, but definitely not made to retain heat. But we were fine with it. We were glad to be out of a smoggy city, and Nina and Sara soon found little friends around the park. For families based in Santiago, La Serena is the holiday destination of choice. The Winter school holidays are on right now, so the girls (and Letizia and I) were able to resume the sport that practically defined our week in Fiji: table soccer. In Fiji, I did my impression of Little Britain's Competitive Dad, doing a lap of the table on every goal, punching the air, and generally bewildering my young (and now that I think of it, slightly cross-eyed) opponent. And yet he kept coming back for more. Sucker!!! In La Serena I tried to suppress this instinct when playing Filipe, an 11-year-old Santiago boy. And I almost succeeded. In any case, we have decided that table-soccer (or tacataca as it is known in Chile) is the sport for the Lawlor family, combining as it does a minimal fitness requirement, no dedication whatsoever and a take-no-prisoners approach to gratuitous displays of victory. We'll be acquiring a table when we get home (though we have nowhere to put it, as the funds that might have gone into converting the attic went into this trip instead).

Across the road from our cabañas we found a great steak restaurant. For less than 7 euros I got one of the best filets I've ever enjoyed. 400g of rosey-on-the-inside, al-dente-on-the-outside happiness. Our waiter turned out to have a very unusual first name. He was called Darwin. I know that Charles Darwin passed this way before on The Beagle. But I didn't think he had left his own genetic imprint on the place. Could this man in front of me be the fruit of Charles Darwin's own long forgotten experiment in heredity, I wondered? Apparently not - it seems that his father was a scientist and named his son out of reverence for a great scientific thinker. (It might have been kinder to simply call him Charles). I was tempted to ask him what names his siblings were carrying around (Copernicus is working desserts tonight and it's Einstein's night off). But he still had all the steak-knives in his hand so I though better of it. I also didn't find out if he shared my concerns about the negative effect that the tsunami sign might have on the future of the local gene pool. Some times it's safer to be on the other side of a nice big language barrier.

La Serena has a great deal more to offer than steak and table soccer of course. We took some time to stroll around the city centre, browse in a pretty covered market, and have a reasonably priced meal or two. But oddly enough, table soccer and walks along the beach (including a few goes on a bungy trampoline for Nina and Sara) was all we really wanted. The girls had had to deal with 4 days in Santiago with very little to do except watch their parents disintegrate due to lack of sleep (probably not such a bad passtime for most kids, but not nearly as good if you can't have a laugh with your friends about it). La Serena offered them a chance to just do what they wanted to do. Apart from a quick tour of a surprisingly good archeological museum - which included an orginal maoi statue from Easter Island - we contented ourselves with strolling, eating, ping-pong and table soccer. As far as this family is concerned, La Serena was a GOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLLLL!!!!!!!!!

Nina and Sara, ready for the bus to get out of Santiago.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


Men and women have different ways of orienting themselves in the unknown. Women prefer to use landmarks when giving directions. Men, on the whole, speak in terms of compass points, road numbers and distances. I love the REM song called Stand: "Stand in the place where you live/Now face North/ Think about direction, wonder why you haven't before". I keep a little compass in my pocket. I use it to check the direction of taxi routes compared to my expectations. I use it when we are hiking to ensure we are going in more or less the right direction. But mostly I just use it because I like to know where North is. I like to picture us, in my mind's eye, superimposed on the little globe that sits in our living room back home.

Letizia likes to tease me for my y-chromosome ways. "Which way is the river?" she says, echoing a question I often ask myself aloud when reading city maps. Compass points leave her cold. But for once now, and for the next several days, we will both instantly know in which direction North lies. Even without a compass. North is the front of the bus.

Friday, July 18, 2008


I have to tell the truth. Over the last four days in Santiago, I've felt like the wheels were finally coming off our little wagon. Sleep deprivation can play merry hell with your sense of wellbeing. The loneliness of insomnia dulls your daytime senses, and barbs your mood. It's hard to like a city such as Santiago in this state of mind, and so I fully accept that my memories of it are coloured darkly, unfairly.

When I think of our four days there, I think of crowded fast-moving streets that tolerate strolling visitors only with impatience. I think of feeling hunger but being surrounded only by junkfood, both local and imported. I think of high historical buildings whose elegance is studded with haphazard ground-floor commerce. I think of air that I can taste as I breathe.

But there are brighter memories too. An hour spent in the company of Iain Ballesty, Darragh's brother, over lunch. He gave us good advice for our northward trip through Chile, and made Nina and Sara laugh by telling them "I hate your guts" when they described their trips to Fox Glacier and whale-watching in Kaikoura. Our visit to the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art was well worth the time - the girls were quite engaged by it and I particularly liked the many complex tapestries and weaving styles displayed. The staff of our hotel were very kind to us, and that can make a big difference to any stay. "Nonna Carla" from the travel agency was a terrific find.

The biggest problem though was the gray pessimism that settled over us, and that I personally struggled to see past. The long road North to Cusco didn't invite us quite so much anymore. The task of organizing and then executing a plan that involved many thousands of kilometres, and bus trips of 15 hours or more, with the sure reward of being laid low for days with altitude sickness...well it led me for the very first time to look forward to going back home. I am not a person easily disposed to worry. I am irritatingly positive and boringly even keeled (Mam, Dad - you must have done something right when I was growing up). But on those occasions when my spirits dampen, the effect tends to seep to the bone. The fact that both Letizia and I have been feeling down, and that Santiago doesn't hold much interest for children, has meant that the last few days have been hard for Nina and Sara. They are patient, but I've realised that some places bring them out of themselves, while others make them sink back into their warm jackets like a tortoise into its shell. This has been Tortoise-Town.

They are simple creatures however, like their father. It doesn't take too much to find our feet again. As I write this, I am on a very comfortable Tur-Bus heading North to La Serena. The Pacific is on my left, rolling hills of low scrub to my right. The sun is shining. The girls are playing in the seats behind me, and Letizia is napping next to me. I actually slept OK last night, and I can feel the difference already. Tomorrow night we will visit one of the many observatories for which these famously cloud-free parts are known for.

She'll be right.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Sleepwalking in Santiago

We've been in Chile for 2 days now, but so far we're experiencing it through the haze of jetlag. It was always our plan to take the time here to recover from the inevitable effects, and to plan our trip in detail. We're succeeding in doing the latter, but the jetlag is taking longer than we expected. Dave French, whose travelometer goes Spinal Tap style all the way up to eleven, tells us that we need to allow one day for every time zone change. At that rate, we'll be almost finished with Chile by the time we fully recover.

We've taken a close look at our plans for the next two weeks. Our fixed point is Cuzco on the 30th of July. Our plan was to cover the distance from Santiago to Arica (30 hour bus trip) and cross from there to La Paz (another 7 hours), spending 2 days there before moving on to Lake Titicaca. There are too many problems with this. Firstly, in our rush North, we would miss out on many sights and experiences that Chile has to offer, chief amongst which is San Pedro de Atacama. Secondly, we could expect to be laid low with altitude sickness in La Paz for the 2 days we planned to stay there, recovering just in time to leave.

Our new itinerary leaves us more time in Chile, stopping off in La Serena (and getting a tour of the Mamalluca observatory), then making our way to San Pedro de Atacama for two nights of desert contemplation and a visit to the Salt Plains. Finally we will spend two nights in Iquique from where we will fly directly to Araquipa in Peru. We'll have time to reach Cuzco via Lake Titicaca - we wouldn't think of missing out on that.

Even without the language gap - which Letizia is spanning brilliantly - managing your own trip in Chile is not as straight forward as in Australia or New Zealand. There's a huge variety of bus companies, each with their own specialised areas of interest. High car hire cost rules this more independant option out. And even if LAN and other airlines have an online booking system, not all flights are available this way. We decided to seek out the help of a travel agency and basically picked the closest one to our hotel that we could find in the Yellow Pages. With the address in hand we went out to find the office, expecting something like Flight Centre - a highstreet shop with lots of brochures in the window (and maybe even an inflatable pilot outside the door). What we found was a doorbell to a closed office on the 11th floor of a 12 floor building. So we rang.

The door creaked open, and a suspicious pair of eyes peered out at us. Clearly not used to personal calls. Once the initial suspicion passed, we were invited in,. An english speaker was found but it was becoming clear that this agency did not deal with the public. But once it was established that Letizia was Italian, conversation switched immediately to Italian. The company was Italian-owned, and we were speaking with the daughter of the owner. All doors opened. Take off your coats! Sit down! A few moments later the owner herself swept into the room, introducing herself to Nina and Sara first as 'Nonna (Granny) Carla', before directing a tornado of welcome at Letizia and me. There was no talk of business at first - that would have been crude. This was business Latin style. Carla brought us out onto the balcony to admire the sunset over Santiago. She showed us pictures of her grandchildren back in Europe, and we approved. We described our travels to her and she expressed her approval. When, and only when these nicities were observed did we move on to what might have brought us to her office. Up until that point we might just as easily have been making a courtesy call to a distant relative.

A little over 24 hours later, we now have travel and accommodation and some activity vouchers for the rest of our Chilean stay, as well as our flight to Peru - all in the quaint kind of customized plastic folders that were used at home when flying was still something of a big deal. Now we just have to kick this jetlag and get stuck in.

Tomorrow we make a day trip to Valparaiso. More when we get back from that.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

At what point should one start screaming?

The morning we were to leave for Fiji, things were running like clockwork. We dropped extra bags in the hotel we were to stay in (from where I'm writing this blog entry), dropped off the rental car to Apollo (the last one we'll need on this entire trip), and were in the airport in plenty of time for our flight. It was 2 hours delayed - no big deal. But as the clock ticked down it was pushed back another 2 hours. Then another 2. Then four hours. Instead of leaving at 14:30, we were now promised that the 'engineering requirements' were sorted and our flight would leave at 00:30. It had been a long day, but Nina and Sara to their great credit were extremely patient, and we had a promised departure time. But airline promises are made to be broken. After another few hours we were called together and told that we were being, in their parlance, off-loaded until 06:00. Strange given that we were never loaded in the first place.

We were told that we would be put up in a hotel, given call cards and fed before being shuttled back to the airport for the rescheduled flight. These things happen. We were tired, disappointed, but there is no point in getting angry in these situations. What happened next however, made me angry.

Flying means queueing. Being off-loaded means queuing back through passport, back through customs and back through biosecurity, all in order to queue to get assigned accommodation, queue for the bus, and then queue in the hotel lobby behind all the other poor schmucks. And then, if you're very unlucky, after spending 12 hours in the airport, watching day turn to freezing night, the hotel reception staff will tell you that they don't have any rooms left. None. Nothing in reserve. We'd booked a Quantas flight that was actually operated by Air Pacific, whose ground representatives (in their absence) was Air New Zealand, who had directed us to Hotel Grand Chancellor using an indepentant coach service (and no Air New Zealand ground staff reps). We were four layers away from the root cause of our problem and one step removed from the people who had got us into this immediate predicament. The staff were understanding, but couldn't really help. Air NZ wasn't answering the phone, and all the other hotels nearby were fully booked. It was 10 in the evening, and we had maybe 5 hours sleep opportunity ahead of us before being cattle-trucked back to the airport. If we could only find somewhere to sleep!

Someone, somewhere suggested that we stay in "the house". A stand-alone, self-catering flat around the back of the hotel. "Is it warm?". Yes, we were told. We took it. It was glacial.

I have never felt so sorry for my children, and so guilty for uprooting them from their comfortable existence back home, as I did that night when I saw their earlier spectacular patience rewarded by shivering covers in a strange and inhospitable bedroom. We got our bus 4 hours later, and went through the same queues in reverse - groggy and dislocated, uncertain even yet of whether our flight would be ready.

It ended well. We made it to Fiji. We lost out on one night, but really enjoyed our six remaining days in the tropical sun. I am the forgiving kind, and would normally concentrate on the fact that we got over the bad stuff. But I'm still composing the letter to Air New Zealand whose lack of organization let to that evening's final insult.

How many c*nts can I get for a Fijian dollar?

They say the c-word still has the power to shock. I agree. I never imagined I'd be dipping my nib into that part of the lexical inkpot for this blog and so, surprised by its appearance, I find myself blotting out a little with asterisks.

It's all Sara's fault. Last night, our last night in Fiji, I was lying in bed, concentrating on not feeling either sore or sorry for myself. I had spent the week eating three square meals - no, cubed meals - a day at Plantation Island Resort, and now I was trying to manage my own internal queue for the buffet. Somewhere deep in my intestines, far too close to the exit, the guests were elbowing for position. I was not in the most receptive mood for humour. But the most irresistible humour is accidental. Sara's speciality. She's starting to read Harry Potter now (sibling rivalry has an important role to play in children's development) and she gives us regular updates from whatever corner of whatever bedroom she happens to be sleeping in on any given night. And so she began.

"In Hogwart's, the money they use is called mumble"

I raised an eyebrow, and turned my head to Letizia beside me. "What was that sweetheart?"

Sara, louder: "In Hogwart's, the money they use is called mumble that definitely began with the letter c".

I manage to sit up a little, and started elbowing Letizia. "Once more? I can't hear that last word."

Sara, impatiently: "In Hogwart's, the money they use is called cunts".

Ouch! There is was! There it is!! What the hell is going on!! She's a 7 year old, and she has never ever heard that word. With the appeasing tone of voice that one reserves for hostage situations I said "Could you spell that please?"


"Cnoots" I replied, before she even finished. "Cnooooots!! Can you say it back to me?"


"Yes! Good! Cnoots!"

Emergency over, Letizia and I hidden by a corner of our L-shaped room, let the tears roll silently down our cheeks, shaking with laughter for minutes but afraid that we would be heard by the girls, still concentrating on their reading.

Soon after, I started drifting off to sleep, disturbed occasionally by recurring shakes of suppressed laughter and intestinal cramps, thinking what a stupid cnooot I'd been for eating so much.

Previously, on Lost

The story so far: Our time in New Zealand is almost up. We spent 4 days in Auckland, headed to Fiji for a week, and we're now back in Auckland for one night before heading East again, across the Pacific Ocean to Chile. I'll try to compress the days since the glowworm caves into this one blog entry...

Auckland gets a bad rap in tourist lore. Just another city. Concrete Jungle. Fly in and move on. Based on this reputation, we decided to book a motel near the airport and shuttle in and out to the city centre as we wanted/needed. Our first impression of Auckland was confirming our prejudices. We pulled up outside our motel - the Travel Air Motel - and got a sinking feeling. We're not so picky. We have only run away from one other hotel in 6 months. But when we saw our rooms, we realised that we had been completely misled. If I had thought of it in time, I would have taken pictures for you to compare to their website. We got into the car again, leaving some of our our luggage, with a plan to see the city and look for alternative accommodation for the following nights, and were very pleasantly surprised by what we say. It's a bigger city than anything else we've seen in NZ. Bigger and more built up than the capital, Wellington. But it was pretty. There was a nice rolling feel to the streets (a bit like parts of Wellie), nice views out over the water, and parkland easily visible from parts of the built-up centre. With the help of i-Site, at the base of Auckland's famous Sky Tower, we found a great deal for a luxurious hotel right in the centre. We figured that the relaxing part of our trip (Fiji) could start a few days early.

And that's how it came to pass. We went back to the fleapit near the airport, paid $20 penalty for late cancellation, picked up our luggage and left in a cloud of dust and relief. That was the easy part. Then came the walk of shame. When you're staying in a posh hotel, it seems bad form to trail across it's wide lobby, dressed for the road and with laden down with bags of groceries and knicknacks. But when you have to do it, do it with your chin up. We must have made a fine sight, Cheerios poking out of the plastic bags, a dusty single file of noses in the air. We shopped a little, took a spin across harbour bridge to Devonport for a walk and a few photos, ate on Ponsonby Road, and checked out Auckland Museum (again, an excellent example of how museums should be put run).

If I hadn't bungied in Taupo, I would have considered jumping off the Sky Tower, but luckily all that was out of my system. Instead we hand a poolside view of the jumpers from the fifth floor of our hotel. The tower itself is a beautiful feature of the city, and I was surprised to learn that it was so new - built in 1995. It dominates the cityscape, and gives the place a focus and an identity. It's hard to imagine Auckland without the Sky Tower. That's the best test for any new structure (I wonder if Dubliners have yet come to the same conclusion about the Spire).

During our 12 weeks in New Zealand, I've learned that this is not just a smaller, colder version of Australia, nor are Kiwis indistinguishable from Aussies. There is something very different going on here, and these two new countries have very different histories despite their superficial similarities. I have at least one other blog in me about those differences, and the part they play in explaining the gap between Maori and Australian Aboriginal. It's unfortunate, but probably unavoidable, to describe New Zealand by contrasting it with its bigger neighbour. But the fact remains that the differences really are surprising. If history had taken a very slightly different turn (for example if NZ didn't take part in the Boer War, and thereby find itself afterwards in a period of intense nationalist sentiment), New Zealand just might have been federated alongside New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and the others into what became Australia. The fact that it didn't, and has continued in many different political, social and cultural ways to plough its own furrow, has added to the diversity of this region, and provided the world with some truly worthwhile examples.

I'm going to miss the place, but I'm more than ready to move on. We've been too long in English-speaking countries which, for all their differences, are clearly not going to be as different as China was, or as Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Argentina are likely to be. The next six weeks might be viewed as our homeward leg. We're going to cross the International Date Line within an hour of taking off tomorrow. For those of you in Europe it means that, like a coin moving invisibly between a magician's hands, we'll appear on the other side of your screen. From 12 hours ahead of you, we'll suddenly be just 5 hours behind you. Having lost hours with each move to the east, we'll be paid back in bulk (and in advance for future time zones crossed) by being given the chance to live parts of the 11th and 12th of July twice. We're getting closer to home, and we can now say that next month, we'll be back in Ireland.

It might be viewed as our homeward leg. But I'll play every mental trick that I can to remind myself that six weeks is a looooong vacation, even if it comes as the last six weeks of an eight month trip. I'm gasping for the kind of discomfort that comes with moving through non-English speaking territory, and the chance for Nina and Sara to see a whole other way of life.

Friday, July 4, 2008


We changed our plans to go straight from Roturua to Auckland in favour of a one-night stopover in Waitomo Cave. This tiny little place, almost on the West coast of the North Island, is popular for caving and black-water rafting. But we were not going for any more extreme sports. After Zorbing, Bungy Jumping, and playing mini-golf in the rain (mini-golf has always been extreme for us - the last time Letizia and I played, it was midnight and we were under the influence of large gins-and-tonic - I blame you guys Phil and Sheila) we had a more gentle activity in mind: watching glow-worms. While in the South Island, we missed a few opportunities to see glow-worms, and Waitomo Cave has a great reputation in this regard.

We opted for a combination tour of Aranui Cave (no glow-worms but beautiful rock formations) and the glow-worm tour of Waitomo Cave itself. Aranui has the singular feature of having been discovered by a wild pig, though the cave was named, most unfairly in my opinion, after the Maori hunter who was chasing the pig at the time. We were given a great tour that took us deep into the earth and shown stalactites that had been forming over hundred of thousands of years (it takes a century to add one cubic centimetre to these natural sculptures).

Respecting the convention honoured by caves the world over, certain structures were given names to reflect passing resemblances. At one particularly populated section of the cave, our guide stopped and her torch beam settled on one formation after the other and she reeled off their poetic names: Snow White, Elephant's Head, Fairy Glade etc. Then she snapped her torch off, and walked wordlessly past Penis Forest and the adjoining I've Never Seen One So Big.

Waitomo Cave was a great deal more spacious, and the management had worked much harder on making the interior as pleasant as possible. Well-crafted spiral staircases led down to the cathedral, and the lighting was beautifully executed. The geological features were less dramatic than Aranui, but the cave's history is no less compelling. The guide pointed towards the "most recent" rockfall to have taken place - a large chunk of limestone that fell from the roof of the cathedral around 2000 years ago. "That rock fell when Jesus was alive", I said to Nina, an idea which elicited the sought-after oohs and aahs. The cave itself was formed about 6 million years ago, which is around about the time that the evolutionary tree branched - one branch leading to the Orangutan, the other to you and me. But we were there to see something ephemeral. A creature whose lifespan is less than a single year. An insect that when it reaches maturity lives for 2 or 3 days, living only long enough to breed.

We were led down some more steps to the sound of water. I say 'sound' because it was harder and harder to see anything. Our group of about 15 people felt our way onto a boat, and then pushed off into total darkness, silent except for the lapping of water and the occasional intake of breath. Above us, the ceiling was a net of green-blue points of light. Not like a starry sky as the brochure would have us believe. The points moved in relation to each other as we floated by underneath, a parallax effect created by the fact that the net of glow-worms took on the concave shapes in the stone above. It's hard to find a complete silence. Nature is loud, not just cities. The last time I remember a perfect silence was in a woods just outside Jasper in British Columbia, Canada. To achieve that sort of quiet you either need the kind of expanse that Canada provides, or the kind of deathly enclosure you'll find in a cave. As much as I enjoyed the light-show, I enjoyed the peace it brought even more. I sat back, one arm around Nina, and just kept on looking up.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

We Stink. Again.

Look out for the smell of rotten eggs! This is the advice given to everyone going to Rotorua, as if we were all brought up with malfunctioning fridges stuffed with unused eggs. I for one had no idea what rotten eggs smelled like, though after a week in Rotorua I know now. The warning are so stark and alarming that when you actually get there you end up wondering what the big deal was all about. Sure there's a bit of a whiff in the air, but nothing too overpowering. Of course after 6 months on the road our sense of smell has probably diminished somewhat a little. (And the commonplace about deficient senses being compensated by others has proved to be nonsense. My sense of humour, for example, is as poor as ever.)

A week is a long time in politics they say, but it's a fleeting moment in Rotorua (see??!!). Even in bad weather, the list of things to do is longer than the time you have to do it. The essence of the place might lie in the springs, mud and volcanic walks that together provide the famous aroma. But Rotorua is also home to a vibrant Maori culture that is very happy to share itself with visitors (well, rent itself out really), and there are a number of extreme activities that can be enjoyed or endured there. Zorbing (covered in a previous post) was invented in Rotorua, and is the only place in NZ that I know of where you can do this.

After 8 weeks in the South Island, with hardly a Maori face in sight, we were expecting to get a closeup view of New Zealand's indigenous culture right here. One of our first actions on arriving in Rotorua was to book ourselves in for an evening of Maori song, dance and food - the famous hangi (a method of cooking using heated volcanic stone and mounds of earth). There were many such events competing with each other, and we went with the recommendation of our motel host. It was run in a nearby hotel, and included transport to and from. From the outset of the evening, it was clear that this was going to be the kind of get-together that I would warn tourists visiting Ireland against. The vast majority of the audience appeared to be bussed in directly from Japan. And I learned more about the European travel woes of the Queenslanders with whom we shared a table than I did about Maori life and attitudes. It was the equivalent of a sightseeing bus tour through Maori culture, but you know, once in a while a open-top bus tour is a good start when getting to know a new place.

It didn't bother this particular musical snob that the singing was backed up with a gently strummed guitar - who would walk out on a trad musical session when somebody pulls out a 'foreign' instrument like a bouzouki or a banjo (I'll admit to getting antsy when a piano accordion is produced, but I'm of one mind with Gary Larson when he depicts that particular instrument as Hell's equivalent of the heavenly lyre). And I quite liked it when the poi dancers picked on Letizia and dragged her up on stage to learn a little about this most graceful of Maori activities. Letizia, being of a shy disposition, was not particularly happy about it at all, but she acquitted herself very well in front of her family, the Queenslanders and the small Japanese city. And if I may say so, she showed that an Italian woman can sway her hips was every bit as much allure as any Polynesian.

I wish the same could be said for my ability to perform the haka. As soon as Letizia was allowed to return to her place, the male performers came down into the audience in search of 'volunteers' to learn this warrior posture dance. If you follow rugby, or you read this blog regularly, then you know what I'm talking about. Ka mate! Ka mate! Ka ora! Ka ora! Tenei i tangata, puhuruhuru! A menacing chant accompanied by much foot-stomping, thigh-slapping, eye-popping and tongue-protrusion. A quasi-musical performance likely to put the fear of a painful death into anyone watching (a bit like the aforementioned piano-accordion, now that I think of it). Maori people, on the whole, are beautiful to behold. The woman possess an appeal that is hard to convey but easy to appreciate. The men are tall, muscular and hard to argue with. This is how I ended up on the stage, alongside my haka mentor, squinting against the spotlights. It's hard to imagine a greater mismatch than this woolly-jumpered stick man set along side a man who clearly started life as a an enormous pair of pectoral muscles around which a human was generously constructed. I watched and tried to keep up as the warrior showed me the basics, but the results, far from being fierce and frightening were perceived by my watching (and filming!) family as oscillating between high comedy and low farce. All I had to show for my efforts at the end of the evening was a little tiki that I was given before leaving the stage (which I think I still have), and two badly bruised thighs (which I definitely still have).

We did lots of other fun and unusual things in Rotorua, which I won't bore you with right now (though I reserve the right to return to), including a trip to a mud spa, and a half-day wandering around the original Rotorua bath houses, now an excellent museum. In this last place, we learned that Rotorua is New Zealand first major tourist attraction and has been welcoming geothermal pilgrims for more than 125 years now. My guess is that more people have been to Rotorua than have had occasion to smell actual, real-life rotten eggs. In fact if humans were even close to being truly rational beings, people would be warned to check their eggs, and throw out any that smelled like Rotorua.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Taupo Bungy

I had no intention of doing a bungy jump. If I was going to do anything it would have been a parachute jump. But then I saw the Taupo Bungy location. It's a huge cantilevered platform that stretches 30 metres out, high above the blue-green Waikapo river. It looks like an enormous diving board - and I suppose that's exactly what it is. Hell - I can parachute back home.

I went through a phase of reading about capital punishment a few years back, and one of the titles was The Executioner's Protocol that details the routine followed on US death rows. Every detail of inmate preparation is codified in elaborate detail. Everyone in the execution team knows what they must do at every stage of the procedure. Giving every step a sense of quasi-religious ritual takes everyone's mind off the less palatable goal to which they are all working. As I watched Charlie and his assistant haul back up the bungy, fasten my leather ankle-straps (Velcro? you've got to be kidding!), check and cross-check the various carabiners, cords and catches that made up the bungy kit, I felt I was watching the Film of the Book. Was it possible that the only way these guys could bring themselves to chuck a perfectly polite and otherwise healthy customer off their lovely cantilevered platform, was by playing mind games with themselves? I thought that was MY job?

"Do you want to touch the water?"

I looked down the 47 meters (that's not much change from 150 feet folks) to the river.

That water down there? Em, OK. I'll dip my hands, I said, thinking that they could use a little rinse given how sweaty my palms had become. My nerves still were serviceable though. I was no more anxious than I might be before a speaking engagement (perhaps where the topic is freedom of conscience and the audience is a pickup full of Kalashnikov-wielding Taliban). I was invited to walk to the edge and toe the white line that marked the boundary between platform and void. I shuffled over. Dead Man Walking!

Here's are the rules for jumping off a high platform:
1) Fool yourself with steps: Driving there; Getting out of the car; Paying your money; Walking to the preparation area; Let them strap you in; Fall. Take these steps in perfect sequence, forgetting each one as it passes, only thinking about the one in hand.
2) Abstract the height (easy for Abstracto!) in a cartoon fashion. Think canyons, coyotes and delayed applications of the law of gravity.
3) Obey. Do not think. (There'll be plenty of time for logical regret later). When the man says stand on the white line, do it. When the man says wave at the camera, give a nice rigid-with-fear arm quiver. When the man says fall forward, remember that he might seem nice and calm now, but if you piss him off he will beat you to a pulp with that clipboard. And then he'll push you off anyway. Especially if you are the weeping Japanese girl that was up just before me.

So I obeyed. I really, really didn't want to do it. The moment I had toed the white line, the coyote disappeared and all I was left with was the canyon. I didn't have the will to take the step for myself, and so I entrusted myself to Taupo Bungy's fear of litigation, secure in the knowledge that if anything went wrong it would be ALL THEIR FAULT. So there! I leaned out.

My recollection of what happened next is fogged by physical violence and adrenalin. I was mugged. Gravity mugged me. It scooped me off that ledge with the tenderness of a metal claw, and dragged me towards the water. I didn't feel like I was falling 47 meters (well - what experience would I base it on?), just that I was travelling very very fast. I think I had the presence of mind to scream on the way down, something I'm obviously very proud of. And I remember reaching out with my hands to see if I would really touch the water as promised, only to get my head and shoulders completely ducked. I wouldn't like to guess how long I was submerged - it wasn't long enough to inhale, luckily. But it was long enough for me to form the classical facial expression of the slightly irked customer. Head cocked, one eyebrow raised, what part of 'dip my hands' do you not you understand? But the thought was immediately erased by the realisation that I was still alive and I couldn't fall any further. (Wrong again - there's quite a fall left in that second bounce).

"That was the stupidest thing I've done all day" I said to the boat crew who untied me and ferried me to the shore. In truth, it wasn't. I'm glad I did it. It was a blast. But it left no lasting effect, except for an ugly insight into the last moments of suicide jumpers (a decidedly terrible way to go).

If you are going to New Zealand, and you are thinking of a bungy jump, I can recommend Taupo Bungy to you as a good starter, better in my opinion than the better-known but over-trafficked A.J. Hackett jump in Queenstown. It's slightly higher, it offers the option of a dunk in the water, the setting is much more beautiful, you won't have to wait as long, and the crew there are terrific. It's right in the town of Taupo as well, so you can go have a beer or a bite to eat afterwards. Just don't do it before.

And the evidence (Mam, Dad - you might not want to watch this)...