I generally really enjoy being a tour leader.
First of all there’s the lifestyle: weekdays lose their meaning as every day is different, no weekends to look forward to but rather destinations. It is hard work, especially when in charge of a big group you are constantly planning, organising, booking, cooking and shopping in between answering endless questions, repeating the same information and trying to resolve any upcoming problems.
Then there’s the people, there are always so many interesting caracters on board, and the majority are really great company and heaps of fun. Of course, some are total and utter wankers, but the majority are just the type of people that I like. Cruisy, easy going and enjoying life as much as they can. Throw in a great sense of humour for good value and the tone for an awesome fun trip is set.
But like I said… there’s also your share of total and utter wankers. The trip I am doing now was supposed to be a six month circuit from Quito (Ecuador) down to Ushuaia (Southernmost city in the world, Argentina) and back up to Quito via Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia. However, things have panned out a bit differently. The last few weeks were very stressful. We had a full truck (34 people) and a lot of things went wrong. On top of that I was leading blind (i.e. taking the group to places where I had never been before) and there were a million and one extra events to organise (side excursions, especially in Rio de Janeiro where we went for the big carnaval).
When we set off from Quito in November the group was absolutely great. A lot of younger people and the general feeling was just fun, lots of laughter, lots of enthusiasm. By the time we got to Santiago (mid January) the group changed dramatically. We lost about half of the initial group and the majority of the newcomers were a lot older. And they were a lot different…
We had some trouble with the truck. Quite a bit actually, which meant we were stranded on two occasions. This was resolved by overnighting one night - the driver going on all night to still get us to Ushuaia at the same time as per our schedule. But then we had to pick up a part on the way back which set us back another day because we had a big detour because of this. Later on we got stranded again, this time in Buenos Aires. I got everyone a nightbus to Paraguay to stay as close to the schedule as possible, but because of the truck break down we missed a full day in Paraguay. To top it all off my bag got stolen, which had my passport in it (as well as company credit cards and cash). This meant I wasn’t going anywhere, we had to fly in another tour leader to acccompany my group while I was trying to obtain a new passport (of course it happened on a friday evening, so my hands were tied until Monday morning with the embassy being closed…)
These events on their own are stressful but manageable. But not when you have several passengers whinging, complaining, disapproving about every single petty little thing. And that is what it was like. A lot of people (especially the younger crowd and the long-term travellers doing the full six months) were fine with changes - this is what overland travelling is about, after all! Things change, some last minute, it even says so on the online itinerary (as well as on the daily one that I give out to people). It is all part of the adventure, is the tacky slogan we always shout out at such moments. Just adjust your plans and deal with it! But no, there were several disgruntled passengers that had decided to make it their mission to have a miserable time. They had decided they were not happy from the start of the trip, and instead of just rolling with it and getting over things they accumulated every single little thing that happened and got more and more sour.
One couple in particular shouted at me or at the driver over the most ridiculous things. They made unfair comments and unjust observations and were emailing our office in Cuzco with complaints just about every second day. Every time when we tried to make a gesture of good will (a letter of apology from the office, a round of drinks, a dinner on the company) they refused to accept (the pathetic losers even tore up the letter!) and they would not socialise with any of the group. When having dinner they would sit in the back, just the two of them, away from everyone else and that was pretty much the way they had decided to act for the entire duration of the trip.
I can safely say without a doubt that I have NEVER, EVER been under so much stress as I have been within the last few weeks. Not just because of those passengers, not just because of the string of bad luck we had, but also because of all the organising I had to do for such a massive group, as well as for preparing for the next leg of the trip (the majority of which is going to be leading blind, and with 21 new passengers from Rio on top of 11 that are already on the tour).
Above all I don’t have a great working relationship with my current driver and in the end it escalated, having him say that he would leave if he had to work with me any longer. So we all had a sit down and decided that I will change tours. I will be doing the exact same trip I have just done, but in reverse so 3.5 months going from Rio de Janeiro to Quito via Ushuaia.
I have mixed feelings about that; I am really happy because I will be working with Will again, he is my buddy and we work together really well. I am also happy because I am going to have a small group which makes everything a lot less stressful and easier to manage. Also I will be doing a tour I have just done, so I know exactly what to expect, what to organise, what to tell people.But I would be lying if I didn’t say that I also feel sad because I was really looking forward to getting to see Brazil and Venezuela, and going back to Colombia which I absolutely love. And I feel sad for leaving the group of people that are staying on because I really like them. But then, shit happens. You just roll with it and get over it… It will be a lot of fun and fortunately I haven’t ditched my winterclothes yet - as we will be heading back to Patagonia!
A downside of travelling in Patagonia is the numerous border crossings between Chile and Argentina in order to get to see everything pretty under the sun. When going into Chile all fresh products have to be discarded; no meat, veggies or fruit are allowed to be taken into the country which is a pain in the arse when you have 36 people on board to try and pre-buy food for in a place where supermarkets are very few and far in between (not to mention having to cross such borders about six times within 3 weeks). Furthermore all luggage has to be taken off the vehicle and put through an x-ray machine; a lengthy process and if you have one of these every two to three days it puts a bit of a damper on your already long travel days.
After having been to the impressive Perito Moreno glacier we crossed one of those bitch borders again so that we could get to Torres del Paine National Park.
Torres del Paine is notorious for its unpredictable weather and during our four days there this was no exception. Everyone was camping and the nights were just freezing; it is very hard to get out of bed when everything around you is so cold! The first couple of nights it was also pissing down with rain which made it even harder.
We had ourseles a guide for the duration of our stay - again the same silly rules; individuals are allowed to go there by themselves as long as the entry fee is paid for - but it’s when you are a group of people that you are forced to hire a guide - or you get a juicy big fat fine. Our guide was John and he was really good. In the end it worked out just how lucky we were to have had him with us.
The first day we (“we” meaning the fitter among us) went to do the towers walk; an eight hour return trail that leads up to the “Towers of the Paine” - that what the national park is named after. It was a lot harder on me than I thought; and the reason was because I didn’t have any walking sticks! It is amazing how much difference that makes, without sticks it is a lot more strenuous on your entire body.
The walk was absolutely beautiful, walking through valleys, past rivers, through forests and the last climb up and through rocks. The last bit was not so beautiful. It was barren and crumbly and it was certainly the hardest part. Enjoying the walk and the sun, at one moment I looked up with a semi smile on my face,
SEMI until I saw little moving dots between the sky-high rocks.
Little moving dots that were people.
Between those far away rocks.
FUCK, I still have to climb that far up?? That sure tought that smart-arsed semi smile a lesson and it vanished in a heartbeat.
It was absolutely beautiful there though, so it was worth the effort. Especially so because there is no other way to get there: no bus ride, no taxi that can take a lazy cheat the easy way up. If you want the views, you put in the hard work or else just Google the pictures from your recliner chair!
View from the campsite
The next day some of us went for a five hour horse ride, again through stunning scenery - riding through rivers of increadibly pretty colours, forests, hills, paddocks and riverside beaches. It is most definitely the most beautiful horse ride I have ever done. Of course OF ALL TIMES EVER this was the day that my camera battery had gone flat - and I could not find my charger anywhere. So no pictures of the following few days, or of the horse ride :/
The entire stay at the park was packed with activities, and the third day was no exception. We could choose between two walks to do, and I chose to go to the Frances Valley. Again a very pretty walk, leaving in the morning to cross a lake with a catamaran, where we started the walk just before noon. It was meant to be a six hour return but something very unfortunate happened that changed a few plans.
When we got to the lookout point on top of the mountain the wind had started blowing very hard. It was beautiful up there, we were looking out on a big glacier right in the mountain tops and every now and then a big part of the glacier crashed, making for an impressive avalanche with big noises to accompany it. I love big noises.
I had started my descend back down when a passenger from my group came running after me, shouting out my name. It turned out that Lucie, another passenger, had been blown into a branch by a powerful wind ghust and was badly hurt.
I rushed back up and it was very bad indeed, the cut was big and extremely deep, and bits of leg and fat were hanging out of the wound everywhere. John (the guide) had come with us fortunately so he ran down to warn the rangers and then ran back up again, all this within an hour - not bad for a smoker, not bad at all! You see, children? smoking’s not bad for you at all, it is good for you. It makes you a super fit super hero.
We waited for the rangers to come with a stretcher so that we could start evacuating Lucie down to the water front, to get her onto a boat and from there into an ambulance. My passengers had already started the descend a few hours earlier to make sure they would make the catamaran back across the lake. Normand (Lucie’s hubbie), John and I had stayed with Lucie.
There were about 15 to 20 volunteers helping out (they were camping nearby) with the evacuation which was great, and John coordinated it brilliantly, telling everyone exactly what to do, how and where. We got Lucie down in about four hours, but the wind had gotten worse and worse. Consequently it was impossible to get a boat across the lake, the waves were too big. So we had to stay the night with the rangers. There happened to be three doctors that were camping nearby, this was very lucky for us. They cleaned the wound out properly, flushing it out with lots of water first (remember, there were no anestetics!) Lucie held up very brave, I would have kicked, screamed, scratched and punched if that had been me but she just bore it with clutched teeth and eyes closed. She is a very brave woman!
We stayed the night at the rangers’ refuge and the next day the wind had died down so we could get down to the shore, and from the shore to the other side of the lake where the ambulance was waiting. By then the rest of our group had already made it to the next place, I stayed with Lucie and Normand and later we had to go with another ambulance to get to a different hospital where Lucie could get surgery.
Sincce then unfortunately Normand and Lucie have had to sign off the tour; they had to return to Canada because the wound was so severe that Lucie needs plastic surgery as soon as possible. It is a real shame because they were a very nice couple (unlike some wankers on this tour…)
I caught up with my group again the following night just in time to carry on right into our next stretch of bad luck. But one step at a time, this is enough for now… One more bad blog to follow, let’s hope bad things also come in three and that will be the final bad one ;)
I have not had a chance to write a blog for a while. I have a massive group totalling 36 people (myself and driver included) and this leaves me with my hands full most of the time.
The last time I wrote a post I had just had my hair done (IN BOLIVIA so I deserved the end result) - this is 6 weeks ago. I finally had it “fixed” in Buenos Aires this morning, and it is even worse than it was! Never mind, we are heading for the carnaval in Rio de Janeiro so now I have a good excuse to wack an extravagant bright red or purple through it.
What have I been up to… I have been to beautiful Patagonia for the first time! So far I had never been further south than Santiago and Buenos Aires, so it was all a new experience over the last three weeks.
One of the first things I started noticing were the strangely shaped clouds. This is to do with the air pressure, temperature and the mountains. They look like UFO’s, it’s rather awesome to see.
First we headed for Pucon: a lovely little lake town in the lakes district of Chile. I am not a happy camper so I have been sleeping in the truck almost every time when we didn’t get an upgrade to a room (which is most of the Patagonia part of this trip!). After Pucon we headed for Bariloche; a border crossing into Argentina to get there. Bariloche is beautiful, another lake side town. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to look around there much because I had too much to organise.
And then the really interesting and beautiful stuff was about to happen! First a stop at el Calafate: a giant glacier. I had never seen a glacier before so that was really impressive, it is a very intense blue colour. Organising it was a bit of a nightmare:
I had sold the glacier visit as an organised tour to my passengers, and told them that it included the transfer to the national park, an English speaking guide and a boat trip. After I had sold it I found out that my info was no longer accurate, and that the boat trip was no longer part of the excursion but had to be sold seperately! Shit, what was I going to do! I sold them something that didn’t exist.
After begging the hotel where I booked the tour to cancel the tour, they luckily agreed to do this. So plan B was that we would drive our passengers to the national park ourselves, with our own truck and this way we could also include the entrance fee. I informed my passengers of this and it sounded too good to be true, didn’t it! And it was.
When I got to the town of El Calafate, the reception staff of the hotel told me that it was not possible to get to the national park ourselves, unless we hired a local guide (this is what they implement with groups of ten people or more, just another cash cow, basically). So off I went first thing in the morning to hire a guide. Except I am not allowed to just hire a guide, because we are a commercial company and therefore are not allowed to drive our own transport to the park.
The only way to do it was through booking a tour - you know, the kind of tour that I had just cancelled! FUCK, what am I going to do! I exclaimed. A it was too late to book an organised tour, because they all left at 8 AM and by now it was 8 AM - too late to book for 35 people - and B the tour did not include boat ride or entrance fee - two features I had promised to be included. The lady at the guide office (whatever that is called) said the only other way to do is was to go with public transport. That way you could go with more than 10 people and you didn’t need a guide. So off I went again, this time to book a bus. This was do-able, except the buses are only allowed to go into the park twice a day: at 11 AM and at 2 PM! so I had to tell my group we weren’t leaving at 10 AM after all, but would be going at 1PM instead to get to the park at 14:30.
We got on the bus and into the national park, and stopped off at a lake before heading on to the glacier. Once at the glacier I asked the driver where we had to go to get a boat. It turned out we should have gotten off at the lake to catch the boat, and there wasn’t a possibility to do it later! I had just assumed that one of the several walkways by the glacier would lead to the place from where the boats left! FUCK! When I asked why he hadn’t said anything to us when we were there before he replied that this was not his job; none of the drivers announce this. Great, that’s super helpful! So I begged the driver to please take us back to the dock, so that my passengers could at least get their promised boat trip around the glacier! Fortunately he agreed to do this and this is the reason I am still alive today. My sister is an events organiser and I can tell you I thought of her quite a few times, now I understand what she goes through when things turn to shit! That is not a happy feeling.
The glacier was spectacular: the pictures speak for themselves.
The crashing sounds when parts of the glacier drop into the water is equally spectacular. It was quite a sight.
At night I got back to the hostel and there was a cat that went to sleep on my bed. The small things that make a place feel like a home!
And then it was time to head on to what must be one of the hightlights of what I have seen so far; back into Chile to get to Torres del Paine. When I Googled it before actually going I saw an image from Google Earth and thought: O GOD, WE’RE OFF TO MORDOR! I could not have been further from the truth, what a stunning place! More on that in the next blog, this one is long enough for now…
I mean: what were we even thinking, we really got what we deserved…
Yesterday I went to get my hair done with two other girls from the group that I am travelling with. We wanted to get our hair dyed. Blond. Of all places we decided to do this in Bolivia- a developing country where they walk around in aprons, 30 stacked up skirts, silly hats and where they still think 80’s music is cool. if you do come across a Latino with bleached hair it is never blond, it is piss-yellow. We should have known, we should have known…
Kerry wanted her roots touched up and so did I, and Sarah wanted to go fully blond. Kerry showed a picture of what her hair used to look like, and I just showed the end bits of my hair - and pointed out I wanted the same colours again, but from the roots. Sarah pointed at a picture on the wall and said that was the colour she wanted. To be on the safe side we pointed at the colours on the colour chart we were presented with. All different shades of blond. We were content and really, really believed that this would be how we would look! HAHAHAHAHA how naieve were we!
As in most of Latin America, everything takes forever so it was not strange that we were sitting around waiting for an hour before they even got started. I was up first. A wide ape-like lady with a face vagina (an ingraved frown between the eyes) started dunking this huge brush full of dye on top of my head, in a straight line going from my forehead down towards the back of my neck! Kerry looked horrified and I exclaimed that she had to stop that immediately. It is not what I wanted, I want to keep my three colours of streaks! The lady responded that she had already mixed the dye - after which she just looked at me, awaiting my reaction (“ok, never mind, I paid a lot of money to get my hair to look like this when I was in Holland, but hey, I mean if you already mixed up the dye, we don’t want you to waste it).
I couldn’t help laughing out loud because it was so bad that it was hilarious. She explained she just wanted to bleach the roots first, then add the streaks that I wanted, and after that it would look exactly like before and I believed her. FOOL!
Poor Sarah was sitting around for two hours before they even started on her hair. The other hairdressers kept cutting other customers’ hair until I eventually had to say that it was not fair because we got there first. After a few seconds of contemplating and whispering with each other they eventually agreed that this was true and finally started on Sarah’s hair.
Kerry was already under the knife and looked like she was about to cry. She was so nervous and asked if she could do it herself but the hairdressers weren’t keen on that idea. She kept re-wrapping the foils herself because it really seemed the hairdressers did not know what the hell they were doing. Seemed?
My roots ended up lighter than the rest of my hair which looked terrible plus it was orange! After I finished laughing about this (tears running down my face) I put my serious face on again and said that seriously they had to fix this up now. So, off they went again, they made a half hearted attempt at putting some foils in my hair randomly with the two colours that I had picked. All the foils kept falling out one by one during the next half hour and after a while they put me under a hair drying cap. While I was sitting there with my head in the drying cap smoke started to appear from the cap and from my head! Kerry and Sarah’s faces were in shock horror and I was in tears with laughter once again. Only in Bolivia!
Eventually, four and a half hours later the three of us all looked alike. The exact same gingery orangy colour - even though we all picked different types of blond, even though I was supposed to have streaks (the ones I had before have all disappeared), even though Sarah was supposed to be fully blond.
I think they must really have only one type of blond and would have been having a right laugh when we were all thinking we were getting different types of blond picked off the chart, them probably elbowing each other out the back! They did offer me to put a toner in for another 20 minutes so that the orange would disappear but I was dreading wasting even more time and having more chemicals in my hair (they were using ammonia based dye, something that they haven’t been using for twenty years or so in the west!).
Long story short: all three of us looked a lot better when we walked in than we did when we walked out! I can only laugh at this though, it cost the equivalent of $30 and I’ll just get it fixed up once I am in the civil world again. Or maybe next time I’ll get it done by a bunch of chimpanzees - higher chance of success.
,Kerry, Sarah & me
The Inka Trail is just one of those magical mystical mythical sounding phenomena; a four day hike on an ancient pathway that was constructed and utilised by the Inkas many centuries ago. A four day hike that leads to the ruins of Machu Picchu: your prize to claim for the day after all your hard work (and to share with too many pink fat sweaty tourists that just took a bus up to get there).
I had been to Machu Picchu before just over a year ago, but didn’t have a chance to hike the Inka trail that time. Now that I work as a tour leader my employer booked me a spot on the trail along with my group. Here’s how I experienced it!
Ready as I’ll ever beeeee….
On the first day we were already delayed by three hours in total (welcome to South America, babyyyy - so how is that patience of yours developing so far?) and finally managed to set off at 13.10. Apart from a few steep climbs it was not a very hard walk; a total ascend of 400 meters from 2600 to 3000 meters above sea level (MASL). I was amazed by all the little porters that were carrying cargo almost twice their size - and they were running up the hills! One of my passengers observed how they resembled leaf-carrying ants, all trotting in line with a big colourful load on their back it looked exactly like that.
and so it begins…
Our expedition consisted of 24 gringos, 26 porters (carrying all our stuff for us, including tents, sleeping bags and personal belongings) 5 guides and a cook.
After a couple of hours of walking we stopped for lunch - our busy porters had already set up the lunch tent (including tables, chairs, cutlery & crockery, right up to and including the tablecloths!) and the cook had already prepared us a hot meal to eat. After that we bellied out for 15 minutes before continuing on to the campsite about 2 or 3 hours away.
Our tents were all set up for us by the porters when we got there and after some snacks and dinner everyone crashed pretty early. There, that was day one ticked off the list already, but it was day two that everyone was dreading. This is the day we climb up to the first-and highest pass- Dead Woman’s Pass - going from 3000 to 4200 MASL. A steep climb at high altitude is physically challenging for the fittest of us, and I can confirm it was not easy. Especially the last hour up to the summit was a killer, unsteady wobbly legs, out of breath and dizzy we dragged one leg up after the other and we all managed in the end. We had to.
Camp number two was located at 3500 MASL and the toilets were as bad as the first and final campsites’ bogs. Holes in the ground with a hellish stench that greets you from 50 meters away these are best avoided. Fortunately my bowels agreed with this philosophy and decided to go on strike over the entire four days of the track. THANK YOU BOWELS! They kicked in again as soon as I walked into a restaurant after I had returned back to the civil world - how good are they! I have now given them a contract for life, such efficient employees are hard to come by.
I was third to make it up the summit and the first to get to the campsite, with the final people of my group coming in three hours later. The remaining days I was first in all the way through. I really surprised myself at how fit I was - though realistically I think I just wanted to get it all over and done with and that’s what was really the pushing force behind it.
Day two was physically hard but day three was the most difficult of the entire track. A rather long day and mostly downhill, this is very hard on the knees and eventually on the lower back (and no, I wasn’t walking it on my knees).
The fact that it was raining for most of the day didn’t help, it eliminated all views, put a damper on our spirits, made our bodies cold and the path very slippery. It was very hard going, continuously concentrating on where to put your feet next. I was going hard out, non-stop just to get the day over and done with. Oh, and this was Xmas day.
A fake smile could not even be forced out anymore by this stage
Once I was in dry warm clothes it was all good again though, and by now we only had one final short hike to go on day four. 1.5 hours from the final campsite to the Sungate was all that was left. From the Sungate you got your first glimpse of Machu Picchu, and this is where the rest of our group joined us that hadn’t walked the Inka trail.
We had champagne to celebrate our victorious achievement and to celebrate xmas, and we did a gift exchange right on top of Machu Picchu (Secret Santa).
Overall it was quite an experience and it was good for me to see how I could push myself but I would not do it again in a hurry! I was disappointed by the vast amount of people that are on the Inka trail each day; it is literally swarming with people and this commercialism really takes away from its mystique. The state of the “toilets” is another big fail in my view; if you have so many people coming through each day then surely it is not that much to ask to have a few properly functioning toilets (or even just long drops) to accommodate them? Some groups were travelling with a portaloo and I can understand why. I just feel sorry for the porter having to carry it.
So that was the Inka trail. Next up: the Ninka trail. A La Paz pub crawl on new year’s eve. I am sure it will be physically challenging as well, but I have no doubt we’ll pull through! We have been practising, after all.
Aaah the challenges of staying a stress-free tourleader…
-One faulty credit card
- One Travelex card with a $700 daily limit (fuck all)
- One big-ass truck needing fuel, repairs and maintenance
- Twenty people to feed and put up with accommodation
- Number of passengers to increase to 27 next week.
- 3500 kilometres / three weeks to shiny new working credit card.
Most countries in South America give you a three month visa upon entry. When you leave the country and then re-enter, a fresh three months are automatically issued, and this system is pretty much indefinite (as long as you hold a valid travel document with at least 6 months validity on it). Simple. Yet not in Ecuador. Ecuador issues you a one-off three month period each year. The way this works is that each time you leave and re-enter Ecuador, the total days of your stay are subtracted from the 90 days you initially had.
For example: if you enter the country and stay 21 days, then leave, the next time you enter Ecuador they will only grant you 69 days (90 - 21). Once 365 days have passed, a fresh three months are issued. These are not added to your days left (if any) though your days taken do accumulate (UNFAIR!). If you overstay even one day, you get banned from entering the country for a full year.
By now I have spent quite a bit of time in Ecuador, so the last time when crossing the border I made sure to ask the officials there to check how many days I had left, and what I should do if my days expired (because I wanted to spend my month off here, and I will be coming back at least twice with tours). They assured me I could just pop into any Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, either in Ecuador or overseas before my visa would expire, and they would give me however many extra days I would need there and then, without any hassle.
Right. I should have known something was fishy, nothing ever goes smoothly in Latin America - especially when government documents are involved.
I was having a great holiday, I mean really a holiday! A break from everything, including boozy benders. I was sooo relaxed, surrounded by great people and lovely animals right at a beautiful beach, lulled to sleep every night by the crashing waves, hardly any tourists there apart from the ones staying at the lodge, and I was staying there in exchange for a few hours’ work a day, so no costs, it was perfect! I went to the gym a couple of times a week and read a book, but that was about it activity-wise. A true holiday.
Until this Monday. Because Monday I decided to get THE VISA organised. I could do this in Manta, which is a relatively big city. I went in with my passport and my papers, really just to ask what they would want to see the next day when I intended to “walk in and out to get my extension stamp” (I can be so naive sometimes). And that is when it all changed…
At the Manta office we calculated that my visa will expire on 22 September (40 days from 14 August entry date, being this Sunday). I was told that first of all, I would need to provide two copies of my passport, two copies of my last entry stamp, a copy of my bank statement to show I have at least $900, a letter written by me in Spanish to explain why I needed the extension, and 2x $30. This was different to what I was told by the two Dutchies that were running the lodge where I was staying: they had to pay $230 each for their visas. But great, even better if it is less, right?
Except, that is when I was informed that I would have to leave my passport at their office. For at least four days. Until Friday, possibly until Monday. Ehr…. what??? Really? But that is impossible! I start a new tour from Quito on Saturday, and have to be in Quito on Friday to print/prepare stuff for this tour. I had planned to take a night bus on Thursday night for the journey to Quito so that I would get there Friday morning, but ok, I guess I could stay until Fri AM and pick it up first thing in the morning. But no, that was not an option either, because they can’t guarantee the passport will be back on Friday. OK, so can you send it off for me but put Quito’s office as a return address? No, the return address has to be Manta. Which is a 10 hour trip from Quito, in the opposite direction of our tour. Which, in other words, is not an option.
OK, Then I will just travel to Quito immediately and apply for it there, because I will be back in Quito on Monday as part of our tour. No, that was not an option either, because the Quito turn-around time is 8 working days, not 4 like in Manta. Are they doing this on purpose??? I eventually decided to travel to Cuenca. Cuenca is not my favorite place to be, but it is the place where I will come through with my group before leaving for Peru in two weeks’ time. This means that I can leave my passport there for the procedure for as long as they need, and then pick it up when I travel through at the end of September.
SO. I travelled for 8 hours to get to Cuenca, leaving my precious beach, lodge, cats and especially cuddly lovingly loved dogs behind at the Donkey Den Guest House. I got to Cuena around 21:00, and went to the immigration office first thing the following morning. **sigh**. After waiting in a queue for 2 hours I was told by a very polite young man that the people in Manta had lied to me; it is illegal to leave a passport with their offices and they probably just didn’t want to do the work. Also a few forms were missing that they hadn’t told me I would need (I had already prepared everything that they told me to have with me in Manta, including a wonderful passport sized photo I had taken this morning, I even wore make-up and hairspray for the occasion). He said I should have just gone to Quito from Manta as planned, because “you just walk in there and they have to do it on the spot, as long as you have all your forms with you.”
So in other words, I had just been told I had skipped a total of three days of my holidays at the perfect beach, and instead spent them travelling, paying for lodging, a flight from Cuenca to Quito, and hours of waiting around in offices - and all of that had been unnecessary. I tried very hard not to be pissed off, just before he told me that I had to go to the immigration police on the other side of town, to obtain a report of my entries and exits of Ecuador. “But it’s all in my passport, that’s what the stamps are for” I exclaimed. But no, I had to get this print-out, there was just no way they could email it to him following a phone call with my passport number. Oh, and do make sure to be back before 4 PM because that is when we close.
SO. I rushed by taxi to this office at 12.15, only to find a notice that the office was closed between 12 and 3. I was struggling hard not to break down in tears of frustration. Luckily I quickly encountered a delicious tiramisu and a fitting coffee with a dash of Bailey’s and after that the whole world was a happy place again.
I went back to the immigration police at 3 PM sharp where it took less than a minute to get the report. I rushed to the other end of town again to get back to the immigration office, in the hope (by then it was 15.40) I could still get my visa processed before they closed at 4 PM.
After explaining the entire story for the 4th time this really sympathetic girl did everything she could to process it before the office closed and stayed until 4.30 to get it done. She also told me that it was actually true that Manta and Quito keep your passport for several days, so every office does it differently! At the very least this meant I hadn’t travelled to Cuenca for Jack Shit which made me feel a wee bit better.
She then advised me that I could not get the $60 visa, the only way there might be a possibility was if I could provide an original letter from my boss, which was signed by him, outlining how many additional days I would need, when and why. But even then it is highly unlikely it will be approved for that visa, she said.
This was different again to the Manta office, who were ready to issue it to me had I had the four spare days to wait around! I told her that I could get my boss to write a letter and scan it after he signed it, but a scanned copy would not be acceptable; only a signed original copy. So again not an option as my boss is in Peru.
The next problem was the fact that my bank statement didn’t show my personal details (name etc), so it could be anyone’s bank statement. I showed her online but due to security reasons my online banking doesn’t show personala details anywhere so she wouldn’t accept the bank statement. We eventually remedied this by getting a print of my credit card statement which shows I have a $5000 limit, and which does show my details (you have to show evidence that you have at least $900 - whatever the hell that figure stands for, I couldn’t live on only $900 for six months even if I tried, unless perhaps in a mud hut in Ethiopia).
I finally had to fill out a new application form because the bottom of the one I had was a little bit crinkled. For F*ck’s sakes, really really really? I kept imagining there were people next door elbowing each other and doubled up with laughter, coming up with what else they could make me do before hitting breaking point!
Eventually, three days and many trips later, I got the visa (noooooo, another whole page of my passport full!) but was told I now needed to go to the Quito office to get the visa registered. So, the day after that, when in Quito, I waited another two hours in line, only to be told that no, this can only be registered at the same office that gave out the visa. Being Cuenca. So I still have to go and get this done next time I am there, but now at least I have the damn thing.
Next time: how to get a cat to serve breakfast, teach a baby to do a triple backflip salto, teach a dog to talk Russian and have a deep and meaningful conversation with an extreme left wing red neck American without getting angry- all in less time than obtaining a visa in Ecuador.
I arranged to volunteer for a week in The Donkey Den; a beach hotel in a suburb of Manta with self-contained apartments and suites. This turns out to be the loveliest place I have been in a long time; not just the beach on which it is located (by far the best beach I have seen in Ecuador), but also the hotel itself, the people in it, the lady that owns it and the rescue animals that live here that she has adopted (six dogs and ten cats). I have already extended my week ‘s stay until the day before I have to be back in Quito because I like it here so much.
The day I arrived I found that there were actually more volunteers than guests staying… It is really cozy here, it is a very relaxed and social place, everyone is really interesting and friendly and there are loads of Dutchies and Germans. There is even a German with a great sense of humour, I didn’t know these species exist until now! You learn something new every day.
I found this place through a Website called Helpx: I volunteered through them a bit last year as well, when I was still travelling around by myself. It is an excellent way to travel and keep costs low, meet local people and get to know a place in a very personal way, as a local rather than a tourist - especially when you end up staying somewhere for a longer period.
The Donkey Den is owned by Linda; a retired 69 year old widow who is an absolute dear. She has rescued several cats and dogs that all roam the hotel, she has as a prerequisite that guests that want to stay here must like animals or they are not welcome! The rooms don’t have numbers but are named after the dogs and cats (so you get something like: the Americans are staying in Bailey and Molly needs to be cleaned because they checked out today…). All the dogs are just so cute and well behaved, I want to take them all with me!
The beach is just beautiful, it has a constant surf, it is always windy here and a very popular spot for kite surfing. It is a bit out of the city so outside weekends it is really quiet, there are lots of foreigners that have bought a property here and/or own a hotel here. Falling asleep to the sound of the crashing waves is very therapeutic, as is sleeping with that sound in the background.
There’s a few houses, beach restaurants and bars, but apart from that there is nothing, just sand and sea. Let’s hope it stays this way in the years to come. I have seen several whales from the balcony, there are lots of hammocks and it is just lovely here. If you do get bored you can grab a dog or two and take them for a walk, lie on the beach, go for a swim or take kite surfing lessons if you really feel energetic.
I have already met some of the locals. There is this one Canadian couple who retired early and live here with their 24 year old son. Apparently all they do all day every day is get drunk and stoned together from early in the morning, the three of them. Every day. I don’t know, I meqan I know it can be fun every now and then to get on it during the day but every day, and with your kid, I find it rather sad.
The dad asked me yesterday until when I will be staying. “Until the 18th”, I replied. “Oh”, he said, after which he exclaimed: “so you are staying right up until the end of the month, that is great!” I looked at him in silent disbelief, and said: “no, until the 18th”. He said nothing, but kept looking at me with questioning - raised - non comprehend-eyebrows. I patiently explained how the 18th is not the end of the month, rather, that would be the 30th or 31st, or on VERY rare occasions it might be the 28th, but never earlier than that. He continued to stare at me with a vacuous, rather puzzled expression. I sighed and decided to leave it, he probably won’t get sarcasm either. So kids, let this be a lesson. Don’t do drugs, drugs are bad.
Well, my relaxing month off at the beach turned out a bit different than planned… I have been stumbling around with an open, sore big toe for the last 2.5 months, and recently it has become very badly infected. I have seen a doctor three times now and after scorching it and several cleaning sessions (during which I had to refrain from clawing myself to the ceiling or punching the doctor in the face) it still looks pretty bad and I am now on my second antibiotics course.
This means no beach (sand is bad), no bars (alcohol & antibiotics or stumbling around drunk is bad) no surfing lessons (beach is bad) and no salsa classes (people stepping on toe is exceptionally bad). To top it all off I got a bad case of the stomach flu - everything came out both ends Exorcist Styyyyle - and at times simultaneously.
So while I was sick and had nothing else to do I listened to music a lot, and noticed just how crap some lyrics actually are, clearly just written so that they will rhyme rather than because they make sense or express feelings, opinions or thoughts. And because I was bored I wrote some of them down - here’s a small sample of the collection.
Tiki Taane - Light years away.
Every night I look to the sky - I wish you were here to help dry my eyes.
I don’t know where to begin explaining how lame this text is. First of all, why would you want to dry your eyes? That would be really sore and uncomfortable. So sore and uncomfortable that they would start getting teary - thus exacerbating the situation of wet eyes. Second, how hard is it, if you really, really want to dry your eyes, to just grab a dry cloth and rub them dry? Or more effective would be rubbing salt in them, everyone knows that salt extracts moist. So does pure alcohol. Or try putting chunks of rice in them overnight- you could be experimental and insert sushi the way people insert contact lenses. It can’t be hard, you don’t need anyone to help you do it - especially someone who’s dead - unless you are just looking for attention. Yeah, Tiki. Not such a tough guy after all.
Anouk - Lost
This music’s irresistible, your voice makes my skin crawl.
That’s nice, it’s like saying:
"I think your hair looks nice, but your breath’s an unwelcome surprise" or: "you’re the nicest person I’ve met, it’s a shame that you’re so fat".
Madonna - I love New York
I don’t like cities but I like New York. Other places make me feel like a dork.
-Sigh- … REALLY? Did you get inspired by Rebecca Black's ingeniousness in your lyric writing? So when not in New York (but at posh parties, on stage, on tv, in world cities, on your yacht, with your celebrity friends, etc) you feel like an ugly overweight ginger teenager with braces, big glasses, big teeth, zits and you suddenly excel at maths. How about: I'm vegetarian, so I don't eat pork. That still sounds lame but at least it rings true. Or: When eating soup, you'd best not use a fork. Or: some wines are screw top, but I prefer cork. Or, to fit in nicely with the context of the song: I'd settle for Reykjavik, but I don't like Bjork. Yeah. Much better.
A whole month off in Ecuador, free to do whatever I feel like! For my first days off I returned from Quito to Baños to stay with Sue and Marc. They are a lovely ex-Tucan tourleader & driver couple who own a campsite/hostel near Baños, in Rio Verde. Their place is just stunning, I got to stay in the “crew house” which is located in the forest on a riverbank and staying there is just awesome. You wake up to seeing all these different coloured birds frolicking in the trees through the massive windows next to the bed, the sound of the river running below and the smell of the flowers and the trees all around you.
Will (the driver I worked with for several months) and Colin (a driver from a similar ENEMY company called Oasis) were also staying there so it was nice to have some familiar faces to spend time with. We knew Colin from a few months ago, when we were parallel running a similar tour up until Lima. He broke his finger when punching a Peruvian driver that got too friendly with one of his passengers (that’s when he found out he doesn’t know how to punch) so he is recuperating for a few weeks until his finger is better.
Most of the days in Baños were spent around the kitchen table, everyone taking turns at cooking dinner, talking shit and having a few drinks. The nicest part of visiting here (for us) is the feeling of having a real home every now and then, very welcoming when you are always travelling! Touristy as it may be, Baños is a splendid little town to spend some time, it is green, mountainous, has several rivers with activities such as white water rafting, kayaking and canyoning, and there are over 60 waterfalls to gaze at in the area. There is also an active volcano at the side of the town, there are several hot thermal pools and heaps of massage and beauty salons for a bit of pampering for little money. A real good place to get into the holiday feeling!
On Wednesday I left to go to Montañita; a small funky surfie type of town. It is a bit similar to Mancora in Peru, except it is so much cosier, friendlier, prettier and nicer. It is a tiny tiny little town (population 1000) but it booms with tourism and there are travellers all over the place. Every single person there is smiling and laughing the entire time, but that might have something to do with the fact that pretty much everyone there is stoned :D
I had arranged to hook up with Hillary: an ex-passenger from my previous tour who has a few weeks to spare. We stayed at a really cool hostel on top of a hill: run and built from scratch by a very staunch Dutch chick. She also thinks Holland is a “kutland” (shit country) to live in and three years ago she traded her houseboat for a piece of land on top of a hill in Montañita, Ecuador. She built it all herself and is still building it, and everything in it. She was telling me how she started off by getting people that booked to pay half the price up front with their credit card so that she could quickly buy some mattresses and build some beds for them to sleep in before they arrived!
Hostel Punto Verde
View from the hostel
Almost everything there is hand made, the lamps are made from cement bags (and they look really cool), the shelves are planks tied together with rope, everything is made out of wood and cheap building materials but looks so great, and she does it all herself! There is a compost toilet for number twos which takes a bit of getting used to (the idea of whose sweaty ballsack sat on the hole before you can be a bit off-putting) and a daily breakfast is included and changes every day. At night there is the option to eat with her for a small fee, and the food is great! She works with volunteers via Workaway and Helpx; two organisations I use myself when I travel to keep costs down (the idea behind this is you work for a few hours a day in exchange for a place to stay and often food). If you ever head this way I really would recommend staying at this hostel, it is not in the center of the town but it is only a 10 minute walk from there and is a great place to chill out.
We met some awesome people at the hostel and spent a few relaxing days in Montañita before heading off to Puerto Lopez. As exotic as this town may sound, it is actually nothing more than a dusty run down little beach town. The main reason people come here is to visit the Isla de la Plata, to watch whales in the season they come here to mate (which is now) and to visit the National Park (part of which the Isla de la Plata).
The normal cost of a tour to the island is $40 but we managed to haggle it down to $35, and we got an excellent day out for that, great value for $$!
We saw so many whales, it almost became boring (just kidding) and at one stage we were within ten meters of this pod of five adults and a baby calf. The whales come here each year to give birth, and this is the final month to see them before they move on again.
It was an extraordinary, humbling, fantastic experience to see these magnificent enormous creatures from so close by, and they were just as curious about us as we were about them. Absolutely fantastic, and there were so many of them! In the distance we kept seeing more on the horizon.
After the whale watching we proceeded to the Isla de la Plata where you can watch birdlife, birdlife and lots of birdlife as well as birdlife. And birdlife.
The island is a national park, meaning the birds have absolutely no fear of humans because they are so used to them walking around there without harrassing them.
We saw lots of bluefooted boobies (this really is their name, it reminds me of the double breasted pink mattress slapper) which are so endearingly clumsy, they just walk around with their out of proportion big feet, and just sit and stare at you from top to toe as you pass by. They are so cheeky and cute, I REALLY WANT ONE!
The females make an entirely different noise than the males, and their pupils are dilated to the extent you’d think they’ve been taking XTC. Also the males have their tail sticking up so all in all it is quite easy to spot the males from the females.
We also saw a lot of Frigatas; they are very bizarre birds that puff up their red chin like a balloon to impress the ladies.
After the walk and being fed lunch we were taken snorkelling along the coral reefs that grow on the other side of the island. There were tonnes of tropical fish as well as giant turtles, it was really cool (though I admit I didn’t snorkel, it was too cold and I have been spoilt with Australia’s Great Barrier Reef).
It was a great day, time to go for a refreshment after all that excitement, I say…