Thursday, 4 August 2011

The Intinerary

So this is where went, pretty much in order - except for Thailand which was split into 2 sections, the second coming after Cambodia, when Nairi and Toby came out to see us. We started the trip on 2nd Feb 2009 and finished on 19 May 2011.

(2 months)
Nairobi (1 month volunteering)
Kibera slum
Mount Kenya
Lamu island (during Maulid festival)

Tanzania (2 days!)
Dar es Salaam

Malawi (2 months)
Mzuzu (1 month with Niall Dorey and family)
Nkhata Bay
Likoma island (3 weeks, learning to dive)

Mozambique (1 month)
Pena Longa
Bazaruto island

South Africa (1 month)
Blyde River Canyon
Cape Town
Fish Hoek
Mossel Bay

Thailand (2.5 months)
Bang Saphan
Koh Tao island
Chiang Khan
Pak Chom
Chiang Mai
Koh Kood island
Koh Jum island
Koh Phi Phi island
Koh Mak island

Laos (3 weeks)
Luang Namtha
Muang Sing
Luang Prabang
Nam Ou river
Muang Ngoi
Nang Kio
Vang Vieng
Si Phan Don - 4,000 islands

Cambodia (1 month)
Siem Reap
Angkor Wat
Phnom Penh (3 weeks volunteering)

Myanmar (1 day)
Ranong - Victoria Point visa run

Vietnam (3 weeks)
Ho Chi Minh
Hoi An
Halong Bay
Cat Ba island
Fan Si Pan mountain

Australia (1 month)
Gold Coast
Phillip island
Central Coast
Woy Woy

New Zealand (2 weeks)
Fox Glacier
Mount Cook
Lake Tekapo

USA (2 months)
San Francisco
Saratoga (6 weeks with Jan and Ania)
Santa Cruz
17 mile drive
Hearst Castle
San Luis Obispo

Mexico (8 months)
Mexico City (lived there 5 months)
Teotiuachan ruins
Mitla ruins
Monte Alban ruins
Yagul ruins
San Jose del Pacifico
San Cristobal de las Casas
Tonina ruins
Aguas Azules
Misol Ha
Palenque ruins
Tulum ruins

Guatemala (3 months)
Tikal ruins
Pacaya volcano
Lake Atitlan (2.5 months)
Guatemala City

Belize (0.5 days)
Belize City

El Salvador (1 day)
San Salvador

Costa Rica (1 day)
San Jose

Nicaragua (1 day)

Panama (4 days)
Panama City

Colombia (2 months)
Playa Blanca
Santa Marta
Palomino (Magdalena)
San Gil, Santander
Villa de Leyva, Boyaca

Ecuador (1 month)
Guandera Reserve

Peru (5 weeks)
Tucume ruins
Señor de Sipán museum
Aguas Calientes
Machu Picchu ruins
Ollantaytambo ruins
Lake Titicaca
Uros floating islands

Bolivia (3 weeks)
Isla del Sol
La Paz
Altiplano tour, salt flats etc
Santa Cruz
Samai Pata ruins

Monday, 18 July 2011


Bolivia was amazing, we ended up wishing we had left more time to do it justice - we missed out on jungle trips and the death road and what look like some of the best ruins anywhere at Tiowanaku. But our 3 week whirlwind tour was very satisfying, particularly due to some local contacts we had through Tania's family (again). And in Bolivia we saw some of the strangest, awe-inspiring landscapes, dissimilar to anything we had previously seen on the trip.

We travelled from very cold Puno, on the shores of sacred Lake Titicaca (at 3,811m), to slightly warmer Copacabana, which we liked, even though it is undeniably touristy. From there we got a boat to Isla del Sol where we spent a very pleasant 24 hours, having a nice meal with some new friends in the evening and doing the 3 hour hike from north to south the next day. The water was a stunning azure and the whole thing looked strangely like a Mediterranean island. We then hotfooted it to La Paz, where we paid attention to the spectacular nighttime entrance into the city through El Alto - the many lights start on the right hand side of the bus and it takes a while before you get the scale of the city. It's a bit like an upside down night sky opening up below you.

We had 3 nights in La Paz and didn't really do very much but see markets and eat - comfortably conquering the 40 chilli vindaloo at the notorious Star of India, which we enjoyed on 2 visits. Many online reviewers say it's not the real thing, but nothing outside of India is and considering you're in South America.. come on, it's not bad. We did walk down the valley from Plaza San Francisco towards the sports area, which is a pretty amazing sight - in fact, my favourite city view of the trip, well apart from Cape Town maybe. Reflective skyscrapers to the right of the foreground; the huge, multi-level open sports complex filling the bottom of the valley; the eroded, redddish lunar hills in the distance; hillside and top residencial areas to the right and left and this twisting walkway going out over it all, the road passing below. Kind of like Miraflores in Lima, but better. And we took a bus out to La Valle de la Luna, a park of walkways through eroded hills and valleys that is pretty out there.

Then we hit Cochabamba, where we met Fabian, Geoff's former student who was just a miracle to us. He helped us arrange our Uyuni tour, took us out for a real Pique Macho (a huge pile of meats, veggies, cheeses and sauces à la Desperate Dan) and Huari draft beer and taught us the local dice game, Cacho. Then it was time to do the tour which everyone recommends and you've all seen photos of, the Uyuni salt flats. The train down from Ururo was very pretty - we saw flamingoes within minutes of leaving. The salt flats were pretty different and quite wet at the time, the place really coming alive when the sun came out which was unfortunately towards the end... but the real wonder was the rest of the 4x4 trip, onto the Altiplano where altitudes approach 5,000m. Photos can do it little justice, descriptions even less - you simply have to be there to understand the scale and the stark beauty. The colours, the colours - I didn't know browns could be so beautiful - and the vivid reds, blues and greens in the many lakes we saw. Very, very different indeed.

We had a great group on this trip, one of the best minglings ever. We kept people up on 2 successive nights with our raucous behaviour. We were stupefied that we could find alcohol in the tiny towns where the refuges in which we slept were. A far cry from Mount Kenya, at the same altitude, where I lay quietly hyperventilating, fully wrapped and still freezing, waiting for the 2am summit push.

After returning to Uyuni, we caught a bus to Potosi with Lisette and Oscar, our new Dutch friends. We had a very nice day there just wandering about the town and managing to miss both main attractions, the silver mines and the best museum in Bolivia, the Casa de la Moneda. Then onto Sucre, the governmental capital where we were to hook up with Fabian again, drink some Anejo rum with his interesting architect friends and try the amazing chorizo sandwiches at the Siete Lunares restaurant in the central market. A 20 minute flight (infinitely preferable to the alternative 10 hour bus journey) took us to our final city of the whole trip, Santa Cruz, the financial capital which everyone had dissed but we actually liked. I guess it may have been dull for some in comparison to all the spectacular things you can do in Bolivia. We had tea with another contact of Geoff's, ate some river crocodile nuggets, met up with some more friends from the Uyuni trip and went for a more expensive hotel than usual, as it would be the last of the trip - $15 a night!! One last complete unpack/repack (gotta be careful) and it was time to book our taxi to the airport.

What would the borders be like, I thought. We were coming from Bolivia and going via Miami, so we were expecting hellish customs and immigration but as usual it was straight through. I was a bit shocked when on the first leg I didn't have my own personal TV screen and was rather squished, but hey ho, this was Bolivia, even if we had forked out for American Airlines. The second leg delivered though, particularly with the extremely nice attendant who kept giving us free drinks, pretending to swipe our proferred card. Some of the views over the Americas and the Caribbean were outstanding, with some amazing cloud formations and islands that I wished we had visited. Then I realised I was really quite excited about going back to London, where I was born, where I grew up, effectively my "home" - even though I had no actual home there, apart from the rather nice one so kindly offered by my surrogate (Tania's) parents. What would immmigration say? "Welcome back Mr Shepherd, it's been a while," perhaps? Nothing. We wondered whether Geoff and Rita would be at the airport, as we couldn't remember specifically arranging anything. Of course they were. Place looked quite nice, people cheery, weather warm. Chatted to a German tourist while enjoying the outdoor smoking area. Felt quite emotional to be back. Let's go and see some Senegalese music tonight near Liverpool street. Walk the dog on Ealing Common. See some good friends - did we have "an announcement" to make? Yeah - we're splitting up! ;-)

And then, it wasn't really over. Because after a week in London, we would be getting in a car to go to the south of France to visit my family. Which I have realised it is the most beautiful place on earth. Oh well - had to make sure, didn't I?

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Peru on Alex

Peru has generally been invigorating, with incredible landscapes, facsinating culture, very spiritual places (yes, I was actually affected!) and nice people. Coming in from Ecuador in the north and coming down the coast was exhilarating, the first really different scenery we'd seen in a while - desolate desert and coastline. Tumbes, just across the border, had probably the heaviest mosquito arsenal we have ever come across. We got on a very fancy bus; we'd heard they were good in Peru, but this double decker was off the scale - really good food too (food?! on a bus???). We checked out the big market in Chiclayo, with all the shaman stuff - San Pedro cactus and Ayahuasca for trippy cleansing - and loads of remedies for every ailment, including the bedroom variety. Best market since Mexico, definitely. We did a tour to see the weathered Túcume ruins, collections of Moche pottery and the collection made from the tomb of the Señor de Sipán - one of the richest collections of finery we have ever seen. Then onto Trujillo, another big city in the middle of the desert - the centre looks a bit like Ealing or something, with pedestrianised shopping areas. I was amazed at the amount of agriculture around the towns and cities, huge expanses of green cultivation which (I think) must have taken a lot to achieve. Amd then a truly unbelievable top floor trip to Lima - the desert looked just how I imagine Arrakis (the Dune planet from the Frank Herbert books) to look, huge sand dunes everywhere and mountains in the distance. Tania's camera didn't stop clicking.

We were just four days in Lima; it was nice but we had to get on. Steve and Connie, whom we had met on the tour in Chiclayo and who actually live on a boat moored off the San Blas islands!!!, had recommended us Ica and particulary Huacachina, with it's sand dunes, buggies and boarding. But I must have been very relaxed on the bus, I put the computer bag on the upper rack for the first time... and it got pinched. We'd been warned about that too. First time anything bad had happened on the whole trip, really - in 2 and a quarter years. We miss you Mac, you were very good to us! So we had to hang in Ica for a bit to get the police report for the insurance and we both got sick with bad tummies (we haven't had much of that on the trip either).

After 3 days convalescence we made it to Huacachina, the oasis tourist town. What a crazy, surreal place that is. Tiny and a literal oasis, every hostel has a pool, the dunes are amazing (especially right on the top at sunset) and the weather perfect. The dune buggy ride was nuts - it was like being in Star Wars, on Luke's home planet Tatooine. One of the most amazing sights of the whole trip and I mean that. Managed to come a cropper in spectacular fasion on the board. I optimistically thought I would be a natural, with my extensive skiing and (admittedly) only one time snow bording experience. Oh well, everyone cheered and clapped. I only hurt for a few days.

So then it was just a night in Arequipa (lovely from what we saw, we went to the museum with the mummy, one of the best museums anywhere even if Juanita herself was away for investigation) and then onto Cusco, because time was starting to turn against us. Cusco is stunning, all cobbled streets and little alleys and hills - a walker's paradise. We had one night on the English beer they serve there (Old Speckled Hen!) and did a tour of the nearby ruins - all great. Then onto Machu Picchu, by train - we decided not to do the trail a while ago: too expensive and we're hoping to find some less trodden Inka trails later on. The plan was to stay a night in the mountain/jungle tourist town near to the site, Aguas Calientes (there are baths there) and get up really early to climb Huayna Picchu, the mountain that looks down on Machu Picchu. Mission! Up at 2.30am, in the queue for the bus at 3.15am, bus left at 5.30am, queue to get on the list for the climb (they only let 400 people a day do it), then wait till 7.45am to actually start.... It was spitting and everywhere was cloud - probably a good thing, 'cos that mountain is vertiginous to say the least. In fact everything Inka is vertiginous, I think. It was hard, but we got to the top and and promptly managed to lose each other. The clouds parted and we saw Machu Picchu, to claps and cheers. Some hours later, when he sun had come out, we reconvened. I was shattered and slightly traumatised after a scary trip down, my legs were shaking badly - Tania semed fine. And then we did a tour of Machu Picchu, finally leaving the place late afternoon. I didn't want to leave though - the city is impressive because of the quantity of original material (hardly any recon), the scale of it and the setting (a bloody steep mountain side), but the surrounding mountains are just breathtaking and there is definitely something spiritual going on.

We stayed at Ollantaytambo on the way back, in the Sacred valley - one of my favourite places anywhere. I actually did feel very spiritually uplifted there. There are crazy ruins on really steep mountainsides again and the face of an Apu (mountain spirit) looking over the village. Did some great walks, met a local archaeologist who showed us an amazing collection of Inka relics including a complete mummy(!!!) and skulls with full heads of hair; and drank a small quantity of pisco sours, and Chicha in a real Chicheria (an old lady's house, with guinea pigs running around on the floor, and mainly women drinking). The Chicha (fermented corn beer) knocked me for six :) I was sad to leave that place.

Amd now we are on the banks of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world at 3,810m, about to go into Bolivia, the final country. 24 countries, 2 years 3 months, 5 pairs of shoes, 40 beach locations, god knows how many bottles of insect repellent and sunscreen - and just 2 weeks left. What you sayin', Bolivia?

Friday, 29 April 2011

Books and Music

More books I've been reading

A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving
The Bridge by Iain Banks
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord by Louis de Bernières
The World According to Garp by John Irving

It's a good list I think - I really enjoyed all of these books. First time for me with both Conrad and Steinbeck: very good indeed, particularly The Secret Sharer and Tortilla Flat. I seem to have become a real fan of John Irving - I've read and loved four of his books on the trip; he's an amazing story-teller with a devious mind and an intimate touch. Thanks to Erik Gorter, whom we met in Kenya some 26 months ago at the beginning of this trip, for turning me onto him.

Music I've been listening to

Mainly house mixes, seem to have temporarily taken a break from my world music selection. Did hear a squarepusher band album that was quite interesting.

Derrick Carter Live @ Footwork, Toronto 02/04/2011
My Number 1 DJ really is a wiz, and particularly slick at eq'ing, filters and fx. He really works the mixer on this one with some great new disco house tunes and the odd acapella.

Derrick Carter Live @ King King, Hollywood 22/01/2011
Great section where he uses MLK "I have a dream" speech and Malcolm X (I think) too over a cpla tunes, including Armando's Land of Confusion, effecting to great ... effect - and then seques into a track called "house negro". He's really thinking about what he's doing! Also a wicked old disco section, including Teddy Pendergrass's "you can't hide".

Best mix I've heard by FK for a long while, didn't like his techno sets much. He's moved to digital right? (although he plays at least one record in this set, you can tell) - I'm not sure whether it's his style or the technology, but I find his mixes sound digital, a little forced, not natural, and his eq'ing a bit ... jerky, at times. However, this is a great selection and he does some great things with a sample and fx at one point.

Carl Craig, Francesco Tristano & Moritz Von Oswald Live @ Infiné Week, Gaîté Lyrique 14/04/2011
Only just downloaded this, but what I have heard sounds AMAZING, the real deal, live techno, you don't hear this kind of thing too much. Respect to the masters.

The Philosophy of Sound and Machine
My Australian techno fiend, Andy Craswell, whom we met in Laos a year and a half ago, reminded me of this great compilation on one of his facebook updates. I then managed to get very slightly involved in a conversation about bootlegging with Kirk Degiorgio, one of the guys responsible for putting it out, with Mike Dred, Richard D James and B12 copied in. My friend Andy has my heroes as friends.

Legowelt - Juno Plus Podcast 02/03/2011
Great selection of old, unknown and new house music and oddities (Lebanese dabke from 1982 anyone?) from Legowelt here - particularly like the mixes in and out of chic "le freak".

Mark Farina - Hot Dogs
My second favourite house dj is a bit patchy IMHO when it comes to recorded mixes - some are incredible and some are in places a bit... 'softcock' as we say in the trade, 'scuse my french. But this is absolute gold, a real spirit of deep house thing, from 2004.

Dr Colonic - The Don
One of mine that I made for my friend Chris Don, who I seem to have managed to fall out of touch with. If you're out there Chris, would be great to hear from you, hope you and your family are well. This is the tracklist, classics pretty much all the way...

gina x - no gdm
joyce sims - all in all (remix)
Suzy Q - Get On Up And Do It Again
talking heads - once in a lifetime (carl craig edit)
Marcel King – Reach For Love
jamie principle / frankie knuckles - your love
Afrika Bambaataa / Soulsonic Force – Renegades Of Funk
Deodato - Keep it in the family
eurythmics - love is a stranger
telex - moskow diskow
gorillaz - dare
luke eargoggle - ocarina of time
***men - we love
Syclops - Mom The Video Broke
Unkle Feat Ian Brown - Reign (remix)
afx - analord (not sure which one)
some ambient tune
talk talk - it's my life
kraftwerk - tour de france
landscape - einstein a go go
some jazz tune!

Monday, 4 April 2011

Alex on Ecuador

We immediately fell in love with it, even though it was very cold and wet when we entered the country at something above 3,000m. In Tulcan, right on the northern border, I met a butcher in the local market while looking for our morning juice. Rodrigo just wouldn’t let me go, he wanted to practise his English so badly, and then meet his son Patricio, so that he could practise too – then his daughter and his wife … you get the idea. We ended up staying there for 5 days when we hadn’t even planned on staying one. And it was so worth it - Rodrigo took us to some local thermal baths, which we reached by walking back over the border with Colombia in a tiny village. No passport control, woo hoo!, v exciting. While in the pool, we chatted to a young army guy who was there protecting some important dude – all the while his machine gun was pointed directly at my head, that was different. Rodrigo also took us to an amazing ecological reserve near Huacha, about 35 km from Tulcan, where we saw real cloud forest for the first time and real ‘Paramo’ (high altitude plains), with weird plants that reminded us of climbing Mount Kenya, which is also on the equator as it goes. This place is like the only place in the world where the Guandera tree grows – check the website here.

So anyway, enough of this writing business - how about a list of the things we will remember about Ecuador?

Best hot salsa in Latin America (ok - so far) – looks a bit like satay sauce, loads of chilli, lemon?, something else and loads of red onion. Mayonnaise flavour crisps. Guinea pigs as food. Preachy, semi-religious sellers on the buses. Best quality hooky DVDs in Latin America - apparently. Weird, crap pop music, as well as interesting traditional music, different from the rest. Ridiculous changes in altitude over short distances. Cheap travel – a dollar an hour. Better food than Colombia. Real poverty on the coast. Footballers don’t like to play in Ecuador because you lose your strength on the Equator.

Quito is an awesome city. We loved – climbing the towers of the very gothic Basilica (people younger and fitter than us didn’t make it to the top); taking the teleferico up to 4,100m to look down on the city; the incredible Guayasamin (Ecuadorian Picasso) museums; the Jardin Botanico, one of the best I have seen; the massive Parque Metropolitano, which definitely has live bears in it; the Museo Intiñan at the REAL equator, not the monument the French built in the wrong place – and, a 3 hr ride from the city, the absolutely incredible Papallacta thermal baths, beautiful blue-tiled pools amidst mountains in the Amazonas region that every parent will definitely want to go to. I never thought I could spend like a whole day in a bath, but that was very more-ish indeed. And cheap at 7 dollars entry.

Alex on Colombia

The ubiquitous cry of ‘A la orden!’. Arepas instead of tortillas. Drunken Kogi indians. More bananas than you’ve ever seen before. Tree tomato juice. Tropical music on the Costa Caribe. Aguardiente - aniseed flavoured firewater. Big, edible ants. Hello Colombia!

We spent the full two months allocated by the border guy, who kindly double-scribed '60 days' on my passport, so that when we left for Ecuador they thought I had tried to fiddle my allowance. It’s a massive country, over half the size of Mexico, and apparently the 5th most visited in the world over the last year. Many people we have met on the trip said that it was their favourite country, with the friendliest people. For us, it was kind of ... nearly there.

Lots of different altitudes and climates, from the sweltering coast to the consistent freezing wet cloud of Bogota. As is my wont, I found some parallels with Mexico – the traditional music on the radio and the dress style in the small rural villages, for example. Instead of Pulque (made from the fermented sap of the Agave plant), Colombians have Chicha – flavoured, fermented maize juice. We found the food in Colombia generally a bit samey and lacking - meat, rice and yucca (cassava), without much flair. But Colombian soups are definitely better than Mexico’s!

We loved Palomino, up on the coast – Mary and Vladimir at Pachamama were very kind to us and we were tempted to stay and volunteer as teachers for their project. We were quite taken with Bogota, particularly the hip, graffiti-adorned old quarter, La Candelaria. Many parts of Bogota look just like outer London, a trick which no other city has managed to achieve quite so successfully. And in Bogota, you can buy fairly good imitation English ales – a pale, a ruby and even a porter – at modern pubs such as the Bogota Beer Company (BBC)! We liked quaint Villa de Leyva, which was a bit like the Cotswolds, or the Lake District, without the lakes – and has one of the biggest central plazas in Latin America, kind of ridiculously big for such a small town. Lots of the farmland in Colombia has that English patchwork, hedgerow look, which is a bit weird. It turns out lots of highland Ecuador is even more like that.

Colombians don’t say 'provecho' in restaurants, as they do in Mexico and Ecuador. We were a bit shocked by the seemingly nouveau riche day-trippers up around Cartagena, turning up at Playa Blanca in a speedboat to spend a high-profile hour before jetting off to the next stop. Also, the loud party boat on the way to Playa Blanca was a bit Blackpool meets .. Miami?

There were many amazing bus journeys in Colombia, with crazy mountainous landscapes (getting up to San Gil, Santander and from Popayan to the border in the south come to mind). Also pretty crazy drivers – we saw an awful lot of recent, lethal accidents on the road and got quite used to having to wait an hour or so, while ... things were sorted out.

All in all, Colombia was stunning visually and certainly had enough to keep us there for two whole months – but we wish we’d got closer to the warm heart we are absolutely positive is there.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Film titles in Spanish

It’s nearly impossible to have conversations with Spanish speakers about films because they are usually known by completely different titles. Film studio marketing execs for the Spanish-speaking world seem to have banged their fists on the table in exasperation at the titles before them and lamented, “Too… thinky!” So, they came up with the following alternatives. Take a guess, answers at the bottom.

Title in Spanish – Literal translation in English

1. La Familia de Mi Novia - The Family of My Girlfriend
2. ¿Cómo Sobrevivir a mi Ex?Surviving My Ex?
3. Juegos Sexuales Sexual Games
4. Viviendo Con Mi Ex Living With My Ex
5. Ligeramente Embarazado - Slightly Pregnant
6. El Sueño Posible - The Possible Dream
7. Siempre Hay Tiempo Para Reir - There's Always Time To Laugh
8. La Maldicion De Las Hermanas - The Curse Of The Sisters
9. Las Esposas Perfectas The Perfect Wives
10. Sintonia De Amor Love Tune
11. El Mensajero De La Oscuridad The Messenger Of Darkness
12. Estafa De AmorLove Scam
13. Perdiendo El Control Losing Control

The Titles as we know them:
1. Meet The Parents
2. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
3. Cruel Intentions
4. The Break Up
5. Knocked Up
6. The Blind Side
7. Funny People
8. The Uninvited
9. The Stepford Wives
10. Sleepless In Seattle
11. The Mothman Prophecies
12. The Brothers Bloom
13. Click

The robot voices in Transformers sound hilarious in Spanish, by the way.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Palomino, Costa Caribe de Colombia

Here’s the copy for a flyer we made to help promote our friends Vladimir, Mary, Marc and Julia in Palomino – not to forget the adorable, diabolical young Juanita and Lucas. They are running Pachamama guesthouse and the Fundacion de la Madre educational project. We were really affected by Palomino and these guys – we were sorely tempted to stay there and teach, but unfortunately time is pressing on and we feel we should get back to our families within a few months, so we had to pass.

Palomino is a small, coastal village only 2 hours from Santa Marta - it has a lot to offer in terms of outdoor activities and is a much cheaper option than entering Parque Tayrona. Palomino offers:

- amazing, wild, 10km beach - hardly anyone on it!
- stunning 1.5 hour jungle walk and 2 hour tubing trip down the Palomino river
- beautiful trails into the Sierra Nevadas
- cheap accomodation (under 10,000 pesos)
- friendly local indigenous communities

Palomino is still relatively undeveloped in terms of tourism. It's a good time to visit - you will have the place pretty much to yourself and your tourism can really help the local community. Pachamama is a guest house based in the village, offering hammocks, camping and rooms. The beach is a pretty 20 mins walk from there. The couple that run it are super helpful and can help with tubing and any tours you want to do. They are also running a project to improve the quality of education in the area. The community is crying out for English teachers - if you are a native speaker and have some time to spare, you can get involved straight away. Or you can support the project simply by staying at Pachamama, or taking their tours.

Contact Pachamama
phone 320 406 2092 email,

About the writers of this review:
We are a mid thirties English couple travelling for two years. We have volunteered in several countries around the world, wanting to get under the skin of places and cultures. We have looked for opportunities on the ground, or from recommendations, rather than paying money via a website. This is one of the best opportunities we have found anywhere - you can give real, tangible help immediately; the local communities are friendly and interesting; the nature is absolutely stunning and it's a cheap place to live. If you can volunteer long term, Pachamama will cover many of your costs - speak to them now. If you would like to ask us any questions, feel free to contact us through our blog, see below.

Alex and Tania,

Funny story: when we did the tubing down the river Palomino – an incredible experience by the way, the jungle is absolutely stunning – our german friend Patrick wore nothing but some rather modest bathing shorts. Right through the village, with plenty of locals and indigenous Indians to give slightly bemused admiration from the sidelines. With the inner tube diagonally across his body, he looked pretty much naked. He wasn’t bothered in the slightest.

Map - San Pedro to San Gil

Our route from Guate to Colombia. Click on the icons for more info about a place. You can zoom in using the + and - controls top left and drag the map by clicking on a point and moving it.

Ver San Pedro to San Gil en un mapa más grande

11 Sundays in San Pedro La Laguna

Every time Rick, who we first met on the shuttle from Antigua to San Pedro La Laguna (Lago Atitlan), sees us, he laughs and calls out "You're still here then!" He thinks we’re going to do what he, his wife, the other Rick, Ricardo, Bob, Canadian Bob and all the others have done and stay here forever. Everyone’s story is the same: they were passing through and that was however many years ago. This is the closest to South America some of them ever reached. We have a little kitchen installed on our hammocked balcony where Alex works minor miracles with rice, beans, spaghetti and eggs, sometimes in the same dish. We’ve had two dinner parties, and think of the long-haired tabby cat that steals in through the window whenever it’s open as our own. We could never be sure that Rick wouldn’t turn out to be right. But we also spent around 8 weeks in San Pedro de los Pinos back in D.F., so clearly we have a bit of a thing for San Pedros.

Sunday is our big day. It is the anchor of the week. It's how I remember time. We don't have breakfast on Sundays, because of Smokin' Joe's barbecue at La Piscina, known as the Lake's best feed of the week. Bacon-wrapped steak in Jack Daniels, the unfeasible Flintstone burger, Jamaican sausage and so on, accompanied by massive sides and followed by strawberry crumble (though they think it's called a ‘cobbler’!) or chocolate brownie with ice cream or whipped cream. There's table tennis, pool, a pool and giant 'extreme' Jenga (two extra levels). All that’s missing is giant Connect 4.

There are a few hours to digest all the food and discover what's been happening in the rest of the world before the pub quiz at El Barrio at 8pm. On our first Sunday, Brian, an expat from Bermuda, approached us and asked if we'd like to join his and Tony's team. They needed cover for music and entertainment, and we needed cover for everything but. We became 4 Candles. We finished second behind team Zig Zag, the regular champions. The following Sunday, we bumped into Brian at the barbecue. Tony, from Germany who runs a business here, had sent him to find team members, thinking we'd gone. Obviously, we hadn't and went on to our first victory.

Team Zig Zag was the Bjorn Borg of the quiz - the undisputed champions with 6 victories under their belts. On our first outing, Team 4 Candles, or John McEnroe, if you will, almost ended the run, finishing second (just as Borg defeated McEnroe in the 1980 Men's World Championship Final). As with Borg, it was their last win. Team 4 Candles went on to dominate the tournament - sorry, quiz - in a Roger Federer kind of way, accumulating 6 wins, levelling with Borg. I mean Zig Zag. Then Rick, Teresa et al finally pulled their fingers out and The Lobotomists entered the scene, pushing 4 Candles to the brink on their first outing. A very Rafael Nadal kind of threat. And, sure enough, they hammered their point home the following week, forcing 4 Candles into second place.

The El Barrio 'Megabowl' (as the event was touted) between 4 Candles and Zig Zag was still on though with 6 wins each. Then, disaster. Just as Federer did when first beaten by Nadal at the Wimbledon final, 4 Candles crashed out of the tou... quiz in a lowly fourth place ("How the mighty have fallen," commented the compere Ben), The Lobotomists proving again what we were up against. The following week, Nad... The Lobotomists didn't show up (neither did Nadal the year after beating Federer), so 4 Candles' 7th victory was somewhat hollow. But The Lobotomists were there for our 8th and final victory, which was crucial as Federer's wins don't count as much if Nadal doesn't show up.

Team Zig Zag advertised for team members in the monthly Sol De Atitlan San Pedro guide. They were looking for "a European female, 30-40s, you keep the beer!”

We’ve made friends with many of the expats here. I met John the other day, a USAn* who has just moved into the house opposite. He was glad to hear I was British.
“Oh good,” he said, shaking my hand vigorously, “You don’t hate us as much as everyone else.”
“Well, we’re as bad as you guys!”
“Yeah, man, you are. We’re the Bad Kids On The Block!”
Mind you, it’s not so bad for travelling USAns now that Obama’s in charge.

I am one of possibly a fraction of people who has not been in the lake. There's no doubt that, from the surface, it's stunning, whether tranquil or choppy, but as you may know by now, I have a testy relationship with water and refused to get in it. It's said that the water here used to be crystal clear with many meters visibility and filled with a huge variety of fish. I've only seen three fish in the lake and they were all dead. Some years ago, a bright Gringo spark had the idea of setting up black bass farming for Gringo tourists and, without any natural predators, the black bass ended up eating nearly everything else in the lake. During our first conversation on the shuttle, Rick told us that the lake had recently risen 10 feet, encroaching inland by 150 feet over crops and properties. Rick's 6 month-old home had become a lake-front property almost overnight. Some buildings have been completely surrounded with front paths leading to water instead of the front door. There's also a problem with a tide of litter washing up from all over the lake, collected by groups of concerned villagers. There’s also the recurring cyanobacteria problem. Locals advise against swimming near the towns, from which a lot of waste makes its way. The state of the lake is a reminder of what happens when a precious resource is taken for granted. None of this bothers Alex. Water always calls Alex in. This water calls to me too, but it says something completely different. But you don’t have to be in the lake to enjoy it.

And there are so many other things to do in Lake Atitlan. We've climbed to the tip of the Indian's Nose, which looks exactly like the horizontal profile of a Mayan face, with the forehead physically moulded to slant backwards. We've walked - and ridden hungry and stubborn horses - through San Pedro's narrow alleys and out through the town to the narrow lakeside path lined with tall grasses offering lovely views and access to a tiny beach with a rickety pier (where you can see the dead fish). We've climbed the deceptively tall San Pedro volcano, the oldest of the three that tower the lake, dead for 40,000 years, since when Toliman began to grow, and for the last 10,000 years, volcan Atitlan. For the comfort that's worth, that's the one furthest away from us. We have kayaked across a conveniently calm lake to San Marcos La Laguna where I watched Alex jump from the variously tall vantage points and, eventually, the tallest, a wooden platform some 5 metres (I have no idea how tall it was!) above the lake. Alex has become an expert of the local geography and takes me round the all the paths he’s discovered that don’t deteriorate into landslides. We saw visitors filling the cemetery, bright with candles and flowers, in celebration of the Day of the Dead. We’ve watched the colour of Volcan Fuego’s ashy burps turn from black to burnished gold in the early glow of the rising sun. We saw the shadow of the earth swallow the full moon on the night of the winter solstice, a once every 500 years event, with Venus, Saturn and Mars rising in the east, and followed the moon as it set into the eye of the Indian’s Nose. But we haven’t done the 400-metre zip-line yet.

Rick was nearly right, we nearly stayed there forever. And we still might.

*We have discovered that the term ‘American’, usually used to refer to people from the USA, strikes a discordant note with a small but distinguished number of Latin Americans who will respond indignantly that they’re Americans too, thanks very much. Gringo aside, I have been unable to identify any other term for people from the USA, therefore, I hereby coin the term USAn (yoo-es-ay-an).

For a walk-through in photos of Big Sunday in San Pedro, click here

Post from the vault: The Mysterious Life Of Brian

Another old post from Mexico D.F. ......

On our way back to the flat after breakfast this morning, a tiny, grey baby (I guess it’s romantic to think that it is anything other than a) rat was quivering in the middle of the pavement. Everything is cute when it’s a baby. Perhaps days old and still blind, she seemed to be okay, if not for very long. I picked her up and stood there with the baby rat quivering in my hands, wondering what to do with her. I took her up to the grassy section of the reservation in the middle of Avenido Patriotismo where, without any obvious food, and without even knowing what a baby rat eats, it was clear I’d be leaving her to die. So, I returned to the flat with her. What to do with a baby rat? There’s a flowerpot on the little balcony of our flat with an attractive looking succulent that looked like it could provide shelter and even a climbing frame for a baby rat. So, I popped her in it while I went to check out her options for breakfast. Not knowing what baby rats eat, I gave her milk, some bread and a piece of mango. When we had to go out, I made her a bed from a sock and created a protective biosphere using a chair, a plastic rain mac and some string. The only other thing I could think of giving her was a name. Her name was Brian. We went out, but I could only think of Brian. I came home to check on her, carefully removed the biosphere and peeked into the sock. Brian wasn’t there. I searched around the base of the pot, all round the plant, even the ground beneath the balcony. She was nowhere to be seen. When I was a kid, I had a Tamagachi electronic pet. I fed it and trained it and let it out to do its business but it seems I didn’t play enough games with it. One day, when I got home from school, the LCD screen had a note on it saying ‘BYE BYE’. My Tamagachi electronic pet had run away from home. History, it seemed, had repeated itself.

Post from the vault: Mexico City (D.F.)

I may not have been posting, but I have been keeping notes. Here's a post from about 7 months ago about life living and working in D.F. .........

I begin the day with a freshly squeezed orange and guava juice (Mexico has a much firmer grasp of the concept of ‘freshly squeezed’ than we do) from the little stall universally at the bottom of the road. They get through 50 kilos of oranges per day. Then I carry on to the tube – sorry, metro – station where I descend three escalators down to the earth’s core and wait for the train. What I can't do on London's tube is walk down to the women only section where everyone can do their makeup without being groped. At first, I pooh-poohed the idea. I’m an Independent Woman; I don’t need to be segregated. Now, when I'm with Alex, I’m gutted I can’t go down there. And I’m learning: who needs an eyelash curler when you have a spoon?

At first, I was cruising along the metro thinking, ‘wow, this is much better; fast, smooth, loads of trains, the ticket barrier takes my ticket immediately so I can’t lose it, the train vendors always have chewing gum, stationery sets, sewing kits and handcrafted wooden models of cartoon characters like Buttercup from the Powerpuff girls just when I need them’. But, inevitably, when I’m running late, or stuck in the tunnel waiting for someone to turn the train off, wait for 10 seconds, then turn it on again, the romance of it all wears off and I begin to make different observations. Which system is jerkier? El Metro, definitely. It seems a question of dubious skill in London and one of sadistic fun in D.F.. Alex told me that he was on a train once that braked so suddenly that a passenger slid the whole length of the row of empty seats lining the carriage. I’m glad I wasn’t there, I’d have been no help at all. I’d have been in hysterics. Then there’s the mysterious smell of burning on the platforms and such highly polished floors that if you turn a corner too quickly, you can travel much quicker, further and closer to the ground than you intended. But overall, I love those big, square, orange trains, all the tempting donut, taco and hair-accessory stalls and the echoes of different amounts of pesos bouncing around all over the place from all the various vendors.

It’s taken me 6 weeks to generate a full-time working week from both schools and private students. Some students are preparing for English exams, others for jobs, and others just like to chat. I have grown very fond of them all. It’s lucky that the private students always remember to pay me because if they didn’t, I’d have a hard time asking for it - students inevitably become friends. It can be difficult to explain the difference between ‘I have been living’ and ‘I have lived’, or to find a ‘rule’ that explains the pronunciation of ‘heard’, ‘heart’, and ‘beard’, so I have been spending almost all my free time creating materials for the IATHIA course in English (I’m A Teacher Honest I Am), either by searching the internet and lovingly crafting pretty PDFs, or straight from my own head: lists of irregular verbs, verbs with prepositions, a dictionary of English idioms which I found on the web and rewrote entirely and an explanation of tenses that my best friend not only doesn’t understand but doesn’t even believe I understand.

Most of my students are of an intermediate standard, whose requirements go beyond the nomenclatural. To help them with the meaning, sense and lyricism of the language, I devised this lesson plan: The student and I take turns reading aloud the poem The Spider And The Fly by Mary Howitt. I read with my best Jackanory voice to give them a sense of expression and a little ... drama. Then I play the student Lullaby by The Cure while they read the lyrics. Then I give them interpretations that have been made of the song (that it’s about nightmares, depression, sexual abuse, that it’s based on Mary Howitt’s poem) and ask them to work out how these interpretations have been made and whether they agree with them or not. To do this, they must understand more than the literal translations of the words. It’s also an opportunity to listen to The Cure.

Learning works both ways and I’ve learnt at least as much as I’ve taught. Struggling to find the right word during one of our classes, one student explained that his brain was like a room full of documents stacked right up to the ceiling with an old man slowly leafing through them trying to find the right one, and just when he thinks he’s found it, an extractor fan turns on and scatters everything everywhere. Another student knows more English grammar than I do and we spend most of our time trying to get her to use it. When I gave her an exercise on pronunciation, she took one look at it, rolled her eyes at me and said, “Is a joke”, and I have to agree that English pronunciation really is. She is currently planning my parents’ itinerary for when they come to visit in August. Another student’s story about discovering he had a long lost cousin serving a life sentence in prison in Miami and going all the way out there to visit him for the first time was so absorbing that I almost forgot to correct his grammar.

During the day, I never have to worry about finding food and not spending much on it. My favourite is the rosticeria near Sevilla station. The site of all those golden brown chickens slowly turning and dripping their delicious juices onto the chunky slices of fresh cabbage and onions, served with either arroz or papas (rice or crisps) and a batch of hot tortillas every time I walk past it, which is almost every day, is a temptation I fail to resist about three times a week. And tortas. Tortas are the mother of all sandwiches. They shame other sandwiches. With tortas, no one even bothers to ask for avocados (of course there are avocados, are you mad?). Or chilli. I like to end up with one bursting with still sizzling chorizo and melted cheese with tomato, onion and general sauce goo. And avocados. And then there is pozole (po-zo-le); a tasty soup that you load with fresh onion, lettuce and radish. And avocado and chilli, of course.

At home, I spend an hour or two arranging my schedule for the next day, a harder task than any of the actual lessons. But thanks to the understanding I have with my private students, Carol didn’t mind putting her class back 2 hours so long as Ricardo was happy to take the lesson on Thursday instead of Wednesday (which he was), which meant I could fit in Arturo’s class after all, which was earlier than Ricardo’s, so then I was clear for Sergio right after Arturo and, thanks to Carol, I was also clear in the morning to take the short notice class the school had given me at 11am. With all that sorted out, I can sort out my lesson plans before I get up between 6 and 8 for my first lesson of the day.

When we tell people how long we’ve been in Mexico, they immediately say “Wow, so we’re have you been then?” and are stunned when we tell them we’ve only been outside the city once. But we’ve been busy!

Couple o' pics

Couldn't resist. Tania is going to write more extensively about San Pedro, one of our very favourite places. Here's a pic taken from the edge of the lake, about 30 seconds from our apartment, at 6am on the night of the lunar eclipse, 21-22 december 2010. The moon is setting into the eye of the "Mayan's Face", also known as the "Indian's Nose". We spent a lot of time walking up there.

And above are two shots of the mouth of the river Palomino, where we just were. A pretty special spot. The sea's on the right, the river on the left. There's a tiny channel connecting the two and quite a current into the sea. At dusk, fish would robustly leap out of the river to say hello, about one every 10 seconds.