31 December 2012

One night in Bangkok

The song from the musical Chess says: ‘One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster’. But that night was at the end of a very long day which went something like this …

Jean Batten's plane and a Lord of the Rings statue - must be Middle Earth!
Alarm went off at 4.30am! Picked up by a shuttle at 5.30am and dropped off at Auckland international airport at 6am.

I had a moment when I thought I wasn’t going to get any further. The young and presumably inexperienced girl at the check-in counter was hesitant about the fact that my return flight is booked for August. ‘What are you doing between now and August? You don’t have a visa to spend 8 months in Cambodia.’ I lied: ‘I’m travelling around Asia but I had to book a return flight because many countries won’t let you in without one.’ She still phoned her supervisor, who obviously said it was fine, because she proceeded to process my reservation and give me the window seat I requested and, by some miracle – the girl was also surprised – the system didn’t charge me for my overweight bag – still 26kgs, even though I’d shed the rug, table runner, throw, winter jacket, jumpers and scarves I’d brought back from Peru!

Departed Auckland at 8.35am for the 3-hour flight to Sydney with Qantas. It was a smooth flight: the Tasman was looking flat, the clouds were minimal and the Sydney coastline looked as inviting as ever. Shame I wasn’t stopping!

Nothing noteworthy happened in Sydney. After 4 hours of walking the halls and using the free internet – Auckland airport authorities take note: FREE internet! – and eating a snack and walking some more and taking a few photos – nice Chrissie decorations! – and buying some little trinkets for Cambodian friends, I departed Sydney at 14.35pm, again with Qantas, for the 9 hour flight to Bangkok.

Congratulations to Qantas for employing a mature crew with a great sense of humour for the long-haul flight. ‘Trays! Trays! Give me your trays!’ called out one grey-haired attendant, and an announcement over the intercom from the customer service manager went something like this: ’Using skills learned years ago in Kmart, smiling Satesh will now begin selling duty-free items from the catalogue in the seat pocket in front of you.’

Surprisingly for an airline, the food was good, and they were very generous with the alcohol. I had a Bloody Mary that was more bloody than Mary, but delicious all the same. The choice of movies was pretty abysmal, though. The blockbuster selection consisted of the latest Jason Bourne film, which I watched, and one another, that was so forgettable I’ve forgotten its name.

My only complaint Qantas, if you’re listening, is that you charge passengers to reserve a seat using your online check-in system. Unbelievable!

We arrived in Bangkok spot on time at 19.35pm local time. Suvarnabhumi, Bangkok’s international airport, is huge, bustling and efficient. Thanks to the baggage man who rescued my bag from going on to Cambodia a day early – and mine wasn’t the only one he rescued. And thanks to the hotel collection process, which seemed chaotic initially – my instructions were to go to the collection point at gate 4 on level 2 – but my name was there on a sign and within a few minutes I was being whisked off to my hotel.

The hotel was fairly ordinary but the bed was hard, the shower reasonable and the aircon working, which met all my requirements for a good night’s sleep. And after that one night in Bangkok, it was a short one-hour’s hop here to Siem Reap, Cambodia, a place familiar and welcoming, and a return to where my world travels began when I first volunteered here in December 2009. Only time will tell whether the world really is my oyster!

30 December 2012

New Zealand: the good stuff

Each time I come home from living overseas, I am reminded of the things I value about New Zealand that I had previously taken for granted.

Fern-covered seating fabric
For example, though I’m sure many people would moan about the public transportation system in Auckland – and I’m sure there are valid things to moan about – compared to the local buses in Cusco, Peru, the Auckland buses are a dream come true! (see my previous blog A dangerous commute for a glimpse of Peruvian bus travel)

For a start, they have timetables, and they almost always run on time. The drivers are mostly friendly, greeting their passengers with a friendly ‘Good morning’ or ‘Good afternoon’. If they’re not in a rush, they will actually chat to you – one read the name ‘Bolivia’ on my t-shirt and wanted to know if I’d been there and what it was like. They give you advice: ‘You’d be better to get a transfer ticket, dear. It’s cheaper’. They wait for the elderly and those with babies and young children to get seated before zooming off.

And the buses themselves are clean, with comfortable seats in bright colours and patriotic designs. They have buttons you can press or cords you can pull to indicate you want to get off at the next stop, though on one occasion I almost shouted out ‘Bajar’ as I would have on a Peruvian bus. Their roofs are high enough that even the tallest person doesn’t have to bend over. They don’t try and fit 100 people on a vehicle designed for 40, or have a conductor hanging out the door when the bus is overcrowded. They don’t contain chickens or guinea pigs or lambs or cats, though a seeing-eye dog would be allowed. They are much more expensive, of course, but believe me, the price is worth paying!

Another thing I really value about New Zealand is the greenness. There are trees everywhere, not just where I was staying in the bush-clad hills of Titirangi, but trees line the streets in almost every city suburb and in every small town, as well as the centres of the big cities. And in New Zealand we have our very own Christmas tree, the pohutukawa, which produces its magnificent bright red blossoms over the Christmas period. This year the trees were producing an amazing display.

Waterlilies in Auckland Domain
Most New Zealand towns and cities have public parks and green spaces for everyone to enjoy. In the middle of Auckland city, there’s a beautiful big park called The Domain, and one of its attractions is its large glasshouses. The display of flowers inside these glasshouses at the moment is truly stunning.

New Zealanders as a whole are great gardeners. We love our flowers and shrubs, and many people still cultivate their own vegetable gardens and grow fruit trees. For Christmas dinner, we ate new potatoes, freshly dug that morning from my uncle’s small allotment at the retirement village where they live, and I'm sure a lot of my fellow New Zealanders did the same.

Walking alongside the Waikato river in Hamilton

Honey, I’m home!

Home is where the heart is, they say. Well, New Zealand certainly holds three things very close to my heart: most of my family, my best friends and delicious food.

One of the best things about returning to New Zealand is being able to see the people I feel closest to, my extended family and my women friends. This year I timed my visit particularly well and was able to enjoy my first family Christmas since my mum died in April 2008. I like to think of the aunt and uncle I stayed with in Hamilton as my surrogate parents. Because they’ve known me all my life and they know my history, I can relax with them, be myself. They are helpful and supportive, and they always make me feel so very welcome.

Christmas dinner with the whanau

I also got to catch up with those of their kids and grandkids – my cousins and second cousins – who still live in Hamilton, and said hello to another, who now lives in Australia, via Skype. My aunt and uncle held a dinner party for some people they know who were also close to my family – my dad’s cousin and his wife, and a good golfing buddy of my mum’s and her husband. And my uncle drove us all the way to Whangamata, a beachside town on the Coromandel peninsula about an-hour-and-a-half’s drive from Hamilton, so I could catch up with another elderly auntie.

I also enjoyed a lovely dinner and catch up with relations from my dad’s side of the family: an elderly aunt who is the sole survivor from my dad’s siblings and in-laws, and her children – my cousins – and some of their children. That was fun too.

Though a couple live in faraway lands, the majority of my close women friends live in Auckland. I was blessed to stay once again with dearest Rosie and her son Stephen and cat Fluffy in their house in Titirangi, a suburb of bush, birds and beaches. Another good buddy, Sue, lives nearby, so the three of us shared dinners and lunches out, went shopping together and saw a few movies – The Hobbit, Skyfall and Quartet. I had a lovely long lunch, with those magnificent publishing women I used to work with at Auckland University Press, and heard about their latest doings and the hot gossip, and we shared a lot of laughs. I also long-lunched with Jo, my oldest friend – we worked together at Air New Zealand many eons ago – and caught up with her news of family, job, etc. I spent the night at the house of friends Carol and John – Carol and I taught English in the same language school – and we ate a yummy meal, drank lots of wine, and chatted till the wee hours. And I lunched with Cathy, another former teacher at that same school. She had visited me in Peru so it was great to catch up with her again.

I value having all these wonderful people in my life and it’s so good to be able to come back to New Zealand and pick up again as if our last conversation was just the day before.

Fresh flounder straight off the barbeque

And, last but by no means least, food! One of the great things about New Zealand is being able to eat a huge variety of fresh, delicious food … with confidence. And, by that I mean, without worrying about what nasty bugs and beasties you’re going to catch from the unwashed or washed-in-bad-water vegetables and fruit in your meals. Of course, you can contract stomach-churning diarrhoea-inducing bugs from any restaurant in any country but the chances of that happening are just so much higher in under-developed countries.

I also love the variety of food available in restaurants and supermarkets. I ate Italian, Turkish, Greek, Thai and good old Kiwi fare, and enjoyed every single mouthful. Christmas dinner was that traditional Kiwi staple of roast lamb with mint sauce, plus the English traditional roast turkey, as well as delicious ham on the bone, and all the trimmings. Divine! And then there’s the seafood – my favourite, and the one thing I missed in land-locked Cusco. Ah, the seafood … I’ll say no more as my mouth is watering at the very thought of it!

Thanks, New Zealand and my fellow Kiwis. It was another truly wonderful visit home.

07 December 2012

Santiago’s elegant edificios

I’ve always been a fan of elegantly designed buildings and, here in Santiago, I’ve found no shortage to point my lens at. Here are a few that have appealed:

The Museo de Bellas Artes (the Fine Arts Museum) is Chile’s principal art gallery. Designed by Chilean architect Emilio Jéquier as an approximate copy of the Petit Palais in Paris, the gallery displays contemporary and past Chilean art as well as playing host to visiting exhibitions. Not only is it a stunning example of classical architecture on the outside, it also has an amazing steel and glass roof. Begun in 1905, the building was finally inaugurated on 21 September 1910.

El Correo Central (the central post office) is located on one corner of the Plaza de Armas. I found conflicting information about the building in guidebooks and on line, so I will paraphrase what Professor Wiki has to say on the subject. According to Wikipedia, ‘The building was built in 1882 by architect Ricardo Brown on the foundations of the old Palace of the Governors, one that had been damaged by fire in 1881 and had been the residence of the presidents of the Republic until 1846, when the seat of government moved to the Palace of La Moneda. In 1908, the architect Ramón Fehrman transformed the facade, adopting a neoclassical style influenced by the French. In 1976, the building was declared a historic monument and, since 2004, the ground floor has housed the Post and Telegraph Museum.'

On the corner of the Plaza de Armas adjacent to the post office is Santiago’s Cathedral, the fifth such building on this site. The first edition was destroyed by fire following an attack by the local indigenous population and the following three incarnations were each destroyed by earthquakes, in 1552, 1647 and 1730 respectively. Although work on the current building began in 1747, the final design, by Italian Joaquίn Toesca, was not devised until the 1780s and building had not been completed prior to the architect’s death in 1799. A century later, the twin towers were added by another Italian Ignacio Cremonesi. Inside, the cathedral is lavishly decorated, its ceiling in particular a sumptuous work of art.

The newly restored building below was re-inaugurated in 1981 as the seat of government, though it has an interesting and somewhat tragic past. The Palacio de la Moneda is so called because it was originally designed by the Italian architect Joaquίm Toesca – who also designed the Cathedral – as the country’s mint. It was built between 1788 and 1805, functioned as the Mint until 1929, part of that time also housing Chile’s presidents, who lived here between 1846 and 1958. When General Augusto Pinochet led the military coup here in Santiago, on 11 September 1973, then president Dr Salvador Allende committed suicide here, and the building itself suffered severe damage as a result of being bombed by Chilean Air Force Hawker Hunters and the fires which followed.

The Museo Nacional de Historia Natural, or National Museum of Natural History, lies within Quinta Normal, a large and beautiful park on the outskirts of downtown Santiago. The exterior of the building, originally designed by French architect Paul Lathoud for the First International Exhibition in 1875 but subsequently rebuilt following a devastating earthquake in 1927, is quite plain and, on the day I visited, the museum was playing host to large numbers of noisy school children, all vying for their turn at the interactive displays it houses. Its one redeeming exhibit – the enormous skeleton of a blue whale – was in the process of being dismantled behind large screens. But I found the building’s interior design quite charming, if mostly inaccessible, completely under-appreciated and largely ignored.

The Museo Artequin sits on one of the busy boulevards that surround the Quinta Normal park and is a delightful example of quirky architecture. The building, constructed of iron and glass, was designed by Frenchman Henri Picq for the International Exposition in Paris in 1889, and brought back in pieces to be reconstructed here in Santiago following the exhibition. I had read negative reviews of the museum itself, which uses replicas of famous artworks to educate Chilean children about the world’s art, so didn’t bother going in but enjoyed photographing the building’s colourful exterior.

Terraza Neptuno or Neptune’s Terrace is located on Cerro Santa Lucίa, a rocky outcrop in the central city where Santiago’s founder Pedro de Valdivia and his 150 men first encamped. These days it is a haven of green amidst towering steel-and-glass skyscrapers and concrete apartment blocks but it also includes remnants of its fascinating past: bits of its original fortifications, a plaque to commemorate a visit by Charles Darwin, a small chapel which can no longer be visited due to the earthquake damage that plagues this city, and Castillo Hidalgo, now an events centre. It also has a wonderful folly, dating from the late 1870s, when city mayor, Benjamίn Vicuña Mackenna, decided to place his own stamp on the small mountain by creating sweeping terraces and grand curving stairways, a triumphal arch topped off by a grand dome and a classically inspired statue of Neptune, riding the waves of his very own fountain.

03 December 2012

‘The thin country’

Cool artwork underground
That’s what Chile’s famous Nobel-prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda called his homeland and, though it certainly is geographically thin, its people are definitely not thin on sentiment or courage, nor are they, generally speaking, physically thin, which is understandable when you see some of the things they eat! But, first, some sightseeing ...

Coming from a non-Metro country and having lived in the totally-unsophisticated-when-it-comes-public-transport city of Cusco for 18 months, I admit to feeling just a little trepidacious when Chris suggested I use the local Metro to get to my first tourist destination on my own in Santiago.

But, armed with a magical plastic card that opened the gates to another world, and with Chris’s trusty handwritten instructions and his ‘Tourist Map, Santiago on Bus’ guide to the public transportation systems of Santiago, I set off – not into the wild blue yonder, but rather into the dimly lit depths of the underground.

Miraculously, I managed to navigate two Metro lines and a change of stations, and found my way in almost the blink of an eye to my destination, Cementerio General, Santiago’s main and very large cemetery. A strange destination, you might think, but cemeteries can be fascinating places and offer a real insight into local culture – you can learn a lot about the living from how they treat their dead.

It was Saturday and the cemetery was crowded, not just with the enormous numbers of deceased but also with an abundance of the living, come to pay their respects, to visit family and friends, to tend and tidy the graves of their loved ones, and to attend funerals, as well as with the workers who clean and maintain the graves and grounds.

There were two main types of grave – the frequently large and often opulent tombs, and the small oblong cells, stretched several rows long and high, like mini apartment blocks.

And what did I learn about Chileans from visiting their cemetery? They seem to have a genuine respect for the departed, who remain a part of their lives – I saw entire families gathered around graves, enjoying a little get-together and, no doubt, gossiping about the latest family news, almost as if the deceased was listening. Little ‘Happy Birthday’ and ‘Merry Christmas’ messages bore witness to visits by family at those special times and, in general, the graves were also very well cared for.

I learned that there is a huge gulf between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, between the grand architecturally designed tombs of the wealthy and the stacked tomb blocks of the less well off.

I soon realised that Chileans love their quirky little gizmos as much as the next culture, with fake butterflies, flowers, teddy bears, buzzy bees and ladybirds, and various kinds of plastic wind-catchers featuring amongst the flowers adorning the graves.

I was reminded that florists do well out of death, in every country – the flower sellers’ stalls outside the cemetery gates were bursting with particularly lush and vibrant blooms.

I learned that the dollar comes first – on many ‘street’ corners within the cemetery, a place I would have thought commerce would be banned or at least considered disrespectful, there were people selling drinks and snacks for the living, as well as grave ornaments for the dead.

I also learned that Chileans, though perhaps less effusive than other Latin Americans, can be incredibly friendly and helpful. Two separate old men, both workers tending the graves, approached me, asking if I needed help, wanting to know where I was from when it was obvious I was a foreigner, and then offering information about the cemetery. Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand a lot of what they said, though one pointed me in the direction of the memorial to those lost during the terrible years of oppression, terror and death under General Pinochet’s regime. He explained that he had been 22 when it first started and had seen much bloodshed – he kept mimicking guns shooting and people dropping to the ground, and several times used the word amigos so I assume his friends were among those lost.

Amidst the thousands of deceased that the Cementerio General must contain, that memorial was the saddest spot for me. The reign of terror here in Chile began on 11 September 1973, when tanks rolled in to the streets of Santiago, marking the beginning of a US-funded and supported military coup to overthrow the left-wing socialist government of Salvador Allende – US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger infamously declared that the US should not stand by ‘and let a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its people’! Within a couple of years, Pinochet rose to head a dictatorship notorious for the torture, murder, persecution and oppression of hundreds of thousands of Chilean people, and this dark period in Chile’s history did not truly end until 10 March 1990, when a democratic government was once again elected to power. It was a sobering experience to sit and contemplate the thousands of names of the dead and missing who had suffered during that horrible time.

I needed cheering up and I was hungry – the two frequently go hand in hand for me! - and Chris had mentioned a restaurant immediately opposite the cemetery’s main entrance so I headed across there to check it out. It is called El Quita Penas, which means remove hardships or remove suffering! Apparently, that’s what happens when you drink too much of the local alcohol. It most certainly does not happen when you eat too much of the local food – in fact, the opposite would happen: your suffering (from bloat and/or indigestion) could quickly increase, your cholesterol levels would almost certainly soar to alarming heights and you could quite easily end up in one of the graves across the street. Maybe the restaurant owner has shares in the cemetery!

I ate little, drank nothing but Pepsi, and escaped with my health intact!

02 December 2012

A taste of Argentina

My 5 days / 4 nights in Argentina was primarily a work trip, to check out a project where the locals have been working tirelessly for the last 22 years to rescue (from the pet trade) and rehabilitate the endangered black howler monkey. Although the project is a member of the Great Ape Project and is recognised for its excellent work by the Jane Goodall Institute, it receives no government support, relying instead on volunteers from around the world to help with donations and manpower. My organisation, Globalteer, is looking at partnering with this project, to send them more volunteers and funding, so I went to check it out.

I flew from Santiago to Cordoba, only an hour’s flight but crossing the mighty Andes mountain range. It was spectacular, with mile after mile of huge snow-covered mountains, impressive glaciers and large lakes in different shades of blue. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain speaking. We are about to cross the Andes mountain range so please return to your seats and fasten your seat belts”. In fact, the flight was perfectly smooth until we got to the other side and caught the updrafts from the foothills.

Cordoba is a relatively large city of 1.3million people, most of whom seem to live in high-rise apartment buildings, judging from the city’s skyline. My hotel was about 4 blocks from the older, historic centre of the city, so I headed in that direction to suss it out and get some dinner. There were some lovely old buildings and churches which I resolved to check out further when I returned to the city a couple of days later.

Next morning I caught a bus to La Cumbre, a three-hour bus ride from Cordoba, about 30 minutes to exit the city’s suburbs, then through green and pleasant rolling countryside, past lakes and rivers, through many small towns to the equally small town of La Cumbre. It is a sleepy little hollow, like all these little towns built to service the Argentinean tourists who come to this area to escape the city’s high-rises.

I got settled in my little family-run hosteria, then went out to explore the town. With just two main shopping streets, joined by several side streets, it didn’t take long to suss out the shops and restaurants! I had a delicious lunch of ravioli – not being a big meat eater I didn’t really check out the local delicacies – Argentineans are big meat eaters! I grabbed a couple of maps and some brochures on local attractions from the tourist office – once the local railway station but sadly trains no longer run this way – then headed back to my hosteria to write up my findings so far.

The next day, Wednesday, was my scheduled meeting with the folks at the monkey project, which was an 11-kilometre taxi ride into the hills outside of town. Unfortunately, the director wasn’t there, but the volunteer coordinator was expecting me and spent an hour of his precious time, showing me around their facilities and answering my many questions. Luckily, he spoke English, as, with my limited Spanish, I have been having trouble understanding the Argentinean accent – the locals speak very quickly and truncate their words, which doesn’t help!

I couldn’t get very close to the monkeys, for our mutual protection – theirs from any bugs I might carry and mine from their bites! – but I could certainly hear them. The howler monkey has the loudest call of any monkey and of any land animal – it can be heard up to 3 miles away. A small number are caged, while they go through the rehabilitation process, then they are released, to join one of the several troops that roam freely in the 360-hectare area of fields and forests owned by the project. Many of the free monkeys seemed curious about this new person who had come to visit and came down from their treetops to peer at me so I did manage to get some reasonable photos.

The folks at the project have also recently started to rescue stray dogs from the local towns, bringing them to the centre, having them neutered and vaccinated, and treating any illnesses or injuries they might have. So far, they have managed to find homes for 50 of these dogs, but another 70 are still in the rehabilitation process.

The information I had received from the project before my visit led me to believe they would be able to phone me a taxi when my visit was over but it turned out there is no network access from the area unless you walk up a very steep hill behind the accommodation. I decided to walk back to town. It was a lovely day – a little cloudy so shouldn’t be too hot, I could take photos and get some fresh air and exercise, and it was only 11 kilometres and mostly downhill. In fact, it got hot very quickly and by the time I got back to town I had acquired a couple of blisters, but I also had some landscape, bird and horse photos I wouldn’t otherwise have had. Definitely worth it, though I do confess to a little nana nap later that afternoon!

The following morning I caught the bus back to Cordoba and spent the afternoon wandering the streets a little further, though I also had work to do, writing up my report and other documentation on the monkey project, and processing the many photos I had taken. And the next day was my flight back to Santiago. I spent that morning working too, so didn’t get a chance to explore any more of Cordoba.

What I had seen of Argentina had been pleasant. It struck me as a very Westernised country, though the toilet paper still went in a bucket, not down the bowl. Its people were friendly, though difficult to understand. It seemed relatively affluent, though many of its buildings were quite run down and shabby, and there were people living on the streets. One day I will return and discover more of this huge South American country.

Santiago: street art, Pablo Neruda and culture shock

Inca ruins at Tipon from the plane out of Cusco

After about 10 hours’ travelling – mostly sitting around in airports – I arrived here in Santiago, Chile close to midnight on Saturday 24 November, to be greeted by the smiling face of Father Chris, a Catholic priest I met earlier this year when he came to Cusco with The Giving Lens team of photographers. Chris had very kindly offered me a place to stay if I was ever down this way and I am delighted to be able to take him up on his offer.

Chris is American but has lived here in Santiago for almost two years, working in one of the poorer inner-city parishes. I am staying at the house he shares with three other priests of his order, two of his fellow Americans and a Peruvian. Although I’m sure it must be a little strange for them to share their space with a woman – and a non-religious woman at that! – they have been very hospitable, and this morning I had a lovely long chat to Father Rob, who has lived in Santiago 40 years, about the work he does here.

When Chris returned from his Sunday morning responsibilities at the parish church, he brought with him a couple of friends, a father and son from Arizona who are here giving 8-year-old Thomas the chance to learn Spanish by fully immersing him in the local culture for a couple of months. We all headed out sightseeing together, first for some Chorrillanas: a local dish which is really just a combination of chips, some fried sausage, pork and onions, topped with a couple of fried eggs. The portions are big so we adults shared that, while Thomas had a couple of pieces of pizza. After a day of mostly airline food the previous day – and I must say LAN’s food is probably the poorest of any airline I’ve flown with – it was delicious!

From there we wandered the streets a little, which for me was my first time soaking up a little of the feel of Santiago. It is a huge city of 7 million people, and so much more sophisticated and modern than Cusco, so I was definitely feeling a little wide-eyed and culture-shocked as I glanced around at the skyscrapers, the motorways, the modern cars, the café culture and outdoor restaurants, the glitzy shops and the underground metro system.

One of the things I most enjoyed was the street art adorning the walls of buildings on almost every street. The paintings are huge, vibrant and creative, and I loved the character they gave to some otherwise bland buildings. There is graffiti too, of course, which is ugly, but the street art was very impressive.

Outside Neruda's house
We were in the Bohemian suburb of Bellavista where next we visited La Chascona, one of Pablo Neruda’s three houses. I confess to being almost totally ignorant about Chile and knew nothing of this Nobel-Prize-winning poet and local hero so Chris gave me a quick history lesson before the tour guide filled us in on some extra facts, figures and interesting snippets as we toured this quirky abode Neruda shared with partner/wife number three, Matilde.

Neruda loved the sea so the house, which he designed, is in many ways modelled on a ship’s interior, with portholes, a ship’s figurine from England, a bar, lanterns, and various bits and pieces sourced from ships. Nevada was also an eclectic collector, so there are collections of glassware from Portugal, of blue and white dinnerware from England, of gifts given to him during his time working in the Chilean Foreign Service from such diverse countries as India, Vietnam and China, as well as some magnificent artworks gifted to him by his fellow creatives.

After that we drove up nearby Cerro San Cristόbal for some stunning views of the city. Until recently you could ascend the mountain using a much more direct method, by funicular, but that is not currently operating, for reasons no one seems to know. The top of the mountain is graced by a 14-metre (46-foot) white statue of the Virgin Mary, dating from 1908, as well as a small but beautiful church, and the whole of the area was full of locals enjoying the lovely Sunday weather.

It was hot so Chris suggested we try a local specialty, a drink called mote con huesillo, which is a refreshing, nourishing and filling combination of wheat, dried peaches and tea, almost a meal in itself.

Our day out was a fascinating glimpse of this interesting city and I was looking forward to exploring further when I returned to Santiago for a week after my side trip to Argentina, which started the next day.

23 November 2012

Adios Peru

So, after 555 days it’s time to leave Cusco and Peru.

This has been the first stop on my ten-year global odyssey, working as project manager, South America for UK charity Globalteer. My job was to oversee all Globalteer projects in South America, which meant managing Picaflor House, Globalteer's project for underprivileged children in the small town of Oropesa, not far from Cusco, and coordinating the independent projects partnered with Globalteer in Peru and in Colombia. My responsibilities included such diverse duties as fundraising and social media marketing, staff and volunteer management, accounts and general administration, as well as teaching classes in English and Art.

It has been an extremely rewarding job and I am very proud of the progress made at Picaflor House under my management. I can’t take all the credit, of course, as I've had the support of a small but dedicated staff and Picaflor House has played host to some magnificent volunteers, all of whom contributed hugely to the success and growth of the project.

A few months ago, when I was writing Picaflor’s annual report, we interviewed some of our children to get their impressions. Their feedback was heartwarming. They spoke of the beauty and colour of our flower gardens; of how much easier their schoolwork was because of the extra support and tuition provided by our Picaflor House staff; of their love for our classes in arts and crafts – they are very creative; of the usefulness of learning English from native speakers; and of the fun they had on the days when we played games and sports, allowing our kids just to be kids.

Peru is an incredibly vibrant country to live in. It is a country rich in traditional festivals and colourful events, treating the visitor to a visual symphony of colour, energetic traditional dancing in the streets, delicious morsels of native cuisine and humbling displays of religious fervour. From the frequent booming of fireworks and barking of dogs, the almost deafening cacophony of seemingly constant music, the lung-busting challenges of life at high altitude, the impressive Inca ruins that dot the beautiful mountainsides of the Andes, to the incredible biodiversity of the Amazon jungle, and the tempting array of traditional arts and crafts for sale, Peru has it all.

I have taken full advantage of my 18 months to see and experience as much of the country and the culture as I could. I sweated in the jungle of the Manu Biosphere. I hauled my aching leg muscles up the thousands of steps at Machu Picchu. I marvelled at the soaring flight of the huge condors at Colca Canyon and I met the original Paddington Bear in the sanctuary of the Chappari Nature Reserve. I sailed the sparkling blue waters of Lake Titicaca and bounced as I walked on the floating man-made reed islands of Uros. I visited more churches and cathedrals than I ever had in my life before, and was enthralled by their magnificence and their architecture. I was fascinated by mummies and lines at Nazca, and captivated by ancient pyramids and glorious grave goods in the north of Peru.

I also explored a little of the rest of South America. The frequent need for new visas led to three trips to Bolivia, a couple of long weekends in the sleepy lakeside resort town of Copacabana and a ten-day tour that included the mesmerising salt flats at Uyuni and the superlative scenery of the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa further south, the picturesque capital of Sucre and bustling metropolis of La Paz. And I survived the heart-stopping road trip down Bolivia’s notorious Death Road.

I loved the wonderful week I spent in Medellin, Colombia, visiting Globalteer’s partner projects and exploring that vibrant city. As well as my meetings with enchanting Colombian children and hard-working project staff, the highlights were my visit to the lush tropical paradise of the botanical gardens and the art, in particular the voluminous bronze figures of Colombia’s famous artist, Ferdinand Botero.

It has been an incredible 18 months. When I came to Peru, I really had little idea what to expect but my new life has exceeded all my expectations. I have met some wonderful people, I have seen amazing landscapes and architecture, animals and birds. Each and every day has brought some new sight, smell, taste or unique experience, and I have felt more alive than I have in many years. Thank you, Peru. I hope we meet again one day.
With my co-workers Luis, Johan and Sarah at Picaflor House

With our Picaflor kids, on my birthday