Saturday, 15 November 2014

Sundays Bloody Sundays

I have seen muggings before, both at home and in South America, but the first time that I saw an armed mugging was one of the most frightening.

The Pelourinho on a Sunday morning
Salvador's streets on Sundays are certainly solitary. The air on this particular day was thick and muggy which is typical of north-east Brazil during the mid-year rainy season. The beach seemed like a good option for us, because of the hot weather. There were people around the Pelourinho - the old city and main tourist district - but none of the usual brigade of extravagant locals. It was, mostly, just us gringos.

 The bus stop had a few other tourists there waiting already. A big family of Japanese tourists had all their bags and their cameras out. A man came seemingly out of nowhere and ripped the hand bag off one of the tourists. When he was approached by one of the men he pulled out a knife. Well, it was more of a prison shank than anything else. A sharpened piece of triangular plastic, maybe even a broken piece of glass or a shard of metal. A beer vendor threw a can of beer at the junkie's head which narrowly missed while the thief waved his knife around and thrust it into mid-air so that no one would approach him. He looked fairly competent with the knife, though the scars on his bare torso indicated that he had lost a few knife fights in his time. His look was fierce. Wide-eyes, glowing white it was stunningly terrifying. The junkie sprinted down the street in broad daylight, to the slum areas of Salvador surrounding the Pelourinho.

The beach: we finally made it
It seemed that even the police went to church on Sunday as none of the dozens of heavily armed officers from the previous few days could be seen anywhere. It was shocking that there were none around, given that we were in the main tourist district of Brazil's third largest city during the World Cup.

Ironically, the godly hours of Sunday morning created the perfect conditions for sin and crime outside of the church.

"Gringo, gringo! Onje vai?", yells a cabbie. "Come with me, 20 Reias."

We got straight in the taxi. We didn't even bother bartering.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The Struggle for the Amazon

Hunters and nature conservationists always have conflicting perspectives. However, in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon conservationists are trying to change more than perspective: they are attempting to alter the local peoples' innate behaviour and teach them that their traditional ways of living are extremely unsustainable in the modern climate. Tensions between the two groups run consistently high.

"The local people hate me," says Murillo Reis, owner of Tapiche Reserve, one of the largest animal sanctuaries in the Peruvian Amazon. "I know that they do."

Tapiche Reserve

"They think that I'm always telling them what to do, how to behave," the forty-two-year-old said. "They don't like to change their old ways".

Murillo, known commonly by his indigenous name 'Katoo', understands the attitudes of the local people but needs them to change in order to protect his sanctuary from hunters.

"They have every reason to hate me," he said. "I want to hate them too, but I can't."

"These people don't understand that what they are doing is wrong," he said. "They are a simple people who are satisfied with living an easy life... just getting by."

"They don't want to work hard. They don't share your European ambitions."

Katoo, front right, guiding us to his Amazon reserve

Katoo, who grew up in the jungle of Brazil, came to Peru four years ago to start his own sanctuary. Ever since, he has been trying to change the attitudes of the local people.

"I have done many things to try to teach the local people that what they are doing is unsustainable for the environment," he said. "Many initiatives with the community and many educational initiatives."

Three years ago Katoo published brochures and delivered them to the the local town, Raquena. The idea was to educate hunters and gatherers about the impact of taking fertilised turtle eggs.

"A turtle lays about 35 eggs and only about 12 of them are fertilised," he said. "In the brochure it said how to recognise the fertilised eggs."

"I said that if they bring me these eggs then I would buy them for triple the price they would receive for selling them in the market in Raquena," he said.

"They didn't do it. They don't want to be associated with me. I have a bad reputation in Raquena because I am trying to change the way they do things," he said.

The mighty Amazon
When educational initiatives failed, Tapiche Reserve's owner tried to work with the local people. He would allow them to come on to his property to pick Aguahin which they can sell in the markets. In exchange, they would have to plant one seed along the river in order to reforest a once thriving area of Aguahin trees. This would mean more food for monkeys and birds who eat the fruit.

"Of course they didn't do it," Katoo said. "It is an attitudinal problem with these people. They do not think about the future, only [the] now."

This issue is reflected in the mindsets of the reserve's employees, according to its owner.

"I only employ local people. They know the jungle better than anyone and I want to help the community by providing them with jobs," Katoo said. "There are 18 families who come to work for me at various times."

"These people do not understand hard work though," he said. "I pay them a huge wage by Peruvian standards and they do the bare minimum."

"It has always been like this. They have no integrity, no commitment. They are happy with just getting by."

The frustration for Katoo stems from his view that many Peruvian workers are short sighted in their goals.

"They can only work for me for a month because they can not commit to longer," he said. "They need to get back to their simple lives of weaving for an hour, taking a break, having a bath, cuddling the baby."

"They say to me 'Katoo we are coming to help you at the reserve next month'. They don't see it as a job, they think they are helping me," he said.

The Brazillian national blames this short sightedness on a history of indigenous oppression in Peru.

"The local people are used to having things taken away from them," he said. "First it was the Incan oppression and then the Spanish."

"For this reason they take everything as soon as they can."

Monday, 10 November 2014

A Winter's Sunrise over the Salar de Uyuni

A small portion of the sky is glowing velvet and orange. The stars have faded, but the majority of the sky is still black. My eyes are heavy and my feet are numb.
'Stay awake', I say to myself. There's no way I'm missing the sunrise over the Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flats.
At this stage, however, my drowsiness might not be the only reason for missing the sunrise. We've pulled over to fix the tyre of another Jeep.
My palms are sweating and my legs are still jittering. I didnt get up at 430 to watch a Bolivian change a tyre.
Paul, a fellow jeep traveler is bouncing in his seat and tapping his shoe. Melanie, Paul's Puerto Rican girlfriend, cracks her knuckles. The Guide gets back in the Jeep.
"Okay, we will be at the salt flats in 20 minutes"
I clench my teeth and hold my breath. Glancing over to my girlfriend her gaze is fixed directly out the window. She is squeezing her hands together, as though cracking a peanut. It had already been pre-dawn for at least 15 minutes.
The driver explains the coral formations around the Salar to us. I absorb none of it, staring blankly at the ripening orange sky.
We reach the outskirts of the flats and the driver pushes the car to 120km per hour. There are no more obstacles or bumpy roads on this desolate plain of salt. We reach the other jeeps in our group.
"What happened?", yells Oscar, the head Guide
"We got lost", our Guide lies.
We step out of the car, teeth chattering and knees buckling. No less than 30 seconds later the sun appears between distant mountains, rising like the sprouting of a spring flower in fast motion.
The warmth hits us between the eyes. A sweet sense of satisfaction swoops over us. The hexagonal borders of the snowy salt flats glow in the morning sun, as though being artificially lit from below. The sky beams purple, orange and yellow. The angle of the morning sun makes our shadows project across the flats for at least 100m behind us. After 3 long days and 2 freezing nights, our shadows had now literally and figuratively completely covered this part of the world.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Machu Picchu off the Beaten Path

Finding tours that are 'off the beaten track' from June to August in Cusco and Machu Picchu is not easy. The Salkantay and Inca Jungle treks are run by every travel agency in town, with varying prices offering very little difference in quality. For the unorganised and spontaneous traveler, the Inca Trail is not an option in peak season as it is usually booked out since January. The Inca quarry trek is offered by few agencies in Cusco and is an outstanding alternative for those looking for 'off the beaten track' in a part of the world where such a thing is hard to come by. 

"You might see two, maybe, three other tour groups in the first three days," said Alfredo our guide, as we cram into the tiny back room of the tour agency for briefing. 

The crowds of Machu Piccu - a stark contrast to the uncrowded hike to get there

This promise, along with Alfredo's descriptions of stunning Andean landscapes and a trek which visited less explored Inca sites in an intimate group, had us sold. Given how many tourists we had already encountered in Cusco, we were skeptical of Alfredo's claims. Yet we were willing to give it a shot. 

At 5am we were dropped off in the base of the Sacred Valley. For the next day and a half we marched directly uphill, walking along a mixture of dirt paths and paved Inca trails. Our route followed a stream which brought us to a serene, skinny waterfall bursting through a 10 meter wide cliff face crack. It was as though the rock wall had a small leak and the pressurized water gradually forced the hole to grow bigger. As we moved higher, the green and yellow landscape made itself clearer as the sacred peak of Salkantay towered over the rest of the mountains. The glacier capped peak appeared like a father over the Andes, peering proudly and protectively over his kin. 

A secret leak in the cliff

"The Salkantay  mountain is one of the most worshipped and fearful mountains in this area," said Alfredo. "In Quechua it means 'savage mountain'."

The peak was ideally viewed from our first Inca ruins: a small village at Perolniyoc. At the site there was only us, the archeologists and disappointingly one other group. 

"That's the first one," said Alfredo, still confident that we wouldn't see many more groups. 

The Sacred Peak of La Veronica

I used my broken Spanish to communicate with one of the archeologists. 

"We live here for three months at a time," he said. "All we do is eat, sleep, dig."

By the second day we reached the peak of our climb at 4,300 meters where we were swarmed by cloud. As we traversed across the mountain these clouds were sucked into deep valleys and tumbled across the sky, putting us in and out of mist all day. In periods of rain Alfredo felt the need to remind us of his pre-hike warning. 

"Four seasons in one day," he repeated. Perhaps not enough advice about clothing was given to us before the trek: we all froze and got soaked. 

We trudged for hours, eventually coming to a steep bluff which towered over the ancient Inca town of Ollantaytambo. 

Ollantaytambo from above

"Slide, don't step," said Alfredo when slipping down the bluff's pebbly downward path, which was better treated as loose snow and ice than stable rocks. The route was so steep that the track had to traverse across the mountain, weaving left and right, perilously close to several vertical drops. Most of the distance we had covered in the two days prior we were now sliding down in two hours. 

At the base of the bluff our aching knees were rewarded by one kilometer of flat terrain, leading to an Incan sun gate. This holy site, on a clear day, directly faces the snowy peak of La Veronica, worshiped by the Inca. Engulfed by cloud at the time of visiting we missed this view but instead were among the heavens to see such an important religious site. Here, we were the only people. On our path down the hill we saw another group of six. 

The Inca Sun gate in a heavenly cloud

"That's two groups," said Alfredo confidently. 

We camped that night next to a third group. The next day we wandered past four Germans who were climbing from Ollantaytambo to see the Inca quarry, the final Inca site of the trek. Four groups of people in three days was more than promised, but not disappointing. 

The quarry was largely a pile of rocks with many perfectly carved to be used in buildings in Ollantaytambo. In the quarry we encountered a number of Inca tombs in which skeletons of the quarry workers were well preserved. 

The remains of Inca Quarry workers

"Don't go too far into the tomb," Alfredo warned. "We should respect the Inca dead as they would respect our dead."

The rest of the tour was not unlike other alternatives treks to Machu Picchu. We caught the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes where we spent the night and woke up at 5am to get on the first buses to Machu Picchu. Even at sunrise there were hundreds more people than we had seen in the previous three days. Machu Picchu, in comparison, became so crowded by 10am that it was almost claustrophobic. We couldn't move at the viewpoint. We had finally come back into contact with the tourist population of this part of the world. 

A little information about this blog

Although many of the events in this blog took place several months ago I have suddenly felt a strong desire to share my writings, observations and tips about travelling in South America with anyone who cares to read it.

Having recently been awarded my bachelor in Media and Communications (Journalism) I took a year off to explore the world. I traveled in South America for five months and learned a lot about a part of the world which I had never even vaguely experienced. This blog will be a collection of descriptive (narrative style) writings, some more journalistic articles as well as some general information which might be useful for travelers. I hope some of you (anyone would be nice) read, share and enjoy my writing and can potentially live the trip through the stories from the comfort of your phone, tablet or computer. For me, the act of writing this blog is a method of re-experiencing my trip before it is all long forgotten.

Thanks for reading!