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Comprising Spagus (derived from Asparagus), or Cam. Previously rural banker and farmer that has decided to ditch his tie and gumboots in exchange for a backpack and shaved head. Partnered with Shroom (derived from Mushroom), or Cat. Formally a country/city/country girl that has left behind the world of policy consulting and has ditched her high heels for some comfortable (yet stylish) footwear to support a wee bit of globetrotting through 2010 and 2011. We hope you enjoy following the travels of SpaguShroom through Europe, North America and South America!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Pisco, PERU - Week 1 (December 19th – December 26th)

First impression of Pisco through the taxi window was a mild reality shock. We had been told a little about what to expect of Pisco; very poor, fairly dangerous, and an underdeveloped city. Driving through the bumpy dirt streets strewn with litter and amongst the half constructed and crumbled buildings that looked like the earthquake was last week, we had arrived in one of the poorest places we had seen in South America yet.
Arriving at the PSF house we were warmly welcomed by a bunch of hung-over residents. Sunday is the only day off work so we spent most of the day settling in and meeting new people. We chose our bunk room know as the ‘penthouse’, a bamboo and tarpaulin construction on top of the roof of the main house. An adequate place to rest your head after a hard days’ work.
Work at PSF is done Monday to Friday and a half day on Saturday. Every morning we have a team meeting where we get the chance to find out about new projects and choose the project we wish to be a part of for that day. The PSF headquarters where we are staying includes one big house, a work yard, tool shed, kitchen and admin office. This is where all the meetings are held and where we all eat. Alternative accommodation is located around the corner as well as at a nearby hostel if need be. There are currently around 50 volunteers but two months prior they had reached over 100. An organised chaos we can only imagine. It all seems to work very smoothly with everyone taking responsibility for themselves. Breakfast and dinner are cooked by the volunteers as are the daily duties including cleaning and other tasks. Lunch is usually at a restaurant nearby to the work site or is cooked by the locals involved in the particular project being worked on. We were fortunate to sample some local cooking one day during the week where a neighbour prepared a delightful lunch of ceviche followed with two whole fried fish served on rice.

As we had arrived a week before Christmas it was a time when a lot of projects were winding down for PSF. Therefore our first week of work which was only 4 days, included a big range of activities and we helped out where required. We poured a concrete floor, constructed chairs and bunk-beds, played with children at a day care centre, erected a prefab medical centre and built a wall for Juan, an elderly man.

Juan lives an incredibly basic life in the invasion community known as El Molino. This community of shelter housing has only existed since the earthquake. People fled from their homes basically becoming refugees and built what they could on this vacant piece of land. Only now is the government acknowledging their presence and is considering assigning titles to the families so that more permanent homes can be built here. El Molino has no sewerage system and offers little job opportunities for those living there. PSF does a lot of work in El Molino but has been restricted lately with the uncertainty of land titles and therefore having to relocate buildings, a waste of everyone’s time and money.

This mixture of work has been enjoyable but we are looking forward to perhaps sinking our teeth into a longer term project. Something we can follow through the different project phases and hopefully learn more skills. This opportunity may come in the new year once the wave of new people have arrived and more projects begin. However I must say that in one short week of work I personally have learnt to swing a hammer, mix concrete, operate a skill saw, use a drill, and purchase breakfast ingredients for 50 people in Spanish.
Our first impressions of PSF as an organisation are extremely positive, everyone involved is passionate and extremely hard working. The positive impact of PSF in the Pisco community over time is clearly evident; from newly erected schools, homes, a medical centre, murals and even the smile and wave from people as we drive through town in the truck. We are proud and excited to be a part of this organisation for a few weeks.
Christmas was always going to be a big deal here at PSF. With 50 or so international travellers missing the comforts of a home Christmas - PSF went huge and had a pig on a spit. With Christmas Eve off work some of us headed to the markets to buy ingredients for the following days’ feast. With an extremely hot day and hundreds of people looking to purchase their last minute food and gifts – it was one crazy experience. Live turkey anyone?

The remainder of the day was spent helping to prepare the food and finished with mulled wine, mince pies and carols in the evening. Christmas Eve itself is the big deal over here. Families gather to open presents and have dinner around midnight. Also fireworks (which are incredibly unregulated here) are let off at midnight to celebrate. We were treated to a half hour display of fireworks all over Pisco viewed from the roof top of our building.
Waking early Christmas morning I made the trifles. Unfortunately Cam did not make it out of bed due to the dreaded ‘Pisco Belly’ and shortly after lunch I was in bed with the same. We managed to get up and have some dinner that night. The pork was a success and served with turkey and all the trimmings we were certainly very spoilt. However we missed desert and were back in bed by 9pm, ah the delight of living in Pisco!

For Boxing day there was a planned group trip to a near-by beach, but unfortunately the prospect of a night with no toilets was not something Cam and I could face. Again, the day was spent in bed reading, not ideal at all.
Raiding our first aid kits, we can only hope the rehydration salts and antibiotics work their magic to allow for New Year celebrations this coming week.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Feliz Navidad from Pisco

Leaving Copa on Friday morning we set off for Puno, a town on the Bolivarian side of Lake Titicaca. The border crossing was a rather inefficient process with a number of different forms and stamps required. However the official proclaimed he ‘loved all Kiwis’ to everyone waiting in line which made our day.
Our 3 hour journey to Puno offered more agricultural scenery. These people obviously were more wealthy than their Bolivian counterparts and were using oxen to plough their crops and donkeys to cart their equipment. Still painstakingly hard work but the increased efficiency was obvious.
In Puno we had a quick bus change and continued on our way to Arequipa. This bus ride was again overcrowded and longer than it should have been, something we are now having to get used to as we travel through these parts of South America. We arrived 7 hours later into Arequipa for one night.
We had an early night and rose the next day to wander the shops and buy a few essentials for ourselves. This was the first time it has really felt like Christmas for us; the streets were heaving with people bustling to finish their shopping. We visited a large indoor market that sold literally everything and enjoyed a lunch at a funky cafe. Arequipa is a very pretty city we hope to return after our time in Pisco.
On Saturday we took an overnight bus to Pisco, paying the extra dinero we chose a reputable company and were rewarded with a very comfortable bus and great service. Sunday morning we arrived safely to the Pisco Sin Fronteras (PSF) volunteer house where we would be based for the next wee while.
PSF is an NGO which was established after the 2007 earthquake that devastated much of the city. The organisation is helping to improve living standards by rebuilding homes and assisting in all aspects of community development. We heard about it through our friend Ivan in Santiago who has previously volunteered with PSF. At this stage we intend to stay at PSF for three weeks over Christmas/ New Year.
The link to the website which contains more information about the organisation is:
Thank you to everyone who continues to read our blog and for the messages of support. We love to hear your feedback. Initially the blog was for our own record and for our parents to check up on us, but it seems to have reached a far wider network of friends and family. It is nice to know others are interested and that we may have even inspired some to travel. We hope you all have a safe and happy festive season.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Copacabana, BOLIVIA (December 15 - December 17)

Our return to La Paz for the night ensured much needed hot showers, good food (we had found a very homely cafe close to our hostel) and a decent sleep. The next day we all jumped on a local bus to Copacabana (Copa). Our first local bus experience was interesting; as many people as possible were crammed onto the less than adequate bus along with rucksacks and children, crackly local music blasted from the speakers, there was no air flow and fumes from the exhaust polluted the entire space. The three hour journey was slightly painful but redeemed itself by the awesome views we had along the way.

The city limit of La Paz seemed to extend for miles. It appears that homes here are built literally brick by brick when one can afford to do so. Almost 95 % of the homes in this area were incomplete and many without windows but appeared to be lived in. Hard to imagine in this harsh cold climate. As the city peeled away we came to the barren farming area where the work is done by hand, there was no machinery let alone animals for work. Women and very young children were working the fields by hoe, while animals were tied together by rope and watched over by their owners. It made us reflect on what we have at home and how we are worlds apart in terms of resources and technology.

Our journey took us around the shores of Lake Titicaca to Copacabana where we would be staying. Lake Titicaca, located on the boarder of Bolivia and Peru and sitting at 3811 m is the highest (navigable) lake in the world, and the largest in South America. Copa is a cute village with a relaxed ‘seaside’ feel.
The sun was shining, the air was clean and we could walk down the street without the risk of being run over. We all breathed a sigh of relief as we sat down to our alfresco lunch, Copa could not be more of a contrast with La Paz. We had a relaxing afternoon catching up on sleep and admin.

The next day we took a boat to Isla de Sol, or Island of the Sun, located in the middle of the Lake. The boat ride was similar to that of the previous days’ bus ride. Overcrowded, no life jackets, no ventilation with fumes pouring through the inside and with one motor working the 2 hour trip took 3. Nevertheless we made it safely to the northern end of the island where we began a 12km hike to the southern end of the island. Approximately 800 families live on the island and are reliant on farming, fishing and tourism to generate income. The island has many ruins dating to the Inca period (circa 15th C) but as we were under time pressure we did not have a chance to inspect these. We did however enjoy the breathtaking (literally- dam altitude) views across the island and lake. As we approached the southern end we saw the terraced farmland; the steep terrain has somehow been converted to productive agriculture, quite amazing.

The boat journey back was far more pleasant as we fought the locals for a spot on the deck and therefore avoided the crowding and fumes. That evening we had the best meal we have had in South America yet. We stumbled across the restaurant looking for easy simple foods as our tummies were still dodgy. A meal of local stuffed trout washed down with Bolivian chardonnay was just superb as we all reflected on our enjoyable day.
The following day our crew of travellers was split back to couples as we went our own ways. Spending two and a half weeks together is a long time in the world of travellers. We had become very close and will really miss them all as we continue on journey. Thanks guys, you really made Bolivia special for us, we hope that our paths will cross again sometime back in the mother land.
Next stop Pisco, a small town on the southern coast of Peru.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Rurrenabaque, BOLIVIA (December 12 - December 14)

Rising bright and early on Sunday morning eight of us (we had recruited two English) jumped in the taxi and headed to the airport for our flight to Rurrenabaque (Rurre). Most tourists take the 40 minute flight as the alternative is an overloaded local bus that can take at least 25 hours. We had booked a pampas tour of the Amazon for two nights and three days which began from Rurre. After some confusion with the tickets which meant that two of the group had to join us on a later flight we all arrived safely to Rurre. At an altitude of just 105m, the change in temperature was outstanding - we had certainly arrived in the tropics.
We set off from the airport for a three hour journey to Santa Rosa. Loaded tightly into a jeep the long drive on an unsealed road was yet another hair-raising driving event, but interesting all same to see the agriculture in this part of the world.
We arrived at the Yacuma River where we met our guide Marcel and boarded our motorised long boat for a 3 hour journey to our lodgings. The Yacuma River is in the pampas of the Amazon Basin. The pampas area is a swampy wetland which is host to a large amount of wildlife.

The late afternoon temperature was perfect as we gently glided along the river carefully listening and watching for the wildlife. We saw a huge variety including caiman crocodiles, pink dolphins, capybaras (the world’s largest rodent), monkeys, turtles and a huge range of bird life including the vulcher, hawk, woodpecker and much more. Marcel was extremely passionate and knowledgeable about the wildlife which made the experience very interesting.

Pulling into our lodgings for the night we had dinner and went to bed fairly early as with minimal electricity there was not much to do but retire to our mosquito-net covered beds and wall-less rooms.
The next morning we woke early to watch the sun rise. We cruised to a near-by spot and jumped off onto the river bank for a good view point, but unfortunately the clouds came in thick and fast as rain was on its’ way. It was however, lovely to listen to all the wildlife waking up for the day, a very tranquil experience.

After breakfast it was time to put on our long pants and gumboots for our anaconda hunt. Wading for a few hours through the pampas we arrived at a lagoon with literally hundreds of caiman eyes poking above the water surface. It was feeding time and with a loud crunching sound breaking the silence we watched a caiman feast on an unlucky fish.

But our real mission was to find the anaconda, wading through the pampas Marcel soon stumbled across a 5m specimen that was shedding its skin. We all had a close up inspection of this mid-size snake, apparently they can reach up to 70cm in diameter and 10m long.

Pleased with our successful mission we began our journey home. The temperature had dropped suddenly and the clouds burst overhead. We were soaked and freezing by the time we returned to the lodgings to change into the remainder of light clothing we had brought. That afternoon we huddled for body warmth and had a 4 hour siesta as the cold wind and rain battered down.
As accurately predicted by Marcel at 4.30pm the rain stopped, so we jumped back in the boats and headed up stream for a swim with the dolphins. As the air temperature was still cold the water felt very tepid. We all jumped in for a small paddle around but were not so keen to linger with the knowledge that we were sharing the water with piranha, caiman, electric eel and sting ray just to name a few. We did see the pink dolphins nearby, but not close enough to classify as ‘swimming with’. We ended our evening with a slow cruise home watching the reflection of the caiman eyes against torch light above the water. Every couple of metres we saw the glinting red eyes watching us - there were so many of these beasts it was incredible!

It was a chilly nights sleep but we woke the next day to clearer skies and warmer temperatures. We set off after breakfast for a spot of piranha fishing. We all had nibbles but Marcel was the only successful fisherman. It was great to check out the teeth on these ferocious little creatures from the safety of the boat.

We returned for a delicious brunch which included meat cooked on a ground BBQ and various other dishes. We then packed up our muddy gears and headed back to Rurre. Several hours later we made it safely to the airport to board our plane back to La Paz for one night.
We all loved our experience and would recommend it to everyone as a great introduction to the Amazon, but perhaps the real deal would be through Brazil on the Amazon River. It was also obvious that the pampas area we explored was at great risk. There is supposedly a 50 m margin of protection either side of the river but we saw vegetation that had been burnt off to the water’s edge for farming. Very sad, but a reality in these areas.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

La Paz, BOLIVIA (December 6 – December 12)

Approximately 90% of the road from Uyuni to La Paz is unpaved making for one heck of a bumpy ride. After some time, however, we did adjust to the jolting and jarring and all of us caught a decent night’s sleep - assisted by the valium.
La Paz has an altitude of 3,660m which makes temperatures very chilly. The city is situated within a large basin where brick buildings literally cling to every possible surface. The centre is dominated by skinny one way streets and markets on every curb-side making for an interesting experience to simply manoeuvre from one place to the next. Old trucks and vans overflowing with both goods and people clatter down the streets - tooting at every moment possible to indicate their presence meanwhile spurting giant clouds of exhaust fumes. La Paz is intense. But after some adjustment it is difficult not to become very fond of this quirky place.

We arrived into a chaotic La Paz early Monday morning to meet Duncan, our friend from NZ also travelling around South America. Once checked in we were able to freshen up and scope out the well known Witches Market for alpaca tops and socks, leather goods and jewellery. The goods are all reasonably priced but the quality is questionable so we managed to show some constraint with our purchases. Our crew of 6 Kiwis had reunited and were we staying together in the infamous Loki Hostal.

That evening we were able to have a few drinks with Duncan and catch up on the past few months of travels. Good times. The hang-over the next day, however, was horrific. All of us battled through the day but soon realised that it was the altitude as well as the effects of a few drinks. The following day also was spent close to the bed/toilet as we all had very upset tummys. Apparently this happens often and is a part of the adjustment to travel in Bolivia.
Wednesday we got ourselves together and hit Death Road. Nothing like a spot of adrenalin and a rush of fresh air to get the health back on track. We drove one hour from La Paz to begin the ride at La Caumbre. La Cambre is located at 4600m so it is not unusual for riders to face snow and icey conditions. We had picked a good day - although chilly the skies were clear.

After our detailed safety brief we headed off - downhill. Riding (not cycling - as no was peddling required) for a speedy 30 minutes on asphalt, we soon reached the official beginning of Death Road. With tight corners, loose gravel and 600 m drops our group of 14 was ready to take on the challenge.

Death Road is officially the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road’. It earnt its’ name due to an average of 26 vehicles per year plunging over the precipice. However, over the past few years a new and safer road has been built for vehicles travelling to and from La Paz. Today Death Road is only used for cyclists, support vehicles and the odd tourist bus. There is still an average of 2 deaths per year so the name still remains.

It was very fun and a little scary in places but perhaps not as frightening given its’ name. We had a couple of nasty crashes in our group caused generally by people riding above their abilities. A highlight of the ride was seeing the change in ecosystems during our decent from 4700m to 1200m. When we reached the bottom it was around 35 degrees and 100% humidity, just incredible. We relaxed poolside for a couple hours before returning to chilly La Paz that evening. A great day and we all made it in one piece which was even better!

The remainder of our time in La Paz was spent checking out the various markets in the city. It appears that supermarkets do not exist here but instead vendors on delegated streets sell different products. We passed through streets selling meat, cleaning products, shoes, vegetables, herbs and basically any item that you would buy in a large supermarket or department store. A chance for everyone to specialise and try to make a living.

We also visited the Coca museum which was very interesting, although from one perspective. It told of the importance of the coca leaf in traditional society, its’ use in pharmaceuticals and Coca-Cola, as well as the controversial cocaine industry and its’ importance to the Bolivian economy.
La Paz really felt like the real deal. It was not a show for tourists, but just the local people going about their lives. The women appear to work incredibly hard, lugging large loads on their backs up steep streets all while wearing the traditional costume.

We loved our time here despite that at any one time our group of six had at least two suffering from stomach bugs. We felt confined to eating from the hostel bar to minimise the risk of food poisoning. After almost a week this became very draining and we were all well ready to escape this chaotic city.
Early Sunday morning we head to the airport to catch our flight to the Amazon!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Bolivian Salt Flats (December 3 – December 5)

We had selected our tour company, Cordillera, through a recommendation from our Scottish friends Adam and Jen. Feeling comfortable with our decision we handed over our money and prepared ourselves for our four-wheel drive adventure; three days and two nights across desert and salt flats from San Pedro in Chile to Uyuni in Bolivia.
Day one began with a very relaxed border crossing into Bolivia - a quick stamp and we were ready to rock.

Eleven of us were divided into two jeeps. Our packs were wrapped in tarpaulin and strapped precariously to the top of the ‘Toyosa’ Land Cruiser along with the petrol tanks. The six in our jeep included Jen and Polly, two Canadian girls, and Cam and I. A crew dominated by Kiwis and females.

As the day progressed it soon became apparent that we would be seeing some extremely out of it and breath taking scenery. Our route took us through increasingly high terrain passing aqua blue lakes, multi coloured mountain ranges, and hundreds of flamingos. We took a walk around the shores of Laguna Colorado, a red lake rich in algae and plankton which thrive on the magnesium and borax abundant waters.

We also enjoyed a quick dip in the natural hot spring before heading to our accommodation for the evening. With night time temperatures of around -20 C we had been warned of the extremely cold night that we would face in the drafty refuge. Preparing for the worse we donned most of the clothes we owned and jumped into bed for a very early night.

Sleeping at nearly 5000 m above sea level took its toll on all of us. Despite that we were all taking Acetazolamide to help relieve the symptoms of altitude sickness, the majority of us had a sleepless night. We could all feel our hearts working that much harder to circulate the oxygen around our body. The temperature, however, was very manageable and like most stories and advice from other travellers was not nearly as bad as we had anticipated.
Day two provided more fantastic scenery and a surprising amount of wildlife (including flamingos, tarukas, viscachas, lamas and alpacas) considering the incredibly barren and hostile environments. We visited the rock tree - a stack of rocks eroded by the harsh desert wind over the years. It was somewhat impressive - but we found it more enjoyable to climb up the other rock formations to get the sweet views across the expansive desert. Later we enjoyed more climbing, this time over an ancient lava flow - putting our fitness to the test.

After a big second day of driving and many more photos under our belt we headed to our accommodation for the night - a hotel made of salt. On route we came across a severe sand storm; a phenomena typical for this time of the year as the rainy season approaches. At times we had zero visibility and were glad to make it safely to our salty lodgings for the evening - to unwind and enjoy a meal of lama chops and fries.
The next morning was a very early start. Rising at 3.30 am we packed our gear in anticipation to leave the hotel at 4 am and head directly for the long awaited Salt Flats to watch the sun rise. Our driver, Juan, slept in and by the time we hit the road it was close to 4.30 am. Slightly disappointing considering we had an hour drive ahead of us and time was of the essence. Within minutes of leaving it soon became obvious that our driver was very off form. Until this point we had been extremely impressed by his ability to handle the vehicle on the difficult tracks at speed. We had heard many stories from other tourists about drunk tour drivers and that sometimes even the tourists are required to drive the jeeps themselves. Unfortunately we also found ourselves in this predicament which came to a head when he drove full speed over a very large ditch in the road resulting in our heads bashing into the ceiling of the car and giving us all a dam big fright. We all bolted from the car and requested that Cam drive the remainder of the journey but Juan firmly refused. We had no option but to continue and thankfully we made it safely to the Flats to see part of the sunrise amongst. Juan had left his phone back at the hotel so drove the 2 hour round trip to retrieve it, mean while leaving us on the Flats to enjoy the scenery and be thankful that we had made it in one piece.

The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat, at approximately 12,000 km2 it contains up to 70% of the world’s lithium reserves. The expanse of infinite bright white against blue sky is truly unbelievable and makes for some fantastic photo opportunities.

By the time Juan returned with his phone he was well hung-over. We spent the reminder of the day playing incredibly loud dance music and asking repetitive questions in order to keep him awake. Our last stop was Isla Inchahuasi, an island located in the middle of the Salt Flats covered in incredibly tall cactus. We had breakfast on the island and hiked to the top to take in more of the scenery.

We arrived safely into Uyuni around midday for a well deserved burger and beer. Once the shock of the day had worn off we were able to laugh and reflect on how truly awesome and certainly memorable the whole experience had been.
That night we board our 12 hour overnight bus journey to La Paz. Again we have heard horror stories from other travellers about this journey but are all far too exhausted to be concerned.