Chile’s ‘suffering’?

I recently shared how I could not wait to leave Peru, how much I struggled to enjoy that country and all the challenges it posed. Never before had I been challenged so deeply, on so many levels – challenged physically, challenged with respect to my riding ability, challenged with respect to the poverty, chaos and filth I saw… So imagine my surprise when within days of arriving in Chile, I found myself missing Peru!

Crossing from the USA into Mexico, we were astounded at the stark and immediate difference between the wealth in the USA and the poverty in Mexico. It was bizarre how “a line in the sand” separated those who had plenty and those living in poverty. Crossing from Peru into Chile, we had the exact opposite experience, this time crossing from poverty to abundance and wealth…and surprisingly, it did not feel good.

Chile is the 4th wealthiest country in Latin America, by GDP and its wealth was immediately on display. Immaculate roads, luxury cars and large shopping malls full of people pushing trollies laden with luxury and demanding kids.  I vividly recall the unexpected sadness I felt as I observed it all again for the first time after so many months’ travel through the poorer countries in the Americas. Strangely my sadness was for the rich kids and parents, as opposed to the poor…

Overland travel challenges you, educates you, touches you… changes you through the things you come to understand. Paul and I have reflected a great deal on the stark contrasts we’ve seen between countries “rich” and “poor.” We’ve come to believe that wealth is less a measure of your financial means and more a measure of your way of life and sense of community and belonging.

The contrast between Chile and Peru was obvious on so many levels, beyond the obvious wealth. I couldn’t help but think that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was on display. In Peru we observed people trying to meet their most basic needs: food, money and socialising. Vendors competed fervently and children worked on the streets. Peruvian life was basic. It was ’out there on the streets’ both in terms of eking out a living and socialising. In Chile people were driving luxury cars and expensive bikes like Harley Davidsons and living in beautiful homes. In Peru people walked the sidewalks selling empanadas. In Chile people were out running or tending to immaculately manicured lawns. 

To try and understand the stark differences between Peru and Chile I did some research and was surprised to learn that Peru is the 5th wealthiest country in Latin America with a GDP not far off that of Chile. More research and reflection have led me to believe that it’s leadership that accounts for the stark differences between these two countries. In Chile, Michelle Bachelet has built a strong economy through foreign trade and strong financial institutions. Her tax reforms have addressed inequality and improved access to education and health care. Chile’s infrastructure is second-to-none. Peru’s leader, Ollanta Humala was arrested last year on charges of money laundering and corruption involving the state controlled oil company, Petrobras. I rest my case… 

Chilean people have been extremely friendly, curious and generous. Whilst stationary at a red traffic light we’ve often had people call to us from other vehicles – asking where we’re from, wishing us well and taking oh so many photos! Fuel stations and parking lots have similarly been places that have drawn a curious crowd around our bikes and our journey. In La Serena we were graciously hosted by Pamela, who has been avidly following our journey via FaceBook for the past year. To finally meet her and stay with her in her home felt like meeting an old friend. Pamela is a beautiful soul. She’s like a “bottle of champagne all shook up”, and introducing us to her friends the Chilean hospitality was evident all ‘round. After a long day’s riding to get to La Serena, Paul had an early night but I couldn’t resist the invitation from Pamela to join her and Magaly for a ladies’ night out. It’s been a while since I sang karaoke and got home at 2am, but boy was that a fun night! Chilean warmth is not limited to the ladies. At the BMW dealership I was laughingly told about the “Chilean way of greeting“ when I extended my hand for a handshake, only to be kissed on the cheek!  Julio, our shipping agent showcased incredible generosity in all that he did to help us in Santiago, arranging both the servicing and the shipping of our bikes. He simply could not do enough for us to help and he said “it’s only being human…”

On a drier note, we were astounded to learn about children living in the Atacama Desert who have never seen the rain! It is known as ‘the driest place on earth’ and also one of the most hauntingly beautiful places we’ve ever seen.  It’s aptly been compared to Mars and the moon. The skies in Northern Chile are generally considered the best in the world for astronomy and we had great fun exploring and learning more. We had a few very late nights, attending lectures, star gazing until the early hours and we’re now more familiar with the Southern Hemisphere skies.  The history of astronomy has been fascinating and we’ve learned more about the Chilean observatories such as the VLT (very large telescope), ALMA (an International astronomy facility near San Pedro de Atacama), ELT (extra large telescope) and Mamalluca Observatory. We were told that 60% of the world’s telescopes are in the Atacama and we experienced the night skies through a few. We camped in the desert for nearly a week and loved being away from light pollution and able to enjoy the magnificent skies each night. 

The Atacama Desert was fascinating and beautiful on so many levels. We ended up staying much longer than planned. Exploring the night skies, salt flats, geysers, hot springs, salt lakes, sand dunes, geoglyphs, sculptures, volcanoes and volcanic lakes. The riding was challenging as it involved long desolate stretches, large distances between places with no fuel and we needed to plan our travel, fuel and water supplies carefully as a result. We saw some of ‘the world’s oldest mummies’ in the Atacama. They are strange, alien-looking creatures which we were told had long heads and slanted eyes due to the ancient practice of binding babies’ heads. I’m still convinced that they’re aliens though…hahaha…and an article that was published last week about the ‘alien mummy found in the Atacama Desert’ means I now have the proof! Hahaha 

The food in Chile has not been great and another reason I have missed Peru. Chile is the second largest consumer of bread and most meals seem to be “a sandwich of sorts”. By contrast, the wine has been amazing, simply the best! 

There’s one thing I have absolutely hated about Chile…and that’s the smoke. Despite Chileans being beautiful and body conscious it seems that almost everyone smokes! I have really struggled with the incessant challenge of second hand smoke everywhere. The statistics are staggering – nearly 40% of adult Chileans smoke, so it shouldn’t be surprising that 40% of teenagers also smoke! It is not unusual to see an adult light up a cigarette, despite the fact that he/she is dining/driving with young kids. I have really struggled with this. 

It has been strange to be in a country where people talk about their ‘Peruvian maids.’ The wealth in Chile and poverty in Peru has given me reason for much reflection and a Buddhist saying about poverty and wealth comes to mind. It goes something like this: “The poor suffer because they have no money and the rich suffer because they fear losing it.”  We were walking in the historical centre of Santiago today and as I was taking photos a Chilean man came up to me with a dire warning. He told me to be extremely careful, saying there are Peruvian thieves who will target me. He did not say ‘thieves’, he specifically said ‘Peruvian thieves.’  I was taken aback and offended and I couldn’t help but think about the suffering that Buddha had referred to…


Tempestuous Peru!

“Tempestuous” is defined as ‘characterized by strong and turbulent or conflicting emotions’. Synonyms for “tempestuous” are ‘turbulent, stormy, wild, lively, heated, explosive, frenetic, emotional, passionate, intense, frenzied, volatile, quick tempered and unpredictable”…yes! That’s certainly been our experience of Peru!

Within a few hours of arriving in Peru I was tearful, fearful, anxious, angry… and just wanted out. I had not had such strongly negative emotions about any country on any part of our journey across the Americas thus far and realising the sheer enormity of this country I felt quite overwhelmed at the prospect of weeks’ worth of travel here, feeling very vulnerable being on a motorcycle and realising that there was ‘no quick out’. After 6 weeks experiencing Peru I now describe our journey as a “tempestuous love affair” having equally raged at and fallen in love with Peru.  It has been an incredible rollercoaster ride of emotion, growth, rage, peace, passion, fatigue, awe, challenge, seduction, understanding, strength and wisdom… and I’m grateful for the experience.

We entered Peru from Ecuador at Tumbes on the coast and it was the quickest, smoothest border crossing of our whole Americas journey. Surprisingly Peru was the only country where I immediately felt a sense of ‘imminent danger’ and this prevailed throughout our time here. “Danger from what?” you might ask. I’ll try and explain…

On arrival, it felt like we’d been swept into a raging torrent of filth, broken roads and insanely aggressive and erratic driving. Travelling on motorcycles this was not good news. The level of filth was overwhelming. Plastic bags flew in the air, swept up by passing traffic and we were ducking and weaving to avoid having plastic wrap around our visors as we drove. I sarcastically decided that the only requirement to obtain a drivers’ licence in Peru is being able to blow your horn. Everyone was hooting and no-one obeyed any traffic rules or seemed to have any common sense. Vehicles would overtake on blind corners or even on a straight piece of road where you were clearly visible as oncoming traffic. It did not seem to matter and we immediately adopted a defensive driving approach. Then there were also the Peruvian dogs…

Everyone knows how much I adore dogs, but in Peru they absolutely terrified me! We were constantly chased down by dogs as we rode and I was bitten on the leg whilst riding through Huaraz. Thankfully leather boots and Klim gear meant that an adrenaline rush and slight wobble on my bike was the only result of this attack. In Huacho, Paul and I took a stroll from our hotel and thought nothing of the dogs we saw lounging outside the homes we passed. We were very shocked to find ourselves suddenly surrounded by these dogs – snarling, menacing, growling, barking and surrounding us, moving closer as a pack. We were dressed only in shorts and thongs (flip flops) so felt very vulnerable, should they attack. It was impossible knowing what to do and I was looking desperately for something which to protect ourselves with, whilst Paul faced them trying to shoo them off. We got away unscathed yet rattled and took a tuk-tuk ride back to avoid further assault.

Peru’s landscape is diverse, magnificently beautiful and extreme in its ‘wildness’. Whilst admiring the exquisite beauty of the varied landscapes, we were often aware of our vulnerability traveling by motorcycle in this unforgiving terrain.

At the coast we crossed the Sechura and Atacama deserts. We crossed the most spectacular sand dunes on remarkable roads that snaked incredibly high across the sand, linking towns and cities such as Tumbes, Chimbote, Huacho, Lima, Nazca and Tacna. These arid landscapes were insanely beautiful and peaceful, but unfortunately marred on many occasions by filth dumped at the roadside or in the dunes. People built homes and towns on the sand dunes and we marvelled at “for sale” signs stuck in the sand! It eerily felt like we were crossing the moon and high temperatures meant we stopped frequently to keep hydrated. In Northern Peru we were astounded to come across rice paddies in the desert landscape. This was our first experience of incredible Peruvian engineering – getting water channeled down from the Andes into desert valleys, creating small oases of lush arable land. Huacachina is a beautiful desert oasis near Nazca. Set amongst enormous sand dunes, it has a lagoon surrounded by palm trees, hotels and restaurants. It was a memorable stay for both its beauty and the terrifying ride across the incredible sand dunes in a buggy driven by ‘Mad Max!’. Shamefully, the dunes were also full of rubbish poking out of the sand and detracting from the beauty of the landscape.

The peaks of the Andes mountains had us awed and challenged on so many occasions. To give you some perspective of the magnitude of the Peruvian Andes – Peru’s lowest peak is Huaytapallana at 5,557m, which is higher than Everest Base Camp (5,380m). We crossed the Andes many times, riding consistently at altitudes between 3,500m and 4,500m and reaching our highest altitude on the bikes at 4,882m near the Colca Canyon.  We hiked in Huascaran National Park, where the highest Andean peak in Peru is Huascaran at 6,768m and we hiked up to Pastoruri Glacier at an altitude of 5,250m. Altitude sickness plagued us during all of our time in the Andes, it’s just the severity that varied.  Surprisingly our experiences at altitude were inconsistent  and Paul and I never experienced the same symptoms at the same time, other than chronic fatigue – at times one of us would be incredibly ill and on other occasions we would be absolutely fine, but we were always out of breath and fatigued.  It appeared to be less a factor of the altitude but more a factor of our individual physiology at a given point in time.  Fatigue was a major challenge for us, both in terms of physically riding our bikes but also in terms of coping with the emotional ups and downs and being on such an intensely emotional journey. We were physically and mentally shattered for most of our time traveling through Peru. Dirt roads, inclement weather or unexpected challenges became major issues, simply because we were already fatigued and could not face additional challenges. An obstacle that may have been “a giggle” at lower altitude became “a major obstacle” at altitude, simply due to chronic fatigue. Riding was exhausting, picking up a dropped bike a major challenge. We did not sleep well at altitude, waking constantly and gasping for air, adding another level to our fatigue. The Andes are incredibly beautiful, mystical and daunting. We also experienced how quickly the Andes can become incredibly dangerous when we got caught in a freak hail storm at an altitude of 4,400m en route to the Colca Canyon. At that altitude and a temperature of only 2 degrees Celsius we were  shocked at how quickly the severe storm turned into a dangerous situation and how quickly we were succumbing to exposure and needed to get out. We abandoned our bikes and the first passing vehicle happened to be an ambulance and we secured a ride to the nearest town. From the ambulance we saw cars piled up in an accident further along the road in ice piled inches thick. The ambulance ride was incredibly scary and our only experience of crazy Peruvian driving from within a vehicle! The driver and passenger were relaxed and happily chatted away in the front seats as us gringos sat white knuckled and with eyes shut in the back, listening to the tyres squeal around the hairpin bends on the mountain pass, praying for our safety as we journeyed at great speed across to Chivay. We retrieved the bikes when the weather cleared but the day we left Chivay the mountain pass was covered with snow and the roads incredibly icy. We inched along slowly, seeing two cars flipped on their roofs due to the dangerous driving conditions. On reflection we realise that we worked well as a team and made sound judgement calls when the situation got dangerous. Every experience is a learning and Peru has exposed us to so many challenges that we’ve grown in leaps and bounds, both individually and as a team.

We spent a week in the Amazon at a research station and this was an incredibly spiritual experience on so many levels. The sheer expanse of the Amazon River and jungle was awe inspiring. The simplicity and joy with which people live in this unforgiving terrain was something we instinctively adopted from the minute we arrived. The oppressive heat and humidity, the rain, spiders, snakes, monkeys, birds, plants and insects…and insect bites! We had great fun hiking through the jungle looking for poison dart frogs, finding tarantula and fishing for piranha. The bird life was incredible, as was the magnificent beauty of the river reflections, raw nature and the expansive rainforest wilderness. We spent time at an indigenous village and met the shaman and most of the villagers, just chatting and learning or watching games of soccer and volleyball. It seemed as though time just stood still and it was the most remarkable experience…to “just be” awhile. Nowhere to go, nothing to achieve, just being open to it all and soaking it all in.

The ancient cultures of Peru have been beautiful to discover and fascinating.  We marvelled particularly at the history of the Inca Empire, their architecture, engineering and mysticism. The Spanish Empire conquered and destroyed much of what the Incas had created and built magnificent churches where once Inca temples stood. We saw gold and silver abundantly adorning spectacular churches and magnificent paintings covering church walls. One of the most impressive paintings was of “The Last Supper” in a cathedral at Cusco. In this particular interpretation Jesus and his disciples are depicted eating a feast of guinea pig. The Incas considered guinea pig a delicacy and it is still considered a ‘special treat’, served roasted whole on sticks or deep fried. Machu Picchu is an Inca city not destroyed by the Spanish as it was only discovered in 1911. High in the mountains, where the Amazon Jungle meets the Andes, it is a marvellous testament to the Inca culture, their incredible architecture, engineering, agriculture and history. One of the things which fascinated us most was seeing the many “eternal fountains” built by the Incas along the Inca Trail and at Machu Picchu. Fountains which have been running with pure water since the 1400’s from an unknown source. Spending time at Machu Picchu was another intensely ‘spiritual experience’…sitting on the mist covered mountain just watching the landscape reveal itself as the mist cleared momentarily and marvelling at the magnificent stone structures, temples, fountains, terraces and magnificent mountainous terrain.

I have raged, cursed and sworn my way through the crazily insane Peruvian traffic. We have been pushed off the road by other vehicles, faced oncoming traffic on blind corners and narrowly avoided collisions on so many occasions as vehicles either suddenly make a u-turn without warning, run stop signs or simply just change lanes without a care for right-of-way. All of this is accompanied by frenetic hooting! Paul has remained calm through it all and when I marvelled at his ability he simply said: “Peruvian drivers are predictable. Expect them to be insane…” He has not responded with anger and anguish the way that I have and it may appear that my rage has been unfounded or misplaced. Passing through Juliaca I was once again being pushed aside by hooting traffic from all sides and trying to negotiate a particularly tricky section of “road” with a combination of potholes and train tracks I unfortunately fell. In shock, my only thought was to avoid being crushed but almost instantaneously hands reached out around me, helping me pick my bike up and bodies shielded me from the traffic swirling and hooting around me. I do not know where the help came from or how it was there so quickly. I did not even have time take it all in or to say thank you. In Arequipa I was pushed off the road by a bus and mere minutes later as I stopped beside the bus at a traffic light the driver greeted me cheerfully, asking where I’m from and striking up a conversation! I was dumbfounded and my earlier cursing was replaced by the realisation that he had not meant me harm, it simply is the way Peruvians drive!

Peru has beguiled, seduced, enraged and confused us. It has been a country of so many contradictions. In a country that is so filthy it is astounding that they have had the best food! The best food, hands down! Many of the world’s top restaurants are in Peru and particularly in Lima. We were initially thinking of avoiding Lima (anticipating insane traffic!) but we’re glad we decided to brave the risk and spent a few days exploring this beautiful city and its amazing cuisine. Lima aside, the food has been excellent everywhere in Peru, from the shantiest of towns to the biggest of cities such as Lima or Cusco. Street food has been as delicious as the food in restaurants. The Peruvians can’t drive, but boy they sure can cook! The cuisine is a fusion of indigenous Inca, Spanish, Italian, German, Chinese, Japanese and West African. The popular “National” drink is Pisco and there are many ways to enjoy this brandy. There are 15 different cocktails and we enjoyed many Pisco sours (pisco, egg white, lime juice, syrup and bitters), Chilcano (pisco, lime juice and ginger ale) and Maracuya Pisco (pisco and passion fruit).

We were astounded that cities such as Lima and Cusco are pristinely tidy, a stark contrast to the rest of Peru. I delicately asked a tour guide about the reason for the filth and shared my observation that cities like Lima and Cusco are immaculately clean. He replied that “Lima and Cusco are tourist cities and tourists have taught us to be clean”. It was his simple way of explaining that it is all about education and economy, that in most of Peru issues of poverty take precedence over the cost of or education about garbage disposal. Paul and I have reflected a great deal about what we’ve seen and experienced in Peru in terms of garbage and filth. We are mindful that during our time here we have contributed to the garbage. Although we’ve disposed of our garbage mindfully in bins, we’ve no idea where that garbage may have ended up in the end. And who of us is blameless for creating filth and garbage? Some of us just ‘dispose of it more cleanly’, but it’s still there, it’s been created…we’ve thought a lot about how we should be focusing on ways of minimising the creation of garbage in the first instance.

The geology in Peru has been astounding! Wherever we’ve traveled, we’ve marvelled at the beauty of the earth around us, impressive rock formations have been everywhere and marvels such as the Nazca lines and Rainbow mountain are unique to this part of the world. Unfortunately we decided not to hike up to Rainbow mountain (5,200m) due to its altitude and the extreme altitude sickness we’d experienced at that height on our previous hike to Pastoruri Glacier (5,250m). In Nazca we took a flight over the valley to see the ancient geoglyphs from the air. These magnificent and mysterious lines, geometric shapes and designs of animals, birds, trees and an alien had us debating aliens (in my case), giants and Inca rituals. It was an incredibly scary flight and I must admit that I kept wishing it would end, even though I marvelled at what we were seeing. The little plane dipped and lunged constantly then continuously banked first steeply left (so that I could see) and then banked steeply right (so that Paul could see), making us both so air sick that the pilot eventually had to open a window to try and calm our nerves with some fresh air! It was the most magnificent sight and the history of Maria Reich was captivating. We attended a lecture at the observatory to learn more about Maria’s work and theories. She is the German archaeologist and mathematician whose life work preserved the site and ensured it being listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site. The Colca Canyon is Peru’s “Grand Canyon” but impressively it is 3,270m deep whereas the Grand Canyon is only 1,857m deep. It was a magnificent ride on our motorcycles along the rim of the canyon, especially when we were gifted so many opportunities to see condors soaring just above our heads. Condors are the largest flying land bird in the Western Hemisphere and a truly magnificent sight. To be fair, we saw so many incredible raptors and birds all across Peru. Peru astounded us with its rugged, magnificent beauty, mountains and canyons alike.

Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable lake (3,812m) and close to the Bolivian border. We spent a few days here and stayed on a floating reed island with the indigenous Uros people. The islands are made entirely from reeds that grow in the lake and everything on the islands is constructed from reeds – the houses, roofs, schools, clinics, shops, umbrellas, swings, their boats, everything. Even our host’s hat was made of reeds! The bird life was incredible but the most amazing aspect of the lake in my mind, was the magnificent reflections on the water.

The people of Peru have seemed aloof, yet on so many occasions their generosity of spirit has shone through spontaneously. I’m unsure if they are just a more private or shy people, but they have not been as openly friendly, gregarious or curious as people in other Latin American countries. As was our experience in other Latin American countries we have marvelled at the many acts of humanity and kindness we were gifted in Peru.

The music of Peru is very unique and incredibly beautiful!  It’s a combination of wind instruments (panpipes and flutes), stringed instruments (charango and Spanish guitar) and percussion instruments (cajon, cowbell and bombo). Musicians abound as do music stores selling the flutes, guitars and ‘drums’. The music has a magical, mystical sound that invokes a soothing, haunting, mesmerising sadness-mixed-with-joy. Pretty much reflecting all that we’ve come to experience and love about Peru…

Crossing the Andes

I’ve been following a number of blogs of overland travellers, making their way across South America. I’m curious about why there hasn’t been much written about people’s experiences with altitude sickness, because for Paul and I this has been a real challenge. I have researched so much about this affliction to try and deal with it better, hence some days are good and others are…well, just really awful!

At 7,000km long, the Andes is the longest mountain range in the world. It runs through 7 countries namely Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. We would ride across the Andes in all countries, except Venezuela. The plateau of the Andes is the second highest in the world, after the Tibetan plateau. We would visit cities such as Bogota, Medellin (Colombia), Quito (Ecuador), Arequipa (Peru) and La Paz (Bolivia) which are located on the Andean plateau. We would ride to the world’s highest volcanoes, which are in the Andes, as well as the world’s highest mountains outside of Asia. At 6,263m Chimborazo volcano in Ecuador is the closest place to the sun, due to the earth’s bulge at the equator. We were staying at an altitude of 4,200m and woke countless times in the night, gasping for air and battling headache and nausea. Our plans of a hike were scuppered when we could hardly walk to our lodge!

Riding across the Andes has been one of the most incredibly breath taking experiences. The scenery along the twisty mountain passes has been incredibly spectacular, but that is not the only element which has literally taken our breath away! Altitude sickness has plagued us on and off since Colombia. It is an illness caused by ascending to high altitude and not having enough oxygen. The higher the altitude, the less oxygen and the lower the air pressure, so you feel like your brain wants to pop out through your eyes! At sea level you have 100% of oxygen available and the standard barometric pressure is 101kPA. As an example, at 5,000m there is only 55% of the oxygen available at sea level and the barometric pressure is only 56kPA.

We first experienced altitude sickness in Ipialis. This Colombian city is close to the Ecuadorian border, at an elevation of 2,898m. We checked into our hotel and were issued a room on the first floor. This was very noisy, so we asked to be moved to a quieter location. The hotel concierge ‘warned’ that the only other room available was on the third floor at the back of the hotel and that they had no lift. We did not think anything of this until the realisation hit home of the effects of altitude sickness! Walking up one flight of stairs was tough enough, but three proved insane! Our bikes were parked in the underground parking and yes, you guessed it, there was no lift! I will never forget a particular incident where I caught the hotel concierge laughing at my expense: I was taking one step, resting, taking a breath, taking another step and repeating the process both up and down the three flights of stairs. He was embarrassed that I caught him laughing, so he merely said: “Cansado!” (Tired)…and I was too tired and out of breath to reply “yes”, so I just nodded my head in acknowledgement.

Initially our main symptoms of altitude sickness were shortness of breath, headache and fatigue. I also had a bleeding nose and tingling fingers. Once we got to Quito in Ecuador (2,850m) we investigated what locals recommend to treat the symptoms and this is where we learned about coca tea or what is commonly referred to as ‘mate de coca.’

Coca is grown in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina and is readily available as a tea or dry leaves. Its use in religious rituals, for medicinal and nutritional purposes date back to Inca times and it is very much a natural part of the daily South American culture, either as tea or chewed. I find it fascinating to read that cocaine is “easily extracted” from coca leaves, which is the reason for its International Prohibition by the United Nations since 1961. Peru and Bolivia were successful in obtaining legal recognition for the traditional use of coca in their countries, however it remains a political controversy as the production of coca appears to exceed the demand for legitimate use. Initially I was alarmed to read that we would test positive for cocaine after consuming just one cup of coca tea. It has now become a natural part of our daily lives to drink coca tea and is such a cultural norm that as an example, on checking in to our hotel in Cusco (3,399m) we were offered a ‘welcome cup of coca’.

Having read extensively about altitude sickness we’re familiar with the various remedies or medications and realise that the best ‘treatment’ is acclimatisation. Our greatest challenge however has been that we never spend sufficient time in one place to really acclimatise. As we travel from one place to another we might ride up to elevations of 4,500m and down to 2,000m quite a few times in the day, just getting to our destination along the many magnificent mountain passes. We have now become quite accustomed to symptoms such as feeling like we have ‘a tight band around our head’, that our eyes feel like they want to pop out and battling shortness of breath and fatigue. Mostly we’ve managed to deal with the symptoms patiently.

There have been occasions where we’ve really not coped, such as on the hike to Pastoruri Glacier at Huascaran National Park in Peru. We took our tracker on this hike and recorded an elevation of 5,002m at the base of the glacier, which is close to the elevation of Everest Base camp (5,380m). On this hike Paul had severe headache, started vomiting, saw double and became quite confused and dizzy. In hindsight we now realise that these were quite severe symptoms and we should have immediately gone down to a lower altitude. I was quite concerned about Paul’s condition and ability to ride back to Huaraz (3,052m). Paul’s headache did not abate for many days and paracetamol did nothing to relieve the pain. We’ve since read that the symptoms are indicative of cerebral oedema and we will take much greater care if this were to happen again.

I was fine on that day, apart from being short of breath and it’s a fascinating observation to realise that altitude sickness is so unpredictable. The past few days we’ve been riding up to elevations of 4,500m and down again, many times, finally reaching Cusco at 3,399m. Paul has been feeling fine, but I have been very unwell and struggling with mood swings and extreme irritability. At night my muscles cramp, keeping me awake and nausea and exhaustion plague me daily. We’ve decided to rest at Cusco for at least a week and have resigned ourselves to the fact that we may not attempt further high altitude hikes, such as Rainbow Mountain (5,200m). We’re due to visit Machu Picchu tomorrow and it’s a relief to know it’s “only 2,430m!”

Aside from the ongoing struggle with altitude, crossing the Andes on motorcycles has been simply remarkable! The roads across these incredible mountain ranges are engineering marvels. In some instances the roads have been ancient Inca trails, such as the route we traveled in Ecuador. The Inca road system exceeds 40,000km across South America and this advanced and extensive road system became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2014. When you look at google map routes through the Andes they resemble a child’s squiggly drawings. Roads snake their way up, down, across, through and over the most remarkable inclines. Switchbacks and hairpin bends abound. At times you’ve hardly completed a hairpin bend then face the next one, in the opposite direction. Taking photographs of these incredible passes has been mostly impossible, due to the narrow roads with no safe place to stop for photos. I’ve been able to get some GoPro footage of the incredible passes snaking down into the valleys. It’s awesome seeing the road snake ahead for many miles across a vast expanse of mountain pass. We’ve become quite accustomed to the many signs designating “curva peligrosa” (dangerous curves) ahead. Not all roads have been paved, yet the dirt tracks have been incredibly well maintained despite severe weather conditions. I believe this is due mostly to the great engineering as water runs off without eroding the roads and land slides are quickly cleared away.

Paul and I were chatting over dinner last night about just how remarkable it has been traveling across the Andes on our motorcycles. We chuckled at ourselves, at how we’ve ‘just got on with the job’ of getting across  some incredible passes, without a thought for just how remarkable an experience it really is. What an incredible feat and achievement. It makes me reflect on the countless blogs I referred to earlier… how overland travellers often don’t realise how incredible their travel really is, discounting the many challenges faced and simply ‘getting on with it’ to reach their ultimate destination…



I’m doing my best to like Peru, but it appears I need to try harder… I’m struggling to come to terms with what I can only describe as the ‘filth and aggression of Peru’, after the peace, beauty, tranquility and gentleness of Ecuador. I asked Paul a few days ago what his main impressions were of Ecuador. He thought about all the amazing things we’d seen and experienced, then said: “The beautiful people.” I’m astounded at his answer, as those were my thoughts exactly and my fondest memories of Ecuador will always be of its beautiful, friendly, peaceful people…

Ecuador has 4 geographical regions; La Amazonia (the Amazon), La Sierra (the Andes), La Costa (the coast) and La Region Insular (the Galapagos) – we spent time in the Amazon, Andes and Galapagos. A lot of our time was spent gasping for air (literally) as we traversed the Andes ranges again and again, snaking our way in a loop of 8 through the country, along the Inca Roads Route. We reached an altitude of around 4,300m at Chimborazo Volcano.  This is the place on earth closest to the sun, due to the curvature of the earth at the equator and the sheer height of the volcano at 6,300m. I giggled at the fact that despite it being “the closest place on earth to the sun”, it was also the coldest we had ever been! The Andes mountain passes were simply magnificent riding and the quietness of the area added to the awe, as we stared at snow capped mountains, volcanoes, wild vilcuña, lamas, alpacas and raptors soaring against powder blue skies.

Altitude sickness was really awful and lasted for all of our time in Ecuador, although it did seem to abate from time to time. At its worst we found ourselves waking at night, gasping for air, feeling as though we’d been drowning, which made for a few very uncomfortable and sleepless nights. We had severe headaches, fatigue, nausea and in my case a bleeding nose. I suspect that being asthmatic may have made it more challenging for me to breathe at such high altitude. It was exhausting! Early on in our travels we spoke to locals about the ‘best remedy’ for altitude sickness and were advised to drink coca tea. We bought some and drinking the herbal brew my lips tingled after the first cup. I then googled what coca tea is and discovered a few interesting facts: it’s a herbal infusion of dried coca leaves, the leaves contain alkaloids, which are the source for cocaine. Although coca tea contains minute amounts of these alkaloids, I was alarmed to discover that we would test positive for cocaine after just one cup of tea! I insisted that we immediately stop drinking the tea, as we were due to fly to the UK for Christmas. Coca tea is legal in South America, but not in the US, UK and many other countries. Once we got back to Ecuador, we resumed our coca tea drinking ‘habit’, a tasty herbal brew which I am still not sure actually helped at all for the altitude.

We spent a few days in the Amazon, staying in a reed hut right on the banks of the raging river. With no electricity or wifi it was a welcome retreat into nature for a few days. We crossed the Andes to get to our lodge and it was incredible to ride first through snow capped, quiet mountains, then slowly start descending into the jungle, noticing new then ever increasing sounds…hearing the jungle literally come alive! Being on the bikes we are open to every smell, sound and temperature change. We were astounded at all our senses awakening as we neared the Amazon basin. We were soon sticky with heat and buzzing with excitement at all the jungle sounds. Unfortunately Paul became very ill on this journey, barely making it to the lodge after many painful stops to deal with stomach cramps, fever and headache. Paul lay burning with fever for 2 days, listening to the river rush by…and I sat reading, drinking beers and administering medicine and cold towels to bring his temperature down. Another guest at the lodge reported a similar ailment and his fever lasted 3 days, so we realised we literally just had to sit it out. It was a time for resting, reading, dips in the pool and once Paul felt better, evening strolls through the dark jungle, looking for poisonous dart frogs.

Our time at the Galapagos was incredible! Not having limits on our time, we are able to look for and wait to get great travel deals and the Galapagos was no exception. We found a last minute 2-for-1 cruise deal which meant that we could afford the luxury of exploring islands by day and cruising at night. It was a small cruise, accommodating only 16 passengers and with a naturalist as guide, our days were packed with activities, discovery and exploring. We hiked and snorkelled and soaked it all in… What I will remember most about the Galapagos is how at peace I felt. It was wonderful being disconnected from the world (no wifi!) and connected with nature in a very intimate way. The Galapagos is famed as “the place where the animals come to you…” and it certainly can’t be overstated. It was incredible experiencing the sheer abundance and calmness of the wildlife, in the ocean, on land and in the skies. Tourist activity and the number of cruises are highly regulated, which meant we felt as though we had a very private moment experiencing a remarkable place…

The Ecuadorian people are some of the most beautiful I have ever seen. I found myself mesmerised by so many beautiful faces and a serenity they seem to radiate. In Otavalo, which is famous for it’s artisan market I marvelled at the beautiful men dressed all in white, sporting long raven plaited hair, their olive skin smooth as porcelain. The women were just as beautiful but tiny, the size of children, dressed in magnificent bright traditional dress, beads and also wearing hats. The Ecuadorian people were not just beautiful to look at, their beauty radiated from their faces, their eyes, their friendly greetings and their hospitality. We were fortunate to be hosted by Silvana and Edison, a family in Quito. Being welcomed as family and cared for with such generosity was a gift we hope to one day repay. In Baños we spent time with Karl and Priscilla, volunteering at Fundacion Arte del Mundo. It is an organisation promoting reading and the arts for children. We were touched by the openness of the children, their enthusiasm and passion for learning. Most of all we were touched by their care for each other and their natural gentleness with each other… it was beautiful to see children so naturally looking after each other and encouraging each other. Their curiosity about our journey and their enthusiastic participation in our workshop was also such a wonderful surprise.

Ecuador is a postage-stamp-sized country, with a ginormous heart and gentle soul. I think what I loved most about Ecuador is that it showed us the magic of disconnecting from the world’s distractions and connecting with nature…and ourselves.


In December we met Nancy and her husband in a cafe at Bogota airport. Fellow travelers waiting for our connecting flight to the UK, we got chatting over our meals. As happens often we were asked about our journey and upon hearing that we’d traveled from Canada to Ecuador, Nancy asked which was our favorite country so far. That was so easy to answer: Colombia! She asked me why and as I explained her eyes welled up with tears, she was clearly moved by what I had to share…

During our lifetime Colombia had experienced many years of violence due to the armed conflict between the government, leftist guerrilla armies and right wing paramilitaries. There was also the emergence of the drug cartels, most notably the era of violence brought about by Pablo Escobar. Cities in Colombia such as Medellin were once considered the most dangerous in the world. As this is ‘recent history ‘ it is still a pervading perception of Colombia to this day. We experienced an entirely different Colombia.

Colombia was simply the most spectacularly beautiful place we’d seen thus far on our travels. Our journey took us from Cartagena on the coast, to zigzag across the Andes a few times, spending time in many beautiful towns and cities as we traveled South to Ecuador. The Andes mountains form the most populated areas in Colombia so daily we experienced the most spectacular and exhilarating riding along one magnificent mountain pass after the next. Apart from the amazing mountain passes we remember Colombia for its spectacular orchids, the most devine coffee. However, what touched us most about Colombia was not it’s magnificent natural beauty…

The Colombian people received us with an incredible generosity of spirit and showcased a united belief in the fact that “change is possible”. Many communities and tour operators reflected this motto (change is possible) in their marketing and the history and stories they chose to share focused on the transformation achieved in recent years as opposed to focusing on the fascination with Colombia’s violent history and drug lords like Escobar.

Each adult we met would have experienced those troubled times. We were curious to hear people’s personal accounts of living through that violent era and how they felt about the history of their country. The majority of people seemed to feel that tourists are keeping the past alive through their fascination with it’s history. Overwhelmingly people would say: “It is done. It is passed. We have moved on. We have made a better life. Change is possible. ”

We sensed the pain in those statements. We realised that everyone we met has lost loved ones through the violence, has dark memories of that terrifying time. Hearing how children in Comuna 13 had to carry white flags to avoid getting shot when out playing was just one hard hitting story shared. What touched us most in Colombia is how passionately its people celebrate moving on, making a better life, their strong faith and belief in change being possible. Colombia today is a little bit of paradise because of that transformation.

It turns out Nancy is Colombian and her tears were ones of joy. She too remebers the dark years and she was overwhelmed to hear that visitors to her country had been moved to see that yes, change is most certainly possible!

Central America: Active volcanoes, hurricanes, zika, border crossings …and kindness

There are 7 countries in Central America – Belize, Guatamala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. As with so many aspects about this journey, we had pre-conceived ideas about this part of the world and boy, were we taken by surprise!

It is the poorest region in the Latin Americas and with so much negative news about gang activity, crime and corruption, we were being more alert. Central America is geologically an incredibly active region with volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis. We were warned to take precautions against contracting Zika virus …and oh, did I mention that it also happened to be “hurricane season” when we crossed? Would you believe me if I told you that despite all this we had the most incredible time and simply the most fun, since our journey began 7 months ago in Canada?!

The active volcanoes were incredibly beautiful and we saw the first one ‘puffing a greeting’ in Guatamala, the day we left Antigua. In Nicaragua we hiked up Cerro Negro volcano and volcano boarded down its 728m black ash slope. We hiked up Telica volcano and spent the night camping there, hearing the volcano roaring and steam all night. A young boy from one of the local villages arrived on horseback in the evening with a warm meal of rice, beans and scrambled egg. He broke out in a huge smile when I called him by his name. I had been told about him and about his dream of learning to speak English, so that one day he could also be a guide. He was incredibly shy that evening, but when I saw Jefferson in his village the next morning, I was able to coax a few English phrases from him, with obvious pride. It was such an insanely awesome experience on so many levels – experiencing the incredible beauty and might of nature and being granted a glimpse into the lives of local people.

Crossing this stretch of land during “hurricane season” was a challenge – Irma, Harvey, Nate and Jose were just some of the ‘names’ we tracked daily, often having to adapt our travel plans, due to the destruction they left in their paths. We were awed at damage to the roads but equally astounded by how quickly the roads were repaired.  The Pan American Highway is basically the only road, so repairs were an obvious priority. In Nicaragua we saw the sheer power and devastation caused by hurricane Nate. Walking along the beach at San Juan del Sur we saw buildings shattered and so many large fishing trawlers and yachts lying tossed ashore like discarded toys…

Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America and it was the biggest, most pleasant surprise! As we drove across the border from Honduras we immediately saw and felt “wow!”  Seeing the absolutely pristine roads and countryside and receiving the most incredibly warm welcome from its people. Speaking with locals about their economy and politics we soon learned of their scorn for their president, Daniel Ortega and their adoration for his wife, Rosario Murillo who they believed has long been the country’s unofficial co-president. Rosario was recently elected as vice president and essentially runs the government. It is her work and vision which has ensured the improvements within Nicaragua. Once again I was mindful of the lesson that as individuals we can have such an impact on the world.

We have Senna wireless headsets in our helmets so that we can speak to each other as we ride. As we crossed the border into El Salvador Paul said: “El Salvador is the world’s most violent country”… the long silence that followed soon had him apologising: “Why did I just say that?!” he asked. We laughed and acknowledged that Paul was simply voicing what we were both thinking and he simply had a moment of “thinking out aloud”. We had read and heard about the notorious gangs known as ‘maras’ such as M13 and rivals, Barrio 18. It is horrific reading about the extent of their crimes, particularly the ‘machismo’ and ‘misogyny’ which they perpetuate. We had already become familiar with these two terms since Mexico and it appears to be a major problem across Latin America, due to patriarchal attitudes perpetuating violence against women. We avoided major cities and our time in El Salvador was incredibly beautiful. I found myself wishing we could stay longer.

Border crossings! That is what I will remember as most challenging about Central America! A fellow traveler posted on his blog that “Border crossings in Central America are like hangovers: Full of headaches and a bit disorienting.” It is a good description and every overland traveler has also had to negotiate the minefield of “fixers” you encounter at each border. “Fixers” are men offering to ‘help’ you with the confusing bureaucratic process for a fee. Border crossings essentially entail a few basic steps: Entering a country 1. Get stamped into the country. 2. Get a temporary import permit for your motorcycle at customs. 3. Get your bike fumigated. Leaving a country 1. Get stamped out. 2. Cancel your temporary import permit. How hard can it be? As we have a basic command of Spanish and have researched border crossings thoroughly, we decided never to use “fixers”, however we had not considered the devastating impact of ‘human error’ and all too soon the “fixers” also proved themselves capable of scuppering even the best laid plans…

Our first encounter with a “fixer” was at the Guatemalan border with El Salvador. I was waiting for Paul as he exchanged currency when a motorcyclist stopped for a ‘chat.’ I innocently exchanged pleasantries but it soon transpired that he was a “fixer” and by chatting with him he had assumed he’d ‘been contracted to help’! Despite our protests, he would not leave our sides. It’s a bit like trying to ignore a migraine, having a “fixer” stick to your side like glue, whilst you negotiate the border crossing process. He’s waiting for the moment you hesitate or need any help…and it’s bound to happen, as we soon learned.

‘Human error’ can have a disastrous impact, when negotiating borders. We knew to check and double check everything, but when everything’s in Spanish and you’re also not quite 100% sure what you’re checking for, it’s not that simple. Entering Guatemala I asked why we did not have an entry stamp in our passports and was told it’s ‘not necessary.’ This proved incorrect and not having this essential stamp meant that we could not leave the country without returning to Immigration at Guatemala City, paying a fine and sorting it out. Before we left the Immigration offices Paul happened to compare our passports and noticed our stamps were not the same. When he enquired about it the embarrassed immigration employee apologised and corrected her mistake. Without Paul’s acuity we would have found ourselves traveling back to Guatemala City to repeat the process for a third time! This type of ‘human error’ occurred on so many subsequent occasions, it’s a wonder we got as far as we did. Incorrect VIN numbers, passport numbers or the colour of the bike. Small mistakes with dramatic ramifications that also saw fellow bikers having to return many miles to borders to sort mistakes out.

Each border has slight (and often very confusing!) variations with respect to what paperwork is required. Most countries need copies of your original documents, so in preparation we carried plenty of those. Some countries required you to make copies of the new stamp in your passport or required copies of the cancelled import permit from the country you had just left. We were astounded at the bureaucratic maze at each border and came to appreciate how helpful “fixers” could be… but at a price.

At the El Salvador/Honduras border the “fixers” literally swarmed around us as we arrived. Tempers flared and soon they were sent packing. One “fixer” hung around discreetly and once we were through Immigration and Customs he mentioned that we would need 3 copies of our cancelled import permits at the Honduras side. In appreciation, I thanked him with some coin and we headed off but we were sure surprised to see him waiting for us on the Honduras side! True to form he shadowed us and it was quickly evident that there was going to be a major delay as the computers were down and queues grew quickly as bus loads of travellers started arriving. The “fixer” spoke English and his friendly banter was fun. I remember sitting on the concrete floor just watching him ‘work his magic’ with our group of bikers and this what I observed…He pro-actively spoke to officials to ask about the delay. When he knew the computers were down, he suggested a few solutions like standing in the queue for customs on our behalf and getting our vehicle paperwork stamped. Our group agreed to this time saver and handed the necessary $ amount for the permits to be stamped. Our “fixer” walked straight to a money changer, negotiated a better exchange rate and pocketed the difference. He was running backwards and forwards, bringing completed documents as we waited in the queue which had the computer delay. Soon we were thirsty and when one of us went to buy cool drinks our “fixer” was also treated to a beverage, as he was ‘one of us’ by this stage. Someone in our group noticed that the “fixer’s” ID badge had a photograph of someone else. Despite the photograph clearly being of a black man with an afro (which he was not!) he insisted it was an old photo himself and just laughed at us. The next thing I noticed was that our “fixer’s” English started ‘to fail’ … suddenly he could not speak English and ‘summoned a friend to translate’ what he was trying to say. It was all so obvious, that it was quite comical and I could see where this would soon head. A third ‘friend’ was soon recruited to ‘speed up the fumigation process’ which also had a long queue…  long story short, yes you guessed it, at the end of this 4-hour border crossing all these ‘friends’ needed to be paid for their help too! Simply masterful and cunning, it was actually quite entertaining and impressive to watch it all unfold. Through the Central American Integration System, there’s talk of pursuing a common currency and passport, which would make painful border crossings a thing of the past in Central America. As confronting and irritating as the “fixers” could be, my overriding thought was of them as people…desperate people simply trying to eke out a living by any means possible.

Throughout Central America people were wonderfully warm and incredibly generous of spirit. We experienced so many random acts of kindness that it made an incredible impact on us. Throughout the region there were so many examples of how individuals made a difference to our world – a lady offered us her umbrella when it started to rain, a pizza delivery man stopped to ask if we needed help with directions, a lady saw that I had fallen and she brought a first aid kit and bandaged my bleeding knee, a fellow biker stopped in traffic and offered to guide us to our destination, he also advised us of safer routes to travel…there were just so many examples of kindness that this has been our greatest impression of the beautiful Central American people. We have spoken a lot about what this has taught us…about ourselves …about our communities back home in Australia and how we could perpetuate this philosophy of kindness as a living legacy in our lives.

Guatamala… one word: Inspirational!

As we rode out of Mexico into Belize I was surprised to find myself teary…we had so loved our time in Mexico and the kinship we’d built with its people. The experience we’d had with the earthquake and seeing its devastation made me feel guilty for not staying to help in some way…what I did not yet know at that moment, was what a profound impact Guatemala would have on me.

We whizzed through Belize mainland in a day, as we’d already visited its island paradise and our hangovers from that party were still lingering. My main impression of Belize was of it being a very religious country and the many beautiful Brahman cattle and ranches. Billboards saying: “In God we trust” were prominent and we were surprised to see this printed even on the loo paper!

Border crossings are an anxious time for us and Guatemala was no exception. However, as we rode across the bridge into the country we were greeted by officials extending their arms out wide, smiling and greeting us with “Welcome to Guatemala!” On the Belize side of the border I had wanted to pop into the loo quickly, but a stern ‘loo-lady’ blocked me, frowning, demanding rudely that I pay. As we had no peso left by this stage, I was forced to retreat, as she had no mercy for my plight. In Guatemala there were no public banós (toilets), but the officials allowed me to use their private facilities with a smile. This made me think about how as individuals we can have such an impact on others, through simple acts of random kindness.

Our entry into Guatemala was processed quickly and we were pleasantly surprised at both the efficiency and friendliness. I asked why we did not have a stamp in our passports and was told “no es necesario” (it’s not necessary). Our crossing at the border appeared quick and painless, but later I will tell you how it all went so horribly wrong…

Our first stop was Tikal, the ruins of an ancient Maya city. As we left the jungle the following day, we came across a young couple pushing their broken down motorcycle in the heat. We stopped to help them without a second thought and there have been so many moments when I’ve reflected back on that random act of kindness, wondering if in some spiritual sense we had “paid it forward” for the many many many random acts of kindness we would subsequently experience in Guatemala?

Riding to Guatemala City was one of the worst experiences for me, due to the dangerous conditions of the road and the extent of the traffic. Mud, pot holes, sheer cliffs, steep inclines, trucks barreling along, steep camber, buses hooting, road works, head on traffic – and all of this happening at once! As an example, a 7km mountain pass took us just over an hour, due to the demanding riding conditions. Paul loved every minute, however I found the experience daunting, exhausting and simply terrifying! After many exhausting hours of riding, we limped into the city and straight into late afternoon rush hour traffic.

Chicken buses were hooting loudly and trucks jostling across lanes, it was still more of the terrifying riding. A fellow motorcyclist waved to us in the traffic then pulled over, beckoning we do the same. As we got off our bikes he greeted us with a wide smile, saying: “Welcome to my country! How can I help you?” Ricardo was our first Guatemalan ‘angel’ and there turned out to be many…

To this day we do not know why we chose to overnight in Guatemala City, (we always avoid major cities) but it was a blessing in disguise in so many ways. Ricardo guided us along a shortcut to our hotel, but on arrival he recommended we not stay there, as it was not in a safe part of town and the security was not as advertised. He quickly got on his phone and arranged an alternate hotel and guided us there. As we enjoyed a drink with him later he asked about our plans. He gently advised us to make a few changes, as we had chosen locations and roads known by locals as being dangerous. He gave us his contact details and made us promise to call him if we ever needed anything else. We soon discovered that Ricardo’s random act of kindness was not a once-off experience. There were so many moments where complete strangers stopped to ask if we needed help – a pizza delivery man stopped in the traffic asking if we were lost, a lady offered us her umbrella when it started to rain (I kid you not!) and later we were gifted many more acts of kindness in a very dire hour of need.

After a wonderful time exploring this beautiful country, we set off at 5am for our border crossing into El Salvador. We had been ‘warned’ about fixers at the border, so in advance we had agreed not to get conned into paying for their help. A few hundred metres from the border Paul stopped at a bank to exchange currency and I was waiting for him at the side of the road. A man on a motorcycle stopped to “say hello” and as this was nothing new, I exchanged friendly banter. It turns out he was a ‘fixer’ and Paul was furious that I’d inadvertently “engaged his services” by simply returning his greeting! I told him we did not need his help, but these guys are like super glue…you simply cannot get rid of them! He followed us all the way to the border post, lingering as we tried the immigration process unassisted. I soon knew something was wrong when the official asked where we had entered Guatamala, kept paging and paging and paging through my passport, going to see another official and eventually asking to see Paul’s passport…

Long story short, we were very politely told that there is “un pequeńo problema” (a small problem)! That stamp I had asked for as we entered from Belize?…yup, it was essential and we did not have one!

Without that stamp we were illegally in the country (our bikes were not) and we were told that we needed to return to Guatemala City and get it sorted out at Immigration. The look on Paul’s face can only be described as “ashen, shocked and horrified” …the thought of riding back all that way and of facing Guatemala City once again was just too much for us to handle in that moment! This was also the moment that the ‘fixers’ REALLY pounced!

Suddenly the ‘fixers’ were on us like bees to a honey pot, offering us all sorts of help, promising secret contacts who could sort out our predicament, without us having to ride all the way back to Guatemala City. With nothing to lose, we agreed to let them show us what could be done. We were called into the back office of the immigration officials and presented with a lady “who could give us the stamp for a fee of US$400”. Each time the ‘fixer’ turned away from the lady to talk to us, she vigorously shook her head and mouthed “no!” at us, but each time he turned to face her again, she smiled sweetly back at him. Thankful for her discreet warning, we were soon riding back to Guatemala City…

We had booked hotels in El Salvador and would be incurring cancellation costs, so wanted to minimise our delay as much as possible. En route back to the city I noticed a wobble in my steering and called it out to Paul. As the roads were so shonky, I was doubting my judgement about whether it was a problem with my bike or just the road conditions. We booked into our previous hotel, stored the bikes and set off in a cab to try and sort out our immigration challenge first, then deal with assessing the bike. Trying to sort out an immigration challenge in English is daunting enough…we had the challenge of trying to do this in Spanish! By the time we had stood in a few incorrect queues and been sent from pillar to post on various floors, it turned out that we arrived an hour late at the correct immigration counter. VISA applications are only processed in the mornings, so we were told to come back the next day. Absolutely deflated, I tried to explain our predicament in Spanish, asking if there was any other way forward. A young girl in the queue saw our struggle to communicate and offered to translate, as she spoke both English and Spanish.

Soon she had explained our whole story and managed to negotiate an exception, if we were prepared to wait another hour, which we did. Our cab driver had offered to wait and Paul went out for a second time, to let him know not to wait as we would be a couple more hours. He said he would wait for us, without extra charge. The staff at Immigration ended up working after hours to process our VISA application and with many “gracias” we were soon on our way. We were astounded at the willingness of the Guatemalan officials to help us, as it entailed involving people in a few departments, not just one. We made many new friends that day and people were interested in hearing about our journey and how much we’d loved their country. Our cab driver got a handsome tip for his generosity of spirit, making our lives so much easier by waiting for more than 2 hours.

Next we called Ricardo and within 15 minutes he was at our hotel, guiding us to BMW, who he had already made arrangements with to assess my bike (it was now after 5pm). We were told the front brake rotors were damaged and that it would cost US$1000 for parts to repair. As they dismantled the wheel, they also discovered that the wheel bearings had failed. The assumption was made that the bearings had failed, in turn causing the rotors to be damaged. The problem thus became a case for warranty repairs and our delay appeared to now be a matter of days. Shattered from a long, stressful day we had dinner and went to bed early. The next morning we walked over to BMW to receive the wonderful news that on final inspection it was only the wheel bearings that needed replacing, so after paying only about US$15 for parts we were soon on our way!

Looking back, both our trips to Guatemala City were a huge blessing in disguise. Guatemala City is where we met Ricardo and his advice about our route for subsequent travel was invaluable. Earlier this week we met 2 bikers from Canada who took that particular route and unfortunately they were held up at gun point and robbed. The lady’s clothes were cut off her body with a machete and she was extremely traumatised just telling us about their terrible ordeal. Had we not returned a second time to Guatemala City where there is a BMW dealer, we may not have assessed my bike so early, and it would have eventually failed quite dramatically. We would have been stranded with serious bike problems and without a BMW dealer to be found for many countries.

Since I’ve been a young child I’ve always started and ended each day giving thanks. Noticing the things to be thankful for has always come easily. Our journey through Guatemala has been such a powerful lesson in how the simple acts of random kindness by individuals can make such an incredible impact on the lives of others… I asked Paul what word he would use to describe our experience of this in Guatemala. He said: “Inspirational!”


Chance encounters

In Oaxaca we decided to book a few tours. It was our way of resting and kicking back awhile. Having a guide explain the history of the sights was a bonus, but little did we expect it would be such an education in human behaviour and for so many strange reasons! We discovered that a bunch of strangers could set out in the morning on a tour and return ‘best of friends’ after spending a day together, rattling around on a bus. We were brought together by shared experiences and we had not bargained for these to be quite so bizarre.

Our tour guide was exceptional, a Zapotec native who animatedly brought to life the Zapotec culture and history at the sites we visited. He was very strict about timing, making sure we knew what time to be back at the bus, after each particular point of interest. I was disappointed to be ushered back to the bus quite so quickly, then perplexed to discover no bus driver in sight! We waited for what seemed a very long time, during which the tour guide went looking for the driver. Eventually the driver came running, half clothed, shoes in hand and with a pitiful explanation of why he was ‘late’. We accepted his story of ‘helping a friend’ but when this happened at each of the following stops we soon concluded with much giggling amongst ourselves that he must have a ‘friend-in-need-nudge-nudge-wink-wink’ at each attraction!

At lunch we were served Mezcal and this may be what turned the situation into something entirely more bizarre…our tour guide became more animated with each passing hour, soon not even caring about the missing driver. His renditions of the sights became increasingly grandiose and flamboyant, his change in behaviour quite insane. The tour ended abruptly with the guide shouting farewell, then jumping out of the bus and leaving, but not before he remembered to collect gratuities prior to leaving us in such style…

As we neared Oaxaca, we noticed tuk-tuks upturned and burned out, the streets becoming clogged with traffic and chaos. Our driver informed us that there was a protest and suggested we get out of the bus for our own safety. Google maps got us safely home on foot, but not before the heavens opened and we were drenched in monsoonal showers! The inadequate drainage was quite something to experience as the streets quickly turned into raging rivers. Dealing with a flooded apartment we discovered our riding gear and helmets were drenched. We eventually got to bed just before midnight but if we thought the day’s events were over, we were in for a surprise…

It was just before midnight and I was reading as Paul dosed off for the night. The bed started shaking and I wondered what Paul was up to. It then sounded like a train was approaching and rattling the room, but within seconds the vibration became violent as the 8 magnitude earthquake struck. Neither of us had experienced an earthquake before, but we quickly realised what was happening. It’s hard to describe the events adequately but I felt such panic as the rumbling grew louder, more violent and seemingly without end. In the days to follow we were humbled to see the devastation and grateful for our safety. We were supposed to be at the coast but had delayed our trip by a day, to meet Peppo in Oaxaca. Had we been in that coastal town who knows what we may have experienced, as it was one of the towns hardest hit. Because of tsunami warnings we changed our travel plans and headed inland towards Chiapas instead.

I spent some time with Peppo, who administers the Oaxaca Street Children Grassroots foundation. It was an inspirational encounter, seeing his passion for his work, meeting some of the children and learning about the remarkable impact of the organisation. It was founded in 1996 by Harold and Jodi Bauman, an American couple. Whilst on vacation in Oaxaca, Jodi was moved by a chance encounter with a child begging in the streets, instead of being in school. She had a vision that giving that child a few pesos would grant care for a moment, whilst giving that child an education would grant care for a lifetime. Initially they supported a family by enrolling their children in school, then each year expanded their support, spending more time in Oaxaca and eventually moving there and starting the Grassroots Organisation. Today the organisation supports around 650 children a year, aged 4 to 25, which means that each year some youngsters are graduating with degrees from University!

As we’ve travelled through Chiappas I have been shocked and deeply disturbed by observing such rampant child labour – children are out on the streets selling tourist keepsakes in towns like San Cristobal, begging or singing for pesos ‘till late at night. It’s obvious they aren’t attending school, because they’re out working. I’d been told of the beauty of Chiappas, but not the plight of its children. It’s confronting to see what appeared to be 10-year old boys digging trenches and young girls of 7 or 8 selling trinkets or begging. As we’ve travelled towards Palenque, the children have appeared more desperate, setting up road blocks to extort money from travellers. Our tour guide explained why these road blocks exist – children out making money instead of being in school is part of the native culture, values which we find hard to understand. Young girls are married off early, ensuring the cycle continues.

It will take some time to process what I believe would be a valuable response to what I’ve seen, but for now I wrestle with mixed emotions of anger, shame and compassion. Having seen what a remarkable difference one woman could make after a chance encounter in Oaxaca, it has certainly got me thinking…

Magnificent Guanajuato!

We met Saya at the University steps on our first Sunday morning in Guanajuato. We were accompanying her on a field visit to one of the sites where The Muskoka Foundation works its magic. As she hailed a taxi she told us not to jump in yet, saying she had to first ask the driver if he was prepared to take us to our destination, explaining that taxis sometimes refused because of the ‘dangerous’ area we’re going through. So many thoughts crowded my mind as we got into the taxi and set off to visit Casa de las Nubes…

The community refer to Casa de las Nubes as “the squatter settlement” as it’s a community built in an unregistered zone. It’s located on top of a mountain overlooking the city, “Casa de las Nubes” literally means “Home in the clouds”. The people living there call their home “Los Angeles” which means ‘the angels’.  Standing amidst the community members gathered for their Sunday meeting, the magnificent view from this mountaintop certainly was that afforded angels. We were aware the irony that in this city, the poorest people had the best view.

It’s a challenging life for the people of ‘Los Angeles’ because of the isolated terrain, lack of access to water and electricity and the impact of poverty. The work of The Muskoka Foundation is born of the belief that every child deserves to succeed at learning, connect positively with others and live in an environment where they are not in danger. That day’s community meeting was addressing topics such as collecting money to fill the water tank and discussing positive tactics for addressing crime being experienced by the community which consisted mainly of women, because their men have to travel to find work.

We greeted people gathered for the meeting in basic Spanish and shared a giggle with children holding puppies. I was sitting in the dust with some children and felt a little arm wrapping around my shoulders in a hug. I looked up at a magnificent grin and soon knew the little boy’s name was Theo and that he was offering me a chance to hold his puppy. I was acutely aware that my basic command of Spanish was limited to expressing my own needs and not exploring the needs of others. I could ask someone their name or order a few beers but was unable to ask the people around me anything about their lives…

The following morning Paul and I woke early for our first day of Spanish school. As we walked the cobbled lanes we were amongst children walking to their first day of school and university students gathered for early morning lectures. The week flew by as we settled into our routine of early morning starts and classes until the afternoon. Paul learned Spanish much faster than I did and soon he was making jokes in Spanish and had the teachers laughing. He was the class larrikin and I was the serious one, fretting over words and phrases which didn’t seem to stick as readily for me in practice. I could read and understand and knew how to construct sentences, but having a conversation or understanding what someone said was something entirely different! Somehow the words I knew didn’t “just come up in every conversation!”

I haven’t been well and struggling with mouth ulcers. It got so bad that I was quite desperate and crying at the drop of a hat. One afternoon I skipped the last 2 lessons of school, because I was just so miserable. I went to a pharmacy to get medication. As Paul was not with me, I had a tough time making myself understood with my limited Spanish. Having to show the pharmacist the inside of my mouth was one thing, but trying to understand what she was saying was another. A man in the queue behind me could speak a bit of English, so he offered to look into my mouth as well and the two of them chatted away in Spanish about what medication I required. I was happy with what seemed to be the right medication, but as I was paying an American couple came into the pharmacy and the husband could speak Spanish. The pharmacist spoke to the American in Spanish and soon he was also asked to look into my mouth and confirm that I had indeed been given the correct medication! I was so embarrassed and close to crying, but the thought which kept me grateful was that at least I did not have a boil on my bum!

Later that day we were out shopping and as I was feeling weak and quite ill, I waited at the shop’s entrance for Paul as he shopped. A security guard came over asking questions and I explained to her in Spanish that I was feeling ill and waiting for my husband. In a caring tone she said something which I didn’t quite understand, but I thanked her as she brought me a chair. Soon after that the store manager arrived, asking me if he should call an ambulance. I obviously declined (with many exclamations of “gracias!”), but started to worry about what I had said in Spanish that had everyone so concerned. When Paul arrived and translated, it transpired that in my limited command of Spanish I had them thinking that I was having a heart attack – hand on my chest I’d said: “I’ve got pain” instead of “I’m unwell”…

Stopping awhile and becoming members of this vibrant community has been incredibly rewarding. Guanajuato is a city built around the mining industry and the university. It’s incredibly hilly and consists of steep cobblestone lanes running in a convoluted maze from the city centre up into the surrounding mountains. We walk everywhere, because the road system is just too complicated. There are tunnels under the city, moving cars where the cobbled lanes can’t. A walk into the city centre is a steep 15 minutes down cobbled lanes, whereas going by bike would be 40 minutes of convoluted driving. Our bikes have not budged since the day we arrived. There’s music and colour everywhere. People are incredibly friendly and the lanes are filled with stalls selling fruit, pastries, flowers, tacos and other eats. On our way to Spanish school we pass people eating taco breakfasts at stalls set up in the lanes, kids buying their lunch or women selling stationary supplies from baskets on the sidewalk. The informal trade is incredible, food stalls are set up outside people’s homes in the mornings and aren’t there in the afternoons.

We have explored most of the city and one day completed >20km on foot! We took the funicular up to the lookout over the city at the Pipila monument, which commemorates an Indian miner who died in a mining revolt. Locals dressed as skeletons and posed with tourists taking photos (at a price) and vendors sold fruit and sweets covered in chilli. We visited the mummy museum which is a macabre display of mummified corpses dug up when families were unable to pay burial taxes. We passed the Callejon Del Beso quite by chance and couldn’t resist posing for a kiss in this narrow alley which is famous for its love story between Carmen and Luis. The Mercado Hildago market is something we only admired from the outside, as shopping is not a priority for us. We walked the very steep cobbled lanes up to the Presa de la Olla dam and enjoyed a few beers whilst watching people paddle little boats. One afternoon we joined class mates from Spanish school on a tour of one of the local mines, then we caught the bus back into the city. Paul has loved putting each day’s lessons to practice: asking directions or striking up conversations, just for fun. We wanted to immerse ourselves, learning Spanish and immersed we certainly are…

We have had a few concerned messages from family about our safety, following the recent American Government alert about Mexico in the media. We have been aware of the incidents reported and were actually in some of the places at the time (Ensenada, La Paz, San Cabo in the Baja and Mazatlan on mainland Mexico.) What I can report is that we have never felt threatened, nor has any place we’ve been to been unsafe. The trouble has been between rival drug cartels and since we haven’t frequented such places, we’ve been okay. We’re not being naive about dangers but we aren’t being paranoid either. Our approach has been to stay informed and to try and understand. As an example: when we were first concerned about the taxi not wanting to go through a ‘dangerous’ place on that first Sunday we had a discussion about the reasons why. We came to understand that taxi’s are soft targets, as they carry a lot of cash and that the road was a dirt track. So taxis were simply taking a sensible approach to the reality of their situation and the possible ‘danger’ for themselves – something which had no bearing on us. We walked home safely later that day and not once did we feel anything untoward. We have chosen a balanced approach – to be aware of the reality of situations through speaking with locals, challenging the media and taking a sensible approach with minimal risk.  We also speak regularly to others who are currently on the road in Mexico and Central America and we have a very good idea of the areas to avoid. It’s pretty much the same approach to safety we’d be taking back home…and Mexico is home for the moment.

Mi casa tu casa

Mexican hospitality can best be described by the words “mi casa tu casa” which means “my house is your house.” The first time we heard these words were in Canada, on the very first day of our trip. We had left Vancouver that morning in the pouring rain and that afternoon sat sheltering in a diner near Whistler. A lady came over to us to ask where we were from. We were quite a curiosity, quite a sight…two drenched bikers riding in Canada’s insane winter weather! It turned out she’s from Mexico and when she heard our travel plans, she said those precious words “mi casa tu casa”, meaning we could stay with her on our way through Mexico!

Mexican people are beautiful – incredibly friendly, open, warm and welcoming. We have been stopped at traffic lights and asked where we’re from and offered help and accommodation when stopped getting fuel. When Miguel Urista offered to host us, we rode back to Etzatlan, just to meet the man we had been corresponding with for about a year. He is affectionately called “doc” by the locals who were quick to help guide us to find his home – when stopped asking for directions, it seemed everyone knew who he was!

Our first evening with Miguel, he took us for an evening stroll and a meal at the town plaza. The town plaza is where people meet in the evenings. For a meal, a laugh, a stroll… or in our case a lesson in cooking tortillas and churros! As we walked around with Miguel, we were warmly greeted and Miguel had fun introducing us as travellers from Australia. The local vendors had fun watching Paul, after inviting him to try his hand at making some of the local fare. Paul’s tortillas were great, but his churros were quite out of shape and there were many jokes about the ‘Churros Australiano’,  how much they might fetch in price and with much glee it was decided that it was Paul’s new nickname!

Miguel is a dentist and visiting his practice was great fun.  His surgery is unique in that it is decorated with motorcycle memorabilia including a ‘bikers’ wall of fame’,  which is a collection of stickers and signatures of overland motorcyclists. Miguel ceremoniously presented us with a ladder which Paul and I climbed to add our sticker and signatures to the ‘bikers’ wall of fame.’

On our second evening with Miguel, he hosted a dinner party in our honour. His courtyard was soon filled with 17 motorcycles as “Chumikys” bike members arrived in droves. There was only 1 person who could speak English, yet somehow we were able to communicate and had an incredibly special evening. ‘Talking’ bikes and travel, drinking tequila and being taught how to cook ‘chorizo con queso’ which is a really delicious treat!

It was sad saying goodbye, however Miguel Urista introduced us to our next hosts in Querataro – the Los Peppes brothers. Bollo and Jose run a restaurant called Los Pepes, with their father, Jose Manuel. All three men go by the name Jose – Jose Miguel (Bollo), Jose Manuel (Snr) and Jose Manuel (Jnr). ‘Pepe’ is the nickname for the name Jose, so their restaurant is called “Los Pepes”, which means “the Pepes”. We were welcomed as family and treated to great food, great company and many laughs. The Pepes men are incredibly full of life and mischief, so Paul was instantly at home with them and we enjoyed their company immensely.

Jose Manuel (Jnr) accompanied us the following day on his motorcycle and guided us to some local sights – Pena Bernal, Ezequiel Montes and Tequisquiapan. Pena Bernal is a ‘Pueblo Magico’ and famous for it’s monolith which is 433m tall and dominates the town’s picturesque scenery. Ezequiel Montes is a beautiful wine region and we visited a winery called Finca Sala Viva, enjoying a lunch of cheese, olives, bread, salami and prosciutto. In Tequisquiapan we walked along the Plaza, visited art studios, chatted about life in Mexico and watched the world go by.

Thanks to Miguel Urista, we’ve been inundated with offers of help and accommodation as we travel through the rest of Mexico, Central and South America. We are immensely grateful for the Mexican tradition of “mi casa tu casa”! Muchos gracias Amigos…