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Spotted in the Not So Big City
I have a funny memory.
I have family in Germany, but I did not tell them I was going.
We were in Berlin downtown and in the middle of a big crowd, someone yelled “Cindy!”
I thought “Oh, there must be a lot of Cindys in Germany.”
They yelled again, “Cindy Gross!”
And I’m like, “That is really specific…”
It was my cousin.
Technology Saves the Day
Manuel and I were in Istanbul, traveling to Athens by land. This involved catching a train in Thessaloniki, and it’s almost a 4-hour ride. When we arrived to Thessaloniki, I was able to see the train so we ran to meet it.
Once we arrived in Athens, Manuel realised he’d left his cell phone on the bus!
So, I called the agency and they gave me the number of the driver. He was from Bulgaria and spoke Russian and no English.
I wrote on my tablet everything I needed to ask him and clicked translate. My tablet asked him about our things and gave us the address.
Stepping Back Into the Inca World
My favorite travel memories are travelling around the Sacred Valley and visiting Machu Picchu.
The beautiful landscape of the Sacred Valley harbours traditions and an ancient culture that locals still preserve today, making it truly unique. When traveling around there, I felt that I was going back in time!
Machu Picchu just took my breath away. I could not believe what the Incas built so many years ago in the middle of the Andes Mountains. Such a special place, where you can feel the spiritual energy and a deep connection with the past.
Life Is A Bolivian Highway
Driving from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni Bolivia, you cross the Altiplano – high plains – and on this route there are no roads, just dirt tracks. This was before the internet and google maps. We made our way based on notes of previous tour leaders that had passed through and a compass. It was true old school exploration and I loved it!
It’s a 2-day trip and our night stop was a basic bunk house on the shore of Laguna Colorado at an altitude of about 4300m. It had toilets, beds and was heated – all an overlander could ask for! We were no more than 2km from our night stop when we decided to skirt the edge of the lake to get better views of the thousands of flamingos that feed in the lake. Well, wouldn’t you know it, we hit a thin crust of the shore line and sank up to our axles in mud! No overland trip is worth its salt until you have had to dig your truck out… but doing that at 4300m, the novelty wears off quickly as it did in this case.
Our band of overlanders might have been hardy adventurers, but at the end of the day, they were also paying ‘punters’ who don’t want to camp at 4300m in the Bolivian plains where temperatures can drop well below 0 at night.
The locals – husband and wife – who man the bunk house, saw our plight and came out see what was up on their little motor bike. They soon realised we were stuck and needed help that would have to come the next day. The sun was going down, as was the temperature, but the mood of the group was going up, as husband and wife offered to shuttle our group on the back of their bike, with pack backs in hand to the refugio. 20 odd trips later, the group and my co-driver were hunkered down for the night and I spent the night on the truck at about a 45-degree angle hoping I wouldn’t wake up the next day as a ‘boat’ floating around the lake.
Now, you must understand where we were, in the middle of absolute nowhere. So the help we needed to get the truck out – a grader – was going to be very hard to find. We had a schedule to keep so we needed to find a solution. Since these roads are not roads, but dirt tracks. The Bolivian government maintains them and we found out that there was a road crew 50km away.
One thing you learn when you travel is that for the most part people are wonderful, giving, caring and as open to adventure as you are. The dynamic husband and wife duo offered to take my co-driver on their bike 50km to ask the grader to come help us. There was no guarantee they would go out of their way like that, but desperate times mean desperate measures.
So, I sat on the our truck, aka our only means of getting 20 odd passengers out of the middle of nowhere, as my co-drive hopped on the back of 500CC motor bike with some random Bolivian and set off into the far distance, over the hills and far away in the hope of bringing help.
The hours ticked by, as did my hope for a rescue and as I played out contingency plans in my mind. These were as limited as the roads around me! Through the heat haze, I at last saw a grader chugging its way in my direction. “Hallelujah!” I screamed, knowing no one could hear me because this was ‘social distancing’ on steroids.
With not a word said, the grader hooked up to the truck and in one mighty heave that took all of 10 seconds, we were free! We paid the grader driver all of $20US for his 100km round trip, he said ‘gracias,’ and headed off into the altiplano as we picked up our group and began the drive back to ‘civilization,’ or in this case, Uyuni. We arrived on schedule with memories that are as fresh today as the cold was that night. Memories of the beauty, the good-natured Bolivians, and some well-deserved, self-inflicted embarrassment.
Making Friends in Strange Places
Trials and tribulations always make the best stories, provided things all work out in the end!
London to Kathmandu was one of the first popular overland journeys and the route has an allure to this day. After years leading trips in Latin America I wanted a new challenge and this was it for me. The route took you through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India and then into Nepal!
At the time, our journey took us through the tribal lands of northern Pakistan, where the Taliban were starting to assert influence. While the Taliban was then mostly unknown to the wider world, this region of Pakistan is as old as time itself and ruled by local laws. Info gathered by previous groups, passed on and continually updated, warned us not to travel at night and to only camp in a police compound in town.
The first night of our 3-day journey through the tribal lands we did as instructed. The local police arranged a guard who watched over us all night with an AK47. The locals crowded the front gate to get a look at this strange site of 20 odd westerners travelling in some large truck and choosing to sleep in tents. Travel and wonder can be a two-way street more often than not.
We thanked our hosts and continued our journey towards Peshawar with one more night of camping planned en route. We stopped to have lunch and check our maps – paper maps – then continued looking for the next town with a police compound. Each town we passed was bereft of a police presence. The police were in the area more for show than anything else. Tribal lands = tribal law. The sun was going down and anxiety levels were going up as there were no more towns on the map. What to do?
I spy in the distance a half-completed building where I can hide our 22-tonne truck. We drove up the hill, and parked the truck like an elephant trying to hide behind a small shrub. We instructed the group to make no noise, light no fires, have a quick dinner, and then get to bed while the crew – myself and my co-driver, took shifts in keep watch.
You may look around yourself and see nothing around you but in a world with so much space there is always someone nearby. Westerners in the area were not generally liked. We had women in the group not dressed correctly by local standards, which would have been a full burkha, and we were camping on our own, NOT in a police compound. No more than 40 minutes passed before a group of locals approached us. I internally went into panic mode, thinking we may be in for trouble with disgruntled locals, imagining every local in the tribal lands carries an automatic rifle!
Nothing could have been further from the truth. The locals in question were the owners of the land coming down to check out what was up! After some introductions, we were offered a warm welcome, two armed guards for the night, access to water and food if required – we declined as the trucks carried all our food and water, and the knowledge we can rest easy for the night, despite the fact that we were camping outside a police compound.
Why do I say “rest easy”? Because the owner of the land happened to be the brother of Pakistan’s President and he assured me that that status, let alone his status within the tribal lands, will assure our safety for the night.
Trials and tribulations always make the best memories and stories, provided all works out in the end, as this did!
Fiesta on the Shores of Lake Titicaca
The drive from Puno, Peru, to La Paz, Bolivia was always fun. Apart from the stunning views driving along the shore of Lake Titicaca, the border crossing with the black-market money changing in back alleys and the “tumbleweed vibe” of the actual border made the crossing memorable. What was to come on this day has made it one of the more ‘unique’ journeys into La Paz.
Once you enter Bolivia, the next big event is crossing Lake Titicaca. Bolivia once had a coastline, but this was lost to Chile in the War of the Pacific (1879 to 1884). Having a coastline normally means having a navy, but what do you do with your navy if you lose your coast? In Bolivia’s case, you assign them the task of looking after a small portion of your only water-based territory, and that happens to be Lake Titicaca.
The crossing of the lake is by make shift barges for vehicles and small motor boats for the people. The crossing takes about 30 minutes under the watchful eye of Bolivia’s Navy personnel. This crossing is usually the last big highlight of this day of driving, but today would be different.
As you head to La Paz, you pass numerous small villages. Normally, these are quiet as the inhabitants are off in the fields tilling their crops. As we headed south, we came upon an abundance of humanity spilling out onto the road. A protest – which is common in Bolivia and usual harmless – was my first thought but on closer observation, we realized there was a fiesta (party) going on.
As we slowed the vehicle, being cautious not to dampen the mood by running over one of the many highly intoxicated party goers, the spirits of both welcoming curiosity and an 80 proof local home brew saw the locals inviting us to the party.
One of the joys of overlanding – driving from place to place – is the freedom and flexibility to stop and take in expected and unexpected views and ‘happenings’ as we did this time. The party we discovered was a wedding celebration and without hesitation the bride and groom’s family welcomed us, 20 odd gringos, to the extended family and into the celebrations of the day.
Needless to say, we sampled the local home brew which knocked us on our backsides with both its potency and sweetness. The local dress and dance floored us as well. Many of the locals work their days at 4000m plus, in the fields, so when there is a reason to party, they don’t hold back. As my group mixed, danced, and drank, the bride and groom sat stone faced on a dias as witness to mum and dad and all their relatives getting absolutely toasted in celebration of the nuptials.
An hour later we extracted ourselves from an ever-growing sense of love and welcoming… Okay, we couldn’t handle the chicha local brew anymore. Altitude and alcohol don’t mix if you’re not used to it, and we did have a schedule to keep. We waved farewell to newfound friends of whose names we couldn’t remember and made our way to La Paz. For the record, neither I, nor my co-driver partook in drinking! For many of the passengers, the next day saw slightly foggy memories thanks to the Andean chicha, but the hangover soon cleared and memories returned and remain vivid to this day, when 20 strangers were invited to be part of a wedding celebration on the shores of Lake Titicaca.
The Wonderful Wildlife of the Seventh Continent
After visiting the 7 modern wonders of the world, I wanted finish another personal travel goal. That was to visit all 7 continents. To do this, I had to visit the only one missing on my list – Antarctica!
I had seen so many photos and videos out in the world, cruelly ‘rubbed in my face’ daily at work as we consulted with many others heading to the great Southern Continent. Those photos, in hindsight, didn’t do justice to this shinning white jewel at the bottom of our world. Antarctica is a place that I needed to see with my own eyes and I recommend you do the same if you ever have the opportunity.
There is no other place, outside of the Galapagos – another destination within my purview as a Central and South America destination expert – that I have visited that allowed me to come so close to the wildlife species that inhabit the region. Penguins of all stripes (and patches and patterns), seals from the small, to the large and sluggish (elephant), to the aggressive (leopard), sea lions, and a plethora of winged wildlife (a birder’s heaven is Antarctica). There were birds on the ocean, in the air, and on the back of the sluggish seals. Meanwhile, in the waters, whales were in numbers to challenge the birds. Humpback, minke, fin, and killer whales made an appearance, some just few meters away from our Zodiac boat.
Towering above and all of this wildlife were glaciers and icebergs of all different shapes and sizes. Their colors, molded by the strong winds that wind their way through the region in winter (Apr – Sep), were visible during the day and night, thanks to the midnight sun during the Antarctic summer (Oct – Mar). All these elements and more made Antarctica an unforgettable trip.
The Magic of Atacama
I chose to visit this area based on its awesome reputation, but as time was getting closer, I kept thinking, ‘What will I do in the desert other than see dunes and sand?’ My thoughts were proven wrong. I had an amazing time and wish I had stayed longer. There was so much more to see and do than I expected, including Moon Valley, sunset over Death Valley, Tatio geyser, salt flats, star gazing and hiking on the sand dune.
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