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Mamma Negra Festival in Ecuador – Latachunga,

grey Mamma Negra Festival in Ecuador    Latachunga,

I am in Latacunga, a rural city two hours out of Quito and feeling rather alone. I do not have my english/spanish dictionary nor any maps. I didn’t think that I would need either as my friends have maps and both speak very good spanish. We are here to see one of the most famous festival in ecuador

Unfortunately I was unable to squeeze onto the first bus. The last I saw of my friends was two hours ago as the bus pulled away with them on board leaving me stranded on the platform. I decided to just continue catching busses with the hope of meeting them again. grey Mamma Negra Festival in Ecuador    Latachunga,

We have decided to go to the Mamma Negra festival, this is apparently a must do if you are around town in September. The people of Latacunga live very close to Cotopaxi volcano. Once a year they hold a festival which is an eclectic mix of traditional and christian beliefs to appease the gods and to stop their town being destroyed. They think this works and have clearly forgiven the four times it didn’t work and their city was destroyed. Just as I was getting ready to write off the day as a loss and by pure chance I bump into my friends amongst the throngs of revelers and we set about finding the action. We had a few false starts then follow the music to a street corner where we buy a liter of beer each for $1, beer is a necessity in the sun. The lonely planet reads that once you find the festival it is impossible to not join in. This is very true. grey Mamma Negra Festival in Ecuador    Latachunga,

Soon we are in the street amongst thousands of colorfully dressed people dancing, drinking and enjoying themselves. The parade winds its way through the street helped along by a cacophony of sound provided by countless marching and salsa bands. The atmosphere is electric, everyone is having fun and dancing. Drunk people dance in between trumpet players and guitarists. An army marching band passes us trailed by its own alcohol cart. The band master is holding a half empty bottle of spirit rather than a baton. Couples kiss and dance while we sip our beers and snap away on our cameras. grey Mamma Negra Festival in Ecuador    Latachunga,Even the police are spotted enjoying a sneaky dram. Random paraders regularly approach us and pour various concoctions down our throats. This is for good luck, soon we are feeling very lucky indeed. A foursome dressed in pure white do a cleansing dance around Victor and Vincent. This ends with a man spitting a mouthful of spirits all over them. They are cleansed. A man behind us is passed out clutching an empty bottle of whiskey. We have had about 6 shots of various strengths forced (bend my rubber arm!) upon us and decide it would be wise to leave early rather than risking being drunk and homeless in a foreign, crazy town.

 

 

grey Mamma Negra Festival in Ecuador    Latachunga,grey Mamma Negra Festival in Ecuador    Latachunga,Our good luck with busses continues, we quickly find a bus and soon we arrive at Quito, exhausted but still enjoying the moment. Victor realizes that his wallet has been stolen. It has been a bad week for him with Ipod, camera, jacket and now his wallet growing legs. Back at the hostel I think to myself that the festival would be quite effective. The noise, chaos and mess of that parade would be enough to make any god think twice before messing with the people of Latacunga.

Quito, Ecuador homestay

Mum is currently ironing Ando’s shorts and pants to get him ready for a flight to New York. It is refreshing to be surrounded by such domestic normality. However I do not pass the opportunity to tease him about being ‘madres poco nino.’

I am enjoying torturing my new family with bad Spanish while sleeping with my pack in a room the size of a beer carton. There is no floor space and to sleep I have to spoon with my pack. Spooning with big red has not become weird yet, we have shared some highs and lows this year and have formed a strong bond in the process, there are no secrets between us.

Mum is the head of the household and compensates for an almost empty nest by taking in lost Spanish students. Mum comes up with a new nickname for me every time I see her. This morning I was a ‘povrito’ (poor little boy), this afternoon ‘delicisio’ (self explanatory) tonight I have been promoted to ‘cholito’ (Spanish version of nigger). Dad makes the odd tired and grumpy cameo appearance between shift working. Their son Ando is a very muscular and very gay flight attendant. I spent much of last night teaching him how to say platypus. This is a very difficult word for the native Spanish speaker to wrap their tongue around, “Try again mate…Plat-a-puss.”

“Plant-i-pies….plat-u-pees…..plat-a-push, oh, just forget it Ben. Hey do you like to party?”

As well as improving my Spanish I have learnt that when a gay flight attendant asks if you like to party the correct answer (for the straight man of course) is “No.” Confusion reigned supreme after Ando got the wrong impression with my reply, “Yes, a bit, depends on my mood mate. I used to go out and party with just about anyone at every opportunity you know, but these days I mainly just enjoy staying in on weekends and partying with a few friends.”

My new home is in a very secure compound which from the outside closely resembles a gaol. This is some comfort to me as Shaun recently had his house entered by four armed robbers. He and his family were tied up for four hours and held at gunpoint while the men casually loaded televisions and anything of value into a waiting truck. Suffice to say I do not begrudge having to open three separate locks to arrive home.

Walking to Spanish school and watching the psychotic traffic I think about the little differences that make Quito such an interesting town. Young people walk with salsa songs squeaking from mobile phone speakers, they strut along the cracked pavement like it is their private WWF walk on music, “aaaand In the blue corner is the Juan Bigflank!”

People more dance than walk about their way, this is a skill I am working on and have only mastered after one too many Mojitos, similar to dancing and karaoke.

It is impossible to get a decent feed of vegetables without paying some kind of gastronomic tax. The weather is very stable and the scenery spectacular. Things are cheap; one litre of beer is one dollar, mineral water only forty cents. Police do not equal safety, if you were in trouble they would just as likely watch the action with nonchalant disinterest and wait for a payoff from the aggressor. One really comes to value friendship with a walk to the ATM becoming two vastly different experiences with or without friends, as does catching a bus or going to the shops.

That said the city is beautiful, it is bristling with parks and old colonial buildings. There are some truly spectacular sights to enjoy whilst firmly clutching wallet and camera inside coat pockets.

People are happy and do not know what an ab-blaster or toasted sandwich maker is. They do not care much for material things. Group them together on a sunny day and press play on an old scratchy stereo and they morph into one single, stomping, ecstatic entity. Compare that scene with the unhappy house wife in suburbia. She is surrounded with shiny big screen watsits and plug in thingamies all pre-ported to make life both easier and happier. She waits all day for her husband to return from work with more funds for that much needed 20 000 amp poo-wizzer. She whiles away her time pushing a Dyson 3 000 and trolling the internet on her brand new 100 inch Dell million giga-thingo deluxe ‘master hub’ searching for the secret to happiness.

I wander into the Spanish School very glad that I am off that bus, red rucksack, crappy old camera and myself are doing just fine. I am slightly disappointed I have never seen a

20 000 amp poo wizzer in action though.

My last week of lessons are very difficult. Having mastered present tense and obligatory statements my teacher and I have moved on to tackle future and past tense. I would be happy to just walk the parks asking people for directions with my teacher laughing from a safe distance like last week. Thankfully I now possess enough Spanish to upsize my KFC meal and to order more than one beer at a time. The more Spanish I learn, the easier it is to learn. My current work is to translate a paragraph and answer some questions. My translation reads as follows;

‘Such how agree tomorrow. Seven months, ten to reunite the people plaza. Think morning delicious and the day is presented. On seven point arrive the bus immediate sound first gear. Hurrah! Mr conductor. Roll up your rucksack and seat occupants each trip results in singers of songs. Own the occasion, for some count jokes and laughs…’

My confidence about navigating South America alone is high as written Spanish is harder than spoken. I think.

I hope I never need to reunite the people plaza or I will be in big trouble. Staring at my books I have reached an executive decision not to learn past or future tense, it is much more fun just living in the present.

Own the occasion for some count jokes and laughs.

Cuenca, Nariz del Diablo – The Devils nose

grey Cuenca, Nariz del Diablo   The Devils nose

Banos means toilet in spanish, why would you call a town that? Where are you from? The toilet…. Fortunately Banos was not the shit of a town I expected. Banos sits below a very active volcano and boasts hot springs, it’s main attraction. Along with the Devils nose train line

Travel ing with three friends on our first night in Banos we made an informed and unanimous decision to go out and get drunk. Our first stop, after the best Italian food I have tasted since my days waitering at the Mona Lisa, was a spot called the Crazy Leprauchan. The bar man met us with the promised free drink. Unlike other free drinks offered this was not a 30ml watered down beer rather a very potent shot called the Bob Marley. We skulled the firey and flaming shot then found a comfortable spot downstairs. I cannot begin to describe just how ecclectic and interesting the decor of this place is. Hung brass band instruments compete for wall space with old style pushbikes and paintings and murals of Leprachauns and Faeries. A central courtyard area boasts a huge fire surrounded with wooden benches with a four meter water feature behind. We settle in for a very relaxing night of talking, them teasing my bad accent and planning the next time we can catch up. Victor and I are surprised to learn that we both plan on visiting Jakarta next year. Me to visit my sister and her family, Victor to do a fifth year placement.  grey Cuenca, Nariz del Diablo   The Devils nose

Skip to the next morning and we are walking to the hot springs in the heat. Our very chilled out night ended at 2am at the hostel thankfully with neither dancing or singing skills being displayed. The hot springs are situated at the bottom of a very green and tall cliff boasting a veritable fruit salad of cloud forest fauna. Unfortunately the hot springs also boast dirty white pools, lots of litter and crowds of people trying to escape the heat.

We had a quick dip in the brown soup that was the main pool, dodging latinos, avoiding getting our ears wet for fear of infection and what was that slimy slippery thing I stood on?!

After a laze in the sun we went to the hostel to pack for my first non-tour big ticket item of the trip, the Nariz Del Diablo, the Devils nose train line. I was very excited about riding on the Nariz Del Diablo, it is an historic train line which winds its way south through the andes and passes Chimborazo. Chimborazo is a 6000 plus meter mountain and one of the more stunning hills in Ecuador. We had planned to climb onto the roof of the train with a bottle of champagne and to really sign off on a great time together in style. Dave our american friend was bussing in direct from Quito to catch the train at the 6:30am departure time. We did not double check, in true Ecuadorian style when you are a little late, the train left half an hour earlier than advertised. Despite Victor and I near lying on the track to delay the departure. The train trundled through town and we felt like true VIPs with people at each crossing stopping the traffic.

grey Cuenca, Nariz del Diablo   The Devils noseThe final stage of the Nariz Del Diablo was closed due to recent land slides. As the track is undergoing repair the old style steam train was not being used, rather we trundled along for three hours right next to the highway in a bus converted with train wheels. I will not say that the trip was a let down, rather it was not quite what I had expected. We did see the oldest catholic church in Quito and a beautiful town hidden amongst the hills. Friendly locals waved, and the excited american lady waved back, as we passed. I tried to convince the guide to let us onto the roof. Due to an accident involving two Japanese falling off the train to their deaths the company had banned roof top travel. Looking at the safety rails and seats on the roof I think they maybe should have banned Japanese who manage to fall off the roof.

Even me asking him, with the help of a $10 note if he would really see us sneak on the roof did not help.

grey Cuenca, Nariz del Diablo   The Devils nose

 

Our next stop was the beautiful city of Cuenca. The favorite pastime in Cuenca is eating icecream and playing guitar in the many colonial building encrusted parks. With Dave in bed sick, maybe too much icecream, maybe the chicken, Victor, Vincent and I went for a day walk to Parque National Cajas. We narrowly survived the taxi ride out. Our myopic driver resembling Mr Magoo seemed hell bent on hitting every pot hole, he sped up for each corner and even played a game of chicken with fully laden bus.

grey Cuenca, Nariz del Diablo   The Devils nose

I can only imagine he had some serious money problems needing avoiding. Rubbing blood back into our white knuckles we took in the view and enjoyed a short walk around the lagoon. Without a word Vincent raced off on a whim and tried to climb a nearby mountain. I was wearing totally inappropriate sandles and shorts so Victor and I went to the hilltop cafe to drink coffee and play ‘spot the Vincent’. Hitchhiking back into town with the policeman was another bare knuckle ride but at least our new transport had more agreeable background music with which to fear for your life.  grey Cuenca, Nariz del Diablo   The Devils nose

When we arrived back in Cuenca we had one last night drinking together. It is still a novelty for me to be able to buy a bottle of whiskey over the bar. I did just that. Then a bottle of Bacardi. Then I shamelessly danced and sung “Yesterday” at Karaoke. Then an undefined period of time later, bed.

Suffering a shocking hangover I saw the boys off on their way back to Quito and ultimately the real world, bought a $1 DVD and curled up into bed to lick my wounds.

Lake Titicaca home stay – Peru

grey Lake Titicaca home stay   Peru

The recently reunited intrepidos are touring the famous floating townships of Lake Titicaca. The chief of the island greets us in synthetic regalia. Chief is showing off his homemade gun and explaining how they make and maintain their homes. I am wiping my nose, sneezing with hay fever and sweating in the sun, all ready for a Lake Titicaca home stay.

Everything on the island, including the island itself is made of reeds, the flotilla resembles a megalomaniac child’s cubby house. Fresh reeds are added to the platform top every day as the lower sections rot down into the lake. The entire island needs to be completely replaced every hundred years and, as dad found out, should you wander too close to the edge the reeds sink alarmingly into the freezing waters. Feet and calves get basted in a foul smelling tea which bubbles up through rotting reeds. Despite the uniqueness of the island and the lifestyle I find the whole experience slightly disappointing. There is a strong feeling that we are seeing something of a pantomime, a Disney version of life as it once was turned synthetic by the tourist dollar. It would not have surprised me to see a small boy in traditional clothes sitting on a reed mat playing a computer game.

Safely in our seats the boat slowly put distance between us and the reed pantomime. Our boat the ‘Puno’ valiantly strikes out to the horizon and into open water,

‘chug’, chug’

grey Lake Titicaca home stay   PeruI get the weirdest sense that we are not moving at all rather we are stationary and the world is turning bringing Bolivia closer.

‘chug, chug’

This is a thoroughly rewarding way to travel. I sink into my seat and stare out the window at a deep expanse of water. In the distance the Bolivian Alps hover grey on a misty horizon. Closer by, a group of four English couples compare cameras and lenses hardly looking out the window. I launch a debate with King, a lively young Malaysian doctor sitting nearby.

“Those bullfrogs do you think they exist?”

“Well, if they were a metre long, they could not stay on the bottom and absorb oxygen through their skin as the guide says. Surface to volume ratio and all that.”

“Yeah, sounds like rubbish to me as well. Hey how long are you here for mate?”

“A few more months, making my way south, just cruising, meeting people…Hey Ben, do you want to hear about what I did in the amazon, it involves a crazy guide and an anaconda…”
“No way, I need photos for proof man!”

grey Lake Titicaca home stay   PeruTwo hours slide hypnotically by and soon our small group are huddled on a gritty shore with bags at our feet and non-perishable food items in a plastic bag looking up at a ramshackle town. We have arrived at our homestay and the last big item of our twenty-one day itinerary. This cultural exchange is one part of the itinerary which I am really looking forward to. I picture myself helping to kill llamas and pulling fresh potatoes out of the soil, maybe even practising some ‘Malo’ Spanish around a cooking fire. Once on the shore our group of four along with about thirty other tourists are paired up and ushered silently to our accommodation by shawled women. We walk past alpacas draped in fluorescent rugs with plastic ear tags and through a town consisting entirely of hostels. The whole island is one big cultural homestay business.

In two days on these islands I have given away all the bags of flour and sugar as required by the fine print. I feel like a condescending buffoon as my smiling hosts place these items onto shelves packed with various other thoughtfully gifted goods. They do not seem at all poor.

It is our last night on the island and I narrowly dodge another audience participation debacle. We are taken to a town hall which smells like a recently swept barn to watch a traditional band. Dressed in heavy shawls and the obligatory pointy hat thirty tourists sit on wooden benches. We look at each other making awkward small talk while the band sets up. My cremastus muscles contract in preparation. Confused pan pipe music starts and five local women jump to their feet to dance. They twirl under a thin veneer of enthusiasm with all the sincerity of Taiwanese prostitutes. Being a tall lanky man grey Lake Titicaca home stay   Peruwithout a fully developed slouching ability dad is procured by a short, powerful woman. Standing in the middle of the dance floor being watched by people (who like me are glad to be sitting) dad valiantly attempts to keep pace with the wild, complex dance that is engulfing him. Five women are dancing around five tourists. They alternate between grabbing hands and shoulders then form a circle to dance around their confused charges. The visitors resemble confused sheep being herded for slaughter by a well worn barrage of woollen stockings and woven skirts.

 

I spot a Peruvian woman walking my way with her hand outstretched. With painful memories from Chivay still fresh in my mind I panic and an overwhelming urge for fresh air hits me. Feeling like a deserter I look over my shoulder to see dad still stranded in the frontline, he is trying to pluck a beat out of the air as I duck outside. In the dark outside the hall I strike up a conversation with a French face that’s lit by a glowing joint. The man is beyond stoned and, like me, dodging audience participation. I cannot be sure, but between urgent puffing I think he is reflecting on how much he is enjoying this true Peru. He is speaking in a mix of English, Spanish and Bob Marley tainted with a deep French accent,

“It is great to see how these people live, so traditional man. Want a toke?”

“Yeah, it is kind of cool, no thanks, not now mate, I might start dancing if I get stoned.”

grey Lake Titicaca home stay   Peru“I came out here to avoid the dance, too embarrassing man. Hey, imagine just staying here, how amazing.”

“God, imagine, I had best go inside to see how dad is faring”

I return to the rustic nightclub to find that beer is being served, now may be a good time to get more ‘cultural’. I look at dad’s progress to find that mum has rescued him. I watch my parents trying to copy the local dance moves as they laugh and have a great time. I sit down with a fresh beer and hope that one day I will find someone who will dance with me after thirty years despite my out of time hairy legs hanging out of a llama wool dress. Sitting back down on the bench I open a beer, politely refusing Kim’s offer of a dance I slouch in my seat and avoid eye contact.

Meals throughout the homestay involve eating in very smokey kitchens which have caused my eyes to become very red, blepharitic and sore. On our last night dad and I climb a hill along with flocks of other homestayers grey Lake Titicaca home stay   Peruto watch a spectacular sunset. During the climb we are constantly harassed by vendors selling hastily knitted beanies and plastic souvenirs. A young child follows us the entire way up playing random notes on a pan pipe while waving a hat under our noses.

The whole experience is very contrived I feel like my visit to Peru has not been enriched by the time here, maybe if I had a few more beers and relaxed at the dance? The hosts are not good at disguising the fact that we are viewed simply as a wallet with legs. I get back on the boat for Puno less impressed with the local culture than I boarded. Maybe my expectations are too high. Maybe I have watched too many Pilot Guide television shows where explorers trip over remote, indigenous cultures between ad breaks. Maybe this is the real Peru?

On the boat back to Puno I overhear an Irish man describe these islands beautifully:

grey Lake Titicaca home stay   Peru‘This is the fooking Mediterranean ocean man. High up, cold, no running water, dusty, dirty and fake, but still the fooking Meds man.’

Seoul, Korea spiced with a flight cockup

grey Seoul, Korea spiced with a flight cockup

Here I am in Seoul Korea, absolutely knackered again wondering what happened to the last few days. Turns out I was heading to Seoul for a few days THEN Doha, must make a point of checking my tickets sooner! I had a lay day in Milzos apartment sorting photos, watching discovery channel and relaxing. When Andrew finished work we went to the Sky bar for one last brew, debrief and goodbye. Mongolia was a great catch up with an old mate, boy we crammed some adventure into a short amount of time. On the way to the airport we were just saying that the adventure was over as we took a wrong turn up a one way street and were faced with three lanes of psychotic Mongolian drivers coming towards us. I should have known better to say that before getting on the plane.

 

grey Seoul, Korea spiced with a flight cockupIt was a three hour flight punctuated by a screaming baby to my right and an elderly Korean chap trying to snort a lung up through his nostrils to my left, good fun, no sleep. On this flight I experienced my first aborted landing ever. Just as the wheels were about to touch the pilot gunned the engines and took off again. Those planes can really boogey when needed, the pilot didn’t explain what had happened he just turned the plane around and tried again. After wandering around the airport for forty minutes in a daze I gave up on my arranged airport pickup and jumped into a taxi for the fifty minute and $146 aus ride to my hotel. I got to my room at around 5am , having not slept, in a foul mood and crashed for a few hours much needed rest. Determined to not waste my time here I wandered around the local markets, got thoroughly lost and checked out a few sights. Again good work Mel my travel agent for putting me right in the middle of town, easy to get around, kudos! I paid $3 aus for a magic lunch which was raw tuna, cabbage, lettuce and cold rice with a sauce that made it tasty es bro! A kind elderly Korean man laughingly took it upon himself to correct my poor chopstick and sauce technique, grunted in satisfaction of a job well done and left without a word, hilarious. A bit more looking around and a dirty great big steak and I am ready to crash. One more day loitering in Korea, another midnight flight, one last day with Drew and Cath and I will be back in Tassie planning my South American Trip.

It was funny tonight to see how the Koreans celebrate the world cup soccer. I mentioned above about the Mongolians; smashing down the drink, being psychotic, jumping on chairs, spilling beer on everyone, wrestling and being total goons, friendly goons, but still goons. On my wanderings I saw a tent full of hundreds of Koreans in red T-shirts watching their game; sitting straight upright in their chairs, sipping green tea and politely clapping with each play. What a contrast. Dunno which one I prefer really, the Mongolian version was definitely more exciting to see!!

grey Seoul, Korea spiced with a flight cockup

Cockup!

I woke this morning with a bad feeling and double checked my schedule. The flight was midnight last night! What a cockup ben! Well I promptly called my trusted travel agent Mel and she sorted me out onto the next available flight and changed all my connections around to suit. This mistake cost me $570 in flight fees and accommodation in Seoul for another night. Slightly peeved but not too upset I set about another two days exploring the city….Well actually I went back to bed and crashed for 5 hours as I was still completely bushed but then I set about exploring the city some more. This town has great architecture and I spend the first day just loitering in downtown Seoul admiring the architecture of both the city….and certain inhabitants., hey I was bored!

grey Seoul, Korea spiced with a flight cockup

The second day I set out on a mission to totally wear myself out in preparation for that nights 1am flight. I spent a wonderful day exploring the hill upon which sits the Seoul Tower. The hill is in the middle of the city and is one big landscaped and natural bush land with mountain bike track, open air gyms, cafes and the like. It was really nice to find a refuge in this mad bustling town. After 6 hours of aimless wandering around the hill and totally worn out I went and found myself a proper Korean barbeque in the suburbs. This meal cost only $4.70 aus, was divine and far more than I could eat. I got a haircut in a local shop, again language was a barrier but the result was much better than my last Nepalese effort with the Pakistani dude. This cost me $5. I am now at the airport, very early so as not to miss my flight, with 26 hours on an airplane and my impending return to Tas. I will be in Tas for a few sort months to catch up with friends, do some hiking and plan the next world assault! Bye for now

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This business partnership has expired.” Ben has no idea what adventures are in store when he sets out to discover what lies over that next mountain.

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