Saturday, October 30, 2004

Up 1,000 Steps in 31 Degrees

In Salta, on the other hand, I immediately felt like I'd arrived in the right place. Surrounded by tree-covered hills, it nevertheless has an arid feel, since most of its 700mm rainfall falls December-January. It's often said that in this part of Argentina you start to feel the influence of Bolivia, and that's true to an extent. There are plenty of mestizo people, whom you don't see in other parts of Argentina, and many of the streets outside of the central few blocks are bumpy and lined with faded, crumbling buildings. But I'm not the only one to comment that the lazy feel, tree-shaded streets and pretty churches reminds them of Spain.

Salta is also sounded by beautiful and diverse countryside, from the lush microclimates near the city, to the towering, cactus-sprinkled canyons to the north near Jujuy. You can do all kinds of trekking, horse riding, biking and rafting nearby. Plus it abounds with attractive cafes, bars and restaurants and, I was assured, absolutely rocks on the weekend. I only wish I'd had more time to take it all in.

As it was I had to content myself with two days worth. On Tuesday I explored the city, photographing the churches - pastel coloured with an Andalucian influence - and climbing the Cerro San Bernado, a hill rising up behind the city. There's a cable car to the top, but of course, I had to take the hard way, up the exactly 1,000 steps (the numbers are marked at intervals of 50). There are little grottos marking the stations of the cross on the way up. On the thorny hillside with the sun beating down and the previous night's bbq and wine squeezing out of my pores, it did rather feel like my own personal Calvary. Later I checked the internet to find that the temperature had hit 31 degrees. Salta has a beautiful, warm climate, with the summer months aliviated by afternoon storms; it averages 26-28 six months of the year, but it's in the months October-December that the temperature can soar up towards the 38 degree mark.

On Wednesday I was up early to go rafting on the rio Juramento, about two hours drive away below the dique (dam) of Cabra Corral. The river wound through beautiful steep canyons with eroded layers of different colours. The rapids were grade III, ideal for beginners, they say, to which I would agree. There were only a few moments of "un poco de emoción", as the guide described it, the rest was pretty relaxed. Of course none of us had any idea what we were doing; the guide oversaw the direction of the boat and told us when to paddle. Nevertheless, I wasn't the only one to feel like I perhaps could handle something a little more dangerous.

On the way down the river we saw dinosaur footprints on a flat part of the canyon wall. According to the guide, it had been a stormy beach before the Andes rose up; later erosion has peeled away the layers of silt that covered over the dinosaurs' prints in the wet sand. The last 200 metres of the trip the guide told us we could throw ourselves out of the boat and float down to the bank, bouyed by our life jackets. Great fun! - and possible because the water was about 15 degrees; you wouldn't try that on the white water in NZ...

Apart from me, a Mexican guy and an English girl, the rest of the people in the two rafts were again Argentinians. It makes the tourist experience a little more genuine when you're doing it with local people.

I should also mention that the hostel in Salta was one of the most pleasant I have stayed at - run by young Argentinians (and one Israeli) who seemed to be enjoying themselves, it has a nice roof terrace with a bar and a collective bbq every Wednesday. Even though I was only there a couple of days, I felt like I'd made some friends, and was quite sad to leave.

If you have the chance, go to Argentina!! In upcoming editions, I'll explain why...

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Tucuman, Argentina?

Sometimes you really feel like you've drifted into a different dimension in transit. So it was with my day in Tucuman. The only reason I went there was to break up the trip from Mendoza to Salta (though it was still 14 disorienting hours overnight on the bus). I knew nothing about it, except that Martin Santillan, who worked in the Albert Hotel in London (he was "loud Martin" as opposed to "tall Martin", who was from Mar del Plata) was from there. Lonely Planet said it was the centre of a big rice and sugar-growing area, and had a hot climate ("visitors in the summer months may find the heat very oppressive"). It was also supposed to be rich in colonial history, peppered with orange trees, and one could still see the occasional horse-drawn cart wending its way through the streets. Sounded quaint.

Imagine my puzzlement, then, when the bus left the highway after 14 hours travel and two hours unexplained delay, to wend its way past faded, peeling buildings through crumbling streets, under deathly leaden skies starting to release big cold drops of rain. The big sign over the bus terminal did say "TUCUMAN", so I was assured I hadn't got on the wrong bus in Mendoza, at least not in this dimension. The largely open-air bus terminal did indeed give indications of a warm climate, but there was none of it in evidence as the skies began to open shortly after I got off the bus.

The streets appeared to conform to the map in my LP, and the recommended hotel even existed. But there was no sign of colonial architecture, orange trees or anything resembling sun in the grey, drab streets. Exhausted from the long trip and a big night out in Mendoza previous to leaving, I crashed in my hotel bed and listened to the rain pelting down onto the incongruous airy balconies.

By later afternoon I was awake and desperately hungry, so I went out looking for something to eat. The town was if abandoned even by ghosts, and the rain was still pouring down in cold waves. It reminded me of nothing more than some of the less attractive parts of Christchurch in winter. I had rediscovered siesta when in Mendoza (in South America, unique to Chile and Argentina outside the capitals) but there were still plenty of things open from 2:00 to 5:00. In Tucuman, however, the streets were completely deserted, and I looked in vain for something to eat. Eventually, near the main square, with its few colonial buildings emerging through the mist, I found what appeared to be a comedor, a few tables and chairs inside a bare cavernous space, with one couple huddled together over a bottle of beer. After some persuasion, the elderly woman there admitted that yes, she had some empanadas, and 15 minutes later I managed to assuage some of my hunger.

Later I found an internet cafe where the pretty girl working at the counter wished me "suerte" as I left. Evening had arrived, shops were opening, and there were some people in the streets. The rain had stopped, and orange trees had appeared in the plaza, but there was still a chilly breeze blowing. I found an Italian restuarant, where I gorged myself on pizza, then went back to the hotel to crash once more. A couple of hours later I felt something biting me. Mosquitos!! They had also been brought over from the steamy, subtropical Tucuman dimension. I smeared myself with repellent and went back to sleep to be plagued by vivid, guilt-wracked dreams for the rest of the night.

The next morning the sky was clear, the sun was bright, and I was off to Salta. "I thought this place was supposed to hot" I said to the taxi driver on the way to the bus station. "It is" he replied. "Then what was yesterday about" I wanted to know. "I don't know" he frowned. "It was strange...unstable, very unstable" he muttered. I don't know whether he meant the weather, or the fabric of the space-time continuum.

As the bus drove out to meet the highway to Salta, we passed plenty of orange trees. Just at the turn-off, there was even a horse-drawn cart.

As a postscript, I note from checking on the internet, that Tucuman has spent most of this afternoon and evening hovering around the 34 degrees Celcius mark.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Getting on the Horse...

We're actually what seems like a hundred miles an hour down the canyon, the horses' hooves are throwing up dust, I'm desperately trying to simultaneously grip with my knees, keep my feet in the spurs, and maintain my balance. Bouncing up and in the saddle, I keep having the wind knocked out of me.

It lasts what is probably, in real time, a couple of minutes. I can't imagine keeping it up for any longer, let alone turning round in the saddle to fire my revolver at any pursuing bandidos. When we stop I ask Tito whether we were in fact galloping - what exactly does galope suave mean? He talks me through the speeds of a horse: the walk, the trot, the galope suave and the carrera (literally "race"). Right, so a galope suave is a canter. It sounds more impressive in Spanish. But Tito says I've done well, and that not many manage to do any kind of gallop their first time. "Look how your mood's changed from the way out to the way back!"

He's right - I was rather apprehensive this morning, having booked the horse riding rather despite myself. I think someone had told me that it was one of the Things to Do in Mendoza, and I had it classified anyway as something I Ought to Do At Least Once in South America. There were to have been five people in the horse-riding group, but the other four apparently cancelled at the last minute, leaving me to do it alone. Great, I thought, I'm not even going to have company in my incompetence.

I shouldn't have worried; Tito is very used to guiding beginners, and was very relaxed, which in turn affected me. He says he used to be an executive in a multinational company, but gave it up recently as it was too stressful. He learnt to ride on the pampas of his parents' hacienda in the Buenos Aires as a kid and now has a little ranch only 10 minutes from the centre of Mendoza. His dogs were going barking mad with anticipation as drove up; apparently they love going out on the horse treks.

It was hard to believe that we were so close to the city, as we rode out into the badlands near Tito's ranch - there was no sign of any other people, alone civilization. The horses walked through narrow quebradas and dry gulches, stained with salt deposits leached by the occasional storm waters which had created the pathways. Amidst the brush and cactus there were splashes of red, yellow and white wildflowers, and every so often the single flowering bulb of a cactus. After a while I began to relax on the horse. "Have a cigarette if you want" called Tito. "It tastes completely different on a horse...I can't, because I've got a sore throat right now".

We broke into the occasional trot, climbed up and down little rises, then some steeper hillocks. At first I was a little stiff with fear, but gradually gained more confidence. The horse knows what it's doing, I told myself. And it's not actively trying to throw me off,in fact it knows full well that I'm supposed to stay on it...what have I got to worry about? Overhead, a condor floated. "It knows me" said Tito. "Sometimes it comes down closer and teases the dogs".

On the way back we spurted along the flat bits, breaking into a couple of gallops. Well,canters, I suppose. I didn't really have any choice about whether I followed, as my horse, well aware that I didn't really know what I was doing, prioritised following Tito's horse ahead of any instructions I might give it. Still, a little out of breath, I survived. I think I might even do it again one day soon.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Seven Years in Mendoza...

Two hours of sleep wasn't a great prelude to my "Alta Montaña" tour, but with 85 Chilean tourism students determined to party in the hostel patio every single night, it was a case of if you can't ignore them, join them. Still could have been a little bit less enthusiastic with the beer, and I was cursing myself when they woke me up from my dead-to-the-world slumbers to go on the tour. It almost felt like Puno & Lake Titicaca all over again.

Turned out to be a minibus, stop-and-snap trip, which normally I avoid like the plague, but am keen to see as much as possible in the short time I'm here. The other passengers all turned out to be other Argentinians, mostly from Buenos Aires, and included two distinct honeymooning couples and another couple of retired schoolteachers. Together with the bubbly, enthusiastic guide Noelia, it made for a pretty jovial atmosphere on the bus, which I didn't appreciate that much at first, but cheered me up as the day wore on.

Two hours out of Mendoza we reached Upsallata (sp!), a picturesque town in the shadow of the front ranges, or Cordón del Plata, famous because in the surrounding area Brad Pitt & co. filmed "Seven Years In Tibet". Notable for me because the countryside, with rows of tall poplar trees and dry hills, bore an uncany resemblance to the Cromwell area of Central Otago. They even have a local föhn wind, called "El Sonda", when fronts from the Pacific sweep across the Chilean Andes; apparently it creates heat, dust and irritation in Mendoza. As we returned inthe afternoon familar big lenticular clouds were forming over the mountains.

The main objective of the trip for me turned out to be a disappointment: Aconcagua was well and truly clouded over at the one point in the road from where it can be seen. If I had had more time, I would have done the three-day trekking trip to the first base camp; I also have to admit that the idea of one day attempting the 15-day trip to the summit is starting to nestle persistently in my head. It's not El Misti though - I'd have to do plenty of immediate climbs first. Noelia said the previous year had been a "good summer"; only four people had died on the mountain.

The highlight of the trip turned out to be the Puente del Inca. High up in the main ranges, only 20 km from the Chilean border, it's a massive natural stone bridge over the Las Cuevas stream, under which flow thermal waters rich in iron and sulphur. It's though that it was formed during an ice age, when an landslides dumped rocks onto a bridge of ice. As the ice melted, the mineral-rich thermal waters cemented everything together, leaving the petrified form of the bridge. The waters leave an oily yellow coating on everything they flow over, and nearby souvenir stalls sell all kinds of trinkets which have been left in the waters for 20-25 days to obtain this coating.

At the turn of the century a hotel was built over the bridge, and tunnels led from the bedrooms to provide each guest with their own private bathroom of natural thermal waters. Gives new meaning to "ensuite"!! Later, more landslides wiped out the hotel, but the ruins are still there, and we were able to walk through the remains of the bathrooms. Truly a unique and surreal experience.

At lunch the retired teachers talked to me about what was wrong with Argentina. "Chile is doing better than us now" they said. One of the reasons given was that Pinochet sided with Britain and the US during the Falklands War, and Chile has been cut all the good deals since. "Las Malvinas are Argentinian territory" I was told.

On the way up the Mendoza river valley, we passed a familiar site - the ruins of an Incan tambo or roadside lodge. Now, I've seen enough blessed tambos to last me a lifetime, and I'm well and trly Incaed-out. But I have to admit it was impressive to think that, 20 hours bus ride, 3 hours plane flight and another 7 hours bus ride from Cusco, I still wasn't far enough south and west to escape the bloody things.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Che, Boludo!

The crossing of the Andes from Santiago was spectacular, as the road serpentined up right through the
middle of the chunky granite peaks. I thought of San Martin crossing the Andes, and the journalist hero and heroine of Isabel Allende's Of Love and Shadows escaping to Argentina.

After that I dozed while we dropped down through dry canyons into the vineyard heartland of Argentina. Coming into Mendoza we left the multi-laned freeway full of rushing traffic. The city itself, with its broad avenues lined with shady deciduous trees, has a 19th-century feel, and immediately reminded me of Paris or Kensington in London. The sheer modernity is overwhelming too; full of bright shops and restaurants and tiled sidewalks, Mendoza doesn't seem on the same planet, let alone the same continent, as central La Paz. It's hard to believe that Argentina has economic problems; everything seems more modern and advanced even than in Chile, and no one even looks like they're thinking about asking you for money.

The big old trees, forming canopies over the middle of the streets, are most welcome. Although it is still only spring, the sun is fierce and the temperature climbing into the high 20s. I imagine it's a bit of a cauldron here in mid-summer.

After a lot of travelling and some late nights, I crashed into a dead unconsciousness yesterday evening and slept right through until this morning, oblivious even to a loud party that was happening on the poolside patio of the hostel. Today I'm hoping to sort out some tourist excursions, to Aconcagua (to see, not to climb, the latter takes 13-15 days) and the vineyards.

Monday, October 18, 2004

In Chile Again...

Santiago is green and fresh from the winter rains, the oaks and maples along the Alameda are looking healthy and the parks and plazas bright with new grass. The air is crisp and relatively smog-free; it seems that spring is the city's best time of the year.

It also appears strikingly modern and sophisticated after being so long in Peru. When I first arrived here I felt I was definitely in Latin America; now it feels like being plunged into Europe. Big, modern buses run up and down the avenues and there are twenty private cars for every taxi - the exact opposite of Arequipa. People are more confident and relaxed, less friendly, less bothersome, and overwhelmingly whiter. You can sit and eat in a street cafe without *anyone* trying to sell you something or asking you for money.

I went straight back to the Hostal Bellavista, where I stayed in April, and found that once again it's inhabited by interesting people. Last night there was a bbq/farewell party for two Argentinian girls who have been working here since August - lots of wine, pisco and chorizo leaving me somewhat the worse for wear this morning. I talked to an English girl who's doing her PhD on the foreign policy of the Salvador Allende government - on Monday she gets to talk to Isabel Allende's stepfather - and a Chilean guy whose father procured foreign loans for Chile in New York during the Allende era.

Meanwhile, the trip Arequipa-Lima-Santiago, while squeezed into 36 hours and ultimately pretty exhausting, was surprisingly easy and incident free. I would have expected something to go wrong somewhere between bus terminals, airports, luggage transfers, passport controls, customs, currency exchanges and taxis, but it all turned out to be too easy. Am likely to head to Mendoza on Monday or Tuesday, giving myself the chance to find out whatever happened to my application for a Chilean working holiday visa on Monday morning.

And the half-term report...

Friday, October 15, 2004

Adding more countries to the list...

After what must have been my most comfortable 14-hour bus ride ever, I've arrived in humid, sea-level Lima for a stay of approximately 12 hours. Tomorrow I should be catching a flight to Santiago, and then hope to be heading pretty much straight away across the mountains to Mendoza, to make my first footfalls in the land of "cheboludos". Probably heading back Arequipa-wards through the NW of Argentina, then Salta-San Pedro de Atacama-Arica-Tacna. will see how it turns out. Am looking forward to good red wine, steaks and voluble, overconfident guys with long hair (the last one not really).

Friday, October 08, 2004

Inca Trail, Machu Picchu and all that...

(Semi)-ancient ruins, stairways into the clouds, towering jungle-covered peaks, orchids, giant ferns, gruelling climbs and helter-skelter descents. Yes indeed, the Inca Trail has it all, folks. As I'm sure this is a subject that has been done to death, I'm going to skip any further description and wait till I get the photos scanned so you can see for yourselves. I'm certainly not going to inflict any of the "magical, mystical" stuff that even the normally dry guidebooks indulge in as, quite frankly, I think that's all New Age bullshit.

Suffice to mention that the 1,000 metre drop down original Inca steps through dripping cloud forest in the dark on the fourth morning was pretty wild. Oh god, yes, and Lord of the Rings. Should really have been filmed there - I felt like I was in it the whole time.

For me, however, none of the archeological or natural elements could quite match the human spectacle of the trail. Of the 500 people allowed onto the trail each day, just under half are guides and porters. In my group there were 17 tourists (all of us young) complemented by 14 porters and two guides. The porters were all small, slight, Quechua-speaking men who rushed ahead of the group to arrive at the next campsite, set up the (two-person) tents and the cooking and dining tents, and prepare the next meal. The food was sumptuous - fish in coriander and tomato sauce, beef fillets, omlettes and pancakes for breakfast, soup with every meal - all served while we sat on stools round tables in the dining tent. To be honest, the food was probably better than many of the 10 soles menus you find round the plaza in Cusco. They even remembered to prepare a special vegetarian option for an Israeli girl at every meal.

All the ingredients and equipment were carried by the porters, including tents, tables, chairs, stoves and gas. Most of them were supporting around double the weight of the heaviest load carried by a tourist. I was close to defining the later category since, realising that the porters would be taking our foods and tents, I added in a novel, the Peru Handbook, my notebook, a small Spanish-Quechua dictionary, sandals for walking round the campsites and my sneakers for wearing after visitng Machu Picchu, in addition to my regular stuff. The rationale was partly that I may as well splurge on the home comforts - since it wasn't "proper camping", why not be able to take off my boots and have something to read in the evenings. Partly the opposite - an attempt to simulate the weight I would have carried on an independent trekking trip. Nevertheless, most of the porters were carrying about twice my pack plus some extra bits. The official weight limit for a porter is supposed to be 25 kilos (established in 2001), but one of my group noticed at the weighing station at the start of the track that one of their packs tipped the scales at 34.5 kilos, without comment.

The most notable thing about the porters' load, however, was the fact that they didn't actually have any packs. They assembled their cargo each morning in bundles with makeshift straps of rope or woven cloth, and hauled it all onto their backs. Forget the waist straps with which most packs distribute their weight onto the hips of the carrier, the porters didn't even have free hands, having to hold their bundles onto their bent backs as they headed uphill. And they didn't have shoes either, making do with sandles constructed from tyre rubber - "Goodyear boots" as I later learned they were dubbed.

Despite this, they all made rapid and sure-footed progress both up and downhill. On the climb up to the 4200-metre Warmiwañuscsa (Dead Woman) Pass on the second day, I was the first out of our group to the top, five minutes ahead of the next guy and two hours before the last few (some of the other guys in the group were I think stronger and fitter than me but my level of conditioning from climbing Misti and Chachani meant that I had less need to stop). Most of the way up I was following a porter who was carrying a 50-litre gas bottle roped to his back. I kept thinking he was tiring and I would overtake him, but eventually it was he who disappeared off ahead, and by the time I got to the top of the pass was well gone.

These guys get paid 100 soles per trip (about $30 USD). It's more than the subsistence they could get farming on their chacras, but wouldn't go far with a family to feed and clothe.

Arriving at the camp sites, feeling a little exhausted from the climbs and grumbling if our dinner was 20 minutes late, we were a little like mehm sahibs. Or, for that matter, like Inca nobles. Amidst all the trekking along the historic trail and the little lessons from the guides about how the runners or chasqui brought fresh fish up to Cusco from the coast, everyone seemed to be missing the irony that, 500 years later, they're still doing the same thing. The stone Incan buildings with their straw roofs might have been a little more comfortable than our tents, but they didn't have electricity or running water either. Being waited on hand and foot while we trudged along the trail, we were living the lives of Incas ourselves, while the porters were time-warped in the roles of their commoner ancestors. The irony deepens when you learn that the the current theory on the purpose of Machu Picchu is that it was a lower, warmer holiday resort from Cusco.

After packing up the tents on the fourth morning, the porters went as far as Wiñay Huyana before descending to Km 104 to catch the train back to Cusco. Did they ever get to go to Machu Picchu, I asked one of the guides. Sure, he said, sometimes people who don't want to carry their own stuff hire an "extra" porter, who goes with them all the way to Machu Picchu. And if they're never hired? Well, they can catch the local train to Aguas Calientes for 3 soles, and on every second Sunda entrance to the ruins is free for people from the department of Cusco. Plausible, I suppose. But it seem that, just as in Inca times, the commoners are denied entrance to the sanctuary.

The other highlight of the trip was the chaos that surrounded our entry to the trail. Given the limit imposed by the government of 250 trekkers entering the trail each day, everyone reserving a place has to provide their passport details together with a copy of their passport. This, one imagines, is to prevent agencies from overbooking and creating chaos at the start of the trail. Of course, some people cancel. The combined need of agencies to sell and of tourists to get on the trail means that their spots get resold. When we arrived at the stop for lunch before beginning the trek, it was revealed that 9 out of our group of 17 were occupying the places of cancelled reservations. Unable to show their own passport at the control post, they were given the names and passport numbers of cancelled people and told to invent a story about why they hadn't brought their passports with them. Lunchtime featured the somewhat surreal sight of people wandering around, mumbling to themselves, memorising their new identities.

By the time we got to the control post, even the people who were going to enter with our original passports were nervous. It felt like we were trying to cross the Berlin Wall or something. The eight of ous who were really us went first, then waited on the other side of the bridge from the control post. The first couple from the next group took a while to come across, as they concocted some story about how they had just got back from a rafting trip and hadn't had time to collect their passport from the hostel. After that it got quicker as the guides intervened and I think the control post people gave up in exasperation on realising that over half the group didn't have passports.

One of our group, a Norwegian guy called Runar, didn't even manage to get assigned a false identity, I think because the maximum group size is supposed to be 16, and we were 17 in total. The solution to getting him onto the trail? The guides distracted the control post people while Runar dashed across the bridge and walked five minutes down the trail.

A Canadian couple in the group had waited an extra few days so they could go with their own passports. An agency in Cusco had offered them the opportunity to go earlier if they stuck a false name and photo on their passport. They decided not to, as tampering with your passport is, um, generally not a good idea.

The sheer Peruvianess of this whole situation made it for me practically the most memorable aspect of the trip.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

I become a lab rat...

A while back my friend Lenny (she who invited me to the wedding in Ilo) told me about the project she was doing for her thesis in pharmacology. She had a mysterious-looking vial of cream which she said was an experimental skin care product with a base of tuna (an indigenous cactus which grows wild here and has an edible bulb). With visions of possible miraculous rejuvenating properties, I begged to be picked as an experimental subject.

When recently she took me up on the offer, I found the reality was rather different. The cream developed by Lenny and her friend Anyi was to be tested for its sun-filtering ability, along with a gel developed by their pharmacological colleague Cristian. I had to go to the lab at the Católica University and sit on a stool with my shirt off while they shone a focused sunlamp onto my back and measured the time for my skin to turn red when protected by the various products. The reason they were so keen to have me involved was that the whole process is quicker and easier with someone who has pale skin.

For people who've studied an applied science for four years, though, they didn't seem to have learnt much about the rigurous preparation of an experiment. On neither of the two days that I went did they manage to make any successful measurements. The first time they discovered that the stand which supported the sunlamp was too tall, and I had to sit on a pile of textbooks on top of the stool so the light fell in the right place - which got pretty painful after 10 minutes or so. In addition, the holes cut in the boards placed across the lampshade to direct the beam of the lamp were too far apart, meaning that the light fell on different parts of my back, at different distances. The thing that most impressed me, however, was that nobody had brought a tape measure...

The next day I went back, to find that the helpful technician had lowered the stand and changed the position of the holes in the boards, and there was now an available tape measure. We readied for the experiment, focusing the lamp on my back while Lenny tried to draw circles around where the light was falling in order to mark the area to apply each cream. Unfortunately, none of the (biro) pens in the lab made an impression on my skin, and while Lenny was trying to draw the lamp started to get pretty hot. "Don't you guys have, like, a vivid marker?" I asked. "You know, the kind you normally find in a classrooom". All and sundry admitted that such a pen would have been a useful instrument.

As I was leaving the next day for Cuzco, I told Lenny that she'd have to find another subject. The semi-amusing epilogue to the story is that today when showering I caught a glimpse of something on my back as walking away from the mirror. Closer inspection revealed two perfectly circular burn marks, rather bright red, about halfway up my back.

And arrive in Cuzco again...

Without too many hassles, either, despite the 4:30 am arrival time from Arequipa. I spent the morning meeting and greeting people from two tour agencies here who had emailed us at Incaventura saying that many of their customers were interested in doing trips to the Colca Canyon. Hugo has been working with one of them for ages with his German tour groups, but rather surprisingly had never suggested a formal endorsement relationship with his own business...
The afternoon I ended up doing some translations for a guy who has an exhibition of pre-Incan musical instruments (copies and originals) starting up in Cuzco and wanted to have captions in Quechua, Spanish, English and French. I overheard him asking the guy in the internet cafe how to use the automated translator, and with horror informed him that I couldn't allow that. He was most grateful in the end and although I refused payment, did accpet his offer to come and see his exhibition for free and try some of the instruments when I get back to Cuzco - not sure if I'll have time though.

And tomorrow I'm off on the Inca Trail!! - am most excited. It's been overcast with spots of drizzle in Cuzco, and they say it's raining hard on the trail, but I'm not bothered. Would you believe that in six months I've seen half an hour of rain? That was in Arequipa in July, and it made headlines...

Anyway, I am *so* prepared. This evening I obtained six large plastic bags to wrap my clothes and sleeping bag in - yes, this is me we're talking about... I also have insect repellent, suncream, cap, woolly hat, rain jacket, thermal t-shirts and underwear, torch with spare American-made batteries, gloves and over-gloves, two spare rolls of film - you name it. PPPP, Dad.

It's even possible that the cloudy weather will make for better photographs - it's always difficult in Arequipa struggling with the fierce light contrasts. I'm looking on the bright side - no doubt will update when I get back here wet, bedraggled and tired.