Dear Driver

Anyone who’s travelled has been there – the rusty vehicle, the splintered windscreen, the hairpin bends, the lack of seatbelts, the honking horns. It’s the aspect of travel I hate most – sitting powerless in a car or bus as the driver hurtles me to certain death (so I convince myself as my white knuckled hands clench the seat tighter). So this is what I would like to say to them:

Dear Driver,

I know you’re in a hurry to drop this lot of people off so you can shoot back and get the next load in – more people, more money. But does it never occur to you that maybe you won’t ever get to enjoy that money if you carry on driving like this? Thought not. So may I be so bold as to drop you a few tips to ensure you – and your passengers – get to see out the rest of your days…

Number 1 – seatbelts aren’t there just to hurriedly put on when you spot a police car, only to take off again once the cops are out of sight. Why not just keep it on? It’s really no trouble. And please ensure all your passengers are wearing theirs, too – if I’m sitting in the front, I don’t want to be crushed by five people from behind me when you brake too hard, as invariably you will (also see number 4).

Number 2 – hairpin bends on precipitous mountainsides are really not the choice spot for overtaking nor for looking at your mobile phone (also see number 3).

Number 3 – could you please not spend a mean average of five minutes with your eyes not on the road but checking your mobile phone at regular intervals? Just a suggestion.

Number 4 – another idea, don’t know what you’ll think, but how about not driving so insanely fast that when something does get in your way or the car in front isn’t going as fast, then you won’t have to brake so aggressively, therefore saving us all a bit of whiplash?

Number 5 – the horn. I don’t know if you’re aware, but the horn is actually not supposed to be used in conjunction with the accelerator. I.e. hooting at pedestrians in the road but not slowing down to avoid hitting them won’t really pass in the eyes of the law. Same goes for overtaking on blind spots – honking the horn does not bring salvation.

Number 6 – ok, I get it – you want to overtake everything else on the road, but if you really must insist on doing so, once you’ve overtaken, is there any chance you could then return to the correct side of the road? It’s not fun to wait until something is coming rapidly towards us in the other direction to then swerve jerkily – and terrifyingly – out of the way at the last second.

Number 7 – finally, the music. If I must spend the entire journey with my life flashing before my eyes, the last thing I need as the soundtrack is a plinky-plonky, wailing cassette tape playing on loop and at top volume for four hours.

Thanks ever so much.

Yours in eternal hope,

Rachel

A bus with half its windscreen missing, on the road between Tupiza and Atocha, Bolivia

A bus with half its windscreen missing, on the road between Tupiza and Atocha, Bolivia

Whizzing perilously along another South American road

Whizzing perilously along another South American road

See also my post on buses from hell

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Crappy Christmas trees of South America

This will be my first Christmas away from home. I love Christmas to the point of obsession, but thankfully I haven’t missed it much out here as I’ve been too distracted by travelling and, well, it’s just not Christmassy. Most days are hot and sunny and I see more palm trees than Christmas trees. The cities don’t seem to make much effort with decorations either – but here are some of the trees I’ve spotted.

Workers from the town council were just constructing this ‘tree’ in Salta’s main plaza on the day I arrived (6th December), it’s the cheapest tree ever – just some tinsel wrapped round a wire up-ended cone…

Christmas tree in the main plaza, Salta, Argentina

Tinsel Christmas tree in the main plaza, Salta, Argentina

I don’t even remember seeing a Christmas tree in Córdoba or Buenos Aires.

This tree was randomly positioned – presumably to cheer up the dumping area for rubbish (residuos) in Colonia, Uruguay:

Rubbish Christmas tree, Colonia, Uruguay

Rubbish Christmas tree, Colonia, Uruguay

And this one in Montevideo is barely visible for all the lush green summer foliage of the real trees in the plaza around it:

Spot the tree in Montevideo

Spot the tree in Montevideo

At least this one in my hotel reception has been rigorously decorated:

Hotel Christmas effort

Hotel Christmas effort

Feliz navidad, dear readers xx

Inca japery

With all this philosophising, you might be wondering where I actually am and what I’ve been doing. No? Well I’m going to tell you anyway.

Cusco legwarmers

Cusco legwarmers and holey trainers

I’m currently in the town of funny woollen hats with alpaca patterns, ear flaps and bobbles. I’m in Cusco, the only city in the world where people – tourists and locals alike – are quite happy to look as ridiculous as possible. Every street, cafe and shop you see them bobbing around. Don’t get me wrong, I love a silly hat and I have partaken in the alpaca craze with a rather smashing jumper that will blast this Christmas out the window, some knitted legwarmers and a poncho. I just can’t help but wonder how it became acceptable for grown adults to dress in multicoloured wool and think they look cool.

Me in Cusco

Me and poncho in Cusco

Other than that, Cusco is not as tourist-battered as I had been fearing. Shops and cafes sit subtly among the colonial architecture and narrow cobbled streets. I’ve spent the past week and a half or so down in the Sacred Valley, staying with Peruvians in Urubamba, a small town where only one or two tourists stray for lunch inbetween treks in the surrounding mountains or sightseeing tours of the Inca sites that abound. So I was prepared for the worst coming up into such a tourist hub as Cusco – the centre for visiting the world wonder Machu Picchu.

Woman asleep in knitwear shop, Cusco

Spot the sleeping woman in knitwear shop, Cusco

It feels less intrepid to see parent-look-a-likes on their two-week adventure package holidays; it’s a shame that everything here is twice the price; and it’s a bit annoying when trying to learn Spanish that every shop and restaurant shouts out in English; but what I find most ridiculous is my fellow travellers in their gaudy knitwear who don’t make eye contact. Hello? We’re having an amazing time somewhere wonderful, can we not at least acknowledge each other with a smile of recognition, or do we have to pretend we’re not the only two Europeans standing in this queue?

I’m heading back down to the valley, where I can build some proper relationships with people who are here a bit longer than it takes the dust from the Inca Trail to blow off their boots.

The ruination of ruins

Some complain of ruin fatigue. Some spend a week at Angkor Wat with genuine interest in every carving. Some whizz round famous sites just to say they’ve been.
I think I’m apathetic to old stones.

When I went to Cambodia, I had endured what had proved to be one of the most horrendous journeys of my life so far to reach Siem Reap overland from Thailand. I was heading for the legend that is Angkor Wat, in fact my my sole reason for visiting the country. I got the three-day pass for the site as my guidebook by a popular publisher, which normally has the same opinions as me, seemed to strongly suggest that I’d be a criminal to spend anything less than this admiring the ruins. However, after having to stay in the grotty town of Siem Reap for those three days, I heavily regretted it. I could have easily seen all I needed to at Angkor in a day.

Temple ruins of Athens, Greece

Unimpressed in Athens

Then there was my visit to Easter Island as part of a round-the-world ticket that had such a demoralising effect on me, I subsequently cut that whole trip short. Rows of big stone heads in a wind-beaten landscape on the most isolated inhabited island on earth inspired me to nothing more than a severe bout of depression.

Now, before you form an opinion of me as an philistine or an airhead, let me clarify – I love architecture and ancient relics – I spend my weekends going to practically every museum, artist’s house, stately home and castle in the UK, and revolve all my foreign travel around culture and sights rather than beach loungers and pools. But when I think of some of the ruins I’ve put blood, sweat and tears into reaching around the globe, I inevitably end up with a little bit of a flat feeling about them. Maybe we’re just too exposed to the wonders of the world by the mediums of media that real life will never compare anymore.
I hope not.

And now I’m headed to Peru with a key aim, of course, being to visit the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. Will I stand atop a mountain, gazing down over the ruins with a sense of elation, and ecstatically cry “I made it!!”…or will I just feel as momentarily excited as when I see a new Sainsbury’s Local has opened up nearer my house? Watch this space dear reader, watch this space.

Footnote: I would like to mention one big exception – and that is the ruined city of Petra in Jordan that I visited last autumn. It completely exceeded my expectations – I got lots of wonderful surprises there and was utterly stunned. Maybe it doesn’t receive so much media coverage..?