What happens when your travels end

I still regularly receive lovely comments and messages, even though I have sorely neglected Rachel Travels blog for a while now, so I thought it only fair to fill you in on what happened next…

The homesickness didn’t budge. I was torn, as I loved Peru. But my true home was calling. So nearly a year after I had set off from London, I decided there really is no place like home.

Such a journey doesn’t happen overnight when you have been living high in the Andes: a flight from Cusco to Lima, where I peered out the window at those lovely mountains. Then a night in Lima, back at the same hostel where my adventures began. That was very strange; some things had changed a lot since I was last there. But the smell, – always the most evocative of the senses – the smell of the hostel was the same and took me right back to those first, thrilling, nerve-wracking days where I was waiting for my adventure to begin.

Finally the day of my departure from South America had arrived. As the taxi drove me through the traffic-clamoured streets of Lima and the evening sun beamed down, I suddenly wanted to tell the driver to stop and turn back. Am I making the right decision, leaving?

Yet somehow, just like when I came out here, I found my feet taking me to the airport and walking me through the motions. I didn’t look back.

It was time to start my next adventure.

 

The South American traveller’s ultimate getaway

Looking for somewhere to break up that epic South America road trip and put your feet up awhile? I found it.

After crossing the border from Peru into Bolivia and reaching the tacky ‘resort’ of Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca, we decided to head straight out into the middle of this, the world’s highest navigable body of water and spend the night there – why not? Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) is a three-hour boat ride out into the lake and with basic amenities, no cars, and barely electricity, is a little getaway from modern life, and indeed, life on the road.

This is what happened…

We took the boat that’s run by a sailors’ association from Copacabana’s waterfront. A small, rickety wooden boat with narrow bench seats didn’t make very comfortable travelling for the three-hour journey, but seeing the snow-caps of distant Andean mountains were a great distraction and a reminder of just how high up in the air we were, despite being in a boat on water…

The tips of the Cordillera Real as seen from a boat on Lake Titicacaca

The tips of the Cordillera Real mountain range as seen from the boat on Lake Titicaca

Traditionally dressed local mother and daughter on their commute back to Isla del Sol from the mainland

Mother and daughter on their commute back to Isla del Sol from the mainland, wearing the multi-tiered skirts and bowler hats that are long-standing traditions in the Andes

As we neared Isla del Sol, some discussion and confusion broke out among us foreign passengers as to where the boat was stopping first – the south or north of the island. We didn’t really know which one we’d prefer, so when the boat stopped at the south – or was it the north? – and most tourists got off, we decided to wing it to the north – or south – no idea what to expect there.

When the boat docked in Challapampa, the main settlement in the south/north, a girl in an ill-fitting wine-coloured velveteen dress was lazily hanging around the end of the wooden jetty. As we approached she gently spoke, “Habitacion?” We looked around, and with just a few up-turned boats on the sand backed by basic buildings, we agreed to be led by the girl.

We followed her along a sand path between the ramshackle buildings and must’ve crossed a narrow peninsula as now we saw the water again – from a beautiful sandy bay. We walked onto the beach and turned into her family’s guesthouse that was sitting right in the middle of the sand.

Basic, it was, but this was our view for a mere Bs.40 (around £2):

View of Lake Titicaca from Isla del Sol guesthouse

The window with the best view ever? Certainly a strong contender

We explored the town and found that a couple of the buildings served food – one in particular suddenly filled with travellers that night, all enjoying the set menu of vegetable soup, lake-fresh trout with rice, and coca tea. At dusk we strolled along the bays and were struck by the ethereal landscape in the light of the full moon.

Full moon over the boats moored off Ch'allampa

Full moon over the boats moored off Challapampa and the distant Cordillera Real

Sunset over Lake Titicaca, from Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), Bolivia

Sunset at 12,500ft. Note the crops growing on the beach – every bit of land is used productively in these parts

The next morning, this was what I saw – as you can imagine, I couldn’t wait to get up and enjoy the beach…

Beach on Isla del Sol's northern end, Lake Titicaca

The beach in all its glory

It only took a few steps to stroll out through the gate to our guesthouse and we were on the sand.

Guesthouse on Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

The gates from our guesthouse straight onto the sand

The water looked tantalising, but surely at over 12,500ft (3800m) high in the Andes, it’s going to be freezing? No – it was the perfect temperature – refreshing for dips in-between sunbathing.

Rachel in Lake Titicaca

It’s not a bad life

The pigs were enjoying it too (it’s easy to forget that to the residents of Challapampa, this isn’t a beach, it’s common land for grazing their animals).

Pigs on the beach, Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

Pigs on the beach – what else?

My companion turned and said to me, “Everything we’ve done until now has led us here, so even the mistakes were worth it.”

Sailing away from Isla del Sol

Breaking on of my travel rules – looking back over my shoulder as we sail away from Challapampa and back to ‘reality’.

Homesickness

It crept in without me noticing, maybe around three months in. At first it just highlighted simple things such as why can’t I get a KitKat in the local shop?? Why does every vehicle I travel in seem to have a death wish???

But soon it was time to move on, so my thoughts got distracted with exciting new sights and scenes. Then Christmas came and I was stuck in Montevideo. That’s when the more serious wave came – thoughts of family, friends, cat, and life left behind. Christmas Eve was almost unbearable as it became a physical tugging on the heart. I watched mothers and daughters, families, and groups of friends hurrying home together with bags of presents. Then the city fell silent.

It was the first Christmas I had ever wished to be over as quickly as possible.

When the New Year came, I thought, was when it would all get better – I could move on again. As you know, that didn’t quite happen. However, I did move on eventually – to the bright lights of Buenos Aires, the thundering Iguazu Falls, a multi-week adventure across Bolivia. But no matter how many sights, smiles and sunbeams the days might bring, the feeling was firmly planted there inside. Sometimes it would come to the fore, with tears and desperate thoughts of running to the nearest airport.

“But no! Don’t give up!” – everyone, and part of me, cried.

So I carried on.

Before I knew it, I had got an apartment in Cusco and was looking for jobs. Weeks went by and the jobs didn’t come. Money dripped away and so did my sanity. Nothing to do, no one to go out with, barely enough food to eat was a cocktail for a rapid descent into depression.

From my apartment window I could see the planes taking off every day from Cusco airport and I would fantasise about being inside one.

The worst thing of all, is I felt guilty and isolated – no one else I saw walking round the streets of Cusco looked unhappy to be here, nobody else looked like they dreamt of home every night. But then a saviour came, in the form of the internet. A tentative quick typing into Google of ‘homesickness’ brought up a torrent of blogs and professional advice. I was not alone!! Hundreds of people all around the world were feeling the same way as me and were all exchanging kind words and support. So it was completely normal how I was feeling! And there were ways to help me feel better!

So it’s only fair I share them for anyone who hasn’t found those blogs, but mine instead:

  1. First of all, know it’s normal, don’t fight it, ride it through. Homesickness is comparable as a type of grief, so expect the same emotions, and know that this too will pass.
  2. Keep busy! This is an excellent cure for any kind of depression. Do something, anything. Go for a walk at least once a day. Get work, study, volunteer, seek out local cultural events, exercise, stream films, read and write, join a club.
  3. Bringing me to – join an expat club so you can chat with like-minded people and create a support network. (See your local Meetup and Craigslist webpages).
  4. Chat with friends and family back home as often as you want – be it by phone, Skype or email – even if to share the silliest, smallest story, that will help you feel as connected to them as if they were down the road.
  5. Finally, don’t be afraid to pack it all up and go back home. If that’s where your heart really lays, then lay it there – life’s too short to be miserable.

I’ve skimmed the surface – check out my lifeline Grit and Glamour’s Getting Over Homesickness and 10 Tips for Managing Homesickness – in particular, scroll down to see readers’ comments and her thoughtful responses.

And what did I do? Did the homesickness fade? Did I stay or did I go? Well that’s another story…

Letting it happen

Just over a year ago, I had arrived in Peru with absolutely no idea of what to do or where to go. It wasn’t long, however, before my adventures began and I found myself (thank you Johannes) in a funny little valley below Cusco with places I’d never heard of soon becoming my home, and people I’d never met soon to become friends.

Here are some of my photos taken within the space of just a few weeks of arriving in this new land. I think they show that sometimes the best laid plans are none at all…

Urubamba cross

The Cross, above Urubamba, solo

Salineras

Las Salineras – salt mines, with Alex

Puma walk

Walking down from Pumamarca, with Tara

Pisac

Discovering Pisac, solo

Phone

Back streets of Cusco, with Veronica

Koricancha, Cusco, Rachel Travels

Taking a break from exploring Cusco, with Jenna

Naupa temple

Naupa temple, with Johannes, Carlos, Juan Carlos

Ollanta

Above Ollantaytambo, solo

moon

The moon, somewhere in the valley, with some people

Kai, with many

Kai, with many

Looking down on the lights of Cusco from Q'enqo ruins at dusk

Looking down on the lights of Cusco from Q’enqo ruins at dusk, with Alex

A survival guide to Buenos Aires’ La Boca

When I was in Buenos Aires, I kept putting off going to the area with all the multicoloured houses that is such an icon of the city. People kept telling me scare stories about the dangerous neighbourhood it’s in, but one day I plucked up the courage to go…check out my experience of La Boca on Stanfords’ blog.

Rachel in El Caminito, La Boca

Rachel in El Caminito, La Boca

Why you should just do it

I had put it off for years. I had made it into a bigger monster than it needed to be. I had missed out doing it in such amazing locations as Ha Long Bay in Vietnam and Koh Phi Phi in Thailand. Then finally, at the age of 28, after a long, frustrated summer spent in the Greek Islands, I got back to London and marched myself into the local leisure centre and did it. I signed up to swimming lessons.

Searching for inspiration on Serifos

Searching for inspiration on Serifos

I don’t know why I had never learnt to swim properly – I grew up spending all summer in the sea and swimming pools. But I never really swam.

Then as I started stepping out into far-flung corners of the world, my lack of ability at staying afloat in water became more and more of a vital issue. What if this rickety boat that’s bouncing across the waves to an isolated Pacific island doesn’t make it? What about on that experience-of-a-lifetime Ha Long Bay trip where everyone else is ecstatically jumping off the wooden junk boat into the aquamarine waters while I dangle nervously from the ladder?

And as for the time just I and a boyfriend were deposited somewhere in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Sumatra to do some snorkelling, only to see our “tour” boat disappear into the horizon…

Waving, not drowning, off the coast of Sumatra

Waving, not drowning, off the coast of Sumatra

So that day back in London was a life-changing one. I had decided to bite the bullet and face those fears of feeling humiliated, of being too old to take lessons, of looking stupid, of wearing a swimsuit in front of the general public, and – naturally – of drowning.

Those 12 weeks I spent – at first thrashing and eventually swimming – under the watchful eye of a patient teacher in a Covent Garden pool were the best investment I ever made.

Being able to swim opens up another 70% of the world to you – how cool is that? And this time when I departed for my travels in South America, I knew I could happily and confidently jump off any boats and plunge into any pools that came my way.

Enjoying a mountain-side farmer's reservoir in a secret location in Peru

Enjoying a mountain-side farmer’s reservoir in a secret location in Peru

If you haven’t learnt to swim yet, just do it.

Living with mountains

When I was living in a mini apartment in Cusco, I was lucky enough to have a panoramic view over mountains that would have exceeded 4000-metre altitudes. On bright days, I could even see at the end of the valley the almighty Ausangate – a significant peak in the area at a ginormous 6384 metres high. There is something about seeing mountains that makes the every-day special – each time I would look out the window, the scene would appear completely and utterly different with the changing light and cloud formations of the day.

Here are a few of my favourite shots of the same view from my apartment window:

Ausangate in full view on this bright sunny day

Ausangate (the snow-covered mountain) in full view on this bright sunny day

A misty morning with the mountains shrouded

A misty morning with the mountains shrouded (and Ausangate disappeared)

After an overcast day, the sun graces these few peaks with her presence

After an overcast day, the sun graces these few peaks with her presence for a few moments

After another unsettled day of weather, this cloud formation makes the landscape look volcanic

After another unsettled day of weather, this spectacular cloud formation makes the landscape look volcanic

Read about how I got to live in this cool apartment.

How to find an apartment in Cusco

Looking for a place to live can be stressful and time-consuming anywhere in the world, so when you’re looking for an apartment for a relatively temporary amount of time in the midst or end of travels, like me, you really don’t want to invest a lot of energy in the process. However, a bit of knowledge in advance can help smooth the way – read on for my experience of apartment-hunting in Cusco

I’ve done more than my fair share of house and flat viewings over the years, moving around regularly in London, but in Peru I was to experience a quite different process. There’s no trawling through Gumtree or RightMove here, and there’s rarely a telephone call made. We simply strolled the streets keeping an eagle eye out for signs on doorways, walls or lampposts, and popping into corner shops to ask the knowledgeable senora owners.

Apartment in Cusco

Apartment in Cusco

Where?
San Blas is the ‘artisan’ area and undoubtedly the most attractive area of Cusco, with steep cobbled lanes and white-washed houses with little blue balconies. So that’s where we started our search. Climbing up and down the vertiginous streets and steps that make up this neighbourhood soon helped us whittle down the options to the first three tiers of streets – any higher in this altitude and we’d either never leave the house or never go home. As you will read, our search later expanded to the more Cusquenian areas of Lucrepata and Wanchaq, both still in walking distance of the city centre.

When?
We had arrived in Cusco in mid-March, which is the tail-end of the low season here – it’s still raining regularly enough to put off the tourists, hippies, ‘artisans’ and others who make a living from the tourism industry – they all re-emerge in late March and early April. So in a way, we had our pick of the crop, on the other hand, the crop was sparse.

The results?

Se alquiler habitacions
When we knocked at this typical San Blas blue door, the owner took an age to answer and then peered at us dubiously, but when she found out what we were after, she became all smiles and eagerly showed us in. We stepped through a mud yard with chickens and a dazed-looking elderly man and up the wooden stairs, dodging the underwear that had been hung there to dry. We looked at the two rooms on offer – simple and unfurnished, but with sweet windows that looked out over San Blas. The price? S/.250 a month, plus S/.30 electric bill. Cheap, for sure, but we couldn’t quite get over that we’d need to step through mud, chickens and possibly an old man every time we needed to use the bathroom in the yard.

Besides, we fancied something more self-contained – our own kitchen to cook in would save a bunch of soles, too.

José’s old place
Higher up in San Blas, we came to a grocery store that had a sign up saying ‘Apartment for rent’. We enquired with the shopkeeper, who replied, “Yes, it’s upstairs, do you want to look? I’ll come with you.” The large senora then slowly manoeuvred out from behind the counter and closed up her shop to lead us up the stone steps at the side of the building. Carlos immediately recognised that she was going to show us the apartment that his friend José had lived in last year before he emigrated to Spain. “That’s the room I used to stay in!” he laughed as we walked through the three spacious bedrooms. The kitchen units lined the hallway. The price? S/.1,200 a month, bills excluded. And it had no furniture. So a bit pricey for us, but brilliant for three or four sharers.

End of San Blas
We kept walking, and a policeman patrolling the area who had already seen us once or twice asked if he could help with anything. When we explained our search, he kindly told us of all the notices he had spotted. One was at the end of that street. Thanking him for his kindness, we carried on and found the door with a sign sellotaped on saying ‘Mini apartment for rent’. We rang the bell and a young woman answered and gladly showed us in. We were immediately on a wooden staircase that went up one way and down the other. We went down a bit to the main part of the apartment – a large bedroom and a smaller room with chairs and a bathroom. The views over Cusco were tremendous, but the décor was distinctly granny-style, including an elaborate dressing table and horse-adorned clock. The kitchen was in a separate building, further down the stairs. The price? S/.780 a month, excluding bills.

San Blas neighbourhood in Cusco

San Blas neighbourhood in Cusco

We began to think this last one was our best option, though the price wasn’t good value and I wasn’t convinced by the décor nor the disjointed layout. We still had a phone number from a sign we’d seen posted on a wall though, so we called the guy and arranged to meet him that evening. This time, the apartment was in the Cusquenian area of Wanchaq, so a little way out of the historic centre, but therefore maybe better value for money and would give us a better feel of living like a local.

Wanchaq
We met the landlord by a water fountain in the pleasant Wanchaq plaza with its two big supermarkets. Enthusiastic about this new area, we had high hopes as he led us into an apartment complex. However, when he showed us the massive, four-bedroomed flat with a dirty kitchen, depressing bathroom and odd, hall-like living room, it turned out that we would be sharing this with him and three Argentineans. The price? S/.450 a month for the room, plus internet bill.

The One
We’d become a little down-hearted and decided to give house-hunting a rest for a couple of days. Then we were recommended to buy the local listings paperRueda de Negocios (available on all newsstands – look for the blue-ink paper). For just 50 centimos, we got three pages of apartment rentals listed. However, we bought it on a Friday, and we later found out that it comes out on Mondays and Thursdays, and most opportunities are snapped up even by noon the same day. So by the time we rang round the ones that sounded ok, they had already gone. There was one gleaming ray of hope though – a ‘mini-apartment’ that the ad said was part-furnished and preferred to be rented to foreigners. We called and it was still available so we arranged a viewing for that day. We were pleased to find it in the pleasant neighbourhood of Lucrepata – adjacent to San Blas, so still near the hub-bub, but quieter and more residential.

The neighbourhood of Lucrepata in Cusco

The neighbourhood of Lucrepata in Cusco

The apartment was in a modern five-storey building facing a peaceful square with well-kept gardens. It was indeed mini – with a lounge, bedroom, bathroom and the world’s tiniest kitchen, but it would suit us perfectly for a couple of months. It was clean and new and had all the right amount of furniture – sofas, bed, table, fridge, cooker, and the most perfect views through its massive windows across the park out the front to the mountains beyond. The price? S/.680 including all bills. We moved in that very night. And yes – things can happen that quickly. The landlord lived in the ground floor apartment so he wrote up the contract and we paid up two months’ rent while we were there.

The exchange rate at time of publishing was £1 to S/.4.

My love affair with books

Wanderlust Blog of the Week award

I’ve been very generously given files of books to read on my computer. I’ve got all the classics – from Carroll to Chekhov and from Kipling to Dickens; I’ve got all the titles by my favourite author, E M Forster; I’ve got poetry by all the greats, too.

I’d been desperate for a good read for a while, as English-language books are sparse in South America. I came from England last year with a ration of two books that I managed to stretch out over a few months, but by the time I hit Argentina, I was in need of a novel. The bookshops of Buenos Aires had small sections of ‘Pocket Books’– a euphemism for English books – but my eyes scanned and scanned the spines to see nothing but modern trash written by unknown authors. Finally, on a dusty hostel bookcase, I scavenged a 1986 copy of The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. A young Meryl Streep’s face peering out from the cover reminded me I had seen the film version years back, and somewhat enjoyed it, so the book must be worth a go.

The battered book stayed wedged down the side of my backpack as a mammoth voyage across the continent ensued. When I finally settled in Cusco, had time to unpack, and even more time to sit and read, I at long last opened the cover of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and turned those first, delightfully aged and yellowed pages. I brought the book up to my nose and drank in the musty smell from the antiquated paper. And I settled down into what was to be one of the best stories I’ve read.

Would I have enjoyed it half as much if I read it on my odourless, clinical laptop screen? I don’t think so.

Since bookless, I have made several attempts to start reading my favourite books from their computer files – A Room with a View, Howard’s End, Through the Looking Glass, Wordsworth’s poems. But something just isn’t quite right.

Of all the books I have read in my life, I can remember the physical book as well as – or even as part of – the actual story. I remember my 1970s series of Famous Five books that lined my childhood bookcase; the big old hardback copy of Peter Pan and Wendy with its colour plates; and then I remember my first borrowed copy of Wuthering Heights; and, for me, A Room with a View will always be associated with a sturdy hardback borrowed from the library that I got sand between all the pages as I read it on the beach one summer between college years.

So now I have a vast digital library full of great books, but will I ever read them? I suspect not in that form.

No, not for me the Kindle, iPad or any other electronic device to read my stories; no, I’m going to wait for the next crumpled, fusty tome abandoned on a shelf and with which I can delve deliciously into another time, another place.

Rachel with The French Lieutenant's Woman in Cusco

Rachel with The French Lieutenant’s Woman in Cusco

 

This post appeared as Wanderlust’s blog of the week.

A grand adventure part 8 – The home stretch

Puno is another town we never expected to return to – merely a stopping off point for visiting the floating reed islands of Lake Titicaca, and apart from the views of the lake and mountains, the town itself is a little ugly and dull.

Puno's harbour on Lake Titicaca

Puno’s harbour on Lake Titicaca

However, it was still only early in the day yet and all the buses to Cusco didn’t leave until night, so we had time to kill in Puno. Our added challenge now was that we were down to our last few soles – how to make them stretch yet keep ourselves fed until we could access more money in Cusco tomorrow morning?

We bought S./1 (25p/38c) of bananas at the market, shared a market lunch (so half a soup, half a main course each) for S./7 (£1.70/40c) and then bought S./1 of bread and a S./1.50 packet of jam to have later. Now we were absolutely exhausted and large black clouds were rolling ominously in, so we headed back to the bus terminal and found a quiet spot upstairs to set up camp on the floor with our rucksacks as pillows and get some sleep. Even though I was lying on the cold hard floor of a bus station, I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the rucksack. After a couple of hours though, the cold started to creep in, so we got up and went to sit with everyone else on the plastic seats downstairs and got out the laptop to watch a film.

The shores of Lake Titicaca at Puno, Peru

The shores of Lake Titicaca at Puno

When the film finished, we still had three hours to wait, so went for a lakeside stroll. It was dark and there was no one else out and about. As we neared the artisans’ market by the harbour, a man who had been leaning up against the wall muttered something as we approached and then started walking alongside us. Suddenly aware that both of us were carrying all our wordly possessions – two laptops included – I became convinced we were going to get mugged. Then when he spoke to a dog who started barking in attack mode at us, I thought “This is it!”.

But no, the mysterious man was just the night-watchman for the market who in fact was quelling his dog. He wished us a good night and we continued with our lakeside stroll, my heart took a while to slow down though.

Somehow, eventually, we had made eight hours dissolve and it was time to board the Cusco bus in what was now a torrential downpour.

Four months ago, I remembered, the route from Cusco to Puno was quick and painless, giving me the confidence to take on the much longer bus journeys in the rest of the continent, but this time for some reason, the bus was bumping and swerving all night. It soon became the worst bus journey I had had so far in terms of travel sickness and I was never so glad to see Cusco again.

It was 5 o’clock in the morning when we auto-piloted through Cusco’s bus terminal pursued by a taxi driver. We agreed to his rate – our very last few coins – and let him sweep us up to a hostel high up in the San Blas neighbourhood, where we collapsed into bed.

Some hours later, I awoke to the sun glowing through the door, and stepped out in to the hostel’s garden. Sparrows and hummingbirds fluttered around the fuchsias, and beyond, lay the terracotta tiled roofs of Cusco. I had been here before, but this time the city looked even more beautiful, and I knew there were many new adventures to come.

The rooftops of Cusco

The red rooftops of Cusco. Photo: Rachel Ricks