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.

A grand adventure part 3 – Buses from hell

I was high on my adventure travel buzz – either that or the newly acquired high altitude we were now in – and with a stiff upper lip accepted my fate. The steps into the bus began at chest level so it was with some feat of flexibility that I hoisted myself and my carry-on luggage into the creaking carriage. I tried not to look too closely at the rickety seats that had been all but stripped of their upholstery, and instead snuggled down as best I could to look out the window and enjoy views of Bolivia.

It was only an hour-and-a-half ride, so inbetween gazing out at gorgeous altiplano landscapes dotted with bizarre cacti, and some twitchy sleep, the Rustbucket Express wasn’t the bad experience I had anticipated.

Now we were in Tupiza – a more touristy town, with street-fulls of hostels, tour agencies and ‘Italian’ restaurants. Here, travellers come to go horseback riding in the badlands and relive where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid allegedly met their ends. It’s also another place where you can start or finish tours of the Uyuni salt flats, so it was weird to be back being offered tour packages everywhere we turned, when we had completed that adventure some months – and many miles – ago.

Tupiza's market for breakfast

Tupiza’s market for breakfast

We made our first stop the essential market hall and had another delicious, recuperative soup, before finding a hostel. A few hours of sleep later and we set out to explore Tupiza and get our bus ticket for Atocha the next day. Afterwards, we ended up walking way out past the bus station, beyond the last row of houses and out into the countryside where we followed the already overgrown railway track past corn fields, and horses grazing, with beautiful birdsong and stunning red rocky mountains all around.

Walking in the countryside outside Tupiza

Walking in the beautiful countryside outside Tupiza (note the overgrown rail tracks)

That night, our close relationship with thunderstorms continued. Holed up in a cosy ‘Italian’ restaurant, we enjoyed hearing the tremendous claps of thunder and watching through the window as the whole street was illuminated by lightning, until we realised we’d soon have to be splashing back to our hostel. The rainfall was so heavy, roads had turned into flowing rivers, with no hope of us crossing unless we wanted to be swept away down-current, so we took a long detour to the upper streets where the water ran shallower and we were able to hop across to our side of the town!

Day 5
We got on the 10am bus for Atocha, which is supposed to take two-and-a-half hours. If I had known what was to follow, I would probably never have set foot on the bus. After just a few metres of paved road out of Tupiza, we turned off onto what looked like a silt riverbed, and that was our road for the next what was to become four arduous hours.

The 'road' (read: silt riverbed) from Tupiza to Atocha

The ‘road’ (read: silt riverbed) from Tupiza to Atocha

It got even worse when the ‘road’ started winding up mountainsides and our tall bus leaned and creaked as it seemingly impossibly negotiated hairpin bends, or started reversing on the edge of a precipice because a truck was coming in the other direction. Feeling hot and breathless, I reached to the air conditioning adjuster above my head, but all I found was a handful of wires hanging out of a hole. Somewhere behind me a baby was wailing. At regular intervals, I spotted memorial shrines set up on the edge of sheer drops by the side of the road.

The dusty road lined with cacti

The dusty road lined with cacti

These hours are probably among the most terrifying of my life. Thoughts of standing on solid ground once again and remembering Paddy in BA’s experience kept me going.

The neverending road through the desolate landscape

The neverending road through the desolate landscape

As the painful hours ticked by, and with the dust track visible as far as the eye could see across the desolate altiplano landscape in front of us, we began to question whether this was actually the bus for Atocha. Then finally, finally, joy of joys, after one last cliffhanging bend complete with memorial shrine, Atocha appeared.

First impressions of Atocha (not good, though I love how in such high altitudes the clouds seem to hang closer to the ground)

First impressions of Atocha (not good; though I love how in such high altitudes the clouds seem to hang closer to the ground)

I practically fell out of the bus and would’ve kissed the ground if I hadn’t needed to run so fast to get to the toilet.

Everyone else on the bus was continuing on to Uyuni, and even though we were to be left stranded in this bizarre and bleak mining town that doesn’t get tourists, I had no intention of stepping back on that bus. Please let the trains be running from here!

Now go to part 4! And did you see parts 1 and 2?

A grand adventure part 2 – Chasing trains

We hadn’t given up hope on the train just yet, as in these parts you can rarely get a straight story – tales ranged from that the train hadn’t been running for two years, to that a bridge was swept away in the recent rains. When we finally reached the station, nobody could be found, but opposite was a small guesthouse where the young woman owner gave the straight facts – the track had been damaged and so the train hasn’t been running for a month – but – there was hope! It was only the stretch between Villazon and Atocha – from the latter we should be able to pick up the train that leaves in two days time!

Full of optimism and the relief that we would at least be sleeping in a bed not a bus seat tonight, we checked into her guesthouse and I took a very long hot shower.

Villazon often gets a bad press from travel bloggers – described as dodgy and a place to hurry through quickly. But I felt nothing sinister about the women setting up their food and drink carts for the day, the uniformed children scurrying diligently to school, the hardworking men loading up cars and vans (yes, with what were probably illegally imported goods, but heh).

We headed to the Mercado (market hall) for breakfast, and I was so happy to be pushing my way through vibrant Andean stalls again, with plump, multi-skirted women seated among their wares of enormous fruits and vegetables, flame-red gladioli, unfathomable piles of eggs, and uncountable other useful products and nick-nacks.

Typical Andean market hall scene

Typical Andean market hall scene. Photo: Rachel Ricks

All these markets smell the same too – the air is pungent with fruit and vegetables as fresh as you can get them, along with raw meat. Comidas (food) was upstairs, and we joined a long row of tables to be served the most delicious meal I’d had in a long time – a big bowl of peanut soup with pasta, potato and a hunk of meat. Just what the doctor ordered, before we returned to the guesthouse and to bed for a few hours’ sleep catch-up.

Day 4
We rose early to get to the bus station for our 7am bus to Tupiza. Buses in Bolivia are of an entirely different calibre to their Argentinean counterparts we’d come to enjoy. No ultra-modern, high-luxury vehicles here. Most that we watched pull in and out of the terminal were weird and tall and 1970s-looking with ear-shattering engines. I spotted one pull in to beat them all – a bus that was riddled with rust and in fact had lost its entire rear undercarriage to the affliction. I nudged Carlos – “Look – I bet that’s ours! Check the ticket – I bet it says ‘Rustbucket Bus Lines’!” Again, I should have known better in Bolivia – it was our bus.

Rusty bus from Villazon

Rusty bus from Villazon

Did you see part 1? Go on to part 3!

See my expert travel tips for Bolivia.

Walking on through the storm

I have been in Montevideo for pretty much four weeks now and it’s unexpectedly become a rocky ride. At first I was hanging out here by choice – I found the city a great place to spend some time, and flung out emails left, right and centre for teaching work and apartment rentals, while planning to head to the beach for the Christmas holiday.

However, as Christmas approached, things suddenly didn’t look so rosy.

A couple of months ago, on my last night in Peru while waiting for the bus, my wallet had been stolen out of my rucksack. Unfortunately my bank card was inside, and for the coming weeks I planned to be on the move almost every day so there was no chance of getting sent a new one without staying put for a good while. Buenos Aires’ post offices refused to do poste restante for me, but thankfully when I arrived in Montevideo they offered the service – and for free.

By then it wasn’t long before my cash supply ran down to zero and my bank card would take 10 days to arrive, so the Christmas and New Year period I spent sat in my cheap hotel room, with supermarket food bought on my credit card.

After New Year, my bank card finally arrived, but I also received devastating news from home that my beloved cat Molly had been run over and died.

By this point I began to wonder why on earth I had given up what was really quite a wonderful life back in England, where I was surrounded by lovely people whom I love very much, had a great home with my cat and my five housemates, had a decent job with a good salary that allowed me to do anything I wanted. Why, why, why did I give up all of that? Was I ungrateful? Greedy? Always wanting more? Never satisfied?

These have been dark days, but slowly I’m coming out to the other side where the sun is breaking through – I know there are good times ahead and that my loved ones will support me all the way. There are mountains I will climb, waterfalls I’ll stand beneath and new four-legged friends whose fur I’ll run my hand through.

No matter what hurdles I must face and sadness I will feel along the way, I had to do this – even long before I stepped on to the plane, it was already part of my life.

Adios, Urubamba

As I prepared to go away on this trip, facing the thought of leaving my life and loved ones in London was hard. What I didn’t expect was that I’d have to do it all again once I was actually out here. Yet here I am, preparing to leave Peru having spent more than three months living in the little town of Urubamba. And I feel sad.

It’s so true that only when you face losing something do you realise how much you love it – now I notice how the sun falls in my pretty little garden at different times of the day; now I spot all the shop and café owners in town who I recognise and who recognise me; I realise all the places I know where to buy exactly what I’m looking for; I know what all the prices should be; I remember how much I’ve changed since I first arrived wide-eyed. Now it’s time to start again, to be the stranger flailing around in the foreign land. It’s time for new adventures, challenges and surprises.

And this time, I don’t think I’ll be coming back to this place that has so warmly been my home.

So adios, Urubamba, gracias por su hospitalidad. Thank you Carlos and Carlos for your hospitality at Kai and the little house in Chajhuar. Thank you Johannes for taking me there to start with. Hasta luego, Cristian (don’t drink or smoke); chau Patrick, thank you for the dinners and the laughs; see you later, Clayton, Shon, Jason, Ronnie, Fran, Elise, Mel, Melinda, Erin, Ali.

Bring it on, Bolivia!

Urubamba's main plaza

Urubambians enjoying sundown in the main plaza

How it happens

I have been in Peru for two months now, and for more or less most of that time I have been hanging out in a small, non-descript town in the Sacred Valley below Cusco. Bystanders might wonder why. I’m supposed to be travelling round South America, aren’t I?

While I was in Lima after my arrival from the UK, I was in a certain amount of turmoil as to how to start my trip. I had made no plans; in fact I’d not particularly given South America much thought in the months since I booked the ticket – I just had too many good things going on in London.

I was still at work right up to the day before my flight, so every minute of lunchtimes, evenings and weekends was spent in the good company of my lovely friends and family. I didn’t even pack until the morning before my flight.

It meant that when I finally arrived at a quiet hostel in a refined neighbourhood of Lima, I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. I knew I needed to catch up on lots of sleep. But I was still running on London adrenaline, plus I had the system of budget travel long installed in me: get going! See stuff! Do stuff! Don’t hang around wasting money on accommodation!

And I nearly did go after a couple of days of long lie-ins, languorous breakfasts at noon, and hours reclining on the hostel’s sofa with my laptop. I nearly stepped onto the backpacker conveyer belt. But something made me wait.

Somehow I calmed down, somehow I realised there was no rush; I needed to work out what it was that I truly wanted to do. And sure enough, good things happened.

I’m looking forward to discussing with you another time about the modern-day backpacker, sitting with their laptops connecting to WiFi but not to each other. And although I’m guilty as charged for being relieved that I brought my Netbook – after spending nine hours of every day of the past seven years as a web editor, I simply couldn’t unplug cold turkey – but I know when to put the machine down, to look up and smile at a real live person in my vicinity.

And this is how I met Johannes, who with a similar opinion, we got talking. He was heading to the Sacred Valley and I knew that’s where I was really craving to get to, too. So after nearly a week in Lima we flew to Cusco, then he generously encouraged me to join him to Urubamba, down in the valley, where he’d spent many times before.

It was hard at first – I knew no one, spoke no Spanish; in truth, I didn’t really know where I was or what I was doing. And Urubamba is not a tourist hub – it’s a real-life, hard-working town, so there are no hostels full of fellow backpackers, or cafes with WiFi to comfort and reassure in times of need.

I nearly left. Many times. But again, something made me wait. And that’s the one big dilemma of travel. I considered that if I move on, I’ll meet other people, have new and possibly better experiences. But might I miss out on opportunities here? By constantly moving, are travellers gaining experiences or losing out on others?

I went up to Cusco to stay with a local family while I attended a Spanish course. The end of the week was my chance to move on – Lake Titicaca, just over the border in Bolivia, beckoned.

But I did something I’ve never done before while travelling – I went back. As I rode the colectivo down the winding mountain road into the valley that night, and the familiar lights of Urubamba appeared, I almost wasn’t surprised when I saw a shooting star in the sky above the town.

I didn’t know what I was going to do, where I was going to stay, if anyone would care that I was back, and if I could actually use any of the Spanish that I’d studied. But something told me to wait – it was going to be wonderful.

I can, I do, I travel

Or, why I’m doing this.

I have spoken before about why I’ve set off to South America, but people have pressed me further and so I’ve thought hard for some more answers.

I am a traveller. I have the bug. The itch.

Why? I think it’s greatly thanks to my mum. Virtually a single mother, she scrimped and saved all year when my brother and I were growing up, but we always, always had holidays and day trips. Weekends were spent in the museums of London, or on country excursions; summers were spent on the beach, swimming in the sea, climbing rocks or walking through the meadows of Essex and Suffolk. Our first holidays were in the UK; then as we grew older and mum felt braver, she got us abroad – to Austria, Switzerland, and Italy a few times.

Her providing me these diverse opportunities gave me the invaluable traveller’s skill of being able to adapt. I can talk with people from any background or viewpoint, I can sleep anywhere I need to – a bus floor, the deck of a boat, under a tree, with rats crawling nearby; I don’t care. I enjoy experiences, good and bad. In cities, I love the excitement and possibilities; in the countryside I love the peace and the beauty of nature.

My mum’s passion for seeing places and doing things became instilled in me. I remember poring over pictures in holiday brochures and maps of unknown lands with her, and feeling a sense of urgency to be out there in the world, and that time is precious.

There was another significant influence, again thanks to my mum. She took me several times to the sadly now defunct Commonwealth Institute in London’s Kensington. This massive auditorium-style 1960s building on the edge of Holland Park had fantastic displays and exhibitions on the countries of the British Commonwealth. I remember looking at food packaging from Cameroon, costumes of Rajasthan, taking a helicopter simulator over Kuala Lumpur; and thinking “I want to go and see this for myself, for real.” My mind was opened wide to the world.

So now, some 20 years later, and with many of the places I wanted to see seen – and many more to come – I can only say thank you mum, because if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this in a mountain valley in Peru.

The walk that didn’t know it was happening until it did

Originally written by hand at 3.35pm, sitting by a stream at the side of a field.

It’s Friday night back in London. My friends there are heading out to pubs in the city for a night of drinking. I headed out with my book and notebook to sit somewhere quiet in the afternoon sunshine to read and write.

Urubamba doesn’t have many quiet or green spaces – apart from the cemetery – which, nice as it is and as comfortable as I am being around the dead, I fancied being around life on this glorious day.

So I started walking.

I walked to the edge of town, past the cemetery; the road turns to dust here. I walked past the foot of the first mountain outside the town. I walked past schoolchildren on their long trudges home. I walked through the next village. I walked ever upwards past farmers’ fields and nearer the snow-capped peaks and glaciers of the Cordillera Urubamba that cut off the end of this valley.

I stopped to sit down in the shade by the roadside and a curious bull appeared on the other side of the road to look at me. I carried on, ever upwards. I stopped to eat the bread and cheese I’d bought in Urubamba. I stopped in another village to buy a 70c bottle of Kola Real. I stopped to write this.

Somehow the mountains have lured me to keep walking along the dusty, stony road in the beating sun, with quite a heavy rucksack full of books. I don’t know for how long or how far I will go, but I do know this must be complete and true freedom as any human being can expect to obtain in this life.

No one knows where I am or what I’m doing, apart from the country folk I pass. I can walk at the exact speed I wish. I can stop when I want. I can smile and greet anyone I care to. I can go on walking as long as I feel like it. I can return home and no one will ever know what I did and what I saw unless I want them to.

Unless I type this up and share it with you.

Urubamba's cemetery

Urubamba’s cemetery

The bull that looked into my soul

The bull that looked into my soul

The mountain valley with children on swing

The mountain valley with children on swing

Walking back

Walking back

Me

Me