Islands in the Sun

Moher
Cliff of Moher, West Ireland

I love islands and island life, possibly because I was born on the far flung western isle (Ireland) or maybe because my childhood was suffused with island adventure tales – Enid Blyton’s Famous Five’s escapades on Kirrin Island (and the slightly more mature Adventure series – The River of Adventure, the Mountain of Adventure and, inevitably, the Island of Adventure with Philip, Jack and his parrot Kiki, Dinah and little Lucy-Ann) – and followed up with R.L. Stephenson’s Treasure Island and R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (which was the first book to ever make me cry when Bloody Bill, the pirate, died!).

 

Then again, perhaps it was the magic of flying on a two engine Fokker Friendship prop plane from Dublin airport to The Isle of Man with my parents for another childhood holiday. One time we flew from Collinstown, later to become Dublin International, and once, more exciting, left at midnight from one of the city’s quays on a ship that seemed to loom immense in the glare of lights. Magical gardens and bridges where a fairy toll is ‘demanded’, cats with no tails and a unique ‘Q-Celtic’ Manx language – sadly now extinct, the last native speaker having died in the mid seventies – Manx was related to Scottish Gaelic and Irish as opposed to the ‘P-Celtic languages of Welsh, Cornish and Breton. I still remember the  buzz and roar of the annual TT motorbike races around the island and the excitement it generated.

On the other hand, it may have been the summer picnics to Dalkey Island2 (the closest

Coliemore
Coliemore Harbour

island to where I lived in Dublin as a child) which seemed to require such advance planning on the part of my parents. The No. 8 bus from the heart of the city would go past our house on the corner of the Monkstown Road and on through Dun Laoghaire, Sandy Cove and eventually the terminus at Dalkey and from there the walk, lumbered down with tartan rugs, picnic baskets, flasks of hot tea, buckets and spades, to the harbour at Coliemore from where my father would bargain with brawny men to row us across to the uninhabited island of Dalkey Island* crowned with a Napoleonic era Martello tower. Uninhabited except for a few goats, a Martello tower, a freshwater spring and a ruined church. Family picnics, diving off the small, whitewashed rocks where the rowing boat left us off and picking up fresh mackerel for dinner on the homeward trip.

 

Whatever it was, it seems that those most magical times have extended into my adult life and have all been centred on islands. Simple man, simple dreams3, I suppose. By horoscope, I fall under Cancer – a water sign – and in the Chinese zodiac I am a (water) snake and despite having enjoyed myself in mountainous regions worldwide – The Himalayays in Nepal, the Andes in Peru, the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia, the Pyrenees on the Spanish-French border, I feel my strength and vitality are at their peak when I am close to water, especially salt water!

With so many thousands of islands in Indonesia I have explored so few, Bali ages ago and more recently, the Gilli Islands off Lombok – an easy four hour direct flight from Perth here in West Australia and then a 90 minutes taxi ride to the port at Bangsal from where the public boats set out for the islands. Bali is a subtle blend of festive Hinduism and local traditions, Denpasar and Kuta being over commercialised  but it is still easy to escape to central Ubud and the black sand beaches along the north shore at Singha Raja. Everybody seemed talented – whether it was in dance or performance, wood and stone carving, music or hospitality and fluent in so many ways. I had to buy extra bags in Bali to accomodate all the carvings and knick knacks I acquired the first few times there.  I recently came across a few thousand rupiah from that time and when I produced them in Lombok last week, people laughed in incredulity at my crumpled bills. They have been out of date for almost forty years! IMG_3295I headed off initially to Trawangan, the party island, with plenty of bars and loud music and the furthest out from Lombok but after two nights of drinking cheap cocktails – two for the price of one – made with local spirits – I had a vicious headache and decided to try the delights of Menos, the middle or the ‘Robinson Crusoe’ island, the smallest and the quietest the three. Beautiful, semi unspoilt islands – no cars or motorbikes only bicycles and little pony and trap carts and a sunrise on one side and a sunset on the other side of the island. Three days on Menos and, with my time running out, I spent the last three nights on Air, the island closest to Lombok itself. IMG_3310All three islands were unique in their own way and were small enough to stroll around in less than two hours and all offered scuba training and day and night dives and probably excellent value if that is the kind of thing you like. I’m a bit different – I just wanted clear, deep water and that’s where the islands fell down for me as, for a hundred metres or so around all three islands, the water was shallow and while appearing to be sandy, was, in fact, made up of dead and broken white coral shards which made getting into and out of the water difficult and painful. Coral cuts tend to fester easily and reef shoes – which, of course I didn’t have – would be an absolute necessity. As it was, the water was so shallow that trying to swim overarm out to deeper water my finger tips brushed the broken coral with each stroke. Not ideal unless you want to lounge by the swimming pools most of the resorts provided.

A relatively new ‘discovery’ for me, Lombok is the large island next to Bali and, in theory,IMG_3317 should be just as beautiful. Certainly a fantastic ride from the airport skirting the capital and rushing past small villages and up over a jungle clad mountain with monkeys on the roadside, attracted by heaps of durian on sale, glimpses of the coast as we head down to the port. I am sure there are gorgeous beaches there too but I was set on new island horizons, the three small islands off the north west of Lombok.

Samosir, on the other hand, was almost an island, in the middle of Lake Toba, near Medan in Sumatra, practically the far end of the Indonesian archipelago from Lombok. My son fell, fully clothed, off the dock once we arrived and I had to jump in after him. That’s all I can really remember except for some really ratty accomodation.

So, on to all my favourite islands and how to rank them – by cost? (Rottnest island off Perth in WA is hideously overpriced); by beauty? (most S. E. Asian islands); by ease / difficulty of access? (although that has changed with airports springing up everywhere); by people? (all of them!). A listing in no particular order and with distinct memories of times past and present.

Lamai Koh Samui
Lamai Beach, Koh Samui

Ahh, Asia, every other island paled into significance once I came across Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao and Koh Samet.  Those tropical paradises, first visited in 1981, originally by slow, flat-bottomed overnight ferry from Dongson to Koh Samui before a pickup truck ride to Chaweng or Lamai or Bo Phut beaches still represent earthly paradise to me. Back in the early 80’s, I’d pay something like a nightly 30 Baht for a beach-side hut on stilts and have banana pancakes for breakfast, Tom Yam soup for lunch and barbecued fish 

Lamai
Lamai Beach, Koh Samui

for dinner, all washed down with icy Singha beer in cold frosted glasses and Mehkong whisky and soda water. Beautiful sandy beaches, relaxing beach massages and a gentle shelving beach so that you could run and dive straight into crystal clear waters. Now you can fly from most places into Ko Samui airport – one of the most appealing airports I have ever been in. Prices of course have gone up since my first visit and many beach side resorts also offer that abomination – a swimming pool! Koh Phangan was, I think, the ‘party’ island north of Koh Samui – the originator of the full moon parties? Koh Tao consisted of three tiny rocky islands connected by sand banks at low tide. I swam around the largest island once. There used to be just a handful of beach huts and a restaurant; now I believe it is packed but it must still be beautiful. All I remember of poor old Koh Samet are mosquitoes and ants!

 

I lived in Malaysia for three years and evocative names in Penang like Batu Fennenghi and Jalan Chulia where I bought my first ever SLR camera still stir me but it was off the east coast of northern Trengganu that the real tropical paradises of Perhentian and Redang lay. Deserted, at the time and  used only by local fishermen for its fresh water supply – hence the name ‘Perhenti’ / Stop, in Malay. I used to hire a local fishing boat from Kuala Besut, where I lived for three years and would make almost weekly trips (on a friday) to the island and come back to the kuala, sun-burnt, salt bleached and dehydrated to revive myself with large bottle of cold Anchor beer, served from metal tea pots into heavy ceramic cups in the only Chinese cafe in the kampong. I camped on the island for nearly  a week once while trying to study for my Graduate Record Examination into an American university, thinking I would have no distractions! Even further out than the Perhentian islands lay Redang. it was once used as a detention centre for Boat people in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. I much preferred the Perhentians where I swam with sting rays, turtles and small (leg-long) sharks in waters no deeper than three or four metres. Gorgeous!

A fast ‘coffin boat’ from Brunei Darussalam would bring me to Labuan, a duty free island off the coast of Malaysian Sabah in Borneo – an absolute haven away from alcohol-free, strictly Islamic, Brunei.  I used to treat myself and stay in the golf course hotel. Alternatively, I’d go over with some friends in their boat, depart Brunei legally, arrive in Labuan, stock up with up to 50 cases of beer (ballast, we used to call it) and return to Brunei illegally after dark when the customs had closed, off load the beer on a deserted beach where other friends were waiting and then report to Brunei customs the following morning, claiming the Evinrude engines had been giving us trouble and we had only just arrived! Another world, another time!

And then, of course, there is Hong Kong and with this view from my rooftop, what more could anyone ask?HK1

Lamma island, just off the bottom of HK’s 

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA
Fish farms off Sok Kwu Wan, Lamma, HK

southern bottom, was such a laid-back spot off frenetic Hong Kong. ‘Draw-string pants, mismatched socks and guitar music’ I once heard someone describe the lifestyle there compared to HK’s bankers. One ferry from HK Central would arrive at Sok Kwu Wan on the north east side of the island with its fish-farms and quayside restaurants. I used to walk from there to the other side of the island with its ATM, bars and more seafood restaurants and a different ferry from Yung Shue Wan back to HK.

HK4
HK mini Buses

 

Lantau Island had the big Buddha (the biggest, seated, outdoor, bronze Buddha in the world,) as well as a great South African barbecue beachside restaurant with jugs of Margaritas. Cheung Chow, One of Hong Kong’s favourite suicide spots for some bizarre reason. Punters would rent a small chalet, close the doors and windows and light a charcoal barbecue and suffocate themselves.

 

Phu Quoc, off the most south westerly tip of Vietnam, looks closer to Cambodia and was fairly unspoilt and quiet when I was there about 20 years ago. So much so that the ‘resort’ I was staying in offered to sell itself to me after a night’s drinking with the owner! I choose what I would like to eat the following day from an ‘oral menu’ and he would make a trip to the local market just for me! The island boasted of its famed peppercorns and fish sauce which, locals zealously informed me, could not be brought on board an airplane lest the bottle break and its pungency imperil all on board!

Singapore was definitely my first ever S. E. Asian island! Gaping, like some yokel from the sticks, I went shopping along Orchard Road and bought my first – and only – portable typewriter – an Olivetti – there back in 1981.  Do those things still exist? The incredible humidity in the air – like walking into the bathroom after somehow had a long, very hot shower with the door and windows closed and the coolness of the Long Bar, in the Raffles Hotel, surrendering to Singapore slings, was a blessed relief after the turmoil of shopping!

I did an MA in the State University at Stony Brook, half-way out on the north shore of Long Island, a long spit of land reaching out into the Atlantic from New York City and did my drinking in places like Setauket and Port Jefferson and my swimming in the creek on the northside and in the Atlantic on the south side.

I worked one summer on the island of Sylt, the jewel of the ‘German Riviera’! I was ‘ein nacht portier’ at Hotel Ursula in the main town of Westerland. Long, windswept sandy beaches where elderly people played volley ball in the nude and where I was eventually fired when it was discovered that I didn’t really speak any German but it took nearly three weeks before that was discovered!

The Île de Noirmoutier is not really an island as it is connected to the French mainland by a causeway flooded daily by the incoming – and fast – tide. Famous for its new potatoes, I remember it for lazy afternoons drinking white wine with a touch of Cassis with old friends.

Slow, laid back, very patchy wi-fi, Cuba offered differently aged Habana rumsIMG_0631(apparently Bacardi sided with the Batista government forces against Castro and so signed their death warrant on the island) in generous mojito cocktails. Music in the bars at night – and everywhere – extravagantly old American cars lovingly tended (or rusted out heaps beyond repair), fat women squeezed into tight lycra and old men and women smoking cigars the size of a baby’s arm.

From Puno in Peru I went out to the amazing floating islands made of bundled reeds on Lake Titicaca, part of the border between Peru and Bolivia.

IMG_0089
Floating Reed Island, Titicaca

 

Trampoline-like under foot, the reeds were used for their shelters as well as their boats.

IMG_0088
Reed boat, Titicaca

 

 

Half an hour by fast ferry off Fremantle in West Australia,  Rottnest island is clearly visible from the mainland and like the Gilli Islands, there is no motorised transport – just bicycles and beautiful beaches, fresh octopus and, the island specific, quokkas (a type of small, short tailed wallaby). While beautiful and charming, the island is, in my opinion, mega expensive for what it offers..

Hainan
Hainan Island

Hainan island is China’s most southerly port and submarine base and I stayed in the same hotel where the Miss World beauty contest was once held in the southern city of Sanya. Parts of the beaches were cordoned off by the military, as I discovered when I ignored shouted warnings strolling along a sandy beach. Only the clunk-clunk of a pump-action shot-gun being cocked brought me to my senses.

 

Macau casinos held no 

Macau3
One of the fancy casinos

 

attraction for me but Portuguese food and wine certainly did in the area around the old harbour as well as crumbly old ‘Fawlty Towers’ type hotels. I’d return to HK laden with chorizo, olive oil, tinned anchovies and bottles of a slightly sparkling white wine.

 

Almost directly opposite the Chinese mainland city of Xiamen is Penghu County, a drab island claimed by Taiwan and reached by a three hour ferry trip from Xiamen itself. One of the most heavily shelled / bombed places after 1949 when the Nationalists retreated. The main culinary delight seemed to be  oyster omelettes!

Next up, after the Thai Islands mentioned above must be Puerta Galera in The Philippines. A half day bus trip out of Metro Manila down to Batangas and then a ferry over to Puerto Galera on the island of Mindoro. Fantastic! I stayed at the end of a rocky promontory with a floating bar a 100 metres away. Cold San Miguel beer cheaper than a coffee or a coke, mellow Tanduay rum, tiny, bitter little calamansi limes, green skin, bright orange inside with slippery pips, friendly people and crystal clear, deep water – perfect.

In late December, the sun rose around twelve noon in Reykjavik, Iceland and set again at about four pm. Ideal in some ways – use your imagination – the hotel in the small town of Hverageròi where I ended up for some reason, was overheated and I pushed the window open to let some air in and the window froze open overnight, as did the lens of my camera later that day. Amazing to come across hot houses growing bananas and tropic plants benefitting from underground thermal power.

So, a retrospecive look at islands sparked by my recent trips to the Gilli Islands, Indonesia.

1 Islands in the Sun – Harry Belafonte

https://www.last.fm/music/Harry+Belafonte/_/Island+In+The+Sun

2 Dalkey Island Photos – Niki McGrath

EFFECTS

3 Simple man, simple dreams – Linda Ronstadt‘s Asylum album released in September, 1977.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QLk90r2sJMc

Cuba and beyond – Part 4

Bolivia

Named after Simon Bolivar from Venezuela who, in 1804, declared that he would fight to the death to break the chains binding South America to Spain, leading to the Declaration of Independence for Venezuela in 1811 followed by most of the other Spanish colonies after the invasion of Spain by Napoleon. As far as I know, Bolivia is the only country in the world to be named after its liberator!

img_0082The journey on the bus from Cusco to Puno on Lake Titicaca on the border between Peru and Bolivia, crossing over 4000 metres, left me gasping with the effort of breathing at this altitude. However, Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America on the border of Peru and Bolivia and the “highest navigable lake” in the world at about 3,812 metres, gave me the illusion of sea level and my ragged breathing was enough for me to take a day-trip to the fantastic, floating islands on the lake. img_0087Small manmade islands have been constructed by the Uros (or Uru) people for generations from layer upon layer of cut totora, a thick buoyant reed that grows everywhere along the shores of the lake. Many of the golden coloured islands are more or less half the size of a football field, containing several thatched houses, with about 25 people living on the island I visited.

La Paz, in Bolivia, the highest capital city in the world, is at about 3,600 metres above sea level. The air felt very thin so a simple task like tying my shoelaces left me breathless and panting for oxygen.

On the surface, Bolivia seems to be the most under developed of all the countries I have been in so far on this trip, with the exception of Cuba. For starters, the bus trip from Puno, on the border, to La Paz should only have been 7 or 8 hours. Instead it ended up being nearly 12. By no strimg_0094etch of the imagination could the bus from Puno cater to the “super executivo” class and it was a jerky ride to the border post. No problems there, off the bus and into Peru Immigration to get an exit stamp, walk 100 metres and enter Bolivia and get an entry stamp.
Then, across the lake on a small, cramped and crowded motor boat while the bus laboured across the lake on a barge powered by a tiny outboard engine, back on the bus again and onto a nondescript border town inside Bolivia where a change to a inferior bus was delayed by hours and then finally off to La Paz, img_0117through barren, desert country until the outskirts of the capital city approached.

Protesting, indigenous people however, had blocked off the city, with rough barricades barring all the main roads to the centre. The bus was forced to stop and take on a native guide who then directed the bus up, down and round about through a maze of unpaved, rutted, dirt roads only suitable for a 4X drive and somehow the bus lurched and twisted and limped past the rough blockades of piled heaps of dirt and stone blocks until eventually beginning the descent into the valley where the heart of the city lay.

Pretty amazing but by this time I was having serious problems catching my breath and I just took a taxi to a hotel in the centre and crashed out on the bed.

img_3363Massive demonstrations began in the city the next day with thousands of protesting miners parading through the streets. Every corner was covered with heavily armed police, img_3383toting pump action shotguns, teargas and heavy duty riot gear while the protesters poured into the city, firing off bangers from what looked like bamboo tubes, blocking off all exits. img_3378 Toyland soldiers stood guard outside principal buildings, in rather sharp contrast to the heavily armed police on every street in the centre of the city.

Had enough of gasping for breath in the altitudes of Peru and La Paz and I decided to leave to anywhere south and at a lower altitude. I just needed to get down to sea level again where I could breathe properly and I decided to leave as soon as the city barricades were removed. I must admit I was not prepared for the high altitude, as anywhere from 3600 metres plus didn’t do a lot for me despite me chewing my way through wads of coca leaves with my breath rasping in the lungs. Consequently, many of the activities on offer – mountain climbing (!), trekking, white water rafting, zip lining, death route cycling downhill and so on – were all out of bounds for me so I pretty much confined myself to armchair drinking and sampling the local cuisine – roast guinea pig (not much to gnaw on, as I mentioned) and roast alpaca – delicious and almost a cross between lamb and beef but slightly gamier.Bolivia was also notable for appearing to have the greatest number of indigenous people. img_3390img_3362Monstrously broad-hipped women in voluminous coloured skirts, heavy shawls which doubled as blankets and makeshift backpacks, their heads topped with incongrous bowler hats while all the men seemed smaller and dressed in standard jeans and t-shirts with baseball caps.  Amazing!img_3357

Sights are extraordinary but hard to do justice to with my camera as I took a bus meandering through the blockades 5 hours south to the small town of Oruro where I connected with one of South America’s rare trains running down to Villazon on the border with Argentine. I love train journeys – possibly my favourite mode of long distance transport and I was amazed that train travel is relatively rare in this part of the world. That was until I caught the noisiest, slowest and bumpiest train I have ever been on for about 15 hours down to Villazon on the border with Argentine. No sleepers, a minimalist buffet car and only 140-degree reclining seats here!

An easy border crossing, no paperwork or forms involved whatsoever, merely answering a desultory question or two and walk over into Argentine and another world. While Cuba was behind the times, Ecuador organised and capable, Peru suave and cosmopolitan, Bolivia half arsed, Argentine immediately struck me as being modern with its highway diamonds, flyovers, sky scrapers, functioning traffic lights, traffic cops with white gloves – and all this in only a small cross border town and then on to Salta, on the edge of the Andes and the breathing is almost back to normal.

 

Cuba and beyond – Part 3

Peru

Arrived in Peru on a very comfortable overnight bus from Cuenca that took me down to Tumbes, Ecuador’s border post with Peru. Before I go any further, I have to clarify here what I mean by a bus. I have travelled on Greyhounds across the US back in the 70’s and on long distance buses through Western Australia since then but I have never come across such luxurious bus travel as I have done so far in South America. First off, most of the buses – excuse me, coaches – are modern, sleek, two storey jobs with plush, airline style seats. Unlike most airline seats however, all of the seats here recline from a minimum of comfortably back to completely back, i.e., 180 degrees or “Executivo” class, each seat fully contained and separate with its personal TV screen while the on-board loo would not be out of place on Airforce One. I digress.

Minor delays to exit Ecuador and enter Peru – a bit like going from Saigon to Cambodia, – and then back on the bus until a beach resort called Mancora before dawn. I could have gotten a room right away but the night porter obligingly suggested that I wait until 6:00 AM as, that way, I wouldn’t have to pay for the previous night! I waited outside the gated resort at a small kiosk drinking beer and waiting for daybreak with the local desperadoes and long term ex-pat exiles, Patrick and Giorgio. The latter, a wrinkled veteran, hinted the upscale resort was pretending to be a backpacker place before offering me tours to watch whales or deep-sea fishing, treks to hot springs and mud baths.
I’ve always enjoyed beach holidays – in fact up until my late teens or early twenties, they were the only type of holiday I had ever had – and this was the Pacific, rolling in along an endless flat coastline as far as the eye could see in either direction, while Stuka winged img_0698birds swooped in img_0711
a stormy sky but the season here was coming to an end and there was never any pepper in the restaurants, the coffee was crap and long Pacific waves rolled in constant curls and I ended up being the only person staying on an isolated beach strip.

On down the west coast from Piura, a small northern town on a “Super-executivo” to Lima. It was like flying business class.  My seat was called a suite and reclined all the way back to a flat bed.  Two meals and drinks were served by a pretty little hostess, just like on a plane, and the loo was twice the size found there as well. img_3294The approach to the capital was along sand-blasted looking cliffs while a sullen slate-grey Pacific rolled relentlessly against the shore where an immense grey city, perpetually wrapped in a silver sea mist or fog, sprawled.

img_0726It is always such a fantastic thing to go somewhere and then indulge with the national dishes and one of Peru’s national dishes is roasted guinea pig – I bet it tastes like chicken! Of course the other national essentials are ceviche and pisco sours – rum, lime, sugar and egg white whipped up in a blender.

Down on the Malecon I felt dwarfed by the magnitude of the leaden expanse of the Pacific stretching endlessly away, awed by an ocean too vast for me to get a handle on.

Another super executivo inland then, along with a few cocoa leaves to chew, to Cusco, an old Inca Indian capital, somewhere around 3400 metres. High iimg_3319n the mountains in Peru, the old Inca capital, at about 3600 metres above sea level means difficulty breathing – but not for the Incas who built the city more than 500 years ago. The Spanish came then and raped the city, stole the gold and used the blocks of img_0759stone from the Inca temples to build their own churches and buildings. An amazing, solid city high in the mountains – a Siam Reap or an Ayutthaya alive with their original inhabitants, along with the tourists. Churches and squares everywhere instead of temples and pagodas – atmospheric and bewildering, warm during the day and then freezing at night. Timg_0752he steep climb between my hostel and Paddy’s Bar, the highest 100% Irish owned bar in S. America at 11156 feet, was an exhausting and panting effort! Machu Pichu become unattractive to me at an even higher altitude and I headed to the lower altitude city of Arequipa, surrounded by snow capped mountains and guarded by three active volcanoes – the last eruption only a dozen years or so ago.

To compensate for missing out one of the wonders of the world, I had my first roast guinea pig for dinner. I thought it would just be like chicken but it was more like rabbit or quail. Not a lot of eating on a guinea pig I have to say and I was glad I hadn’t ordered the fillet but instead had the whole beast, head, tail, claws, the works.

Before I had left Lima, a friendly bar-tender had given me a handfulimg_0788 of cocoa leaves, for the altitude she had insisted and I decided to go to Cusco’s local wet market where I was sure to find more. For a few cents a withered crone stuffed a bag the size of a pillow case with the bitter leaves and then threw in a few sticks of some grey resin, stevia it turned out, to offset the bitterness of the leaves when chewed. There was the most incredible variety and abundance in the market, fresh squeezed juices, fruits and vegetables, most of them totally unknown to me, piled high in gleaming mounds. Potatoes ranged in sizimg_3311e from peanuts to cabbage size and in colour from black to purple and yellow while the market itself was spotless, bright and airy. Corn was everywhere and in every size too from tiny kernels to knobs as big as my little finger joint.

Squat Inca women, all wrapped in heavy, embroidered shawls, colourful duster-like arrangements on their heads, sat in the main square, their legs straight in front of them, doing traditional weaving or selling local handicrafts.img_3328 Smiling girls in elaborate costumes decorated with silver coins and outlandish headdresses cuddled baby alpacas in their laps and posed against the massive stone blocks of an imposing church for tourist photographs but I was more interested in food.

Picanterias – local, family run small enterprise restaurants – serve traditional stews of beans and corn, stewed endlessly and served with meat barbecued on a cast iron parilla and I wanted llama. Although everyone seemed to know about picanterias, nobody seemed able to direct me to one so in desperation I took a taxi and told him to take me to his recommendation of a picanteria. After a moment or two of goggling at me uncomprehendingly, he slammed the car into gear and we roared out of the town centre up a gravelled road to a large, whitewashed building climbing the steep hillside. No llama, they assured me but ‘same-same but better” alpaca cooked on the parilla. The slab of meat was too much for me and I was glad of the extended stroll back into the city centre when the picanteria unceremoniously shut down in the early afternoon. Maybe a picanteria where the guinea pigs run around in the kitchen instead, feeding off scraps, would be more my size!

img_0770Fatigued from both the altitude and the culture overload about cities I had never before heard of, and their extraordinary churches, convents img_0783and castles – all built at the behest of a handful of Spanish (less than 180 men) who invaded in 1530 or so and conquered the ruling Inca tribes and their vast empire stretching almost the length of the continent, I moved on to Puno, the stopover point for Lake Titicaca, the highest and one of the largest lakes in the world, making Lake Argyle in the Kimberley in West Australia look like a puddle.

I remember reading about the extraordinarily strong convictions of Thor Heyerdahl and his Kon-Tiki expedition and thinking how exciting to venture on such a trip on a balsa-wood raft. But for the small communities on the border between Peru and Bolivia who lived on massive floating reed islands showed just how buoyant their floating homes were. img_0087Their high prowed reed boats provide both a security and a living on the immense lake. A bit like the old Celtic habit, I suppose, of building fortified, enclosed homes on brushwood platforms over water or bogs – the Crannóg.

Those reed boats now seem mainly for the tourists but at the same time I was rather relieved when my bus drove onto a sturdy wooden raft powered by a tiny outboard motor before attempting the border crossing into Bolivia. I warily climbed, with the other punters, into a tiny speedboat to make the same crossing in a fraction of the time it took our bus! The road would endlessly and sinuously up and up, it seemed into the snow-capped mountains and the high altitude began to affect my breathing again long before we seemed to make a circuitous descent into La Paz.

So far I’ve covered the length of the continent from Quito in Ecuador down to the tail end of Peru and thank God for loads of things like hot, sunny days and cold nights and heavy warm duvets on the beds, I mused, as I sipped a small bottle of good rum I had thoughtfully provided myself with against the cold.