Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Taking a break and seeing the fam' in the motherland, June 17 - July 17.

Where to start... I had a whirlwind first 2 weeks seeing pretty much everyone and going to the MAY BALL!! With Alex and Sam. Then I got stuck because my new debit card hadn't arrived yet. Things slowed down a bit at 67 park ave while I checked the post religiously and got settled in - I was there about 3 weeks in the end I think... 

When I arrived at Heathrow I got a train straight to Cambridge and pretty much went straight to sleep. I badly needed to catchup from the long journey and last days in Lima, and I needed to get prepared for another night's sleep to be missed! I got to Cambridge about 9:30pm on the 17th and the ball was the 18th :D perfect timing. 
It all started with a hair appointment at 2pm; Kelly (Sam's girlfriend) had organised for Kirsten and I to have our hair done at the same time and place as her. It was very luxurious!! We all had our hair down and set in curls, but by the time the ball rolled around, and we'd waited in the cue to get in - which was over an hour long and wound through the grounds of St John's College - mine were pretty much gone! Damn. I managed to repair one of my cracked falsies (nails) that I had done cheap in Lima though, crisis averted there! Haha ...such first world problems. But this was definitely a first world affair. The most luxurious, extravagant and ridiculously posh event I have ever dreamt of going to. Our motto for the night was "because we can", it didn't matter if we swapped a half drunk fancy cocktail for the next one we wanted to try. It was there to be tried! The event itself was spread over the whole of St. John's College and each courtyard or grand hall had a different "art for arts sake"-related theme. So for each of the 8/9 areas there was a different type of fancy food, a different type of fancy drink, decorations and a form of entertainment or two.  It was incredible. And of course everything was of the highest quality! I was so busy trying all the incredible food and drinks, and trying not to miss the best entertainment (they gave you a program) that I didn't even take off my 4-inch heels until 4:30am! we played mini golf after that and I scored a hole in one fist shot ;) such a pro.  I'd say easily more than half of the ball made it to the survivors photo at 6am! We definitely did. Then headed upstairs from the main courtyard to Sam's room and proceeded to sleep most of the day. 
Amazing. Partying in absolutely luxury in a surreal castle, with the very bet of entertainment, food and drinks... they'd lit it up the castle with bright pink, blue and yellow patterned and moving lights, it looked  like a fairytail castle! 

The rest of the time in Cambridge was spent hanging out with my awesome cousins Alex and Sam :) we had to pack up all of Sam's stuff to take with us the next day when we drove up to Hartford to see the rest of the Blayney family. It's the end of the academic year in the northern hemisphere! Haha 

Hartford was amazing. I love hanging out at Angelbeck house, good spot. We took a country walk, had a pub dinner, went ice-skating, I watched Michael and Kate performing at different recitals, we had a hilarious and inventive cocktail evening. Overall it was just really great to catch up with everyone and spend some time together, not that it was very long! after a couple of nights I was off to Nantwich to stay with Grandpa and Elizabeth!

I only stayed two nights in Nantwich, but we were busy the whole time! The first we went out to see a play called "widowers houses" at a round theatre - it was really good, strange ending... But really good! The next day we went shopping in Chester and had coffee at the fancy cafe with the butler that we always go to ;) it was great, and Grandpa was very generous and bought me bunch of new clothes! ...really nice to have a few different things to work with actually. My wardrobe is getting a bit tired! Haha lucky I could leave a few things with Grannie and Keith (my next stop) so I didn't mind adding a little weight to my backpack... even though it was almost bursting at the seems at this point and had a hammock strapped to it...!
I had time to walk around Nantwich with Grandpa and to relax with a cup of tea at many an opportunity while I was there too, and I managed to shatter my iPad screen. Whoops! It's ok, Keith was a miracle worker and found a place close by to get it fixed only a couple of days later. Just the screen broken. 

From Nantwich I went to Northampton and caught up with the Civil side of the family :) the evening I arrived almost everyone managed to pop round and say hi for at least a little while which was so nice!! Family reunion!! I think I stayed one night there before we headed off to Askrigg for the weekend.
Askrigg is absolutely beautiful, I LOVE the tiny English country roads lined with stone walls, and the rolling green hills spotted with bedraggled sheep and black and white spotted cows! The houses are old stone and often have thatched roofs over there too. It is gorgeous! And we actually had good weather!! Still cold by my standards (20ish?), but we saw the sun for more than 5 mins and it barely sprinkled with rain. Crazy! 
Driving in we came up over the mores for Keith to take some photos of grouse and that too was really impressive! Misty and flat with just heath and grass covering the plains. 
All 7 of the family were only together with Grannie, Keith and I for the first evening. Then Alistair and Kirsten went to London and different kids disappeared at different moments for friends birthday parties etc. but we did get a wonderful full-group pub dinner in before that happened. Awesome. So loud... Haha some things don't change, it was great to see everyone again. I love visiting family. Plus, everyone fusses over me! I don't think I know how to look after myself anymore! Haha
Over the weekend Annabel, Rosalyn and I went to Hawes (a neighbouring village) with Grannie and Keith to explore. Grannie bought pie, Keith took photos, I admired the quaint English village and surroundings, Rosalyn played in the park and Annabel came along for the ride :) We ended up at the Wensleydale creamery and I tried all there cheeses while everyone else had more tea. It was great.  Later on when there were more of us together again and we all had icecream and played in the park. Got to make the most of sunshine in Askrigg!!  

After that wonderful weekend in North Yorkshire (I really wish I had stayed longer!!) things started to slow down. I was back in Northampton and my new debit card had still not found me. I'd had news that it had arrived in Cambridge, but the porters seemed to have lost it. So I ended up ordering a new card AGAIN and having that sent to Jack at home to forward to me. Again. 
Anyyyyywayyyyy.... So I spent 2 weeks a least from this point hanging out with Grannie and Keith. I pretty much moved in ;) haha took a little while to get settled because I kept on expecting it to arrive any day. Once I'd accepted that it would arrive eventually and I should just relax and make the most of my time there I really got into it! I even knitted a cover for my phone. Grannie helped me :) lots of stuff was going on in Northampton though - its summer in England and the weather was amazing!!. We went to Carnot sale, the parish fete, a dragon boat festival and a waterfront festival, I walked through Northampton... went to the markets, the hospital where Grannie sells her baby cardigans at their charity shop, did a bit of shopping. I even got to go horse riding with Clare one afternoon. That was amazing! We trotted between gorgeous fields in the countryside for half and hour or so, wonderful! I got to spend a lot of time with my beautiful cousin Mimi, she is only 6 with Down's syndrome and loves to dance in the garden :) 
The day when my cards actually arrived I had bitten the bullet and gone to London for the day - amazing day, gotta love London. I spent the whole day wandering around the streets and exploring :) :) it's only an hour on the train from Northampton, just 30£ for the return ticket. So worth it. 

So when I got back it was time to organise my flights to France and let my host families from 2009 know a specific time to expect me! ..I'd told them approximate dates but everything was very fuzzy when it came to details. I even fitted in a bit of last minute shopping before Grannie, Keith and I shared some sangria to celebrate my continuing travels!
And I would just like to say that they were absolutely amazing, thank you so much guys!! For putting up with me and entertaining me for such a long time. I really appreciate it and had a lovely time with you!
...I calculated that it was 41 days from wallet stolen to new card arriving. Wow. Thank you Jack for my western union money instalments to keep me going! And all the incredibly generous and lovely family who put me up for free! It really helps!! 

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Perahhh darling, Perahhh. With Machu Picchu and the llamas.

3 weeks for the whole of Peru doesn't really work out to be honest. I managed to do and see quite a bit... But it was just a taster for Peru really, but I had a date in England and my flight was booked!
Peru is amazing though, an absolutely incredible country. If it hadn't been where the pickpockets succeeded in stealing my wallet I'd only have the best things to say about it!! ...But as it is I've had to extend my family-visiting in England while trying to replace my bank card quickly, which has in fact ended up being very slow. If it wasn't for those pickpockets I could have been in France/Spain by now! Sigh. but it's been really great catching up with family, love 'em, being fed and housed for free!! YAY! haha ...and the weather has been beautiful! In England... Go figure!? It's actually hot sometimes!

Back to Peru though, it's much more interesting... a completely different experience to the colombian Amazon! It took a while to get there, I flew in to Lima and then got a 23hr bus straight to Cusco. When I got there my bum hurt from sitting for so long but I was well slept!  the bus has recliner chairs and provides food! Not good food... But still, ~$40 to travel 23 hrs and get fed is pretty sweet. 
Cuzco sits at 3400m altitude and I could really feel how thin the air was trying to walk up stairs! lucky I had a couple of days to acclimatise before I wanted to start my trek to Machu Picchu. It was cold too, the coldest place I've been.... Peru was my winter quota for the year :D  Min - max was something like 2-15 Degrees Celsius!! That's freezing!! 

My favourite place in Cuzco is San Pedro market, I think I went there for food or souvenirs every day I was there. Absolutely amazing, and I'm a sucker for markets. They had some crazy stuff like in the Amazon too! Cows noses, lips, hearts... Frogs being killed and gutted by old ladies (with their nails)... cooked whole cuy ie. guinea pig... There was also a restaurant/food stall area at the back where you get 3 course menus for $2! Pus the usual fruit and veg. And souvenir stalls. including winter coats and countless colourful beanies with llamas on them. They also had football sized avocados, literally, and an incredible fruit called Lucuma. So delicious!! 
Another place I spent a lot of time meandering around was La Plaza de Armas, a beautiful old square in the heart of the historic part of the city. All cobblestone streets surrounded by gorgeous churches, cathedrals and halls. Just stunning with the mountainous background and vibrant gay pride flags lining the streets. The flag is actually the Cuzco town flag and also Inca culture, but it's identical to the rainbow pride flag. Lol! 

One morning I got up super early to hike/run up to the closest Incan ruins (before the guards got there and people start checking tickets after 7am). Definitely worth it despite the half and hour hike making me ridiculously breathless and it being freezing cold that early. Plus rain. I did start to question how much fitness I'd lost over the past couple of months... And whether the Salkantay trek would be too much for me after all...  (I'd heard it's pretty tough). Just a little apprehensive! Hahaha I never suffered altitude sickness though so it's all good. The site is called Sacsayhuam├ín, and it was really impressive, especially in the early morning mist.
I highly recommend the free walking tour of Cuzco too, heaps of taste tests and funny guides :) 

I love Cuzco, except so do lots of other people... So there are lots of tourists and that means lots of pickpockets. So the rest of my stay was a bit tainted by a lucky pickpocket getting about $300 USD and my bank card and drivers license off me one evening in San Pedro market... 
I realised pretty quickly and reported it and everything... But still. I ended up without ANY money for 24hrs... I had to leave one of my passports as a deposit at a call Center (so I could call my insurance company and bank to organise everything) since I had no cash... I sweet-talked dinner off a friend.y policeman (who gave me his number! haha)... and I had to get half of my Salkantay trek deposit back just to buy food the next day... then I had to postpone my organised trek since I couldn't pay... Not so fun really. It's definitely an interesting experience not having enough/any money to eat. Turns out you can't withdraw money from a bank even with photocopies of everything and two forms of passport ID... You need that magic little magnetic strip in your card and can only use ATMs. Thank god for western union! 

I did get on my trek though, and only one day late! 5 days and 4 nights. You go over the Salkantay pass (4600m) and through jungles and cloud forest finishing at Aguascalientes on the 4th night to hike up to Machu Picchu on day 5. Absolutely incredible!!! There were 16 of us in the group with 2 guides. They were really good, told us heaps of fun facts and pointed out things. Now I know which flower the incas used as an anaesthetic and the hundreds of wonderful properties of coca leaves and coca tea ;)  We hiked 6-10hours each day, day 2 being the hardest with 10hours hiking at the highest altitude after a night camping by the glacier (3900m and very cold!!). Day 3 was much shorter and ended at gorgeous hot springs, a chance to relax and soften sore muscles as well as get clean ;) The camps were really nice,  just tents and no hot showers or anything but good food prepared for us (wake-up coca tea for altitude sickness!) and we didn't have to carry all our gear or set up etc. Pretty sweet deal as far as I was concerned. We had a bonfire party on the last night camping which was fun!! haha dancing round the fire :) On day 4 we got a glimpse of Machu Picchu from below! And walked along the train tracks from Hydroelectric to Aguascalientes, just getting from A to B really. It makes day 5 even more exciting! MACHU PICCHU!!!!!! 
I took soooooo many photos. We got up at 4:30am to hike to the bottom of the 1000 stairs that opens at 5am, and there is a queue (we were almost at the front)... then there is another queue at the top gate for when they open at 6. This time there are more people because a bus also goes up to the main gate. Then you're in! Tickets have to be checked though so get to the front and you still have a bit of time before the view gets filled with tourists. 
Not that it really mattered much in my opinion. Still breathtaking...!! 
The trek included a tour with our guide Reynaldo which was really interesting - bit of culture ;) then we were free to explore. I opted for the extra option of hiking the Montana (Machu Picchu mountain) which was another 2000 steps up. Pretty tough after 4 days hiking and 1000stairs at 5am, but it was 100% worth it. Best view. We were really lucky with the weather too, pretty much clear skies and it was sunny the whole time!! Beautiful!! I also hiked across to the sun gate which is about half an hour walk from Machu Picchu town. It's where the real inca trail enters, and you also get an incredible view from there since its higher up too - so I did do some of the official inca trail! Haha
I met a whole bunch of really cool people on the tour too, I find you always do on these things ;) ...I was the only Aussie! But there was a group of 4 Americans who were hilarious for my English language needs ;) otherwise the languages floating around we're pretty much only French, Polish and a bit of Spanish (but of course). My roomie/tent buddy, Linda, was German but like all Germans she speaks perfect English, she's awesome! Now I have another person to visit in Germany! We ended up being the only two on the afternoon train back to Cuzco.. Weird tour group organisation there. 

I only stayed in Cuzco until the following evening when I got the looooong bus back to Lima. But in that time there was an amazing street festival with all sorts of fun (and delicious) stalls lining the plaza de Armas and many of the side streets right up to the markets a couple of blocks away! and just about every child in town was dressed in a specific traditional dress, in groups so I think they organise it by class at the local primary schools. Each group of children did a specific traditional dance in their specific traditional dress, and the groups made up a parade that went through the town stopping every 100m for their short dances to be performed. I don't think it travelled very far... There were adults in traditional dress too! But I didn't see them dancing. It was incredible!! So many vibrant colours and intricate costumes... And I think the whole town had come to watch, you had to squeeze through the crowds to get anywhere! I tried cuy (guinea pig) and lots of the traditional sweets and other dishes like causa, and a drink called poncho.. and pisco sours and chicha morada... So many delicious things! I didn't try them all on the same day ;)

In Lima I stayed with Thalia, a couch surfer who I had been contacting. She is amazing!! Along with her whole family :) they were so welcoming, generous, kind and helpful! I am so lucky to have been able to stay with them. They have an awesome shower too, really hot with good pressure. I really appreciated that! Haha I was only there a couple of days but they helped me pick up money from another western union place (no bank card still...) get my hair and nails done (preparation for the May Ball in Cambridge!!) and Thalia took me out to the tourist center miraflores one night and clubbing with her friends another. It was so fun!! Thalia studies communications and film etc at uni in Lima, she loves Harry potter and has awesome taste in music. It was great :)  The morning before my flight to England it was Father's Day so the whole family was tied up with a big meal, but they all made sure that I was set up to catch a bus into the City Center (gave me the right card and money and directions) so that I wouldnt be bored. Then when I got back they set me up with boxes of incredible leftovers to eat for the flight and the biggest slice of an amazing desert they'd just had before driving me personally to the airport, an hour away, because they said public transport is too dangerous. In short, nicest people ever!! I love Lima because of them really, otherwise it was just an averagely nice big grey city. One fun fact though, it never rains in Lima. Legit. It reaches such high humidity that it doesn't need to for stuff to still grow etc. and it just never does. Crazy!! 

...and that was all I saw of Peru! Iquitos, Cuzco, the beautiful scenery and small towns through the Salkantay pass and up to Machu Picchu then Lima really quickly. It's a big country, and an incredibly beautiful one with an awesome culture - I will be back one day! In a trip devoted entirely to South America. Yeah. :)