Friday 27 June 2003

Inca Trail photos online

After a few quiet nights in the hotel, I've finally got around to putting up my Inca Trail photos - here.

Sunday 15 June 2003

Day 3 of the Inca Trail

Sunrise over the Andes

A series of muffled raps and shakes of the tent poles was followed by the sound of the zip opening, then grubby hands thrust two cups of coca tea and a quiet buenos diaz through the open door. Outside it was still cold and 4am dark but the electric-blue washes of dawn were starting to push above the distant mountains.

Extremely early mornings induce a state of quivering, adrenal, apprehension in me which fuelled me through the mechanical camping routines of stuffing body into clothes and spare clothes and sleeping material into bags. Dervala needed little encouragement to do likewise and soon we were stretching and yawning in the cool, damp air of a high mountain dawn.

At a sleepy dinner the night before, Raul, our guide, had persuaded us that an early, early start would see us free of the hordes of other trekking groups. He was right, around us lay the grey toadstools of myriad tents, each full of quiet snuffling or snoring noises. Our porters were breaking camp with stage whispers and good humour.

We climbed away from the dormant campsite, into the moutain gloaming. Head-torches were needed at first, but the sun was racing up behind the deep notches of the far, dark ridge faster than we were and soon we could see well enough in the half-light. Still all was quiet. After half an hour we reached Runkuracay, one time Inca observatory and now our private viewing platform. We were halfway up a deep corrie cum valley, above us the higher peaks were being painted with amber, their splintered crags sticking above our shadowy deeps.

Five minutes' walk further up we gazed in silent wonder as light poured downwards on the hills, claiming boulders, cliffs, whole folds of land. Distant peaks changed from dark, terrifying monsters to honey drenched rock spires as orange light resolved their features. Still we were in shadow.

From below wafted the sounds of a flute, traditional mountain music played by a porter as he patiently climbed the ancient stone steps of the trail. And as his music reached us, so did the sunlight, the cold, dark dam of the far sawtooth ridge was breached by the inevitable sunrise and warmth and light silently splashed across us.

Far beneath us, the campsite slumbered on in the darkness.

Sunday 8 June 2003

The Rendezvous

The late cancellation of my flight to Cusco and subsequent combination with a later departure meant my window seat on a half-empty plane became an aisle seat on a full plane. Instead of Andean panoramas and glorious cloudscapes I had to content myself with silent comedy films and the annoying bletherings of a middle-aged American woman assailing her travelling companion with stories of healing the scarred Andes with Amazonian river water and quite how wonderful the jungle tribes were.

The fortuanate side-effect of such arrant nonsense was that irritation overwhelmed apprehension until I stepped from the plane into Cusco's bright daylight and prepared myself to head for the town centre to meet Dervala. Suddenly, and rather belatedly, nerves and questions popped up in my mind like some mental Whack-a-Mole. What in heaven's name was I doing in the middle of Peru? What was she going to be like? Would we get on? For two weeks? Three hours and thirty e-mails is surely no basis for a fortnight's holiday. Would I harsh her travelling buzz, on unwanted piece of extra baggage for a year long solo traveller?

I was so busy tardily questioning the wisdom of my trans-continental venture as I strode to the baggage hall that I had to perform a full Vaudeville double-take before I worked out that the attractive woman with the black trousers, white shawl and white hat was waving at me from behind the glass above the walkway, and on balance of probabilities that meant it was Dervala. I waved tentatively back, quietly thankful that I was indeed able to recognise her, and bolted for the unobserved safety of the baggage carousel.

I waited impatiently, buoyed by the impressive feat of weaving thousand mile, year-long paths around the globe and have them intersect at such an alien location. Eventually my bag spilled onto the carousel and I walked from the shady building into the glare of the car-park where Dervala stood, mirroring my excited smile, for a re-introduction of nervous, stiff-upper-lip hellos (from me) and a long, firm hug (from her).

Whew, made it.

Saturday 7 June 2003

A personal hang-up

Like Marstonճ 6X and Sardinian Canonau, I donմ travel well.

Well obviously I travel well, I can pick my tickets up from my secretary, get on a plane and check-in to a Holiday Inn like I was born to it, but when it comes to sticking a pack on my back and stepping out into a foreign country with nothing more than a sheaf of funny looking money in my wallet and a book of somebody elseճ thoughts on the place I get a dry mouth and itchy palms.

Iխ sure Freud would have a field day attempting to identify the deep-seated reasons for all of this, but the fact is when my destiny is placed in my own hands and I have to do something all on my own, such as finding accommodation in a strange town in a foreign language, I get even clammier hands than normal.

Personal history is not on my side; at 18 I failed to complete two months of inter-railing across Europe (my peers' plan was some kind of drunken Nirvana soundtracked tour of various cheap campsites), opting instead to spend a month lying on a beach in the South of France. At 20 I cut short my geological field trip to Zimbabwe by two weeks and missed out on Victoria Falls and the beautiful Chimanimani national park to go home. At 23 I gave up on a round the world sailing voyage having got as far as Portugal. Now when I travel I have to contend with the weight of memory-derived knowledge that I don't travel well as well as any local difficulties.

Now Iխ alone (I'm meeting Dervala tomorrow), in Lima, in deepest darkest Peru. Oops.

Friday 6 June 2003

Into the unknown

Bored with life's predictable eddies and swirls at Christmas I decided to do something unpredictable and different this year, to step a bit further out of my normal circles and see what the world had to offer. I toyed for a while with the idea of voluntary work sabbaticals or large career switches but couldn't summon up the courage needed for such life-wrenching changes. I needed something challenging but not too disruptive, a source of anecdotes and experience, turning everything upside-down is next year's project.

In February an e-mail invitation dropped into my inbox. It was from Dervala, whom I had met for one evening last July, and had been in occasional e-mail contact with as she travelled the world. I had been following her excellent website (which now forms part of my daily work-avoidance half-hour before I reluctantly convert my computer from internet-browsing device to word processor) and knew she was heading to South America. Did I want to join her for a bit of Andean trekking?

The perfect opportunity. I knew the answer right away, but deliberated for a couple of months as I attempted to generate the impetus to get over the "Travel? In a strange country? For two weeks? With someone I've only met once?" kneejerk reaction. Then I booked my plane ticket to Lima and told her I was coming over.

So tomorrow morning I report to Heathrow for 18 hours of flying and a step into the unknown. I'm about to travel halfway around the world to hook up with someone I've only met once for three hours and exchanged a grand total of thirty e-mails with. My paranoid side tells me that I could be her money-mule, she's gone bankrupt and she'll mug me at Lima airport to run away cackling with a fistful of US Dollars as my pathetic figure lies prone on the unyielding Peruvian formica. Or maybe this is all an elaborate hoax - she's moved our rendezvous point twice in the last month, from Lima to Cusco and now she's suggesting Puno - I'll spend two weeks criss-crossing Peru looking for a non-existent Irish lass while my increasingly desperate movements are filmed from space for the delight of the Fox Network subscribers (I'll admit it's unlikely).

Oh well, here goes nothing.

Wednesday 4 June 2003

The Whimsy Generator

I keep a small machine in the bottom drawer of the chest in my bedroom. It's portable and lightweight, but can only be deployed when conditions are perfect. It runs on numerous different ingredients including Sundays, bad journalism and breakfast tables. It can be part-fuelled by fatigue, the metabolic remnants of Saturday night excesses or it can run solely on like-mindedness and banter. It acts as a lens through which different interpretations of life's underlying truths can be seen. I present to you my Whimsy Generator.

A previous use of the machine during a long train ride from Brussels revealed the cow that lives in Phil and Gareth's Putney flat. Its bovine duties were initially restricted to milk production, but after proving trustworthy, its role has been extended to light domestic cleaning and a part-time minicab service named "Tom Harris Cow Taxis" specialising in picking up drunks from Southfields station.

A long time ago the Whimsy Generator proved conclusively that I was the sixth member of Take That. I would wait, warmed-up, in the wings at their concerts lest Robbie twist an ankle or Howard be overcome by a spell of extreme dizziness. Alas, my opportunity for fame as a travelling minstrel never arose.

On the most recent occasion conditions were appropriate to fire up the generator - a long, long Ridgeway walk this past weekend - it showed that Boo is a lesbian Vampyr, energised by Satanic rituals and unable to cross either moving water or the thresholds of holy buildings. Also, the quintessential English country village of Bledlow is populated entirely by bears, from a rather cute ursine barmaid to the grizzlies that live in the large house next to the church.

Quite a nifty little contraption all-in-all, a shame the uses are relatively infrequent.