#Listentothewomen: stories from refugee women

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“If I was a man, the worst that would happen to me is I would be beaten and robbed – but because I am a woman, I am beaten, robbed and raped,” a female refugee on the stage before me declared – pain, dignity, and defiance in her eyes.

She was here, at the Listen to the Women event in London  on  the 13th September, organised and co-hosted by CARE and Women for Refugee Women, bravely taking the stage with other refugee women to share her story with the packed-out auditorium. 

Over time we have become desensitised to the plight of refugees. Pictures of boats overflowing with desperate people, a child washing up dead on the beach and a father crying as he cradles his terrified child – these tragic images have become regular news. They slide in amongst our everyday drama and become forgotten.

Just last week 162 bodies were recovered from the sea after a boat carrying refugees capsized  in the Mediterranean. According to The Independent many of them are believed to be children and women who were unable to swim away when the boat sank on Wednesday. The story barely made the news.

Fire of hell

At this event, held in a building poignantly located a stones’ throw away from the UK Home Office, we were lucky enough to hear the stories of some refugee women. 

There were common themes: rape, miscarriage, fear, loss of dignity and separation from loved ones.

“No woman passed through the Sahara to Libya without being raped. It’s like a fire of hell burning inside me, forever,” said one woman.

“We just want to be treated like humans, not like animals in a cage,” said another.

 All of the stories started and ended with searching and hope. Always searching, always hoping for somewhere, just somewhere, finally, that would be safe. 

And the sad reality is that when refugees reach camps in Greece or Cali or Serbia they hope to be safe but instead face more danger. According to testimony and first-hand accounts from charity workers and MPs at the event, these camps breed sexual violence and fear. The vulnerable are exploited instead of protected.

There are no doors on the showers. No sanitary towels. No clean clothes. No safety.

Apparently, it is rare to see an unaccompanied teenage girl in a refugee camp but there are many teenage boys. Why? According to the experts in the room, the most likely explanation is that many of the teenage girls are appropriated by an ‘adult’ – an abuser, a pimp, a trafficker and stolen away into the shadows. 

NGOs told us that unprotected sex with a child refugee can bought on the streets of Greece for €5.

Hearing this makes  you sick to your stomach and want to weep for all humanity. Then it makes you ask: how can this be possible in Europe in 2016? 

Fatima

Then Fatima came on stage. Fatima, a newly arrived refugee to England, was shaken, timid, terrified. It was the most uncomfortable moment of the evening when she wept as she told of the horrors of the ‘Cali jungle’ through a translator. 

Through tears she spoke of the lack of safety , of conflict between people trapped there, and of sexual harassment of women and even children. Being confronted with Fatima, who was clearly traumatised by her experiences, was stifling. The fear in her eyes unsettling.

It makes you realise that for refugees finding a safe place  to live is the first, most important step for them, but it doesn’t end there. There is internal trauma that can’t be seen but needs to be healed. And this is just for the adults, it must be even worse for the children.They also want to support themselves but are restricted from work and education.

At the event MPs Yvette Cooper and Heidi Allen, along with NGOs, discussed what can be done. They called for Theresa May to take in more refugees – probably a move unpopular with the majority of the electorate given the current mood after Brexit.

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The ‘Dublin children’

Former Green Party leader Natalie Bennet in the audience raised the issue of the so-called  ‘Dublin children‘.

I’d never heard of the ‘Dublin Children’ before. I learned these are refugee children that have a right to be in the UK because they have family living here but are stuck living in camps for weeks, months at a time.

Heidi Allen pointed out that bureaucracy is delaying their arrival in the UK. These children don’t have anyone to fill in their forms and go through the bureaucratic processes with them so they remain stuck in a dangerous place when they could be safe with family in the UK.

I personally would like Theresa May to do more for refugees on behalf of Britain and at the very least get the ‘Dublin children’ to safety quicker. The following Saturday after the event I joined the March for Refugees event in London last Saturday to express this with thousands of others.

The UK is one of the richest countries (4th according to one 2015 report but this does vary depending on what report you read) in the world, why can’t we do more? 

I think it is our duty to help each other out as much as we possibly can. What if we were them?

I may not be rich but I have enough to share and I intend to share as much as I can.  It never hurt anyone to be a bit more neighbourly.  On the other hand, leaving people vulnerable, scared and traumatised can have long-lasting ramifications. 

If you want to help refugees here are a few ways you can: 

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Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu Part Two

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This blog follows on from my last blog post about the first few days trekking on the Salkantay Trek – apologies for the delay! 

Our third day of trekking was the hardest. I think, for some reason, we all thought the two hardest days trekking were over, but, boy, were we wrong.

This day we had to a walk for around five hours uphill in the blazing sun. We passed waterfalls, rickety bridges, followed a large, winding river and enjoyed the beautiful flowers and scenery. Although it was difficult and I was sweating from places I didn’t know it was possible to sweat from I enjoyed every minute of it.

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At about 2pm we reached our destination, a beautiful ancient Inca site with views of Machu Picchu, Huayna Picchu Mountain and Machu Picchu Mountain (which we would climb the next day) across the valley.

To top off the scene a white horse, non-pulsed by our arrival, was casually grazing at the edge of the mountain.

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Joel invited us all to rest our heads on our backpacks and enjoy the view while he told us the history of the Incas. Unfortunately, I managed to stay awake for all of about two minutes of his speech before I was

Unfortunately, I managed to stay awake for all of about two minutes of his speech before I was happily dozing undercover of my sunglasses. When the talk ended and we all rose to our feet, dusting off the grass from our sticky skin and clothes, my husband said ‘you slept right through that, didn’t you?’ Acting insulted I said, ‘No, of course not!’

When the talk ended and we all rose to our feet, dusting off the grass from our sticky skin and clothes, my husband said ‘you slept right through that, didn’t you?’ Acting insulted I said, ‘No, of course not!’

‘Oh right, ok’ he replied apologetically. Phew, got away with that one!

That night we stayed in the most beautiful camp overlooking the mountains that were separated from us by a vast valley. We had time to relax and take in the scenery. There were only two-other people staying in the entire camp.

The next morning we rose early to watch the sunrise over Machu Picchu then we headed off in the sun again for a long walk to Aguas Calienties, the stop-off town before Machu Picchu. Here we had a hotel and hot shower waiting. Apart from the blazing sun the walk was easy enough, mostly flat, following the Peru Rail line.

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We reached Aguas Calientes at about four. The town is much more built-up and modern than I expected, or perhaps it was just such a vast contrast from the scenery of the last four days. Set with a river running through It, there are  restaurants, bars, nice hotels and a souvenir market.

Our accommodation was lovely – a hairdryer, thick fluffy towels and a TV! –  but then I guess that is what you pay the extra for.

The final day: Machu Picchu

Some people complain about too many tourists at Mach Picchu, but perhaps they just lack the imagination to look past the crowds and envisage what it once was like when it was a fully functioning citadel in the 15th Century.

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Huayna Picchu Mountain can be seen in the background.

 

Machu Picchu was the heart of the famous Incan Empire. It was  home to the Empire’s most important folk that were ingeniously hidden for protection amongst the Peruvian rainforest and Andean mountain range. Machu Picchu was hidden so well it wasn’t discovered for centuries later and this is why it is preserved so well.

To get to Machu Picchu everyone has to queue to get one of the many busses that leave from the centre of town. It takes 25 minutes to Machu Picchu. The idea is to get on the first bus so that you are in Machu Picchu alone or with the least amount of tourists.

The fist bus leaves at 5:30 am and then every five minutes thereafter. We got to the bus stop at 4:30am, after shoving food in our faces from the hotel buffet, and the queue was already quite long. I think we got on the fifth bus, maybe.

I’ve since learned you can walk up to Machu Picchu from Aguas Caliente if you want to, but it’s apparently quite a tough walk.

As I said before, Machu Picchu exceeded my expectations. It’s setting between Machu Picchu Mountain and Huayna Picchu Mountain, is breathtaking. 

Joel gave us a two-hour tour of Machu Picchu and then we had free time to either relax and enjoy the citadel itself or walk to the Sun Gate.  Or, if you’d paid extra, climb either Machu Picchu Mountain or Huayna Picchu Mountain.

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We had paid to climb Machu Picchu Mountain, as had the other English guy and gal. After the tour we headed straight to the mountain, but there  was a long queue to start the ascent to its peak. We were not expecting this and so deliberated whether to just give it a miss and enjoy Machu Picchu some more or wait and race up the mountain. We were going to be pushed for time to get up the mountain and down by 2pm to have lunch with the others in town.

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Alpacas in Machu Picchu.

It was a one out, one in queue. In the end we decided to go for it and got onto the path at 10:30am. It was a hard slog up to the top, giant uneven stone step after giant uneven stone step  in the blazing midday sun. In true indie-girl style I was wearing black skinny jeans with a rip just under my right bum cheek (don’t worry, it wasn’t obscene!) that seemed to grow bigger with every step.

In the end it took me about 1 hour 25 minutes to the peak and the others a little less. The view was spectacular.But as soon as we got there we were told we only had 20 minutes, so we had to quickly take pictures while trying to recuperate from the gruelling climb.

On the way down it took us half an hour (literally running down) and we managed to get our passport stamped with the Mach Picchu symbol and meet the others for the bus on time. Did we make the right decision to climb the mountain? Although I would have been just as happy relaxing and taking in Machu Picchu, I think it was worth it.

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Atop Mahu Picchu Mountain.

My biggest regret about the trip was not having enough time to in Machu Picchu itself, it was all a bit of a whirlwind.

Preferably, I would have liked to be able to go back the next day, see it all again and climb the Huayna Picchu Mountain and visit the Sun Gate.

Obviously, this means I simply  have to go back!

If you enjoy reading my blogs or find them useful please like and share!  :) You can also follow me on Twitter @Heidivel or Instagram @heidihihohi.

Also, please feel free to ask me any travel questions you may have or to share your own travel experiences.

 

 

 

 

 

Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, Peru

 

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Machu Pichu baby.

On the train back to Ollantaytambo from Machu Picchu, to which I and my husband, along with nine others, had spent four days trekking through mountains and rainforest to reach, I felt a sense of sadness.

Watching the trees and river rush past me on the refreshingly air-conditioned train, feeling nice and warm inside from the two glasses of white wine I’d drank quickly at lunch, I was sad my whirlwind encounter with Machu Picchu was over. I wanted to absorb, explore and take in more of it.

I felt the same way when waiting at the tiny airport of the Polynesian Island Rapa Nui, aka Easter Island, with other defeated passengers adorned in Polynesian garlands and medallions made of feathers and shells hanging around their necks. We were all a little bit sad and unreasonably, but understandably, upset because we knew we were leaving a special place and didn’t know when we’d be back, if ever.

Like Easter Island, Machu Picchu is a place I’d always wanted to visit but never knew if I’d be lucky enough to do so. When I finally reached the ancient citadel I was worried it wouldn’t live up to the hype accredited to it, but I really shouldn’t have worried at all.

The journey

Not to sound too hippie-traveller about it all, but it wasn’t just the destination, but the journey to Machu Picchu that made the whole experience an unforgettable one.

As I mentioned before, our trek to Machu Picchu had started four days earlier when we started the Salkantay Trek, an alternative trek to the Inca Trail that can be booked with less planning ahead (the Inca Tail needs to be booked six months in advance).

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Some of our group🙂

As a group of 11 we set off early Monday morning from the beautiful historic town of Cusco with our Alpaca Expedition guides, aka the self-titled ‘The Green Machine’ (the company’s branding is green), driving the three hours it takes to reach the Soraypampa trail head.

The first day trekking was beautiful but challenging. We walked for about five hours uphill along windy, stone filled mountain paths, passing breath-taking views of the Humantay and Salkantay mountains.

My thighs stung and I struggled a bit as we reached the Salkantay Pass at 4,650 meters high, the highest point of the entire four-day trek. At the time, this was the highest altitude I had trekked to, but this was surpassed by the gruelling Rainbow Mountain trek I did a week later.

As we climbed to the pass many avalanches could be heard crashing down in the distance.

Once we reached the pass we stopped for lunch which we ate under a green tent to shield us from the potential rain and wind. Nearby the mountain horses who transported our bags feasted on the grass. As well as the mountain horses, the porters also carried a lot of equipment on their backs and deserve a special mention for doing the same trek as us but with around 24kg of weight on their backs. I honestly don’t know how they do it.

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Lunch was a surprise. Every day we had a three-course delicious feast for lunch and dinner, usually consisting of an appetiser, a soup and six or seven different dishes to share for the main meal, all whipped up by hand in the mountains under a tent by ‘The Green Machine’. I got to try local foods such as chocho bean, guinea pig cheese, traditional fermented potatoes and fruit from the rainforest.  I can honestly say it was some of the best food I ate in Peru.

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After lunch, three hours of easy downhill walking brought us to our campsite for the day – a beautiful green valley between the mountains alongside a little stream. All our tents were up and ready when we arrived.

Joel the guide

The space between arriving at camp and dinner, between 5pm and 7pm, was reserved for ‘Happy Hour’ – tea, coffee and snacks around some rickety tables under a tent – or, as I liked to call it,  ‘An Audience with Joel The Guide’.

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Joel, Joel, Joel

Our  chief guide Joel was quite a character. Peruvian short with the build of a man who clearly enjoyed his food too much, but managed to keep the weight off due to the physical demands of his job, Joel was always full of energy. A constant joker and storyteller with an infectious laugh, his face, it was obvious to me, could hide a thousand secrets and fool even the Spanish Inquisition.

I could never tell if he was joking or not until, after what seemed like quite a long pause, he fell into a belly laugh. He had countless hilariously brilliant stories about customers from his six years as a guide that he told with perfect pace, keeping us all transfixed and in anticipation for the punchline, which was always worth the wait. I have no idea if any of his stories were true or not, but I’m certain that if there was any truth to them, it was perfectly embellished, exaggerated and manipulated for entertainment purposes, which is perfectly fine by me.

My husband and I both agreed that Joel reminded us of a younger Peruvian version of my father who also has a tendency for exaggeration, embellishment, terrible jokes (sorry dad) and vigorous storytelling in a thick foreign accent (he’s Maltese). This usually results in people warming to him instantly like our group did to Joel.

Day two – 9 hours walking/24km

The next day, after I had a surprisingly good sleep in our sturdy and spacious tent, we woke up at around 5 am, had breakfast, and set off for our longest day of trekking, around 8 – 9 hours and 24km in total.

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Looking sexy as per.

It was painfully cold. My feet were frozen and my fingers stung with the cold. I just kept walking and walking and telling myself that in an hour the sun will have fully risen and I will feel warmer.

It was downhill for the first half of the day until we reached our lunch spot at a little house where we could take off our shoes and rest our feet. By this point it was boiling hot and everyone started de-robing, taking off their Long Johns and layers.

After another gourmet lunch we had the choice to go on for five and a half more hours walking or to walk for two hours and get a bus to some hot springs. We all opted to walk.

Unfortunately one of the girls on the trek was very sick with a fever and other ailments, but fortunately she was able to take a bus to the camp at this point, otherwise the five-and-a-half extra hours walking would have been out of the question.

The walk was through jungle territory, along, across and around a gushing river, the sort good for rafting. The weather was humid and hot but not so strong to be unbearable. The track was intermittently up and down hill.

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I did notice that the path got very narrow in parts due to erosion which I think is made worse by walking sticks. Some of the paths are so narrow I think tours will either have to pick a different route in the near future or the mountain will have to be cut further into to widen the path.  After the second day I decided not to use my walking sticks because of this and because I also think they caused me to have some back pain on the second day by using them instead of my stomach muscles to support myself.

To reach our accommodation for the night we passed through a little village where children were playing with a hairless breed of dog I have seen before but is very rare. For some reason I saw this type of dog all over Peru.

But what fascinated me the most about the primitive village was the massive CAT road digger the size of a house plonked at one end by a river, surrounded by forest and mountains on all sides. How on earth they got it in there I will never understand.

This campsite had a little shop so we decided to buy some Pisco and Joel whipped us up some Pisco Sours. We chatted and listened to music until around 9pm when a girl from another group complained that she had to be up at 4am so could we please turn off the music, so that’s what we did and headed to bed for another early night.

The other guide Irvin 

I haven’t mentioned our other guide Irvin yet.

Irvin is less stocky than his more experienced counterpart, Joel, and was in training for the role of Chief Guide. You also couldn’t help but warm to Irvin, but for different reasons to Joel. Irvin was very gentle in the way he moved and spoke and carried himself. He was always quietly in the background smiling and carried with him what I can only describe, as I don’t know the proper name, as a Peruvian version of the flute or recorder. Irvin would play this instrument, which produced a serene, soft music that seemed to belong to civilisations past, while we were all breathlessly staggering up a curve in the mountain. Sometimes he’d stop us and explain the story behind the song which was usually something to do with a much coveted women, a small town, some men and a mystical event.

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Irivin the musican and cockfight aficionado

At the end of the trip, after our final dinner together in Aguas Caliente, as his final parting gift to us, Irvin performed on his instrument a sketchy rendition of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ by Celine Dion. It was very sweet and kind of awkward and just thinking about it now makes me want to both chuckle to myself and give him a hug.

Irvin also showed Neil and I a video of a cockfight he went to on the Sunday before the trek.  It looked absolutely brutal. At first Irvin said the cocks don’t die but after watching the video it was clearly evident one of them did.

‘Look, he’s finished’ he said as he pointed at one of the cocks lying motionless, its stringy feet unceremoniously pointing to the ceiling. Apparently, razor blades are tied to the cocks’ feet making it a bitter battle to death. Proving how seriously Peruvians take the sport, the cocks fought in a professional ring with a referee who actually counted down in case the slain cock miraculously rose from the dead.

Joel and Irvin told us all sorts of traditions, sports and rituals that Peruvian mountain people follow.

Possibly Joel was making some of these up, which I wouldn’t put beyond him, but I honestly couldn’t tell if he was because he kept the most straight face as he delivered stories that sometimes required the suspension in the belief of science or were just plain silly.

My favourite was the story about a mosquito in the mountains that if it bites you the only way to save yourself from death is to have sex with someone other than your partner.  

‘Oh yeah, did a man invent that one’ my husband and I sniggered.

But Joel then went on to explain how this apparently happened to a woman in a neighbouring village to his. When her husband came back from working in the mines for eight months and she was three months pregnant she explained she had been bitten by this mosquito. Her husband accepted this explanation.

More to follow soon…the last day of the trek and reaching Machu Picchu.

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Map of the route taken with Alpaca Expeditions.

If you enjoy reading my blogs or find them useful please like and share!  :) You can also follow me on Twitter @Heidivel or Instagram @heidihihohi.

Fine dining: Astrid y Gaston, Lima, Peru

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Peru is famous as a foodie destination, so before the hubby and I came to Lima we knew we wanted to try some high-end grub, so we booked ahead and budgeted accordingly (compared to London prices are reasonable but it’s far from cheap).

First on the list was Central by Virgilio Martinez (blog to come). Second was the  well-known and established Astrid y Gaston, named after the husband and wife team behind the restaurant.

It was this year named the 30th best restaurant in the world by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants in the World list .

Since it’s relocation to a 300-year-old Colonial house in the plush San Isidro neighbourhood of Lima it is easier to get a reservation. Even so, we booked a month ahead and were still not seated in the main dining room of the house but on the balcony area where old fashioned heaters fended off the cold. They did a good job, Lima’s winter is very mild, though for ambiance I probably would have preferred being sat inside the dining room.

We opted for the Menu G’ thirteen-course tasting menu with wine pairing (385 soles/ £88 for the food and extra for the wine pairing, I can’t remember how much now, though I think it was around £40). There’s also a shorter, cheaper menu (240 soles/ £55).

According to the restaurant’s website, the ethos behind the restaurant is to ‘promote Peruvian food to the world’.

Ironically then, the second dish – the homemade bread and spreads – was one of my favourites.  Ask any Western traveller and they’ll tell you Peru isn’t known for tasty bread, more like dry tasteless bread, but the variety and quality of the bread and spreads we were served were simply delicious. No dryness to be found, tons of moisture and flavour. It’s often hard to find good bread in South America so I was really missing some top quality ‘pan’ (bread in Spanish) by this point in the trip.

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Bread plate.

I also loved the limeno ceviche with sweet potato – clean and fresh. But with good quality fish it’s hard to go wrong with ceviche, the dish Peru is most famous for.

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Lemeno ceviche.

I didn’t like the sea urchin because I just don’t like sea urchin at all, it has a disgusting harsh flavour,  but my husband enjoyed it.

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Sea urchin .

Surprisingly the vegetable ceviche was even better than the fish ceviche, the vegetables were crunchy and bursting with different flavours, many I’ve never had before. Don’t ask me what vegetables are in there because I couldn’t tell you!

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Vegetable ceviche.

Continuing with the Peruvian theme three types of guinea pig were served. Guinea pig is the Peruvian national dish and can be found everywhere in Peru. It’s typically eaten on special occasions. I’m actually not a big fan of the taste of guinea pig – it has a fairly strong flavour.

I didn’t like the steamed guinea pig because you could really just taste the meat and nothing else.

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Steamed guinea pig.

I loved the guinea pig dumpling, however, mostly because I love dumplings and the guinea pig favour was disguised somewhat from the soy based sauce. The third guinea pig did, however, have a nice crispy skin, which was really nice.

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Guinea pig dumpling.

Other standout dishes included the suckling pig with quinoa and the pacific fish, fresh and perfectly cooked.

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Pacific fish.

However, one of the best dishes has to be the pudding,  which was expertly put together and simply delicious. The cream was velvety and rich and the doughnut crunchy on the outside and soft and gooey on the inside.

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chocolate, lemon and oregano dessert

The wine pairing was decent enough, though I’ve had better. There were a few too many sweet wines for my taste, though sweet wine is what Peruvians make and like to drink, so that’s perhaps why.  Also, I thought they gave rather small servings of wine for the price. As seems to be fashionable in Latin America, the pairing also included a beer . The waiter also promised to give us a list of the wines but forgot and I forgot to remind him.

The service was a little intense at times. Very unlike me I had a bad stomach (in my family I’m well known for inheriting my nan’s iron stomach. Let’s just say she laughed in the face of ‘best before dates’) but on this occasion I had to visit the toilet quite regularly and the kitchen clearly didn’t want to wait for me because often I’d come back and a plate of food would be waiting for me.

I generally prefer a relaxed service but apart from that everything was explained well to us.

On the plus side the toilets were lovely and the deserve a mention for being unusual. Similar to Sketch and the Crazy Bear in London they were pod-like and covered in mirrors for a confusing – it was hard to distinguish the door to each cubicle – but dazzling effect.

At the end of the meal we were presented with a big wooden box full of chocolates, of which we could pick five. I thought this was a very nice and memorable end to the meal.

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Picking only five was a challenge.

Overall, I had a lovely evening and enjoyed 85% of everything we were served and would definitely recommend a visit.

The owner, Astrid Gutsche, also stopped by our table and checked if we were warm enough.

When we finally left the staff ordered us a taxi, but the taxi charged us 30 soles (around £6), which was three times more expensive than the one that brought us there. We felt like we were getting ripped off a bit there!

Overall rating: a 7/10.

If you enjoy reading my blogs or find them useful please like and share!  :) You can also follow me on Twitter @Heidivel or Instagram @heidihihohi.

Also, please feel free to ask me any travel questions you may have or to share your own travel experiences.

 

El Totumo Mud Volcano, Cartagena, Colombia

‘Bathe in the healing properties of natural, mineral-rich volcanic mud‘ said the leaflet, showing pictures of happy, bikini-clad tourists caked head to foot in mud and smiling from ear to ear.

Oooooooo, that sounds good, we’ll try that, I said to my husband enthusiastically. So I booked the trip to El Totumo Mud Volcano via our hostel, Mammallena, in Cartegena, Colombia.

We were picked up in the morning, along with other tourists from our hotel, and driven an hour to the volcano. On the way, we passed beautiful tropical scenery of lush green bush and towering palm trees.

Having missed the in-car explanation of what would happen when we reached the volcano because, these days, I can’t stay awake in a moving vehicle for longer than ten minutes, I had no idea what was about to happen.

Once there, we were taken into a little building with outside toilets and showers and some tables and chairs and told, very matter-of-factly, to take our clothes off (apart from our bikinis, of course) and put all our valuables in a plastic bag to be locked away. For 4,000 COP (£1) we could give our cameras to a man who would take our pictures while we were in the mud bath.

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Volcán del Totumo

Outside I searched for the volcano. What I found were two fairly steep wooden stairs leading to a little peak. I’ve climbed volcanos and this didn’t really look like one, more like a reasonably large mound. 

When instructed to we climbed the stairs to the peak.

When I saw the roughly four metres squared mud filled crater of the volcano and the many tourists rammed into it, one a big hairy man being scrubbed and massaged by a local guy (for an extra fee), I began to think this wasn’t going to be the relaxing beautify experience I thought it would be.

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‘Errr, no massage thanks’

As one tourist came out another was ushered in. When it was my turn I slid down into the mud, which felt like a grainy, watery syrup. A local man was there waiting for me. Lie back he demanded.

‘Err ok,’ I said duly compiling because I wasn’t sure what else to do.

He began massaging the back of my thighs with one hand and the back of my neck with another.

‘Put your head right back’

‘No, I don’t want to get my hair muddy’

‘Do it’

No, I don’t want a massage,’ I said as politely as possible.

Displeased, he pushed me with force into the other tourists at the other end of the crater.

I was quickly pushed back by the tourists. As I tried to gain my balance in the gloppy mud while bumping into people  I grimaced inside thinking this perhaps isn’t the most hygienic situation. 

More people entered but I was still trying to balance myself. For some unknown reason I couldn’t keep legs down, like in a normal pool, to gently paddle. Every time I pushed my legs down into the mud something beyond my control pushed them back up and I’d go bashing into someone.

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The struggle commences…

Apparently, I was the only one having this problem. My husband tried to force my legs down as I clung onto him for dear life but they just sprang right back up again. 

What’s wrong with you?’ He questioned me, puzzled.

‘I don’t know’ I said, at this point feeling like Karl Pilkington from An Idiot Abroad.

I resolved to just float, making myself as small as possible.

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The struggle continues…

Then a British girl shouted ‘Ewww!’ and flicked a used plaster onto my finger.

Get me out of here, quickly! I thought. 

Fortunately, we were only allowed a mere five minutes in the mud bath before we were ushered out to make room for the now long line of tourists waiting to get in.

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Just float and don’t move…

Once out the mud bath, a man wiped off the excess mud from my legs, stomach and arms and I followed the others to a nearby a swampy lake area where women were washing the mud off the tourists with brownish water scooped from big blue plastic barrels.

I sat waiting on a plastic crate for my turn to be washed, effectively, like a grown toddler.

With vigour and efficiency, a skinny, old  woman threw water at me, down my bikini top, which she jiggled about ferociously, and over my face, which she scrubbed with her bare hands. 

She scrubbed my arms, stomach and neck. Her hands worked so quickly I didn’t have time to object as she pulled my bikini top from side to side sloshing water down my cleavage and nearly exposing my breasts to the world.

She ushered me to stand up and started scrubbing my legs and throwing water down bikini bottoms, yanking then from all angles as the water kept coming.

At one point she slid her skinny fingers into my pants to pull down the crotch in order to let the water she threw down the top pass through.

Once finished she tied a ribbon saying ‘Maria’ around my wrist, which I assumed was her name.

‘Gracias Maria, I think…’

She smiled at me in a motherly way and ushered me back up the way I came with a gentle push to the small of my back. I assume the wristband was so I’d remember to pay her the 4,000 COP (£1) for her motherly scrub down. 

After my husband had the same treatment we walked together back up to the building in order to reclaim our belongings and our dignity.

‘Well, at least it helps the local community, I suppose’ he said.

Yes, that’s one positive…

So, after being touched rather intimately by several Colombians and splashing about in a most likely germ-ridden mud bath for five minutes like a clumsy buffoon, it was time to head back to Cartagena.

The only good thing about the trip was meeting other travellers who we went out with that night.

Notes for fellow travellers: save the 45,000 COP (about £12) the trip costs and buy yourself several beers instead.

If you enjoy reading my blogs or find them useful please like and share!  :) You can also follow me on Twitter @Heidivel or Instagram @heidihihohi.

Also, please feel free to ask me any travel questions you may have or to share your own travel experiences.

 

El Alto, La Paz, Bolivia – Cholita wrestling, shamans and the afterlife

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Mortally hungover after staggering in at 5am the night before, we turned up outside the now shut down Oliver’s English Tavern on a Sunday afternoon for the Red Cap extended walking tour.

After some confusion caused by half of the group meeting in the bar next to Oliver’s and the rest of us waiting on the street, we finally joined together and started the walking tour.

Heading towards our first destination down La Paz’s annoyingly narrow pavements we stumbled upon an unconscious man who was blocking our path. A posh English girl walking next to me, looking concerned, said to me ‘do you think he’s alright? Should we help him?’ The guy had clearly passed out after consuming some cheap but highly potent alcohol cocktail. At that present moment all I could think was that I knew exactly how the poor fella must feel, I felt something similar just hours ago. In fact, I was quite envious he was sleeping it off while I was lethargically shuffling along the streets of La Paz.

Seeing the English girl’s concern and my sympathetic look, his equally drunk but still conscious mate sitting across the street shouted something in Spanish along the lines of ‘don’t worry, he’s ok’ so the English girl and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and continued to walk around the unconscious man.

I’ve noticed that it’s not unusual to see drunks in Bolivia and Chile, though I don’t recall seeing any in Argentina. In Chile we saw one guy walk straight into a massive billboard sign that he surely would have seen had he been sober enough. He knocked himself right to the ground. It was hard not to immediately laugh but also very sad considering it was eleven in the morning.

The life of the dead

The Red Cap tour headed first to La Paz’s massive public cemetery. Our guide told us that people in La Paz bury their dead here, paying a yearly fee, for the first five years after their death. During this time Bolivians believe that the dead are still with them.

After five years they ‘don’t care’ – the guide’s words not mine – what happens to the remains of their loved ones because they believe that if you still mourn the dead after that period the dead can’t move on to the afterlife. Seems like quite a nice philosophy to me.

An interesting and rather sexy mural at La Paz general cemetery.

An interesting and rather sexy mural at La Paz general cemetery.

After this period burial plots are served eviction notices, which we saw plastered to the little windows of some graves, and eventually evicted. The remains are then buried in a common mass grave keeping only the skulls which are then adopted by families.

These are known as natitas. They’re kept for good luck and treated like idols by their adopted families who give them offerings. People believe the skulls represent the souls of the dearly departed and that giving them offerings and treating them with respect will protect their houses and businesses. The skulls are from random people and not the skulls of their loved ones.

Once a year in November the natitas are celebrated and honoured in a sort of ‘Day of the Dead’ festival that takes place at the cemetery. I absolutely love the idea of a day of the dead festival, a day for everyone to come together and remember their deceased loved ones with a big party.

On this particular Sunday in La Paz’s general cemetery people were just hanging around, chatting and relaxing like they usually do in one of the country’s many plazas. It was much more of a busy, bustling vibe rather than a subdued and peaceful one like at the cemetery in Sucre.

After the cemetery we took the cable car up to El Alto, a separate town to La Paz and where the very poor people live.

The cable car to El Alto.

The cable car to El Alto.

I hate cable cars. I know it is an irrational fear, but I dislike heights and I can’t understand the mechanics behind them – it’s a big box hanging off a piece of wire…how is this safe?!

The cable car in La Paz, however, is perhaps the most modern looking thing I have seen throughout the whole of Bolivia. It was built by socialist President Evo Morales to connect the richer South part of the city with the poorer North and is actually a fantastic idea. The cable cars float above the city bypassing traffic, endless steep hills, and reducing pollution. They’re said to be the safest way to travel around La Paz – the system is built by Austrians not Bolivians – and the government are already planning to build several more lines.

They are not for the faint-hearted though, they go incredibly high, almost vertical at some points as they climb the lofty edge of the city to reach El Alto.

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But Bolivians are hardy people who live mostly at altitude and aren’t daunted by this at all, unlike me. Disembarking at El Alto after a 15 minute journey where I avoided looking down the entire time there was a line almost a kilometre long to get on the cable cars and back down to the city.

El Alto

According to our guide, El Alto is home to the biggest open air market in Latin America (though I’ve also heard this claim made in Peru).

I love markets but even this one was too much for me. People cajole and hustle trying to get past each other. There’s the regular stall holders set up in rows and others pushing carts past the hordes of people selling all sorts of random stuff. I saw one cart peddling only plastic spray bottles and another hair clips. Everything can be bought here. Our guide claims his sister bought a brand new, genuine Louis Vuitton bag for the equivalent of £10 at the market, though I’m not sure I believe him.

The smell of fat frying from stalls selling fried fish and chicken with rice fills the market air, though it looks reasonably tempting we were told not to eat anything from the market as even people from La Paz can’t stomach El Alto food.

Shaman's street for coca leaves reading.

Shaman’s street for coca leaves reading.

I was quite glad to get out the market even if it was onto a dirty, dusty street lined with mini-bomb fires.

This street was dedicated to Aymara shamans who read coca leaves. They reside in little wooden huts lined up one by one. The bonfire outside each hut is for burning offering such as sweets and other things to Pachamama (mother earth) for good luck. According to Aymara beliefs to become a shaman you must be struck by lightening and have survived. (If you’re interested in this sort of thing you can find out more in Mario Vargas Llosa’s fiction story Death in the Andes which I have just read and can recommend).

Shaman's hut.

Shaman’s hut.

According to our guide, some people come here daily to have their future told or to seek direction and guidance by the coca leaves if they have a big decision to make. It’s taken so seriously there is a whole street devoted to it, not that it was very busy on this Sunday afternoon. Mostly there were just men chatting and drinking beer by bonfires. I noticed one of the men offered some beer to an American guy in our group who politely declined. The Bolivian man insisted but still the American refused and the Bolivian man was very offended by this, throwing the beer aggressively on the floor. 

It’s interesting that although Bolivians are now predominantly a Catholic population due to the country’s colonisation by the Spanish, many people, mostly the indigenous Indians who make up the majority of Bolivia’s population,  still follow their own rituals and beliefs from their indigenous heritage, such as making offering to idols and shamans. In the ancient past offerings of mostly girls and children would be made to the mountain gods when building a new structure or road, for example, as they believed the mountains to be very powerful.

Lady selling offerings.

Lady selling offerings.

It’s understandable how people would believe the mountains to be powerful when you consider that a landslide could kill thousands of people at any time.

Our guide said there are suspicions that sacrifices still happen, that bodies of people have, years later, been found under modern buildings. He thinks builders might find a street alcoholic, get them extremely drunk and when they’re sufficiently out-of-it bury them under the foundations of the new building. This is all speculation of course.

Cholita Wresting

Finally, to end our tour it was time for some afternoon Cholita wrestling. Yes, little women in their Cholita outfits – ankle length, wide rimmed skirts and tights – ‘wrestling’ each other.

It’s a bit silly and touristy, though lots of locals do come with their kids to watch. The premise is usually an older lady pitted against a younger, more beautiful lady who gets ‘beaten up’ by the older women, only to come back and win the fight at the end. They’re not really hurting each other, though they certainly get thrown high in the air and slammed down quite ferociously.

Cholita wrestling.

Cholita wrestling.

It all gets a bit raucous when the wrestlers come off the stage and into the arena threatening to spray fizzy drinks over those who boo them. They never actually do this to the tourists but the locals certainly get fizz in their face. The audience throw meat bones and fruit in return. I nearly got hit by a couple of T-bones a few times.

Old men wrestling young men also takes place following the same pretence. The cutest thing, though, is how the children idolise the young wrestlers, clinging onto them as they leave the stage and asking them for autographs.

Locals watch the wrestling.

Locals watch the wrestling.

As part of the ticket tourists get a free drink, a little souvenir and a bag of popcorn.

And that was the end of the tour!

More reading…

You can also read about Death Road just outside of La Paz here.

You can read more about La Paz here

For a blog on Sucre, Bolivia click here

For a blog on Santa Cruz, Cochabamba and Samaipata, all Bolivia click here

For a blog on Uyuni and the Bolivian Salt flats click here

If you enjoy reading my blogs or find them useful please like and share!  :) You can also follow me on Twitter @Heidivel or Instagram @heidihihohi.

Also, please feel free to ask me any travel questions you may have or to share your own travel experiences.

Exploring La Paz, Bolivia

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To me, there’s nothing quite like La Paz. It’s one of the most unusual, bustling and chaotic cities I’ve ever visited. It’s a complete feast for the eyes and ears because there are so many people and so many things going on.

La Paz is located roughly 3,650 metres above sea level and looks to me to be laid out like a massive bowl. The bottom of ‘the bowl’ is the main city hub, and from there the city rises on all sides so that when going out of the main centre you are always walking up, steeply. Look up and you’ll see rows and rows of terracotta buildings that look half finished, rising one after the other for a great distance. In fact, La Paz is the highest administrative capital in the world and home to Bolivia’s parliament (but not the country’s official capital which is Sucre).

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La Paz from above.

Everything can be bought in La Paz. And I mean everything. The centre is shop upon, shop. One street sells only fridges and microwaves. Another sells Tupperware. Another sells only festival costumes, and so on. Street stalls sell everything from giant ornaments of cats and tigers to different kinds of cereals. 

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There’s also the famous Witches Market where llama fetuses and readymade ‘offerings’ for gods and idols can be bought. It’s not really a market, in the traditional sense, though, more a couple of streets with small shops.

The traffic in La Paz is horrendous. Comparable to what I’ve seen in Hanoi and Saigon, which is pretty atrocious. The narrow street pavements are just as busy, especially on Saturday mornings when everyone seems to be out doing their weekly shopping.

La Paz’s population is mostly Aymara, so almost everyone living in the city is indigenous.

Locals seem to eat mostly from the street. A round, plump Cholita will sit and serve some delicious looking roast pork with vegetables and rice out of a big metal bowl onto plastic plates to queuing punters who munch it on the side of the road. Another Cholita sits nearby selling ‘tragos’, drinks, of duranzo, ‘peach juice,’ and all other kinds of concoctions. I noticed this heavy meal is eaten quite early, at about 10am and then also later in the afternoon.

I also noticed that Bolivia is a sugar addicted nation. The locals drink sugar infused fruit juices out of plastic bags and seem to be constantly eating ice cream, or other sweet treats, and fizzy drinks are consumed over all others. Often, on tours for lunch you’ll be given no water but only full fat coke to drink. I have a theory that Bolivians’ addiction to sugar might be fuelled by living at altitude. I think altitude makes you crave sweet food, but maybe that’s just me.

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La Paz is a people watching city. It’s addictive because of the way, the women especially, dress and the culture that is so different to my own. What fascinates me is that La Paz is about 23 degrees in the day and then about 5-10 at night but none of the locals seem adjusted to the cold weather. From morning to evening Cholitas will wear woolen tights, and layers and layers under their full skirts and a few tops and then often a cape pinned together at the breast. Or if they’re not in traditional garb they’ll be layered-up and wrap a blanket around their waist. In fact, a blanket seems to be a must have accessory in chilly Bolivia. Everyone has one (me, too, now) and will wrap themselves up in one as they wait for buses or eat.

As I said Bolivia’s parliament is located in La Paz. While we were there Plaza Murillo, where the Presidential Palace is located, was completely barricaded off from all four corners with each connecting road lined with a dozen or so policemen. To pass into the square we had to ask permission from the police who let us through easily.

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In the square there were few people, only some Cholitas selling snacks, a few other tourists, and a kid joyfully feeding the pigeons, who willing swamped him for foods. We walked around the square and spotted water cannons. The Presidential Palace sat giant and stately looking over the square.

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Upon leaving the square from another road we noticed colourful tents blocking off a road in the distance. Inside the tents were disabled people who had travelled from all over the country, by bus and foot, to speak to President Evo Morales to request that the government increase their state benefits. The police presence and water cannons were apparently for them. The Leftist Morales had decided to reject their demands and not speak to them, though the water cannons and police presence seemed a little strong.

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Stay tuned for another blog on El Alto, La Paz’s poorer neighbour, where we watched Cholita wrestling and visited the fortune tellers, among other things.

You can also read about Death Road just outside of La Paz here.

For a blog on Sucre, Bolivia click here

For a blog on Santa Cruz, Cochabamba and Samaipata, all Bolivia click here

For a blog on Uyuni and the Bolivian Salt flats click here

Tips for fellow travellers:

Food and nightlife: We ate mostly at The English Pub near our hotel which offered good Western food. It’s good for a couple of beers too but not a party.

For nightlife most people head to the hostels such as Loki Hostel or Wild Rover. Loki has a big upstairs bar that has a club like atmosphere and is full of Europeans and young Israelis on their gap year. There are a lot of Israelis in Bolivia who go there after they have completed their national service.

Accommodation: We stayed at Sol Andino Hostal which is decent enough but nothing special. The walls are quite thin and it’s cold at night but you can hire a heater if you want. The staff did let us leave our bags there for four days when we went to Rurrenabaque, even though we weren’t staying at the hotel afterwards. I do recommend the travel agency inside, the guy was really honest and helpful.

Safety: Most people worry about being safe in La Paz it having a very bad reputation as a city. The 2013 Lonely Plant describes it as actively not safe. One guy we met on our travels said he was so paranoid he kept thinking someone was following him and ducking into doorways. A bit over the top, perhaps. We never had any problems and we did walk around at night. I guess we are two so that helps, but just exercise caution, as in any big city, and have your wits about you. Only take official taxis. The only thing bad we saw was one drunk Bolivian throw an absolute monster of a punch in the face of a bouncer who refused to let him in. The two then had a very physical fight. So there are definitely some nutters about La Paz, not too different from Streatham Hill then I suppose.

If you enjoy reading my blogs or find them useful please like and share!  :) You can also follow me on Twitter @Heidivel or Instagram @heidihihohi. Also, please feel free to ask me any travel questions you have!