Friday, 5 February 2016

From the Andes to the sea, via Cuenca

First, I must give you a picture from the mountains. For 360 days of the year, the high Andes - 3,900m - are covered in cloud. So how lucky was I to be there when it was like this:

The air is thin and clear, and the lakes mirror the sky or the mountains or - occasionally - one of the brave trees that manage to cling on this high up. Walking is a challenge, especially if, like me, you live somewhere low-lying, but I puffed my way along a lovely path (stopping to admire the view at every opportunity) and it was wonderful.

I was on my way from Cuenca to Guayaquil. I spent five days trying to work out why I love Cuenca. Is it the architecture in the city centre? The churches and museums, celebrating everything from the towns indigenous beginnings through the ravages of Spanish occupation to the delights and challenges of independence? Is it the plazas and restaurants? It's certainly not the black smoke belching from the back of buses.

And then I decided it didn't matter why I love Cuenca. I just do. I love the lazy streets - it's too hot for anyone to hurry, but there's a breeze from the mountains (and it's high) so nobody fries. It's easy to walk from one side of the old city to the other along busy streets and quiet streets and forgotten streets. And it's full of very kind people.

And Guayaquil? It's the biggest city in Ecuador, and - until I went to the museum and discovered its history - it seemed to be just a big, working city. But when I learned of its past, all those rebellions, the yellow fever epidemics, a huge fire that devastated almost everything, and the way it succumbed to corruption and general mayhem until just twenty years ago, it's astonishing to see it now. Serious money has been spent - on roads, a theatre, cinema and museum complex, an international airport, a state-of-the-art football stadium. The Malecon, a walkway beside the river, is now full of children's playgrounds, a garden, shops - and plenty of security people. It don't think I can love Guayaquil like I love Cuenca, but I admire what they have achieved in such a short time.

Now - I'm in Puerto Lopez. Small children play on the beach. The ocean rolls in, and rolls in, and rolls in. And I have a hut and a hammock.

Friday, 29 January 2016

When the earth moves

Where do I start? Last time I blogged I'd just crept out of the jungle. I've done so much since then that feels a long time ago!

I spent a couple of days in Quito, and then went to Cotopaxi - a volcano which erupted last year, so no one can climb it at the moment. But I plodded up its neighbour, as high as 4000m (it's a bit thin on oxygen up there, I don't think I could have gone any higher), and spent the night in an ancient hacienda that so was full of extraordinary, ancient stuff the I felt like a bit of an artefact myself after a couple of hours.

From there to Banos, which is in the valley at the foot of a live volcano. This volcano:

I'm afraid that's the best I can do as far as pictures go. I had to trudge up a road a long way to find a vantage point, and and was very lucky the summit wasn't covered in cloud. You thought that was cloud on the top? No, that's steam ... and my resort was on a ridge, about 100 metres below this.

Who, in their right minds, builds a resort on the side of a volcano? Or a whole town at the foot of it? But in the past, when this volcano erupted, ash and lava flowed down the other side. There are established trees here, buildings decades old. There are emergency routes everywhere, 'just in case', but sometimes you just have to chance it - because all this volcanic activity means there are wonderful thermal spas to flop about in (and bridges to bungee jump off, for the truly intrepid).

If you wanted to stay out of reach of any seismic activity in Ecuador's mountains, you'd never build anywhere. If it's not volcanoes, it's tremors. The road from Banos to Cuenca (where I am now) could be one of the great road trips of the world - seven hours through the Andes and some of the most stunning scenery I've ever seen. And it's a good road, most of the way, except where tremors have caused cracks and potholes. It's hard to keep the show on the road when the earth keeps moving.

So there you have it, from jungle to volcanos to thermal spas and earthquakes. And it's wonderful!

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

A view from the jungle

I've been in the jungle. Not any old jungle - and with no convenient walkway to effect an escape if it all got a bit much. No, this jungle was deep inside the Yasuni National Park. This is what it looks like at daybreak:

I know we can be bombarded with demands to protect the environment, treasure its diversity, make sure we keep enough trees to keep us all breathing. But, having spend a few days somewhere that, at the moment, is truly remote, I begin to understand some of the challenges. 

It is surprisingly noisy. At night the frogs croak you to sleep. In the morning the parrots and the howler monkeys make sure you wake with the sunrise. I stayed close to a lake: at first glance the tea-black water is still and mysterious. Then the hump of a turtle appears, the plop of a fish, the beady eyes of a caiman. (These are the black caiman, the big ones, and aggressive). 

Down a small creek we saw a pair of giant otters - so rare they are now classified as endangered. A metropolis of insect life, including a tarantula and a small beetle that squirts poisonous wee. We saw tiny flycatchers, multi-colours parakeets, toucans (how do they not fall over, with beak that big), vultures and a harpy eagle.

Any old jungle? Possibly, except this corner of the rainforest escaped an ice age and so has some of the greatest diversity of plants, trees, insects, birds and mammals in the world.  

And, deep under the ground, is oil. Already the oil companies and circling. 

I stayed in an eco-project, deep inside the National Park. The only way to get there is by boat (for hours) and - at this time of year when the water levels are low - by walking for over an hour. Not even a track for a 4x4 to pollute the air. Water is purified on site. Waste is filtered. We had to use soap and shampoo provided so that no unwelcome chemical could pollute the place.

It has been set up by the local indigenous community, and is run entirely by them, thus providing employment for one group of people - and making sure that they will continue to treasure the forest, not only for the benefit of those of us privileged enough to visit, but also to protect these precious trees and birds and mammals. And surely they are the best people to run it, for they know one toxic tree from a tame one, can spot a tiny monkey from 150 metres, and know exactly which log to sit on and which is home to fire ants.

And it's stunningly beautiful. Please, big oil men, put your greed to one side, just for once.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

And so to Ecuador.

Why Ecuador?

Why not?

When I was in Cuba I met a family from Germany; their eldest son was working in Ecuador and they described a fascinating country. Had I been there? they asked. No ... and, the more they talked, the more a visit seemed like a very good idea.

Yet, even now, I have no idea what to expect.

So here is the little that I do know:

I have no idea how stable their politics are, though I do know there should be no elections while I'm there. Like most countries, there can be occasional demonstrations - I'm used to staying well away from those.

I know there are some wonderful markets - so hopefully I find some treasures for daughters and grandchildren, and for the friends who look after my house while I'm away.

I know there are some wonderful mountains - Quito (the capital) is located at about 9000 feet. Cotopaxi, one of the main volcanoes, has been hissing a bit in recent months, but has had no serious eruptions for decades. I know how to run away from molten lava. (I shall also be visiting the hot springs, which will be fun. I'll let you know if they smell as bad as Rotorua!)

I know that there are a number of national parks, aimed at protecting the rainforest and associated wildlife in the upper reaches of the Amazon. There are anacondas, and boas, and no doubt a scorpion or two. But the lodge where I'm staying is remote and beautiful, and have guides who know how to keep us all safe. (Those who have read about my last trip to Nepal will know that one close encounter with a crocodile is enough to last a lifetime!)

I have done my best to learn Spanish, so I shouldn't get into the sort of tangles that made Cuba such a challenge. I believe I can get myself understood now. But I've no idea if I can understand replies.

I can't find out how much the climate is affected by the current El NiƱo. But there have, in the past, been floods in Puerto Lopez (where I hope to have a few days by the sea). I've no idea if there have been storms in the Galapagos - nor the impact they may have on the wildlife there. Nor if storms might mean that I spend my Galapagos week sheltering in a harbour somewhere.

I will have wifi some of the time - but it may be slow. So blogging, tweeting, facebooking will all be a bit hit and miss. Just assume I'm fine - and wait for tales of my adventures till I get home. (I honestly don't know if I'll write a book about this trip - it depends how I get on.)

Maybe I need to do more googling, find out a bit more, considering I'm leaving in a couple of days.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

To Quote Tennyson ...

'The year is going - let him go!'

(I only know this is Tennyson because it's a line in one of the pieces we sang in our Christmas concert.)

The crackers are pulled, mince pies eaten, wrapping paper put out for the recycling, and it's time to pick up the pieces of normality (whatever that might be.)

However, it is worth remembering that time and date is a person-made construct, that the decision that the year turned in January is simply an idea that we have all subscribed to. Nothing magical has actually happened. That doesn't mean that we should turn our backs on all the razzmatazz. Far from it - I enjoy a good shindig as much as the next man or woman. But I have no doubt that those went to bed early with a mug of cocoa on New Year's Eve, just like any other night, can confirm that one day slips seamlessly into the next whatever the calendar might tell us.

And yet - to return to Tennyson, who was writing about the turning of the year - maybe these dark winter days are a good time to reflect, let go of regrets and 'what ifs', and look forward to what we might be doing when the days get longer.

Which, for me, is double-edged. After the Earthquake came out just before Christmas - and has some lovely reviews already, plus making a significant contribution to the house-building fund. If I were ever to take marketing seriously I ought to do it now, given that Nepal needs the income.

But, just as this little book needs me to cheer it on, and I'm still talking to anyone who will listen about the house-build appeal, I'm deep in last-minute planning for the next trip, to Ecuador and the Galapagos. This trip has been on the calendar for months - long before I knew I was going back to Nepal and thought I might write about it. I am at the helplessly excited stage. (I've got one more blogpost before I go - so I'll tell you more then.)

So I'm sorry, Tennyson, but I can't let go of last year. I shall carry the needs of Nepal and her people with me into 2016, for nothing magical happened at the turn of the year to solve her problems. At the same time I'll look forward to my next adventures.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

And so it's Christmas ...

I'm astonished any of you have time to drop into blogland at the moment.

And I'm certainly not going to expect you to reflect on anything deep and meaningful. Nor regale you with a list of all the wonderful things I've done this year; that my beautiful, clever children and grandchildren have done; nor add - as an afterthought - good wishes for your Christmas and New Year.

Instead I shall simply suggest that we all take a deep breath, notice the winter solstice and breathe a prayer to whatever god makes sense to you, light candles for ourselves and for all those who might need a little help along the way, and then open a bottle of whatever takes your fancy.

Cheers ... I'll be back in the New Year.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

After the Earthquake - Over the Hill Goes Back to Nepal!!

'Tis done - thanks to some wonderfully supportive people who have read, edited, made me coffee etc along the way. Without them I'd still be at the head-scratching stage. You all know who you are - I am deeply grateful to every one of you.

Here, for those who have no idea what this book is about, is the blurb:

JO CARROLL hesitated before returning to Nepal after the earthquake. Arriving as a tourist when local people were in such need felt an intrusion.

Not at all, Tika told her. We want you to come. We need you to come.
Within hours of arriving she saw just how right he was. Nepal, it seems, has been forgotten since the journalists left with their pictures of destruction. But the welcome is as warm as it has ever been.
Even from the crocodiles …
All profits from this book are contributing to rebuilding one house. We can’t rebuild a city – but we can, and will, provide for one family.

Thank you all for your patience and support.

And here (hurrah) is the link to buy the book.