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.