Misnomer Island

It’s been a fairly ‘Falklands’ few weeks. That could mean a number of things on a number of occasions but the last few weeks have been holding a few post-holiday treats for us. Before arriving here, I had been concerned that the windswept, desolate descriptions of the landscape would mean limited opportunities for outdoor pursuits but I’ve been fortunate that there’s been a few adrenaline fixes to be had around:

As well as the free fun to be had around Camp, some good friends of ours took the wonderfully presumptive step of booking us on a trip to Sea Lion Island during September as they were running an offer. Sea Lion Island is most well known locally for it being the best place to be almost-guaranteed to spot Orca whales so takes full advantage of the draw to run at an extortionate rate per person per night. Add the cost of the semi-charter Islander flights and it makes for an expensive weekend away for two. This means that many people see Sea Lion as being out of reach, but their close-to-half-price offer for September meant that we could hop across for the night. We had hoped to be able to witness the phenomenon shown on BBC’s Life as seen below:

Life – Amazing Sea Lion Island Footage

Sadly, this particular female couldn’t be seen at the pool so early in the season. Nevertheless, the Island is home to 95% of the Elephant Seal population of the Falklands, as well as numerous gentoo and magellanic penguins, sea lions, caracaras and the usual assorted wildlife to be seen by the intrepid as well as the orca pods. The elephant seals have to be one of the most ridiculous creatures in the World and, weighing in at 4 tonnes, the bulls are not to be ignored. They are, fortunately, one of the most docile of the wild animals here so it makes for a pretty unforgettable weekend. Apologies for the sheer number of photos but we loved it on Sea Lion and the wildlife was all around. Remember to click the pictures for captions/to see them properly:

 

The last ‘Falklands’ aspect of our time here came in the form of the annual Craft Fair. Remote living makes people get good at a lot of very handy skills, I guess out of necessity. So it came as little surprise that the small population here turned out a disproportionate number of entries into the different categories of arts and crafts. Not being ones to miss out on taking part in life here, Han pitched her quilting skills against the finest experienced quilters here and, last minute, decided to enter the mugs we painted at White Grass Ceramics (paint your own pottery) out at San Carlos. Han managed an impressive 3rd place (1st and 2nd going to her friend Wendy). In what I can only assume was an astounding act of pity by the judges, my own mug placed a whopping 2nd place and Han’s followed with being awarded Highly Commended. Han is now looking forward to a lifetime of being reminded about my award-winning art skills:

There are, slowly but surely, signs of Spring appearing and the weekend’s forecast should give us plenty more to talk about, with the MotoX starting back up and the social event of the year tonight (the Falklands Conservation Ball):

One Hundred Hours of Solitude – Colombia Part 2

Following our rainforest trip, we parted with Adambailey for his return to Europe and dropped back into Santa Marta for another transit night before again rising early to catch our lift to Riohacha to begin a second tour. Along the way we picked up four Swiss uni students who, both luckily and embarrassingly for us, spoke English, French, German, Spanish and Italian between them. This was important as it transpired at the Expotur office in Riohacha that our driver for the next three days spoke no English whatsoever. This was a bit of a trend for our trip; our lack of Spanish made for a restrictive but fun element to the whole two weeks and our encounters with so many other nationalities all speaking several languages served to highlight the laziness of much of the English-speaking world in only needing to learn this most widely-spoken of vocabularies. More fool us. Not to worry for now, we had our Swiss translators in exchange for a few beers along the way.

We had booked on to a 4×4 trip through the desert, making our way to the most Northerly point of mainland South America (Punta Gallinas) and staying in a few settlements along the way. This was meant to be a way for us to relax for a few days at the end of our rainforest trip and see a bit more of Colombia, but it turned out to be far more enlightening than that. Day  one took us out through a desert track to the salt mines of Manaure, where our “guided tour” turned out to be more a ‘get out the car and go for a wander’. It was here where our encounters with the local children began and a brief chat with the friendly policeman in his oddly-remote posting assured us that giving in to the begging was not encouraged from their point of view – they preferred the children to go to school instead of beg or steal from tourists. Let the moral dilemma begin.

We then crossed through the desert to reach Cabo de la Vela, a remote coastal village. A few beach trips later and we were settling in to our chinchorros – the huge local hammocks with flaps down the side to wrap around you. Comfy even for the tallest of gringos.

This first day was definitely a case of “it’s not the destination but the journey that matters”. We’d been told/warned that there would people, particularly children, begging along the route. Sure enough, when we stopped to switch cars with another group returning home, the car was swamped with local children begging. The remoteness of their location could have had us feeling hopeless for their fate, but we’d discussed our position on this and the policeman at Manaure had reaffirmed it. It is a difficult moral quagmire to be in – on the one hand, the human reaction is to respond to the begging children in front of you and give something. On the other, the community has existed for a long time and the long term impact of children starting to rely on begging from tourists is massively damaging.

We had hoped that, in some small way, we might not add to the number of children skipping school/not learning traditionally useful skills and it was clear that this was becoming the norm. ‘Unsustainable’ aid can be hugely damaging for societies such as this and children relying on begging harms the long-term future of their community. I still don’t know what the right thing to do is/was, but the next stage of our journey provided evidence of the harm that this can do. All along the route, sometimes in bizarrely desolate areas, children and adults had posted themselves to set up plastic or metal wire road blocks and were attempting to stop all vehicles passing to extract some form of toll from them. Many of these were just metres apart and we soon lost count of the number of them. Our driver, being local, had little patience for this illegal practice but did stop randomly at some to offer some small biscuits as a toll. This was evidently NOT what the adult metal road blocks had envisioned as there was clearly some disgruntled discussion about the lack of beer or money. The giant Toyota Land Cruiser would have made short work of their roadblocks, however, so there wasn’t much leverage to be had from them. We’d hoped that the numbers of these children would decrease on school days (we did see schools built in the villages we passed) but sadly the opposite was true. You can draw your own conclusions about whether tourists giving things to these children is a good idea or not.

Day two saw us driving for several hours through the desert. We stopped at the Tarao dunes, which stretch for some 5km along the coast and make an fascinating contrast between the desert and the sea, before continuing on to our destination; Punta Gallinas – South America’s most Northerly point. Quite the change from Falklands residents so used to beginning sentences with ‘the most Southerly…’. Even though we were given ample time at the Taroa dunes and Punta Gallinas, there was little sunbathing and lazing around as the heat was pretty unbearable. Luckily, the sea was gorgeous and several swims later we were at a pretty content temperature.

Whilst there, we had the opportunity to take a boat trip out and find out what that odd pink blob in the distance was; wild flamingos in all their splendour. Excellent to see and a nice change from the huge numbers of pelicans we came across on every stretch of coastline (not that there was anything wrong with them, but they look awfully like the pterodactyl shots from Jurassic Park when they fly).

Our final day largely involved crossing back through the desert, the increasing number of road blocking children and the odd ‘toll booth’ actually selling food – either cactus fruit (an odd tasting and odder consistency) or goat carcass hanging from a tree. To Han’s relief, our driver concluded that the carcass he was bartering over wasn’t suitable for our drive home as they couldn’t wrap it in anything.

Following yet another transit night in Santa Marta, we got a bus to our next destination: Cartagena. A UNESCO World Heritage city, Cartagena was the Spanish (slave) trading centre of South America and therefore much in demand by the French and British. As a result, the whole city is guarded by a castle (yey) and circled by medieval walls. This has the effect of making for an extremely historic but utterly breeze-less city break. The city is quite simply stunning, not an ugly road seems to exist in the place, the clearly ancient wooden doors and balconies grace most buildings, showing off the traditional door-knockers that denote the occupant’s trade. Our time there was made even better by meeting up with Brian and Kat, two new friends from the Lost City ‘outbreak’. We toured the city well, spending time in the plazas, minding out for the horses and carriages that  pass so frequently and took a rather dodgy boat trip out to an island off the coast to spend the day on the beach (coincidentally called Punta Arenas, the same name as the Chilean airport link to Mount Pleasant). Highlights included watching the sun set from the city walls with a beer, Han experiencing her first ever roof-top bar, hiring a hammock on the beach then failing to cool off in the body-temperature sea, Han being called ‘blanco blanco’ repeatedly along with concerned looks and eating good Colombian food for the first time since Bogota (fish, plain rice and fried plantain is OK the first time, but 7 times in a row is a bit much).

As our time in Cartagena drew to a close, Han and I eagerly watched the flight status knowing full well that we were having to return a week early to the Falklands for a day of meetings at the school and a few hours’ delay on our connection would leave the travel insurance to cover our time in South America until the next flight home: at least a week. Sadly, the delay that did hit us was only to last one hour and we made our connecting flight at Bogota, returning to the Islands’ 2C temperatures in our holiday attire. Meeting our friend Louisa in Santiago before she returned home to the UK was an unexpected bonus, but even she wasn’t able to help us solve the riddle as to why the Holiday Inn had decided to wire a phone in next to the toilet.

All in all, food poisoning, constantly being taken for mugs on pricing, begging children and excessive heat aside, Colombia turned out to be an amazing country with a great deal to offer. The pound goes far there, there was no sign of cocaine, plenty of history and culture and a lot more to experience. We returned to the Islands, after indulging in the novelty of fast food for the first time in a year, unlikely to leave again for quite a while but having missed the worst of the snow. Spring is starting and I’m not sad to return (even if Han is a little). Now it’s back to Falkland Islands life.

Bowling for Colombia – Part One

As you’re aware, there’s been no update for a fortnight. I completely disconnected for two weeks while we were on our first holiday abroad since arriving. This utter disconnection was partly due to the lack of phone signal in South America and partly as a helpful coping mechanism for the adjustments needed to life in a far busier mainland country after a year here on the Islands. I’ve decided to break our trip to Colombia down into two parts; Bogota and the Lost City Trek first, then our desert trip and Cartagena.

As part of our contract, we get a set of flights home. As nice as it can be to zip home for a while, it transpired that we could take the somewhat excessive cost of traveling home and spend it on flights or travel elsewhere. So: Kent or South America- it was a tough decision! We had an outline plan for the two weeks, starting with the best part of two days in Bogota with my brother Adam, before heading North for something a little less cosmopolitan.

Arriving in Bogota set the tone for much of the trip with us quickly being identified as white people with a backpack so offers of taxis came in at extremely varying quotes. After using Hostelworld’s extremely useful guide to how much we SHOULD be paying for a taxi, we headed central at half the original offers. Lesson 1 learnt well. After a short mix-up with the hostels we got ourselves sorted and set about exploring the city through a mix of wandering, a free walking tour and generally asking about. Bogota is a fascinating city steeped in history, graffiti and peculiarities. I’m glad we chose to spend some time there but I didn’t feel that we missed out on too much only taking two days to explore. I’ll explain much of what we saw with the captions, but we highly recommend the walking tours of the city as I found that my South American history was lacking somewhat. The much-famed Colombian Narco links were only a small part of the political turmoil of the past few centuries and there was much to take in.

The size, population and hustle and bustle of Bogota made a stunningly stark contrast to what we had adjusted to in the confines of Stanley (population: c.2000) and I don’t mind admitting that I found the noise, heat and chaos of it all a bit oppressive after a while, needed to retire to a local craft ale house to cool off a bit. This did serve to flag up the number of things that we’d been missing in one way or another over the last year: fresh exotic fruits, the use of a cash machine and debit card, traffic, graffiti, crowds, street vendors, escalators and so many other little things that you don’t think about until you’re confronted with them for the first time in over a year. I suspect a return to the UK would have yielded yet more.

After two days in Bogota, we all headed North to Santa Marta. We’d heard mixed things about Santa Marta but luckily weren’t staying there long. In total we had three nights in the excellent, clean and cheap La Guaca hostel but each one was simply a transit night so we spent our first night there in even more oppressive heat, before heading off the next day to begin the Lost City Trek through the Sierra Nevada National Park. Built around 700AD, abandoned in the 1600s and laying undiscovered until the 1980s, the Lost City was an ancient site of the Tayrona people, now under the protection of the Colombian army and the Kogi/Cogui indigenous people who still live locally. It is accessed by walking or mule only and requires several days of c.6 hours’ trekking through rainforest before climbing 1200 steps to see the site itself. We took the trip with Expotur, who are the biggest company to do it but not necessarily the best (10 of our 14 ended up with what we think was mild food poisoning, meaning 2 didn’t make it to the Lost City, many suffered in getting there and necessitating the use of a mule for Han one morning to make it out). We had an excellent guide in Gabriel, though, and an excellent translator in Frederico (an Argentine who had spent time living with the indigenous, which made for many an interesting conversation). We had opted for the 4 day trip, wanting to cram as much in to our two weeks as possible, but the 5 or 6 day trips are the standard. The days tended to follow a pattern: rise very early for breakfast, walk for several hours, have a short break after a steep climb with some fruit (exciting times for us two!), walk several more hours, break for lunch at a camp site on a river with a swim to cool off, walk a few more hours to our night’s camp and swim again before crashing out in bunks. Having been starved of fruit, trees, excessive heat and steep mountain climbs there was quite some adjustment to be made. We managed OK from a fitness perspective but it certainly showed that we’d left the Falklands in -2C and were now trying to climb slopes in over 30C – this caused some amusement to our fellow hikers, along with the novelty of watermelon/pineapple stops finding a new appreciation with those coming from remote islands with difficult neighbours. Again, I’ll let the captions do the explaining but here’s just a taste of our trip:

Despite the illness, we made it to the Lost City, learned a great deal about Colombia and the indigenous people along the way and made some great friends in the group (bonding over our fear of food helped). We were particularly impressed with the role that the Lost City plays in the indigenous community; they still live in the Sierra Nevada semi-nomadically living off the land with several ‘farms’ that they visit in rotation, eating, clearing then replanting the sites before moving on. Their society, quite rightly, doesn’t follow our norms: they don’t count their age, cutting of hair is a punishment, leaders are appointed by agreement and gain knowledge by marrying older women (before marrying their daughters to reproduce) and using many natural products in rituals. We learnt how the women make bags from leaf fibres, using natural dyes from leaves and vines to create ancestral patterns on them and begin this around the time that they are preparing to have children. The men use sea shells crushed in a local type of gourd (papoiya) to release the meditative power of the coca leaf and gain these around the time they’re judged to be a man and can live off the land with ease (usually around 12 years old). It was amazing to occasionally encounter the people and learn how the move from the cocaine industry to tourism was positively benefiting the local families, whilst still allowing the Cogui to maintain their traditional lifestyles. If I was still teaching Geography, this would be a case study and a half.
The next part of our trip was a wholly different affair so you can look forward to that update soon…