Saturday, 21 February 2009

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

The Golden Compass and other bus tales...

I have owned my compass since I was about 8 or 9. I would take it with me to Scout camps. Its home was always in the drawer of my desk, a desk and compass that happily moved from Edzell to Turriff and then to various flats in Edinburgh and finally Glasgow. I have had it for nearly 25 years. It was in good nick too but, if truth be told, in all those years I barely ever used it.
On the night bus from Lago Agrio to Quito, a man sitting behind my chair, slashed my rucksack from under my chair as I slept and stole that said compass. I cannot begin to express the depths of sadness and loss I am currently struggling through
Joking aside, I was actually very lucky. My camera was also in the bag but hidden away. Although, I discovered later that he also took my headlamp. There are many warnings about theft throughout South America. We have always been very careful and that was our last night bus and long distance journey. Generally, driving styles excluded, buses have been very safe and reliable. I´m just thankful it was nothing majorly important that was nabbed. In reflection, I was suffering from a bout of particularly bad (sulphurous) and frequent (at least every 3 minutes) flatulence throughout the journey. Perhaps that was enough to deter the thief, the vagabond, the ragamuffin, the scallywag, the cad, the villain, the reprobait, the rogue, the rascal. Who knows?

We have found that is not always a good idea to look ahead on most buses. In South East Asia they are particularly fond of honking their horns and the buses have a surprising variety of excruciating melodies. In Vietnam they don't travel fast but like to overtake in a way which can be 3 vehicles deep, and that's just on one lane of the road. Just when you feel yourself heading for certain oblivion and an appointment with the Grim Reaper, the bus pulls in, just in time, and calm and order is restored.
The worst drivers so far have been those behind the wheels of Eduadorian buses. The driver speeding us from Tena to Lago Agrio had 2 Colin McCrae Rally stickers proudly emblazened across his front windscreen. He didn´t just interpret them literally, they seemed to inspire him into a crazed, primal scream style of driving behind the wheel. He raced other buses, passing them and re-overtaking them in a fierce competition for customers en route, as he silmultaneously swung the bus ruthlessly round tight bends, over blind hills and down steep ascents.
In Asia and South America you can buy just about anything in the bus station or on the road. At Quito bus station, for example, all the following was being offered by individuals wandering around: sweets, ice-cream, puppies, fruit salad, TV remote controls, hair dye for men, Rubiks cubes, chocolate bars, DVDs, CDs and spectacles.
On the side of the road people sell newspapers, brushes, toilet rolls, drinks and chicken and chips; whilst others camp out beside traffic lights performing juggling tricks and offering to wash your windscreen.
Buses can be jam packed within a matter of seconds. Bags of rice or potatoes jostle for space with old ladies sitting in the aisle and small children sitting on laps. And attempts to temper a 7 hour bus ride by reading your book or listening to your ipod are drowned out by music at ear splitting levels or DVDs showcasing violent and bloody martial arts films.
What is great about the buses is how much they are used. In these countries most people don´t own a car. Let me travel to London from Aberdeen in the comfort of a Chilean Pullman Bus semi cama (sleeper bus - very comfy!) than a squashed Citystink / Slowcoach any day of the week.

Welcome to the jungle: Ecuador

The Cuyebeno Reserve is situated deep inside the Ecuadorian rainforest. It is in the west of the country, near the Columbian and Peruvian borders. The area is just 30km or so north at the Columbian border is considered very dangerous. Farc rebels have camps on both sides of the border.
To get there the entrance point is through the dusty oil town of Lagro Agrio. A 3 hour truck journey through oil and gas fields and palm tree plantations, is then followed by a further 3 hour journey in a motorized canoe to our final destination of the Nicky Amazonian Lodge in the heart of the reserve. Thankfully, after such a long, grueling trip, the lodge is nestled happily inside an aura of tranquility and restfulness. Water turtles sat perched on logs, welcoming our arrival to the lagoon, as well as the intoxicating wildlife sounds and rhythms that is the constant soundtrack and audible heartbeat of the rainforest.
We had 3 full days to soak up the atmosphere, hopefully see a myriad of animals and learn something about the sanctity of this unique eco system. We weren´t to be disappointed; the experience was much, much greater than all our expectations and by the end our veins and minds were buzzing with a rocket fueled injection of the David Attenborough/Indiana Jones type of adventurer/explorer pure adrenalin rush.

Paola and Don Carlos were our guides. Paola spoke perfect English and had an all consuming passion for the wildlife, the culture of the local peoples and sharing her enthusiasm with visitors. Don Carlos was from the local Quechuan community. He was a wise, warm hearted and gentle man, who possessed an intimate knowledge of the local forests and rivers.
The trip was also special because of the feeling we had the place to ourselves. Sometimes as many as 20 people can cram into the lodge but we were lucky to share our time with just one other couple, the lovely Brian and Berbel from the Caribbean island of Bonaire.

Paola and Don Carlos walked us through the jungle and pointed out many different medicinal plants that the locals use to help with sickness and wounds. Don Carlos built a simple snare trap used to catch small mammals, made using materials from the forest. He showed us the Cabano palm tree and how easy and effective it was to make a thatched roof from its strong branches. We ate live beetle grubs found inside the nut of a wild coconut. The head was crunchy and the body tasted creamy with a hint of coconut. Or so I told myself. On swallowing Kathy surpressed a gag reflex!
We drank the local alcohol; chicha made from the yuca plant and panela, a spirit distilled from cane sugar.
We visited a local shaman (he is the main geezer) and learnt a tiny fraction of his vast medicinal knowledge of over 500 rainforest plants. In another village we yanked up yuca plants, then grated, dried and sieved them to make yuca tortillas.
We traveled to the Laguna Grande, that lies immediately beneath the line of the equator. We swam in its warm waters, only slightly peturbed by the possible close proximity of caiman and anacondas. We saw an anaconda at close quarters, a colourful toucan above our heads in the branches and followed a troop of monkeys swinging from tree to tree.
We fished for Piranha. Kathy caught a baby one. I managed to hook a catfish.
At night we walked through the jungle discovering crickets, grasshoppers, stick insects and spiders in the pitch darkness. Under a magical ceiling of sparkling stars the nocturnal rainforest took over. Red caiman eyes peered eerily at us from the black waters of the lagoon. Tree frogs, tarantulas and cockroaches appeared uninvited inside our cabins.
On the last night a small, brown mouse with large, bulbous eyes took a fancy to our stash of biscuits. After an initial period of rustling and confusion, when Kathy claims I screamed and squirmed like a big girl's blouse under the mosquito net, the beams of our head lamps cornered the mouse contentedly squatting on the shelf of our bedside table, munching its way through a big chocolate cookie! Kathy said the mouse reminded her of someone elde who always finished the biscuits (and crisps) (and pies) without a care. She named it Athole...