Caption Competition Winners

R: It’s the moment everyone’s been waiting for – the announcement of the caption competition winners.

It’s been an agonising process for the judges, sifting through thousands upon thousands of entries, and trying to agree on the winners. Sometimes it has been wit, sometimes intelligence, sometimes lateral thinking which has won through. But whatever the reason, the stamp of genius has been the common factor. Mostly.

Due to issues surrounding security, and following advice by Royal Mail, we are unable to announce details concerning the actual prizes. We would, however, advise against making any rash career decisions or large impulsive purchases until you have received your prize. Please allow up to 28 days for delivery.

Thank you all for your entries, and a special congratulation to all the winners.

Brazil

‘Richard prayed that his bushtucker trial did not include rats bottoms, cobras bowels or monkeys weeners.’

– Barry Peebles

Peru

‘I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in, to stop my mind from wandering… where it will go.’

– Peter Restall

Bolivia

‘The food was so bad that I lost 8 stone…’

– Alison Jones

Argentina

‘We can dance if we want to, we can leave your friends behind, cause if your friends don’t, and if they don’t dance, then there no friends of mine.’

– Daniel England

Chile

‘You get a good view of your house from here!’

– Campbell Scott

New Zealand

‘Gary Glitter’s new disguise wasn’t fooling anyone, especially the children…’

– Mike Stewart

Fiji

‘Richard makes an early return to Shandwick Place.’

– George England

Australia

‘Strictly Come Dancing kicks-off new season on board the QE2.’

– Kevin Rooney

Indonesia

‘Does my bum look big in this.’

– John Shields

Malaysia

‘Bear England.’

– Shona Galletly

Thailand

‘Richie longs for a Mr Whippy back in the UK.’

– Darran Flowers

Laos

‘The annual oxen prostate exam’s a two-man job…’

– Tom Muir

Cambodia

‘Has the bell gone?’

– Linda Livingstone

Vietnam

‘Spot the dummy.’

– Linda Livingstone

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Photo Gallery: The Rest Of The Best

R: We’ve only a few days left, so we thought it would be good to share a few of the photographs that haven’t made it onto the blog.

For the DSLR-owners out there, don’t get too excited – we’ve been using a humble Casio Exilim, which offers only 10.1 megapixels in resolution. But despite its technical limitations it’s done a pretty decent job.

This gallery also means that you will be spared having to sit through hundreds of photographs upon our return. Sighs of relief all round, I think. It will also be something of a boon to those who have only looked at the pictures anyway (you know who you are!).

Happy viewing.

Bibliography of a Backpacker: ‘Moby Dick’ by Herman Melville

R: The White Whale and I have become great friends on this trip; and although I finished reading Moby Dick nearly four months ago, I thought it a fitting book with which to end my literary odyssey.

I’m not a great reader on the bus, suffering as I do from text-induced motion sickness. Planes and trains are no problem, but buses (and Fijian boats) are necessarily prose-free areas for me. With this in mind I left the UK with an unabridged audiobook of Melville’s classic.

Through bursts of Frank Muller diction the whale has followed me along Brazil’s Costa Verde, through Peru’s Sacred Valley, around Lake Titicaca, across the Altiplano, down the Chilean coast and twice over the Andes. And it has helped break the monotony of overnight rides from Melbourne to Sydney, Sydney to Byron Bay and Bali to Java. In Singapore Moby Dick disappeared amid the gloom – the backlight of my iPhone packed in – before resurfacing in Thailand, where, in Kindle format, I eventually made it to the book’s climatic final scene.

So what of the book itself? At first Melville’s style – long sentences, archaic language and florid descriptions – is a little difficult to penetrate, but as the mist clears you are soon pitched headlong into a salty, oily world of whales, whaling and harpooners.

But Moby Dick is as much famed for its verbosity as its virtuosity, and there is no denying that Melville’s prolixity can often frustrate and even defeat the pluckiest of readers. Arguably, nearly half of the one hundred and thirty-three chapters do not concern the main narrative, exploring instead the history, science and culture of whales and whaling. In fact, a more appropriate title for the book may have been Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Whales But Were Afraid to Ask.

But the hardy reader is rewarded, as the accumulative effect of each digression serves to both build suspense and enhance the central metaphor of the whale. I say central metaphor, as there are probably as many meanings as there are chapters in the book. But what does the White Whale itself symbolise? God, nature, immortality? And what is the significance of Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal quest? Sin, hubris, or just plain old-fashioned revenge? Arguably, the key meditation of the book concerns the limits of man’s knowledge: that no matter how many ‘facts’ we gather about the world – about nature, about life, about ourselves – there are some things which remain forever unknowable.

Elsewhere I have lamented the attempts of others to write The Great American Novel; and it is from Melville that any aspirants must wrestle this title. In Moby Dick Melville does not speak of America but of the world, not of a whale but of life. This is why he takes his rightful place among the literary heroes of this trip.

But it is in the metaphorical richness that Moby Dick achieves its greatness. Its layers are so numerous, its weft and warp so tightly packed, that the reader is free to invest his or her own meaning. For me, Moby Dick is a metaphor for both the limits and the glories of travel. And I will leave Ishmael with the last word on both.

On the limits:

‘Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only through numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those that we left behind secure, were all the time before us.’

And the glories:

‘How vain and foolish for timid untravelled man to try to comprehend aright this wondrous whale, by merely poring over his dead attenuated skeleton, stretched in this peaceful wood. No. Only in the heart of quickest perils; only when within the eddyings of his angry flukes; only on the profound unbounded sea, can the fully invested whale be truly livingly found out.’

Reflections On The South Pacific

The South Pacific. The phrase often evokes blissful images for cold souls in the Northern Hemisphere. Limitless vistas of azure skies, verdant vegetation and bone-white beaches dominate the mind. Tales of shipwrecks, mutinies and cannibalism excite the imagination and only add to pull of the place.

Our three months in the region, like our time in South America, was not spent mapping every inch, traversing every mountain range nor combing every beach. It consisted, in the end, of four weeks on New Zealand’s North Island, three and a half weeks in Fiji, and four and a half weeks heading north from Melbourne up Australia’s east coast. But our time there was long enough and varied enough to forge strong impressions of the area, an area which for many in colder climes has become something of a modern day Promised Land.

We will start with what made the greatest impact upon us: New Zealand. In its favour was certainly the fact that South America had preceded it, that what had been a tough and challenging adventure dissolved quickly into an easy-going English-speaking home from home. But even if we had gone straight from London to Auckland the overall effect would have been the same. Quite simply, New Zealand was amazing.

That New Zealand was amazing came as a surprise to us. So much is spoken about Australia that New Zealand is invariably and unfairly overlooked. To us, it seems to be a land constructed by a Deity who, upon scrutinising the Earth cradled in the palm of his hand, has plucked from its crust his favourite parts, fusing them together to form New Zealand’s unrivalled topography. The effect is incaptivating: massy mountains soar, glassy rivers roar and beaches and coastlines glitter with the incandescent light of the southern sun.

It is also a land which appears to have been created solely as a playground for backpacking, camper vanning adventurers. Its size – not as small as you perhaps would first surmise – is perfectly suited to the rhythms and syncopated beats of the nomadic spirit; and its towns and cities are of such a size that they neither overwhelm nor dull the greedy senses of the traveller. Its people, too, seem to exhibit just the right balance of character: an air of relaxed openness, easy approachability and steady guidance. Never before had we met a friendlier bunch.

Aside from New Zealand stealing the show, one theme which dominated our time in the Pacific has to be that of internet access. This may strike the reader as a mere trifle. But free and easy access to the World Wide Web is quickly become something of an inalienable right in the 21st century. And it is a right which is defended with passion by the travelling masses. Fiji can be excused at this point from any further scrutiny. Even on some of the most remote islands the internet was made available – via satellite – for a small nominal fee. In the Yasawas, where mains electricity and a fresh water supply still remains an ambition, the Fijians should even be applauded. But in Australia and New Zealand the situation is no less than scandalous.

In both these countries the situation was very often the same. Access to the internet came at a price, and even then surfing was slow, patchy, unreliable, and often limited in terms of time or data. It is rather embarrassing that only an oversized clown with orange hair and yellow dungarees had the wherewithal to provide ‘free Wi-Fi’ to much of the antipodean population. We are ashamed to admit that never before had we dined on so many Fish Fillets, Chicken Burgers and Cheese Quarter Pounders. These were the sacrifices that were made in order to keep the blog running.

To put Australia and New Zealand’s crime into perspective, we had free Wi-Fi access in the middle of San Pedro de Atacama. Yes, that’s the small town in Chile situated in the driest desert in the world. We have also had free and easy internet usage in Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Bali, Java, Singapore, Borneo, Malaysia and Thailand. What’s going on? This is surely a case for the investigative powers of John Pilger.

Once again, food was a theme which left a big impression on us. Fiji was a touch disappointing, proffering rather bland root vegetables and tasteless fish and meats; even the home-cooking of the more rustic retreats failed to provide in freshness what they lacked in variety. It was strange that, on islands which had fruit literally falling from the trees, life-affirming juices were in scant supply. Still, between us there was only a single episode of food poisoning. Happy days.

Australia had promised much with its legendary fusion of Western and Asian flavours, but it was probably undone by the crushing relationship between the British pound and the Aussie dollar. Although we gave ourselves double the budget of South America and triple the budget of Southeast Asia, many of the more salubrious eateries were simply out of our reach. And even when we could have invoked our Emergency Treats Fund (ETF), we simply refused to pay 25GBP for fish and chips. We may not have jobs, but we’ve still got principles.

But perhaps most tellingly, Australia was undone by New Zealand. In almost every conceivable example of gastronomy New Zealand excelled. It wasn’t just in the fabulous Michelen-starred style meal we had in Martinborough, accompanied by fabulous wine and surrounded by sun-soaked vineyards; it wasn’t just in twice or thrice weekly restaurant treats where we experienced the best-ever nachos, the greatest gourmet burgers, the most fabulous calamari and the world’s finest example of apple pie and ice cream; and it wasn’t just in the frankly phenomenal cafes – particularly in Wellington – where we devoured unparalleled pumpkin pie, sublime chocolate and cherry cake, marvellous muffins and first-rate flat whites. What brought home to us the glory of New Zealand’s larder was in the everyday sweets and snacks that punctuated our travel. Take a bow Pam’s Burger Hoops, soak up the applause Whittaker’s 72% Dark Ghana Chocolate, and start your lap of honour RJ’s Chocolate & Raspberry Licorice Bullets.

On a more serious note the South Pacific, like South America, is a region where the echoes of indigenous cultures still reverberate. We are no experts on this subject, and visitors can often be blind to what is clearly visible to residents; but we can only comment on what we witnessed. And we can only apologise if other people’s experiences are different and our remarks unwittingly cause offence.

Of the three countries Fiji has the largest proportion of indigenous people, especially in the Yasawa Islands where a great deal is being done to preserve Fijian traditions and culture. On the mainland there is a greater presence of Indo-Fijians, which is a legacy of Britain’s policy at the end of the nineteenth century of sending indentured labourers from India. There has been and there still exists tensions between these two groups but some sort of fragile harmony seems to have been established.

New Zealand’s attitude to the Maori people, its culture and its traditions, is without doubt the most progressive and enlightened that we’ve experienced on our travels. Everywhere we went in New Zealand we were exposed to the Maori way of life, its history, its people, its traditions and its culture. Whether of European or Maori descent, the vast majority of people seemed to take great pride in this vital element of the country’s history. The Te Papa Museum is probably the greatest example of this. A massive building covering four huge floors, Te Papa is the most modern and most interactive museum we’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. It houses exhibits on New Zealand’s wildlife and natural habitat, recounts the migration of Europeans to its shores, and showcases Western art and Old World artefacts. But its main purpose is to preserve and promote the rich cultural history of the Maori people. And this is a history of which all New Zealanders seem to feel part. Granted, all is not perfect between Maori communities and other parts of the population; some feel that this minority is unfairly disenfranchised while others believe they have more rights than the majority. But if ever there was an encouraging example that historical enmity can be overcome then New Zealand is surely it.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for Australia. We saw very few aborigines during our time there, and virtually none in any meaningful jobs or positions within society; what little exposure we had to aboriginal museums, galleries or any other forms of cultural representation, we had to work hard to discover; and the Australians we met spoke fleetingly of the past and seemed embarrassed or awkward when discussing the subject. Australia’s was certainly a much more brutal history than that of New Zealand’s, and perhaps the latter has had an opportunity to learn from the former’s mistakes. Whatever the reasons, the difference between the two countries in this regard is glaring.

As way of an example, let us compare New Zealand’s Te Papa with Australia’s Museum of Sydney. On the day we visited the MoS, there hung in different parts of the first floor two paintings by indigenous artist Gordon Syron. Below each were comments by the artist which included stinging criticisms of what he described as the ‘British Invasion’ and the ‘denial’ and delusion’ that has followed ever since. On the very same floor, and occupying considerably more square metres than Syron’s work, was a large exhibition on the history of surfing. This stark and jarring juxtaposition perhaps told us more about Australia than a hundred documentaries ever could.

You may be thinking that we didn’t take to Australia. You are partly right. It had a lot to live up to after we had enjoyed New Zealand so much, and perhaps it would have fared better if we had gone straight from the rollercoaster that was South America. That said, Melbourne was something of a revelation – helped in no small part by the tennis – and without doubt it is a city that would be a joy to live in, especially if that life was in South Yarra. Sydney was sabotaged somewhat by the weather; but again, inhabiting a penthouse overlooking Manly Harbour would be a wonderful way to spend one’s evenings, and the ferry a delightful means of getting to and from the office. Brisbane, too, was of a sufficient size and – dare we say – sophistication to make it more than adequate spot to set up home.

And so we will remember the South Pacific with much fondness. Fiji will always be recollected for the dark times but warm hearts of the undeveloped islands; it will also be remembered as a place where we eventually reached paradise and fell helpless but happy into the ten days that followed. Australia will always be associated with Marvellous Melbourne and nearly-marvellous Murray, as well as a Sydney which eventually yielded and offered up some of its delights; we will also never be able separate the Land of Oz from memories of our road trip up its rough and tough northeast coast, a journey made in a haze of tarmac-melting and hothouse-humid temperatures.

But our hearts will forever remain in New Zealand. And it is a beautiful twist that one of our biggest regrets may well turn out to be one of our greatest joys. For now we have a great excuse to go back and visit the South Island.

Reflections on South America

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We realise that these reflections are perhaps a touch belated, but they are supposed to be reflections and therefore some passage of time is required. As for the ‘South America’ component of the title it should be pointed out that we didn’t visit all the countries of South America, and even the countries we did visit we didn’t see all of those. So these reflections simply relate to a ragbag of recollections and the thoughts, sensations and feelings that they provoked.

It must be said from the outset that two features more than any other dominated our time in South America: soaring peaks and plummeting valleys. And they do not relate exclusively to the geography of the continent either. They are just as apt a description of our spirits during those two turbulent months.

Going on holiday to some strange and distant land can be disconcerting enough upon first arrival. But landing in Rio de Janiero and realising we had ahead of us 12 months of strangeness in strange lands was almost impossible to get our heads around. There were no precendents with which to compare. It was a truly original and overpowering sensation. Gradually, though, we became familiar with the unfamiliar, and the time it took to adjust to each new country, city or bed-for-the-night became less and less.

The shock and at times profound feeling of dislocation made us also realise that back home we had often lived life at 60 per cent. There is no shame in this. It is a natural consequence of the daily, weekly, monthly rhythmn of a regular and well-established life, a life of productive routine and reassuring cycles. But when that life is exchanged for one where new sights, sounds and sensations are presented on a near-daily basis, it can fade into monochrome and narrow to single-channel sound. Whether we were scaling Machu Picchu or laying prone in a lodge in Bolivia, everything seemed to come at us in needle-sharp high-definition, blinding technicolour and booming surround sound.

These were our overriding impressions. Now some facts.

A cast-iron constitution isn’t essential in South America but it certainly helps. Health, or rather lack of it, was another factor which dominated our experience. The main culprit was the Altiplano, the high altitude plain which dominates the border of Peru, Bolivia and Chile. Our some three weeks there – in Cusco, Puno, Bolivia’s Copacabana, La Paz, the Salt Flats and San Pedro de Atacama – took there toll, and we were able to count on one collective hand the number of days when we were both well. The causes were manifold – altitude sickness-induced headaches, stomach bugs, fevers, chills – but the effect was often the same: low immune systems and even lower spirits.

Crossing borders by plane is much easier than by land. For someone based in the UK – an island with a strange collection of countries within a country – this may come as a surprise. But believe us, if you’ve ever tried to cross the Chilean-Argentinian border by bus, and at the Andean pass, and on a public holiday, then you will know that it is not a straightforward matter.

A six-hour wait is not unusual. First you have to negotiate your way through the Chilean border control, then the Argentinian border control. There is much shrugging, screwing up of faces, monosyllabic grunts and aggressive passport stamping. Then comes the fun part of the bag search. Here a rogue banana seems to carry more censure than thirty grams of Bolvian marching powder. Some lucky souls manage to escape with little more than a salutary rummage from the official, while others have to suffer the humiliating ordeal of emptying out the entire contents of their luggage, and in full view of their fellow passangers. Suspicions seem to hang on little more than a certain shape of nose or cut of gib.

The Brazilians know how to put on a breakfast; the rest of South America does not. In Rio, Paraty and Iguazu we were treated to morning buffets that would have embarrassed a western head of state. Freshly-squeezed fruit juices, just-baked breads, several varities of cereal, cakes that were fit to grace afternoon tea at Claridges, recently-picked fruits so fresh it made us cry inexplicably, and freshly brewed teas and coffee – you name it, they put it on a table and let us have a number of runs at it.

In Peru or Bolivia, regardless of location or accommodation type, we invariably received two bread rolls with butter and jam. The bread had the same moisture content as sawdust (and roughly the same taste) and the jam hadn’t even heard of a strawberry far less been touched by one. And this was every morning. And it seemed to be the same two bread rolls. And the same butter and jam.

So to avoid disappointment don’t go to South America solely for the food. It is not a place where one finds culinary enlightenment. Granted, the steaks in Argentina are pretty damn good but that’s about it. In Peru their big boast is that they have around 40 different types of potatoes (you know the food is bland when the locals can differentiate between that many kinds of spuds). And as for Bolivia, each meal seemed to come with its own unique take on gastroenteritis. Don’t get us wrong, we had some nice meals in South America but invariably their success was due to an Italian twist or an Asian angle.

What South America may lack in food it makes up in alcohol. Chilean wine is cheap, plentiful and always eminently quaffable. Argentinian wine seemed to us to be of a remarkably high standard – and not limited exclusively to the red Malbec grape: the white Torrontes was a great discovery. And the South Americans know how to brew a fine beer. We can’t make any claim to have sampled them all, but Peru’s Cusquena comes out on top. Tesco, take note.

Architecture has a profound effect on mood. Travelling from city to city in South America brought home to us the influence architecture has on the soul. Whether at the top of a mountain, in a middle of a desert, or in the midst of a tropical rainforest nature rarely let us down. But once we stepped into a city our mood could lift or dip solely depending on how man had shaped his environment. Paraty, Cusco and Buenos Aires are just three examples where we immediately felt at home and at peace; while in Rio, Aguas Calientes and Puno we could feel our stomachs knotting at the sight of half-finished houses, corrugated iron shacks and graffiti-ridden shelters. It wasn’t the underdevelopment of these urban areas but rather the maldevelopment which so depressed us.

You may at this point be thinking that on balanace we had an awful time in South America, but you would be a long way from the truth. It was amazing. Even when it was horrendous it was amazing. Looking back, the whole seemed greater than the sum of its parts, which is impressive given that these parts included the likes of Machu Picchu, Iguazu Falls and the cosmopolitan boulevards of Buenos Aires. As an introduction to travelling, South America ticked all the boxes: it was challenging, it was dangerous (or at least we assumed it was), it was new, it was exciting, and it was memorable. Not bad for the first leg of our trip.

Days 58-60: Santiago, Dos Parte

Santiago II wasn’t quite the blockbuster sequel that it might have been. But that was fine by us. After a 22-hour bus ride back over the Andes it was reassuring to return to our Santiago apartment.

The next couple of days were spent… well… not doing very much at all. The odd museum, healthy meals (and Chilean plonk) from the local supermarket and chilling out by the rooftop pool. Not really the stuff of blogs but a welcome pause for breath.

After sixty memorable and unexpectedly emotional days our South American adventure is over. Now -which way’s New Zealand?

Days 46-48: Mendoza, In Vino Mendacium

Modern-day Mendoza is a city dominated by its seismic past. In 1861 it was all but flattened by a huge earthquake. Vowing that the tragedy should never reoccur the authorities built a city of wide boulevards and large open central spaces. Mendoza’s centre now consists of Plaza Independencia, with four smaller plazas – Chile, Espana, Italia and San Martin – a block from each corner of the main square. The theory behind this bold city planning is that in the event of another large earthquake the spacious boulevards will absorb the falling buildings and the network of plazas will provide the inhabitants with areas of refuge.

But like the safety demonstrations on a plane, one wonders if it’s more about providing comfort through an illusion of safety rather than any practical solution. An earthquake tends to wreak its havoc in the first few seconds; any thoughts of escape to manicured parks would probably be in vain. Still, it makes for a pleasant city in which to wander.

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At this point we have to make a confession. Our unplanned flirtation with Argentina has led to a guilty affair. Although it’s perhaps vulgar to reduce the attractions of a country to one or two ‘flings’, it will probably prove true that Brazil will be remembered for Ipanema Beach and Iguazu Falls, Peru for Cusco and Machu Picchu and Bolivia for the salt flats. Chile, however, doesn’t quite fit that pattern.

Don’t misunderstand us – we really like Chile. In many ways, its main attraction is the very fact it doesn’t have a main attraction. There is lots on offer from the north to the south and Chile absorbs tourists with ease.

The one thing, however, that you would perhaps associate the country with is viticulture. And this is where we have been a tad duplicitous: for despite the fact we plan to return to Chile, we’ve gone behind its back and yesterday did a high-end wine tour in Argentina! Sorry, Chile. Can you ever forgive us?

In this life, if you are going to stray from the path of righteousness you may as well have a great time doing so. We duly did: booking the best one-day tour of the Uca Valley. For you wine enthusiasts out there (and we know that there is at least one wine merchant among our readership) here’s a detailed breakdown of what was quaffed that day.

First up was the Andeluna vineyard. Here we sampled a Torrontes 2011, a Cabernet Reserva 2006 and a Pasionado 2005.

Then it was off to the Salentein Bodega. As it was now after 12pm the stakes were raised somewhat. A Sauvignon Blanc from 2011, a Pinot Noir 2009 and a Numina from the same year, were all consumed without so much as a second glance at the spittoon. Then there was the no small matter of the Primus Malbec from 2007.

After that we headed for a six-course lunch at Bodega O’Fournier where sumptuous food was matched with scandalously-good wine: a 2010 Torrontes Urban, a B Crux Sauvignon Blance from the same year, a B Crux Tempranillo from ’07 and an A Crux Malbec from 2003.

At the end of the afternoon we all got poured back into the minibus and the return trip to Mendoza proved to be a lot quieter than that morning’s journey.

It was a great day and well worth the breaking of the backpacker budget. We learned an enormous amount about Argentinian wines, although for some inexplicable reason we can’t seem to remember any of it.

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We are extending our affair with Argentina and tonight we travel to Cordoba, the country’s second largest city. Just don’t tell Chile.