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The art of being lost

a travel blog by steve_stamp

This blog will hopefully capture some of the most interesting sights, stories and sketches as we wander the Earth in a state of linguistic paralysis and general confusion.

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Ko Tao

Ko Tao, Thailand

The next day was the wettest yet but fortunately we had arranged to spend it travelling across the country from one coast to the other - I say fortunately, actually the wild wet weather meant that our (7 hour) ferry crossing would be rough at best - possibly cancelled. With word that the ferry would be running as usual we took travel sickness tablets and boarded the small boat, lined up like sardines and smelling worse. 7 hours and a suprisingly good sleep later we woke up in Ko Tao. My favourite island in Thailand.

We chose to stay on one of the busier beaches - the white sandy stretch made only the more appealing by the picturesque bungalows and bars with beanbags and low tables that line the shores. I suddenly understood the "Beach Bars" at Big Chill. At night the relaxed pace of the island remained intact - the now familiar site of Thai guys juggling fire on the beach was best viewed from a beanbag with a beer, and later the ravers congregated at one beach bar to dance the night away while the majority of the island slept in preparation for their early morning scuba dives.

Annoyingly, we didn't have enough time to do a scuba course (the full moon party being only a few days away) so we went all out on the first night, downing beers and cocktails before moving onto the devastating buckets - amnesia and shamelessness in liquid form. I woke up lying outside the room I was sharing with Seapa (who had the key) using the tie dyed t-shirts, which we had bought especially for the full moon party, as pillows. Seapa only discovered me after driving around the island for an hour on the back of a drunk Dutch guy's moped. We met this guy, whose name is Tim, on the ferry and found him difficult to shake off - his knack for popping up in random places would become almost absurd.

We spent a very relaxed few days there, renting a quad bike for a tour of the island (didn't take long) which ended at a pool bar, aptly named "Pool Bar", which had a small pool overlooking the beautiful, quiet bay. I was slightly devastated about the missed scuba opportunity (every resort in Koh Tao is a diving school so it was difficult to forget...) - in order to satisfy my urge for marine expoloration (I just wanted to see a turtle basically) we booked a day snorkelling at the various dive sites around the island.

We were told that we could even see sharks, which was enough to convince Seapa that a day at home with his bag of weed was a better option, but at the first site I jumped in eagerly, wanting as much time in the water as possible to maximise my chances of seeing something amazing. I didn't have to wait long. I'd been looking at a card on the boat which identified various species of local fish and had admitted that I was not a big fan of barracuda (too many nature documentaries) - so it seemed slightly ironic that while the others were still donning their flippers and masks I found myself alone behind the boat and face to face with two of them, floating motionless just beneath the surface.

I froze and waited for them to move which they eventually did but as I turned around to relay my encounter to the boat I noticed another one behind me! They were everywhere! I soon got used to these harmless silver streaks and began focusing my attention on the hunt for turtles and sharks. I had been in the water for about two minutes when from the murky shallows, where the dead coral creates a sinister landscape, emerged a large Blacktip Reef Shark which I recognised from the card on the boat! I swam gently behind it, my instincts of self- preservation telling my that aggressively swimming after a shark was probably a bad idea, and gestured to Kaleem to come and see it. He didn't. Within a few moments it had disappeared out into the depths.

The rest of the day was spent in a fruitless search for turtles (sadly Koh Tao, meaning Turtle Island, now has very few turtles as their nesting areas have been turned into the aforementioned bungalows and bars) and studying the spectacular coral reefs. We limped back home exhausted, Josh with a cut on his foot from climbing up the boat after our strange captain decided to abandon us in the water with no ladder to get out and Kaleem and I sunburnt spectacularly on our backs. After almost 5 weeks travelling I am white on one side and pink as a glowstick on the other.

We spent the last night playing the dice drinking game we had learnt in China and dancing until trance music replaced any intelligable sounds from the beach bar speaker system. We would surely have our fill of that at the next stop - the full moon party at Kho Phangan.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on May 12, 2009 from Ko Tao, Thailand
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Sunburn, Shark, Snorkelling and Beanbags

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Full Moon Party

Ko Phangan, Thailand

We arrived at Ko Phangan tired and slightly confused - increasingly so after seeing our dorm which was a room full of Thai children playing Nintendo Wii on a load of hard bamboo sofas (our beds, we were told). We were assured that in a few hours the dorm would be made up and sure enough we returned later to find the place transformed from a youth centre/arcade to a more familiar dorm of bunkbeds and bulky backpacks. The bamboo bunks (which were the sofas piled one on top of the other) were an interesting touch, the novelty of which wore off almost immediately.

Marky Mark (aka Josh) and I decided that this was to be our final party on Thailand's southern islands, which had, in spite of their paradise beaches, become slightly repetitive in their offerings, and immediately bought tickets to Chiang Mai where we hoped to see a different side to Thailand. Kaleem and Seapa opted for less travelling and more beaches and although they were not entirely happy to be deprived of their parent figures it was agreed that it was better for us all to get what we wanted out of the last week.

With our plans booked and paid for all that was left was to hit the full moon party hard. There were lots of warnings about possessions being stolen and as my camera had chosen this moment to stop functioning altogether I decided to leave it in the hostel and hope for the best - theft insurance. After kitting ourselves out in our tie dyed tshirts, luminous body paint and wooden bead necklaces (when in Rome...) we made our way to the beach, stopping on the way so that the local police could give us a little cuddle.

The easiest way to describe the party is a festival on a beach. Stalls selling buckets scream at passers by - each with their own innovative sales pitch ("Fuck Bucket" was my favourite) while the bars blast music out to sea. Everywhere thousands of people dance, drink, shout, fall over, sleep. As usual we befriended people by making fools of ourselves (pretending to be on drugs, challenging the most hardcore ravers to dance-offs, etc) and danced the night away in beer fuelled bliss. We bumped into a few familiar faces from Phi Phi and Ko Tao including Tim who, in fact, we had seen in a restaurant within five minutes of arriving (I don't know how he does it) and had some funny drunken reunions.

But beer and buckets can only take you so far and by 5am, like many others, we were feeling fatigued and in need of a lift. At the far end of the beach, where it was more quiet and the sand was littered with bodies (lying down for one reason or another, ahem) we found what we needed. Food.

We all know that drunk people are not the most discerning culinary enthusiasts - as far as I'm concerned a KFC at 3am takes some beating. However, on this occasion we found something that even the Colonel himself could not have outdone. A huge fish straight off a barbeque at 5am IS the most delicious thing ever. Revitalised by this wonderful, and slightly surreal, food, we headed back into the heart of the party and didn't stop dancing until well after the sun had come up.

As it rose, the sleeping masses rose like zombies from the sand and in the light of day the glowing wristbands and bodypaint (worn by blinking, squinting wrecks whose faces expressed something in between anger and confusion) became amusingly out of place. We eventually headed back to our bamboo youth centre and managed three hours of sleep before being woken up by the usual communal commotion.

After a day of recovery, playing Call of Duty on the Wii and looking around the shops, we boarded the ferry back to the mainland and bid a hurried farewell to Seapa and Kaleem as we were gestured immediately onto a coach continuing our journey. This time heading north.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on May 12, 2009 from Ko Phangan, Thailand
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Bamboo, FullMoonParty and YouthCentre

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Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai, Thailand

The train up to Chaing Mai was very different to the sleeper trains we were used to and after 2 hours I could tell it wasn't going to be fun. It resembled a tram - uncomfortably upright seats, only a few carriages and a clear view of the endless track in front of us. After 5 hours I felt the unwelcome sensation of numb bum setting in. After 7 hours I was trying to sleep by resting my head on the hard plastic of the seat in front. After 12 hours we were supposed to be at Chiang Mai. 14 hours after we'd left Bangkok the tram continued to groan along. We were all aching and hungry to the point of irritation, which we barely suppressed. Worst of all, it was Josh's birthday.

The highlight of this journey was a small Thai girl, around two or three years old who was singing to her mum. For some unknown reason she sung happy birthday, which I felt, in my state of cabin feverish delirium, to be the most beautiful coincidence imaginable and it even raised a small smile and a nod of acknowledgment from Josh. We arrived just before 11pm (we left at 8.30am) and after relieving ourselves of our bags at our cheap and ridiculously nice hostel, we went out in search of all the food, drink and nightlife that we had fantasised about so extensively on the train.

We ate two main courses each and, unable to walk, asked a tuctuc driver to take us to a lively nightspot. As far as tuctucs are concerned this is pretty much the stupidest thing you can do and we found ourselves driven out to a horrific club at the edge of town where we were greeted by a collection of young girls and extortionate drink prices. We left and, somewhat disheartened, headed back to the hostel where we hoped to at least find a bar with some cheap beer (ideally a mojito for Josh as he had become slightly obsessed). This time we got lucky.

A BUCKET of mojito and a few beers later we found ourselves playing pool on a fantastically worn out and lopsided pool table for 100baht per game (to put that into perspective, a pad thai is 25baht and a beer is 50baht) with a group of really friendly Thai guys. They told us they were the house band and we promised to return on the next night at a more reasonable hour. We left drunk and feeling that we'd successfully redeemed the evenings previous failings. After a drunken leap into the pool from our 2nd story balcony (which Josh recorded but has not posted due to it's considerable coverage of my genitals) we had a long and luxurious sleep.

The next day we wandered into a nearby temple and did of bit of life admin. In spite of my best efforts my broken camera was not stolen at Ko Phangan so I decided to see if it could be repaired. I found a man who agreed to fix it for 1500baht which was a lot cheaper than buying a new one but I managed to get him down to 1000baht anyway by explaining that I was a traveler and this would mean sacrificing an almost incalculable amount of pad thais (I may have used slightly more Tarzan-esque language).

Speaking of Tarzan, Chiang Mai is famous for it's proximity to jungles of the North and we signed up immediately for a 3 day trek which would involve elephant riding, bamboo rafting, and staying a night in a village with mountain folk. Happily my camera was fixed and fully functioning by the end of the day (which was lucky because we left the next morning) and, again in my best Tarzan accent, I thanked the indifferent man in the shop with the emotion and enthusiasm you would expect of someone thanking a fireman who has just carried their children from a burning building.

True to our promise of the previous night, we returned to the bar that evening where our friends were already mid set. When we walked in the singer, whose name - like most - eludes me, spotted us and with the packed bar eagerly waiting for the next song, made a point of having a little catch up. He even remembered my name, shame on me. I have to say that the warmth and genuine friendliness of the Thai people are the things I will miss most about Thailand. All the way from north to south, they really are the nicest of people.

We spent the evening listening to our friends playing covers of popular indie bands including Kings of Leon, The White Stripes and, best of all, The Arctic Monkeys - which provided the rare opportunity to see a Thai man singing in a Northern accent. With our trek bags packed and ready to go, we got our heads down for a decent nights sleep.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on May 18, 2009 from Chiang Mai, Thailand
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
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I'm a Jungle Man, That's What I Am

Chiang Mai, Thailand

There is no good time to get diahorrea but the morning which marks the start of a three day jungle trek is definitely one of the least desirable. However, by the time we had driven up north to the National Park I was back to normal; we stopped at a huge staircase and at the top we found a massive golden Buddha and panoramic views of the jungle which we were about to delve into.

We had stopped at a shop along the way and in the excitement I had bought not only a cap with flaps but a camoflage t-shirt. I was ready for the jungle! Except I wasn't. Before long we were trekking through woody jungle, climbing over fallen trees and streams as required and even being attacked by a swarm of MASSIVE wasps which stung me three times! This was not what the pictures on the leaflet looked like! I thought we would be happily marching along a nice wide and well trodden path to a big rushing waterfall where we would all smile and splash around and take photos. Well, actually that came later.

We arrived at our camp tired and with burning, stabbing pains from bleeding wasp stings and were shown a waterfall which would be our shower. This was a lot of fun, the strong current taking one particularly adventurous northern lad on an inadvertent tour downstream while we all looked like a bunch of shivering twats auditioning for a Timotei advert. That night we were cooked a delicious feast of local food before sinking a Changs around the campfire and talking about the days adventures.

Non stop rain throughout the night meant that day two was inevitably going to be a challenge, particularly for those who had not invested in appropriate footwear. Obviously I had been organised enough to buy a nice sturdy pair of walking boots back in England; However, upon packing I realised there was no room for them in my bag and so it was that while my boots sat neglected in the quiet town of Lewes, I found myself scrambling up muddy banks in the Thai jungle - treading paths which due to the unfalteringly precipitous climate had become more like streams - in my trusty Converse All Stars.

The warm rain fell all morning and created a wet, misty jungle which was even more exciting and visually impressive than the day before. I was really enjoying the walk although it was not easy. We would trudge high into the hills and then skid back down again on the slippery paths. The hardest part was staying on your feet and despite my complete lack of grip I was one of the few who managed to avoid spectacular and hilarious slides down the hillsides. We left a trail of uprooted trees and there were skidmarks all round by the time we made it to our camp. We were to stay with a very friendly and sociable hill tribe, who I really enjoyed meeting.

I can not create an account of this trek withoutmentioning our two guides - a pair of brothers who were both (bizarrely) called Noi. Although I believe one was spelt Noy and had a slightly different intonation that only Thai people can hear. The eldest of the pair, Noy, was (and I will be careful to use politically correct language here in order to preserve my job) a midget (I lied) who had a very limited grasp of English but a great sense of humour. He frequently challenged the more boisterous members of the group to Mai Thai fights and encouraged drinking and smoking by setting an impressive example. He came to be known as Rambo and will probably be the part of the trip that most people will look back upon with the most fondness. The younger (but slightly less vertically challenged) Noi spoke excellent English, was well informed and spoke to me at length about his life in Chiang Mai and the positive impacts which he felt the tourist industry could bring to these remote mountain areas.

The final day was, on paper, to be the most exciting although I had a feeling that elephant trekking and bamboo rafting would be a bit of an anti-climax after such an amazing experience clambering through the jungle. It was actually better than I had imagined - our small circuit gave us enough time on the enourmous banana guzzling elephant and I was even afforded the privelage of climbing out of the litle seat on it's back and sitting on his rough prickly neck. Our guide was a twenty-four year old elephant trekking veteran andtook us swerving off away from the others for some off road Jungle Book style trampling. I sang the song accoringly. After 20 minutes , six bags of bananas and a short but worrying dip in the river, we were helped off and driven down to the bamboo rafts.

The group was divided into threes and fours and, each with their own captain, we raced down the river which after all the rain was high and fast enough to warrant life jackets. We were given a long pieve of bamboo which I assumed was to steer the boat and attack the other rafts - it was a good laugh. We were driven back to the hotel soggy and in need of a decent bed. Ot felt like we'd been gone a week and I found myself referring to the hostel as home- which freaked me out.

We'd met a couple during the trek (both attractive girls, much to the enjoyment of the northern lads although I had barely noticed) and when we got back we decided to visit the reggae bars one last time. We left the next day, exchanging sad farewells with the girls while we left Tim sleeping. We were actually glad to be leaving Tim who, after almost 5 days, was beginning to grate. On the plus side we did have a lot of fun mocking his white linen trousers and I can now do a very convincing impression of a socially ignorant Dutch guy.

We passed as uneventful a night as you can hope to have in Bangkok, this time staying on Koh San Road. It was better than where we had stayed before- we had a pool on our roof and I was given the opportunity to have dreadlock hair extensions - but I maintain is a charmless city and a mecca only to prostitutes and perverts. The next day we escaped to Sydney.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on May 31, 2009 from Chiang Mai, Thailand
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Elephants, Jungle, Bamboo and Wasps

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Soggy in Sydney

Sydney, Australia

Sydney was wet and windy when we arrived but neither the adverse weather conditions nor the fact that I had only managed half an hour sleep and consequently felt like my brain was functioning on an even more basic level than usual would stop me from exploring this city. We only had three days to take in as much of Australia as possible so when we stumbled across the Australia Museum just a few blocks from our hostel we wandered in happily.

We were given a brief but informative education in the struggles of the Aborigines, the spectacular array of deadly animals that Australia has to offer (they were kind enough to break them up into groups: "Things that will kill you in the sea", "Things that will kill you in your garden", "Things that will kill you for going anywhere near them" and so on), dinosaurs, woolly mammoths, and various other Australian inhabitants past or present. I wandered from exhibit to exhibit trying to keep myself awake and dreaming up elaborate deaths for the hundreds of schoolchildren who ran around the museum screaming like banshees.

We stopped in Chinatown for a familiar fried rice dish (I later wondered why we did that) and eventually found ourselves at Darling Harbour where we wanted to visit the aquarium. The entrance fee was excessive even for Sydney so we decided to go somewhere else. Maybe it was the tiredness but our next move seemed to be even more ridiculous than looking for a Chinese meal after 2 months in Asia. We went, instead, to the casino. To be fair our losses were minimal, we played a couple of $1 machines, not daring to make the bold saunter over to the card tables. We did quietly sneak up to them though, and spent a fascinating half hour or so watching players throw away hundreds of pounds at a time!

I'm not joking, there were tables in this casino, quite a few of them and all full up, where each game cost a hundred quid! Every now and then a player would be graced with an exciting but altogether inadequate reward for their persistence. It was crazy! And for some reason they were all asian. I assumed this was because asian businessmen went there to waste a bit of their ridiculous salary but the people in there were not businessmen. Many looked younger than me and almost as shabby. A few days after this I overheard a waitress explaining the logic of her gambling addiction. I drew my pad like a cowboy in a showdown and scribbled her exact words:

"We work all week, take money and go to casino. Double money. If we no win, take money home."

This was my first time at such a big and fancy casino but I'm pretty sure when you lose you don't get to take your money back home with you. Anyway, by the time we left the casino it was raining hard and we marched back to the hostel in our anoraks, stopping on the way to get some food.

We found a pub where they offer a steak and a beer for a reasonable price so decided to treat ourselves. I figured it would probably be a Wetherspoons standard - a kind of grisly sliver of something that could be mistaken for beef as long as you drink the beer and ideally a few others first. I was pleasantly surprised. In fact my steak was so beautifully fat, juicy and pink in the middle that I took a photo of it. When it dawned on me that for fifteen minutes I had done nothing but dozily grunt "nice one" a few times and stare at my empty plate, I realised I probably needed to catch up on some sleep.

As often happens in these shared dorm situations, this was an impossibility. Not because we were being kept up by random foreign voices, that was the next day, but because we met a friendly group of Dutch travelers (I refrained from a demonstration of my socially ignorant Dutch guy impression) who invited us to try kangaroo, which they were having for dinner. Obviously after my steak I was not particularly hungry but there is always room for kangaroo on your first night in Oz. I recommend it to anyone.

The second and third days were to be plagued by rain. We had planned to visit Manly and see some of Sydney's beach life but this was not to be. Instead we poked around various exhibitions and tourist sites. Noticing that the rain had stopped we quickly climbed Sydney Tower (actually we were taken up in a lift but that doesn't have the same ring to it) which gave us an amazing panoramic view of the city landscape. Like Hong Kong, Sydney's position on the sea front adds to its beauty, particularly when viewed from above. From the tower we could see the Harbour Bridge and our first glimpse of the iconic Opera House.

Our second glimpse came when we visited Sydney Zoo. The zoo is placed away from the main city and to see it you have to get a ferry out the harbour, which means we got to have a good look at the Opera House as it coasted past... It was a lot smaller than I had imagined but then maybe I am just a giant. Is it me or have Magnums also become quite small? When I was young they were monstrous great ice-creams and now they seem pretty tame. Anyway, I did find myself wondering why it had taken fourteen years to build but at the same time I was quietly moved by being in the company of such a distinguished landmark.

The zoo was the best zoo I have ever seen - it's location gives it a city backdrop so everywhere you turn you find a nice view of Sydney. You can even take photos of giraffes with the Opera House in the background. And I did. For about fifteen minutes until I got a half decent one and realised Josh was long gone. The highlight of the zoo (and here I must apologise to the impressive tigers, hippos, bears, alligators and koalas) was watching and, I confess, filming two tortoises having sex. The awkward, fatigued thrusts of the male and the distant, resigned expression of the female created a scene in the otherwise very restrained reptile house which had me shaking with laughter.

We went out for a burger with a fellow Brit and Brightonian, Cara, who has been living in Sydney for the last year and showed us Newtown, a trendy district in the south of the city that she now called home. Its inhabitants reminded me very much of Brighton and parts of London - skinny jeans, vintage clothes and hats were everywhere. The burger itself also deserves a mention, not only because it was huge and delicious (Sydney seem to be particularly good at burgers, steak, pies and kebabs) but because it comes with an ingenious little cardboard device which you fold into shape and use to hold your burger as you push it into your face. Back in our part of town which, I should mention, was the red light district, we had a wander around and not being in the mood for a fight or a lapdance decided we were better off going to bed.

On our last day we visited the Art Gallery of New South Wales which was really impressive and cast an eye over the market stalls of Chinatown which weren't. With an early flight the next day we decided our last night could be no better spent than watching the new Terminator movie in the Sydney iMax. This idea ultimately failed because, unforgivably, the Sydney residents are presumed to be more interested in the new Star Trek movie (haven't they given up on those yet?!). With sheets of rain cascading down we ate a huge pizza each and, deciding that the cinema was still a good idea, found our way to a nice little art cinema which was showing Gomorrah. It wasn't the iMax, but it was still a big film. Next stop Fiji.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on May 31, 2009 from Sydney, Australia
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Rain, Museum, Casino and Kangaroo

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Fiji Time

Nandi, Fiji

The rain followed us to Fiji which was a bit of a worry because it didn't seem to me that there would be much to do in Fiji when it rained. We spent a slightly surreal night in the family home of a lady called Dee (we didn't actually get to meet Dee but her son was very welcoming) and shared a room with a chirpy German girl who told us that she had been invited to go to church tomorrow with the family. Thankfully we didn't receive the same invitation but they were kind enough to drop us off in town along the way. We were put on a bus which, we were told, would take us to Beach House. This was all uncomfortably spontaneous but we trusted their judgment and decided that seeing a bit of the "Coral Coast" before heading out to the islands couldn't be a bad thing. The drive down south was beautiful - soft mountains covered in leafy green vegetation gradually became a rocky, palm fringed coastline and the sun even came out which I was almost confused by, it had been so long.

We made ourselves comfortable at our small but well equipped resort and I made my way to the beach kitted out in shorts and shades. I climbed into a hammock and opened my book and no sooner had I done so than the sun, who I was barely getting re-acquainted with, rudely disappeared. I looked up and was reminded of that scene from Independence Day when the whole sky goes dark. Before long the palm trees were dancing excitedly and I was swinging wildly in my hammock and starting to feel a bit sick. An irritating drunk man who we'd had the misfortune to meet at Sydney and then again that morning on the bus had been trying to articulate the fact that Fiji was perfect but not perfect. I suggested "paradise with potholes" and I thought of him as minutes later the sky opened into a generous downpour.

More than anywhere else we had been, I found the Fijian people a striking race. Try and imagine a beautiful girl who looks a bit like Laurence Fishburn and you are getting there. A strong bone structure and powerful physique seem to be prevalent from birth and after one day it was clear that I was by far the most physically incapable man on the island. This is not including Josh of course, who possesses merely the illusion of physical strength but is in fact unable to swim or even go to the toilet on his own.

We had been informed the night before that our resort was none other than that which Celebrity Love Island was filmed! With this wonderfully unexpected revelation in mind we left the next day and went back up north to get ourselves on a boat to the Yasawas. We booked everything with a travel agent called Vika who, after we had been subjected to a bizarre Kava drinking ceremony on the travel agency floor (this basically involved lots of clapping and repeating random words while drinking a milky wood flavoured water), invited us to stay the night in her home! This was obviously a way for her to save money paying for our hotel but we accepted because she seemed nice and we thought it would be good experience. It was! After a slightly awkward entrance during the family's evening prayer we ate and played card with Vika's family and Tada, a Japanese student who was studying English in Fiji. Well, why not?

In the morning we took a ferry up to Nacula, one of the most northern islands of the group, and were shown to our bungalow on the beach. It really was amazing. All that stood between our bungalow and the beach were two hammocks. We were two of only five guests so that night we got to know our fellow island inhabitants and also the local rum, Bounty. They were only staying one night and the next day, after a morning spent exploring the colorful coral reefs of our coastline, we dropped them off at the ferry. The island was ours!

Josh was eager to try fishing. I can never seem to get myself beyond remotely curious when it comes to catching fish but in the spirit of our desert island lifestyle I thought it could be fun. It was - eventually. Once I had caught something. I had imagined sitting there for hours waiting for a twitch on the line which would then be followed by a scream and a panicked reeling in of what turns out to be nothing. In actual fact Josh had no sooner dipped his line in the water than he found himself tugging in a (particularly exotic looking) fish!

It took me a bit longer. On two occasions I felt my line grow heavy and a excitedly reeled in my catch. On both occasions I found that I had caught coral. I was becoming a laughing stock but after twenty minutes of persistence I was rewarded with the biggest catch of the day- a great big colourful fish which I was well chuffed with. Suddenly I turned into a fisherman and by the end of the day I had reeled in three more! It turned out to be a really rewarding trip, particularly that evening when we were served a selection of the days catch. We washed it down with Kava and rum and floated to bed happily. I should mention that we were now in the habit of going to bed at 10pm - this is when the generator shuts off and the island is plunged into complete (and rather anti-social) darkness.

We were invited the next day into the local village where an annual church event/ tourist trap was taking place. We were to meet the chief, who required a small donation before we donated another small amount to the local church. To be fair it was a very small amount and we did get to drink Kava with the chief, eat a nice meal of fish and shellfish with some strange potato things, and get a little tour of the village. The kava drinking was actually a bit awkward and it didn't help that we had been kitted out in traditional Fijian dress (a "Bula" shirt and a skirt) which I was suddenly very aware of upon seeing a group of tourists attending in their board shorts and t-shirts. Nevertheless it was unteresting to see the village and the chief - who I had secretly hoped would have a lion skin coat and millions of unlikely piercings. He was in fact disappointingly normal looking, although he did have an impressive moustache.

During another coral reef expedition I cut my toe on a rock and so spent the last afternoon making the most of "Fiji Time" (the Fijians' excuse to not do anything which I picked up very quickly) while Josh went off to explore the island with our boatman and fishing buddy, Joe. We finished the evening in our usual way, with a romantic meal for two in the empty dining room and a few games of cards with the staff before bed at ten. The next day we would be embarking on a two day journey to Santiago, Chile. The final leg of our journey - crossing South America - filled our minds with wonderful pictures and bad Spanish.

We left Nacula after a game of football involving the local boys and a hilariously flat ball. I also had a Motorcycle Diaries moment when I cleaned up and bandaged a young girl who had cut her hand quite badly - much to the appreciation of her family.I was definitely ready for America del Sud now. All there was left to do was learn Spanish pretty much from scratch on the plane using a dictionary. No problemo.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on June 1, 2009 from Nandi, Fiji
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Fishing, Fiji and Kava

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Hay alguien que hable ingles?

Santiago, Chile

Looking out of the plane window at the extensive sprawl of Santiago and the rugged mountains which surround it I was already captivated. South America is one of those places that seems very familiar even though you may have never been there and I felt immediately comfortable in our new surroundings. The first thing that happened would prove to be a stark reminder of it´s dangers.

Actually that is a bit dramatic. We weren´t held at gunpoint or bitten by a snake or anything. What happened was we walked out of customs and were led by a smart and official looking man (he even had a walkie-talkie) to a mini-bus. I had asked for a specific type of mini-bus recommended by the hostel which would get us there cheaply and we were assured that this bus was with the same company (although suspiciously it had no markings) and we were asked to pay 20,000 pesos each. This seemed like too much. I had sleepily made a note of the recommended price from the airport to the hostel but this was now in my hand luggage bag which was in my rucksack which was in the back of the bus which wanted to leave.

I was suspicious enough to go to the lengths of retrieving it and found that what I had written down was 5,000 pesos each! We were being mugged off by the very first seemingly helpful people that we had met! It was like Beijing all over again! Anyway, we grabbed our bags and found a taxi who would take us for 5,000 each - I use the word "taxi" loosely here, the guy had a car and charged people to take them places. He was friendly though, and within seconds I had completely exhausted my Spanish vocabulary and our driver had moved on to gesturing wildly and saying the same word louder and louder until I nodded, si. I immediately wished I had done a Spanish course.

We spent the next few days exploring the city, visiting the visual arts museum (which was a load of nonsense) and getting the fenicular up to the virgin Mary statue in the Parque Metropolitano. We also explored Bandero Street which is filled with vintage stores bursting with second hand American clothes. The city is not the most beautiful place we have been but the mountains offer a spectacular backdrop, particularly when you get up high, and it did have it´s charms. Beautiful old churches and intricate, colourful graffiti create an interesting juxtaposition of old and new while numerous universities buzzed with familiar groups of skateboarders, goths and emos.

Our evenings were mostly spent in the hostel where we cooked our own dinners to save money. Eating steak in order to save money seemed like slightly warped logic but I wasn´t complaining. We also had a huge pool table and, for the first time since Thailand, free internet. In an attempt to catch up on this blog, I stayed up late on night and was confused to find, fumbling my way around the pitch black dorm, that a wet patch had appeared on my bed! I sat in the dark trying to work out what it could be. A spilled drink? Maybe I had left a wet towel there earlier? Then I noticed the smell. Piss?! I reached up and felt the bottom of Josh´s matress. Although he has an alarming habit of shouting loudly in his sleep I doubted he had moved on to bed-wetting, particularly on the scale required to soak through a whole mattress. Then I remembered Bob.

Bob is one half of a duo that make up the hostel pets (the other being Sausage the dog but i didn´t think Sausage had it in him). A cat by trade, Bob is (like a lot of travelers) usually found lounging around the communal areas looking for the affection of strangers. Today, it seemed, he had been making himself very comfortable on my bed. I decided I was too tired to resolve this particular issue in the middle of the night so I simply pulled a duvet over the wet patch and slept under a wool blanket on the other side of the bed. With explore Santiago, eat steak and eggs and sleep in piss off my to do list it was time to move on.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on June 3, 2009 from Santiago, Chile
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Santiago, Taxi, Bob, Catpiss and Steak

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Lima, Peru

We´d been recommended a hostel in Miraflores, an almost separate city on the coast just outside central Lima, and from the moment we wandered into the busy bar area we were grateful for the tipoff. The hostel offered various social activities (aside from getting drunk and talking to strangers) and optional evening meals (burritos? I think so). Though Miraflores had the best nightlife, central Lima was definitely the place to be during the day. The Plaza de Armas was a spectacular centerpiece, with an impressive palace and cathedral. Outside this well maintained square the streets and buildings were less well looked after but were filled with noise and colourful stalls selling wonderfully pointless goods.

Hoping to get a better understanding of Peru´s history and culture, we ventured into the Museo de Nacion which had some interesting exhibits; we were particularly affected by a photography exhibit which captured the shocking civil war struggles between the government and revolutionary groups such as MRTA and Shining Path. What was most shocking was how recent many of these events were an d that, despite the official end of the Peruvian civil war in 1992, these groups are still active and constantly gaining support – particularly that of the poor.

The museum itself was badly designed and confusing – we spent fifteen minutes wandering staircases and finding dark empty rooms with no apparent function whatsoever. We decided, after emerging back into the actual museum, that we should probably just get out before we all became victims to the treacherous labyrinth that seemed to lurk behind the exhibits. We had also signed up for a five-a –side football match later that day and I wanted to get a few squat thrusts in beforehand. Though we ended up being comprehensively beaten we (mainly Josh) managed to put a few good moves together and we were praised on our performances. I particularly enjoyed the first ten minutes before the dizzying exhaustion kicked in.

That evening we played beer poker in the bar – this involves using beer as the stakes (ie. I´ll raise you two fingers, etc) with a maximum of ten fingers per round. The winner doesn´t drink, everyone else does. Good eh? After obliterating a couple of Americans with my very first four of a kind I was invited by a new mate of ours, Mike, to go to the casino. We´d been hanging out with Mike for a few days, as well as having the indispensable advantage of speaking fluent Spanish he was also by far the funniest guy we had met so far. Therefore, with gambling spirit and a couple of beers buzzing through me, I made my way to the casino. I was actually going to sit at a table this time.

The table which I was destined to sit at was one which I had been assured only cost 5 soles per game. This is about a pound. I was also assured that as long as you played, no matter how slowly (in my case once every couple of games), free drinks would be brought to you! And they were! We stayed until the early hours and by the time we left I had (very slowly) lost 40 soles which I thought was well worth it. It was a surreal but very enjoyable experience to sit at a table and drop the little hand gestures which indicate how you would like to play the game. The pleasure, particularly when playing for small money, is as much in being a part of the game as it is the winning. Or at least that´s what I told myself when I knocked back my eighth whiskey and coke and left with my pockets empty.

We had arranged for an overnight coach to Huancayo, a place I knew very little about although I had recently got my hands on (that is to say stolen from the hostel) a guide book so I intended to read up once we got there. Rather than simply hanging around the hostel all day we finally managed to watch the new Terminator film (which was as action packed as you could possibly have hoped for) and after a final taste of Lima´s delicious restaurant food we bid Mike and our other newly acquired friends farewell. Up until now it had been relatively easy to leave our new friends behind. Everyone is doing it. On this occasion, however, we were really disappointed not to be able to do a bit more travelling together. What we did take with us was a particularly useful expression which he taught us the first day we met him. It involves putting two fingers up to your neck and saying “NO HORA!” which – if used carefully – is a very effective way of saying ´don´t fuck me!´ His first demonstration halved our taxi fare and even got a laugh from the driver. You can understand why I liked the guy so much.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on June 9, 2009 from Lima, Peru
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Lima, Football, Casino, Terrorism, Terminator and NoHora

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High in Huancayo

Huancayo, Peru

I woke up in middle of the night. We were half way through our 8 hour coach ride and though I had managed to fall asleep reasonably quickly I was now woken up by a feeling of nausea which was impossible to ignore. I made my way to the toilet, falling over sleeping travellers as the coach swung along mountain roads and, failing to find a light switch in the toilet, spent some dark moments trying to make myself feel better. When we reached our destination all I wanted was bed.

The next morning I was awoken (after the usual unneccessarily early rustlings and suugestions of breakfast from Josh which I now ignore) by a marching band! I dragged myself up and looked around the museum-like hostel. Rugs, paintings, carvings, blankets - everything wall was covered in Peruvian artwork. Thankfully I had slept off my sickness and only now realised the cause. It was no the cerviche of the day before, we were 3271m up in the Andes! To put that into perspective Machu Picchu is only 2380m, Snowdon is 1085m, Ben Nevis is 1344m. We were stupidly high up. It was the infamous altitude sickness I had heard so much about.

We followed the band down into the town and to the local market which is supposedly the largest in Peru. Ladies in traditional dress, with big skirts, wide brimmed hats and colourful sacks hung across their backs, were everywhere and the market was filled with the usual artwork and outrageous knitwear. There wasn´t a gringo in site. The locals were friendly and clearly in high spirits, the marching band procession formed only part of the fiesta and we would later see people dancing in the Plaza de Armas and supplying beer from the backs of trucks. It was a wonderful scene.

The Mantaro Valley surrounding the town of Huancayo is the reason for the abundant artwork in the hostel and the market. There are a number of villages and each specialise in producing different goods (carving, weaving, jewellery making, etc). I wondered whether you would be evicted if you lived in the carving village and discovered a passion for weaving but I did think it was a very amiable set up and on our second day we rented bikes to go and see the villages for ourselves.

Before we left we poked around the local food market - a staggering collection of stalls trailers and blankets on the floor which were all covered in colourful and fragrant piles of exotic fruit, strange vegetables and bundles of herbs. There was also a section devoted to meat and fish where rows of freshly plucked chickens hung awkwardly by their necks, huge trout stared and giant slabs of beef waited to be hoisted home. I was reminded of the amazing food market I had seen in Shanghai´s old town. This market was larger and more organised but I find that is the disorganised parts which I liked best - they seem to have the most character.

We were given our bikes by Lucho, a Peruvian man whose passion for Huancayo and the surrounding area was particularly contagious. He gave us a series of maps and talked us through the seemingly simple route which would allow us to visit each of the main villages. I say seemingly because within minutes we were puzzling over these hand-drawn things and wondering whether the church was on our left or our right and why the park had a line through it. After a few conversations with locals starting with "Donde esta" and ending in a series of directions which we probably didn´t understand, we found ourselves on a dusty rock strewn track passing through small villages where children stared and animals wandered around casually. Soon we were pushing further into the rugged mountains, geting off every now and then to push up particularly steep sections.

We entered small mountain villages and were called into random homes by artists who carved or weaved and were pleased to demonstrate their talents and techniques. I won´t go into a detailed description of each part of our journey because I know you will probably be far more interested to hear about my fantastically bruised bum and spectacular sunburn but I will say that it was worth all the pain. The colourful locals were visibly amused by the site of two intrepid gringos (especially the bright pink one who kept rubbing his arse) and when we arrived back I was so deleriously hungry that I ate a whole guinea pig. It was like eating someones leftover chicken - all fatty skin and bones with no meat. I ate it all anyway.

If my bum had the ability to communicate I would surely have got an earful the next morning (interesting image...). Despite the abuse inflicted by the previous days adventures, I had signed up for more. This time it involved a horse... Thankfully, however, the saddle was soft sheepswool and as our horses pushed their way up the rocky slopes the surroundings and the fact I was riding a horse in the Peruvian Andes distracted me completely from any aches and pains. The views were indescribably immense and the sun shone brightly in the clear sky (I had coated my face in factor 50 in order to avoid any further embarassment).

Eventually we reached the Huaytapallana Snow Mountain where we sat in awe and ate our sandwiches. On the way down we followed a stream through the valley which soon turned into a shallow, rushing river. We splashed through this a few times, zigzagging our way through the deep valley which hung over us dramatically. By the time we got back to our taxi driver (who not only drove us up along crazy rocky mountain roads but also seemed to magically re-appear 4 hours later just as we emerged back onto the road) my legs were wet, muddy and sore and my bum... well, if my bum had had the ability to communicate it would have been actively not speaking to me.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on June 11, 2009 from Huancayo, Peru
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Horses, Sunburn, Altitude, MountainBike and Band

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Huancavelica and Pisco

Pisco, Peru

We were heading towards Pisco and broke up the journey in the quaint mountain town of Huancavelica. We chose an "auto" rather than a bus because we´d heard that the cars (an "auto" is basically a long distance taxi) take a more scenic route through the mountains. And it did - we spent three hours glued to the windows and gazing at the patchwork farmland which covered the extensive valleys spectacularly. Huancavelica is not a particularly noteworthy town and therefore attracted few tourists - indeed the charm of the town lay in the lack of tourists.

We stayed there one night and I found myself a local attraction on more than one occasion. During one amusing incident the entire giggling contents of the local girls school emptied out onto the street in front of us. I must confess that I am completely used to this by now and in fact quite enjoy my role as the local freak. I amuse myself by saying hello and conversating with as many embarrassed and giggling people as possible, I even did a few kick ups with a group of local boys who were stunned to see that my remarkable frame was capable of any form of athleticism.

Leaving my fans behind, we climbed aboard an overnight bus to Pisco. This was a rough eight hour journey, the whole bus shook with a deafening rattle and a constant exchange of passengers meant that the lights flicked on and off along with loud music. At 3am someone said something about Pisco and after asleepy and confused exchange with the driver we grabbed our things and jumped off the bus. Everything, that is, but my phrasebook which I discovered had fallen out of my pocket while I had slept. To say I was devastated was an understatement. I felt like I had left my tongue behind.

We checked into a hostel in a run down street and caught up on some sleep. Walking out the next morning I realised it was not simply a bad choice of hostel - the whole of Pisco was in a terrible state. It looked like some sort of apocalyptic nightmare - every building was in a state of disrepair, mangy looking dogs wandered between piles of rubble and bricks in the street. I was amazed that I had not heard anything about this, there was no mention in the guide but I was told that the city had suffered a devastating earthquake two years ago. We wandered around aimlessly (as we tend to do) and booked ourselves on a trip to the nearby Paracas Nature Reserve and Ballestas Islands, which are tiresomely referred to as "the poor mans Galapagos", then we headed back to our hostel and did the only thing there is to do in Pisco - waited to leave.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on June 14, 2009 from Pisco, Peru
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged MountainFreakShow and PiscoApocalypse

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