What do a group of Japanese tourists, a Bolivian transsexual and a group of Mormon missionaries all have in common? Yep, they all put in an appearance on this leg of our trip!
As we left you last time, we were heading out of Santa Cruz, towards Trinidad in the amazon basin, to connect with a river boat which would ferry us up and down one of the Amazon's main tributaries for a few days whilst we took in the amazing wildlife and relaxing scenery. As expected, the plane which took us to our destination was small, as in very small. So small in fact that we both had to bend double inside the fuselage which, incidentally, only had room for 19 seats. Nat nearly had to be sedated as the propellers started (no jet engines to force us into the sky here), but we figured that even if the big man upstairs wasn't looking out for us on this occasion, he would have one eye on the Mormon missionaries we had met in the airport who were also on our plane, so we may just survive by association! In fairness, the missionary boys we met (and they were boys at a mere 20 years old) were delightful. They were from the US and apparently, if your family can afford it, you tend to spend the two years after you finish school volunteering as a missionary before heading home to university. These projects go on all over the world but the 4 boys we spoke to had picked Bolivia and had lived and worked all over the country in their time there. They were all suited and booted, as you might expect, and were just lovely, polite and intelligent people to chat to. Since our plane was delayed, we had time to have quite a chat to them and, although they will never read this, we really felt we wanted to note what a positive effect they had on us. They were everything you would want your own child to be - nothing precocious or pretentious or arrogant or self-involved about them whatsoever. They had discovered a huge amount about themselves during their time in abroad and were such well-rounded, grounded individuals that, whilst we do not envisage taking up the Mormon way of life any time soon, they really have begun to undo our negative perception of both Americans (born entirely from having to listen to too many hideously self-important ones on this trip) and of those whose job it is to 'spread the word'. It was a pleasure to spend the morning with them.
Once we had landed (we will worry about surviving the homeward leg when we have to!), it was off to the boat, and this was where the fun and games really started. Firstly, no-one had told us it was a fancy dress boat…..and that the only costume approved was to dress up as a Japanese person! Yep…a tour group of 8 Japanese and us, just us, for three days. All we could do was grin at each other as we set sail over an early breakfast and, having been introduced to the group, were energetically applauded, apparently for having a name! An evening trip out to see Amazonian pink river dolphins was later the platform on which to introduce us to strap-on anti-mozzie units, enthusiastically strapped to every limb or wafted in front of many a mask-clad face, whilst a walk in the forest the next day did little other leave us in awe of the lengths these people will go to in order to avoid touching anything that might be real or natural. If you've seen South Park and have an image of Kenny ('Oh my God, they killed Kenny') in an orange anorak with just his eyes peeping out, you have some idea of the garb our travel companions saw fit to wear for the occasion. Whilst we do acknowledge that the mosquitos were the size of Tonka toys, and indeed found it necessary ourselves to gas anyone within 6 feet with DEET, coming dressed looking like you are about to carry out a full scale nuclear inspection is just too hilarious……and don't even get us started on the teeny tiny Japanese lady who caught a whopper whilst we were out piranha fishing and, lacking any control of the rod whatsoever, wafted it near her friend who nearly leapt overboard trying to avoid having the fish touch her - laugh? We nearly cried. Then, of course, there was the magic. Imagine, if you will, favourite Uncle, a little bit drunk, with a glint in his eye, wooing everyone over the Christmas dinner table with his cheeky banter, pulling out a Tupperware box full of magic tricks and proceeding to perform each and every one as badly as is possible, whilst still completing the trick. It was one of the most hilarious things we have ever seen and the Japanese loved that we loved it. They were amazing - properly heckling the magician in their midst, whose cheeky smile and winning, yet stilted, Japanese/English/Spanish banter had us all in stitches. Our prize for best heckle certainly came when one of the plastic gadgets involved in a particular trick didn't work properly, causing the trick to fall apart, and one woman pointed at it and shouted 'made in China', and was received with raucous laughter. Japanese tourists? Love 'em!
Then of course there was the transsexual waiter on the boat, about whom we still cannot work out whether he is becoming a she or she is becoming a he - a true mind boggler! All we needed was Kenneth Williams presiding over dinner or Barbara Windsor's baps let loose on deck and we truly would have had our very own Carry On film. Why would anyone not want to travel??
From Trinidad, we survived the flight in yet another tiny plane to Cochabamaba where, having arrived on a Sunday, absolutely nothing was open. Remember the UK in the early 90's when this was the same?? Literally nothing, apart from one very lovely bar, so pisco sours all round to fill the day! Cochabamba, as pretty as it looked, was only really our base for heading into Toro Toro National Park for a few days however. Having been picked up from our hotel on a Monday morning, it was 5 hours to Toro Toro village in the centre of the park, along what simply must be the longest cobbled road in the world - all 110km of it! Bumpy, stiflingly hot and with Nat battling her first bout of real travel illness (will not put you off your dinner with the details) we were very glad to arrive! Lunch was served in the local 'restaurant' (one woman's concrete-floored front room, where there was no choice of menu, just 'lunch') then all Nat could do was fall into bed for the afternoon whilst Nick ventured out to some nearby caves with a local guide. Given our experiences of caves so far on our trip, he was excited at the prospect of walking through another amazing underground world…that was until he realised there would be very little walking involved - more a mad scramble through extremely tight, wet, sand-covered rock holes in the pitch black. Given that his guide was only about 5 feet tall and weighed about 6 stones, it was hardly surprising that he was able to boldly lead the way, manoeuvring through tunnels on his haunches, which required Nick to spread-eagle himself on the floor, and shuffle commando-style through openings no higher than a very small child! Nevertheless, whilst he cannot report that he enjoyed the experience, he lived to tell the tale, did in fact see some blind fish in the caves and was happy to get back and flop on the bed with Nat, nursing his aching limbs! With Nat feeling better, the next day brought a real treat however - dinosaur footprints! Yep, real ones, preserved for over 60 million years in the rock of the surrounding area. We saw brontosaurus prints and incredibly impressive Titanosaurus (largest herbivore) prints, as well as three-toed velociraptor prints (see photos for Nick's impression of the carnivorous velociraptor!). Given we hadn't even realised such a thing existed on earth outside the realms of the fictional Jurassic Park, we were like excited children hopping from print to print! Much more amazing scenery also abounded as we enjoyed several long walks in the park, even though the altitude really did bust our lungs at times, climbing mountains in search of underwhelming marine fossils! The canyon we passed through however, was one not to miss - incredible!
From Toro Toro back to Cochabamba then, before getting on a normal sized plane to La Paz, the capital, for a few days. Sadly, we have very little to report from La Paz, as we spent our few days getting ready for the next leg of our trip, booking flights and hotels, buying walking poles for the knee-busting Inca Trail and replacing Nick's staple pair of trousers! Despite his superb patching job (his Mum would be proud) when the bum split entirely open on his old ones, they were not going to see the next nine weeks out, so replacing them was a must! We did get particularly excited however about the Lebanese restaurant we found close to our hotel. A real defining feature of our time in South America is the lack of variety with the food. With so many small communities having little to rely on, every meal tends to consist of a slab of meat accompanied by some rice and some vegetables. Whilst this is perfectly lovely, having to eat it twice a day every day for 6 weeks gets a bit much, so we were elated at the thought of hoummous, pitta, falafel and schwarma…all for the princely sum of £9.00! There was however, our first 'incident'! Whilst sitting in a Swedish café enjoying French toast and yummy hot chocolate for breakfast, Nat suddenly spied Nick punching a man in the arm who was sitting next to him! It transpired Nick had caught this man reaching to take our rucksack from near Nick's feet in the hope of scarpering with it! When Nick challenged him, the man used the classic 'I am sorry, I no speak English' excuse, but Nick was kicking up a stink (including the parting shot, 'I think you'd better just f**k off') so the man scarpered! What a hero!
From La Paz, it was back on the buses, heading for Copacabana on Lake Titicaca (along with the youth of Israel, still pissed up for the night before!). The highest lake in the world, it was yet another experience that reminded us how lucky we are to be having this opportunity to see so many of the amazing sights we have heard about or read about our whole lives. With a boat trip to Isla del Sol on the lake under our belts, starting to learn about the Inca culture we would experience in Peru, and a few cheeky ones in Copacabana's 'happy hour' it was another bus trip the next day, this time crossing the border into Peru, which plays home to the majority of Lake Titicaca. With only a couple of weeks before we start the Inca Trail, there is plenty of Peru left to play for!