Patagonia, Porteños and Pooches


We’ve had a fantastic three months in Argentina, soaking up the atmosphere in Buenos Aires and enjoying a couple of trips south. At this time of year the city looks very green with its many parks and tree-lined avenues.



Some of the trees are ancient and their branches grow so long they need help.


D5A8CF1E-FB43-4313-98A0-E17E439330B6Buenos Aires oozes culture, from classical music and art galleries to stunning street art and cumbia concerts. We’ve become regulars at El Teatro Colon.


Many performances, galleries and exhibitions are free of charge as the Ministry of Culture believes the Arts belong to everyone. In an interview with a US radio station the former minister of culture said, ‘We consider culture to be a right.’ Hear, hear!

Cafes are also an essential part of the culture here – they’re on virtually every street corner to satisfy the Argentines’ love of coffee. And it’s never just for a quick cup; they like to linger, sometimes for hours. After Argentina won its independence from Spain in the 19th century there were several waves of Italian immigrants who brought their coffee culture with them. In fact, a whopping 62% of the residents of BsAs are of Italian descent, not Spanish.

The staple Argentine breakfast is coffee and medialunas (literally ‘half moons’). These are small croissants, sensibly made of bread rather than pastry so you actually get to eat them rather than have them disintegrate all over the table.


There are more than 50 so-called Notable cafes – officially recognised historic cafes – some dating back to the 1800s. In the ‘old days’ the cafes were frequented by writers, artists, musicians and politicians who met to put the world to rights over a coffee or two. The clientele may be different now but the cafes themselves are virtually unchanged: wood panelling, brass fixtures, marble tops and tango music playing in the background.


We’ve tried a few different Notables in our time here but our favourite is still Cafe Tortoni, the oldest one in Buenos Aires. It’s an elegant and beautifully ornate place dating from 1858.


Gillian and Julia were in BsAs for just one day, en route to Antarctica, so we played tour guides

It was opened by a French immigrant and named after the Parisian cafe of the same name. When we stayed before in BsAs for six months we came here so often that both the doorman and our favourite waiter recognised Jim three years later! The cafe also has very intimate tango shows in the back salon.


The official national drink is maté, a disgusting looking and smelling (with apologies to our Argentine friends) green ‘muck-in-a-cup’. It’s a traditional South American drink, but apparently is also enjoyed in Lebanon and Syria. In Argentina, though, it’s a national obsession. It’s made by an infusion of dried leaves of yerba maté, served in a hollow gourd and drunk through a special metal straw called a bombilla. The end placed into the drink is wider with small holes to let the drink in but keep the leaves out. The locals can’t be without it, even when queueing!



Buenos Aires’ residents are known as Porteños (people of the port) because there are three ports and so many of the city’s inhabitants historically arrived by boat from Europe. The majority of Porteños now live in apartment blocks but that doesn’t stop many of them from owning a dog; there are an estimated one million dogs belonging to a population of 15 million people. The wealthier locals often employ a paseador de perros (dog walker). The profession emerged after the 2001 economic crisis when people were struggling to find new ways to make money. I’ve mentioned the dog walkers in a previous post but have only recently discovered that some are professionally trained. To earn their licence they take a four-month course covering physical education, biology and veterinary science (and, I suspect, spend many hours at the gym building up their arm muscles because of the sheer strength required to control up to 15 dogs). Dog-walkers can be fined by the police for walking more than eight at a time but officers generally turn a blind eye. This chap told us the most he’d seen in a single pack was 25!


Jim went even better on a visit to the Australian embassy one day, counting an incredible 38 in this bunch, albeit with four walkers!


Often the dog walkers are responsible for feeding, grooming and training their charges as well (which begs the question: “What do the owners do, then …?”)

We were impressed by this: a homeless man who sleeps in our local park has been very resourceful in creating a waterproof kennel for his dog.


And this mobile vet tours the dog parks looking for canine clients.


BsAs is a lot cleaner now than we remember it and with a lot less dog poo decorating the pavements, probably because poo bags and bins have appeared in the parks. (Or maybe we’re just staying in a more upmarket area!)

When we left here three years ago we kicked ourselves for not visiting Patagonia, and particularly the Perito Moreno glacier. So last month we flew south for a few days to make amends. We stayed in El Calafate, named after a Patagonian shrub.


The Calafate fruit is delicious (similar to blueberries) and legend has it that anyone who eats the Calafate berry will be certain to return to Patagonia so, with that marvellous marketing ploy in mind, we felt compelled to try some.


The enormous Lake Argentino runs alongside the town and becomes an exquisite turquoise colour at certain times of the day.


But we were here to see a glacier. The Perito Moreno glacier is in Los Glaciares, the largest national park in the country, with 47 major glaciers and many other smaller ones. It includes the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, a giant ice cap that is the third largest after Antarctica and Greenland. Due to the size of the ice cap the glaciers start at a height of only 1500m, rather than the usual 2500m in most other parts of the world, making these ones more accessible to tourists.

Then we saw the glacier, and our jaws dropped. It was even bigger than we’d imagined: 60 meters high above the lake and, at 254 sq km (98 sq miles), slightly larger than the city of Buenos Aires! Absolutely stunning.


We took a boat and spent a happy hour cruising back and forth along the face of the glacier. Every so often we would hear what sounded like cannon fire. It was in fact the glacier ‘calving’ – a great sight as the massive chunks of ice crashed into the lake. Though we were never quick enough with the camera, of course …

For the next few hours we wandered the brilliant system of walkways, taking in this wonder of nature from all angles.


The other great attraction in this part of Patagonia lies a good way north of El Calafate so we were up at the crack the next day for the three-hour drive to El Chaltén. This is actually Argentina’s newest town, having been created in 1985. Its purpose was to encourage Argentines to settle here in the hope of ending the long-lasting border dispute with Chile (Argentina and Chile are arch enemies). The town is also known as Argentina’s ‘National Trekking Capital’, and has a bit of a Wild West feel to it.


We only had the one day here so chose to do the four-hour Capri trek up through the forest in the hope of seeing the elusive Mt Fitz Roy, which is usually covered in cloud. It’s named after the captain of HMS Beagle, the boat that brought Charles Darwin to Patagonia. On a rare clear day this is what you see …


But we weren’t here on a rare clear day so this is what we saw …


It was still a fantastic trek though, with plenty of other stunning views.


On the drive back we spotted choique birds (similar to emus), guanacos (taller than llamas and spitters, like camels) and a female Patagonian fox called a zorra. [Interestingly, zorra in Spanish can also mean ‘strumpet’ – a bit unfair on this lovely creature, we thought.]


We were also lucky to see an Andean condor, the largest flying bird in the world with a wingspan of up to three metres. Its lifespan is equally impressive, with some condors making it to 70 and beyond.


So now we’re back in Buenos Aires working our way through a l-o-n-g list of last-minute things to see and do before leaving on Sunday. This includes exploring new neighbourhoods, returning to our favourite restaurants and discovering the wonderful street art the city is famous for.



This is our local library!

Our next major destination is Spain. We’d originally intended to fly but then discovered a cruise ship relocating from Buenos Aires to Barcelona. We couldn’t resist.

Buenos Aires has worked its magic again. We love the culture of the city and the passion of the Argentines. They are stoic beyond belief and their capacity to tolerate inconvenience is legendary. They also show enormous respect, patience and kindness to each other – and to us. We often hold up queues while striving to make ourselves understood but there’s never a sigh, tut or roll of the eyes. I hope I can take home at least some of their qualities.

Hasta la Wotnot
Gay and Jim






We arrived a few hours late into Buenos Aires – in the early hours of 31 December – an unpleasant hour but our friends Karina and Alejandro were still patiently waiting at the airport, and we were very pleased to see them. They immediately invited us to a party that evening at their house, so we saw in the New Year in style.


It felt great to be back in Buenos Aires, though it took a few days to acclimatise to a big city again. Cuenca, where we’d just left, is a small town in comparison, despite being the ‘third largest city in Ecuador’. There are advantages to being in a city, of course – access to subtitled movies being a big one! We’re gradually working our way through a LONG list of ones we’ve missed in the last few months. We go in the daytime at the start of the week (cheap days) along with the other pensioners. There is often someone snoring nearby …

The first shopping trip in a different country is always challenging/exciting/ frustrating. Minutes of staring at a packet thinking, ‘What IS that?’, hunting for stuff and – when finally finding it – wondering WHY the canned pineapple is with the ice cream … This time we found SEVEN shelves of dulce de leche (a type of caramelised milk) but not a bar of dark chocolate anywhere.


By the second visit, we’ve usually wised-up and buy what we find rather than what we necessarily want, which works much better.

It’s the height of summer in Buenos Aires and it’s HOT. Our favourite time to go exploring is early evening when it cools down and the dog-walkers are out in force.


While in Argentina this time we were keen to visit the Falklands (Malvinas, as the Argentines call them) and Puerto Madryn [I had family who moved there as part of the Welsh settlement to Patagonia in the 1880s]. We were lucky to find a cheap cruise from Buenos Aires that dropped into both places and also did a ‘sail-by’ (no landings) to Antarctica, plus Elephant Island of Ernest Shackleton fame. We’ve been to Antarctica before but what really appealed to us this time were the ports-of-call. Sadly, the boat developed propulsion problems and the Puerto Madryn visit was cancelled, then en-route to the Malvinas we hit a raging storm and had to miss them as well! But we enjoyed visiting the White Continent – and seeing Elephant Island was very special. And there’s always next year …


Our first stop was in Patagonia – to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world – where we excitedly boarded El Tren del Fin del Mundo (The End of the World Train). It’s a narrow-gauge train, formerly used by a prison nearby to transport inmates to the sawmill for work. It was a stunning ride through the Tierra del Fuego National Park, following the Pipo River – named after a prisoner who escaped but was found frozen to death by the river. There were other attempted escapes but none were successful because of the remote location and harsh winters.



We sailed on to Cape Horn where the weather can be extreme, but we struck lucky that particular day. The Horn is in Chile, at the southern end of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, and marks where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet. Although we’ve ‘rounded the Horn’ before, neither of us had realised that Cape Horn itself is actually on an island (Hornos Island) and that it’s possible to circumnavigate it, which we did this time.


As you’d expect there’s not much to see, not even trees because of the strong winds in this part of the world. The Chilean Navy has a small station there and nearby is an enormous sculpture, featuring a silhouette of an albatross in remembrance of the sailors who have died while attempting to round the Horn.


We did see many magnificent albatrosses though, which was encouraging.


The albatross has become a threatened species as it’s vulnerable to climate change, and a few months ago scientists in Tasmania airlifted more than 100 artificial nests to Albatross Island in Bass Strait to help with the breeding program. The birds’ natural nests on the island deteriorate quickly during the breeding season due to the wind and heavy rain; the artificial ones are much stronger, being made of mud brick and aerated concrete. So far the breeding success of the birds on the artificial nests has increased by 20%.

There was plenty to do onboard with some great entertainment and guest speakers. And despite the plummeting temperatures we couldn’t resist the outdoor cinema!


There were some interesting artworks too. I rather liked this squashed motorbike.


Then it was time to clench our stomachs in anticipation as we crossed the notorious Drake Passage to Antarctica. The rough seas in this area can make even salty sea dogs (and I’m certainly not one) a little queasy.

The unpredictable seas had made early exploration difficult and Antarctica wasn’t discovered until 1820, even though it’s only 650 miles south of Cape Horn – and Drake Passage had already been a major shipping route for 200 years (until the Panama Canal was built).


Mercifully, it was a smooth crossing so we attended a few lectures on Ernest Shackleton. We learned that as a young boy he was passionate about adventure books so it’s probably no surprise that he chose the life he did, rather than, say, become an accountant.

As well as being a buccaneering adventurer, Shackleton was a good motivator and an excellent storyteller and many people were eager to travel with him on his expeditions. He was keen to sail to Antarctica and then be the first explorer to travel by land across the continent from north to south via the South Pole. To find crew for the expedition his advertisement [supposedly] read:

Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honour and recognition in event of success.

He received five thousand applications … though perhaps the fact that WWI had just started was an additional factor. Shackleton was concerned about this, especially as some of the men who volunteered for the expedition had already signed up for war service. He questioned whether the voyage should continue but Churchill personally sent a message saying simply, ‘Proceed’. Shackleton was relieved as life at home had become a trifle difficult. He’d had an affair with an American actress that had come to light, and his brother was implicated in a fraud case, so he was looking to escape.


The expedition was a disaster in one sense. His ship Endurance became stuck in the ice, forcing Shackleton and his crew to abandon it and set off in their three lifeboats. They somehow managed to row to Elephant Island and on arrival the men – who were suffering badly from frostbite – killed an elephant seal and put their hands inside the carcass to warm up. Most of the crew stayed while Shackleton and five others set off for help in South Georgia, a fantastic feat of navigation. When they returned more than four months later, all 22 men were still alive – having survived on a diet of penguins and seals that provided just enough Vitamin C to stave off scurvy.


It’s an incredible tale of survival and we felt genuinely privileged to be sailing these same waters (though in far more comfort!) Some days the waves seemed high to us on our big ship so goodness knows what it was like for the men in their small rowing boats.

The English Antarctic explorer, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, said in 1922:
For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organisation, give me Scott; for a winter journey, give me Wilson; for a dash to the Pole and nothing else, Amundsen; and if I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time.

Once we reached the Antarctic Peninsula we hardly dared eat or sleep in case we missed icebergs and wildlife.



One day we had a fantastic few hours at Paradise Bay enjoying the minke and humpback whales cavorting around the ship.



There were some colourful characters onboard too. This chap had lugged his pipes all the way from Scotland to entertain us as we floated among the ice.


And the Russian acrobat duo were great fun. They decided to get some new promo shots done while in Antarctica. She’s very trusting …


We then headed north east to remote Elephant Island – as said, the spot where Shackleton’s men survived for over four months. It’s a grim, inhospitable place and we felt great admiration for those remarkable men a century ago.


After skirting the Falklands (just 16 kilometres away … did I mention how frustrated we were?) we sailed back along the Argentinian coast to Montevideo, capital of Uruguay and home to nearly half of the country’s population. We were a little concerned to see this ship graveyard as we disembarked …



Once off the ship we headed straight to one of our favourite museums. Andes 1972 tells the story of the Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes in, yes, 1972 – spookily, on Friday the 13th. You may have seen the movie Alive that explains how some of them survived for 72 days at way-below-zero temperatures. Of the 45 Uruguayans on board, 29 died but the survival of the other 16 people is an amazing tale of friendship, derring-do and a strong belief that somehow they would survive.


The plane had clipped a mountain peak resulting in both wings being torn off, and what remained of the aircraft landed violently then sped down a remote snow-covered valley – rather fittingly known as the ‘Valley of Tears’ – where it came to rest.


After a few days the survivors heard on their tiny radio that the rescue search had been called off, as it was believed no-one could have survived a crash in that area. Could it get any worse? Oh, yes. On Day 17 an avalanche hit them while they were sleeping in the remains of the fuselage, completely burying them and killing another eight people.

Their survival instincts kicked in and they became very creative, making bedding and clothes from the airline seat covers.


At least the severe cold helped preserve the little food they had but, after realising the world thought they were dead, the majority of the survivors (though not all) agreed to eat the flesh of their dead colleagues in order to survive. A tough and distressing decision, but one respected by most who learned their story later.

After a few futile expeditions, two brave souls were able to survive an arduous ten-day trek over the mountains to reach help in Chile, then guide an airborne rescue team back to the crash site. To this day the remaining survivors are very close friends and were a great help to museum founder, Jorg, with first-hand accounts and donations of personal items.


The story certainly caught the world’s attention. After the event, KLM made the decision to paint their planes blue so they could be spotted easily in the unlikely event of a crash in a remote snowy mountain area.

Early the next morning we were back ‘home’ in Buenos Aires, feeling very relieved not to be facing the long flights that most of the other passengers had to endure. We’d sailed over 7000 kms, frozen our tootsies off in a bid to spot penguins on ice floes, and taken the obligatory fifty-eight photos of whales just as they submerged.


Now it’s time to kick back and enjoy our last few weeks in Argentina. Pass the Malbec please …

Hasta la Wotnot

Gay and Jim





Hiking, Haircuts and Head Shrinking


Cuenca is never short on surprises: I opened our gate the other day to find these two beauties!


Our neighbour (who seems to live in the garage …) told me she milks the alpacas every day and sells her wares door-to-door from a bucket.


The Indigenous ladies around town wear these many-pleated skirts called polleras, generally made of velveteen with embroidered hems. They usually add a beautifully embroidered shirt topped off with a cardie, and either a Panama hat or, incongruously, a baseball cap.



We’re leaving Ecuador at the end of December so are busy working through our ever-growing list of Things to See and Do before we go. One of the great attractions here is the magnificent Cajas National Park, which contains hundreds of lakes and a multitude of trails through cloud forest. We hired an American expat called Louis to take us on an introductory trek and he also showed us a pilgrimage site where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared many years ago. As we huffed and puffed our way up the hills, we had time to ponder if we’d somehow strayed into the Scottish Highlands …


We’re also just back from a few days ‘holiday’ in Vilcabamba, a New Age village bursting with alternative health practitioners, about five hours south of Cuenca.


The area is known as the ‘Valley of Longevity’, as it has a reputation for many people living well beyond 100. The locals say it’s a combination of healthy diet, exercise, natural mineral water from the mountains and an environment free of contamination.


Or could it be the locally made sugarcane alcohol – guaranteed to keep germs at bay (and myths alive)? Because it turns out the legend of long life here IS a myth. A few university professors from the US came to investigate and discovered that the average age of the supposed centenarians was, in fact, only 86 – still not bad, but a wee bit shy of the 127 one chap claimed to be. Documents proved he was a ‘mere’ 91-year-old.

But, myths aside, it is still a beautiful area with some great hikes in the surrounding mountains. We stayed at the Hosteria Izhcayluma, a little way out of town, and admit to spending much of our four days in the hammock on our balcony, listening to the birds.


Cuenca’s Christmas decorations were finished while we were away and the nearby Tomebamba River looked splendid.


Christmas Eve is the Big Day here and the main event is the Pase Del Nino parade (Passage of the Child). It’s a Christian celebration with each group carrying its own statue of the infant Jesus, and combines both Catholic and Indigenous traditions.



The parade’s main attraction is a sculpture from 1823 of baby Jesus, which has been blessed by Pope John XXIII.


The Spanish introduced the tradition to Latin America nearly 500 years ago and this year a total of 10,000 participated with the whole spectacle lasting almost nine hours. It was an odd mix of sacred and profane, but a fantastic celebration.



Yes, that IS a roast chicken riding a horse

The gathering point of the parade was Parque Calderon, the main square, which was heaving with many of the estimated 100,000 spectators.


So engrossed in her ice cream she doesn’t realise she’s become part of the parade!

In the square is an impressive group of eight towering pine trees that are now more than 120 years old. The President of the time, Luis Cordero, is said to have imported the pine seeds from Chile and planted the trees himself. They surround a statue of the war hero, Abdon Calderon, after whom the park is named. In Colonial times only people with shoes were allowed to enter the park. That would probably have narrowed it down to the Spanish and a few wealthy locals.


One of the rich ladies who lived on Parque Calderon in Colonial times was very popular in town due to her habit of filling the fountain with alcohol for the locals on special occasions.


I’ve needed a haircut for a while and Cuenca is the place to go as there are so many hairdressers (peluquerias) to choose from. Eventually I found the perfect one and had no qualms about going there.


Since discovering this on one of my forays around town, it’s become my favourite statue in the city. It depicts the traditional Ecuadorian game of palo encebado, where children stand on each others’ shoulders to form a ‘ladder’ up the pole and the person at the top tries to rescue one of the objects.


For some time I’ve been fascinated by the Amazonian ritual of head-shrinking, which was prevalent around here until the 1950s. I’ve discovered some marvellous shrunken heads in the last few years, in places as far apart as Quito and Oxford. And Cuenca didn’t let me down; in the excellent Pumapungo Museum I found some gems!


There will be a new addition soon as the Vatican has just returned one of Cuenca’s shrunken heads, which was taken by a missionary nearly 100 years ago. It was given to Ecuadorian President Moreno on his recent visit to Pope Francis (I’m picturing a lively conversation when he brought it back through Customs …). The head was a war trophy of the Shuar Indigenous community, whom I visited last month (a lucky escape?) Apparently it’s extremely rare for the Vatican museums to return historical artefacts to their rightful owners; consequently they have one of the largest collections of art and archeology in the world. A quick lesson in head-shrinking for those who need to know: 1. Remove skull. 2. Boil skin. 3. Sew up eyes, nose and mouth – to trap any avenging souls inside (if it was an enemy) or to store their wisdom (if it was one of the tribe’s own elders).


During my research I picked up this quirky true tale: In 1906 a German anthropologist, Franz Bosch, visited Cuenca. He told the local Irish priest he was keen to witness a head-shrinking ceremony and he and a guide duly made several trips to the jungle. They failed to return from their final trip … Several months later the priest spotted two familiar (albeit smaller) faces at a Cuenca market. Their shrunken heads were for sale, hanging side by side, in among the jungle medicines and Indigenous crafts. (I didn’t think it could get any worse, but …) the priest bought the anthropologist’s head (a snip at $15) and next time he was in Europe delivered it to Mr and Mrs Bosch … I’m sure they were delighted.

This little piggy went to market …


… and so did Jim. I decided it was time he was spiritually cleansed. Every Tuesday and Friday the so-called ‘Chukka Chukka’ Shaman ladies gather in Cuenca’s central market and go about their business. They do a roaring trade with the locals (who must be choc-a-bloc with bad spirits). Jim’s chosen lady – the eldest, and therefore the most experienced, we figured – started by thrashing him with a bunch of herbs and grasses, before stroking him all over with a fresh egg (that mercifully didn’t break) then DID break it in a cup and read it like tea leaves. Next she filled his tummy button with some black gunge. For a finale she spat alcohol into his face – and all for a mere $4. I haven’t noticed much difference though. And, more importantly, neither has he.


And in case you’ve ever wondered how to transport a dozen chickens to market:


Many of the carvings and jewellery in Ecuador are made from the tagua nut, the seed of a palm tree that grows in tropical rainforests in South America and also known as ‘vegetable ivory’. The nuts can be highly polished and, once dried, are as hard as any animal-based ivory or bone: a totally sustainable ivory substitute – and I’m sure the elephants would be very happy about that. [In one year a tagua tree produces 20 pounds of vegetable ivory – the same amount of ivory a female elephant produces in a lifetime. And the trees don’t have to be chopped down to retrieve the nuts.] I hadn’t heard of tagua before but it’s been exported to the US and Europe for well over 100 years. Before plastic became so popular, about 20% of the buttons manufactured in the US were made of tagua. In more recent times it has also been used to make chess pieces, bagpipes and umbrella handles. Artisans make beautifully crafted pieces and I couldn’t resist buying this gorgeous hummingbird.


And so, for this year at least, our time is up in beautiful Cuenca. We’re off to Buenos Aires next and will be there, on and off, until mid-March. So here’s wishing everyone a happy and healthy 2018!

Hasta la Wotnot
Gay and Jim



Cuenca Revisited



We almost didn’t make it back to Ecuador. The visa regulations have changed since we were here a year ago and you can now be denied entry if you can’t produce a ticket out of the country. When we boarded our flight in Madrid, Jim was stopped and asked to show his onward ticket. Fortunately Travel Directors had issued him a ticket for his upcoming tour, so he was allowed through. Had they asked me (which, for some reason, they didn’t) I might still be in Spain. We had an anxious 12-hour flight wondering if I’d be turned back, but Immigration in Guayaquil showed no interest. Lesson learnt though – we will do our homework better next time.

Anyway, here we are back in beautiful Cuenca. We’ve been here for two months now and it’s proved a great place to hole up and live more normally for a while. Actually, although I’ve been here for the duration, Jim was away for a month, leading a tour group around the top of South America: French Guiana, Suriname, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, Venezuela and Colombia. His major highlight was visiting the world’s highest waterfall, the Angel Falls in Venezuela.


Cuenca is a small Colonial city up in the mountains with cobblestone streets and a largely Indigenous population, many of whom still dress in traditional clothes. At an altitude of 2500m it’s mercifully cooler than down on the coast, though – being closer to the sun – when it IS hot, it can be scorching and the UV rays are particularly dangerous. We found this handy ‘tempometer’ in our local park, which changes colour according to how hot it is and tells us whether we should have suncream and hats on (and even advises staying indoors when it’s particularly blistering.) I think these would be a good idea in Australia.


We’re staying in El Centro, the traditional historical part – a perfect location as we can walk everywhere within the Old Town. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site with some beautiful colonial architecture.



Fittingly, in among all this history, are signs that Christmas is just around the corner. Fairy lights have been strung across the river and nativity scenes have sprung up everywhere, from the enormous to matchbox size.


That’s a lot of bacofoil …


Our own nativity scene this year borders on the eclectic [and the oddly sized!] as the component parts came from a variety of 2nd-hand shops here.


Ecuador manages to be wonderfully chaotic in the most relaxed and charming way. One day we were told the annual Festival of Lights, when 7,000 lanterns are lit, would happen that evening between 6 and 8pm. ‘You mean, it starts at 6 and finishes at 8pm?’ I asked naively. ‘No, no … it will start anytime between 6 and 8 – maybe later – whenever they’re ready’. I now realise that ‘planning’ is not key here; if we come across something that’s already happening then that’s a bonus.


We went to an outdoor cumbia concert in an outlying village and were met by security guards wearing bullet-proof vests and wielding batons, so wondered what on earth we were in for. The tickets said the concert started at 8pm, which we foolishly believed. The band came on at 11pm, we danced our socks off for an hour-and-a-half, turned to leave and the lady next to us said, ‘That was only the support band … the main band’s coming on at 1am.’!

The earth actually moved for me last week. Ecuador has a major fault line along the coast and there have been 18 earthquakes in the past year – but this was the first one (ever) that I’d felt. It was the second one in a day at 5.2 mag (I somehow missed the first one) but the second was closer to the surface and the violent shaking woke me from a deep sleep. Eerie stuff. There are also three active volcanoes in the country, so never a dull moment. I rather like this volcano exhibit I found on ‘Blacksmith Street’.


We’ve enjoyed sampling the local delicacies, of course. We’ve studied this rainbow-sprinkled ‘ice cream’ sold on the square but have never seen it melting … We were intrigued, so tried some this week and discovered that it’s actually made of whipped meringue, fruit and sugar. It’s a traditional Ecuadorian treat called espumilla.


Ecuador is the world chocolate champ again. The Pacari brand won 18 awards at the World International Chocolate Competition in London recently from 2,500 samples in a blind tasting. To be fair, the Ecuadorians have been at it a long time. There’s archeological evidence that cacao beans were first harvested and consumed in Ecuador’s Amazonian region more than 5,000 years ago and traces of chocolate have been found in Ecuadorian ceramic pottery dating back to 3,300BCE.


Fresh milk is sold, unusually, in plastic bags – rather like packs of frozen peas. We call it ‘floppy milk’. Once it’s opened it won’t stay upright in the fridge, of course, so we have to be creative in storing it.


In November the city celebrated the anniversary of Independence from Spain’s rule, which morphed into a four-day holiday. Skilled crafts people came from all over South America and set up shop in stalls lining the river.


On the Day of the Dead everyone visited the cemetery and I watched entire families gathered around graves ‘sharing a meal’ with their dead relatives and chatting to them. The graveyard looked fantastic with all the fresh flowers everyone had brought.



There are certain foods that only appear in the days leading up to this holiday, including Colada Morada, a purple drink made of fruits and blue cornflower. [Traditionally it also included llama blood but I’m glad to say that custom has died out.] Also, very popular is guaguas del pan (baby-shaped bread) decorated with coloured icing. Indigenous people used to leave these at the burial site when someone died – both to mark the grave and to give the dead person something to eat. The baby I bought turned out to be a decorate-it-yourself one …


On the left, how it should look and on the right, my effort …

The best ones are found close to us in Los Hornos de la Lena (the wood-fire oven area), which has been the bread district for over five centuries. Some of the oldest traditional bakeries are still there and the bakers use long wooden spatulas, similar to pizza ones, to remove the baked bread from the oven. I’m still hunting for the bakery run by Mercedes Quinde who makes bread delicacies with fairly unusual names: palanquetas (crowbars), rodillas de Cristo (Jesús’ knees), and (Google Translate is having a problem with this one) nuns’ farts …


We’re gradually getting to grips with the Spanish language and are discovering some interesting things along the way. Today’s gem is that while we might say in English sugar instead of sh*t, the Spanish equivalent is miercoles (Wednesday) instead of mierda … Next time I hear someone yell WEDNESDAY! I’ll know why.

While Jim was away I spent a few days in the rainforest in the south of Ecuador, just me and Xavi the guide. We trekked to waterfalls, saw petroglyphs and spent a day at a remote community of Shuar (an Indigenous tribe).



A Cock of the Rock bird

The Shuar family baked our leaf-wrapped lunch over an open fire in their hut. A large scorpion scuttled across the floor just before lunch was served; the father, William, calmly scooped it up with his machete and nipped off the sting, then let the beast go.


I was fascinated by their three-eared dog.


On the way back part of the road had washed away in the rain and we ended up in the ditch. If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well …. It took a couple of hours and a lot of extra rocks under the wheels before we got out of that one.


We have another few weeks here so there will be more Cuenca tales to come but, meanwhile, Merry Christmas everyone (or Feliz Navidad as we say here!)

Hasta la Wotnot
Gay and Jim


To the Baltics and Beyond


So – a shock to the system – we had work to do! Nice work, mind you. We were invited to escort a Travel Directors’ tour group around the Baltic states, Belarus and Poland.

Our starting point however was Stockholm, capital of Sweden, which we discovered is a fairly progressive country. Men can take two months off work when their children are born and, because fathers are usually very ‘hands-on’, male public toilets are often equipped with baby-changing facilities.

Stockholm is, in fact, the self-proclaimed capital of all of Scandinavia – much to Copenhagen’s chagrin. The city has a hugely multi-cultural population, which includes people from 194 countries – prompting Swedes to ask, ‘Don’t the others like us?!’


The city’s most iconic building is the Town Hall where the annual Nobel Prize award ceremony takes place (except for the Nobel Peace prize, which is awarded in Oslo).


All eight million dark red bricks were hewn by hand…


But what I found particularly interesting was the story of the very low steps leading to the next level. Apparently the architect asked his wife to go up and down the steps all day in a ball gown until he could measure the perfect height of each step. They separated shortly afterwards …


Stockholm has some superb museums – the finest of which houses the Vasa sailing ship, which capsized and sank in the city’s harbour on its maiden voyage in 1628. It was salvaged 333 years later and was amazingly well preserved, thanks to the brackish water of the Baltic Sea.


Jim and I had enjoyed a ‘quick flip’ around Poland and the Baltic states last year, so we weren’t completely unprepared for the tour. This time we took the ferry from Stockholm to the Estonian capital, Tallinn, whose Old Town is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe. It’s a very beautiful and laid-back city considering its chequered history: founded and ruled by the Danish, followed by the Germans, Swedes and Russians.


We were surprised to find that the first Estonian pub dated back to only 1993 – until we remembered Estonia had been a Soviet Republic until 1990 when it gained independence. The pub has a frightening name, ‘Hell Hunt’, but it actually translates as ‘the Gentle Wolf’.


We crossed the border into Latvia and en route to the capital, Riga, the group enjoyed the first ‘tour surprise’: Bob-sledding! We visited the Olympic training venue, one of very few places in the world where non-athletes can hurtle down a bobsleigh track at 85kph (with a professional driver, thankfully). In summer the track is de-iced and becomes a concrete high-speed track instead, with modified wheeled bobsleighs. It was a tight squeeze getting in but that was the easy bit!


We were told to keep ourselves as rigid as possible on the way down to prevent whiplash – and 16 stomach-churning bends at high G-force proved to be the downfall of a few in the group! But most agreed it was great fun and an opportunity not to be missed.


Our guide in Riga confidently told us that the original Crocodile Dundee came from Latvia. Hard to believe, but it turns out she may be right. Arvids Blumentals, who came from a village near Riga, emigrated to Australia in 1951 – along with many other Latvians in the years after WWII – and became a well-known crocodile hunter. Finding that his name was difficult for Australians to pronounce, he became known as ‘Crocodile Harry’. He allegedly killed more than 10,000 crocs over a 13-year period before hunting was banned in Australia in 1968. What’s a Latvian crocodile hunter to do next? Being an entrepreneur, he settled in the town of Coober Pedy in South Australia and became an opal miner … and a bit of a Casanova by all accounts. The walls of his underground home are festooned with women’s underwear and the signatures of over 1,000 virgins (yeah, right) who had stayed in his home. His house has since become a tourist attraction and also featured in ‘Mad Max 3, Beyond Thunderdrome’.


Meanwhile, back in Riga …
We gawped at the gorgeous Art Nouveau buildings again, of course, but this time we spotted this 12m-tall monkey-cosmonaut statue in a park nearby. It’s the work of a Russian sculptor who wanted to pay tribute to all the animals that died in spaceflight survival tests before manned missions were attempted.


En route to Vilnius we visited the Hill of Crosses, an important site for Lithuanian believers particularly during the Soviet era as a sign of resistance to the regime.


The pile is constantly being added to and currently there are about 200,000 crosses of various sizes and materials. People get very creative:



Love the kitchen sponge!

In Vilnius we took our next unusual mode of transport: a hot-air balloon. Vilnius is one of the few European capital cities where hot-air balloons are allowed to fly over the centre – and floating over the Old Town followed by dense swathes of forest was magical.



Dalia Grybauskaite is the country’s first female president. She’s nicknamed the Iron Lady, possibly because one of her role models was Margaret Thatcher (the other was Mahatma Gandhi – a curious mix). However, it might also be because she holds a black belt in karate!

Remember the infamous mural of Putin and Trump kissing that was splashed all over social media last year? It’s been changed slightly this year to keep up with the times.


On a free afternoon Jim and I sneaked off to the Museum of Illusions. Great fun!



We weren’t sure what to expect in Belarus. It’s an independent country now but is still very Russian at heart, and 40% of the country is covered in forest. The capital, Minsk, is fairly modern (but still has some Stalinist architecture, lots of heroic statues and vast roads through the city centre, i.e. wide enough for tanks …) Locals speak Russian; only a few still speak Belorusian.


Alexander Lukashenko has been President since 1994. Normally he would have done his two terms and made way for someone else but – no – he just changed the Constitution so he could stay on ad infinitum. Some Western journalists call Belarus ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ due to the president’s authoritarian style of government. For example, Lukashenko’s son recently started high school. The 8am start didn’t suit the President’s family routine so he changed the rules. Now all schools have to start at 9am, which has caused much angst and anger throughout the country. There’s power for you.


In 1959, long before he was accused of assassinating John F. Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald defected to the USSR. The Soviets allowed him to stay but sent him to far off Minsk, where he lived and worked for two-and-a-half years before returning to the States and making a trip to Dallas. The Belorusians who knew him at that time remember him fondly and are absolutely convinced he was innocent. The KGB kept close tabs on him in Minsk – bugging his apartment and drilling a tiny peephole in his bedroom wall, which he gradually became aware of. He and a Belorusian friend scoured the apartment one day looking for ‘bugs’, but didn’t find any evidence – possibly because the friend admits he thought he was looking for insects …

The Stalin Line, similar to the Maginot Line in France, was a fortification along the Western border of the former Soviet Union started in the 1920s to protect against attacks from the West. It consisted of concrete bunkers and gun emplacements, stretching from the shores of the Black Sea almost to Finland.


Nowadays the Stalin Line is an open-air museum, built on part of the original site with restored bunkers, trenches, artillery and a huge collection of military equipment. We had a ride on a tank, fired Kalashnikovs (blanks only) and watched a full-scale battle re-enactment.



And so to Poland where, continuing our ‘war theme’ we explored the extraordinary Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s secret headquarters on the Eastern front.


Hitler’s Bunker

It was built in 1941, close to the then border of the Soviet Union. Hitler spent the last two years of WWII holed up here, along with his other high-ranking German officials such as Göring and Bormann, and this is where decisions were made about the construction of the death camps. The complex was top secret and well hidden in the Masurian forest, with extremely high security. Despite this, a ‘suitcase bomb’ assassination attempt (called Operation Valkyrie) was made here against Hitler by one of his own, but he survived the blast with only minor injuries. However, it gave him the ‘heebie jeebies’. And with the Red Army advancing rapidly, Hitler decided to abandon the complex and destroy the massive reinforced concrete bunkers. But the Nazi builders had done such a good job that no matter how much TNT they used, they could only partially destroy the bunkers.


Never ones to miss an opportunity, we piled into an old Czech military car for a ride around the complex.


After a few days in the lovely Masurian Lake District we headed to Gdansk, which is where WWII started and the fall of Communism in Central Europe began. It’s also where the famous Solidarity movement started in 1980, protecting workers’ rights. Today it’s home to a wonderful museum telling the story of ‘Solidarnosc’ and its leader, Lech Walesa.


The city’s most iconic attraction, however, is the medieval Crane – once the largest in the world. Apart from transferring cargo to ships, it was also used to raise the masts of tall ships. It’s a tread wheel crane meaning it was powered by workers walking inside the internal wheels: four men walking to raise two tonnes.


We had fun dwarf-hunting in Wroclaw. They started appearing around the city in 2005 and it’s estimated there are now over 350 of them. Under Communism, dwarves were used as the symbol of the Orange Alternative movement – an anti-Soviet resistance organisation. They staged peaceful but subversive protests by defacing Communist propaganda with paintings of mischievous gnomes.



En route to Krakow we visited Auschwitz and Birkenau. It was a sobering day, as you can imagine.



The Wieliczka Salt Mine, which we drove to in an old Communist bus, was a happier visit. Opened in the 13th century, the mine produced table salt until 2007 but commercial mining was discontinued due to flooding and salt prices dropping. The miners carved four underground chapels from the rock salt as well as many impressive statues.


St Kinga’s Chapel


And, finally, while in Poland we may have discovered the special ingredient that makes New Zealand wine so special! Thank you Helen and Douglas for spotting this!




A cheeky little number …

We’re currently holing up in Cuenca, Ecuador for a few months. For now though …

Hasta la Wotnot
Gay and Jim


Trakai Island Castle, Lithuania





Friends Reunited


After a wonderful summer of dog-sitting we set off for Annecy in eastern France for a Scottish wedding.

Lachie and Imogen, a Scottish couple we met on the Inca Trail in Peru a few years ago, had chosen the beautiful village of Talloires on the shores of Lake Annecy to get married – as Imogen had grown up there.



Before the wedding we explored the old part of Annecy town, which is very pretty.



We’ve only managed to catch up a couple of times over the last few years so felt very honoured to be invited to their wedding.


Of about 90 guests we were the only non-Scots and Jim was one of only a handful of men not wearing a kilt. Still, the Scots know how to have a good time and were very hospitable towards the token sassenachs. One of the guests asked if we’d been to a Scottish wedding before and we had to admit we hadn’t. We were a little apprehensive when she burst out laughing. It was a real hoot!


Jim and Rab hit it off immediately, even to the point of dancing together … with Rab on Jim’s back. After he’d put him down Jim was mortified to discover Rab was 78 – but a particularly enthusiastic drinking session beforehand may have helped both to keep their balance.


Talloires had been ‘discovered’ by celebrities long before we arrived. Both Brigitte Bardot and Charlie Chaplin enjoyed staying in the village in their day. We also discovered that Talloires is where Haitian dictator ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier arrived in 1986 after being given political asylum by France. He stayed there for 20 years before chancing his luck and returning home. BIG mistake. He was arrested the day after arriving in Haiti and charged with corruption and human rights abuses. Fair enough. In his previous role as President – overseeing the killing and torturing of his people – he’d enjoyed a notoriously lavish lifestyle, including a state-sponsored US$2 million wedding, while most of those who survived his dictatorship lived in poverty. He died before he could be put on trial.

After the rigours of the Scottish wedding weekend we flew to Germany to catch up with Charles and Margaret, our old pals from Perth who had temporarily exchanged their house in Australia for a large apartment in the centre of Berlin. They were in an interesting and quirky area with some great restaurants and beautiful buildings.



We hadn’t seen Charles and Margaret since last year when we all stayed in a mole catcher’s cottage in Devon! The house was formerly a Victorian threshing barn and we slept in beds made of old grain bins.


The crossed-through lines on the wall are the original Molecatcher’s tallies; not sure how long it took him to catch that many though.


But I digress. The four of us then took the train from Berlin to a village near Paris to visit Marcel and Iris again at ‘the mansion’.


Charles, Gay, Marcel, Margaret, Iris and Jim

We had a wonderful day in Auvers-sur-Oise where many 19th-century landscape artists lived, including Cezanne and Daubigny.


Most famously though, was Vincent van Gogh who was there for the last few months of his life. He moved there to be near his brother Theo who lived in Paris; they were very close and Theo supported him emotionally and financially.

According to one sculptor, this is what Vincent looked like …


Van Gogh painted prolifically during his time there: 78 pictures in 70 days. The artist trail around the village has helpfully placed a copy of each painting right on the spot where he would have been standing to paint the view.



In December 1888 he had the first of several serious breakdowns, following a major row with fellow artist Paul Gaugin and at the same time learning that his brother was getting married after a whirlwind romance. We all know what happened next, though recent research suggests he severed his whole left ear, not just the lobe. This letter written by his doctor years later was recently rediscovered, showing that ‘the ear was cut off with a razor as shown by the dotted line’.


Although bleeding profusely Vincent wrapped the ear in paper, walked to his favourite brothel and gave it to a servant girl there. It was a little misguided, I think. She promptly fainted. The girl had been badly bitten by a rabid dog earlier and was working at the brothel as a cleaner to help pay her medical bills (honestly, I’m not making this up). It’s thought Vincent offered her ‘his flesh’ in a deluded attempt to help her heal …

Eighteen months later he shot himself in the chest with a revolver and died of his injuries two days later, aged 37. As Vincent himself said, ‘I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process.’

We needed cheering up a bit after that so scooted back to Marcel’s village. Coye la Foret, (as you’d guess) is close to the forest so we had a beautiful late afternoon walk.



The following day another friend, Katherine, arrived with her family from Bath. That meant there were four of us who had met on the Trans-Siberian in 1989 (when Jim and I were en-route to live in Australia) and we hadn’t all been together in one place since, so it was a very special reunion.


Back to England, where we just had time to squeeze in our annual narrow boating trip with regular crew mates Fred, Alison, Sue and Tim, before heading back overseas.


We’d been warned by Colin, the Prophet of Doom at the boatyard, how easy it was to sink a boat in the locks by getting one end stuck on the cill, or by not closing the doors at either end of the boat so water could pour in. Then he showed us a photo to really ram it home.


We were feeling a little uneasy. Fred asked, ‘Are we sure we still want to go? We could just moor up here in the boatyard for four days …’

But, taking our lives in our hands, we set sail. The staff had seemed a little surprised by the amount of booze, which included a 55-pint keg of beer, that was deemed necessary for a four-day trip. We told them it was ballast.


As usual, great fun was had by all and the weather was kind to us – a major bonus.

The English countryside is rarely more beautiful than in early Autumn. The leaves were starting to turn and cygnets were gliding up optimistically to the boat. Sue made some new friends by feeding them freshly cut apples and grapes. A real treat.


We were rather alarmed to see an old tramp sitting on the towpath, until we realised it was actually a rather fine sculpture promoting a local art gallery …


Our final dinner, ‘hosted’ by Rear Admiral Gill, gave us the chance to dress up in our finery. Not surprisingly we got a few ‘looks’ in the local pub. A fitting end to another unforgettable voyage.


It was now time to do some work: tour-leading a trip around the Baltics for a month (not a bad job!) Details of that next time.

Hasta la Wotnot
Gay and Jim


Mad Dogs and an Englishman


The next stop on my dog-sitting odyssey around southern England was Bristol, where I spent a wonderful two weeks with Henry the crazy Red Setter. Like all Red Setters, he was completely bonkers but totally gorgeous. By way of introduction, he planted gentle wet kisses all over my face; I was totally enchanted.


We didn’t have the best weather for ‘Henry’s Hikes’ but that didn’t deter us from setting off to explore the countryside (wellies [gum boots] are a wonderful invention). Henry set a good pace across the fields and guided me along the many trails through the woods, only occasionally dashing off to chase a deer or fox (he had NO chance of catching up with them but it was good exercise for all involved).


I also explored Bristol, of course. The iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge, hovering high above the Avon Gorge, was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the great English engineer who was only 24 at the time.


This was his first ever commission but he later became a giant figure in engineering history with a prolific portfolio including the Great Western Railway, dockyards, steamships, tunnels, etc. Although construction of the bridge started in 1836, it wasn’t finished until 1864 – a few years after his death.


The SS Great Britain was another of Brunel’s ingenious engineering projects.


She was the first propeller-driven, ocean-going iron ship, and at the time (1843) was the largest ship ever built. After nine years as an ocean liner, she then carried thousands of emigrants to Australia before being converted to a cargo ship. The inside has been very authentically restored – even down to rats scampering in the kitchen cupboards.



We even had our own Isambard to show us around.


All sorts of well-known people hail from Bristol, including the artists Banksy and Damien Hirst, the Aardman creators (Peter Lord, David Sproxton and Nick Park), John Cleese, Cary Grant (real name Archie Leach!), Bop Hope, JK Rowling, Nik Kershaw, The Stig (Ben Collins) … oh, I could go on.

Sadly, I just missed this year’s famous Bristol Balloon Fiesta in August, described in one magazine as ‘a harem of hot air balloons drifting on the blue sky backdrop’. I’ll try to be there at the right time next year.


But I was there for Upfest, Europe’s largest street art and graffiti festival. Over 350 street artists were invited from around the world, including Bristol’s very own Banksy, of course.


As Banksy says, ‘People say graffiti is ugly, irresponsible and childish … but that’s only if it’s done properly.’

Bristol has a great affinity with graffiti and is in Lonely Planet’s top five cities for street art. Modern graffiti has its roots in 1970s New York, where tag artists decorated the subway trains. It was vandalism then, but GOOD street art has since become respected and legitimate art.



The paintings remain on the buildings for a year, before being painted over by artists at the next UpFest in July each year. This was my favourite:


John Lennon by Eduardo Kobra (Brazil)

Jim wasn’t invited to perform this year so he did his own thing:



One evening I was invited to join some friends at Gifford’s Circus, a small traditional family show that performs on village greens or commons. The only performing animals are horses (oh, and a lone chicken but I don’t want to give too much away).


I also had a wonderful day at the Zoo. It’s fairly small and all the animals have lots of space to play or hide, depending on their mood, so they’re happy. As a result, the zoo has an excellent breeding programme. In the 1940s health and safety rules were more lax and the zoo keepers’ children could play with the young animals out of hours (it looks much more fun than playing with Barbie dolls).


But, of course, they grow up. I was fascinated by this majestic pair.


There were even moving and growling dinosaurs lurking in the bushes.


When Jim came to visit after the World Athletics Championships the highly-strung Henry came skidding into the hallway and was startled – and then completely baffled – by this other ‘person’ he found.


All too soon it was time to hug Henry goodbye and move on to Petersfield, where Woody the ‘short-legged labrador’ was eagerly waiting. Wonderful Woody was exceptionally well behaved, obligingly lifting each paw while his harness was put on (even though he hated it), and listening carefully when we said, “NOT on the grass!” then dutifully trotting to the trees at the far end of the garden.


There were beautiful walks nearby so on went the wellies again. One evening Woody and I had a great two-hour walk across meadows, over stiles and through the woods to Buriton, the next village, and back again. I was intrigued to note that I could also have gone to the nearby villages of Didling and Cocking … but saved those for another time.


It was a wonderful summer of dog-sitting and I enjoyed seeing Tilly, Mungo, Henry and Woody so tail-waggingly and bottom-wrigglingly happy. They were all gorgeous dogs and great company – though here’s one I definitely wouldn’t choose to look after. Good grief!


Next stop, the beautiful French village of Talloires on the shores of Lake Annecy for a Scottish wedding! More on that next time. For now though,

Hasta la Wotnot
Gay and Jim