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Trip Start May 01, 2005
Trip End Mar 25, 2006

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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

After almost 11 months of travelling in perfect health, my luck finally ran out in Iquique where I arrived with a few unwanted bugs from Bolivia. A week later, after a visit to the doctor and a strange diet of boiled rice and apples, I was able to leave the hostel for the first time and even felt well enough to have a pisco sour, which I always thought was a type of urinary infection but is actually a famous Peruvian drink. The hostel dog tolerated me to the extent that he would wait until I was eating breakfast in the garden before crouching down next to me to take his morning dump, so close in fact that I discovered that dogs actually have three eyelids.

So here I am, back in Quito where I started, with less than a week left. I thought it might be useful if I provided a few tips for those inspired to follow suit and be lazy for a year, and some reminders of my trip ....

Travelling by bus ....

Forget Mastercard, never leave home without loo roll, neck-pillow, i-pod, biscuits and water, unless you're on a bus in Bolivia with no loo and very few loo-stops, when you can forget the water. I'd rather be dangerously dehydrated than face the torment of a tortured bladder for 14 hours. Never put your bag in the shelf above you - it will be nicked. Never put your bag at your feet whilst waiting to get your rucksack out from under the bus - it will be nicked. Never leave your bag on the seat during a loo-stop - it will be nicked. Check that the bus loo has running water before liberally applying soap to your hands. And write your next hostel address on a bit of paper so you don't have to get the guide book out at the bus station and so look like a right spotter.

Meeting new people ....

Smile and the world smiles with you. Er, not quite true. Smile at people in a hostel and perhaps half of them will smile back. The other half will think you want to sell them drugs or steal their stuff/boyfriend/girlfriend. And never rely on first impressions (this does not apply to Americans or Belgians). That scruffy, dreadlocked bloke with the strange facial ticks will probably end up being your new best friend and travelling companion for the next two months. Help people out who are at the end of their trip by relieving them of any unwanted objects - guide books, gadgets, novels, biscuits, loo roll.

Dorm rooms are great for meeting people, but there are drawbacks to being in such close proximity to people you've only just met, such as loud snoring, smelly feet and strange habits. A Swedish bloke in one dorm I was in scratched himself in bed, all night. At least I hope that's what he was doing. An Italian bloke in Brazil wore very loose shorts to bed and inadvertently showed us his particulars every morning. And I've been told off for talking in my sleep, once about wearing crampons to work.

Checking in to a hostel ....

Good hostels will have internet, book exchange, a kitchen and bar, and hot water. Bad hostels will have none of these things, be populated only by Americans and Belgians, have recent evidence of mosquito corpses on the walls, and nasty nylon sheets on the beds. Look closely at your fellow guests. Are they happy? Miserable? Hung-over? Still have nylon sheets stuck to their legs from the static?

When on the road, never be without ....

(a) a twin sister. Daily emails from Julia is something I could not have done without.
(b) visits from friends and relations who will bring Heat magazines and chocolate (thanks Ouise and Julia and Pauline!).
(c) obviously, loo roll.
(d) head torch, for reading in bed or those 'hunt and destroy the cockroach' moments during a power cut.
(e) masking tape, excellent for repairing jeans torn on a fence trying to get away from a dog.
(f) shit pills - an essential.
(g) clean knickers ( in case you've forgotten c. and f.).
(h) most importantly, a book.

And I've read some shockers on my travels. The most awful was probably in Sao Luis, Brazil, a terrible bodice-ripper set in 18th century London in the seedy world of gambling where the hero was called Derek. I still remember the classic line "She felt his passion jut into her stomach ..". A close second, though, is a book I found in Iquique, the autobiography of a female parole officer in America in the post-war years, when adultery was still punishable with a prison sentence. The unwed mother, the author opines, is ".. usually a solitary being who has been wandering about seeking approval or affection. Many times she is extremely plain-looking and her normal life has been marred by some skin disease, partial blindness, or some other disfiguring physical handicap. It is a rare young woman, indeed, who can care for herself and a child at the same time.". Crikey. Now I know where the Back to Basics campaign came from.

Be afraid, be very afraid of ....

- Nasty, scary stray dogs, unless you're travelling with a Norwegian called Monica who will scare them off with one look and a nifty technique in water-bottle-waving.

- Packs of British gap-year students. You will be frightened of belting one of them after 10 minutes in their company and then being sued by their rich parents.

- Couples of any nationality on their first holiday together. They will interrupt your viewing/eating/drinking pleasure by pretending to be Siamese twins which in effect they are, as they patently have half a brain each. Take bets on how long it will last and talk loudly about the high percentage of men who are unfaithful.

- Couples of any nationality on what is clearly their last holiday together. Their bickering and moodiness will remind you of you at age 14. One couple I met in Brazil were incredibly horrible to each other - " ..hurry up you lazy cow, you're always late, tick tock, tick tock, god I hate you ...". Take bets on who will belt whom first.

- Travellers who try to make you feel guilty because you're happy to sit in the hostel all day reading - "What, you mean you haven't done this trek, climbed that mountain, seen those ruins ..?", like there's a secret must-do-whilst-travelling list you forgot to pick up at Heathrow. In Bolivia, a German couple looked at me like I'd slapped a nun because I didn't want to visit the silver mines in Potosi to peer at men who work in horrific conditions until they die in agony at the age of 35.

Choosing the right clothes ....

Allegedly, clothes maketh the man. Or in my case, maketh you look like a colour-blind christian. And unless you're going to wash all your clothes by hand whilst travelling, bring everything a size bigger. Laundrettes the world round shrink clothes. I'm hoping that on my return I will see a new fashion trend for 38 year olds to dress like their 15 year old nieces in skin-tight trousers and baby-doll tee-shirts.

A few mistakes ....

- recounting my tale of the narcotics police on the bus I took from Salta, and specifically the bit about me dressed like a christian, to a girl I met in Buenos Aires who turned out to be a christian.

- having hysterics at 2am in the middle of nowhere when I thought the night-bus had gone without me after a loo-stop, only to find it was round the corner being cleaned.

- using the men's showers in a hostel in Brazil for three days until someone pointed out that I'd been getting the generic sign for men and women confused.

- asking a blind person for directions in Buenos Aires.

- getting caught in a downpour in Belem wearing trousers that I now know are see-through when wet, rushing to get back to my hostel and falling over in the middle of the street almost causing a pile-up, then tripping and skinning my knees on the kerb to get away from a yappy dog. Not one of my finest moments.

- inadvertently asking a waiter in Ecuador for a well-known sexual position when I meant to ask for seafood pasta.

- knocking a small boy over with my rucksack then knocking his mother over as I turned round to help the child up.

- legging it from a very young Irish bloke in La Paz who mistook my genuine interest in his job back home for a declaration of undying love. Even I had more facial hair than him.

- mocking girls who bring hair-straighteners with them on holiday to a girl in my dorm in Salta who then told me she'd brought hair straighteners with her.

And finally ....

So, time's almost up and after 7 countries, 55 long-distance buses, 3 boats and 9 flights, it's back to London to find a job and take advantage of all the lovely expense accounts you private-sector people have. I'm coming back with lots of new friends and the increased capacity to bore everyone rigid as I burble on about this volcano and that glacier. I cannot wait to see my family and friends again, and a huge thanks to everyone who sent me hundreds of emails to keep me going even if the buses wouldn't.

So what have I learnt, if anything, from being away? I've learnt that I like caiparinhas a lot; I've learnt that the Spanish language has lots of brilliant swear words; that too many Pringles make my lips tingle; that opening a beer at altitude can be explosive; that I love wearing helmets; that glaciers can be blue; that Bolivia makes great wine; and that travelling solo is far easier than having to get up and go to work every day. And I've done lots of first-time things too - fed marmosets in Brazil, rafted in Ecuador, climbed an active volcano in Chile, zip-lined in Patagonia, watched footy in Rio and Buenos Aires, saw dinosaur footprints in Bolivia, swung on my hammock down the Amazon .. the list goes on.

My priority now is to decide what to eat first when I get home. I can't decide between a bacon sandwich on proper white bread, or fish-fingers and peas. It's a difficult one ....
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