Monthly Archives: June 2013

French Polynesia: Tahiti and Moorea

The long flight from South America to New Zealand can be broken up by island hopping via Easter Island and Tahiti in French Polynesia. Unbelievably, this route cost little more than the direct option, even though it allowed us to see some of the most beautiful and remote islands in the world. When planning the trip, we also thought a bit of beach lounging would be welcome after the chaos of South American cities.

When the time came after four months of solid backpacking, we were looking forward to Tahiti more than ever. I realise this is a disgusting “first world problem” but the truth is, we were starting to feel travelling fatigue, particularly in the increasingly wintry weather (i.e. “not ANOTHER historic Catholic Church/plaza/viewpoint/museum…I suppose we should really leave the hostel…go on then, let’s take a bloody photo and get it over with”). We were losing our mojo and and aching for the chance to kick back.

Although travelling gives you an unmatched sense of freedom, it rarely feels like a restful vacation: usually you’re knackered from sleeping on busses, hiking up mountains, lugging your bags around etc. Maybe it’s just us, but we both (especially Mark) feel a need to justify taking so much time away from work, family and friends and make the most of a once in a lifetime experience. It is classic “FOMO”- fear of missing out.

So Tahiti represented a hiatus; a few days of high end holiday time in the middle of months of backpacking on a budget.

Mark decided to go all out and treat me to a few nights in a five star hotel (thanks to his friend Ed for hooking us up with his Intercontinental connections).

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In hindsight it was clear what he was up to – he wanted to make sure we were in the lap of luxury so he could pop the question. Knowing how my mood is directly linked to hunger, he waited until I was in a blissful state and guaranteed to say “yes”: reclining in a hammock, digesting after stuffing myself silly at the extensive breakfast buffet on the first morning.

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No ring to show off yet; Mark proposed with a bit of costume jewellery to avoid carrying an expensive real stone in his backpack. We celebrated as is only right when in Tahiti – with a couple of luminous cocktails and a dip in an infinity pool.

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Mark with a flower behind his right ear, which means you’re attached (left ear means looking for love)…

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Oh, and later that evening we went into town to continue celebrations and happened to bump into Seb Coe and his lovely wife, who were in town for a local athletic competition. Mark was feeling bold and went up to say how brilliant the London 2012 Olympics were. Before long we were invited to join their table and our new pal Seb was getting the drinks in! Surely a good omen for our betrothal.

Actually this was one of several good signs and happy coincidences: Mark and I first met in the same week five years ago. And we discovered later that some dear friends also got engaged at the same time we did. Love was undoubtedly in the air!

My fiancé (eek!) and I are loving simply being engaged and wholeheartedly enjoying the last weeks of our travels; any wedding planning will wait until we are back to reality (sorry mum).

Another dance show, and another opportunity to be pulled up to embarrass yourself onstage. This time it was both of us!

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The days following our engagement (after we had to leave the five star hotel room, boohoo) were spent on the stunning island of Moorea, which is also a surf and dive paradise and where I completed my PADI Open Water course. Mark was pumped after a 4 metre tiger shark turned up on one of his dives! I made do with cuddling some friendly stingrays.

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You don’t need a five star hotel to take in views like this.

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Happy days indeed.

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Easter Island aka Rapa Nui

Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as it is known locally, is a peculiar place.

It is one of the most isolated places in the world; the nearest inhabited land is the tiny island of Pitcairn, around 2000km away. It is 4100km to the more populated, but still small island of Tahiti and 3700km to mainland Chile.

Locals call it “Te Pito o Te Henua” – the navel of the world. The English expression “the middle of nowhere” may be more apt, and certainly explains why the place feels strangely otherworldly.

Just to be clear, the people are not strange at all, but lovely and welcoming – here I am in the fresh flower garland given to everyone at airport arrivals.

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Behind me are the spectacular crashing waves we could see from our campsite. Mark became a bit addicted to taking pictures of waves (NB: the gnarly surf and paddleboard dudes are, sadly, not either of us)

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While Rapa Nui is officially part of Chile, it really belongs to Polynesia, a geographical area defined by an imaginary triangle between New Zealand, Hawaii and Rapa Nui itself. All of these places share common cultural traditions, such as similar traditional dances. We went along to a show one night. There were plenty of hunky men on stage…

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…and beautiful ladies…

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…and at one point, a scared looking Englishman…

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I cannot foresee a time when this photo will fail to crack me up.

Rapa Nui culture reached its peak between 800 AD -17th century, when the famous large basalt statues of anthropomorphous figures known as moai were constructed.

We got up before dawn one morning to see the moai at Ahu Tongariki gradually revealed by the rising sun.

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Perhaps more famous than the moai statues themselves is the mystery they represent; nobody knows exactly why or how they were made.

Saying that, it is widely accepted that the statues symbolise neither gods nor demons, but ancestors of the island’s different clans who really lived here.

The silent, watchful faces are not scary or menacing in the slightest despite their imposing size. They almost always face inland as if keeping a protective eye over the island’s inhabitants, as an elder would seek to look out for their young. Only one site of moai face the sea but they still watch over a village area.

These pictures were taken at Rano Raraku, the quarry site where the statues were prepared.

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The statues’ facial expressions are mild, solemn and placid – I felt an overwhelming sense of warmth and comfort when near them and couldn’t help but smile. Perhaps the joyful spirit exuded by the statues is the reason why we couldn’t resist trying a few jokey impressions…

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Other cultures commemorate their culture and ward off enemies with fierce, warlike imagery but the Rapa Nui way was to instil a sense of security via pride in the spirits of the island’s elders.

So the ancestral significance of the statues is agreed – the real enigma is the precise way that the moai statues were transported and erected. Experts debate theories involving levers, pulleys and sledges but no conclusions can be drawn.

Mark and I have no truck whatsoever with the belief some (crazy) people have that there must have been alien intervention. Puh-lease! If the monumental structures like Machu Picchu we visited earlier in our travels taught us anything, it’s that ancient peoples had ways of getting things done with manpower and hard graft that we modern softies just can’t comprehend. Anyway, like the tricks of a master conjurer, the puzzle adds to the powerful aura of the moai.

Although they vary considerably (after all, each moai echoes the characteristic features of a real person and the size relates to their clan’s perceived prestige), the average moai is 4m and 12.5 metric tons.

There are 887 moai in total, but only 288 are erected on an ahu (stone platform). 397 remain scattered around in various stages of completeness in the Rano Raraku quarry and 92 can be found outside of the quarry, forever en route to their ahu. The remainder are in fragments or part of museum collections.

The several moai that are in fragments were damaged largely as a result of the conflicts between different lineages (mainly over resources), which led to toppling of rival clans’ statues.

These conflicts from the 17th century also brought about the Tangata Manu or birdman rituals. Each year, men would compete to be the first to find the first egg of the season laid by the sooty tern aquatic bird. This was a tough challenge which involved swimming out through strong currents to the place where these birds nested, living in the wilderness for days and tracking birds before a final race back. The winner would be considered sacred for the next year.

Much of the artwork around the island shows symbols relating to the birdman rituals.

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We hiked up to the volcanic crater of Rano Kau to check out the ceremonial village of Orongo, through gorgeous fields of wildflowers.

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A friendly stray dog followed us all the way from town, waiting patiently while we puffed up steeper bits. We managed to hitch a lift in the back of a pickup truck on the way down and abandoned the poor pooch – he sprinted after the car as far as he could.

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The volcanic crater of Rano Kau:

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These are the rocks where the sooty terns lay their eggs, and where the contestants would swim as quickly as possible.

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Orongo, an important ceremonial village during the birdman rituals.

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Rapa Nui was very expensive: everything cost at least three times as much as on the mainland. We made do with meals cooked at our campsite, using provisions carried over from Santiago. One exception was the sublime ice cream from Mikafé, made with local island fruits such as goiaba, kiwi, coconut, sweet potato. The flavours changed each day so we made sure to make a daily visit!

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We happened to be in Rapa Nui during the annual marathon race. There were also half marathon, iron man and 10k races. Mark was briefly tempted to sign up for one of them but decided that running with zero training, dodgy shoes and in searing heat would not be a good idea (the marathon had to start after church, at 10.30am, so it continued during the hottest part of the day).

While we did the sensible thing of chilling with a beer near the crashing waves on race day, our new campsite pals Alistair and Kate not only ran, but both won their respective age categories.

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26.2 miles in the midday sun = madness. Told you this was a peculiar place!

Valparaíso, Chile

When people we met travelling found out we were headed towards Chile, they almost always said “you have to go to Valparaíso”. As we wound our way around South America we heard many descriptions of the coastal city. Some people spoke of its quirky beauty and energy while others lamented its pollution, decrepitude and stray dogs.

Although some people struggle to see past these negative points, the overwhelming impression we pieced together about Valparaíso was that it was not to be missed.

After the good fortune of arriving in Santiago in time for the annual Dia del Patrimonio, our luck changed and the weather was miserable most of the time we were in Valpo. This picture over the bay is in black and white, but the skies were just as grey in reality.

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On this morning it was drizzly and overcast, but not bad enough to thwart our plans to visit Pablo Neruda’s house. Neruda was a Nobel prize winning poet who had a real zest for life; his house in Valparaíso is packed full of character and fun, from the fully equipped bar where he would entertain his friends and dare them to use the exposed loo to one side, to the collections of colourful artwork and curiosities such as an antique carousel horse.

Unfortunately they are very strict about taking pictures inside the house so our camera was locked away before we entered. But do go if you can!

The next day the rainstorm worsened, insistent on forcing keen visitors inside:

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For a while we took refuge in one of the city’s markets, where we warmed up and dried out over chupe, a thick seafood stew topped with bubbling cheese.

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As you would suspect for a port city like Valpo, the seafood is stunningly fresh.

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The city has many stray cats, some of which also found shelter under the market’s roof.

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Before long we admitted defeat to the rain and trudged back to our hostel, through the steep roads which had rapidly turned into gushing waterfalls and fast flowing rivers.

Thankfully the following morning the angry skies had subsided and for our last day, we had glorious sunshine. Valparaíso was transformed and it was easy to see why it was top of so many people’s travel experiences in Chile.

We joined the “Tours 4 Tips” group for a free walking tour around the city, led by people dressed in stripy “Where’s Wally” outfits.

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We explored the main port, still busy although much less so than the former glory years:

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We learned lots about Valparaíso’s chequered history – from the heights of a globally recognised port and a bustling city full of immigrants making their way up to California to seek their fortune during the Gold Rush, to its decline after the Panama Canal provided an alternative and more convenient point of access.

Some buildings were beautiful, while others were crumbling remains of once grand structures.

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While the larger port of San Antonio up the coast now claims the lion’s share of commercial port activity, Valparaíso has become an important centre of art and culture in Chile and worldwide.

The city is decorated with vibrant colours on virtually every surface.

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Knowing our time in South America was coming to an end, we made sure to get our last fix of empanadas…

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Valparaíso does have its problems and may not be for everyone, but we certainly wished we had more time to explore the hilly neighbourhoods and infamous bar scene, or even stick around long enough to find a bare wall to decorate with our own mural… maybe a design of umbrellas to commemorate our first visit!

Santiago, Chile

Often when travelling, you arrive in a new place to be told “it’s a shame you’re here now and not last week/next month for the best festival/parade/show/season”. So it’s rather pleasing when your stay somewhere serendipitously coincides with a special event.

Mark and I happened to be in Santiago during the annual Dia del Patrimonio, a day for Chileans to celebrate their country and show national pride. Here in the capital, many buildings which are usually kept private open their doors to the public for the special occasion, and all of the museums and galleries scrap their entry fees for the day. Score!

The city was festooned with traditional dancers in colourful dress, musicians, balloons and decorations.

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The Presidential Palace drew the biggest crowds but the queue of thousands of people snaking down several blocks scared us off. Rather than spend the whole day shuffling forward in the world’s longest line, we popped into the Museo Historico Nacional on the city’s main square for a dose of Chile’s history, the art gallery Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and finally the excellent Museum of Memory and Human Rights (Museo de La Memoria y Los Derechos Humanos) which examines the brutal events during Pinochet’s military regime, 1973-1990.

All this sightseeing and culture made us hungry, so we popped into the Mercado Central for a traditional lunch of paila marina, a tasty soup of super fresh mussels and fish in broth.

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This was actually our second time in Santiago; some weeks before we had just 24 hours in the city on the way from Patagonia to Mendoza. That time we discovered a couple of gems which we made sure to revisit, such as Bar Nacional.

If I lived in Santiago I would be a regular; it’s an honest, no frills place which feels like a proper “caff” of the kind which is becoming increasingly rare in London. Bar Nacional is a sound choice at any time of day – as well as fresh juices, coffee and hearty set menus, they have a fully stocked bar. This is a perfect place to enjoy Chilean classics like pastel de choclo and was our choice of venue to watch the Champions League final along with locals.

Emporio La Rosa has very good ice cream indeed, in many tempting flavours like raspberry & mint or bitter chocolate & orange or local honey.

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Mark and I almost fell out after he thought it would be funny to snatch my ice cream and run away down the street with it. He knows that a surefire way to push my buttons is to get between me and food. This stunt still makes him chuckle; I am not amused. As revenge, I am posting a picture of Mark’s attempt to grow a “travelling beard”:

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It was hot and sunny on our first visit to Santiago, so the views from the top of Cerro Santa Lucia were pretty good. Apparently the best time to climb up there is just after it has rained, as Santiago’s thick smog gets washed away and the Andes are more visible in the distance.

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For us, the peaks were just about visible. I was keen to return to ground level so I could forget about how much pollution we were breathing in!

A drink enjoyed all over Santiago and throughout Chile is mote con huesillos, a combination of cracked wheat or maize kern and dried peaches cooked in sugared, spiced water until plump and rehydrated. Quite a pleasant thing for a light breakfast or quick snack.

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Another stroke of luck was that our second visit to Santiago happened to coincide with the birthday of a new friend we had met months earlier in Buenos Aires. Toby is an Aussie living in Santiago and fittingly, he chose a proper pub serving fish & chips for his party. Many happy returns again Toby and thank you for showing us what a great, liveable city Santiago is!

What we will miss about South America…and what we won’t

I’m writing this from Rapa Nui aka Easter Island, one of the most remote places on Earth: the nearest inhabited land is over 2000 km away. The island is beautiful, magical and peculiar but as you can imagine, the Internet connection sucks. It can just about manage to chug away with anything text-based but anything involving an image, forget it.

So because we can’t upload our pictures from Santiago and Valpairiso in mainland Chile, and because Easter Island will be our final stop in South America, Mark and I got thinking about some of the things we will miss from this magnificent continent. Which inevitably led to a list of things we will be happy to leave behind!

Things we will miss about South America:

  • The incredible landscapes
  • Markets, particularly the amazing set meal deals there
  • Delicious, buttery avocados: big ones, small ones, some as big as your head
  • The abundance of awesome fruit. No tomato grows on a tree in England!
  • Swimming with sea lions
  • The diversity of people and cultures
  • The pride with which (particularly the Andean) people maintain their heritage
  • Steak
  • Successfully communicating in Spanish (satisfying, but rare)
  • Friendly people genuinely trying to help you out
  • Vendors selling useful things on buses, trains etc – wish people would sell water, mints, tissues pens etc on the tube in London
  • Habits we could easily adopt: chewing coca leaves and drinking mate

Things we will not miss about South America:

  • Stray dogs, everywhere
  • Having to constantly watch your step to avoid filth from stray dogs – we say “mind the poo!” dozens of times a day
  • Long bus journeys. Our record is 28 hours. A six hour journey is nothing to us now
  • Washing in cold water – Mark says shaving without hot water is particularly difficult
  • People being blasé about littering – for every person who is passionate about conservation and ecotourism, there are ten who throw their rubbish on the street, out of bus windows etc
  • Trying to speak Spanish and accidentally coming out with French
  • Having to carry toilet paper at all times
  • Not being able to flush toilet paper, but having to deposit it in a skanky plastic bin filled with other people’s soiled tissue
  • The coffee – considering how much great coffee is grown in South America, it’s a shame they export most of it and just serve crappy instant Nescafé as standard
  • Dodgy Internet connection!

Of course this is just a bit of fun, we have had the time of our lives in the four short months we have explored this continent. We have seen so much but are acutely aware that there is so much more to experience. Hopefully one day we will.

Anything we’ve missed out?