Best of 2019

THIS blog revels in its traditions, even it they are only a few years old.

And possibly top of that list is the New Year’s Day reflective post and its accompanying look back on the best of the previous year’s musical offerings – both of which will almost certainly not be posted until well after January 1.

Bucked that trend a little this year by publishing the new year address on the intended date, but the music one has had to wait a bit – partly down to a hectic few weeks on the road in South America, partly due to no power in the laptop and, to be honest, it is hot here and it all seemed like a lot of work.

Better late than never, here is an abridged version of the Travel Marmot Best of 2019 – let’s split the difference between the two posts and they are round about the right time.

It has all been a bit different this year, partly due to circumstances – been on the road for the last few months, so not had complete access to new releases or the traditional end-of-year trawl through the lists elsewhere.

Working on that, so the list at the end may earn a spot in the higher echelons or vanish without trace. Or get ignored once the new Drive-By Truckers album comes out.

And my music buying (well, downloading) was a bit different with a change of iPod leading to an increased used of Apple Music and the chance to fill in some older gaps in the collection.

It has also been a bit different music wise.

Last year’s list had a fair amount jingly-jangly guitars and female singer-songwriters (one of whom features again), but this year the top spots are taken by what John Peel described as “white boys with guitars”.

Or, to be more accurate, Irish boys with guitars.

Album of the Year: Dogrel – Fontaines DC

Not been this enthused by a new act for a while. Not everybody’s cup of tea – one person exposed to Hurricane Laughter on a playlist moaned about them shouting at her – but this is literate, passionate, powerful and catchy as any guitar music of the last few years.

And it’s just bloody good, Boys In The Better Land probably edging the song of the year title as well.

Don’t believe me? Six Music named it album of the year and come to trust them over the last few years.

And still jealous at someone seeing them twice in a week without me.

The Other Irish Album of the Year: When I Have Fears – The Murder Capital

Not as polished, not as convincing as their Irish counterparts, but there’s plenty of promise.

One friend who saw them at Swn Festival in Cardiff described it as being in at the start of something which feels important. He may be right.

Phoebe Bridgers Album of the Year: Better Oblivion Community Center

Two years ago it was her haunting solo debut Stranger in the Alps, last year it was her all-female supergroup Boygenius, this time Phoebe Bridgers makes the top end of the list with her side project with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst.

Dylan Thomas was close to being song of the year and is the highlight of an album which has grown on me through some long days on the back of a truck.

Worth A Listen/Still Exploring

Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest – Bill Callahan
Thrashing Through The Passion – The Hold Steady
Inferno – Robert Forster
i,i – Bon Iver
I Am Easy To Find – The National
Girl – Girl Ray
Ode To Joy – Wilco
The Talkies – Girl Band

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Wherever I Lay My Phone

FROM time to time, this blog likes to provide a few tips, probably learned the hard way, which may come in handy for anyone planning their own overland adventure.

So to that end, one piece of advice became as crystal clear as the water which helped create the problem – do not jump off the back of a boat with a phone in your short pockets.

In my defence, there were extenuating circumstances involving turtles, boobies (yes, seriously), the fact nothing is normally kept in my board short pockets and the sun. Yes, let’s blame the sun.

It has, after all, been ridiculously hot for large chunks of our 11-day ‘beach week’ along the coast of the giant Bahia province in Brazil.

Jumping in the water – not always as cold as you would like – has been a very popular pastime throughout. Just most people bothered to check they had nothing of value in their pockets.

Except me when the first real chance arrived to plunge into the sea on a boat trip during our stay in the sleepy – even outside the hours of siesta – stop of Caravelas.

Our boat, shared with Brazilians and, thankfully, one returning native based in Boston and able to translate what was actually going on to those whose Portuguese still stretches little further than ordering a beer, spent the day heading out, around and back from the islands which make up the Parque Nacional Marinho de Abrolhos.

Turtles bobbing around the boat as we pulled up to our first stop upped the excitement levels before we were ushered in small groups into a smaller boat and off for a short walk along the nearby shore.

Boobies indignant at taking any blame over my phone going for a swim

More than accustomed to the influx of visitors, the local bird life barely ruffled a feather as we wandered past just a foot or so away, grabbing the opportunity for rare close-up booby pics (stop sniggering at the back).

All good, all smiles until having used my phone to take the pictures, Lisa opted to swim back to the boat and deposited it in my pocket as we clambered back into our lift back.

Where it remained when the end of her swim was met with my less than graceful splash off the back of the boat to make the most of the glorious conditions – right up to the point, several minutes later, my phone being put in my pocket came back to me.

It remained working, right up to the point the advice to turn it off immediately became pretty unanimous and there was nothing to do other than put it somewhere safe and spend the rest of the afternoon snorkelling, splashing around (the two may appear the same in some cases) and trying to get near the food ahead of Brazilians who appear to have no concept of sharing, queueing, not sitting on your stuff or little things like someone actually sitting in the seat they wanted.

But hey, that’s for another post.

As for the phone, it was banished to the bottom of my locker in a bag of rice nicked borrowed from the truck supplies for the next few days.

Which at least kept it free of the sand which has got everywhere, but stopped my participation in the endless Instagram posing (always with one heel raised and head tilted backwards) which seems to be the Brazilian way.

Again, that’s for another post.

Remarkably, having been through all that, my phone appears to be working (touching all available wood as that is written), rather unlike one poor travelling companion who admitted his faulty phone was working fine “apart from the phone and the forward facing camera”.

Most importantly, all the pictures – boobies and otherwise, if you really want to milk that line of humour – appear to be in place and backed up.

Until my next lapse of concentration and it gets dunked in a vat of caipirinhas (highly likely, given the current consumption rate) or buried on a beach somewhere.

Phone drama apart, our stop in Caravelas was a relaxing one.

Relax was pretty much all you could do given the wait to receive your food at most restaurants – if you received anything at all, two of us at one point just being given two glasses and a plate because they seemed to think we were sharing other people’s food and drink.

The wait one night was so long, we started tucking in to the chillis in the salsa.

Not the smartest of moves.

Caravelas’ hold on us lasted a bit longer than planned as with our scheduled stop not available, we made the shortest of drives and spent the day and night on the nearest beach, complete with a spectacular rising red moon.

Less spectacular when you consider the colour probably had something to do with pollution.

Most of the truck celebrates a couple of birthdays on the beach at Trancoso, complete with the barbecued cheese bloke. Spot the secret Santa presents.

We headed further up the coast the next morning to Trancoso where the main items on the agenda were hanging around on the beach, sampling the locals bars and restaurants (mainly an Aussie-run coffee shop in our case), exploring the central Quadrado (grassy area surrounded by stalls and cafes), trying to keep the popper on my new board shorts done up, eating street food (surprisingly lovely tapioca wraps) and inadvertently adding to our truck collection of sandwich toasters.

With a joint birthday party on the beach which featured a fair bit of drama, eskie punch (some of it loaded into a water pistol) and the sad demise of several chairs and loss of our Rio gazebo.

The short drive to Porto Seguro brought us to our next stop, where the Portuguese first arrived and the African influence on the area begins to become evident.

We did explore their landing spot in the old town, collecting hammocks for what lies ahead on boats, but the highlight of our two-night stay was rather more modern – a trip to a water park to celebrate tour leader Danny’s birthday.

Which left just one more beach stop at Itacare, so brief a lot of us did not bother to make the short journey – basically walking round the fence – to the beach.

Can’t be too careful when you have a phone in your pocket.

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Filthy and Fried

THINGS we have learned in Brazil.

  • Restaurants have invented a variety of ways for you to serve yourself or to pretty much stuff your face with as much as you can manage (especially if you are Croatian).
  • Service stations, on the other hand, like you to be served by as many people as possible before you are allowed out.
  • When you do order something off a menu, food is likely to appear at different times, in an erratic order and after lengthy waits.
  • It is hot.
  • Ordering a caipirinha is something of a lottery concerning what size and strength you are going to get. It is worth trying your luck.
  • Sit around on a beach and somebody will bring you a drink. 
  • Chunks of cheese held over a pot of charcoal and dunked in oregano are remarkably tasty.
  • It is really hot.
  • Taking a picture of someone holding a gun in a favela does not go down too well.
  • Brazilians like to party loud. All night.
  • Sitting among a group of men under rainbow flags is not enough to tip some people off they are in a gay bar.
  • Walking on cobbles in flip-flops is uncomfortable.
  • It is really, really hot.

The quest for shade from that heat – not easy on a truck day, even with the windows all open to get some air flow – and investigation of self-service meal and caipirinha varieties have taken up much of our time since finally escaping Copacabana beach in the early hours of the new year.

Not that we have left the sand totally behind – a lot of it is in our beds and tents for starters – as having headed into the hills for a few days, we have returned to the coast for what has become known as beach week.

Which lasts about 10 days.

After the chaos of New Year’s Eve, our remaining time in Rio was relatively quiet, a couple of trips to Ipanema beach and a rather quieter post-party Copacabana mixed in with regular trips to our favourite kilo restaurant and a lengthy wait for a table which delayed a farewell meal to those leaving the truck.

We did summon up the energy to head out of a tour of the giant Rochino favela, led down the slopes and through the narrow streets by our knowledgable guide.

The locals certainly seemed to know and trust him, which came in handy when he was called back to sort out a delicate situation when one of our group took a picture in an area policed by young gang members touting guns nearly as big as them.

Having all got out in one piece, it was time to bid farewell to Rio – a point of the trip which seemed so far off in the early days – as we welcomed new passengers on board and headed to the hills.

What greeted us in Teresopolis was heat, a pool, wine and cheese, a couple of prolonged downpours and the neighbours having what sounded like a massive party until most of us were already up for breakfast.

Well, most of us. Lack of sleep from a combination of noise, a deflating mattress and a dodgy stomach kept me in bed for most of the morning and out of the trek through the nearby national park.

Those who did trek at least got back before the heavens opened again.

Thankfully, the rain stayed away from our second mountain retreat at the old mining town of Ouro Preto.

Draped pretty much across the top of a hill, walking its sloping, cobbled streets is not the easiest task but one certainly worth taking on around its pretty streets, churches and markets.

Not to mention plenty of places willing to serve you cheesy chips (with bacon), ice cream, liquid chocolate in a mug and – to top it off – an all you can eat pizza buffet with unlimited caipirinhas, all  for about £7.

More than one person struggled back up the hill to the hostel.

Thankfully, we had a long – if very hot – day on the truck to recover which ended at a basic campsite which came complete with a very welcome watering hole to cool off in.

And, one cook group shopping session apart, it was time to head for the beach.

The dunes of Itaunas were our first stop, a lazy day on the sand mixed in with the continued exploration of different styles of caipirinhas – passion fruit before the more traditional lemon.

May need to do some more studying on that subject.

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In The Shadow of Christ

That’s me, 902,471st from the left

Let’s see where the next 12 months take us.

CONSIDERING that sentence was written in my flat in Gloucester last New Year’s Day and this one is being tapped out in a Rio de Janeiro hotel room, the past year has clearly taken us a long way.

That was the sign off to last year’s Travel Marmot new year post – a tradition started in a Ghanaian beach bar five years ago and, in every year bar one since, has failed to see the intended light of day on January 1.

Good to get 2020 off to a customary start.

So how far exactly did 2019 take us?

In no particular order, it saw me lose more weight (which may have stalled a bit in the last couple of months), get fit (well, fitter), lose another good friend far too young, quit my job, move out of my flat and embark on another bout of overland travelling on a big yellow truck – Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and now Brazil taking my country count up to 64.

Rio offers a chance to draw breath (barely) and marks a farewell to several travelling companions, hello to a few new faces when we roll out in a couple of days and the halfway point of our 31-week adventure.

There’s plenty of Brazil, Suriname, French Guiana, Guyana, more Brazil, Colombia and a return to Ecuador to come before mid-April with a return to the real world and attention finally turning to answering all those “what are you going to do after the trip?” questions.

So having reached halfway, how are things?

Physically, pretty good. The weight loss and time in the gym had me in much better shape than my Trans Africa trip five years ago and that has allowed me to do things which would probably have been avoided in the past.

The toughest of them, the Inca Trail, was the most feared part of the whole itinerary, but conquering three and a bit days on the trail to Machu Picchu proved a few things to myself and have done several activities which would have been shunned beforehand.

They have still not managed to get me on a horse though.

Not that it has been plain sailing physically. The first week or so was dogged by persistent, ahem, digestive issues and the heat on a couple of long truck days had me crawling to bed as soon as possible at the end of them. And let’s not get started on my left knee.

And, as is customary, any insect which can bite me has done exactly that, leading to a few days when parts of my body looked like they had been mauled by wild animals a bit bigger.

But after the swollen hand in Cafayate – brought down by a single injection – and a slightly swollen face which may have been down to bites earlier in the week (and was quickly treated), it has not been a lingering issue.

Mosquito bites – like the ones which covered my back in the Pantanal when everything else was covered in repellent – come up and vanish in a couple of days, some other insect leaving more lingering marks on my legs down to my reaction to them.

The Pantanal was a bit of an insect paradise over Christmas, meaning even the lure of air conditioned rooms and a bar was not enough to stop us being glad to get back on the road on Boxing Day.

That feeling maybe did not last too long as the hours rolled by and the heat rose and rose on the back of the truck – was not the only one wilting by the time we got into bush camp that night.

The next day proved just as hot and even longer as we opted to press on around Sao Paulo and well into the, thankfully cooler, night on the road to the seaside town of Paraty.

Our efforts were rewarded with an early arrival and plenty of time to explore the old town with its cobbled, car-free streets which are, in parts, washed clean by high tides.

All very pleasant and enough to lure us back to the town square after our second truck trivia quiz – and a second come from behind victory – for an evening of checking out the caipirinhas and the impromptu dance floor well into the night.

Certainly far enough into the night to make getting up early for a day’s trip on a boat rather difficult for some, but the effort was well worth it and we spent the day relaxing and splashing about on a series of stops at beaches and little bays ripe for snorkelling.

The evening was rather quieter – a fine Thai meal for many of us apart – as we did our best to ignore the noises in and around camp to catch up on sleep before hitting the road to Rio.

What awaited us ensured most people were up and packed away well before our early departure time which got us in too early to check in at our hotel, but provided ample opportunity to sort out preparations for New Year’s Eve ahead of our discovery of the Brazilian tradition of the kilo restaurant – a buffet which charges by the weight of what you choose.

We may have been back a few times.

Before we could turn our attention to New Year’s Eve celebrations, we headed out on a tour of the city’s greatest hits which was hugely illuminating, enjoyable, frustrating and very, very hot.

With all due respect to the cathedral, the arty steps and the neighbourhood we walked through for no apparent reason – bar the guide taking a random picture of us at a bus stop – the highlights were Sugar Loaf Mountain and the statue of Christ the Redeemer.

Which each come with crowds and resultant queues – thankfully not as long as the previous day or we may not have made it to the beach for midnight.

The views from the top of Sugar Loaf are stunning and make you realise just how blessed Rio is in a geographical sense. It is a city studded with beautiful spots.

Christ the Redeemer is certainly one of them, but that is only part of the story.

It is, once you have got through the crowds and made the final climb to find Christ, equal parts absolutely remarkable (in terms of the statue and the views) and sheer hell with the number of people battling in the heat to capture the perfect picture.

May well have been the least popular person on Instagram, given the number of painstaking poses which were shoved out of the way or photo bombed.

It was too hot to hang around waiting for them to complete the full range of poses.

Back at base, we just had time to weigh another meal, grab a shower, don the traditional white and grab the supplies from the fridge before heading down to join an estimated 2.9 million others on the beach at Copacabana to see in the new year.

With the group brought together by a system of meeting times and people fighting to keep our spot from much earlier, we staked out our patch and did our best to keep going (some did better than others) and avoid using the neighbour’s makeshift facilities (crawl under a covered table and cover your tracks with sand) unless strictly necessary.

But still pretty much in one piece, we raised our glasses (or doctored bottles of Cokes) to the new year as the Brazilian national debt was placed on full display with a spectacular firework display.

Not a massive fireworks fan and always think that sort of money could be better spent elsewhere, but there is no denying it was an extraordinary sight, running the full length of the beach and lasting 15 minutes.

And so 2020 is with us in explosive style and that’s where the last 12 months have got us.

Or is it?

One major change it might be time to reveal.

The big change heading into 2020 was that I was not seeing in the new year alone. This trip has brought rather more than great sights, experiences and new countries – it has left me no longer single.

Anyone paying attention to recent posts may have seen the odd clue, but Lisa – the one who blames me for not protecting her from a monkey stealing her empanada – was not stood next to me at the time by chance.

Let’s see where the next few months take us.

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Bite Christmas

WATER, water everywhere and seemingly not a drop to wash away the mosquitoes.

Our final couple of days in Argentina and our opening week in Brazil have been dominated by water and insects which appear to have the ability to seek out any inch of your body not drenched in repellent, regardless of whether it is covered by clothing.

At least for those of us who appear as prime cuts on any buzzy a la carte menu.

Our Christmas retreat in the Pantanal has taken mosquitoes to a whole new level with even those who bragged about not being bitten falling victim, finally enduring what us mere mortals have to suffer on a regular basis.

All of whom are trumped spectacularly by those of us at the top of the mosquito food chain.

Hopefully, the mossies are sheltering from the Christmas afternoon downpour like those of us in the increasingly small area near the bar, surrounded by increasingly bedraggled statues of the local wildlife sporting our spare Santa hats.

Even the macaws appear to be dodging the sudden downpour which has broken up a few days of extreme heat that has seen us making the most of our rooms to enjoy the air conditioning and hide from the mossies. 

Apart from when we were out on safaris providing a festive feast for the insects. Or at the bar.

It is the latest moment when water has taken centre stage in the last 10 days or so, be it more spectacular downpours, pools, waterfalls or rivers to be snorkelled or tubed down.

Probably while pursued by insects.

We could have done with some water as we rolled out of Buenos Aires with the temperature continuing to rise, a long drive day in the hands of our temporary second driver Nick ending on the banks of the Rio Uruguay with our first sight of Brazil across the water.

More of the same followed the next day ,which meant the discovery of a pool at our home for the night was met with a race to get in and the start of a torrential downpour which barely let up before we were finally out of Argentina.

A brief break in the rain enabled us to get out for one final spectacular steak and a couple of beers before crossing the border, but there was little option other than to get wet on our final day in the country.

In fairness, we would have got drenched regardless at Iguazu Falls and even donning all our wet weather gear failed to dampen spirits at one of those special places which pop up from tine to time.

The falls which form a natural border between Argentina and Brazil are, put simply, stunning.

They have been named as one of the seven modern natural wonders and you will not get too many arguments from here – the top end of my best waterfalls chart has been rewritten. Sorry Victoria Falls.

Starting up close to the violence of the Devil’s Throat cascade, the Argentinian side of the falls is formed by trails which meander through the jungle and pop out at a series of viewpoints over selections of more than 270 waterfalls which form the natural wonder.

And it comes with the added advantage of wildlife from toucan and an array of bird life, cayman and the coatis which wander across the paths and carry warnings not to eat food near them.

Those warnings also cover the local monkeys and maybe a couple of us should have paid a bit more attention, although still refuse to accept one climbing Lisa’s poncho to get at her empanada was somehow my fault.

Was too busy hurriedly finishing mine to do anything about it.

With the rain relenting, we regrouped full of smiles for the brief border crossing and a sad farewell to the delights of Argentina but excitement at what lies ahead during our lengthy stay in Brazil – starting with getting to grips with caipirinhas at the hotel bar to settle in.

Which all aided the decision to stay behind and take it easy the next day rather than head to Paraguay in search of another passport stamp, cheap electronics and several hours in a traffic jam.

If we did nothing that day – bar an evening check on the quality of Brazilian steak – we made up for it the next morning as we headed for the other side of the falls.

While most of the group queued for ages to get in, a smaller selection took the direct route with a helicopter ride over the falls which was spectacular – although one look at some of the faces confirmed it was not just me screaming inside at some of the banking.

Back on solid ground, we wandered around the neighbouring bird park and, the queues having subsided, headed to the falls and got some more astonishing views of what we had seen two days earlier from a different angle.

Our day to remember ended with an evening at the local shopping mall and a midnight screening of the new Star Wars film which ensured there was plenty of sleeping on the next day’s lengthy drive day after an early start.

We had been expecting a bush camp at the end of the drive, but not like the one we got – a family’s well-kept garden which they allow overlanders to use, complete with toilets in an annexe and covered area which was better furnished and equipped than many official places we have stayed.

Which acted as a handy launchpad to get us to Bonito, our home for three days during which we explored the town’s bars (including one where we served ourselves) and restaurants. Once we had dragged ourselves away from the pool.

But we also took the opportunity to get wet in more original ways.

First up was a trip to Rio do Prata and snorkelling down a clear river.

Managing to be rather more graceful without flippers, we basically floated down the river with the current, getting up close to huge numbers of fish and the springs which bubble up along the route.

Another one of those things which might have been avoided in the past, it would have been a shame to miss out on such an experience.

The same could be said the next day when we headed down another river close to town on tubes with the added obstacle of a few waterfalls to negotiate on the way down – although the biggest danger came from Danny – before relaxing in and around a lake.

There has been plenty more relaxing throughout our festive stay in the wildlife haven in the Pantanal, albeit interrupted by those pesky mosquitoes which even has the locals pointing out the marks on my legs.

They have not seen my back.

Amid the bites, we have tried our hand at piranha fishing (most bites were on us), horse riding (well, others did) and walking and jeep safaris through the insects.

And we have celebrated Christmas with a massive spread on Christmas Eve and a relaxed big day itself, punctuated by various leftover cuts of meat and a Secret Santa delayed due to people needing their beds earlier than planned the night before.

Which has us all trying to work out who bought and wrapped up a dildo.

And why somebody else is so keen to swap it with the present she ended up with.

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