Creating A Pong

WHEN the list of great British sporting achievements in 2019 is written, Ben Stokes will be a prominent figure for his efforts in the World Cup final and his astonishing match-winning Ashes innings.

Over the next few days and weeks, the Rugby World Cup and World Athletics Championships could well throw up some major candidate. And Lewis Hamilton will earn an awful lot of credit for having the best car.

But one sporting success is unlikely to receive much recognition in any end-of-year reviews.

Granted, beer pong is not a high-profile sport but having discovered some form of natural aptitude, am going to celebrate victory in our campsite tournament. Especially as was not even meant to be in it until wandering past at a timely moment with no good reason not to.

The tournament was one of the highlights of our stay at our campsite near Banos, at least for me as a need to stay near the facilities limited opportunities to get into the nearby town, take the perfect photo opportunity on a swing with a huge drop as its backdrop or soaking up the hot springs which give the town its name.

Or canyoning. But did anybody really have me down for that one?

Did manage to make the short walk up the road to get soaked by the Diablo waterfall and to sample the excellent empanadas at a local cafe. Twice.

But much of my time was spent back at base where the camp dogs seemed to spend as much time on bodily functions – always a key topic of conversation in overland groups – as me. They were just less fussy about exactly where.

Which added extra jeopardy as we gathered in the communal area for an Argentinian barbecue provided by our hosts – basically huge piles of meat with the odd bit of salad and bread to break it up – and the first sporting battle of the trip.

Had originally opted out, but found myself in the right (or wrong, depending on your point of view) place when somebody was trying to hand her place onto someone else. Just had to bend the rules slightly, downing mouthfuls of disgusting water with rehydration salts rather than beer.

Alongside partner Robbie, our Anglo-American team somehow became the ones to beat and charged to success, rediscovering our top form just in time to close out a final interrupted by the need to use the table to house piles of meat.

Having tackled the morning job of packing the tents back into their bags, transporting the kitchen equipment back to the truck and dodging the final obstacles left for us by the dogs, it was back on the road early for the drive to the city of Cuenca.

Arriving at the hostel was most welcome for all of us – the discovery of a happy hour for much of the group and a comfortable bed for me after a difficult day fighting off what, thankfully, seemed to be the final symptoms of whatever laid me low.

So come morning after the best night’s sleep of the trip, was considerably brighter than several others as a group of us headed out on a walking tour of Cuenca.

It is a very attractive, interesting city, littered with churches – 72 of them evidently – and pretty buildings. Which is why the picture most of us fought over was the whole pig in the central market which provided our tasty, cheap lunch.

While most of us were discovering Cuenca anew, for two of our number – my beer pong partner Robbie and wife Becky – it is familiar ground as they have an apartment there and they opened the doors to us and a load of pizzas to soak in the spectacular sunset. And a few drinks.

It was our final fling in Ecuador, until we return to complete the circle in April, as we made the run for the first border and headed into Peru.

And having bounced around at varying altitudes and temperatures, our arrival in country number two has seen the heat rise as our height dropped to sea level, which is pretty easy to gauge when the waves are breaking yards from your tent.

Our time at Walkato Beach has given us time to draw breath, relax, get sunburned (just one knee bizarrely), down the odd drink or two and spend a couple of evenings around a campfire on the beach.

We did break camp to head down the coast to the bustling resort town of Mancora – think a Spanish beach town with less neon, chrome and Brits (assorted other nationalities) on the piss. Well, apart from our day in and around a bar on the sand run by a guy styling himself as James Bond.

There was a diversion to some cook group shopping which crowded into the back of a minibus with 14 of us for the ride back to base and another night around the fire on the beach.

No doubt the fire will be lit one last time tonight. Before or after the pizzas we’ve ordered arrive. Before then, there’s a pool to be led around or a tent to be napped in.

It’s a tough life.

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To Pee or Not to Pee?

THERE are many great questions which have dogged mankind across the centuries. 

Is there a God? To be or not to be? Is the earth flat? Why are Coldplay so popular?

To those we can add, should you have a wee while floating gently in a large inner tube down a tributary of a tributary of a tributary of a tributary of the Amazon?

It was a pretty idyllic way to spend an afternoon, having been taken upstream from our base on the Rio Arajuno by boat – pretty much the only way to get around in these parts – handed a tube and a beer to wind our gentle (most of the time) way back to our lodge.

But the effects of the beers handed out off the boat as we drifted along for an hour or so raised that important question and threw us back to our first stop on the road out of Quito on day one.

The Mittel del Mundo museum sits on the equator which gives its name to Ecuador and offers an insight into the scientific effects of being slap bang in the middle of the earth and the experiments which pinpointed its exact location, together with a look at the lives of the tribes of the country.

As well as various native creatures, blowpipes and cultural exhibits, we were treated to the sight of sunken heads and – the one which had us all wincing and questioning our decisions a few days later – the penis fish.

Sure there was a proper scientific name, but all we heard while looking at the size of the exhibit on show, was how it latches on (male and female) when people use the Amazon as a public convenience. So penis fish it will remain.

Thankfully we had plenty more to flush that thought from our minds as we wound our way through the mountains, via a first communal roadside truck lunch, to the town of Otavalo.

The main weekly market which takes over much of the town may not have been on, but the smaller daily version was more than enough to lure several of us out and several tents are adorned with alpaca blankets.

After crafts during the day, one side of the square is given over to street food stalls at night and that was enough to attract pretty much the entire group to feast on huge sticks of various meat, cheese empanadas and sheathes of corn among others, all for a couple of dollars (there’s a recurring theme here over the coming days).

Day one, for a good number of us, came to an end at the Red Pub with free-flowing Cuba libres and some rather less pleasant shots enlivening a game of Jenga which ignored most of the traditional rules.

Sore heads or not, the next morning saw us up, tucking into huge plates of pancakes, chocolate and fruit and heading out on a hike around a volcanic lake – a prospect which would have stunned me as much as anyone else not that long ago.

One local bus ride and a journey bouncing around on the back of a utility truck to get there – the last part uphill and off road – we headed off from the high point of the three-hour trek (bar a smaller group who opted for the entire circuit) and all that time spent on the treadmill in the last few months began to pay off.

Considering the elevation – all above 3,100m – and the amount of uphill sections, my body held together and while there is much tougher to come (one lengthy ascent giving a hint of that) was pleasantly surprised at how well it went.

Certainly better than those unable to get a berth inside the trucks on the return journey who had to deal with a downpour of epic proportions. It certainly looked unpleasant for those of us who benefited from a bout of tactical politeness that ensured hanging back for the last truck saw us all seated in the dry.

A brief evening return for street food apart, there was little time to dry off and pack a day bag before we headed off to our jungle retreat for the next three nights – via a lunch stop in the town of Tena which introduced some of us to the delights of neck (recommended) and feet (not so much) in a chicken soup at another ridiculously good value roadside meal.

Run by an American and his wife, the Arajuno Jungle Lodge is a little bit of overlanding heaven – except when you are getting bitten by any number of insects, as my legs will again attest – on the banks of the river which gives it its name.

Between three ridiculously good meals a day, a stream of beers from the lodge and spirits we had carried in ourselves, games to while away the evenings and spotting any wildlife close to home – notably a sizeable tarantula in the roof above the campfire – we headed out on a package of activities over our two full days.

A trip down river to the animal rescue centre Amazoonico was enlightening but a bit depressing, magnificent creatures forced to live out much or all of their lives in cages and enclosures so close to their natural habitats after being mistreated by humans.

The weather took a turn for the worse as we headed upstream – itself an issue with the low water making navigation a bit of an issue – to visit a local community.

Among the parts of their lives covered, we discovered my future does not lie as a blow pipe hunter, the local drink chicha is unlikely to catch on in a big way back home (even with the tradition of using saliva to help the fermentation being ended) and that cooked grubs taste like smoky bacon.

At least when you first start chewing them. That taste quickly morphs into something fishy and then into something that basically urges you to swallow, spit or get it out of your mouth as quickly as possible.

Considering the first stirrings of an upset stomach were already evident, it perhaps was not the brightest choice of snack from those provided, but when in the rainforest…

Not sure the bug was to blame, but my stomach was enough to opt out of the jungle hike the next morning, but no way was it stopping an afternoon tubing. 

You are, largely, at the mercy of the river as to your speed and direction, the odd flailing arm steering away from anything potentially tricky.

Somehow managed to hit the current well before everyone else and shot off down river, eventually trapping myself on a tree to wait. Only to struggle to get free and back to the boat to pick up a refill beer.

The boat was needed again to prod me back to shore – and a very ungraceful flop out of the tyre – as the current took hold close to the lodge and we finally had an answer to that great question.

It appears the women did, the men opted against it.

Probably very wise.

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An Extra Ticket To Ride

DAY seven, possibly, of this meander around South America and the first chance to draw breath, sit down and take stock of what has happened over the opening week.

It is not the intended chance, should be down the road in Banos rather than heeding the need to stay within sight of the facilities.

But between the runs to the loo (nothing too major and, until today, not one that has really stopped me) and application of sun cream, anti-mosquito spray and cream once it clearly hasn’t worked, we have crammed plenty in.

What we have learned over the last seven days:

  • The names of our 17 fellow passengers – a mixture of Brits, a liberal sprinkling of Americans and a few Aussies complemented by a Belgian, Spaniard, German, Japanese and a Venezuelan, together with tour leader Danny, South African driver Will and truck Spongebob.
  • If it leaks, 100 per cent Deet spray melts your bag (not mine).
  • Spaniards have excellent reflexes.
  • It is pretty much impossible to say hello to someone called Bert without sounding like a character from Sesame Street.
  • You can have discussions about Brexit, politics and religion, but nothing appears to cause more outrage than expressing a dislike for Queen (the band, not the monarch).
  • Don’t wee in the Amazon.

What we have been reminded about overloading:

  • Mosquitoes – or any buzzy, bitey little thing – love me.
  • Every campsite should have at least one dog.
  • However organised and well packed you think you are, it is impossible to keep track of where you put all your stuff.
  • You will cast jealous glances at how well organised and equipped everybody else seems to be.
  • Give a bunch of overlanders a hint of WiFi and they will be glued to their phones.

In many ways, this opening week has been very different from my previous experiences of overlanding.

And we have not really started living off the truck – the first cook group rolled into action last night, but with the truck parked across the campsite and the contents of the kitchen carried down to the facilities on site.

For starters, until we rolled in to our current campsite at Rio Verde – around 20km from Banos (sort of the Ecuadorian version of Bath, only with fewer Roman buildings but more waterfalls and cloud forest, probably got a better rugby team as well) – we had enjoyed the relative luxury of beds and proper facilities.

Compare that to Africa – have promised not to do that too often, but it is worth the comparison – when we spent much of the first week learning about the delights of bush camping in a cork forest outside Rabat and a bed did not arrive until an upgrade in Ghana, three months in.

While we have not been bush camping and living off the truck – even the drive days have been relatively short – we have been cramming in plenty to the first few days since we all came together in Quito.

The first challenge was getting there, the lack of an onward flight or dated bus ticket out of Ecuador stopping airline staff from allowing me through check-in without buying one – bought for far too much money from Quito to Bogota and which needs refunding as soon as the camp WiFi kicks back in.

But having sailed through immigration – without any hint of asking to see the ticket – a taxi ride making full use of every available lane dropped me at the Secret Garden hostel to start a weekend of shrugging off jet lag, seeing at least some of the sprawling city and perfecting that look of panic the English display when somebody speaks to them in a foreign language.

My Spanish is pretty awful. To be honest, non existent beyond buenos dias, gracias and una cerveza por favor. Clueless when spoken to, finding it possible to identify enough words in signs to have a vague idea what is going on. Sometimes. Helps having several native/fluent Spanish speakers in the group to help out.

Did not need their help on my mission to find a shop selling a towel, finally located just off the Plaza Grande in the middle of Quito’s old town which is all very pleasant as are pockets of a city which is largely a bustling, capital with all that entails.

Draped between and across several mountains – walking at this altitude provided some crucial acclimatisation for what lies ahead – it does provide some serious views which were soaked in from the terrace of my hostel (spent plenty of time there) and from the top of the TeleferiQo.

A cable car up to around 4,100m, it provides stunning vistas and a real test on the lungs having met up with a few fellow travellers before the official starting point and trekked up a bit higher to around the same height as the high point of the Inca Trail which lies in wait in the next month.

Given my record at much lower altitudes in ski resorts, was presently surprised at how well my body coped with that and the long walk back across the city, although the Inca Trail does not come with a cable car to take much of the uphill strain.

So having sampled the delights of Quito, slightly acclimatised to altitude and repacked (again), it was a quick hop across town to meet my fellow travellers, go through a few formalities and begin the job of getting to know each other.

We’ve got plenty of time ahead for that and have been kept busy starting that process. More of that next time.

  • Will look to get pics up when time and WiFi allows.
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The Wrong Trousers

THE journey of a thousand miles, said ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (cheers Google), begins with one step.

Not sure he foresaw that step taking place at a bus step next to a petrol station in a Gloucester suburb, particularly by someone sweltering in a hoodie that was never going to fit into his overstretched bags and wearing the wrong trousers due to a bit of a packing cock-up.

Starting point

But that’s how my next adventure, of considerably more than a thousand miles, started in rising temperatures completely unsuited to wearing or carrying the hoodie and a fleece-lined jacket.

Both will have a part to play – even if only as a handy pillow when camping – in the seven months ahead as we meander our way around South America.

As will the unintended jeans.

A few days ago, they had been confined to a bag in a rapidly filling storage unit before being rescued from their fate – at least temporarily – when my best jeans had been set aside to travel in and the spare pair pulled from the storage pile had proved to be far too big after my weight loss and spent half their time soaking up puddles.

Thought they had been part of the last trip to the storage unit – right up until getting changed before heading off to catch the 444 National Express to Heathrow and realising they were the ones which had been neatly packed away and the intended pair were starting their hibernation alongside most of my earthly possessions in that storage unit.

Fully armed for an 11-hour flight

But if that’s the biggest packing nightmare of this whole trip, so be it – being very careful on that, given the strain being shown by my shoulder bag until a trip to a Quito market to get a lightweight extra bag to ease some of the congestion (a life changer in Africa) and a total repack before climbing on board the truck will do,

These jeans will do. They are smart enough (if you don’t look at the frayed bits at the bottom that have been constantly trod on), comfortable enough and not too big to be totally out of sync with my current waist size.

There are shorts aplenty crammed in the rucksack, just might be worth holding off on them until some of the bruises decorating my legs in a lovely range of colours have had time to fade.

No idea how most of them got there and, bar one right on my left knee, they don’t even hurt if you touch them, but the legacy of several days clearing and cleaning my flat and transporting its contents to storage.

Sliding the final wardrobe through the door and into almost the ideal remaining space was like the finale to the perfect game of Tetris, rewriting the top score and crossing off the final major item on my to-do list before the off.

Which is not far off. This is being written in a rather swish lounge, courtesy of my bank, which may help the jeans fit a bit more snugly and the boarding gate is due to appear in the next few minutes. For what appears to be one of the last two flights out of Heathrow this evening.

The to-do list is all but empty, one late issue about an onward travel document at the airport sorted – will elaborate on that and a possible amendment to the route in later posts – and it is time for the off.

Next stop Quito. Well Bogota, for a few hours, but you get my drift.

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I Am The Resurrection to I Found A Way

A FORMER colleague took a risk this week with an article on signs with grammatical errors.

Focusing mainly on missing apostrophes – and ignoring the erroneous A in the name of my home village in a sign opposite the office – it really is poking the bear.

Readers do not need much excuse to point out errors or call an article’s news worthiness into question, so putting your head above your parapet and highlighting any grammatical faux pas is asking for criticism of any mistake, imagined or not.

Once received a letter listing 10 errors in an article (among many others, the writer explained). Had to resist the temptation to write back and explain he was wrong on all but one of them and could easily have made a longer list of errors from his letter.

Was not as slow pointing out errors – grammatical or factual – in my years as a sub, but then that was my job. Until a couple of weeks ago.

That job included stewardship of the office style guide – we did not have a physical one like the ones waved at me by subs as a young reporter, but a series of weekly emails running through common errors (how to refer to a councillor tops the list), spelling issues and settling debates.

Often two options are both right but the house style is to stick to one for the sake of consistency.

It may come as a surprise, but this blog has its own style guide, tucked away in a corner of my mind. Which has the advantage of being endlessly flexible so when the need arrives, the rules can be bent to suit the needs of the blog.

Which it really needs to be for this stretch of the A-Z journey through my iPod.

One of the simple rules is to avoid the first person wherever possible. It will come as a shock to a couple of ex-colleagues whose (lengthy) pieces were littered with I this, I that. Gave up counting in one opening paragraph when it reached double figures, all of which were subbed out.

Have broken that rule a couple of times in posts but they were personal tributes. It would have been odd to write them any other way.

And for the next few paragraphs, will have to break that rule again or this post will become impossible as it takes in the very long run of songs beginning with I (by far the most common opening word of this entire, expanding journey).

This section takes us from a second outing for The Stone Roses’ debut album finale to First Aid Kit.

There has been, seemingly inevitable at the moment, a fair amount of The Beatles with I Am The Walrus (twice) and I Feel Fine (three times) as well as, less inevitably, a blast of The Stones, although this was a rather different version of (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction – bereft of chorus – by Cat Power.

The Clash popped up once with I Fought The Law, but with two different versions by Joe Strummer, while there were welcome visits from the Arctic Monkeys ( I Bet You… can probably work that one out), Sun Kil Moon (I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love), Idlewild (I Don’t Have The Map), The House of Love (I Don’t Know Why I Love You) and Altered Images (I Could Be Happy).

There was (probably, it was a while ago, been a bit busy) screaming along to I Bleed by Pixies, who provided a very welcome soundtrack in session on the radio while cleaning my flat ahead of moving out. Very jealous of anyone seeing them in-store at Spillers in Cardiff.

As a believer in coyotes and time as an abstract, always great to hear I Believe by REM from Life’s Rich Pageant – probably edging ahead of long-time favourite Reckoning as my favourite REM album.

They have featured quite heavily as my musical intake has embraced the ability to raid the whole of Apple’s library since the decision was finally made about whether to upgrade my iPod for travelling.

The trusted Classic will add overlanding around South America to Africa on its list of places visited but this time merely as a back-up to a new Touch with instant access to a huge selection of music new and old (been adding a load of vintage stuff ahead of departure).

It is not perfect. Much prefer the wheel control than everything having to be touchscreen digital, the battery life seems shorter and it does not give updates on tracks in the collection – or exactly how many hundreds of I songs we have to wade through – but getting used to it.

And have plenty of time to do just that over the next 31 weeks as the A-Z journey goes into hibernation while travelling.

It became clear very quickly in Africa that keeping the A-Z going alongside blogging from on the road was too much to ask – I blog because I am travelling, not the other way round (to break the rules one more time).

The travel pieces (starting tomorrow from Heathrow. Probably) may well take a diversion into what is soundtracking the trip, but the A-Z is taking a few months off.

This time by design, not just because I have put it off. Again.

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