Convenient Parking

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Ok so there’s a lot of catching up to do (roughly two years) but Dad’s requested an update on current travel situation. This will be my first ever post entirely by phone and in the sad absence of a proper camera.  Expect typos, poor grammar etc, the usual. All photos will be straight from my Samsung phone without any editing so you’ll get the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the poor saturation. In fact the internet’s the worst it’s been since PNG so I’ll be delighted if they load at all.
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We arrived into Ohrid, Macedonia, the night before last and headed out to a local restaurant for food. My large pizza cost less than two pounds :s Everything costs around half the price of what you’d expect elsewhere in Europe – judge for yourself from the photos but I definitely think this city is an untapped resource: Stunning scenery, lovely weather, incredibly friendly people and rock bottom prices.
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IMG_8477The one slightly odd thing is the bizarre way in which the term ‘road’ is used. We were directed down roads in our little hire car where there was less than an inch gap between the side of the car and the houses either side of the crumbly cobbled streets, made worse by the fact that locals had parked willy-nilly along the precipices and stray dogs, poles and rocks popped up in unexpected places. We eventually had to reverse out of the town at 4mph and walk back with our suitcases. No wonder the man at the hire car stall had gone over the car with a magnifying glass to note down every minor scratch.
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Although it’s always fun to complain, that’s about as far as it goes with Ohrid. Just beautiful.
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And the flag’s fun too!

This Easter morning we had the rather more challenging feat of driving across the border to the coast of Albania.
We stopped off en route at St. Naum monastery, another idyllic spot. What made St. Naum particularly special were the fresh water springs surrounding it which feed into the lake.
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IMG_8480IMG_8478Across the border you noticed an immediate difference in terms of road quality and the quantity of half built, abandonned constructions. My favourite new addition to the landscape was the frequent appearance of a man on the roadside, poised as if he’s trying to hitch-hike, but on closer inspection he’s brandishing a large trout. They’d effectively just plucked fish from the water and were wiggling them about in front of drivers in an attempt to scrape a living. Very entertaining, if nothing else. We must have passed about 20 of them.
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Although Google maps is the best improvement to life since air con, it really has absolutely no idea what the hell’s  going on with the roads in Albania. Like a slavic bermuda triangle. We ended up on some ridiculous ‘scenic’ routes with potholes formed in the wake of some sort of nuclear apocalypse. We eventually decided to ignore it and emerged onto the Albanian ‘Riviera’.
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Pretty, but so far it appears that ‘off season’ roughly translates as ‘everything within a 40 mile radius is shut until June’. I’ve given up trying to upload photos now as it’s just too slow. Update on our cashless, foodless situation tomorrow.

Knives Out

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Now settled into Osaka, we took a 30 minutes train journey into Kyoto for a four hour class on samurai sword practice with SEIGA, Samurai Kembu. They take it incredibly seriously as it’s a highly regarded part of their tradition, now only used as a performance art rather than the ancient warriors using the practice in battle. It was impossible not to be constantly thinking of Uma Thurman in her yellow tracksuit throughout the entire process.

There were just three of us in the class with one ‘Samurai Grand Master’: Auga Ryu. We were taught various routines about how to correctly draw, wield and formally present the spectacular weapon. We were even elaborately dressed in tradition Samurai attire to fully experience the restrictions which the clothing brings into the action. For example for me it made it much easier to understand why the women traditionally would take such tiny little steps as the very wide obi belt is wrapped restrictively tight like a corset around your waist and hips.

Kyoto itself is a beautifully traditional city with plenty of old Japanese architecture and copious temples and shrines. Black kites seems to be pretty common here, soaring around above the rivers. As it’s cherry blossom season there are also numerous festivals going on throughout the city with processions, parades and dance competitions around every corner.

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Traditional tea preparation

Traditional tea preparation

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Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

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Above you can see one of the hilarious ‘pet hire’ opportunities. You can pay for half an hour to use the cafe where you can stay to stroke the cats. You can also hire dogs for walks or, if you’re on a budget, even a beetle. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/7818140.stm

Japanese sweet

Japanese sweet

Lunch in Kyoto. Miso soup, tofu rice dish and japanese pickle.

Lunch in Kyoto. Miso soup, tofu rice dish and japanese pickle.

I’m now about to head off to the ‘Onsen’ or traditional Japanese spa/hot spring again. Hilariously, it’s split genders and absolutely no clothes are allowed, which they’re very strict about. Very bizarre experience but the spa itself is fantastic after the cold of the crisp spring weather.

 

 

Sun Rise, Light Flies

Sunrise over Angkor Wat, Cambodia

We woke up this morning before the birds. A 4.45 departure time wasn’t particularly welcome considering the long travelling day to Siem Reap, Cambodia from Bangkok yesterday combined with the fact that I’m still on the wobbly side of full health! However, the aim was to see Angkor Wat at sunrise, which seemed worth the effort. The only problem was that every tourist and his dog seemed to have the same idea. Apparently it’s the ‘thing to do’. Unfortunately it does rather diminish the experience being crammed in with a pack load of tourists, ravenous for good photos. It was still spectacular and calming nevertheless.

Sunrise over Angkor Wat, Cambodia

The crowds didn’t die down after breakfast. We headed first to ‘Angkor Thom’ (Angkor simply means ‘city’) which was a vast collection of ruined temples – like the rest of the site they were originally built in the 12th century as largely Hindu temples but being renovated into Buddhist temples in the late 13th Century. What was striking to me was how much the site reminded me of the various Mayan ruin sites in Central America. The blatant difference being the crowds of people and the hype! Don’t be fooled by my photos – I painstakingly tried to avoid snapping random tourists. There were a lot more people than it seems!

Entrance to 'Angkor Thom'

Angkor Thom

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Traditionally dressed Khmer children

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Angkor Thom jungle

‘Ta Prohm’ was similarly breathtaking but, again, rather obscured by excessive tourists.  What was so beautiful about this temple (where tomb raider was shot, I’m told) was how the jungle was interwoven with the ruins. Colossal, twisting roots and trunks clung to the walls – simultaneously holding it together and breaking it up as the roots made their way into the gaps in the structures.

Ta Prohm

Monks visiting the top of 'Angkor Wat' (City of Temples)

Monks visiting the top of ‘Angkor Wat’ (City of Temples)

I think you’d have to give up around three days to properly explore the complex as just whizzing round the highlights took us eight hours! A long time when you’ve been up at 4 am!

After heading back into Siem Reap for lunch, a couple of the girls in my group and I decided to visit the local ‘Acodo’ orphanage. It was shockingly small, with just two small buildings for the 76 girls and boys to sleep in and only a couple of English classrooms. However, the people running the place seem to have a clear set of aims and objectives for the project and are doing remarkably well with the money donated to them. Again, I made a comparison in my mind – this time with ‘Goroka’ school in Papua New Guinea where the money isn’t so much the crucial issue as how it is used – with large sums frittered away on teacher’s parties and gifts etc. Here they’ve built several structures including a kitchen, water filter system, a couple of class rooms for English lessons and have separated the boys and girls dorm rooms. They also send the elder children in their free time out to the Acodo farms to learn useful farming techniques whilst helping to reap the benefits of the land to feed themselves and the rest of their fellows.

If you’re remotely interested in volunteer work in this part of the world then I really think Acodo orphanage would be a very worthwhile destination, instead of volunteering through a travel agency. They do take on volunteers on a regular basis but are often short and the results are immediately visible.

We tried to make ourselves useful by bringing along some treats and bits and bobs for the kids and helped some of the older girls to practise their English. The younger children were pretty entertained with our cameras for a while which was amusing.

Acodo Orphanage Siem Reap

Acodo Orphanage Siem Reap

Acodo Orphanage Siem Reap

Acodo Orphanage Siem Reap

Acodo Orphanage Siem Reap

“Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.”
 – Mother Teresa

 

The Meaning Of The Ritual

“Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.”

-Neil Armstrong

I occupied my sole day in Cancun with a trip to the Mayan ruins, ‘Chichen Itza’. It was without doubt the most fascinating historical site I’ve visited.

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I was persuaded by a convincing sales man at the airport to book a tour for $50 to the site. It was most definitely money well spent. We had a local tour guide explaining the history behind the ruins. Above you can see the Mayan temple. The acoustics are designed much like the ancient amphitheatres, in that sound echoes through the chamber at the top of the structure and is projected out over a large distance.

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The mural above is supposedly one of the pieces of evidence supporting the theory that the ‘pyramids’ were built by aliens. According to supporters of the theory the image is of an alien in an astronaut’s mask with a clear breathing device. Hmm…I’m not so sure!

Our guide also explained the Mayan calendar to us, based on the cycles of the moon and sun, it is actually more accurate than the current calender we use today as does not need the added ‘leap’ year. It was also very interesting to learn that the ‘dooms day’ theory was brought about by a Mayan carving of the date ‘21.12.12’, the end of a cycle of the Mayan calender; the day when the planet’s would become aligned and the universe would complete a ‘cycle’.

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This shot is actually a very close up snippet of a large wall of skull carvings, designed to commemorate the Mayan dead. The heads of enemies would also have been displayed proudly on this stand.

The ruins of the ‘military’ building (of which I will post a photo once my internet picks up again) displayed a statue of a man at the top of the steps. Our guide explained to us that it was here that enemies were brought to be sacrificed to the gods. The warriors themselves did not have permission to kill. They would dress up in Jaguar-skin costumes and hold the man’s hands and feet to the statue. A priest, dressed as an eagle, would then use a special implement to swiftly remove the man’s heart, within the fourteen seconds before it ceases to live, therefore literally holding a beating heart in his hands before the gods.

We also went into the very well preserved remains of the Mayan sports arena. I was amazed to discover how informative the Disney film ‘The Road To Eldorado’ is! The sport described, where the opposing teams need to hit a ball through a small vertical stone hoop on the side walls of the arena, is actually part of the film! The ‘court’ was so well preserved that I could practically see the ancient Mayans playing the game there. Aside from entertainment, the game was even used in place of wars, to solve conflict, with the conquered side loosing the game along with their heads!

 

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A brief pause from the Anthropology lesson to talk about the wildlife:The ruins were covered with these iguanas! Unfortunately they were pretty skittish so not particularly easy to photograph.

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Here is a very large (with a circumference around the size of the base of the temple) natural well where the Mayans would throw sacrifices of gold and human lives to the gods. When it was eventually excavated they found tons and tons of Mayan gold and around 90 skeletons in the down there!

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Cancun itself was much like a little slice of Las Vegas in Mexico. It certainly was extremely Americanised! Large hotels, bright lights and extravagant decoration greeted me on the drive in. Of course, my shuttle carried on past these fantastic hotels to the dingy side of town. However, I enjoyed the change, I must admit, to the extreme poverty of Bolivia.

This morning I meet the second tour group that I will be with until the end of April. Surprisingly there are a large number of retired couples which I wasn’t really expecting! We hopped on a bus down to ‘Playa Del Carmen’ another, equally Americanised, Mexican city. As an example of the extent of the westernisation, I popped over to the nearby ‘Walmart’ to buy a snorkle-mask. In the morning a few of us headed out to the coastal Mayan ruins of ‘Tulum’ which, although spectacular, I felt had been rather over-rated in that there were even larger swarms of tourists than at Chichen Itza. What did make Tulum very special, however, was the back drop of the incredibly blue Caribbean sea.

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That’s Entertainment

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I found a cord to connect my big camera to the laptop! Fantastic. Internet connection isn’t so great though so just one photo from the Sambadrome will have to do for now.

Back in Parati: Below are a couple of photos from the boat trip I was persuaded to join in on today (I was dubious about value for money). It turned out to be pretty incredible. Granted, a large proportion of the group became completely smashed as a consequence of the free caprinas on tap! We stopped off at numerous little coves and islands where everyone proceeded to bomb/dive off the top deck! I borrowed a snorkel mask off the staff and spotted a bright orange seahorse! Unfortunately nobody else was interested in snorkelling so my excitement was rather wasted. Apart from the Seahorse the marine life wasn’t very spectacular. There were a few box/puffer fish around but apart from that the fish variety was fairly standard. Other notable moments include seeing how many rungs of the ladder towards the crows nest we could climb before the captain spotted us and me attempting to climb a coconut tree and failing miserably. A great day out though. The few of us left in a reasonable state had to practically carry the others back to the camp site, stopping only for Acai on the way.

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The Island stop off where I found the seahorse!

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Here’s a separate boat that moored next to us at one of the stops. Ours was actually big than this boat, having a top deck, but very similar in appearance.

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Parati town was apparently designed so that at high tide the sea water cleans the streets! It was like a Latino Venice!

Let’s Go Fly A Kite/ Watching And Waiting

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Making carnival masks!

“There is nothing safer than flying – it’s crashing that is dangerous”.
– Theo Cowan

After the usual, urine related, antics at the crèche this morning, things proceeded to go downhill. Very literally in one some cases.  The major time theft of the day was my hang-gliding expedition. I say expedition as I arrived at 11 and didn’t leave until past 5. Basically I was sat at the top of a mountain in my harness and helmet for six hours whilst crowds of gliders gathered, waiting for the cloud to leave a gap so that we could jump off the mountain. I think it would be fair to say that I’m not the most patient soul in the world, so after many false alarms, each involving rushing to the glider and buckling up only to see another swath of cloud roll in, I was getting increasingly pissed off. I was convinced that we were just going to end up having to drive back down. In the mean time my instructor shared some interesting stories. The two that come to mind are: him taking his dog hang-gliding and his ex-girlfriend turning out to be a man. Both stories accompanied by pictures.

                Of course, the actual flight was incredible. A particular highlight was flying alongside a native hawk! It really did make you feel ‘like a bird’.

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However the two hours which followed were occupied by sitting in solid traffic during my lift back to the hostel. I then rushed to Copocabana on the tube to pick up my costume and the centre was shut and I’m not sure if it will open again as the holiday season starts tomorrow – I paid a deposit. Yet another pointless waste of money it would seem. (Although not all hope’s lost yet –  I’m going to check whether it’s open in the morning – fingers crossed!)

I’m getting irritated by being constantly ripped off here. It’s actually an incredibly expensive city, particularly considering it’s apparent state of poverty.

The icing on the cake was coming back to ask around if anybody had a laptop with a cd drive for me to offload my gliding pictures from, of course nobody did, and then noticing an hour later that I had dark purple açai juice smeared over my face.

p.s. I apologise for this rant. I know that I shouldn’t be complaining but it’s hard not to have a little moan after sitting around for six hours in a heavy ‘bib’ and oversized helmet.