Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Project phase with Eastbourne College in Ecuador

Here I am, in Puerto Lopez, where the sun has finally decided to come out after five days of drizzly rain. We have, or rather the local builder has, finished our project – a dining room for a primary school in Ayambe (just up the road). It’s an interesting building, as you may be able to tell from the photographs. I thought my house had no right angles but this place is ridiculous!! It hasn’t been without its moments either.

The second day of the project, last Saturday, I decided to stay at the volunteer house with a couple of students who were planning on shopping and cooking lunch for the team. Richard (the teacher) went with the remainder of the group to Ayambe. About 1 ½ hours after they had left, while I was in the supermarket, I received a call from Richard telling me there had been an accident. It would seem that the rather unsafe and wobbly wall that we had been working around the day before, had decided to fall onto Harry’s foot (somewhat helped by Harry himself). Excellent.

Plenty of phonecalls later I managed to get Pedro (our host) to get to the project site with a bus and take Harry to the local clinic. Unfortunately the clinic in Puerto Lopez is not all that well equipped so off he went in an ambulance to Xipixapa (pronounced hippyhappa) to get an x-ray. A few hours later and Harry was back, having broken two metatarsals (David Beckham eat your heart out), with a cast on his foot and looking a little sorry for himself. Richard, on the other hand, spent the next 4 hours driving around the region of Manabi trying to find crutches. He eventually returned about 7pm having spent all day in a taxi with two non-English speakers (he speaks no Spanish). He was not, however, empty handed and came equipped with two, somewhat small, but useful, crutches! We decided to go out for the night (I secretly wanted to celebrate finally breaking a kid after 7 expeditions) to one of the beach bars. The group had a mass salsa lesson on the beach, which was hilarious, and drank lots of milkshakes while I had my first beer in 3 weeks. Lovely :)

Sunday was a rest day but as we are wicked and therefore deserve no rest, we headed off on a boat to watch some whales. Richard and I escaped the masses and sat atop the boat with another English couple unfortunate enough to have organised a boat trip with 13 teenagers from the UK (there’s nothing like getting away from it all...). All was great for us, the ride out was fun, the whales were close by and easily spotted – not so for those mere mortals below. An amazing 10 out of the 13 got seasick enforcing an early return to port as the captain of the boat was rather concerned. I was more concerned about the other passengers who had paid to go on a four hour trip and had actually only got two!! But then I’m not that sympathetic to people who are sick on a boat after eating ice cream and drinking fizzy drinks for breakfast (am I being too harsh here?).

The rest of the week we have been back to work, well, back to lying around sleeping and occasionally getting up to mix some concrete. This afternoon, after almost completing the building, we were treated to a dance display by the kids from the school. The first was an incredibly surreal display by the younger kids dressed as sea creatures and dancing to Rod Stewart's 'Do You Think I'm Sexy' (I know, not really very appropriate!!). I was going to include a video but it's taking way too long to upload - maybe I'll add this later. This was followed by a more traditional but equally funny dance by some of the older children in beautiful dress. Tonight we are off out again, but as they are all such lightweights (normally in bed by 8.30pm) I'm sure it won't be a late one. Maybe 10pm if I'm lucky?

Back to Quito tomorrow, before heading north to Ortavalo for some serious market shopping on Saturday. This time next week I will be back in lovely North Wales and back on the vino tinto. My mouth is watering in anticipation :)

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Trekking in Cotopaxi National Park with Eastbourne College

Well, I am back from Cotopaxi (spelling it right this time!) National Park, clean and fed and back in the squeaky bed at the Blue House in Quito. It's been an interesting week which started at 7.15 am on the 15th as we headed off for Machachi to begin our trekking phase of expedition.

Things didn't quite go according to plan as we arrived in Machachi to be met by two pick ups. For those of you that don't know, pick ups are a bit of a no no with groups. Young people need to have a seat to sit in, preferably with a seat belt, but that is quite an ask in South America. So, after a call back to the Ops room in the UK and the promise that it would be sorted for our return journey, 9 students and myself jumped in the back of one pick up, Steve (my assistant for the week) and Richard the teacher jumped in the back of the other with all 16 bags and the remaining 4 students got seats. The most uncomfortable 45 minutes of my life then ensued as I was sat on the edge of the truck, gripping on for dear life as we bumped up a very unsealed road to the Hacienda del Porvenir.

Thank goodness for the Hacienda del Porvenir. What a sight to behold. We were met with hot sweet tea (from the mint family, but not mint) and mini empanadas before being guided round our luxury accommodation for the night. I have never stayed anywhere quite so posh while on expedition - it was amazing! After a lunch of hot soup we were off for three hours of horse riding. I was actually dreading this part as it is a health and safety nightmare but thankfully they were able to supply 16 helmets, much to the disappointment of the students and much to the relief of Richard and Steve - Richard particularly as the thought of horse riding had made him go rather pale!
The Hacienda sits at 3,600m and we rode up to 4,200m and back down over the course of the afternoon which certainly helped with acclimatisation. We were accompanied by a friendly little dog we came to know as Rocky and who became our permanent talisman for the next few days.

That evening, all walking a little like John Wayne and missing our chaps and ponchos, we settled down for a fantastic dinner of soup, followed by chicken, mashed potato and red cabbage. Oh what I would have done for a large glass of Rioja...

After a lovely sleep in a warm and comfortable bed it was up to a delicious breakfast of granola with fruit and yogurt, followed by scrambled egg, bacon and cheese, accompanied by bread rolls and jam. All washed down with a glass of guava juice and a cup of hot chocolate. Now that's what I call a sensible trekking breakfast :)

Unfortunately, after all this opulence it was time for a reality check. Dario, our guide (who looked about 14 and didn't speak any English) led us off up the road at a ridiculous rate of knots into the rain on the first day of our trek around Cotopaxi. The wind and the rain was bearable but the lunch of one pita bread with ham and ketchup (oh my god) was not. This was it, I was going to starve to death, surrounded by teenagers, wet and cold and with the taste of cheap ketchup lingering on my tongue. Oh joy. At least there were a few banana chips and a couple of raisins to bulk out the meal...

The rain and the wind continued in spurts but held off just long enough for us to put our tents up at our Santo Domingo campsite (Mother Nature can be nice sometimes). Unfortunately the rain came back with a vengeance when it was time to cook dinner. Poor Becca almost froze to death and then had to put up with Richard, Steve and I moaning about eating cold uncooked pasta with cold tomato sauce. Well, it was pretty shocking and we had to have a good laugh about it. It was that or cry. We had possibly managed to get down 500 calories over lunch and dinner. What was that I said before about starving...?

Oh my goodness, I have just realised how much I have been rambling! Long story short: had good night's sleep, woke up to find that my good tent spot had become precariously close to the water's edge following a night of heavy rain, breakfast of porrige (not much) and brown sugar, long day of walking in persistent heavy rain following Dario who didn't always seem to know exactly where he was going, ending up at Hacienda de Tambo to be greeted with more hot (mint but not mint) tea and a roaring fire. Lovely end to a not so lovely day.

After a night of drying out and another good evening meal and hearty breakfast, the sun finally decided to show her face, as did Volcan Cotopaxi! Day 3 was a different kettle of fish altogether as we walked with higher spirits and things to look at other than the person in front's feet while keeping our heads down out of the rain. It was back to the campsite by the lake that night, this time making sure I pitched my tent well away from the water's edge (just in case!). That night Rocky slept in with me - I was hoping he would keep me warm as it was a very clear night but he was a rubbish hot water bottle and I froze (something to do with the bad decision I made about which sleeping bag to take).

Day 4 started with a picture perfect view of Cotopaxi reflected in the lake. Unfortunately, what could have been a fantastic day's walk, was marred slightly by Dario's inability to pick a good route - some dodgy traverses and unnecessary ups and downs made for quite tiring work. Still, we eventually reached our final campsite and lay back to look up at the volcano backed by blue sky and illuminated by the much needed sun. It's quite a stunning sight and definitely one to come back to, without a load of teenagers, to climb at a later date. Another one for the list.

Unfortunately that day one of the students had become ill and was not getting any better that evening. After much deliberating and communication with the Ops room it was decided that she would be better off at the Hacienda. Unfortunately (and I say this with real sincerity...) that meant that I had to accompany her and another student and spend the last night in a warm comfortable bed rather than under canvas. I really am a rubbish camper - give me luxury accommodation any day!! :)

Thankfully the young lady in question felt much better in the morning - possibly something to do with the proper toilets, comfy bed, hot shower and hearty breakfast.

So, back in Quito tonight. We finally made it to a local restaurant this evening and had a feast of meat, rice and beans, all for $2.50 a head (can't complain about that!). The kids are all watching a DVD while I sit here, writing this blog, wearing my newly acquired slouchy trousers (I finally gave in and became one of the gang - we all match now) and listening to the hippies play guitar and sing a bit too loudly. Hopefully we will see some more of Quito tomorrow before heading off to Puerto Lopez on Thursday to get started on our project. Adios amigos. Hasta luego :)

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Ecuador with Eastbourne College - Phase 1

Well, here I am again, on expedition with a bunch of teenagers, this time from the prestigious Eastbourne College, and this time in Ecuador. It was an interesting start with our flight leaving Heathrow at 0620 on the 7th and us only being able to get a lift to the airport the previous evening. Terminal 3 is possibly the most uncomfortable airport I have ever had to spend a night in, and believe me, I have slept in a few! Needless to say I think I managed about half an hour of shut eye before having to check in at 0430 (that is not me in the picture - I think he slept quite well!).I then promptly slept for the entire flight to Madrid. Wow, a whole 2 hours - that made me feel heaps better!! Grumpy? Me? Never! It was then a wonderous 11 hour flight where once again, I was unable to sleep. Instead I managed to watch Date Night without the sound and then Nanny McPhee (the second one I think) with the sound (I shouldn't have bothered with the sound!!). At least two young people were sick during the flight, the Iberia staff were typically rude throughout and the food was sub-standard. We did manage to hear the football score from the pilot though, which was a nice touch. Viva Espana and all that.

Arrival into Quito was an anti-climax with no lovely views of the mountains due to thick cloud and torrential rain. Oh, and everybody clapped when we landed. Why do they do that? Do they not realise that it is supposed to happen like that?? There was then the moment when we thought Iberia had managed to lose 7 bags, only to discover them discarded on the floor on the other side of the luggage hall. Thankfully our airport pick-up was waiting and on hand to help me as I was carrying my bag, my hand luggage and the rucksack of one of the pukers. Me very strong. Like ox. Thanks boys.

Anyway, I am spending far too long describing what is really quite meaningless in the grand scheme of things as I'm sure it is Ecuador you wish to hear about, rather than my gripes with air travel. So...

The first couple of days it was all about getting used to the altitude - Quito is not horrendously high, about 2,800m I think, but enough to make you out of breath quite quickly when you try and walk briskly uphill. Unfortunately there are quite a few stupid members of my group so getting things done seemed to take forever. This meant no sightseeing for us except for a visit to El Mitad del Mundo (the equator) where it rained like I have never seen rain before (well, this trip anyway) and we all got very wet and cold. It is quite amusing that the monument and the line are actually about 240m out (according to the guide book) from the actual equator. Genius.

Saturday we left Quito, which was a shame as I was becoming rather fond of the hotel/brothel we had found ourselves in! The two women/men/women/I don't bloody know what they were that were working out of there were becoming a little scarey, especially when they started winking at the kids. (I feel I should call them kids here, just to emphasize the creepiness of the situation.) Anyway, we left Quito and headed to Tena on the edge of the Amazon rainforest. We lost over 2,000m in altitude and gained about 20 degrees in temperature and 80% in humidity. That was a shock to the system. The teacher with the school became very ill and spent the afternoon and evening throwing up (typically this was the first time we had to share a room!). I spent the evening tip-toeing around so as not to wake him from his fitful feverish sleep. Thank goodness for wi-fi - at least I could check my Facebook ;)

From Tena it was off into the jungle for a true Amazon experience. Well, truish. We did have beds (albeit not that comfortable). And flushing toilets. And we were only 20m from the road. But it was a jungle experience of sorts. The group were impressed so I guess that's what counts. It's not my holiday after all (and don't I bloody know it!!).No, I mustn't knock it, it was a great couple of days. The food was amazing - well, the teacher and I thoroughly enjoyed it anyway, the hammocks were very comfortable and the two dogs (named Colin and Colin by the teacher, even though one was female) were very amusing. The female Colin even accompanied us on our epic gorge walk - we were very impressed with her dexterity and fearless attitude. Put most of the kids to shame! We got our faces painted with tribal markings, we wore headbands made from palm leaves, we ate lemon ants (actually, I didn't eat any - been there, done that before), we swam in a jungle pool, we climbed a waterfall, we learned all about the medicinal, and sometimes halucinagenic, qualities of some plants, we wore wellies... what more could one need for a well-rounded jungle experience? I know, learning to make bird noises. Hmmm. A couple of minutes listening to 13 teenagers attempt to make a bird noise through their hands would have been bearable, a whole afternoon of it was enough to drive me to murder. Almost.Our jungle experience sadly ended this morning and today was spent white water rafting and getting eaten by sandflies. The rafting was great, the sandflies not so. The river was quite low which was disappointing but, once again, I guess it's not my holiday and the group had a ball so that's what counts. It is now 0130 and I am writing this blog in an effort to exhaust myself so that I might fall asleep without scratching myself raw. It's all mind over matter apparently. Yeah, right!

So that's me, at the end of week one of this Ecuadorian adventure with the most gullible of gullible students in my charge (seriously, they believe absolutely anything!). The day after tomorrow we are off to walk around, yes, around and not up, Cotapaxi, so I will endeavour to update this blog on my return. Ciao for now xxx

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Bit of a catch up!

Oh my goodness, where is the year going?? I can't believe we are nearly half way through 2010 already and this is my first blog of the year. What has been going on?? Well, 2010 started well, with lots of snow falling in North Wales and an excursion out into the hills, with good friend Aled, to test out my new winter boots, crampons and axe. The conditions were fantastic and it was set to be a good few months. Unfortunately, walking to the car with my new pup Bailey and slipping on the ice put a kibosh on my winter plans. A week later, with a steel plate and five screws in my ankle, Bailey and I headed down to Tunbridge Wells to be looked after by my lovely parents. Not quite the winter I had in mind! So now spring has sprung and summer is well on her way - I am already peeling on my back!
My year really began in April, once I was off crutches and back in action. Since then I have been up Snowdon a couple of times, visited The Old Man of Coniston, got back on the rock, swum Derwent Water and finally got back in a sea kayak. I have yet to get back on my bike, but it won't be long :)
The really scary thing about how quick the time is slipping by is that it is now only four weeks until I head off on expedition to Ecuador with Eastbourne College! Watch this space for the blog postings on that trip - I will be sure to keep it updated. Until then, ciao for now xx

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Taking on the Red Ridge

It's not often that we get blessed with weather quite as fantastic as now, and it's been pretty grotty since I got home, so I thought I should make the best of it. While I was hanging around on Idwal Slabs yesterday, being a guinea pig on an MIA assessment, I thought I really should get back on Crib Goch. After all, it's been at least 2 years since I graced her with my presence. So, over dinner with my good friend Jo, it was decided. I would drive to Cwm y Glo, drop my car off, get a lift with her husband Dave to the pass and then disappear off up the mountain, ringing later to get a lift back with Jo - isn't it nice having friends with nothing better to do :)

What a glorious morning it was. The car park at Pen y Pass was heaving already at 8.20am so I didn't waste any time and made a quick dash up the Pyg Track. Overtaking one couple I found myself with no one in front. Excellent. I hate having people in my photos! Unless they are specifically of people of course...

I made quick time up the face only stopping briefly when I managed to drop the sun shade from my camera. As it bounced back down the way I had come I decided it wasn't worth it and continued on, not wanting anyone to overtake me. Not yet anyway.I arrived at the start of the ridge at about 9.30am and had to stop and take stock. I had forgotten just how beautiful the winding double ridge of Crib Goch and Crib y Ddysgl were. Especially with Snowdon in the background just shrouded in a candy floss of cloud. Magnificent.

So off I trundled. Oh how I wish I wasn't quite so clumsy. I would love to be able to nimbly pick my way along the ridge in a dainty fashion but it is never to be. I trip over my own feet far too many times to be careless on a knife edge ridge like Crib Goch. I wanted to make it through this gorgeous day rather than lose my life following a clumsy fall! Slowly did it, finally allowing the gentleman that had been slowly catching up to me to overtake (once I had taken the important photos that was). At 11.00 I reached the summit of Garnedd Ugain after keeping strictly to the ridge line of Crib y Ddysgl and sat down to take in the view. Snowdon was covered in people already - I had seen the train go up a couple of times full to bursting - so I made the conscious decision to give it a miss. It will always be there and it's not like I've never been there before...It was a toss-up between the Pyg or the Miners Track for the descent but I went with the Pyg thinking it would be more gradual and therefore better for my knees. I don't think my knees are agreeing having done it :0 Back at the carpark for 12.35 which made my morning jaunt a total of 4 hours and 10 minutes. Now I have set myself the challenge of getting it done in under 4 hours. I'm not sure quite why and my knees are already protesting just at the thought of it. Still, what is a life without challenges? :)

Monday, 7 September 2009

Sea Kayaking, Anglesey

I have a love hate relationship with kayaking. It all started back in 2001 in New Zealand when I went on a four day sea kayaking trip in Doubtful Sound. What a beautiful place! The weather wasn't great, and the sand flies were horrendous, but just being there, with the dolphins, and no one else except us in our little sea kayaks was inspiring. So much so that I came back to the UK, applied to go to university to study Outdoor Education, left the life of London and the office and became an outdoor instructor! Obviously it didn't happen quite that quickly but, in a nutshell, that is the story of my big life/career change.

So the story began with a love for kayaking. Getting my Level 2 Coach and then working in centres teaching kids to go in a straight line soon brought upon the hate. It's a shame, but working at that level, your personal skills never improve and the repetition just wears you down. The time I had spare I focussed on other activities and poor old kayaking got left by the wayside. The only time I gave it any focus was when I went to Chile in 2004 with Raleigh International and assisted leading a group round the Chilean Archipilaego for 17 days. Since then, I can probably count my days in a sea kayak on one hand.
Last year I decided that this had to change. Kayaking on rivers doesn't appeal to me all that much, mainly because I lose the feeling in my ankles and feet and, more so, because I invariably end up swimming. So, back to the sea. This is where the love started and, therefore, this is where it should be rekindled.

It always pays to have friends who are better than you at what you do, that way you can use them to help you :) A fine example is my friend James, owner of Adventure Elements in North Wales. He is an excellent sea kayaker and is an aspirant Level 5 Coach. This means that he needs long term students to mentor and coach and that's where I step in.
So, after a few sessions out on the water earlier in the year I found myself signed up for the 4 Star Leader's Award. Training, may I add! Having been away for over 2 months over the summer, I was a little nervous stepping into my kayak in Bull Bay on Anglesey on Saturday. Especially with the force 4 winds blowing offshore the way they were. The trip had been planned that we would be paddling to Cemaes Bay with the ebb tide the whole way, despite going into wind, so it shouldn't be too tough. No one bloody mentioned the effects of the back eddies though!! I was knackered. Not only paddling against the wind, but also against the flow of the water! Still, I didn't fall out and I didn't get wet. In fact, I found the whole day very enjoyable and really quite manageable. Maybe I wasn't as rubbish as I thought...

And then came Sunday. Off we headed to Treaddur Bay where the winds were blowing a force 5, maybe 6, onshore and there was a good 4ft swell rolling in. My stomach was doing flips before I even got on the water! Heading out of the bay wasn't too bad. Paddling into wind is hard work but you are very supported. It was when we turned right out of the bay and were suddenly broadside to the wind and the swell. Oh my goodness!! James then asked me if I'd like to lead a leg, at which point I let him know that my confidence in my own ability was pretty poor so being responsible for others was possibly not a good idea :0

I managed to keep it together and get through the worst, avoiding all the rocks and keeping myself upright to the lagoon we were headed to. Phew. Pete asked me if I wanted to lead back. Feeling much more confident, I agreed. Actually, I don't think I did that bad a job. My communication to the group was good. I identified the hazards well. I kept between the group and the danger. Nearly went in twice but that's by the by ;)Rescue time. We knew it was going to be a wet day so I came dressed for the occasion. Wet suit under my not-really-so-dry trousers and gimp hat to keep my little ears warm. I volunteered to go swimming first. Jimbo did an efficient rescue and I was back in my boat in no time. The water wasn't actually that cold. Thankfully! Then it was my turn to effect a rescue. In Jimbo went, over I went to rescue him, in I went. Hmmm, that wasn't the plan. I got a little over cocky, reached out for the boat, just as a wave came and moved it out of my way. Once you're leaning that far over, there's not really a lot you can do. So poor old James had to rescue us both!! I did it a little better the next time.

So, a four star leader I will not be any time soon, but my love for sea kayaking has been rekindled. I now need someone to give me lots of money so that I can go and buy a Romany Surf from Nigel Dennis. Hmmmmmmmmmm.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Kenya with Langley Park Girls - Final Post

Our project phase involved working alongside a UK charity called African Promise. The work was to build a new school block for the primary school in a village called Bungule in southern Kenya. It was very labour intensive and the girls (and me) worked hard moving bricks, sand and stones and breaking up stones to make gravel.

The community were very welcoming and we stayed in a lovely thatched cottage belonging to another charity, ABE. While there we also learned to make Chapati and Mandazi, a useful skill for all to take home!

We stayed in Bungule for six nights in a lovely cottage owned by another charity ABE. Abraham was our fantastic host and everyone was sad to leave, especially having to say goodbye to Boots the kitten! The villagers threw a celebration for us on the final day and performed traditional African song and dance and cooked us some local food. It was a fabulous send off and really appreciated by the group.

We are now at Tiwi beach, just south of Mombasa, where we will be until Sunday. Hmmmm.... rest and relaxation, my least favourity part of expedition. Yes it's nice to be by the sea. Yes it's nice not to have to get up early. Yes it's nice not to have to drive anywhere. However, when are things most likely to go wrong? Now. When do the group drop their guard? Now. When is it most boring? Now. When do I have the most to do? Now. Need I continue?

Anyway, moving on... On Sunday we are getting the overnight train to Nairobi. First Class! Really looking forward to this - it is meant to be Africa's great train journey. And with silver service!! And then maybe I can relax :)

As a footnote to this blog... Actually, the beach wasn't all that bad. And nothing did go wrong, apart from a room key that nearly went missing on the beach in the dark. The weather was great, most of the time, and the food was good. As was the beer :) The train, on the other hand, was a little less first class than I had hoped. Still, it was an experience and an enjoyable one on my part. The final dinner at the Thorn Tree restaurant in Nairobi was fantastic. The food was absolutely amazing - as it should have been at the price we paid! All in all, a fantastic expedition. Thank you girls.