Tag Archives: Workaway

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

4 Apr

Paula watching sunset

By Paula
[April 2016]

Let’s get one thing out of the way right now – sometimes long-term travel is a bit hard. Because it’s a privilege to be able to travel for pleasure, it can be awkward to admit that. But there, I’ve said it.

But whatever down sides there are to living a nomadic life on the road, for us they were massively outweighed by the good stuff. If that wasn’t the case, we simply wouldn’t have kept going for nearly 1,600 days.

Like just about everything else in life, if it’s what you passionately want to do, you’ll take the rough with the smooth.  Via this blog we have been able to share so many incredible, unforgettable moments, and we thank you all again for coming along. We find it hard to absorb the sheer saturating volume of amazingness we’ve been lucky enough to experience, and the thought of trying to sum that up in this post is mind-boggling.

We hope you agree that we have also been truthful about the bad times, the irritations and the frustrations. We can’t stand shiny, shouty, dishonest travel blogging that makes out every single moment is a profoundly life-changing ‘awesome blast’, or that travelling is in some way superior to other lifestyles. The awesomeness is indeed present in an infinite number of big and small ways, and giving up a secure life to undertake a trip like this is inevitably life-altering, but let’s keep things in perspective please.

We get a lot of questions about why we did this, what’s great and what’s difficult – the thing is the answer can change depending on the day, the mood, the weather, the circumstances, the people. Sometimes a ‘bad’ thing leads to something fabulous. Some days you’re doing something fabulous and can still manage to be in a foul mood. Some of the best things are the hardest to convey because they are fleeting, silly moments that get lost in translation.

In this post, some of the good and bad things will literally overlap. How can we blather on about loving the freedom to be on the move, then bemoan the bad things about always being transient? Because we are all a bag of contradictions.

With our return home we’ve tried to focus our minds on the things we most treasured and the things we won’t miss so much.

They are those consistent themes that, for us, represent the truly Good, the Bad and the Ugly about our totally perfectly awesome blast of a drive to the bottom of the world.

[This is a huge blog post. If it helps, you can flick between the items you want to read from the list of clickable links below. But if you skip straight past all the ‘good’ stuff and go straight to the ‘bad & ugly’, please know that this makes you a terrible person.]

 


 

THE GOOD

1. Freedom

2. Being outside

3. Gazing at wildlife

4. Scoffing food

5. Feeling the ‘wow’ factor

6. Triumphing over adversity

7. Enjoying random surprises

8. Meeting people

 

THE BAD & THE UGLY

1. The toilet situation

2. The “f****ing wifi”

3. The vehicle maintenance

4. The lack of privacy

5. The transience

 


 

THE GOOD

1. FREEDOM

Long road, Patagonia, Argentina

Just me, him, a flask of tea and the road ahead.

This is the only word that comes close to summing up all that is good about a long road trip with a campervan. People so often ask what’s the best thing about the trip and, while we could list a gazillion cool things we’ve seen and done, it’s this.

Within reason, we could get up in the morning and go wherever we liked, and frequently changed our minds on the way. We didn’t have to get up and trudge to work. We didn’t have to plan much and almost never had to make reservations for anything.

Whenever we ‘arrived’ our house was there with us, so whatever was happening we had that little bubble that was all ours. No matter where we ended up, we could make a drink, cook some food and go to our own bed. If we didn’t like a place, we drove off. If we loved it, we stayed longer. If it rained we tried to head for the sun. If it was too sunny, we parked under a tree.

We had more time together than we could ever have hoped for in our previous life, which was one of the major things we’d craved before the trip. We found that to be strengthening, nourishing and fun.

It’s a massive privilege to have freedom and time – we never stopped appreciating that. We were almost always occupied with something or other because we still enjoy being busy, but we also had the headspace to read, talk, think and sleep more.

It took a while after we left London, but we learned to sometimes just be quiet and still, even bored. I know it’s stating the bleeding obvious, but that is seriously good for you.

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2. BEING OUTSIDE

Early cuppa at Playa Maderas, Nicaragua

Early morning cuppa at Playa Maderas, Nicaragua

If you live the camping life for several years then, guess what, the majority of your time is spent outside in the sunshine and fresh air. We will miss this enormously because it made us feel healthier and improved our sleep quality.

When the weather was cold or wet we really loved having the option of slamming the van door and having a cosy indoor option. But for the most part the climate was great and we did most things outside whenever possible – reading, eating meals, barbequing, washing up, having a drink, fixing stuff, looking at the views and sunsets, swimming, hiking, people-watching, spotting birds and animals and wasting countless hours chasing them around with the camera, often to no avail.

In the mountains and national parks we loved heading off with some snacks for a good long stroll or a strenuous hike. If we were heading out on a particularly tough or long trek, we’d leave the bed out in the morning so we could come home and crawl straight in there afterwards with a reviving cup of tea. Bliss.

In the high altitude areas the light is particularly crisp, bright and unsullied – it truly is nectar for the soul. If only we could store it up for the grey days.

There were several phases of the trip when we did a lot of beach camping – especially Central America, Colombia’s Caribbean coast, northern Peru and southern Brazil. There’s nothing quite like sleeping to the sound of waves, waking up with the early sun, pushing back the door and stepping straight out onto the sand.

Some of our most precious memories are from camping on the beaches of Baja California in Mexico, back in 2011. Stingrays, leaping dolphins and massive azure skies that had to be seen to be believed. There are few better introductions to a life lived outdoors.

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3. GAZING AT WILDLIFE

Blue-footed booby, Ecuador

What you looking at? Blue-footed booby, Ecuador

We began our married life with an African safari and have always had a thing about any kind of wildlife. Even so, I don’t think we realised quite how geeky we were about it until this trip. We loved spotting the big mammals and exciting colourful birds but would also happily spend hours watching hermit crabs or leafcutter ants.

I started making a list of some of the main wildlife we saw on the trip, but it became ridiculously unwieldy.

So here are just a few of our favourite things:

– Swimming with sea lions in Baja California, Mexico, then snorkelling over a shoal of grouper fish that was so immense it gave us vertigo;
– Walking among blue-footed boobies in Ecuador. There is nothing not to like about a wide-eyed bird in bright blue flippers;
– Getting a good long look at a snoozing puma in the rainforest in Costa Rica.
– Watching Rockhopper penguins bounce around on the rocks in Patagonia. Boing!! (In fact, everything about penguins. Magellanics, Kings, Humboldts, whatever – our enthusiasm does not discriminate);
– Slowing down to allow a family of alpacas to cross the road in Peru;
– Spotting a lovely luminous yellow eyelash viper in Costa Rica, photographing it at close range, then later finding out it was a very dangerous, potentially deadly, snake.
– Looking on as herds of capybaras bathed in mud and water pools, in both Colombia and Argentina.
– Monkeys, monkeys, monkeys! So many monkeys. That is all.
– Managing to look up just in time to see, and photograph, a humpback whale leaping out of the ocean in Ecuador.
– Getting an up-close visit from a three-week old baby sea-lion in Chilean Patagonia. The little chap almost managed to upstage the King penguins we’d gone there to visit.
– Being happy to get a cricked neck from watching condors soar in the Argentinian lakes district.
– Standing on a cliff in the Bolivian Amazon, watching macaws flying beneath us in to their rocky nests. (actually, Jeremy hated the scary cliff, but he really enjoyed the parrots!)

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4. SCOFFING FOOD

Anticuchos (cow heart skewers), La Paz

Buying anticuchos (cow heart skewers) in La Paz, Bolivia – served with potato and delicious spicy peanut sauce.

In most parts of the world food is an integral part of the culture that’s all bound up with family, identity, history, the environment and climate, the marking of life’s milestones and more. To travel without an open-minded love of food must surely be a joyless affair.

Luckily we take no persuasion to sample whatever’s on offer, wherever we go. The less familiar the better – roasted guinea pig (Ecuador and Peru), beef heart skewers (Bolivia), fried fat-bottomed ants (Colombia), lamb testicles (Bolivia), llama and alpaca steaks (Peru, Bolivia, northern Argentina) being among the more memorable moments.

Filet mignon with fried ants, Barichara

Getting ready to pop a crunchy fried ant into my mouth, Barichara, Colombia.

On a self-catering trip, plenty of meals are typically everyday concoctions – often the same as, or a variation of, things we’d eat at home. But as much as possible we’d seek out less familiar ingredients to cook with, or try a local twist to what we were making.

But eating out really gave us the chance to delve into the local flavours. For the most part that involved street food and cheap, substantial, set lunches which are usually the main meal of the day in Latin America. Occasionally we’d eat out in the evening, and a few times we splurged on a properly posh gourmet meal.

Everywhere we went, the local cuisine was an enormous source of pride and competitiveness between regions and nations. Food was talked about incessantly and we were happy to join in.

We were asked countless times how we were enjoying the food, what was our favourite thing, which country had the most tempting dishes. Be it on your own head if you don’t compliment the place you’re in at that moment.

Often the street snacks were the best. To name them all would take an entire book. We still salivate over thoughts of papas rellenas (stuffed potato) in Peru, arepas (corn cakes) with egg or cheese in Colombia, tamales (steamed, stuffed corn dough) in Central America, Mexican tacos of every variety, tajadas (crispy fried plantain chips) in Nicaragua and dreamy deep-fried coxhinas de frango (chicken fritters, sometimes with melty cheese) in Brazil. Just about everywhere has a version of an empanada (fried or baked, filled pastry pies) but Bolivia wins for its version, the salteña – biting through the crumbly pastry to find a juicy meat gravy inside requires it to be eaten standing up, leaning forward, legs apart.

For us the overall winners are Mexico and Peru for the best cuisine in terms of flavour, imagination, freshness and variety, and Argentina for being fabulous at the more limited things it specialises in, including steak, milanesas, chorizo and dulce de leche (caramel) with everything. Just don’t tell our friends in Bolivia that they didn’t make the cut…

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5. FEELING THE ‘WOW’ FACTOR

P&J, Fitz Roy mirador

Glorious views of the Fitz Roy range on our hike to Laguna de Los Tres, near El Chalten, Argentina.

The biggest ‘wow’ moments in travel aren’t restricted to the classic ‘must-sees’ and, in any case, everyone’s got their own tastes about what wows them and what leaves them cold. We can get ridiculously excited about something quite obscure or prosaic, but we are equally happy to be carried along with the hype of the massive sites like Macchu Picchu or Iguazu Falls.

I gave those two examples, because they are perhaps the most touristed destinations in South America, and we still loved them. Some travellers consider it a badge of honour to snub the ‘touristy’ places – erroneously believing themselves to be something other than tourists and preferring to deny themselves the pleasure of seeing a cultural or natural wonder because it’s ‘too busy / expensive / predictable’. We don’t feel that way. Yes, we always try to avoid the busiest times, we pack our own lunch, we loathe it when places have been thoroughly wrecked by tourism, and we sidestep the avoidable rip-offs. But most of those places are well known for a good reason, and sometimes you just have to embrace it.

A fair number of our wow moments fall into that busy ‘touristy’ category, some less so, and some we practically had to ourselves. There are others that couldn’t really be photographed well, like the mind-popping stargazing we did in the Atacama desert (Chile) and Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia).

Our little brainstorming session for this section could have lasted for days, had we let the list go on and on and on. Look down for an agonisingly small selection of some of the best big breath-takers.

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6. TRIUMPHING OVER ADVERSITY

Arriving in Ushuaia!

14 Jan 2015: Arriving in Ushuaia. Only about a year ‘late’ – not too shabby!

I sometimes think that people who love adventurous travel are a little bit addicted to the highs and lows that inevitably come with it. If you take on a long trip, especially with a vehicle, the chances of absolutely everything going 100% A-Ok smoothly are practically nil. You have to deal with some shitty and annoying stuff or, worse, some scary and risky stuff.

It doesn’t always feel like it at the time, but – as long as we are still alive and more or less un-maimed  – I think we secretly kind of like it that way.

Because getting yourselves out of an adverse situation or solving a new tricky conundrum is like a drug. Those massive lows make the highs all the more exhilarating.

The great thing is, it doesn’t even have to be anything particularly major or frightening. It’s not necessarily ‘adversity’, in the context of some of the things people have to live through in today’s world, but it just has to feel like a challenge for you.

It wasn’t unusual to see us fist-pumping the air because a hot, sweaty, sweary, confusing, seemingly hopeless day of looking for a propane gas plant had actually ended with success – ie with a full tank of propane gas.

We’d celebrate with a drink and dinner that night as if we’d just managed to scale Everest in flip-flops.

Even taking on a trek we found difficult, pushing ourselves just a bit further than we were comfortable with, was something that would put us on a high. This was especially the case for Jeremy, who suffers from terrible vertigo and frequently had to push himself out of his comfort zone. One of the hardest walks didn’t even involve any altitude – it was a blindingly hot beach trek into the Costa Rican rainforest, during which Jeremy became a bit delirious, I briefly thought about lying down and dying, and we had to wade waist-high through a river not entirely unvisited by crocodiles. Arriving was utter bliss.

Paula at customs office, Quito

Waiting for yet another customs office to help us.

Navigating our way through some of the bureaucratic mazes we found ourselves in ended in a similar self-congratulatory mood. We have particularly vivid memories of being horribly lost in Bogota, Colombia, being (unnecessarily) sent here, there and everywhere, trying to renew our visas and vehicle permit. This is not a city you want to drive in. Ever. It’s the only day I can remember us actually both crying whilst driving, but we genuinely laughed about it later.

Three months later we had to do the same visa run again, but in an easier provincial city in the south. We were so chuffed we’d got it all done, but by that time we were running late to get to a rural ranch (see Good things no.7: Enjoying Random Surprises), before dark. It was a part of Colombia that was only just opening up after being a dangerous no-go area for years. All we had was a scribbled map, a name and no phone or GPS. As we rushed to find our way out of town we did an illegal u-turn and hit a motorcyclist. When the police arrived it turned out one of the officers was the uncle of the woman we’d knocked over. We really thought we’d had it that day. But we got away with it – we miraculously found the un-signed ranch in the pitch black, we ate grilled trout for dinner, drank a lot of cold beer and sank into our beds that night feeling like we’d just lived a whole week in one day.

Then of course there was the van. There were periods when we felt like we were triumphing over adversity every other day. (See Bad things no.3: The Vehicle Maintenance). We wouldn’t have wished for all those things to happen, and life would have been easier if they hadn’t, but solving them did lead to a great sense of satisfaction. By far the ultimate challenge was smuggling the van out of Ecuador after we’d converted the gearbox – it involved months of planning, discussion and research, a lot of sleepless nights, some dodgy behaviour and quite a lot of nerve.

After it was over and we’d made it to Peru, we drank loads of cocktails, grinned a lot and danced a little. And for the zillionth time on the trip we said: “We can’t believe we just did that”.

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7. ENJOYING RANDOM SURPRISES

No, we hadn't anticipated dancing in public, dressed like this.

No, we hadn’t anticipated dancing in public, dressed like this.

When a plan comes together it’s lovely, but when something unexpected happens it somehow makes things all the more thrilling.

Travelling long-term gives you the freedom to follow the curve balls that come along. So many little unplanned events happened to us along the way, it’s hard to remember absolutely everything. But there are a few moments that really stick in our minds.

Finding ourselves with a van full of El Salvadorean revolutionaries: As we bumped along a dirt track in the van in the El Perquin region, we looked behind from the front to see three ex-guerilla fighters sitting on our seats and floor. We gave each other that familiar look that says ‘jeez, our life is strange sometimes’. We’d booked an informal guided tour of sites that were significant to the rebels during El Salvador’s brutal civil war, but we hadn’t really expected that we’d be the transport. Each time we moved on to the next place our guide would ask us to pull over and pick up yet another random revolutionary – each with a story of the war that was at once fascinating, horrific and inspiring.

Jeremy getting drunk with a bunch of Colombian gauchos in the relatively unexplored Los Llanos region – then me driving all of them, their wives and kids home in the van, via a stop-off for sausage and chips. We’d met a guy at a mechanic’s in Bogota, who invited us to stay at his ranch for a few days and be looked after by the families who lived and worked on the farm. Horse-riding, wildlife-spotting, fire-roasted beef and a taste of the cowboy life – it was one of the most special experiences of our whole trip.

Camping in someone’s living room in Colombia: It doesn’t get much weirder than parking up next to a stranger’s sofa, popping the pop-top and pouring yourself an evening drink. While looking for somewhere to camp in Espinal, we’d asked at a local sports club if we could stay in their grounds. They refused, but a local tennis instructor overheard the conversation and told us we were welcome to camp at his place. Obviously we assumed he had a garden, but when we arrived at his house it was in the middle of the town square! ‘Erm, we actually need someone to park because we sleep inside the van’ we explained. ‘That’s okay’ he said, ‘you can park inside the house….’ He pulled back the gates and we drove into his bizarrely laid-out home, with a covered courtyard that had been made into a living room. We squeezed the van in next to the sofa and settled in for the night.
This entry only just beats the night we ended a horrendously stressful day by being ‘rescued’ by a wealthy Colombian family who allowed us to camp in their garden, amid preparations for a massive posh 50th birthday party.

Dancing in a Bolivian folk festival: Of all the things we couldn’t have foreseen, this probably takes the prize. Few people in this world could persuade Jeremy to don flappy Andean trousers, a poncho and an outrageously camp hat, then dance through the streets waving pink hankies and jangling the spurs on his sandals-with-socks. But our Workaway hosts Emma and Rolando managed just that. I wasn’t doing too badly either, with my woolly dress, pinny and wide-brimmed sombrero flowing with multi-coloured ribbons. During our fabulous four-month stint doing a work-exchange at Colibri Camping near La Paz – which was another unexpected turn of events in itself – we really loved being part of a small community. And part of that involvement included joining the team that competes in their annual dance festival. We’re only sorry our lamentable efforts failed to secure them a victory.

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8. MEETING PEOPLE

Panama

From fleeting interactions, to random acts of kindness by strangers, to making new and enduring friendships, people bind together the fragmented life one lives as a nomad.

There are the countless people whose names we’ll never know, but who made a difference to us in the moment – all the people who spotted our foreign van and waved or approached us to chat or offer help; the people in exceptionally friendly Colombia who invited us in to their homes; the folk who gave us, or helped us find, a safe place to sleep; strangers who gave us little gifts of food or souvenirs; the guys who rescued us when our (first) gearbox gave out in rural Honduras.

We meet dozens of other road-trippers and shared brief conversations, meals and wine, or several days of companionship. Some we met – by chance or design – several times over, while others we convoyed or lived with for a spell.

Our journalism jobs meant we were lucky to be able to meet some fascinating people for the stories we were writing – including ex-guerilla fighters, Bolivian cholitas, journalists under threat and social justice campaigners.

Family and friends visited, giving us a welcome glimpse of home and the chance to spend more time with them than we ever seemed to be able to afford when we lived thousands of miles closer.

Then there were the family members, friends, fellow travellers and strangers from more than 150 countries who followed the blog and often sent us encouraging and complimentary messages. We couldn’t see you but we felt like you were with us.

Stand by for the biggest gallery of all:

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THE BAD & THE UGLY

 

1. THE TOILET SITUATION

Toilet, Peru

Whose turn was it to clean the toilet?

Unsavoury toilet situations are possibly the ugliest part of travelling in such a way that you’re almost always conducting your functions and ablutions in either a public/shared facility, behind a bush or hunched over a bottle inside the car.

We’re not saying all toilets in Latin America are awful, obviously that would be ridiculous, but when you are camping you see a disproportionate number of the nasties. Only a few places have bathrooms that you’d really consider lingering in for longer than strictly necessary. We chose to drive a smaller vehicle without a toilet and that was the right decision for us, but there’s a price that comes with it – a lack of privacy and having to endure other people’s habits, noises, smells, excretions, skin flakes and hair.

The porta-loo we bought at the beginning of the trip was ditched after a year as it was so impractical, and there was a diarrhoea incident in Guatemala that left us both mentally scarred for life. So apart from our magic Uriwell emergency pee bottle, we totally relied on external solutions.

Having to wash or go to the toilet in the great outdoors was the least of our worries – it’s often way more appealing than the indoor option.

In those moments where you’re brushing your teeth over a dirt-caked sink and trying not to touch anything, stepping into a shower covered in leaves, mud, insects (dead and alive) and scum-clogged balls of other people’s hair, trying to avoid inhaling as you hover over a shit-smeared toilet at a truck stop, desperately trying to avoid the pool of rancid urine under your flip-flopped feet, or trying not to look at the bin overflowing with a week’s worth of soiled toilet paper, you do have a little droll thought to yourself: “Yep, living the dream baby, livin’ the dream.”

Those nights when we woke up needing to pee and first had to sleepily remember where the hell we were, then schlep outside to face the elements, the barking dogs, the passersby, whatever, we might have fleetingly wondered why we do this to ourselves.

We do wish we had more photos of the worst toilet examples, but it’s never really a classic Kodak moment. Most are not really extreme – there’s just a fairly regular pattern of poorly-maintained facilities that make the whole experience feel a bit shabby – non-functioning flushes, lack of running water, broken and missing toilet seats, broken or non-existent doors, shredded stained shower curtains that always want to stick to your skin, smashed mirrors, broken lights, and crumbling, mouldy walls.

Electrifying shower, Nicaragua.

Electrifying shower, Nicaragua.

In Central America and Brazil they have electric showers that usually have bare wires hanging from them – if you absent-mindedly raise your arms and touch the shower head, bbzzzzzzt! It certainly helps wake you up in the morning.

There were many periods of the trip when we just didn’t know when or where we would next find a shower. Mostly that’s fine, you get used to it and improvise as best you can. But some days you want to claw out your entire head of stinking, greasy hair.

Toilet reports are a regular topic of conversation, and plenty are great! When we found one that was clean and shiny, well lit, with running water, doors that lock, toilet seats, paper AND soap, it made our bloody day.

Sometimes it was a little bit extreme though. There was the time when I had to go to a drop toilet in the Peruvian Andes, and there was a dead cow in the next cubicle. There was the time that the only available toilet in Cabo de la Vela, Colombia, was so appalling that (sorry dear reader) we resorted to defecating in a plastic bag in the van. One day we met retired Kiwis Gary and Joan, in Patagonia. We were discussing our reasons for not having stayed at the other campsite in town. “We did actually go there and set up camp, but we left almost immediately,” said Gary.

Why was that?” we asked. “Well, Joan went in to the toilet block and someone had crapped in the shower.”

 

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2. THE F***ING WIFI

Paula using laptop

See how unhappy and frustrated I look?

I know it’s not classy or intelligent to swear, but “the fucking wifi!” was one of the most commonly uttered phrases of our trip and I really can’t dress it up as something more polite.

If you imagine that we spent absolutely all of our days skipping through the mountains, sitting by rivers enjoying picnics, or frolicking in the sea, then you might wonder why on earth the internet was so important to us.

Well we didn’t, and it was.

Not every day, thankfully – we really came to appreciate the benefits of having so many days where we had no access, or chose not to access it. It’s good for your health and your relationship.

But when we needed it and it was either hard to find, didn’t not work or was woefully inadequate for the task, this was usually a head-bangingly frustrating waste of time, effort and money. For various reasons we chose not to bring smartphones and buy SIM cards and internet plans for each country, so we completely relied on free wifi in cafes, petrol stations, campsites and public areas, or on using internet shops with desktop computers.

We rented a few apartments and they always had wifi. On our two work-exchange stints in Bolivia and Argentina there was wifi in our accommodation but it was abysmal because the areas were rural.

Sometimes the internet speed was excellent, but you could never really predict when that was going to be – one of our most surprisingly clear Skype calls home was from a public square on an island off the Chilean island of Chiloe.

Plenty of tasks could be, and often were, put off for days or weeks with little consequence – blogging, uploading photos, researching stuff for the trip, reading the news or downloading podcasts. Other things were more important – our freelance journalism work, Skyping the parents, keeping in touch with home, and money matters.

We tended to try to plan the days when we’d go online and get our tasks done – that usually meant packing up the van and driving somewhere to do it, or fitting it in between destination A and B.

The day you’ve planned it will typically be the day when you can’t find a functioning wifi signal. How many damn coffees have we ordered before realising the wifi doesn’t work? (rookie mistake). How many free municipal ‘services’ have we connected to, only to find Nothing At All will load? How many towns have we driven round, hanging the iPad out of the window to try to find an open network? How many hours have we spent watching that spinning wheel as we try to upload photos for the blog or – even worse – for our editors? And, for the love of whatthefuck, how many times have we tried to speak to our parents on Skype and had to run around a campsite, town square or café, trying to locate a signal that will facilitate, you know, an actual conversation.

Am I starting to sound bitter? Well the answer is, a lot! A lot of hours, a lot of times.

But we’re so over it.

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3. THE VEHICLE MAINTENANCE

Van on the truck, Honduras

Please don’t leave, come back..! The first transmission breakdown in Honduras.

For some people, tinkering with a car or tackling a really difficult mechanical conundrum is a deeply satisfying hobby, a pleasure, even a joy. For us it was the steepest learning curve of the journey, and it was often stressful.

We will probably never be mechanics. Let me rephrase that – we will never be mechanics. But we now know the names of more car parts in Spanish than we will ever know in English. We now kind of vaguely know what’s going on under there. We became finely tuned to the van’s little ways and noises and gradually stopped completely dreading conversations with mechanics.

If you’re wondering what the level of our knowledge was when we left home in 2011, let me just say that until 6 months before our departure date Jeremy couldn’t even drive, and neither of us had ever owned a car.

My dad tried to give me a cramming lesson in very basic vehicle maintenance just before we left. My blank facial expressions gave him understandable cause for alarm and his face went a bit white. I was quietly thinking ‘oh wow, I didn’t know there was fluid for the brakes’ while he was quietly thinking ‘oh god, they are definitely going to die in a desert somewhere’.

Broken down in Ecuador

Broken down in Ecuador

If you have followed this blog long term you will know that for the first half of the trip we had an absolute nightmare with the van’s automatic transmission, which failed twice and was eventually converted to a manual gearbox in Ecuador. Trying to get our heads around solving those potentially journey-ending problems was, at times, overwhelming.

That breakdown let to a horrendous cycle of bureaucratic problems that ended with us risking everything to smuggle the van out of the country. It was, by far, the most stressful, pant-wettingly scary thing we had to do on the whole journey.

Big catastrophes aside, the day-to-day maintenance of a vehicle that is also your home just adds an extra layer of pressure. There’s more at stake. Problems cannot be ignored, they have to be dealt with asap and always in a place that you don’t know. Once you do find a mechanic you don’t know if he’s going to be competent. Sometimes they break the very thing they are supposed to be fixing, or fix one thing and break something else just to keep you on your toes. Sometimes they are excellent – it is a lottery every time.

When we needed work done we couldn’t just leave the van and go home. Our home was there, suspended in the air on a hydraulic lift or jacked up with its wheels off. We didn’t even have a cell phone. We had to wander the streets, sit in cafes, or in the yard just waiting, waiting, waiting.

It was difficult to explain the concept to mechanics who didn’t often get people driving their houses into the workshop.

They were frequent conversations like this – mechanic says: “So how long are you in town?” We’d say: “Weeeeell, as long as this takes. We can’t leave until the van is fixed, because we live in it. So basically we’re waiting for you to do this as quickly as possible (subtext – but not so quickly that you cock it up by rushing it).”

Mechanic says: “Okay leave it with us and we’ll let you know.”

We’d say: “And go where? We live in the van. Just to reiterate – we are waiting until you give us our house back because we have nowhere else to go.”

It was tedious. Sometimes we waited all day then bailed out at closing time, having to get things reassembled in order to go off and camp, or abandoning the van to go to a hostel – the work uncompleted, the part untraceable or undelivered.

Mechanic looks at the brakes, Perquin

Another day, another mechanic

Oh yeah, car parts. That’s the other little thing. We couldn’t always find the ones we needed in Latin America and they had to be shipped from the US or Europe (such as a whole transmission – twice). More expense, more long waits. After a while we got wise to the things we might need, bringing things from the UK, or having other stuff shipped while we were ordering something else. We tried to stay one step ahead and largely it all worked out well in the latter two years.

Of course we knew looking after a vehicle would be pretty much the biggest occupational hazard of going on a 50,000-odd mile road trip, but we probably didn’t envisage just quite how consuming it could be at times. We don’t mind saying that we’re proud we not only made it, but learned a hell of a lot along the way.

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4. THE LACK OF PRIVACY

Wayuu woman and baby in our van

People quite often wanted to be photographed with the van.

This is quite a tricky one to describe, because many genuinely good things came out of the fact that we lived much of our van life effectively in the public sphere. By being out there on display, we met countless interesting, helpful, amusing, curious, friendly people.

When you are camping in a small van, unless the weather is totally freezing or you are asleep, the door is pretty much always open and everything you are doing is visible to whoever happens to be around. That varied hugely depending on where we were camping – from quiet bush camps free of anyone, to privately-owned campsites, to petrol stations, village squares, restaurant car parks, tourist sites or beaches.

The vast majority of the time it was great. We had some of the best interactions of this trip precisely because people could, and did, approach us to have a look around and a chat about the journey. We were videoed, photographed and questioned more times than we could count. Children were obsessed with the pop-top and always wanted to climb in it. Sometimes people would hang around to watch us from a distance, to see what the strange gringos would do next. We could actually hear them giving a running commentary to each other.

Occasionally we did feel self-conscious about it – more so in the countries where camping and motorhomes were much less common. If you’re frying up some chicken inside your car or trying to relax with a glass of wine in a village square in rural Bolivia, people will understandably stare at you and you might not always be in the mood for it. We had a classic comedy moment quite recently when a young boy was strolling past, gazing open-mouthed at the van’s pop-top. As he lifted his hand to wave at us he walked face-on into a lamppost. Oh how we all chuckled!

There are those days when you feel hot and sweaty, grumpy, or a bit stressed because you can’t find somewhere decent to camp, and being on public display is just not what you want. Those days are a small minority, but they really matter in that moment. If you’re hormonal, knackered, feeling a bit meh or just need to wallow with a ‘duvet day’ it’s harder to hide unless you happen to be in the middle of nowhere, or can find a peaceful private campground in which to relax and be alone.

Talking of being alone, as a couple we were pretty much always together. This is one of those overlapping good and bad things. Given our previous life, being able to spend so much time together has been one of the top-ranking good things about this trip. But we also appreciate that it’s not entirely normal to have virtually zero time away from your partner. Often our only ‘me time’ was when one of us went to the loo or had a shower. And even that wasn’t a guaranteed solo activity.

If there were any taboos left in our marriage when we left home, their demise probably began around the time of the Guatemala diarrhoea incident (see Bad things no 1. The Toilet Situation) and continued with every use of the emergency night-time pee bottle. If you’re thinking of doing a trip like this and don’t fancy the idea of loudly peeing in to a plastic bottle 6ft from your partner’s face, get a bigger van.

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5. THE TRANSIENCE

Desert driving, Peru

Off we go again…

There are a few down sides about being nomadic (but see also Good things no 1. – Freedom). Yet again, how much you care about this depends on the mood and the circumstances.

I’d love to know how many hours we spent packing up to leave, arriving somewhere new and moving all the stuff around again.

For us one of the hardest things about being transient was when we needed to get things done. We were continually starting from scratch because our environment changed so often we were always the newbies in town and didn’t know where things were. Sometimes we’d literally be driving randomly around the streets of X town or village, hoping to stumble across a mechanic, launderette, ironmonger, internet shop, food market, water or ice seller, some obscure piece of something for the van, an actual campsite or somewhere to stop for the night. It can get tiresome because everything requires a bit more time and effort.

Roadside camp

Packing up, moving on.

Sometimes we were lonely too. Over four and half years we met a lot of people, some of whom we now consider to be great friends. But it was all so temporary. We, and they, were always moving on. It was nice when we bumped into people more than once – we got a little taste of that familiar feeling that is so rare when you’re travelling.

Despite all the great folk we met, a massive majority of our time was actually spent à deux. Here’s a guilty secret – having no friends or social life to speak of is often really quite nice, in that life is just very simple. But most of us thrive on our connections with other humans, and we did feel the absence of our family and friends very strongly.

We’d crave a spontaneous night out or a long lazy brunch with people we loved and with whom we had a shared history and outlook – those people in your life that don’t require introductions or explanations.

Some days there were down times – especially during the long Argentinian siesta – when we felt incredibly ‘baseless’. Just hanging around waiting for things to happen before we could move on to the next place or return to our campspot for the night.

Perversely, despite the occasional frustrations our transient lifestyle didn’t necessarily lead to a desire to have a permanent settled home. In fact I think our boredom threshold became progressively lower. At the very end of the trip we stayed in a lovely apartment in a great, lively part of Buenos Aires for a month. After three weeks of it Jeremy looked quite alarmed when I said one morning: “Jeez, every time I go out it’s just the same streets every time…!

As we begin the process of finding somewhere to live again, this is probably an attitude I need to address.

Camping at Cabo Dos Bahias

Where is home?

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Mooning around

11 Oct Blood moon
Blood moon

Blood moon, Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina.

Alta Gracia, Córdoba, Argentina
[by Paula]

In our previous life, if I read or heard talk of the kind of travelling that was of the fluid, go-where-the-road-takes-you variety, it always smelled faintly of bullshit to me. It seemed liked an idealised kind of travelling, the kind that people liked to think they were doing, if only they could be that relaxed.

We’ve had enough of those kinds of days and experiences now to realise it’s not bull, it is possible – with the luxury of time – to take each day as it comes and not worry about what’s ‘supposed’ to happen. We still love the planning aspect of the trip – poring over maps and deciding what we want to see, but we’re equally prepared to chuck it all out the window if necessity, weather, the van or the mood requires. I have battled my inner List-Making Control Freak (although am still never actually without a to-do list) while Jeremy has tackled his inner Restlessly Impatient, and we have let our inner Fuck Its prevail – well, at least for the most part.

As I write this we are beginning an unexpected four-and-a-half hour wait at the top of a mountain pass because the route is closed til 7pm for roadworks. We won’t make it to where we’re heading but it doesn’t really matter because we don’t have a particular plan or schedule. The British answer to absolutely every circumstance is to make a cup of tea, so that’s what we’ve done. And because this is Argentina, where one can barely move for campsites, we don’t have to stress out about finding somewhere to sleep before dark. The worst that can happen is that we’ll bed down right here with the diggers and dump trucks.

Mountain pass closed

A delay with a view; crossing the Miranda pass to Chilecito, and waiting four and a half hours for the road to re-open…

Now, more than ever, we are travelling without a plan and sometimes it can feel a bit flaky. While we’ve hardly been burdened with high-pressure deadlines over the last four years, until now we’ve always had at least some loose or distant goal to consider. Be that getting to a certain place for the right season, meeting up with the parents or friends, planning flights for a trip home, organising a Workaway placement, trying to get the van fixed, or fitting things around story ideas and work deadlines. The ultimate aim was making it to Tierra del Fuego in the summer. Turned out it wasn’t the summer we planned, but a year later.

Not for the first time since then we ask ourselves, what’s next? And recently the answer has been slowly taking shape as that vast country that we never really planned to visit, called Brazil… more of which later.

Before taking to the road again, our final month in Salto de las Rosas – where we were doing a three-month Workaway placement – also involved an unplanned turn of events. Two weeks before our leaving date, our British host Susan made a sudden decision to return to the UK to live, with Dave and her daughter, for family reasons. After 10 years in Argentina, they would be packing up, selling everything, trying to re-home their six pets, finding a temporary house-sitter and navigating a quagmire of bureaucracy to settle bills, legal stuff and the sale of Susan’s land and three properties. They had less than 6 weeks to do it in. Suffice to say, they had a lot to do and probably needed some help.

While Susan embraced her inner Spreadsheet Maker and got cracking with the plan, we volunteered to stay an extra two weeks and did a quick metamorphosis from wood-cutting grunts into assistant planners / organisers / house-movers / salespeople / cleaners / photographers. The houses, land and almost everything they owned – which was a lot – were listed and photographed. Yard sales were organised and people started flocking to buy all their belongings.

Final selfie

Final selfie with Susan, Dave and Tiv, Salto de las Rosas, San Rafael.

They’ve been through this before – as have we – and know what to do. But I don’t think they’ll mind me saying there were, understandably, moments when they froze into rabbits-in-the-headlights mode and we had to usher them off the highway. We became part-time counsellors and cajolers when needed, which often involved wine, laughing and sporadic outbursts of swearing.

With a necessary detachment we dragged things from cupboards, emptied shelves, lugged furniture and helped sort things into priorities. My inner List-Making Control Freak was released so it could be free to do things like help boss Dave into making an inventory of his mountainous collection of musical equipment and gadgets, or deciding which of his 345,000 computer/phone/amp/unidentifiable cables he was taking to the UK with him.

It was really hard for them to be getting rid of everything, with so little time to process the emotional upheaval of the move. We fully empathised with their biggest worry – leaving the two dogs and four cats behind. In the end, their lovely neighbour agreed to house-sit and take care of all the animals – phew.

As our departure approached, they were exceedingly generous in handing on plenty of useful stuff to us, plus a never-ending supply of food. We had some drunken farewell meals, a hungover asado with friends Malcolm and Sue, and stocked up with a couple of cases of their La Fraccion Malbec for the road. We emptied the house we’d been living in, gave it a final swish of the mop and drove off somewhat heavier-of-van than before.

It probably took a week or so for us to completely re-adjust to full-time van life again, and we’re very much back in the swing of things. Getting used to the relative lack of space, privacy and cleanliness takes a wee while, but we soon forget what it’s like to take these things for granted. It helps that the weather has been getting progressively warmer (albeit still peppered with some grim grey days) and we have summer stretching ahead of us.

Freelance HQ

Freelance HQ, aka The Van, Tunuyan, Mendoza.

During a stop in Tunuyán, in the Valle de Uco wine valley south of Mendoza, we were finishing off a work project at a campsite near the town. As we were cooking one evening, Jeremy said: “why is the van shaking?”.

It was rocking, fairly decisively, from side to side.

“Maybe it’s the wind,” I offered. Only it wasn’t windy.

With hindsight, it seems ridiculous that in the few seconds that followed we considered that someone was outside rocking the van for a joke, or perhaps an animal had got underneath (in our defence, the last time we had a mystery rocking incident, it was due to a huge pig scratching itself on the underside of the van).

Jeremy leapt out to have a look, and quickly realised all the trees were swaying in unison and the ground was shifting from side to side with remarkable force.

“It’s an earthquake!” he yelled.

I jumped outside and we just stood there, quite dumbstruck, for maybe one or two minutes as the ground quietly heaved, and we did little involuntary surfing motions. It was the first time we’d experienced a major earthquake, and it was rather discombobulating. It was obvious it had been a big one, and luckily we had internet access to check. It was quickly reported to be a massive 8.3-magnitude earthquake that had struck off the coast of Chile, nearly 300 miles away on the other side of the Andes. There were some big aftershocks, and most of the evening was spent on the internet, following events over the border.

When we left there we still hadn’t decided where we were going. Despite having three-and-a-half months to think about it while we were in Salto, we still didn’t seem to have a clear travel plan. We decided to head to Potrerillos, as it looked like an area that would be a nice drive with potential walking.

Potrerillos, Mendoza

Great landscapes around Potrerillos, Mendoza, Argentina.

We wondered why there were so many large groups of youngsters at the campsite. Frankly, that never bodes well for a peaceful night, but our fears weren’t realised. A couple of days later, in Luján de Cuyo, we noticed that the supermarket alcohol aisles were roped off because all sales were banned for four days during the ‘Día del Estudiante’ (students’ day). Hmmmm.

We’d booked a fancy meal at a winery for my birthday the following day, so headed to the nearest campsite we could find. We were clearly out of practice because we decided to pitch up at this place despite the glaringly obvious ominous signs:

a. large group of students. b. large amount of booze and c. excessively large speakers.

We were very keen to shower because of our impending posh restaurant plans, but had to battle for a slot in the one, dirty, wood-fired shower that was being hogged by all the students (since when did they wash anyway?).

There followed one of the worst night’s sleep we’ve had on the trip – really shit, booming music that just never ended. I try to be zen about these things, but that usually expires by about 2am. Normally 4am is the latest these parties go on to, so I waited. By 5am I was near to tears and feeling like the next day had been spoiled. We got up, packed up the van as best we could and moved to a spot that was as far from the music as we could find. I think it finally stopped about 6am, and we got a few hours sleep.

Sometimes our life is one of quite strange contrasts. We got up to a cold, drizzly, day and slopped around in the wet, grumpily trying to get ready and pack up the van. We flattened our bed-hair in the decidedly rustic campsite bathrooms and sprayed on lots of deodorant. By midday we were dressed up and shiny, looking like normal members of society. At the Ruca Malen winery and restaurant, the previous night was soon forgotten as we tucked in to a gourmet five-course tasting menu with paired wines. It was a phenomenal, innovative meal with lots of seasonal vegetables and fresh tastes, but they still had the sense to include a sublime Argentine filet steak.

After sleeping that off we finally settled on our next destination. Only to completely change it as we looked at the map again during a milanesa sandwich road-stop. We turned and headed for Sierra de la Quijadas national park, which we’d never heard of but were drawn to by descriptions of its red rock landscapes and wildlife.

At the park’s perfect little free camping area we really got back into the groove, remembering why we love to be out there with nature, living the quiet life, and going to places we didn’t know existed.

Sunset camp

Camping at Parque Nacional Sierra de las Quijadas, San Luis, Argentina.

Jeremy, Sierra de la Quijadas

Jeremy hiking in Parque Nacional Sierra de las Quijadas, San Luis, Argentina.

We saw maras for the first time (large rabbity looking rodents that belong to the guinea pig family), loads of little birds came to visit – some cheekily coming into the van to look for crumbs – and we got one of our best close sitings of a condor during a fabulous hike through the park.

At sunset we walked along to a viewpoint to watch the rocks turn a fiery red.

We were just talking about how we loved going to these peaceful places as we headed to another desert park further north, Parque Provincial Ischigualasto. But as we arrived there was a queue of traffic and huge crowds of people. It was closed for a running event, so we wild camped nearby for the night and waited. Arriving first thing Sunday morning, there was a another queue of traffic waiting to get in before opening time, which is really not a very Argentinian thing to do. What the..?

After a bit of discussion at the ticket office, we gathered that it was a special day because of the upcoming supermoon/lunar eclipse event that night. Having not kept up with our lunar news, we had no idea! The campsite was packed with moongazers and TV crews, but it was a fun atmosphere.

Weirdly, the only way to drive around the park is as part of a convoy – packed again, but well worth it for its lunar-style landscapes, rock formations and amazing colours. Again we wondered how we’d never heard of the place.

'El Submarino', Parque Provincial Ischigualasto

‘El Submarino’, Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina.

Valley of the Moon

Valley of the Moon, Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina.

Little Jeremy, Ischigualasto

Jeremy is dwarfed by yet another bizarre rock formation at Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina.

Driving through Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina.

Driving through Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina.

That night we took our tea flask and headed to a rocky spot to watch the moon. It was a clear starry night and we got a great view of the eclipse, which turned orange by about midnight.

For the first time in ages, we hiked in super hot weather, dodging giant cacti and really feeling like desert rats again.

From there we decided to head north to La Rioja province and the town of Chilecito. It wasn’t too far but we did have to negotiate a winding mountain pass on the way. As we took the turning towards the pass we saw an ancient-looking sign saying the road was closed for construction.

We asked the village police sergeant about it and he said that some traffic was still being allowed through, but we’d have to drive up there and ask. We stopped to talk to a few people on the way and they all said the same… just turn up and see what happens. As we approached the barriers we looked at the foreman hopefully. Nope, the road was shut for several more hours so we’d just have to wait, he said.

Yahtzee!

Yahtzee! We’ve just discovered how amusing this game is..

So here we are, overlooking a phenomenal valley, drinking tea, playing Yahtzee and hoping that the road really does re-open before dark. Okay, I’d rather be camped somewhere, cooking and cracking open a bottle of Malbec, but it’s not so bad. Both of us – yes, even Jeremy – have developed a surprisingly large tolerance for just waiting.

If nothing else, it’s given me a chance to write this blog post and get it off my to-do list.

Days: 1,469
Miles: 40,458
Things we now know to be true: If you gaze at the moon for long enough, you get a cricked neck.

MORE PHOTOS BELOW. AS WITH THE PICTURES ABOVE, CLICK ON ANY IMAGE TO OPEN THE GALLERY:

Wood-stock

24 Aug
River mornings

We walk to the river with the dogs every morning.

Salto de las Rosas, San Rafael, Argentina
[by Paula]

If I had to select one word to sum up our time so far in San Rafael, it would be ‘wood’.

Cutting, felling, chain-sawing, gathering, dragging, rolling, splitting, throwing, snapping, sweeping, sorting, piling and burning the stuff has become a daily preoccupation during our work-exchange placement here in Argentina’s Mendoza province. We arrived here in early June and our stint is, unbelievably, already drawing to a close.

Of course, there has been more to the last 12 weeks than just the wood thing. In fact, we’ve been rather busy and productive with all kinds of work and domesticity, plus a little bit of travel. We’ve been less diligent with the blog though, so to pick up where we left off we have to briefly skip back to May, when we took a month-long trip back to the UK to see family and friends.

Let’s just say it involved a constantly revolving merry-go-round of hellos, goodbyes, trains, planes, pubs, lunches, dinners, large gatherings, small gatherings, far too many drinks, obscene amounts of food and plenty of laughs. We met new babies, clung pathetically to our ageing cat (now 21!), gawped at our rapidly-changing nieces and nephews, and enjoyed spending time with ‘old’ faces.

There is something a little bittersweet about these visits home. While the very purpose of being there is to see everyone, we just wish it didn’t have to be quite so intense and knackering. Poor us! We can hardly complain when it’s the path we’ve chosen and we’re lucky enough to be able to travel back to see people once in a while, but we do miss the everyday-ness of those relationships. This photo gallery sums up some of what went on, with apologies to those who have been airbrushed from history by my total failure to take any photos at several of our meet-ups, especially in London.

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On our return to Argentina we came directly to the village of Salto de las Rosas, in the lovely San Rafael area, which was to be our home for three months. We’d already set up the placement – organised through Workaway – and had met our very welcoming hosts Susan and Dave before departing for the UK.

It’s a straightforward exchange – Susan and Dave, who are UK/US expats, hire ‘Workawayers’ to put in four hours of work per day, five days a week, in exchange for free accommodation. One of the many reasons we’d applied was that the digs on offer was an entire two-bedroomed house on the land Susan owns. It was exactly what we wanted, so we could live independently and get stuck in to our own journalism work in our free time.

Our house 'La Casita'

Our house – ‘La Casita’ – for the duration of our stay is just a holler from Susan and Dave’s.

We’re amazed that we’ve managed to keep travelling for four years but needless to say the funds are getting a bit thin. We needed to stop moving for a while to focus on finding some more freelance work. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to spend the coldest part of winter in a nice warm house. We also like the combination of doing some outdoor grafting for half the day, and freelancing for the other half, whilst having people around for a bit of socialising. (Regular readers might recall we did something similar in Bolivia.)

We soon settled into a routine of rapidly throwing on loads of clothes in the freezing early morning and heading out to walk Susan and Dave’s dogs – loveable clingy mutt Catorce, and bouncy young Rottweiler Cali. They’ve got used to our habits and are usually hurling themselves at the door in a fit of hysteria by the time we are putting our shoes on (the dogs, not Susan and Dave).

Sometimes Catorce sleeps on our bed, just to be sure we don’t try anything sneaky like a lie-in.

Winters here get very cold at the start and end of the day, but are mostly dry, clear and sunny. Most mornings we can see the snowy Andes in the distance as we head down the path to a river that looks beautiful in the morning light.

Until lunchtime we’re doing tasks around the garden, usually involving raking and burning mountains of fallen leaves, weeding, tidying, and doing that wood thing. Both our houses only have one source of heating – a wood fire in the living room. Additionally, Susan and Dave can only heat their water via a wood fire. That’s a hell of a demand for wood in winter. There are piles and piles of it outside their house – all different sizes and stages of seasoning.

Aside from the need for stuff to burn, there are trees on the land that are dead, falling down or in dangerous positions and need to be felled. We’ve been learning a thing or two from Dave about avoiding a massive head injury while chopping down trees, and trying not to cut our hands off with power tools.

Working together with a chain-saw has certainly brought a whole new element of trust to our marriage. All I’m saying is, just don’t make me angry.

We also ripped down a crumbling car port and helped build a new one. Dave and Jeremy have started constructing a wood shed too. All from wood, obviously. Ta-da!

Once or twice a week we gather with Susan, Dave and Susan’s daughter Tiv, to have dinner, drink wine, and display unnecessary levels of competitiveness while playing cards. Dave’s a musician and sometimes he gets the guitar out.

San Rafael is a wine-producing area and two of Susan and Dave’s close friends Sue and Malcolm – from the UK – own a small local vineyard and produce a gorgeous Malbec. Double bonus! We’re all keen on cooking, wine and talking, so it’s been great to enjoy several meals together. I’m already calculating how much of their wine I’ll be able to fit in the van when we leave. I mean, it’s not like I need all those clothes, is it?

Meanwhile our endeavours to get some paid work have been encouragingly fruitful so far. Our earlier research work in Welsh Patagonia resulted in four pieces for the BBC, including this audio slideshow and a feature on my impressions of the area, plus an article on the story of Welsh afternoon teas in Patagonia, in new online magazine Cultures & Cuisines.

Jeremy is currently writing an eight-part series for a geeky VW magazine in the UK, and continues to get some work for union magazines. He’s also becoming a shipping bore, writing articles for the journal of shipping union Nautilus, including large features on Argentine naval policy and the new Nicaragua canal. We’re also working together on a project to write web content for a campaign group in the UK.

Living in a rural area can make internet-reliant work frustrating though. We have a limited daily internet allowance, and even when it’s working it’s often refusing to co-operate. We are occasionally found to be smacking our foreheads against the laptop, and sometimes drive 28km into San Rafael city to get things done more quickly.

As with our previous stints at living in a house, it’s good to catch up with things that get neglected when we’re always on the road. Boring stuff like getting new glasses, washing things that are continually dirty but have to be ignored, and working through the never-ending list of van maintenance. If you’re wondering why there seem to be fewer van dramas these days, it’s partly because our earlier issues have helped us be a little bit more zen about these things, and partly because Argentina has been kinder to us. Of course things still break sometimes, but on every occasion so far we’ve either been carrying the part or been able to source it here, which saves a huge amount of time, money and stress.

So life has been relatively sedate , but it’s not been all work and no play. Whenever possible we’ve been spending weekends exploring the province and enjoying some brief returns to the camping life.

There are some fabulous landscapes right on our doorstep, like the colourful rock formations around Valle Grande, the shimmering El Diamante salt flats and the road to the snowy mountains of the nearby ski resort of Las Leñas.

Atuel canyon

Driving through the Atuel canyon from Valle Grande was a constantly changing colourscape.

Salinas del Diamante

Salt mine, Salinas del Diamante, near San Rafael, Mendoza province, Argentina.

Some places are amazingly low key. There’s a tiny, rusty old sign for Laguna Blanca at a gate by the side of the road to Malargüe. We drove up it to find an entirely deserted, phenomenal mountain lake.

I wouldn’t say we’re bored of the red meat culture in Argentina (is that even possible?) but we were beside ourselves with excitement to visit a trout farm near Malargüe that has a restaurant and campsite attached.  Fresh fish! So fresh that we watched it being selected from the pond and gutted on the spot less than half an hour before it arrived on the plate. Not only did we eat baked trout for lunch that day, but the set menu was a trout-fest of pate, mousse, empanadas, smoked trout and more.

Gaucho, near Malargue

Gaucho, seen while we were walking near the trout farm, Malargue.

This area is full of dams for hydro-electricity and the resulting reservoirs are invariably stunning. The nearby Los Reyunos area has been lovely for some walks and picnics.

Of course we couldn’t be here and neglect to pay attention to some vineyards. On a grey weekend in the nearby Valle de Uco we toured a couple of vineyards and indulged in some tastings, punctuated with a beautiful lunch in the town of Tupunganto. We’ve had a few chilly nights camping in recent months, but this one took the prize when we woke up to sleet. We realized we’re turning into wimps when we headed straight home for some warmth.

Well, we thought that had taken the prize until we decided to visit the Parque Provicial Payunia, a reserve near Malargüe which has the world’s highest concentration of volcanic cones – around 800 in a 4,500-sq km area! It’s a low key place with not a lot of information, inadequate mapping and a lack of infrastructure. Okay, so it’s mid-winter but we can never resist a volcano, nor a challenge, so off we went.

We were surprised but excited to see some snow at road level as we drove the back dirt-road from El Nihuil to the boundary of the reserve. As dusk fell the snow levels increased and we started to wonder what was ahead, but found it hard to care because the horizon was just full of snowy volcanic cones and the views incredible.

Snowy road

As we drove south from El Nihuil, the amount of snow gradually increased.

We’d planned to just get as far as possible that night and pull off somewhere on the road to sleep. But the snow was increasingly banked up over the roadside ditches and we couldn’t find anywhere to stop.

After a few hours, at dusk, we came across some guys in a truck who advised us to drive 10km onwards to a house that had space we could probably use. After about 20 miles we were still driving, the road was getting increasingly slippy and we’d given up on the house.

Snowy night

Driving on snow, in the dark, hadn’t really been in the plan. Road from El Nihuil Mendoza province, Argentina.

Just then we saw the lights and pulled in. The bemused owner and his son came out to investigate – what they made of the gringos turning up in the dark in such a remote area, we’ll never know. They, of course, agreed to let us stop and sleep next to their place, where there was some flat gravel to park on.

Next morning we work to a lovely crisp snowy scene, and moved on to the eastern side of Laguna Llancanelo, a phenomenal lake at the edge of the reserve. From our camping spot Jeremy counted 39 visible volcanoes. We walked out on to the dry lake bed, seeing water in the distance but never reaching it. A local gaucho cycled over from his house to see if we’d broken down, and told us that part of the lake had been dry for years.

Lake bed

We camped next to a dry section of the lake bed at Laguna Llancanelo, Mendoza province, Argentina.

Next day we drove to the lake’s ‘official’ entrance and were directed by the park guards to one of the most incredible viewpoints we’ve encountered on this trip – an easily-accessible volcano top with 360-degree views of the snowy Andes, countless volcanoes and the flamingo-rich Laguna Llancancelo. We spent an hour there on a gloriously sunny Sunday, and not another soul came.

Laguna Llancanelo

We looked over Laguna Llancanelo from the top of Volcano Trapal.

It was an amazing weekend, but for the first time we did have to resort to sleeping with the full complement of thermals, sleeping bags and all our blankets.

It’ll be back to full-time camping when we leave here in September, so it’s time to toughen up again.

What’s the plan post-San Rafael? That’s a very good question and kind of depends on what day you’re asking. We’ll most likely head to parts of central Argentina that we haven’t yet visited, and return to some places in the far north that we loved when we first arrived in the country a year ago.

Whatever happens, let’s hope the nights start to get warmer when we hit the road again, because we’ve become just a bit too accustomed to that roaring wood fire.

Days: 1,422
Miles: 38,647
Things we now know to be true: There’s no way of knowing how much wood a woodchuck could chuck.

IT’S A BUMPER CROP… MORE PHOTOS BELOW! 

Click on any photo to open as a slideshow:-

Wrestling with nature

5 Dec
Shop in La Paz, Bolivia

Shop in La Paz, Bolivia

Jupapina, near La Paz, Bolivia
[by Paula]

I’m not going to get all earth mothery on you, but our recent voluntary work in Bolivia is teaching us a hell of a lot about what it takes to manage a piece of land in a place where the weather can be brutal and the terrain unpredictable.

Every day, it seems, we are more or less engaged in a friendly tussle with nature. This is life for so many people in the world, but our post-stamp-sized garden in London wasn’t much of a training ground.

If we’re not trying to repair the ravages of the rains, we’re struggling to rehydrate the sun-parched earth, sweeping up wind-blown debris, helping to knit the slopes together with new trees or trying to keep termites at bay.

And what a place to do it. We’re perched above a dramatic, jagged-rocked, valley south of La Paz. Every day we are both living and working with the most incredible views into the Valley of Flowers, and down the Valley of the Moon towards the city, which twinkles in the distance at night.

Jeremy digging

At last! Jeremy is put in charge of a spade.

What are we doing here, and why? Let’s recap – a few months ago we decided to hold off the southward journey until 2014, and to find a place to stop and do a work-exchange project, whereby we’d get some free accommodation in return for some hard graft. We specifically wanted hard graft – after a few sedentary months, Jeremy was particularly keen that his job description included ‘digging’. Deep down, he’s a simple fellow with simple needs.

He got what he wanted. We’ve been here a month, the blisters are hardening, the biceps are starting to form nicely, and we’re loving it.

Through the Workaway website, we found this fabulous place in a semi-rural Aymara village called Jupapina, where we’re now living for a few months. It’s the base for a range of community projects, collectively called Up Close Bolivia, which was established by British-Bolivian couple Emma and Rolando Mendoza. Up Close employs locals to run and staff the projects – for example a large children’s daycare centre – and provides international volunteers to help out.

On the land is the Mendoza family home, three volunteers’ houses, and – coming soon! – Emma and Rolando’s first commercial venture, a brilliant campsite that will open next year. This is where we come in.

Campsite hammocks with view

Hammocks with a view on the campsite

Although we live among the Up Close ‘family’, we were recruited separately by Emma and Rolando to help with loads of odd jobs around the gardens, campsite and buildings. And there’s plenty of it.

This terraced land is porous and precipitous. After rains we are filling in water-created holes, which have reached up to 10ft deep, to make sure everything stays stable. When we are not filling in holes with piles of dirt, we are digging holes to plant trees, to help everything stay stable. We have painted acres of wood with anti-termite chemicals. We have cleared, tidied and swept. Rainy season should be upon us, but so far we have had weeks of glorious weather. The lack of rain means spending hours watering hundreds of trees. When it does rain we have to re-dig channels around them, to stop the water from pouring straight down into the valley and taking the earth with it.

We’re also here to help finish and market the campsite, and have so far set up an initial blogsite to start promoting it to interested parties.

Working on such steep land, at this altitude, is doing wonders for our fitness levels, and is also utterly exhausting.

After our morning’s work, we have lunch with Rolando and their housekeeper, and then spend the afternoons on chores or attempting to organise some freelance work. Sometimes we just fall asleep though…

We’re living in a converted pigsty, along with volunteer co-ordinator Naomi, but I suspect we have a way better deal than the porky residents had.

Our home, the 'Pigsty'

No pigsty: Our cosy home.

It’s been lovely to have a nice home, a routine, and some semblance of a social life again. We made great friends with Alison and Doug, a Canadian couple who came to volunteer with Up Close and were here for our first month, but have sadly now left. It was lovely to share some beers and laughs, and to get some baking tips from Alison, who’s a professional chef. I am no longer afraid to bake bread or scones!

Emma and Rolando, and their kids David and Bell, have been insanely welcoming, inviting us to their BBQs and other events, introducing us to their friends and colleagues, helping us with contacts and just generally being extremely tolerant of piles of volunteers wandering about the place and traipsing into their house to use the washing machine.

It’s a way of life for them and I’m not sure they remember it being any other way.

They’re both fascinating people, with backgrounds in development and public service. We spend most of our days with Rolando – former mayor of the local town and director of social services for La Paz city – and chatting to him about all sorts of political and social issues is great practice for our Spanish!

Talking of Spanish, within a few days of our arrival Rolando suggested we’d make good interviewees on one of the big La Paz radio stations, Radio Compañera. We laughed it off, saying our Spanish would not hold up to a live radio interview. A week later Emma came to us one evening saying: ‘You’ve been invited onto Gringo González’s show tomorrow morning.’ As is quite common, he’s nicknamed ‘gringo’ because his hair is slightly lighter than black. It was be a half hour interview about us, media issues in the UK and Latin America and whatever else cropped up. We gulped, hyper-ventilated, tried to avoid saying yes… then said yes. Shit!

La Paz from Pedregal

View of La Paz from Pedregal, on our hike to the Devil’s Molar.

Next morning, we couldn’t believe we were sitting there. The clock counted down til 11am and we were on air. Unbelievably, we survived it without any hideous dead air, hilarious misunderstandings or (we think) major bloopers. Our mistakes were diplomatically ignored! We lost several pounds in sweat. The subject matter bounced all over the place from threats to journalists in Colombia, to our own travels, to BBC funding, to what we thought of Margaret Thatcher. Luckily we knew the word for “witch” in Spanish. Phew.

Our weekends are our own and we’ve been getting out and about – with some city jaunts, to Bolivia’s main archaeological site of Tiwanaku, hiking to the ‘Devil’s Molar’ (a craggy rock formation that we can see, across the valley, from our window), to a big La Paz football derby – el clásico between Bolívar (yay!) and The Strongest (boo!) – and a weekend in a lush valley at Coroico.

Some 2,000m lower than La Paz, it was like another world, with its tropical flowers, dense forests, amazing birdlife and clouds of mosquitoes. Ah, mosquitoes, how we haven’t missed you.

We are preparing for a trip to Lake Titicaca this weekend, which will – not entirely accidentally – coincide with Jeremy’s birthday.

I’ve promised he can have a whole weekend of decadence – hotel room, lovely food, a few cold beers, and not a spade in sight.

Days: 792
Van miles: 17,551 (to Ecuador – where the van remains for now)
Non-van miles!: 7,449
Things we now know to be true: Slagging off Margaret Thatcher in Spanish feels just as good.

PICS PICS PICS! Photo gallery below from the last few weeks.
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