Yes WE Can!

Ok, so 2016 has been a political shit-show. The year seems to have been defined by regressive campaigns by populist candidates offering simplistic solutions to complex global problems. Trump, especially, is unfathomable to me. While I didn’t agree with the arguments for Brexit, I could at least understand where many of them came from. Trump, however, is unashamedly (perhaps even proudly) sexist and racist, has spewed some of the most hateful lies I have ever heard, and didn’t have a single coherent policy on any other issues. He likes to grab women’s pussies; he wants to ban muslims, immigrants and mexicans; he wants to undo all the progress that has been made on climate change. At BEST, he was telling lies the whole time and doesn’t plan to go through with the things he said (which is bad enough), but the scary thought is that he actually believes some or all of it, and plans to go through with his divisive policies, which would be horrific.
People have blamed a lot of things for the rise of these people – globalisation, mainstream media, Russian hackers, etc. All of these seem to be valid. In addition to these, though, it seems to me the case that people with horrific views all seem to come from positions of immense privilege and are able to shout louder than everyone else.
I, like many others, didn’t see any of this coming. None of my friends voted for Brexit or Trump. None of my echo-chambers alerted me to the the oncoming danger. Now we are in a scary new world full of uncertainty, and if we are not careful, it will end in disaster, and the people who suffer will be those who have always suffered: the poor, the vulnerable, minorities, women, future generations. I can’t and won’t let this happen, and have been thinking of ways that I can fight against the hatred before it takes over and it is too late.
So to try to do something active and positive for something I believe in, I decided that a good first step would be to join a political party for the first time – one that clearly stands for the values I believe in and will fight against Trump and co. I have been listening to the “Guilty Feminist” podcast a lot recently (highly recommended), which has alerted me to how gender equality simply doesn’t exist yet, and is not just a women’s issue, but an issue for everyone. Then I saw this Ted Talk by the legendary Sandi Toksvig about the Women’s Equality Party, and felt compelled to join. I recognise that there are many other issues facing this world, but this is definitely a big one, and perhaps if we can start with more progressive, representative politics, we can move onto solving some of the other problems facing the world too.

http://www.womensequality.org.uk

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Puns are the Dog’s Bollocks!

The email trail below is one of my favourite pun runs that we have exchanged in the office to date, so I thought I’d share it with the world! Kudos to Polly who was a worthy adversary! It lasted over 2.5 hours, and I counted 61 puns in total (but may have missed a few!)

For context, it all started when we found out that Polly’s mum offered to let Alex win in a dog show that she was hoping to organise for the team (a strange enough concept in itself, I think)…

 


 

From: Tom

Sent: 13 July 2015 14:01

To: Alex

Cc: Katherine; Polly; Bethany

Subject: Bext in Show

 

Congratulations Alex Bex! You’ve won an award!

Best in Show

Now get swiping on Doggie Tinder…

 

Tom

 

 

From: Polly

Sent: 13 July 2015 14:14

To: Tom; Alex

Cc: Katherine; Bethany; Tasha

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

Maybe Alex should paws from Tinder for a while and focus on chargeable work.

 

Polly

 

 

From: Tom

Sent: 13 July 2015 14:31

To: Polly; Alex

Cc: Katherine; Bethany; Tasha

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

He should… the quality of his work really has been tailing off recently

 

Tom

 

 

From: Katherine

Sent: 13 July 2015 14:32

To: Tom; Polly; Alex

Cc: Bethany; Tasha

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

Fur goodness sake…

 

Katherine

 

 

From: Tom

Sent: 13 July 2015 14:34

To: Katherine; Tom; Alex

Cc: Bethany; Tasha

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

Someone lost his sWag

 

Polly

 

 

From: Tom

Sent: 13 July 2015 14:35

To: Polly; Katherine; Alex

Cc: Bethany; Tasha

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

…shame… he used to be of the highest pedigree…

 

Tom

 

 

From: Polly

Sent: 13 July 2015 14:36

To: Tom; Katherine; Alex

Cc: Bethany; Tasha

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

Now he just like a dog with a bone when it comes to tinder

 

 

Polly

 

 

From: Tom

Sent: 13 July 2015 14:37

To: Polly; Katherine; Alex

Cc: Bethany; Tasha

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

But, to be fair, all the girls do labr-adore him

 

Tom

 

 

From: Polly

Sent: 13 July 2015 14:37

To: Tom; Katherine; Alex

Cc: Bethany; Tasha

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

They’re dachshund after him

 

Polly

 

 

From: Tom

Sent: 13 July 2015 14:39

To: Polly; Katherine; Alex

Cc: Bethany; Tasha

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

Pity he can’t retriever girlfriend out of all of them though…

 

Tom

 

 

From: Polly

Sent: 13 July 2015 14:45

To: Tom; Katherine; Alex

Cc: Bethany; Tasha

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

Perhaps it’s time that we stopped hounding him

 

Polly

 

 

From: Tom

Sent: 13 July 2015 14:47

To: Polly; Katherine; Alex

Cc: Bethany; Tasha

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

Why? Is he giving you his puppy dog eyes?

 

Tom

 

 

From: Polly

Sent: 13 July 2015 14:50

To: Tom; Katherine; Alex

Cc: Bethany; Tasha

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

Yes, he’s looking very pitibull

 

Polly

 

 

From: Tom

Sent: 13 July 2015 14:50

To: Polly; Katherine; Alex

Cc: Bethany; Tasha

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

Yeah. It’s not attractive is it? In fact I’d go as far as to say it’s pugly

 

Tom

 

 

From: Polly

Sent: 13 July 2015 14:52

To: Tom

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

It’s terrierfying

 

Polly

 

 

From: Tom

Sent: 13 July 2015 14:54

To: Polly

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

It makes me want to cry until my voice is husky

 

Tom

 

 

From: Polly

Sent: 13 July 2015 14:57

To: Tom

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

Try breeding slowly to calm yourself down

 

Polly

 

 

From: Tom

Sent: 13 July 2015 14:58

To: Polly

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

I just tried that and it litter-ally worked wonders!

 

Tom

 

 

From: Tom

Sent: 13 July 2015 14:59

To: Polly

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

By the way, I noticed you didn’t copy in Kat, Beth and Tash on these past few emails. Is that because you think those b*tches can’t take this shitzu? (pardon my French)

 

Tom

 

 

From: Polly

Sent: 13 July 2015 15:01

To: Tom

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

Wouldn’t want them to miss a trick so have copied all back in – Kat is always a fan of my crufty puns

 

Polly

 

 

From: Tom

Sent: 13 July 2015 15:04

To: Polly

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

Yes, she loves the puns. Pity she can’t keep up with us two… puncraft is a dog-eat-dog world

 

Tom

 

 

From: Polly

Sent: 13 July 2015 15:21

To: Tom

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

You could be a gentleman and pointer in the right direction.

 

Polly

 

 

From: Tom

Sent: 13 July 2015 15:24

To: Polly

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

Still going eh? There was a long pause since the last one, so I thought you didn’t have any more dog puns. The thought had only just crossed my mind when you whippet out that one though! Bravo!

 

Tom

 

 

From: Polly

Sent: 13 July 2015 15:35

To: Tom

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

I was having a business meating, you know that I have a newfoundland love for puns. Chow chow.

 

Polly

 

 

From: Tom

Sent: 13 July 2015 15:39

To: Polly

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

Are any of those actually dog puns? If they are, they are border-ing on tenuous! Perhaps our collie-gues should be the judge

 

Tom

 

 

From: Polly

Sent: 13 July 2015 15:43

To: Tom

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

Well, isn’t someone sharp-ei today? Too bad your puns are a Mastiff fail.

 

Polly

 

 

From: Tom

Sent: 13 July 2015 15:45

To: Polly

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

I’m not trying to be pet-ulant… I’m just a bit pet-dantic

 

Tom

 

 

From: Polly

Sent: 13 July 2015 15:47

To: Tom

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

Cor-blime-gi. You were really scraping the bottom of the barrel with that one. Nobody likes a recycled pun.

 

Polly

 

 

From: Tom

Sent: 13 July 2015 15:49

To: Polly

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

That wasn’t recycled… Don’t try to make me feel Sheep(dog)ish like that!

 

Tom

 

 

From: Polly

Sent: 13 July 2015 15:53

To: Tom

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

I can scents that you are running dry on the pun-front, Tom. Let’s face it, I am the Shepherd, and you are but a sheep.

 

Polly

 

 

From: Tom

Sent: 13 July 2015 15:53

To: Polly

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

No Polly, YOU are the sheep, and I am the Wolf(hound)

 

Tom

 

 

From: Polly

Sent: 13 July 2015 15:57

To: Tom

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

Can you please be more Spitzific? Your last pun was so Terrierable that I didn’t understand it.

 

Polly

 

 

From: Tom

Sent: 13 July 2015 16:02

To: Polly

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany; Daniel; Simon

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

Well, specifically, you have lost this pun off for two reasons:

 

  1. You are googling dog breeds, so have obviously run out of ideas yourself
  2. We have already used Terrier, and repeating a pun means instant loss!

 

Sorry Polly, but when it comes to puns, your bark is worse than your bite! You have a promising talent, but you should try to follow my lead a bit more 

 

Tom

 

 

From: Polly

Sent: 13 July 2015 16:08

To: Tom

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany; Daniel; Simon

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

First of all, may I alert you to the following facts:

 

  1. You obviously ran out of ideas much earlier when you re-used pet in the same email
  2. Your wolfhound pun in no way worked

III.        Terrier-able and Terrier-fying are not the same pun, and in any case it was qualified with an original pun, ergo just an addition to an already unique pun

  1. Lead has already been used as per earlier emails

 

If you want to Setter an example, perhaps you should start by taking Ownership and following your own rules. Sorry to Pinscher your title once again, but I guess you will have to keep you Chin up, put on your Boxer-ing gloves, and try a little harder next time.

 

Polly

 

 

From: Tom

Sent: 13 July 2015 16:10

To: Polly

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany; Daniel; Simon

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

Pollky wins

 

Tom

 

 

From: Tom

Sent: 13 July 2015 16:11

To: Polly

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany; Daniel; Simon

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

For a very good effort, I’ll give you ca-nine out of ten.

 

You lose points for trying to cheat at the end by hijacking me email account though! 

 

Tom

 

 

From: Polly

Sent: 13 July 2015 16:13

To: Tom

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany; Daniel; Simon

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

Apologies for the disobedience, but mutt I remind you that you are not the judge of this show.

 

Polly

 

 

From: Tom

Sent: 13 July 2015 16:14

To: Polly

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany; Daniel; Simon

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

Oh get Rover it Polly! 😛

 

Tom

 

 

From: Polly

Sent: 13 July 2015 16:15

To: Tom

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany; Daniel; Simon

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

Pom a sock in it, tom.

 

Polly

 

 

From: Tom

Sent: 13 July 2015 16:16

To: Polly

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany; Daniel; Simon

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

This is getting quite rude and personal now, if Fido say so myself

 

Tom

 

 

From: Polly

Sent: 13 July 2015 16:17

To: Tom

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany; Daniel; Simon

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

Not going to Snoopy down to your level

 

Polly

 

 

From: Tom

Sent: 13 July 2015 16:18

To: Polly

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany; Daniel; Simon

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

I won’t think any Lassie of you if you just give up now

 

Tom

 

 

From: Polly

Sent: 13 July 2015 16:18

To: Tom

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany; Daniel; Simon

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

I won’t be Beethoven by you!!!!!!!!!!

 

Polly

 

 

From: Tom

Sent: 13 July 2015 16:20

To: Polly

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany; Daniel; Simon

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

Mable you will, mable you won’t…

 

Tom

 

 

From: Polly

Sent: 13 July 2015 16:23

To: Tom

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany; Daniel; Simon

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

I’d Pluto my money on it

 

Polly

 

 

From: Tom

Sent: 13 July 2015 16:24

To: Polly

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany; Daniel; Simon

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

That would be a Goofy bet to make… you’d be sure to lose

 

Tom

 

 

From: Polly

Sent: 13 July 2015 16:27

To: Tom

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany; Daniel; Simon

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

I Totolly think that I would come out on top

 

Polly

 

 

From: Tom

Sent: 13 July 2015 16:31

To: Polly

Cc: Alex; Katherine; Tasha; Bethany; Daniel; Simon

Subject: RE: Bext in Show

 

There’s Snowy you’ll beat me. Ok that was Simon’s influence… just wanted to get it down on paper so it can’t be used again. Not even sure you would have Spot-ted it though.

 

You may be a punny Lady Polly, but I am Tramp-ling all over you here…

 

Pon-go on… do your best!

 

Tom

An Election Special – THE MUNRONIFESTO

So I got a few election flyers through my door today and I have a spare 5 minutes (/whole evening), so it seems a timely moment to post my one and only party political status of the election. Feel free to read on or ignore completely.

I’ll be voting for the Green Party (which may not be a massive shock to those who know me and my area of work!) The candidate in my area is Charlotte George. I can’t pretend I know her personal politics, would recognise her in the street, or that I had even heard of her before this evening, but given my constituency Hackney South is a safe Labour seat, it doesn’t really matter does it?

In big letters in the middle of the flyer though is a statement which says “VOTE FOR WHAT YOU BELIEVE IN”. And I agree with this statement whole heartedly. So here are a few things I believe. A few ground rules first: 1) I reserve the right to completely change my mind on any of the points, at any moment, for any reason! 2) You may/may not agree with any or all of it, and I would love to hear your opinion, but I reserve the right to argue back vociferously, completely ignore it, or anything in between. 3) Bear in mind the list is by no means comprehensive or fully fleshed out – it’s just a few thoughts!

NHS – Important. Spend lots of money on it. Pay nurses fairly. No-brainer. Also, more emphasis on mental health and resources to match

Environment – Important. Invest in renewable energy to reduce GHG emissions, reduce dependency on fossil fuels, and create jobs and expertise in this sector – three birds, one stone.

Education – Increase public funding of further education, and lower/scrap fees. It’s a worthwhile investment.

Economy – Stop austerity, which only hurts the poor. Balance the books, but by making fair cuts over a longer timeframe, introducing fairer taxation and closing tax avoidance loopholes. So some large businesses may protest and a few might move their HQs to tax havens, but I bet you’d barely notice the difference. It might even be better without them – small businesses are much more important and anyway

Defence – Get rid of Trident. Spend the £100 billion on all of the above useful things, a properly equipped military we might actually use, and international aid to prevent poverty which is a major cause of people resorting to killing each other in the first place

Immigration – Not an issue. Seriously, stop worrying about it. People from other countries are nice, contribute majorly to society and the economy, and its not like Brits never emigrate! And of course we should stay in the EU – they’re our biggest market!

Democracy – Would love to see a fairer system, e.g. proportional representation or alternative vote, but for now will settle for an elected House of Lords. Why not make that proportional? You’d still get local representation in the Commons but would gain the benefit of a house which actually represents the views of the people.

And a few other miscellaneous things:
– Plastic bag tax
– Voting age of 16
– Squash for the Olympics
– Get rid of Sepp Blatter
– Stop showing me Farage’s face. It makes me want to vomit
– Knighthood for Tom Munro for services to punning

That is all. For now. Discuss!

And for god’s sake VOTE!

Colombia dear

Hear today, gone tomorrow
My start to Colombia was far from perfect. I had caught a mild head cold in Bolivia, which was no problem until I flew from 4000m altitude La Paz to 2m Cartagena. The combination of changing air pressure and blocked sinuses did not go well for my eardrums, which proceeded to burst and left me half deaf for 3 days!

I was undeterred by this minor inconvenience though, and after a couple of days in the heat in charming city of Cartagena, I was off to Santa Marta adventuring again, this time on a 4 day trek through the hills and jungles of the Caribbean Coast to La Ciudad Perdida, the lost city. Eating mangos fresh from the trees and cooling off in the fresh flowing rivers, we made our way up into the forest to the remains of the city, abandoned for hundreds of years since the Spanish conquest only to be rediscovered by a couple of tomb raiders in 1972 looking for gold treasure. It was great wandering around the city, which was quiet and eerie and still very much covered by jungle (and also therefore crawling with evil mosquitoes!) At times you really felt like Indiana Jones, wondering when the huge stone ball would be released and chase you down the hill!IMG_0025_2 2IMG_0028_2 2

What a dive!
After a few wet, sweaty days trekking, I had a little rest on the beautiful beach of Palomino, before heading to the nice little fishing village of Taganga to get wet again, but this time more salty than sweaty! I found a newly opened dive school in the area who were willing to give a substantial discount, so I decided to capitalise on the opportunity and do the next qualification in the PADI educational hierarchy: Rescue Diver.

As part of the course, my friends and I had to pretend to panic at the surface, or get lost, or be unconscious underwater, and then we took turns to rescue each other, which either involved doing CPR and rescue breaths, or wrestling the struggling, flailing diver into submission to calm them down! A good learning experience, and a lot of fun, too. We also had time for some fun diving too, doing a bit of spear fishing to catch Lion fish, an invasive species which turned out to be quite tasty when barbecued!DCIM100GOPRO

We then escaped the sweltering humid heat of the coast and headed up to the hill town of Minca – only half an hour’s drive away, but with a much cooler (and rainier) climate. Up there was a beautiful cooperative coffee plantation which did an amazing organic brew, and also a lady who taught us how to make our own chocolates from scratch. The hostel we stayed at there was a very relaxing retreat up on the hillside. It was worth the gruelling climb up the hundreds of steps with my bags for the home-cooked food that awaited me at the top, themed by the World Cup game of the day. For example, on our first day we had delicious Blinis with Kim Chi (Russia vs South Korea) – all vegetarian and fresh and healthy!IMG_0040_2 2

San Brill

I took a night bus over one of Colombia’s many mountain ranges into the valley which housed San Gil, the adventure capital of Colombia. I had but a couple of days to enjoy the area, but I made the most of that time, starting with a spot of Canyoning in the mighty Canon de Chicamocha. Slightly different to the canyoning I had done before, this excursion started by descending into a pitch black, dank cave full of bats and guano. We crawled through tiny crevices and wade through underground streams before emerging into the blinding sunlight once more to rappel down a 25m waterfall and take a running leap of faith off a 9m cliff edge to splash down in an obscured-from-view pool at the bottom! Exciting stuff!

The next day, conditions were perfect for a spot of white water rafting, so I waited for the bus to pick me up at 11am. They seemed to forget about me though, which led to the single scariest half an hour of my entire trip – being picked up at 11:30 by a moto-taxi driver with a death wish! He gave me a tiny, ill fitting helmet that would have protected no part of me had we crashed, and he rocketed off at a hundred miles an hour, weaving through the busy traffic, going off road if the road was too busy, cutting up huge articulated lorries and using the horn instead of the brakes. My pleas of “Tranquilo, Tranquilo!!” fell on deaf ears, and he zoomed on, soon overtaking the bus which had had a half hour headstart on us, then screeching to a halt when we finally reached the Rio Suarez river, where I unclenched my buttocks and breathed a sigh of relief.DCIM100GOPRO

In comparison to the journey there, the rafting itself was a breeze! So much fun though – I’d rate it as one of my favourite days in South America. Continuing my quite impressive record of being soaking wet at least once every day I had been in Colombia, I was sat at the front of the boat which was hurtling down the grade 4 and 5 rapids, taking the full force of each and every wave that hit us straight in my face! The other boat with us capsized on the first set of rapids, but our team was more coordinated and managed to stay afloat all the way down, even through the section known as “The Washing Machine”! My body felt battered and bruised after all that punishment, but I was smiling from ear to ear for days afterwards!

“And I would have succeeded too, if it wasn’t for these Medellin kids…”

As I knew the end of my trip was creeping up ever more quickly, I was determined to make the most of my last few weeks. So having travelled all night on the bus to Medellin, I met up with my friend Melissa at 7am at a hostel, dropped my stuff, then went straight out again on the metro then a 2 hour bus to the nearby town of Guatapé. There we marvelled at the incredible  flat, fiord-like landscape from the top of the 200m rock jutting out of it, before walking down to the lakeside to find one of the most unique activities I had come across on my trip – Blob jumping! Essentially, you had to don a helmet and lifejacket, shimmy out along a 20m giant inflatable tube floating on a lake, then brace yourself as two men jumped from a rig onto the other end of the big condom sending a shockwave up the shaft and flinging you 10m into the air before landing with an almighty splash in the lake. It was great fun, though it soon became apparent why I had never seen it anywhere else: it was a health and safety nightmare! On my third jump I was flung up in an awkward position, and couldn’t control which way I landed. I ended up landing face first on my belly, winding me for a good minute, and meaning I had to just sit and float there while I regained my breath. I called it a day after that (my abs slightly bruised), but still glad to have done it!IMG_0087_2 2

Medellin itself also had a lot to offer – including a cable car up and out of the city into a forest which felt a million miles from civilisation, and a great exhbition of painting and sculptures by their most celebrated home grown artist, Fernando Botero, who is famous for making all the people (and objects) in his work fat and voluminous. He did a couple of pieces on the death of Pablo Escobar which were particularly interesting, Medellin’s most infamous villain who was at the same time hated for the violence he brought upon Colombia through the drug trade, but also at the same time revered for building schools, hospitals and churches in rural areas. It just goes to show there are two sides to every story.IMG_0103_2 2

Sorry, but I’ve Bo-gotta be going

Lastly, I came to the capital – Bogotá. The first order of business was to watch Colombia play Uruguay in the World Cup. After England’s pathetic display, I had adopted Colombia as my team for the tournament, and had been thoroughly enjoying the atmosphere in the country whenever they were playing. My friend David who I was staying with had bought me one of their yellow football shirts to complete my conversion, and I wore it as James Rodriguez scored two stunning goals to fire Colombia through to a quarter final against Brazil. Bogotá was a ghost town during the game (an alcohol ban in the whole city meaning everyone stayed at home rather than watching in bars), but when the goals went in and then the final whistle went, the city went crazy! People were running up and down the streets, screaming and shouting; driving around in mini convoys hooting their horns over and over; a couple of people outside our flat even decided to throw an impromptu foam party in the street! Amazing! Colombia sadly lost to Brazil in the next round, but they fought valiantly and made their country proud (unlike Brazil in their subsequent 7-1 battering by Germany!)IMG_0089_2

The last few days I spent with David, whom I had met at the start of my trip in India and was an impeccable host: a very typical Colombian(or maybe just South American) trait. He (and also a couple of friends-of-friends who I had met in Medellin) went out of his way  to make sure I enjoyed my stay – giving me his room, taking me on day trips to the beautiful towns of Villa de Leyva and Zipaquirá, educating me about all the best fruits and foods that Colombia has to offer (and in some cases cooking/preparing them for me), and rarely letting me even pay for any of these things! His seemingly limitless kindness reminded me of the incredible times I have had over the last 11 months with literally hundreds of people from all over the world. Some I met for a couple of hours; some I travelled with for days, weeks or even months; some were old friends or family I hadn’t seen for months or even years; and some people I met and we parted, only to be reunited in different towns, countries or continents. The one thing they all had in common though was that their contributions all added up to make my trip unique, memorable and special.

IMG_0122_2

You’re Un-Bolivia-ble!

I am the one and Uyuni
I arrived in Bolivia in style… In a banged out jeep careering across the desolate Altiplanic desert from San Pedro in Chile. Our first taste of the country was the border control post, which was literally a hut in the middle of nowhere, with only a dead, rusted bus and a small car park around it).

The tour to Uyuni was incredible, definitely one of my highlights of South America. Over the three days we traversed the wilderness, stopping at sporadic points of interest including flamingo-filled high altitude lagoons with water turned pink by microscopic algae; sulphurous smelling geysers which were erupting like the surface of Venus; rocks strewn around the flat landscape like a Salvador Dali painting; geothermal hot springs; railway tracks which seemed to disappear into infinity; and canyons full of giant rabbit-like viscachas, hiding amongst the bright green moss covered moss. We stayed the night in a hotel made entirely from salt (walls, beds, tables, et al) and saw a train graveyard, which was like a film set crossed with a playground.

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But the main feature was the Salar de Uyuni itself: a perfectly flat salt lake which went as far as the eye could see in all directions, with only a cactus covered island in the middle providing any reference point. We took our obligatory trick photos, and generally mucked about and had a lot of fun in the unique landscape. I’ve never seen anything like it… Quite incredible, and worth the freezing cold nights for!

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You go and save La Paz til last
I returned to civilisation after a long stint in the wilderness and arrived at La Paz, the highest capital city in the world at a (literally) breathtaking 4000m above sea level. Built into the side of a valley, it felt like very genuinely Andean place, with Cholita women wearing their traditional bulky dresses and purposely tiny bowler hats while working the stalls in the dozens of markets (Bolivians don’t do supermarkets – there are only about two in the whole city) or while beating each other up in the wrestling ring (bizarre!)

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There are a plethora of things to do in and around the city, and I tried to experience as many of the as I could, including watching the local team FC Bolivar beat the comically named Argentinian side “Lanus” in the Copa Libertadores (South American equivalent of the Champions League), eating full three course meals in the market for less than £1 (and only getting sick from it once), coming second in a charity pub quiz (winning an awful bottle of Bolivian red wine!) and checking out the historical museums which nostalgically harked back to the days when Bolivia used to have a coastline (before Chile stole it… Those bullies!)

One thing I didn’t do was visit San Pedro prison – the huge prison in the middle of the city with 4,000 inmates and only 15 guards. The prison is therefore run by the prisoners themselves, and as they have to pay rent for their cells, their families come in and live inside the prison with them to save them having to pay double rent. Those who are able to make more money through selling coffee, working as a plumber or good old fashioned drug dealing are able to afford to move into bigger, better equipped cells, with a view, TV and even internet. How do we know all this? Well until recently, the prisoners used to make money by showing tourists around, and even allowing them to stay the night. However, this practice has been stopped in the last few years due to a few beatings and sexual assaults leading to the authorities clamping down on it: now any tourists found in the prison are deemed to be breaking the law, and are likely to be kept inside as criminals rather than allowed out just to be tried, found guilty and put back again!

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The highlight of my time in La Paz was undoubtedly mountain biking down DEATH ROAD, allegedly the most dangerous road in the world. Apparently 20-30 people die on the road every year, as it is barely wide enough for the two way traffic and the dirt track is flanked by mountains on one side and sheer cliff faces on the other which would mean almost certain death for anyone unfortunate enough to fall off the edge of. It rained the day we biked down it, which added to the thrill of it, as you would have heart-in-mouth moments every so often when you hit a bump or skidded on a wet patch as you fought with the brakes to regain control before you became another statistic on the road! Having said that, it wasn’t actually as scary or dangerous as it was made out to be, and it was mainly just thrilling and picturesque.

Rurrenabaque to basics

From La Paz, I flew with my friend Ryan down into the Amazon basin to the town of Rurrenabaque. Hot and humid, it was a stark change of scenery from the heights of the Andes. Amongst the town’s unexpected treasures was the best French bakery in this hemisphere, with pain au chocolats to die for.

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But the pastries weren’t the main reason we flew all that way. No, we came for the jungle, and jungle we got. We paid £82 for five days of all inclusive forest frolics, firstly spending 3 days camped in a clearing and doing hikes into the rainforest (which lived up to its name when we got thoroughly drenched by a tropical storm one day), night walks (trying to dodge the mosquitoes as we spotted tarantulas, frogs, cockroaches, millipedes and other creepy crawlies), and fishing trips to the river (catching fresh catfish for lunch).

The latter two days, we spent in the Pampas wetlands, boating up and down the natural waterways amongst the alligators, pink river dolphins and birds of paradise. We spent an afternoon piranha fishing too, although I managed to only catch a handful of twigs while the others reeled in a dozen hungry piranhas. Damn it!

Got me going Sucre-zy right now

Sucre was a wonderful place to relax and chill out for a few days. A beautiful historic city where all the buildings are legally obliged to be whitewashed every 2 years, I found a lovely new hostel (Celtic Cross) run by a charming Irishman called Darragh with a roof terrace where you could bask in the warm sun all afternoon. I spent a couple of days doing just that, with a stop off at the vibrant central market for some freshly blended fruit smoothies and fruit salads to keep me going.

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But it wasn’t all R&R, there was work to be done. Sucre is apparently one of the cheapest places to take Spanish lessons, and at £4 an hour for one-on-one lessons it seemed rude not to take a few to further improve a bit. So with my teacher Diego, we practiced conversation, the past tense and expanding my vocabulary. Very helpful. To celebrate, I treated myself to a trip to the best playground I have ever seen – one where every slide, swing and roundabout was shaped like a dinosaur! The little kid inside me was mightily impressed (although for some reason it wasn’t called “Jurassic Park”)

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Potosí: The pleasure is all Mine

Last port of call in Bolivia was the high altitude mining town of Potosí. Built underneath a mountain which used to be full of pure silver, they extracted the last of that many years ago and now they mainly rely on copper, zinc, lead and nickel ore for their livelihood. Mining supports the whole city, providing thousands of jobs; however the working conditions are terrible and the life expectancy for most miners is only about 45.

We did a tour of the mines to see for ourselves, and it was kind of crazy to imagine actually working there. Inside the mountain (at 4300m altitude, but 1.5km underground) the air is stiflingly hot, humid and stale (up to 40°C, and there is no ventilation of any kind other than naturally through the tunnels), the smell of sulphur stings your nose, it is pitch black (no lighting other than your head torch) and there is the ever present risk of carbon monoxide poisoning or a tunnel collapse. Workers go in for a whole day without coming out, taking no food with them, just some 99% alcohol to drink and some coca leaves to chew for energy. And some of the tunnels are little more than a foot high, meaning you literally have to crawl through them on your belly! Amazing experience, but I was glad to get out and taste fresh air again!

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And so finished my Bolivian adventure. I wasn’t sure what I would make of the country before I arrived (my only previous experience of Bolivians being two who stole my camera in Lima 8 years previously), but I was enthralled by how much there was to do in the country, it’s diversity, it’s traditions and culture and how genuine it felt.

Next and final stop: Colombia

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“Simply the Best” – Argen-tina Turner

Going, going, Pata-gone-ia
After about a month in Chile, I crossed the border into Argentina to continue northwards through Patagonia. The stunning landscapes and wonders came as relentlessly as ever.

Our first stop was El Calafate, home of the Perito Moreno glacier. Famous for being one of the fastest growing glaciers in the world, creeping forward 2 metres every day, the spectacular views over the never ending ice field was only overshadowed by the almighty “BOOM” that would echo around the valley as huge pieces of ice the size of houses sheared from the main body of the glacier and crash into the waters of Lago Argentina.

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On our first night in El Calafate, we were also introduced to the Argentinian Asado – a huge barbecue of top quality Argentinian meat. Our Asador was Anibal, an Argentinian who took it upon himself to teach us the traditional way to do a grill: 8kg of meat (fresh from the butchers) cooked slowly over glowing coals, giving beautifully tender, well-done morsels of lamb, beef and chorizo sausage. We had vegetables and potatoes with it, though Anibal thoroughly disapproved, as they simply left you with less room for meat!

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Next came the first of many crazily long bus journeys up the spine of South America to El Chalten, where we trekked ourselves silly in the mountains (as if Torres del Paine hadn’t been enough!), before embarking on an epic journey to cross back into Chile briefly to see one of Patagonia’s less visited wonders.

By that time, we had amassed a group of 12 of us from all over the world, and by any means of transport available (bus, taxi, hitchhiking, chartered minibus and speedboat) we made it back across the border to the marble caves in Chile. We braved the cold, rain, sleet, snow and treacherous dirt roads to get there, and all in all the round trip back into Argentina took approximately 5 days, but it was totally worth it, and it definitely felt like one of those times when the journey itself was the destination, especially when we had such a fun group of people too.

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A special Orcasion
Leaving Patagonia after over a month was difficult (although I can’t deny I was looking forward to a bit of warmer weather by that stage). Before we got to the big cities in the north, however, we cut across from the Andes to the Atlantic to the seaside town of Puerto Madryn. It was still a bit chilly, as it was coming up to winter and the wind was crazy, so not much sunbathing was done, but instead we went wildlife spotting in the coastal national parks.

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First, we headed to Peninsula Valdes, where we found colonies of elephant seals and sea lions sunning themselves on the beach. We found an armadillo snuffling in the bushes, and lots of llama-like guanacos skipping around the plains. The main event, however, was a pod of orcas prowling offshore for prey. They were quite a distance away, but amazing to see nonetheless – especially given the rarity of a sighting (our friends had been in the exact spot a week or two earlier and seen nothing.)

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We also hired a car and drove a couple of hours down the coast to a port where you could take a boat out to see the unique black and white Patagonian dolphins happily diving in and out of the waves and following in the wake of our boat. Finally, we paid a visit to Punto Tombo, the largest penguin colony in South America, with no less than 500,000 birds spread over the hills, usually dug into little holes to hide from the wind, and very often in heart-wrenchingly cute couples cuddled up together.

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Love is in the Aires
After many months in the wilderness, the luxuries and conveniences of the big city were very welcome. Culture, music, dancing, drinking and eating defined Buenos Aires for me, and our experience was maximised by the wonderful advice of our local experts, Olivia and Leo, who between them pointed us in the direction of all the highlights BA had to offer – restaurants, markets, walking tours, the cemetery (dead good), the MALBA art gallery, even a hip-hop club with breakdancing battles “breaking out” all over the place!

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I mentioned the food previously, but I feel I must reiterate here just how good Argentinian beef is! As an unashamed meat lover, I have had my fair share of excellent steak over the years. But I was simply not prepared for the Filet de Lomo I had at the “Parilla Peńa” in BA – it was quite simply the best steak I had ever eaten. Well, for a week, at least: a week later I subsequently broke that record again in Salta at “El Viejo Jack”, where I had a steak so mouth wateringly tender that the waiter cut it in half… WITH A SPOON! Mercy me! And washed down with some lovely Malbec from Mendoza, how much did this feast cost us in total? No more than £6! Unbelievable!

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Iguazuper trooper
Over the course of my trip, I have seen many incredible things which could quite fairly claim to be a “natural wonder of the world”. But few seemed to have as strong a claim as Iguazu Falls. I had heard good things, so expected it to be good, but when we arrived, popped into Brazil and set eyes on them for the first time, I was blown away!

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To describe Iguazu as a series of waterfalls is like describing the Himalayas as “some hills”… The cascading waters go on for miles, and the spray from the biggest ones will soak you from a distance of hundreds of metres (or you can simply drive right under one on a boat for a thorough drenching)! Each step you take along the walkways gives you a new angle which is more spectacular than the last, and as if that wasn’t enough, the area is full of toucans, parrots, butterflies, tortoises and raccoons!

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Atacama-cama-cama-cama-cama chameleon
If Patagonia was the starter, and BA the main course with a side dish of Iguazu, then obviously next we had to have desert. I left my Belgian friend Maarten (who happens to be the person I travelled with for the longest time on my entire trip) in Salta in the North West of Argentina, but not before we did a spot of horse riding and visiting the amazing rock formations in the surrounding dusty desert.

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Back into Chile I went for a 3rd time with my new friends, Sandie, Nina and Theresa (my passport getting pretty full from stamps in and out of Argentina and Chile, by this point!) and we arrived in the wonderful little town of San Pedro de Atacama. Literally in the middle of the high altitude, arid, sandy plains, it is amazing that there are so many natural wonders within a stones throw of the town.

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In the few days we were there, we visited landscapes that could have been taken from a sci-fi film’s depiction of Mars, we floated in lakes as salty as the Dead Sea, we almost broke our necks sandboarding down huge sand dunes, we admired the stellar sky (best view of the stars since deepest, darkest Patagonia) and we “walked on water” over <1cm deep lagoons (where we saw one of the top three best sunsets ever! Yes, I now have a list!)

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From San Pedro, we booked onto a three day jeep tour which would take us to the Altiplanic Lagoons and Salt Flats of Bolivia. Hasta Luego!

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Red Hot Chile

¡Bienvenidos a Chile! I arrived in the worlds tallest country (from north to south) knowing little about what it had to offer, but quickly found out that it was a stunning country with a very rich history.

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Aprendiendo Español
I was greeted in Santiago airport by my Chilean friend, Mary, whom I had met and travelled with in India and Nepal, and her amigo Pablo. After a day or two staving off the jet lag by cycling around the city and doing a bit of sightseeing, we travelled to her home city of Rancagua – a small mining city, off the main tourist track.

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I spent my first week diligently studying and practicing my oral Spanish, through a combination of Michel Thomas audiobooks, talking and listening to Mary and her friends (few of whom spoke any English), writing down words as I learned them, browsing the English-Spanish Dictionary and using the excellent Google Translate app for android (which very handily works offline too).

By the end of the week, I had progressed from absolute beginner (I’d never had a Spanish lesson in my life), to having enough working Spanish that I felt confident to be able to get by in most situations I was likely to find myself in. I must admit that after that first week, the amount of practice I got (and therefore my rate of learning) declined drastically as I rejoined the tourist trail and began hanging out primarily with gringos again, but I was still very pleased to have made that much progress in such a small period of time. Muchos Gracias to Mary, Pablo and friends, who made it possible and made me feel really welcome in a new, unfamiliar place.

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Valparaí-so damn cool
A hidden gem of a city, Valparaíso was my next stop in Chile. Once a rich, important port on the sailing route to the west coast of America from Europe during the gold rush, it fell into ruin in the early 20th century when the Panama Canal opened and effectively made it redundant. However, it was given a new lease of life in 2003 when the whole city was given UNESCO world heritage status.

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It’s easy to see why it was granted this honour – every building in the city is beautiful, colourful and unique. Those that aren’t graced with fantastic street art murals which would make Banksy proud on their walls are painted in all the colours of the rainbow. There is no shortage of buskers playing music on the streets, art galleries and museums, and cool, independent bookshops and artesan shops; and taking one of the antique Ascensor lifts from the town centre up the hillside and visiting the home of Chile’s most famous poet, Pablo Neruda, will give you the best possible view over the whole vibrant city and port spread out in front of you. Oh, and if you get bored of all that cultural stuff, it’s sister city, Vina del Mar, is a 20 minute bus ride away, with sandy beaches and fresh seafood, and a further 20 minutes will take you to Concon where you can have a go at sand boarding! So much fun to be had!

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Pucón
I stopped in Pucón, in the Lake District of Chile, on my way south towards Patagonia, expecting to stay a day or two before moving on. As it happened, I found one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed at there – the Chili Kiwi – and ended up staying a week and a half! The staff, Torinn, Kirra and James, were so friendly (they made me brownies on my birthday!), the location was second to none (5 mins from town centre; right on the lakefront with a view of the volcano and the sunset every evening), and it had a really cool, sociable common area which made it so easy to make friends. And I haven’t even mentioned the legendary barbecues (all you can eat steak and all you can drink wine), and the cracking St Paddy’s Day party which would have made people staying at other hostels green with envy!

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But the real surprise was how much there was to do there! In the time I was there, I did hydrospeeding (essentially bodyboarding down white water rapids), horse riding, ice trekking on a volcano (almost to the top, but the weather unfortunately turned on us), canyoning (yay! See previous post), and a beautiful day hike up to a viewpoint where you could see no less than 14 volcanoes and countless lakes (and a big hairy tarantula on the way up, too!).

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No Paine, No Gain
Finally in Chile, I flew down to Puerto Natales – close to the end of the world, at the southern tip of South America. A windy, rugged place, the main draw for coming to the area was to hike in Torres Del Paine national park. My tent mate, Patrick, and I hired the gear we needed for the 83km “W” trek, which we had been told would be wet and windy and cold and uncomfortable but should be worth it if we got lucky and had a clear couple of hours to see the views.

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So off we set with food and supplies for 5 days, meeting lots of other people along the way, Brits and Aussies, Belgians and Germans, who we walked with, cooked with and played silly games with in the evenings. We were ready for anything, but instead of the washout that the weather forecasts and park rangers had predicted, we were treated to (at worst) light clouds and (at best) glorious sunshine. We witnessed one of the best sunsets I have ever seen over Glacier Grey; magnificently clear, starry nights in Valle Frances; and finished the trek with sunrise in front of the towering Torres, which changed from grey to red to orange to gold in front of our eyes! Incredible.

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After a well deserved rest back in the town (and a few celebratory beers), a group of us continued our Patagonian adventures over the border into Argentina (to be continued…) Thanks a lot Chile for some awesome times! ¡Hasta Luego!

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