July

And so the time has come. Ridge has felt like home for the longest time, and I quite frankly can’t believe I’ve now left for good.

I’d definitely not fully processed everything in the week leading up to our farewell – up until now I’ve always returned after packing my bag for a holiday and so my final few days were surprisingly unemotional. I was certainly aware of the situation on a more conscious level though, so I deliberately tried to spend lots of time going on walks, talking to everyone as much as possible, and simply being as present in Ridge as I could be. Our WiFi actually went down in the last few weeks and this definitely helped.

I previously spoke about our really nice official farewell to teachers, but sadly there was no such formality with students as they don’t turn up in the last week. This meant that I really could only say bye to those I bumped into in the street, which is an unfortunate consequence of Guyana’s choice to solely dedicate the final week of term to paperwork. The last day of school rolled around (the photo below’s of our last morning), I gave out gifts to the school as well as to individuals (a good way of offloading the insane amount of teabags my parents sent me), and Mark and I went about gutting the house and our rooms.

The amount of stuff we couldn’t or didn’t want to take home was quite unbelievable really, so we tasked ourselves with selling as much as possible and giving away the rest. Unsurprisingly, not many people were too keen to purchase my year-old, stained t-shirt or tubs of oxidised spices, so the vast majority was packed into a box to be distributed in Minab – a poorer Amerindian community very close by.

We’d invited our friends over for a relaxed party on Friday night followed by an open invite for everyone to go by Third for the final time. Despite the rather bare house and unrelenting rain it was really fun, and felt just like a classic Ridge night out – exactly what we wanted.

Our last day in Ridge was just like any other day: STEM club in the morning, run in the afternoon, walk about Ridge chatting to anyone and everyone, meal by Shellon’s. We stayed by Shellon’s for ages reflecting on everything and I think it made me understand my lack of emotion regarding leaving. Ridge has been incredible, but I feel I’m ready for the next chapter – ready to move on, which means ready to leave.

We woke early on the morning of our flight, received a freshly baked bush-pizza from Brother Kennedy, then Lexy came over to help us finalise everything. Gifts and goodbyes were exchanged only to be followed by more at the airstrip before the flight took off. Looking down on the village as it shrunk away (how symbolic) was sentimental but an exciting representation of what was to come.

And what exactly was to come? Well, a horrendous 18-hour bus journey to Lethem. All I’ll say is that I didn’t expect to be heaving our loaded vehicle through shin-deep mud somewhere in the Guyanese jungle at 4:30am after having not slept properly in a day. Best £50 I’ve ever spent.

They say discomfort increases appreciation and this must be true – I guarantee no one enjoyed the comparative opulence of the Brazilian bus which we boarded after crossing the border more than us. It was luxury, and before we knew it we were experiencing déjà vu as we alighted at…

Boa Vista

We may have only stayed here for a few hours, but this is where the holiday officially started. We’d arranged to meet the friend we’d previously made in Easter, and he took us to a barbecue hosted by one of his friends. We had a really nice time there, despite being rather ashamed of our utter incompetence in Portuguese and questionable personal hygiene (no showers on busses). We had some great Brazilian BBQ, some garishly blue Corote, then all too quickly found ourselves back on another bus.

Manaus

To keep this blog a palatable length I’ll only speak about the highlights of each place we’ve been to, and for Manaus it’s got to be the boat tour. Arranged by our incredibly helpful AirBnb host, this excursion first took us along the Rio Negro to its confluence with the Amazon. Due to the different attributes of the rivers they don’t mix for an impressive stretch and instead run alongside each other like a pattern on the ground. Next stop was one of the riverside communities, where we saw a demonstration of native dances and music, as well as trying some smoked ants (it’s the future) and fish from the river. Nice, but one of the bones inserted itself into my gum, only to be removed after 5 minutes of blood and pain. Spot the tourist. We were escorted back to the boat by our new native friends via the a viewpoint and their homes. The electricity cables and packed cars slightly dispelled the illusion, but it’s all good fun.

Lunch followed our tribal experience, which was an amazing buffet of deep-fried pirhana, fejoida, and Amazonian fruits. We ate with our new German and Paulistano friends, then continued to the day’s final activity: swimming with the Rio Negro’s pink dolphins. They were so cool – huge animals with massive teeth that came out daily to please the giddy tourists in return for all the fish they could eat. Not a bad deal.

This finale marked the end a great day, we slept well at our free Couchsurfing apartment that night.

There’s so much more I could say about Manaus but I’ll abstain for now and move on to my top picks of…

Rio de Janeiro

Rio!! As the first place I actually knew about before this year, coming here was extremely exciting for me. While it certainly didn’t disappoint, actually being somewhere that you’ve heard so much about definitely normalises it. The world-famous Copacabana Beach is, well, just a beach after all. In saying that, it was pretty amazing being able to look up and see Christo in all his glory.

To be honest, we spent much of our time in this city just walking about and taking it all in – it seemed impossible to not stumble across a market or an exposition, and the general buzz and colour of the city was sufficient to entertain between seeing landmarks.

We did of course pay Christo a visit though, walking up the surprisingly steep trail to his base (definitely better than paying for a minibus). I’m admittedly not the most religious guy, but you have to be impressed by the sheer scale of the statue – it’s amazing.

After carefully making our way down the treacherous path that day Mark and I walked to Ipanema beach, bought a cheap beer from a beachside vendor, and watched the amazing sunset. It’s a daily tradition to start applauding as the sun disappears and tonight was no exception. This day was a true highlight.

Rio de Janeiro was something else but we couldn’t stay there forever. Now self-proclaimed experts in Brazilian night busses we coolly entered the bus station, ignoring the intense shrieks of “LEEEEEEITO” (meaning bed – the seat being flogged), selected the cheapest company to travel with, and as 1am rolled around the bus departed.

São Paulo

Not really sure what I was expecting from the biggest city in both the Southern and Western Hemispheres, but São Paulo is absolutely massive. My Guyanese life was already seeming distant at this stage, and the view we got of Paulista Avenue from its mirador certainly didn’t bring it any closer. Never have I been somewhere with so much development stretching further than perceptible in all directions.

The city itself was naturally pretty amazing due to its intense population density, but I must confess I do feel it lacked the vibrancy and culture that was completely omnipresent in Rio. In saying that however, our time here was great. We saw heaps of modern art (actually not as bad as people say), ate some great food, and even had a fun night out with the lawyer friends we met in Manaus!

Hostels here were also a real highlight – really social, really cheap, and they offered great breakfast buffets. However, we only tend to spend one night at each hostel to get a more varied experience and fit our itinerary. There’s something rather nomadic about sleeping in a different bed each night.

São Paulo was the end of travelling with Mark alone, and our 6am flight to Campo Grande marked the start of our race to Tarija to meet the others and start our first proper tour.

From São Paolo to Santa Cruz

Planning isn’t bad when possible, but unfortunately the lack of online resources made this part of the journey mildly stressful and very uncertain. Admittedly we should’ve allowed an extra day but we didn’t, so had a very tight deadline as to not miss our tour. We flew to Campo Grande and had to get from the airport to the bus station as quickly as possible. Unfortunately this town’s public bus system is not particularly tourist-friendly, so we had to rely on the goodwill of fellow passengers to pay for our two fares each. Somehow we managed, and arrived at the bus station in time to book a bus (that fortunately existed!) to the border town of Corumbá. A quick breakfast of meaty Brazilian pastries was sourced from a nearby lanchonette, and we got on yet another bus to the border. A taxi took us across, Bolivian stamps were accrued, and then we made our way to try and get a night bus to Santa Cruz. Somehow everything fell in place and one was booked at around 7pm, leaving just enough time for a loaded celebratory £3 plate of Bolivian BBQ with all the trimmings from a lady on the street. Waking up the next day in Santa Cruz 6 hours before our tour started after over a day of travelling was a pretty good feeling.

Valley of the Condors

We headed straight to the others’ hostel once we’d arrived to be reunited with Otty and Saskia from PK and Jack from Sand Creek. Stories were exchanged of our adventures so far, and we made our way to Tarija, where our trekking tour began. Day 1 was more relaxed, with our guide taking us on a walk around his farm. We all had the chance to milk a cow and had a local drink containing an unknown spirit, cinnamon sugar as well as the milk straight from the udder. Apparently raw milk is dangerous, but I survived.

We arose early the next day and set off up the mountain. The Andes are simply stunning – we found ourselves frequently stopping, turning, and just taking in the view. Our guides expertly pointed out the condors (huge scavenging birds that live on these hills) above, and took us up slightly dodgy paths and very high cliffs. We came back to camp after a great day, gathered around the fire, and were treated to hearty pasta followed by local wine and chocolate under the stunning sky above. All sounds rather romantic, but unfortunately it was was bloody freezing so we may have sacrificed time by the fire for time wrapped up in bed wearing all the clothes we could.

We woke for sunrise the following morning and quickly headed down the mountain to catch the condors’ morning commute. We got so much more than that though – an incredible sea of clouds covered the valley below, a spectacle that we’d later learn only happens twice or three times a year. At the will of the guides we descended very slowly to experience as much of this as possible and made it back to the farm just in time for the amazing lunch made for us featuring scandalously unhealthy Bolivian cheesy rice porridge and BBQ. The food, the guides, the camping, the birds, the clouds were all superb. What a fantastic few days.

The Salt Flats

By geographical coincidence we happened to do our two main tours back to back, which meant getting a night bus from Tarija straight to Tupiza and sleeping in a hotel lobby from 4-7am before setting off on our tour. We’d organised a 4-day jeep trip to drive from Tupiza to the Flats, and as luck would have it we had a guide and car to ourselves! The few days that followed certainly won’t be forgotten in a hurry – we saw spectacular mountains and volcanoes, funky coloured lagoons, loads of llamas and alpacas, glacial rock formations, and (of course) the Salt Flats themselves. It is easy to overlook the slight downside of this excursion though – the cold.

The area was experiencing a freak spell of snow, which led us to have to dig our car out of the snow in the middle of a storm on multiple occasions. Fortunately our Bolivian driver was a bit of a tank and never failed to rescue his trusty steed, but only at the expense of the feeling in our extremities. For four days and three nights we wore everything we had, slept under a crushing mass of blankets, and huddled like penguins whenever possible, but that was definitely all part of the fun.

Seeing the Salt Flats was the conclusion of the tour, and we woke before sunrise in our hostel made of salt on the last day. We drove for around an hour along the flats to Cactus Island, climbed to its peak, and then waited for the sun to come up. It was so very cold, but the view was spectacular. The rest of the day was spent on the plain, taking the famous perspective photos and just appreciating how bizarre they looked – white nothingness in all directions isn’t something you see every day.

A few hours later and the tour had finished. We thanked the guide and went on a bus hunt.

Potosí

From Uyuni (a town near the Flats) we next went to the mining town of Potosí. Not a great deal to say about here – we stayed for only 24 hours. This town does hold some pretty fascinating history though. It’s famous for its silver mine, which was exploited by the Spanish in such a way that hundreds of Bolivian miners lost their lives. It still functions today, but fortunately the conditions have significantly improved. One night was spent here after a day of post-tour (relative) warmth and recovery and a bus was boarded the next morning to…

Sucre

I loved Sucre – something about the second biggest city in Bolivia really struck a chord with me. Maybe it was the £1 pizza that was made for us on the street on the first night, maybe it was the dancing dinosaurs that directed traffic. Who knows. The whole place seemed to be constantly bustling with vendors selling all kinds of fare, and I loved it. We didn’t do anything exceptionally exciting while there so I can’t say much, but we all really enjoyed taking a few days to ourselves to recuperate, enjoy some cheap quinoa soup and smoothies and real heat from the sun that apparently doesn’t exist elsewhere in Bolivia.

Our classic strategy was employed as one night was spent in Sucre, and then yet another night bus was boarded to take us to…

La Paz

It’s been a long post, but this is the last place we visited this month. La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, started with a noisy walk from the bus terminal to our hostel past masses of commuters and traffic (a bit of a shock to the system), and a huge protest of schoolchildren marching in the street. We happened to overlap with with Grace, Sophie, and Dagmara, so it was really nice to catch up with them. We all went our on the first morning and took advantage of La Paz’s really cool cable car network that spans the city. It costs the same as any other public transport, but offers incredible views of the vast metropolis and stunning scenery surrounding.

Another highlight here had to be the night we spent in the Loki. Loki is an infamous chain of party hostels in South America, offering a good night out 7 days a week for locals and backpackers alike. It was amazing to be around so many people from such a wide range of countries simultaneously, and I definitely feel that night sums up one of my favourite aspects of travelling. This month I’ve met so many different people and learned so much through them. Being nomadic in this way definitely wouldn’t be easy long-term, but it’s an experience that I’d recommend for everyone to try at least once.

And that’s it! A bit of a mammoth blog entry but I hope its length serves as a sufficient demonstration of the incredible range of experiences we’re all having in South America. This blog post is really late so I’m actually almost about to go home (can’t bear the thought!) and so it’s been really fun to use this post as a way to remember everything I’ve been up to!

Thanks for reading, and probably see you soon in real life!

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