‘Lewis’ Year in Guyana’ is perhaps slightly misleading for this entry, but I’ll continue nonetheless.
I left off my last blog entry in La Paz, so I’ll waste no time and continue straight from there. After two days of exploring the capital itself, we decided to take a trip from the city and cycle the infamous Death Road. Understood to be the world’s most dangerous road with a staggering 3500m of descent over 64km of thin, barrierless road, this route has taken the lives of some who dared to drive and cycle it. Considering this, it would be sensible to opt for a most reputable company possible so Mark, Otty and Jack rode with a more expensive but very highly-rated option for their tour. Saskia and I are dangerous frugality though, which led us to select the absolute cheapest option available (to the disapproval of my parents who I only told afterwards). I will admit that I was questioning this decision the following morning when signing a terrifying wavier in our minivan as it trundled to our start point at 4700m.
This all turned out to be part of the experience though, and out tour was great fun (and safe!). The views were frankly spectacular and the adrenaline I felt that day was unrivaled. We stopped for photos on a few occasions on the ride, and it was pretty mental to look properly at the sheer scale of everything.
Fortunately our group all made it back safely in the end and were able to share a fantastic buffet and swim in the river, bonded by our thankfulness to not have died. Going for the cheapest tour might not always pay off, but it certainly did here.
Isla del Sol
This tour marked the end of La Paz and beginning of Lake Titicaca – the world’s highest lake. It’s shared by Bolivia and Peru, and we started on the Bolivian side with Isla del Sol. The Island of the Sun is a stunning place, and served as a bit of relaxation after a jam-packed couple of days. We constantly seemed to get lucky with events and festivals while travelling, and this was no exception: Bolivia was celebrating its Agricultural Reform right when we’d decided to visit. This was celebrated through a fantastic public show at a school which featured groups of all ages in traditional dress performing to music.
It lasted for hours and none of us were ever really sure what was going on, but the cross between acting and dancing that was as discordent as the accompanying band was certainly a spectacle.
We left the school after witnessing everything from flares to flying fruit and went on a walk. The island’s unexpectedly high hills offer spectacular views, but the paths leading there serve as a severe reminder of the altitude. The surrounding expanse of water might look like the water, but you’re certainly not at sea-level!
That evening we treated ourselves to pizza, the island’s most popular cuisine (I’m not kidding – blame the tourists), then woke for sunset the following morning. Feeling refreshed after our island retreat, we returned to the mainland and pressed on to our next destination.
Welcome to Peru! Bolivia was absolutely fantastic (I think it might be my new favourite country), but Peru was calling and time was marching on. We really only had one afternoon in Puno and (yet again) we’d chosen a great time to visit. While walking around in the centre we heard explosions coming from the direction of an enormous crowd of people congregated on a hillside nearby, so we made our way there to investigate.
We began to question this decision when the volume and frequency of these bangs seemed to dramatically increase, but all fears were alleviated when we arrived at the base of the hill. The crowd was actually an enormous queue, and the bangs were small fireworks set off by those waiting. We couldn’t figure out what the people were queuing to see (the line must have been at least 3 hours long) and even after following it up the hill all we could make out of their destination was a religious shrine of some sort. It’s interesting how little understanding we had of something so important to so many people.
The Floating Islands
A classic example of an attraction is simply never heard of that the others ensured we didn’t miss, the floating islands are a network of reed islands on Titicaca. Although tourism is said to be what keeps their inhabitants living on the islands today, the islands are structurally authentic.
Reeds are abundant here and are used to build houses, boats, and ask the islands themselves – new layers are stacked on top of old ones monthly to maintain buoyancy. Our tour brought us to three different floating islands where we were welcomed by the different families that live there. They showed us their homes, sold us different crafts and foods, and explained the structure of the ground below us and their lives in general. Very touristy, but very interesting.
We came backtoPuno later that day, grabbed a quick lunch, and the moveson to our next destination.
They say that great things come with hard work, and Arequipa was definitely an example of this. The city serves as a fascinating example of the outcome of colonialism on a civilisation – old Inca walls and symbols in the architecture sit among grand white churches and courtyards. We spent the first morning learning about all of this with a free walking tour, had a nice lunch, then utilised our hostel’s free bike hire to cycle around the city until sunset. All sounds very nice, but let’s discuss that hard work that came with this particular great thing.
You see, there were strikes happening during the time we spend there, which made it seriously difficult to enter or leave. Major roadblocks meant that our night bus was only able to make it an impressive 10km from Arequipa’s centre, forcing us to join the hundreds of others in our position in walking along the road.
Protesters were throwing rocks at taxis and busses facilitating transport in and out of the city, which turned the morning into a bit of a free-for-all to pile into the few minibusses choosing to brave it. In the end, Mark and I had to leave the others to occupy the last free space before it was snatched by someone else. The boulders and burning tires on the road meant that it didn’t get us very far, and it ultimately was a taxi (with its TAXI sign removed as soon as we got in) that fought its way through the streets to our hostel. Breakfast was good that morning.
The protests continued through the next few days, and you could definitely feel the tension in the city. Shops quickly closed their shutters as loud processions made their way through the streets and squares were packed with flag-holding, megaphone-utilising protesters.
We were now nearing the end of our time travelling and consequently had to make the decision to book a last-minute flight to escape from Arequipa – all the roads were still blocked and we had no idea how long it would be until things settled. That night might have been the worst sleep of my life (catching a fitful hour where possible in six different places), but we thankfully made it through and were ready for our final city!
Arequipa was great but mildly stressful, so we were extremely relieved to be finally out. Cusco was also great (probably my favourite place in Peru), but quite frankly there’s not much more that I can say about it that doesn’t also apply to Arequipa or other Peruvian cities. However, Some unique highlights had to be our free ceviche masterclass, trying grilled alpaca at 3am, the markets (and their quinoa soup!), and the omnipresent chocolate shops that offered constant free samples.
Cusco has a lot going for it, but also serves as a base for many different tours:
Rainbow Mountain and The Red Valley
Rainbow Mountain is a stunning landmark near Cusco made up of numerous stripes of multicoloured minerals. We enthusiastically followed the masses up to the top from the base, but were quickly slowed by the notable lack of oxygen at 5000m. We had the option to reduce effects of altitude by paying for a horse to the top, but we got the desired result from a strange liquid our tour guide kept encouraging us to inhale. Probably illegal in the UK.
The views were incredible though, not only of the mountain itself but also the valley surrounding, and the alpaca I sampled at the top only added to the experience. We partially descended and continued our expedition to the top of another hill. This was on the edge of the Red Valley, and offered a panorama unlike anything I’d ever seen before.
Leaving our views of the Mars-scape below was tough but unavoidable and we were hungry, so we made our way back to the minibus and to lunch. We stuffed ourselves silly on the buffet provided and slept all the way back to Cusco after a simply amazing day.
It might seem like I’m quite well-cultured going to all of these different places that you’ve probably never heard of, but the truth is that nor had I before this all started. However, pretty much the only exception to that was Maccu Piccu. We managed to find a inconceivably cheap tour from Cusco, and set off in sight of the Inca relic.
Day one of our tour was pretty much just getting to Aquas Calientes, the town at the foot of Maccu Piccu, and so consisted of lots of driving and a two hour walk. The walk was actually really nice, but was along a very active railway so was mildly dangerous. We arrived with limbs in tact though, checked into our hostel and had an early night to ready ourselves for the big day tomorrow. We began the ascent to Maccu Piccu the following morning in good time, and reached the entrance after a pretty spectacular climb up the mountain. The attraction itself is definitely impressive, but completely tainted by the unforeseen masses of people also visiting. I’ve never before complained about mass-tourism as I feel it can be a cliché critique, but I can’t deny how much the phenomenon detracted form our experience. An interesting debate was sparked on our way down the site about the topic, with a general consensus being drawn that while it’s a shame for us tourists, Peru has every right to milk Maccu Piccu as much as it wants.
In the end though we did get to see the ruins, and even the hoards of tourists couldn’t completely spoil the amazing old city. It was insane to think that the very place where we were standing was inhabited by such a fascinating civilisation all of those years ago.
The Beginning of the End
We returned from our Maccu Piccu tour feeling slightly sentimental not only over the experience we’d just had at the site, but also since this tour marked that last real activity of our time travelling. Lots of fun was still to be had, but this was all incidental of our journey back home.
There’s not much you can write about 24 hours of driving so I won’t dwell, but all I’ll say is that we were all pretty happy to arrive in Rio Branco, over 1000km of roads away from Cusco. It could have been worse though, and the fact that we arrived so efficiently meant that we had rather a lot of time to kill before our scheduled flight and there’s really not a lot for tourists in this town. As such we didn’t do a lot, with the highlight of our stay being the 5 hours we spent in a Churrascaria (a Brazillian BBQ buffet) over two days. I’ve never tasted better meat in my life, and feel I got my money’s worth after 10 plates of pure carnivorous delight.
We flew from Rio Branco to Manaus where we spent a brief but enjoyable day picking up some final Brazilian souvenirs before catching the very last night bus to Bonfim. We crossed the border back into the homeland, and found ourselves walking off the plane in Georgetown that same morning. Blink and you’d have missed it.
There wasn’t a great deal for us to do during our last few days in Guyana, but I’m definitely glad we set aside this time for ourselves. Although Georgetown isn’t the most inspiring of places it’s unquestionably Guyanese and so it was really nice to spend some time walking around with no real plan. As seems to often be the case in these situations lots of our day was planned around the foods we wanted to eat before we no longer could, but the importance of food to the Guyanese allows this mission to be spun as a cultural one.
Our nights did have more of a structure however, and we managed to meet up with lots of the friends we’d made throughout the year for the final time.
Our last day in the country was sentimental, but I’d by lying if I said I didn’t feel ready to come home – ready to move on to the next stage. Mark and I treated ourselves to baigan choka for breakfast (Miss Monique was supposed to join us but didn’t turn up – classic), played cards to allow the torrential tropical downpour to ease, walked around the market, then got a bus to one of Jack’s Aunties who cooked us up copious quantities of pepperpot and roti curry for lunch – a true Guyanese feast.
We had a quick meet-up with Sir Marcus who happened to be in the area, then made our way home just before dark. A celebratory meal was had that evening to not only mark the end of the year but also Sophie’s Birthday, and then we stayed out late into the night drinking Banks funded entirely by someone’s friend. I don’t think I could have construed a more Guyanese day if you paid me.
We woke early the following morning, somehow managing to catch the bus that came to take us to the airport. I was experiencing déjà vu as I watched Guyana shrink away below me, a mix of sadness and sentimentality mixed with excitement and achievement.
Trinidad and Tobago
Truely the final destination of the holiday, Trinidad was a perfect way to mark the end of the year. Our flight back to Gatwick had a layover here anyway, so we extended it to allow for these few days. Apparently our luck with regards to timing hadn’t yet expired, as our stay happened to coincide with Carifesta – a huge festival that happens only every 4 years!
Carifesta celebrates art from all over the Carribean (including Guyana!), so we were able to attend heaps of free events, see some incredible live music, and visit markets stocked with food and craft from all of the various countries involved. Trinidad and its capital seems a pretty awesome place, and somewhere I’d love to revisit for longer if given the chance. This particular stay however was essentially only a layover, and the time for us to make our way to the airport came all too quickly.
This felt like the third time I’d finished the gap year so I had maybe became slightly desensitised, but it was sad regardless to be leaving the continent for good.
It was warm when we stepped on to the British tarmac after crossing the Atlantic which didn’t make the UK seem so bad. My repatriation meant that I had known what coming home felt like, but it’s different when you’ve got no plans to return imminently. A long layover was still separating my from seeing my family, but it was still nice to watch those who lived nearby be reunited with their parents. I was able to briefly meet Mark’s Mum for the first time too, which was really nice. After saying all relevant farewells it was just Dag, Sophie and I left waiting for the plane to Glasgow. It passed quickly enough though -helped along by our visits to Costa and Pret (didn’t realise how much I’d missed them!) – and before we knew it the very last leg was over as we caught the flight up to Glasgow.
Home (I guess?)
I was truely shocked with how much better it felt to walk into arrivals for the second time than the first. One was failure, this was achievement. Although not functioning at peak performance after all the travelling, I still thoroughly enjoyed the dinner Mum had organised with my family. There was so much to tell after the big adventure, but I was glad to get into my bed that night!
At the time of writing I’ve been back for over a week, and feel perhaps too settled in. My newfound ability to adapt to living in a new place is surely a consequence of the relentless turbulence that defined out time backpacking, but the fact that Matthew’s Ridge already feels like a distant memory does make me feel uncomfortable. I suppose that not feeling a lot is better than reverse culture shock, but I’m conscious to hold on to my time in Guyana for as long as possible.
Maybe a bit of a sad ending, but I’m only upset to be feeling disparate from Ridge because the year was so good! I can’t reiterate how much I feel I have gained from my time overseas, and I want to thank every one that’s made it so enjoyable. Without my parents, those who helped fundraise, everyone at Matthew’s Ridge that welcomed me so naturally, those who offered support at Project Trust, and the rest of the Guyana volunteers (especially Mark!) the year just wouldn’t have been the same.
I’d planned to speak about each of the goals I outlined in my first blog here, but there’s no need – I can succinctly say I’ve had no option but to achieve them all! I guess that’s just what happens when you’re thrown in at the deep end as I was.
Well I guess that’s it then. 14 posts, 30,000 words later and that’s the end of Lewis’ Year in Guyana – I’ve thoroughly enjoyed writing this blog and hope you’ve enjoyed reading it too! My year officially ends at the start of September after I complete my debriefing course with on Coll with Project Trust and then I’m off to study Maths and Computing Science at Edinburgh University.
Thanks for reading!