A History in Tea Leaves (Munnar)

The hills of Munnar, India.

Emerald leaves flutter under a bright blue sky. Sleek red dragonflies dart to and fro above the green, wings catching the sunlight. The leaves belong to bushels of tea — long, winding ranks of them, vast fields of jade-coloured shrubs sprawling for miles and miles and miles along rolling hills.

Munnar, located 1,600 metres above sea level, is a hill station in the Indian state of Kerala, situated in the Western Ghats mountain range. Frequently compared to both Kashmir and Darjeeling, its scenic mix of mountains and tea plantations make it a popular tourist destination, in particular for honeymooning couples.

One of Munnar’s premiere attractions is a small museum devoted entirely to the local tea trade, and visitors to the museum are promptly treated to a short film telling the story of the region’s history. In 1877, British Resident John Daniel Munro visited Munnar while settling a border dispute between the Kingdom of Travancore and the neighbouring state of Madras. Judging the Kannan Devan hills in Munnar to be prime plantation land, Munro promptly leased them from a local royal, the august Rohini Thirunal Kerala Varma Valiya Raja. In 1880, a European planter named A.H. Sharp experimented with planting tea in the Munnar area, and tea rapidly became the region's most successful crop.

In the late 1890s, the firm Finlay Muir & Company purchased 137,000 acres of tea estates in Munnar, and formed the Kannan Devan Hills Produce Company to manage them. In 1973, the Tata Group (India’s leading ubiquitous corporate conglomerate), purchased the Finley company. Its subsidiary, Tata Tea Limited, fully took over the plantations of Munnar in 1983. In 2005, Tata Tea ceased its operations in Munnar, handing its tea business over to the newly established Kannan Devan Hills Plantations Company (KDHP) — a company majority-owned by its plantation worker employees.

To this day, KDHP is 68% owned by its tea-picking employees (with 18% owned by Tata, and 14% owned by a Trust and various other stakeholders). 97% of the plantation workforce in Munnar are shareholders in the company.

Theoretically, this serves to safeguard the rights of the plantation workers and ensure they are given fair treatment. As the museum is quick to inform tourists, plantation workers are privy to various benefits, including access to modernised local hospital, and to a school specifically created to provide work for the differently-abled children of employees. The museum emphasises the KDHP’s desire to maintain a fair, environmentally friendly, economically viable business philosophy.

And this is certainly part of the story.


Tea pickers in Munnar, India.

The tea industry in Munnar supports about 13,000 workers. The majority of those harvesting leaves are women, and their labour conditions are punishing.

In late 2015, 5000 female KDHP tea plantation workers famously launched a labour action protesting these conditions, triggered by KDHP plans to halve worker bonuses. The protesters, predominately made up of women from the Dalit underclass, took on the name Pembilai Orumai — “Women’s Unity.” The protests were organised independent of the local trade unions, viewed by the protesters as patriarchal and corrupt.

While the protests achieved worldwide attention, the outcome was not a resounding victory. Though the protesters campaigned for a 100% increase to their daily wage of RS232 ($3.14), in the end, they were forced to settle for a mere 30% increase.

These days, plantation workers must harvest a minimum of 25kgs of tea leaves per day in order to earn their new daily wage of around RS315 ($4.55). Workers are paid an additional RS1.50 ($0.0222) for every kilogram harvested beyond this amount. Tea plantation workers pick leaves for 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, and the strenuous work (together with the frequent exposure to pesticides) carries with it many serious healthcare risks.

This is also part of the story.


Tourism remains one of the premiere sources of income for the Munnar region, which — aside from its tea plantations — boasts national parks and elephant sanctuaries.

The tea pickers work in proximity to many hotels and guesthouses, and are generally friendly toward tourists. On the way to my hotel in Munnar, I passed a cluster of workers, and a woman with a sack of leaves slung over her chequered shirt took a moment to make sure I was going the right way – possibly to avoid me getting in anyone else’s.

Throughout the hill station, shiny cars can be seen streaking through verdant plantations, occasionally dropping off and collecting travellers. Some of those travellers, upon going home, will end up drinking tea made from leaves harvested on these very slopes.

Those leaves will have come a very long way.

And the absolute least we can do, as travellers and at home, is try to acknowledge the whole story behind them.

And all the people it involves.

This post is based on a visit to Munnar in early 2018.

Sources and related reading:










Cyberpunk Smog (Kolkota)

Towering urban architecture in Kolkata, India

Towering urban architecture in Kolkata, India

The air here is a problem.

In the city of Kolkata, even breathing has its perils. According to a 2007 study, 70% of residents of Kolkata suffer from respiratory diseases caused by air pollution, with 18.4% cases of lung cancer per 100,000 people. It's a problem serious enough to have triggered a WHO Health Advisory Alert in 2017, and it's a worry that tends to rather discourage long walks.

Venturing out of my hotel to wonder the city, I soon found myself seized by the bracing smell; a seething mix of grit and pollution that sticks in the teeth. There's a familiarity to it, an odd nostalgia; it's reminiscent of the taste of other Indian cities I have visited in the past, the temples in Jaipur and the markets of New Delhi. 

Colourful clothes left out to dry in Kolkata

Colourful clothes left out to dry in Kolkata

If a single word describes Kolkata, it is towering. The city seems to be crawling upward in an attempt to escape its own smog. Hulking legs of concrete support huge curling bridges, shepherding traffic up on raised highways. Decrepit old apartment rooftops, covered in drying laundry, are cowed by the vast new housing blocks rising to overshadow them. Improbably large billboards overlook the sprawl, and at night, parts of the city take on a surreal twinkle.

The twinkle is down to fairy lights wreathing swathes of the city's roads; some of the lights even wrap the bodies of streetlamps, turning them into neon blue candy canes. Explanations for the street lights vary, when I ask around. The most plausible story seems to be that they are leftover from the city's annual Christmas celebration.

Rooftops in Kolkata

The city's wealthy middle-classes traverse it cautiously, insulated from the pollution by their air conditioned cars. Ubers are common, as are shiny yellow taxis. Motorcycles, tuk-tuks and rickshaws remain for those who can't afford to escape the not-so-fresh-air. 

Kolkata is not an easy city for tourists.  Sights (like the famous Victoria Monument, deposited by British colonials unable to leave their architecture behind) are quite broadly distributed. Even ignoring the poisonous air, walking is not terribly convenient; much of the city's sidewalk seems to be torn up, in a perpetual state of mid-repair.  The architecture, while impressive, is often more functional than pretty. The poverty is striking--shanty towns are frequent, including one built on an active a train track, where people move their lives back and forth to dodge incoming vehicles. 

Living on railroad tracks, Kolkata

Living on railroad tracks, Kolkata

Indian cities are always vivid, no matter how thick the air. From the sights and the sounds to the contrast in living conditions, every step brings a new assail on the senses. It's enough to overwhelm, if not approached with awareness and caution. 

Kolkata has a heady atmosphere.

Breathe it in with care. 

Organised Chaos (India)

An image from my last trip to India, in 2012

An image from my last trip to India, in 2012

I visited India once before.

My predominate memories are of chaos--honking horns and wild traffic,  cows blocking the roads, fumes filling the streets, delicious street food dripping with the potential sickness.

But that was years ago, slumming my way through the monsoon as a penniless backpacker. This time, I'm visiting Kolkata to attend a friend's wedding--wondering if perhaps I will find India has changed since my last visit.

My journey from London to Kolkata involves a domestic transfer in New Delhi.  As soon as I step off the plane at New Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport, I'm confronted by commotion.  Passengers bound for domestic transfers are being hurriedly herded by staff toward a desk clearly labelled "INTERNATIONAL TRANSFERS." Receptionists in orange jackets are anxiously crossing passenger names off of paper lists and directing people to an overcrowded security area. Every computer in sight is sullenly inactive, and a desk labelled "DOMESTIC TRANSFERS" has been left sadly unmanned. 

The queue at the security area is huge; only two of many security scanners are manned. One is reserved for men, while women are directed toward the other, which is afforded some privacy by being concealed behind grey curtains. Security officers in army uniforms patrol moodily. A small Indian lady with white hair shouts angrily at me, before dragging her turbaned husband along to cut into the queue ahead of me.

The airport carpet looks like it's from a 1970s episode of Colombo. It smells intensely of mothballs.

The security scanners turn out not to be working at all, meaning that each passenger needs to be personally searched by a security guard with a handheld wand. The man who scans me frowns as his wand repeatedly beeps at my empty pockets. I ask if I can go. The man wobbles his head indeterminately, and then waves me through. 

Ah, India, I have missed you.

Tales of Ice and Fire (Iceland)

A great wall of ice to the north of the world (F  jallsárlón glacier lagoon).

A great wall of ice to the north of the world (Fjallsárlón glacier lagoon).

There are volcanoes and mountains and fields of ice, surrounded by a ring.

The ring is called Þjóðvegur 1, otherwise known or Hringvegur... or, in English, simply Route One. A road 1,332 kilometres long, it binds together the scattered towns and cities that house Iceland’s small population.

Iceland--a country allegedly named by a Viking named Hrafna-Flóki, who sailed to the island in the company of three ravens (to help him find his way) in 865 AD.

Hallgrímskirkja church, Ryekjavik

Hallgrímskirkja church, Ryekjavik

Iceland, home to the volcano of Eyjafjallajökull, which in 2010 erupted in a blast of heat and volcanic ash which fell upon the air industry of Europe like Mother Nature’s boot, harshly reminding human enterprise that it takes the Earth little effort to disrupt it.

Iceland, called “Thule” by the ancient Greeks, a term for the furthest point north (sometimes also used to refer to Norway or Greenland). A country famous for producing the Sagas of the Icelanders, a glut of family histories from Viking society. Latterly, the island’s claim to storytelling fame is a little different: it’s a filming location for blockbuster TV show Game of Thrones, lending its suitably dramatic landscape to a myth from another world.

It is a country well suited to the iconography of legend, with its brooding misty mountaintops, its sharp shrapnel cliffs, its embarrassing excess of waterfalls. There are places where the ground is black; vast swathes of blasted ash. There are places where grasses sweep red and amber. There are places where rivers snake through emerald alleys, which would make a perfect camping ground for rugged adventurers.

Reality intrudes, of course.

There are, for tourists braving the ring road, certain perils to bear in mind. The costs, chiefly; Iceland is a notoriously expansive country, and the little fish inscribed on króna coins extract a hefty toll from visitors. Picnicking from supermarkets, and seeking out cheaper AirBnBs can be important savers for travellers. Though AirBnB has caused the country some concerns, contributing to a rise in local rental prices

The moment-to-moment climate is unpredictable; a local saying goes: “If you don´t like the weather, just wait five minutes.” Sheets of rain and mist may blot out natural wonders, while heavy winds make roadways perilous. Then, suddenly, the wind and rain is gone, replaced by striking sun and strafing clouds, the sky innocuously pretending to have always been that way.

(My visit to Iceland took place in the summer, on the tail end of September. Winter would have been more challenging a time, with its short, cold days).


Iceland’s best antidote for reality is its most famous; the glittering northern lights, best seen from October to March--bands of flickering green that straddle the sky. The aurora are the result of solar winds striking the Earth’s magnetosphere; the sun belching out charged particles which excite molecules in our atmosphere. A cosmic wonder to stir the imagination, and exactly the kind of thing that, in ages by, would have justly inspired thoughts of Gods and Magic.

Iceland is an island of multitudes.

So many fertile grounds for myth.

The Magic Coin

Ever been on a long train ride with nothing but a coin, some fair-weather friends, and a bottle of mysterious clear liquid? You haven't? Well, in case you ever are, here's a simple game to pass the time...

You will need:

A coin.

Some alcohol. 

An imagination.

The story:

Once upon a time, there was a magic coin.

If the head of this coin was rubbed just right, the coin would grant its owner his or her heart's desire. The coin could make any wish come true.

Since coins exist to be exchanged for goods and services (not hoarded and endlessly wished on) this was rather a design flaw.

The coin was the result of a love affair between the Gods of Chance and Money (who had met one evening at a casino). In order to keep the coin from completely destabilising the world's economy, the two Gods came to agreement: One side of the coin would grant wishes, while the other would erase the user's memory, ensuring the user would always eventually forget about the coin's power and pass it on.

This was of course a bizarre and nonsensical solution, but what can you expect from Gods when they're in love?

Over the years, this coin has gone on to make many people rich (albeit usually just rich enough to buy an extra packet of crisps). In any case, the coin has now found its way to you and a number of your least trustworthy friends...

And the question is, which one of you gets to walk away with it?

The rules:

The players sit in a circle. The direction of play is clockwise.

The player with the shortest name goes first. 

The first player flips the coin.

If the coin lands tails, the player must:

FORFEIT: Take a drink, and pass the coin onto the next player. 

If the coin lands heads, the player must:

ACTION: State their wish, out loud. This means they have to tell the coin (and the other players) the thing they want most in the world. Wishes can be as outlandish as possible, and contain multiple items. For instance: "I want a million dollars and a pet dolphin and a city on the moon." 

The player must then pass the coin onto the next player.

The next player then flips the coin.

If the coin lands tails, the player must:

FORFEIT: Take a drink, and pass the coin onto the next player. 

If the coin lands heads, the player must:

ACTION: Repeat all wish(es) spoken by the previous player. Once the player finishes listing all previous wish(es), they must then add a wish of their own. For instance, the second player might say: "I want a million dollars, a pet dolphin, a city on the moon... and a night with King Henry VIII, because I rather like his beard."

If the player is able to remember the previous wish(es) correctly, they may pass the coin to the next player. 

If the player makes a mistake remembering the last wish(es), they must:

FORFEIT: Take two drinks, and pass the coin onto the next player.

As the coin continues circulating, the list of wishes should grow longer and longer, with players having to recite all the wishes to date every time they are unlucky enough to get heads...


Players can use their wishes to make up additional rules.

For example, a player could wish: 

"I want a million dollars, a pet dolphin, a city on the moon and a night with King Henry VIII, because I rather like his beard... and from now on every player who is wishing must stand on their toes."

Players must obey any wishes that apply to them. (For example, after the above wish, players will have to stand on their toes whenever making a wish for the rest of the game).

Players can also wish to undo previous wishes. For example: "I want a million dollars, a pet dolphin, a city on the moon, a night with King Henry VIII because I rather like his beard, from now on every player who is wishing must stand on their toes... and from now on players do not have to stand on their toes while wishing."

However, even if a wish has been cancelled, players MUST STILL include it when reciting the list of previous wishes aloud. A wish may be nullified, but never erased. And of course, there's nothing to stop the next player from bringing a rule back with another wish. 

FORFEIT: If a player fails to obey a rule, they must drink. 

Players may also sabotage each other's wishes. For instance, a player might wish for "World peace." The next player might wish for "World war, actually, because I don't want world peace." Once again, all wishes MUST be remembered.  

As the game goes on, the play should become exponentially more complicated, until it becomes impossible to follow. 

The best ways to sabotage other players are: 1) Make your wishes imaginative and bizarre and 2) Attack them with tricky rules.

The winning player is the last player with the coin when everyone else has given up. This player gets everybody's wishes for themselves.

Everybody else gets alcohol-induced amnesia, by order of the Gods.

Teetotaller Mode:

Not into drinking? No problem! To be honest, I don't really do it much myself, outside of special occasions.

Alternate rules: For every FORFEIT, instead of drinking, you must read a tweet from Donald Trump out loud, with appropriate body language and as much conviction as possible. 

Doing this repeatedly will have approximately the same effect on your brain as an impact with a lot of vodka tonics followed by a large gold brick.

(The other players get to choose the tweet, or alternatively you can just go in chronological order).

Dessert Mode:

Alternate rules: For every FORFEIT, instead of drinking, you must eat a scoop of your favourite ice cream. 

I bet you think that sounds easy, but brain freeze is a terrible thing. 

This is my favourite mode. 

Mad Person Mode:

Alternate rules: For a totally mind-bending experience, for every FORFEIT combine any of the above rule-sets together: eat ice cream, consume alcohol and/or read a Donald Trump tweet.

Good luck! 





Coin image via wikipedia.

Christmas Lights in January

The wrapping has been opened, discarded and binned. 

The presents have been embraced, enjoyed, and in may cases quietly put aside, because you didn't really need more socks this year anyway.

The New Year has trundled past, and taken all your resolution with it in a haze of fireworks and frenzied drinking... or else quiet contemplation in front of the Jools Holland Show.  You've reached the second week of January, and the festivities seem so far away already. It's mid-winter, the growing cold is to be grimly absorbed, and another year stretches out, now stripped of any revelry to make that fact seem special.

But here and there, there are still Christmas lights; left up in windows, left out on the street, clinging to lampposts in quiet defiance of the season. They will be swept away quite soon, for Twelfth Night has come and gone, and it is inviting bad luck to leave them out.

But until they go, they glitter in the chill, and drive the gloom away.

And once they are gone, their memory will glitter all the same. Something to look forward to, as the year goes on. 

Isn't it so pretty, when the Christmas lights go up?


You can't handle the truth! (Donald Trump and the Post-Truth Era)

The day is grey and miserable.

Toblerone rationing has been introduced, proving even chocolate can be bitten by austerity. My train has been cancelled--again--due to an accident on the line. I'm crammed (along with three-dozen other commuters) into a grim replacement bus service, trundling slowly toward London. 

The weather is cold. We cling to our coats and scarves.

"I know, I know," says the cockney lady on the seat behind me, chirping into her phone. "Donald Trump. I just can't understand it."



That was November 9th, the day after the American election.

Tomorrow, the Electoral College votes. The expectation is that they will ratify Donald Trump's victory.

The period in between is roughly the amount of time it has taken me to stop screaming, and settle into a sort of comfortable, resigned horror at this prospect.

It's also about the time it's taken for a new phrase to rise up and dominate the media landscape. In the aftermath of the election, "post-truth," became the word of the year, touted by political commentators as the reason for Trump's victory. We are living in the post-truth era, goes the argument, where little things like facts have become irrelevant to political discourse. What other explanation can there be for voting in a presidential candidate with a record of telling the truth approximately 4% of the time?

The problem with the phrase "post-truth" is that it brands itself as being something novel--a scary new age we are courting, thanks to the strange quirks of our information landscape. It's a notion that seeks to characterise itself as some curious, recently-evolved beast, a unique product of the 21st century.  

(As if a politician who brazenly lies to people has never gotten into power before.)

Unfortunately, that's not really the case. Donald Trump's disturbing popularity isn't owed to anything specific to the present. The ability of a man to appeal to emotion and belief over facts is nothing revolutionary. Pretending otherwise is as big a lie as any other; an attempt to make it seem like the modern day is somehow separate from past, instead of an extension of it.

Instead, the real issue stems from something that seems hard-baked into human nature. It's always been here, an everyday part of life, something insidious and troubling and all too easy to ignore.

Basically, it is The Daily Mail



"You can't trust newspapers, you know," is a sentiment I've often heard.

Oddly, I've often heard it from elderly gentlemen who spend their Sunday mornings bent over tabloids like The Daily Mail, grumbling at the latest story about invading immigrants.

People have a remarkable ability to pick and choose information, like magpies rooting for gems in dirt. They pluck hopes and fears from sources they know to be questionable, and hold onto them just in case. Everybody knows that newspapers are biased, politicians are all crooked, and there are lurking con-men behind every promise of a new tomorrow. But still, people are swayed by tabloid scoops, choose if a source is trustworthy today, and vote for men like Donald Trump when they come in swearing to make the world a better place.

The information age doesn't help, of course. Most hard-working folk have only a few free hours in the day, and they're now forced to contend with a slew of different information channels, most of which feel biased, some of which are insulting, and some of which are just repeating the same five or six lies over and over again in loud letters until they sink in.

And Trump's election is a matter of enormous significance, because never before has such a brazen liar gained control of the most powerful political and military entity in human history. But the problem (assuming you think there's a problem with giving the nuclear button to a man who cannot be trusted with his twitter account when under stress) is nothing shiny or new in character.  

The problem is not that the truth is out of style.

The problem is that human beings have always been willing to replace the truth with hope for something better.

Or fear of something worse.


A Kind of Magic (Harry Potter/Edinburgh)

"Special bloody delivery, Harry."

Footsteps clink on cobbled streets as tourists, students and Scotsmen heave themselves up a gothic Mound.

The Mound is a dense nest of pillars and arches and cafes, plus pokey little shops selling kilts and overpriced shortbread. Age drips thick from every building--except for the glitzy glass apartments in the city's pea-green Meadows, new constructions proudly clashing with their antique backdrop .

This place has the feel of an ancient city; a den of magic, built between the ocean and a mountain named (King) Arthur's Seat. It isn't magic, of course--not much is, these days.

But it looks it, nonetheless.


Edinburgh's famous castle.

Along one of Edinburgh's main streets, there is one cafe a little different from the others. Its exterior is bright red, incongruous against its stony surroundings.

It's called The Elephant House.

Once upon a time a woman sat and typed here. She wrote stories about a little wizard boy and his friends; about enchanted wands and terrible monsters and flying broomsticks. These stories made the writer as rich as any fairy tale queen, pulling her out of poverty. 

(I've never read them, you understand. But any book that makes children whoop for joy of reading must be made of miracles).  

In the bathroom of this cafe, graffiti covers the walls, thick with fictional references. I SAW MOANING MYRTLE HERE and I LOVE HERMIONE, and--from one especially off-base fan--STAR WARS RULES (SIGNED R2D2). 

This cafe is where the first Harry Potter book was written.

Now it's always crowded with people panhandling for magic. 


The Elephant House. (Picture via wikipeida. Look, it was dark when I got there.)

Funny creatures, writers.

Roald Dahl had a garden shed he liked to write in. George R.R. Martin insists on channelling his fantasies through a creaky old DOS computer. It can be hard to wrestle a blank page to the ground, and an ally can be helpful; a familiar place, a familiar tool, a familiar number of teacups to start the writing day.

Writing is a kind of magic--it brings words to life. It can twist a few stray syllables into castles and dragons and mind-blowing battles. It can make a banker from New York understand life as a midwife in Darfur. It can let you into someone else's head, and let someone else's into yours.  

Writing is a special kind of magic: one that only works on other people.

Edinburgh architecture. 

In the case of J.K. Rowling's favourite cafe, a mighty spell was wrought here. Now others come from miles around with their magic implements (their laptops and their tablets and their old-fashioned paper notebooks), to sit in the spot where lightning struck, and hope it might strike again. 

Even I sat in the cafe, soaking up the ambience. The food was nice (though the shortbread overpriced) and they knew how to make a decent cup of tea. After months in the Americas, there is little better to soothe a Britain's wits than a well-made cup of tea.

One of Edinburgh's many other castle-y looking things.

I didn't notice any magic strike, but then, that's okay.

Edinburgh is a city that feels full of old enchantments.

But enchantments work in unpredictable ways.


>Edinburgh is lovely. There is little better to recommend a city than the ability to walk across it in a day. 


Caves of Plastic (Toronto, Canada)

Oh, Canada. 

I didn't forget about Canada.

A trip to the Americas felt incomplete without seeing the USA's chilly northern brother, even if I didn't have the time (or the money--dollars aren't cheap, not even Canadian) for a comprehensive visit. Toronto, sometimes known as Polite New York, seemed like the perfect spot to fly home from.

Primarily composed of gleaming skyscrapers and quaint little eateries, Toronto is the embodiment of the manageable metropolis. Threaded by trams, it's just small enough to walk across in a day, and just big enough to be crowded with distractions. From the trendy hipster thrum of Kensington Market to the verdant parks of Central Island, Toronto feels a bit like someone has taken all the nicest parts of other cities, spruced them up, and stitched them together. 

Toronto's space-age City Hall.

But the city isn't just the surface. Beneath Toronto lies The Path--a gigantic, labyrinthine mall that runs under much of the city. It's like something Tolkien's dwarves would have built if they'd been keen on plexiglass and frozen yogurt stands, and it'd be the perfect thing to use as a metaphor for the city's seedy underbelly... if it wasn't so shiny and polished. As it is, it's just hard to think of Toronto as having seedy subterranean secrets. Canadians are so darn polite, even their underworld is well maintained.

Yet there is one obvious aspect of Toronto life that runs against the city's squeaky clean exterior: the city's homeless. Dressed in rags and holding plaintive signs, Toronto's homeless will cross streets, stalk pedestrians, and even enter restaurants to plead for help. I asked one Toronto tour guide for his view on the city's homeless problem. "This is just my opinion," he said, "but a lot of it is, mental health care has gotten way worse in this country recently. People used to be looked after by the health service, but nowadays sadly there's a lot of emphasis on just giving people pills and putting them back out on the streets."

Toronto at night.

It was a carefully given answer, tone filled with diplomacy and tact. More polite that the Americans but brasher than the British, Canadians can sometimes seem like the peacemaking middle children between the new and old worlds. Used to surviving drastic weather swings (Toronto vacillates between 40 c in summer and -40 c in winter) it's no wonder Canadians seem reluctant to add any additional extremes to their lives.

But perhaps I'm just projecting a little--I am British, after all, and I crave a certain amount of socially enforced tact and emotional repression... even if Canadians are a bit sunnier than my bitterly mannered countrymen.

It rained while I was in Toronto. Not the middling, slightly embarrassed rain of the South American alps (where the rain knows it doesn't belong) or the mad lashing deluges of the tropical United States. Just the kind of dull, grim downpour that reluctantly gets on with falling, much like London's finest autumn weather.

That's how you know it's time to head home, even if the urge is one I reflexively rebel against.

When your bank balance is missing lots of numbers, and you've begun to miss the British weather.

Downtown Toronto.


>Canadian cuisine appears to mostly involve taking any given foodstuff, then adding cinnamon, blueberries and maple syrup.

>At $40 to go inside, Toronto's famous CN tower seems overpriced. But it's an incredible useful navigation aid--thanks to the tower, you always know which way is North.

>Toronto is of course famous for its appearances in American movies and television, where it tends to play Chicago.

Americaland (Washington D.C.)

Washington thrums with recent history. 

Most European cities are so cluttered with fragments of the past that their citizens hardly notice them--churches and cobbles and ruined castles, as remarkable as wallpaper. 

American cities, on the other had, cling to the impression of age despite their youth. Buildings less than 200 years old echo old Greek and Roman styles, giving the appearance of a vigorous nation striving desperately for age and pomposity.


In Washington DC, the country's veneer of age bumps up against its short and vividly remembered history. Perhaps because it is youthful enough to fit its timeline into a manageable narrative, the USA has taken care to studiously document its mythos--the country born in revolution, divided by civil war, and made great in global conflict. Its capital is filled with grand monuments to famous American figures, with extracts from their most well-known speeches engraved on marble walls. The capital pivots around the great obelisk of the Washington Monument, while memorials of old Presidents sit pensively in their stone cages, waiting for tourists to photograph them.

President Snoke... I mean... Lincoln.

While I was in DC, I followed a trail of free canapés to a glitzy formal event held within the Library of Congress. Called the Golden Goose award, it was a ceremony celebrating scientific discoveries in odd or unusual areas. In between glasses of free champagne, I was struck by the dizzying array of marketers, stylists, and artists (some more narcissistic than others) who had gathered at the party, largely for one reason--to propagate business cards. As much as it is a symbol for democracy, Washington is a mecca for people who crave advancement, power and connection.

DC's most famous landmark is of course the White House; the most powerful building in the world, home to the most powerful man in the world. But much as Presidents collapse into mere men on close inspection, the White House is a curiously underwhelming sight in person. The most powerful building in the world, it turns out, is still just a building.

Atop Capitol Hill.

Yet in a few weeks, the 2016 election will reach its climax, and the fight for that building will blot out every single other news story on the planet. Whatever its eccentricities--and there are many--America is still America, a behemoth on the world stage. It's the world's prime exporter of movies, television, magazines, celebrities and assorted pop cultural gossip. It's a country that people pay attention to unlike any other. 

Because like the people at that cocktail party, America knows how to market itself--with flags and TV and Lincoln biopics, and towering monuments.

The Washington Erection.

And it knows that, when a decision is made for DC's most famous house, the whole world will be watching.

And feel that history is being made.

Flying over Washington DC at sunset.


>  I usually try to be constructive in my political musings, but Donald Trump is a moron of unmitigated proportion. The thought that he could one day have a monument in Washington makes one inclined to burn the city down again, for its own protection. 

> It took serious effort to resist making this entire blog post out of West Wing quotes.  Actually, you know what? Let's pretend it is. 


Silicon Heaven (San Francisco)

San Francisco

The first thing you notice about San Francisco are the chairs.

They're waiting as you exit the plane, all over the airport--curvy ergonomic cuddlers that practically shout words like "synergy," and "Google," and "new wave office layout." The walls are studded with posters advertising brave new operating systems, and the companies behind them; shilling the Cloud to those fresh from the clouds.

Frisco sunset.

That's San Francisco for you, home to Silicon Valley. Once, the city drew people from all over the world with the lure of a gold rush--a rush which turned out to be more of a trickle, with far from enough gold to satisfy prospectors. Now it's a mecca for tech moguls and engineering graduates, shored up by accompanying entourages of marketers, copywriters and graphic designers. Everyone who's anyone wants to work in the Silicon Bay. 

Boat racing beneath the Golden Gate bridge.

Despite the dot-com booms and busts that have come over the years, prices in San Francisco have kept rocketing. Formerly poor neighbourhoods like the graffiti-studded Mission District have become flooded with incoming technorati--the glittering, occasionally socially awkward aristocracy of the 21st century. Outside its techy population, the city's trendy reputation ensures it's also home to a bustling collection of writers and artists... with some of their galleries more unbearably twee than others.

Street art locked away. 

On Fisherman's Wharf, the city waterfront, boatmen take tourists (a startling percentage of whom are elderly British folk) for jaunts around the city bay. Tour groups scrabble to get elusive tickets to the perennially popular Alcatraz--once a prison for terrifying convicts, now a safe way of keeping tourists contained.

Riding the famous trolleys.

There's a brand of American mineral water named "Smartwater." It is in fact indistinguishable from regular water but for its perky branding. It seems extremely at home in the shop fronts of San Francisco, a place where computer moguls fanatically scramble around the tourists, convinced that a new kind of spreadsheet will revolutionise the world. In between the techies, tourists and artists, grizzled old locals gossip on busses, remembering a time when the city was slightly cheaper and a lot less crowded on the roads. 

The Golden Gate Bridge.

San Fran is a city that demands more than a few days from visitors, then refuses to let them afford it. It is--indisputably--a placeworthy of its landmark, the shocking red Golden Gate bridge. The bridge is a feat of construction that still draws wonder to this day, especially when clouds straddle it come sunset; a monument to engineering wrapped in a coat of nature's finest fog, just waiting for a poet to inspire.

San Francisco is the home of grand things people make.

Of course artists and engineers love it. 

The Golden Gate Bridge, in morning and evening mists.


>The colour of the Golden Gate Bridge is officially International Orange--or, as I like to call it, red.

>I stayed in the Fisherman's Wharf Hostel International, located in Fort Mason (technically a national park, though located within San Francisco). While pricey, this tranquil spot is well worth visiting for a few nights.

> San Francisco is possibly the only city in the world where it is possible to see a herd of segways in the wild, thanks to the city's various segway sightseeing tours. I'll leave it up to you decide whether or not they look more ridiculous in greater numbers...



The Final Frontier (Star Trek and OSIRIS-REx)

Kennedy Space Center.

Like many, I was disappointed when NASA mothballed the space shuttle.

Spurred by funding concerns, NASA abandoned its space shuttle program in 2011--ostensibly to concentrate more on deep space exploration missions. Missions like the flight of OSIRIS-REx, NASA'S new asteroid sampling expedition, which has the potential to uncover new data about the origins of life on Earth.

On my way back from Peru, I once again stopped off in Florida--ostensibly to revisit the all-American family I stayed with on my last visit, and in actuality because there was rocketry afoot. The OSIRIS-REx mission was due to launch from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, and I couldn't resist the chance to have a look.

With the excitement of a drunken child, I gathered alongside my American friends at the bleachers just outside Kennedy Space Center.  Over us towered an enormous orange fuel tanker, bracketed by defunct booster rockets; leftover equipment from the space shuttle program, now added to the Space Center's impressive retinue of museum pieces.  

People gather at Kennedy Space Center to watch a rocket launch.

The sun was setting behind the big fuel tank, painting everything in pleasing shades of yellow and pale blue. The crowd looked expectantly up to the skies--or toward the huge TV screen in front of the bleachers, which was showing updates on the launch. We waited, air thrumming with the excitement that only a good countdown can bring.

It was September 8th 2016. 50 years earlier, Star Trek had premiered. 


Dum dah dah dah...

When I was a child, I watched a group of old men shuffle about the Starship Enterprise.

This wasn't the 1960s Star Trek television series, with its garish colours and "special" effects. It wasn't the 1980s and 1990s series, with their slick spaceships and oppressive utopianism. This was the Star Trek of 1980s cinema, a film series about a crew of ageing heroes struggling to adapt to a changing future.

There was The Wrath of Khan, where Captain Kirk grappled with his growing age and fallibility; The Search for Spock, where a crew of scrappy retirees took on Starfleet's newest technology and won; The Voyage Home where Kirk and crew went on a whale-watching cruise; and The Undiscovered Country, where a bunch of elderly veterans overcame their own racism.

It was curious for a franchise about the future to spend so much time on people stuck in the past, but it gave iconic characters room to breathe and change and feel like real people in a way they had never quite before (not to mention show off some rather fetching cummerbunds). And there was still an atmosphere of optimism to the proceedings. Despite the looming spectre of obsolescence and death, the films always featured a prominent sequence of the Enterprise launching, a rebirth complete with pomp and fanfare.

Pictured: Hairpieces.

It was a film series about endings; a group of explorers facing their last days, making peace with their legacies and shortcomings. And when the film series finally ended, with Kirk and his crew retiring as relics, it did so with the promise (delivered through one of William Shatner's esoterically spoken speeches) that humanity's mission to explore the final frontier would continue, albeit with a different kind of ship and crew.

This, more than trinkets like warp engines and phaser pistols, seemed to embody the promise of a hopeful future: the idea that every ending might spur a better beginning. And that even after they had had their day, the old dogs could still help to inspire the way forward. 


Obsolete rockets at Kennedy Space Center.

There are some who believe that life here began out there.

That is, in part, what the OSIRIS-REx mission is out to discover. 

Panspermia is a theory for the origin of life on Earth, which postulates that life may have come from outer space. That is, that the first microbes (or the materials to form the first microbes) might have been brought to the infant Earth by stray comets or asteroid fragments. It's a theory that NASA's latest mission intends to test. The OSIRIS-REx probe is due to rendezvous with an ancient asteroid named Bennu--a lump of rock almost as old as the solar system, which the probe will sample for materials that might help us understand the beginnings of life on Earth.

Below left: The Space Shuttle Atlantis, last of her kind to fly, now a museum piece.

Below right: The SPACE X launch pad at Cape Canaveral.

It's a bold mission, one that will take four years to complete, at a cost of around $985 million. Meanwhile, NASA's facilities at Cape Canaveral are abuzz with future plans to settle Mars, with scientists engaged in a fierce debate over whether it would be sensible to try colonising the moon first. NASA's newest space vehicle (the Space Launch System) is in development, while the private company SPACE X has taken over one of the Cape Canaveral launch pads, developing its own innovative, reusable space vehicles.

OSIRIS-REx launches.

The space shuttle Atlantis sits in a museum in Kennedy Space Center, behind the old orange fuel tank--just next to where I watched the OSIRIS-REx launch. The Atlantis doesn't fly anymore. She's in permanent mothballs, the relic of a bygone era--hoping to inspire the throngs of schoolchildren and space enthusiasts who frequently flock to see her.

Sometimes its easy to feel that Earth's space missions are falling back, winding down; we don't even go to the moon anymore. But NASA is still launching, with companies like SPACE X not far behind. 

Sooner or later, our old heroes retire. But that doesn't mean there isn't a new generation just waiting to spur the future on.   


> For those wondering at the movie omissions: The Motion Picture is another film about Captain Kirk having a midlife crisis. The Final Frontier, on the other hand, is a film about William Shatner having a midlife crisis.

> Kennedy Space Centre is the Disneyland of space travel, and a fun day trip, full of old rockets and former NASA employees willing to tell you all about their history. The only downside is that it's located in Florida--meaning that, like everything else in the Sunshine State, it's impossible to visit without the use of car.




Pisco in Pisco (Peru)

White vans in the Colca Canyon

Peru is full of little white vans.

Some of them are collectivos--communal taxis that Peruvians share for short hops from town to town, convenient local shuttle buses. 

And some are not. Throughout the county, huge fleets of pearly white tourists vans ship travellers from famous location to famous location. How much you rely on these buses (usually attached to tour agencies) is up to you, though it's unlikely you'll be able to escape spending at least some time in one. And even if you do, you'll find the vans cluttered around all the county's most postcard-worthy landmarks.

The streets of Pisco, a Peruvian city down on its luck.

Recently, the Peruvian president announced plans to double the country's tourist intake over the next five years. It's a move that makes sense--like Chile's mining and Bolivia's... less profitable mining... tourism is at the core of Peru's economy. A developing country with so many natural beauties can't afford to keep them tucked away, especially when much of the country's northern regions remain open to exploit.

Yet I'm reminded of something my guide said, during the Colca Canyon trek--lamenting the bygone days when tourists had to gather their own firewood to make camp on the hike, before there was proper accommodation for them to stop at.

"It was more adventure then," he said, "though it is still adventure now."

A market in Pisco.

Peru is still adventure, bursting with natural wonders, historical treasures and challenging hikes. It's probably the easiest county in the world to pretend you're Indiana Jones in; vast, dramatic, and thick with the leftovers of mysterious bygone civilisations. 

But for better or worse, it's not quite as adventurous as it used to be.

And it will be less so in the future.

Life in Pisco market.


> Prior to leaving Peru, I stopped off in the city of Pisco. Once a bustling tourist destination, it was devastated by an earthquake in 2007. It's infrastructure still hasn't recovered, with broken buildings and piles of rubble marring sooty streets. Most of its tourist services are gone now, having fled to nearby Paracas. 

I was there for the pun--the chance to drink pisco in Pisco--and I found it, improbably, in a barber shop. Lured in by the promise of a cheap haircut, I let the barber hack away at my hair while taking swigs from an old coke bottle filled with clear liquid. When he shared a shot-glass of this liquid with me, I realised it was pisco.

It's the little experiences like this that I'll remember; backstreets and cities and the Peruvian people themselves. There was the lawyer I lived with in Cusco, who practiced law all day and played basketball all night. There was the dancing I did with a family in Paracas, who invited me to join a raucous birthday party. There were so many locals who showed me their towns, from paid guides to friendly strangers on the street.

Peru's natural wonders are incredible, not to mention numerous. But in the end, it isn't the white vans that will stick with me.

It's the people they drove past. 


All The Birds In The Sky (Paracas)

On my way to the Americas, I picked up a book called All the Birds in the Sky, by author Charlie Jane Anders. The book tells the story of a witch and a scientist who fall madly in love, and the forces which conspire to pull them apart. 

Perfectly paced, funny and poignant, it’s the kind of book that deserves to be read and adored (please do so at once). But what really drew me to the novel was its title, which I've shamelessly appropriated above. In a single sentence, it conjures up images of magic grounded in earthly things. Birds can fly, after all, and that has always made them just a little magical. So what notion could be more enchanting than that of every the bird in the sky?

When I came to Paracas, a small beach town along Peru’s coast, I was a little disappointed. Run-down and grey, under grey skies, it seemed an inauspicious penultimate destination for my trip to South America. But I was determined to see the famous Islas Ballestas--a floating wildlife preserve just a off the Paracas shore, known to penniless travellers as the "Budget Galapagos.” 

Peru's mysterious coastal Candelabra.

On the morning of my boat trip out to the islands, the sky debated blue and grey, and eventually settled on grey. Scrambling aboard a speedboat in the early morning chill, I squeezed between Peruvian tourists and donned my scandalously bright orange life preserver. At first, the tour seemed doomed to mediocrity and gloom. Our boat sped past the Candelabra--a mysterious geoglyph carved into Peru’s coast thousands of years age--and our guide muttered vague, incomprehensible theories about the strange marking, her voice lost beneath the engines’ roar. 

We bounced across the water until we reached the isles; a collection of sharp red and yellow rocks assembled in a vaguely crossbow shape. The boat slowed to bank around the islands, letting the passengers glimpse penguins and sea lions, and that was when I saw them.

The biggest of the islands was a mound, a curvy hilltop which seemed, at first, to be black and white. A second glance revealed this to be wrong--the hill was brownish yellow. But it was covered in a thick skin of birds. There were hundreds, thousands, millions of turns and guls and pelicans, waddling and flapping and leaping from the rocks. I watched in awe as countless more birds arrived, sweeping over my boat, gliding across the water in vast delta formations.

From afar, the avian ranks looked like a swarm of buzzing bees, with the island as their hive. As our boat drew closer, squawks and chirrups filled the air, and wings spread and soared in a feathery whirl around us. The birds were gossiping, no doubt, peering at the peculiar wildlife which had come wandering in their midst. 

I thought about the book I had read on my way to this continent, three short months ago. It had featured a Parliament of Birds. If there was such a thing, I mused, this must surely be it. 

The day may have been grey, and the town far from magic.

But there, wheeling over me, were all the birds in the sky.


> As well as a trip to the Islas Ballestas, I recommend spending a few hours at the Paracas national preserve; a vast, empty space where desert buffets against coast. The sandy preserve may be largely beige in colour, but it's one of those rare instances where beige is beautiful.

> Alas, I'm soon to leave South America... but like all good travellers, I intend to take a rather circuitous route home.

> Charlie Jane Anders' book is genuinely excellent, especially for those of the nerdy persuasion, and it can be found here


Mirror In The Sand (Huacachina)

Relaxing after a hard day's sandboarding.

Once upon a time, a half-naked woman dropped a mirror, and now I can go sandboarding.

That’s if you believe the legend, anyway; the ancient myth behind the creation of Huacachina, an oasis in the middle of the Peruvian desert. 

Supposedly, the oasis was formed when a princess (disrobing for a bath) spotted a local hunter watching her from afar. Horrified, the princess fled... leaving her hand-mirror behind. As if by magic, the mirror melted and bloated in the sun, becoming the oasis--a pool of water in the barren grip of sloping dunes.


No longer patronised by princesses and perverts (well, not by princesses at any rate), Huacachina has since become a bit of a tourist trap--albeit a gilded one. Beautifully surreal in its desert isolation, the town could pass for a mirage. Little boats skate along the greenish-blue oasis water, while sandboarders and dune buggies skid across the surrounding dunes. At night, the sand-surfers come in to party, and the tiny settlement fills with karaoke thrums. It becomes a whole different kind of oasis: a chaotic mix of music in the middle of the desert night.

Supposedly, that poor princess is still in Huacachina, having since decided to become a mermaid and move into the oasis for reasons that presumably made sense to her at the time. Sadly, she isn’t available for comment to passing tourists, or I could have asked her:

Just how did you plan to bathe before there was an oasis here?

As with all things myth and legend, asking too many questions spoils the show. Best to grab a board and go slide down a dune instead.


>The Huacachina oasis actually started to dry up toward the end of the 20th century, but it was saved by a cadre of Peruvian businessmen. Anxious to protect the lagoon’s valuable tourist revenue, they spearheaded a project to raise the water level... by pumping in water from a nearby farm.

>Yes, I went sandboarding and no, I’m not very good at it.

>Most sandboarding lessons in Huacachina come with a free dune buggy tour. Don't miss the chance to go leaping Mad Max style up and down the dunes with a crazed Peruvian driver.


Trekking in the Colca Canyon

The slopes of the Colca Canyon.

"That doesn't look so hard," I said.

I stood on a ledge studded with cacti, leaning on a wooden stick as the sun beat down. 28 degrees made for sweaty weather as my trekking group worked its way along the perilous ledges of the Colca Canyon--the second deepest canyon in the world, and one of Peru's most popular non-Machu Picchu trekking destinations. 

My guide and I had paused along the path, to look at the next morning's destination. We could just about see it etched into a distant cliff-side: an erratic winding road from an oasis at the bottom of the rocky canyon to a crop of spindly trees at the top. It looked a long way up.

"Looks possible," I said, turning to my guide. 

My guide smiled.


Trekking along the Colca Canyon.

I chose a three day trek through the Colca Canyon (two day versions are available, but you have to be faster on your feet than I).

The first day began with me bundling into a bus at 3.00am from the nearby Peruvian city of Arequipa, and travelling to the canyon. There, I met with my small trekking group (two fit French outdoorsmen, a chatty Dutch couple and a cheerful Belgian), and we spent the morning condor spotting. Condors, sometimes known as “Eternity Birds,” like to roost in the canyon, and tourists flock to designated viewpoints to watch them soar on thermals.

After the birdwatching, it was time to descend; a knee-jangling hike down to the base of the canyon, starting from a high point 3,500 metres up. At the bottom, a small village was waiting to offer my group meals and a place to slump unconscious. 

The Colca Canyon.

At the beginning of the second day, my group decamped from this pokey little village (which was suspiciously overpopulated with tourist accommodation) and made for Paradise. The Paradise Lodge, that is, a small camp-cum-resort built atop a green oases further along the canyon. The lodge was crowded with swimming pools and swaying palms and weary trekkers, and there my group readied ourselves for the difficult third day.

The third day was reserved for the road my guide and I had spotted from the ledge; a steep clamber up 1050 metres of zig-zagging path to get out of the canyon.  It's a hike made more difficult by the fact you have to start at 5am, and be finished in less than 3 hours, or you risk missing your bus back to Arequipa (so the guides insist, at least, and it seemed like a bad idea to keep them waiting).

My guide and his hat.

There was a bar in Paradise (I always knew there would be) selling pisco and cold beers. There, my guide cornered me. Named Roger--pronounced "Royer,"--he was a curious man. Intense but rarely serious, he had a contagious love for nature and a malevolent disdain for complainers. He urged me to hire a mule for the third day, because I had been slow on the first two, and he didn’t want me left behind.

Left: The oasis and the surrounding canyon. The third day of the Colca Canyon trek is reserved for climbing the canyon walls on the left side of the photo. Right: Paradise.

"People die," Roger said, sipping a cold beer, his expression somewhere between grim and whimsically drunk. "They have the lifestyle with the smoking and the drinking and they come here to climb without training, without being ready... they go up and their hearts explode or they fall... I always say, this is your vacation, you can spend a little more money, you don't have to kill yourself."


Hiking up the Colca Canyon at sunrise.

I was told there would be breakfast at the top.

The final day began in the dark, as a column of trekkers (my party and others) puffed and wheezed up the canyon wall—leaning on sticks, swigging water, and occasionally stopping to exchange wry grimaces.

It was, though intensely tiring, nowhere near as bad I had heard from others. I think sometimes the guides like to exaggerate, to make sure people are braced for hardship. Then again, in recent years there have been cases of tourists meeting unfortunate ends in the Colca Canyon, so perhaps there is some merit to the scare stories after all.

Elsewhere in the Colca Canyon

Roger was right when he implied there was something faintly peculiar about adventure tourism. As a person, I am about as effective outdoors as a fan-assisted oven, and my idea of a wild night out generally involves some kind of chocolate and a book. Yet I can’t keep from getting carried away when I see a cliffside, or a strange new city, or a jungle path that’s calling

It’s odd to take a holiday that leaves you feeling in need of a holiday. But occasionally, when the canyon’s pretty, you just can’t help yourself. 

And luckily, there was indeed breakfast at the top. 


> The mules cost 60 soles. Of course I walked instead. I'm cheap.

> Andean condors are nicknamed "Eternity Birds," because of their long lifespans; able to live up to 80 years, they are considered symbols of eternal life. I don't know how long eternity is, but that sounds like a hell of a bird. 

> The two and three day tours of Colca Canyon have exactly the same itinerary, but with the two day version you have to be much faster. You skip the first night in the village and go directly to the oasis... where the swimming pools are all absolutely freezing by the time you arrive.

> The Lord of the Rings soundtrack would be perfect for this trek... though my guide warned our group off of using earphones, in case we were deaf to a possible landslide or earthquake. So on the other hand, maybe not. 

> I'm back in Peru!

Border Station Paranoia

There is something very unsettling about outposts of bureaucracy.

Sitting on the edge of countries, holding vigil over border lines, these little booths and barricades are filled with blustery officials and their chunky stamps. Some border stations are corrupt; others incorruptible. Some scrutinise every passing passenger; others barely give a second look.

(In Chile, the border stations are entirely vigilant, but mostly preoccupied with scanning your bags for rogue fruit and vegetables. Can't have unregulated foodstuffs running around the country, after all.)

I have never in my life done anything that would warrant questioning at a border station--I always eat my fruit beforehand, guv. And yet whenever I arrive at one of these little castles of formality, slumping off a bus and presenting my credentials in a tiny corner office, I'm possessed by the most irrational anxiety. As if a bunch of big grey men in suits are about to pull me aside, explain my visa has been declined, and add that I'll also be spending an unspecified period of time in a local prison for reasons unstated, thank you very much.

Perhaps I've read a little too much Kafka.

Or perhaps it's part of the acute awareness that all border stations bring--that you are stepping into another country, where you don't know the rules. 

(Unless you're going back to Peru, in which case, thankfully, you do.)

Or perhaps my worry simply comes from a fundamental truth, one that South America is all too familiar with:

There is nothing more terrifying than the notion of a madman with a government stamp.



I Have No Words, And I Must Chat (Chilean Spanish)

The Chilean flag flying over Arica, the country's northernmost city.

Chilean Spanish is even harder to grasp than regular Spanish.  

Back in the UK, I grew up in a town bursting with immigrants--and the kind of people who take umbrage with immigrants, for daring to move from one place to another. One memory that sticks in the mind is of queuing in a doctor's surgery and watching the small shrivelled woman behind the reception desk pitilessly dismiss some poor Pakistani lady possessing hardly any English skills (not quite enough to make an appointment), with the kind of malevolent glee only an NHS receptionist can muster.

Being on the other end of the conversation is instructive. Passing through Chile, I've had a hard time mustering even the basic communication skills I managed in Peru and Bolivia. Chilean Spanish is heavily accented, machine-gun fast, and full of confusing local idioms. I can, when pressed, just about manage to buy an apple. Just.

A pelican lands at the bustling port of Arica. I also find pelicans difficult to communicate with .

It's a curious feeling,  for someone who is used to communicating in English with ease and fluency. Suddenly, huge tracts of language are inaccessible to me. Concepts that ought to be well within my grasp have become impossible to convey, as if great chunks of my brain have been scooped out. Even the slightest conversation is a palpable effort, with most Chileans nodding patiently along to before switching abruptly to English. It's hard not to feel as if you've suddenly dropped by at least 100 IQ points.

It's inevitable that we judge people by their language skills; language is our single point of interface with each other, and there's no way around it. Perhaps this is why it's so important to try learning another language--not just to learn it, but also to experience what it's like to fumble at the tongue around you.  Worse than knowing nothing is knowing just enough to say hello, and not quite enough to connect.

It's easy to take expressing yourself for granted when you speak English, and the whole world strains to speak it with you.

But every once in a while, it's enlightening to be lost for words.

The busy port of Arica, a gateway in and out of Chile.



A few interesting Chilean ibits of Chilean slang:

>Unlike the rest of South America, money in Chile is called "plata," (silver) not "dinero" (Robert).

>Similarly, "pololo," means "boyfriend," while the rest of the Spanish speaking world uses "novio." "Polola," is "girlfriend," instead of "novia." Neither should be confused with "pollo," which is in fact Spanish for "chicken."

>"Luca," is a slang term for a thousand peso note.

>"Bacán" means "cool."

>"Cachai?" means "Understand?" (I do not.)

...And many, many more.



They Banned Dancing On The Moon (San Pedro de Atacama)

The road to San Pedro.

'Dancing is illegal in San Pedro de Atacama.'

I heard this from a fellow passenger aboard a rickety boat bobbing along a river in the Bolivian Amazon. She was a British ex-pat who lived in Chile’s most popular tourist destination (along with her partner and their two children) working in the hospitality industry.

'It’s because of all the tourists,' she explained to me. San Pedro de Atacama is a small town near the Bolivian/Chilean border, and in recent years it's become a travellers' mecca. Alarmed by the prospect of their quaint little town becoming a tourist party spot, San Pedro’s municipal authorities have reacted by cracking down on certain kinds of fun. There is to be no dancing, and even buying alcohol is difficult. Establishments are prohibited to sell booze, unless it comes with food.

I wondered at this woman’s story for the remainder of our boat ride. Just how touristy does a place have to be, to make dancing illegal?


The crowded streets of San Pedro de Atacama.

San Pedro de Atacama is built around a rare oasis in the Atacama desert, the driest non-polar region on Earth. It became popular with tourists in the 1990s, as people began using the small settlement as a base to explore the breathtaking geysers, volcanoes and lagoons that warp and pucker the surrounding landscape.

Currently, San Pedro is one of Chile’s most alarmingly expensive destinations, popular with foreigners and Chileans alike. (Owing to a Chilean national holiday, virtually every tourist I met in San Pedro was from the Chilean capital of Santiago). Attempts to explore the small town outside of its touristy main plaza are largely doomed to failure. San Pedro is only a few streets on either side, and every third building seems to be a hotel of some kind.

Above: some of the staggering landscape around San Pedro. Click to expand.

Still, it is possible to catch glimpses of local life in the town, squeezed between the tour agencies. Adobe walls snake off down sunny backstreets, overgrown by hardy desert plants with clawing, thorny branches. Satellite TV dishes stick out from squat, rustic houses, and children run and play by artfully painted walls near the local school. Navy blue GASCO trucks trundle up and down the street, tinkering their bells like demented ice cream vans, carrying valuable fire-fuel. 

In the town’s main plaza, locals patiently line up for water.  This is one area where the contrast between locals and visitors is disconcertingly stark. As San Pedro becomes an increasingly up-market destination, more and more hotels are being constructed around the town--hotels which cater to guests who expect running water, hot and cold. Spas are even beginning to crop up in the area, touting the resort experience. 

Locals lining up for water in San Pedro.

Surely if there's one place on Earth unsuited for a spa holiday, it's the planet's driest desert?


Day of the Moon.

San Pedro is famous for its connection to the stars.

The Atacama desert’s scant precipitation means unusually clear skies, which means unusually good star-gazing. There are plenty of planet-spotting opportunities for tourists thanks to countless nighttime telescope tours, and the region is home to the sprawling industrial-sized satellites of the ALMA interstellar observatory. 

San Pedro de Atacama is also located right next to the Valle de la Luna ("Valley of the Moon"), an unearthly stretch of twisted land where NASA tests its Mars explorer probes. Like everywhere near San Pedro, it’s an expensive place to visit for an afternoon, but I guess you could say my Curiosity got the better of me. 

In the Valley of the Moon...

Seeing the striking vistas that surround San Pedro,  it's not hard to understand why the town is being crushed under the weight of its own tourist appeal. Still, it makes one wonder how long before we're doing the same thing to the actual moon. After all, that's human nature for you. We like to seek out brave new spots and sparks of beauty, no matter how remote... and then build coffee shops around them.

Perhaps, one day, they will ban dancing on the Moon.



>It's possible to hop on a tour that goes directly from the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama (or vice versa), which I of course did not do, because that would have been too sensible.

>Indeed, many of the tourist attractions near San Pedro are quite similar to the sights on the Salar de Uyuni tours--only much more expensive. So if you're thinking about doing both, don't be too quick to spend money in San Pedro; you might get much the same content in Bolivia.

>How expensive is San Pedro? Well, a good double scoop of ice cream could set you back as much as $2,700 in Chilean pesos--that's about $4, practically New York prices!