52% intelligent. 9% modest. More monkey than bear.

Friday, March 30, 2007

no one ever said it would be this hard....

*bing bong*

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: We interrupt this tedious travel blog about holidays to bring you the latest installment of a long-running feature...... We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause you and can assure you that normal service will be resumed in due course.

Thank you for your kind attention.

*bong bing*

Earworms of the Week - Guest Editor #59 - Graham from Tiny Sins, Too Many Demons

Aaaah, the earworms.

The earworms come at a weird time at the moment. its not the best time to be doing it, because I'm off work ill and also because emotionally I'm just had a really bad couple of weeks, as Regular readers of the rather introspective, self-obsessive blog (as it is) will know, from my endless screaming into the blank internet void. It’s nothing that a bit of musical exorcism can't cure in the short term. So be warned though: the below posting contains extreme levels of the following :-

- metals. heavy, very
- emo; occasional, crying, wimpy but with loud punk rock bits.
- indie: early 90's, NME fraggle pop, nostalgia for an age that never existed....

Sequenced into an appropriate, album-esque running order. (those of a non metallic nature may wish to start about track 6, incidentally; up until that point its a bit rawk!)

01.THE ALMIGHTY - ULTRAVIOLENT (from 'Crank', 1994, EMI Records)

Mark hates this. I don't blame him. Every morning for 12 months, this is what would wake him up at half seven. Me and he shared a house, back at my parents back in 1994/95, and you could set an alarm to it. So much so, the CD got scratched and unplayable. Even then, I was plagued with self doubt, introspection, loathing and a tendency to live it out a bit too much with music (plus ca change, eh?). I'd hate to be woken up by this every bloody day if not by choice. Miles away from the hair metal of their earlier years comes a outburst of confusion, a brutal explosion of hurt and anger, lashing out in all directions hoping to find its target. Its about being left behind, and written off, by the others whose lives have taken them in a different directions - yet they look down on you, but you've nothing left to prove because you don't need them in your life. It’s about not needing the approval of others to live your life and be happy, especially after a traumatic time of life; that’s the way I see it - and you know, its so true; You can't make yourself happy by making other people happy, so don't even try. (On the other hand though, it could just be some young men being angry, shouty, and armed with guitars. You decide).

02.MASTODON - BLOOD AND THUNDER (From Leviathan, relapse records, 2004. Also on kerrang 'Field Of Screams' Covermount CD issue 1060, 2005)

Í hear the sound of hooves, before I see the dust over the horizon. To come are hordes of men, brazen and longhaired, bare-chested, savage and precise yet measured, sweat dripping off their naked flexed muscles as the land below them quakes in nervous fear. They have come to conquer, to devour, to slay all in their path. For they are the defenders of the faith, the one truth faith - metal. All falsehood will perish, in their path. Mastodon, Hail! This makes them sound like Manowar, which is where the comparisons end - because Mastodon rock like bastards. Loud, more loaded down with riffs than a rocking machine set to its most rockingist with extra rock thrown in, growly vocals, and a riff at the beginning the size of several, nay, a million planets. Beware the behemoth of rock that comes to crush you, for this insanely catch riff, (complete with a stunningly good stop-start bit fifteen seconds from the end), this has been running around my head like a Duracell bunny for most of the past two weeks. The last time I heard something this angry; it was one of my customers. And all this from a bunch of shorthairs too.....

03.EARTHTONE 9 - P.R.D. CHAOS (from arc'tan'gent, Copro records, 2000; )

Rather like the above, only with subtlety rather than a sledgehammer. One of the finest, and much neglected, English metal bands I've ever heard - and unlike anything else I've ever heard. Yes, it’s loud, Its metal, and yet...its oddly measured, it has build, light and chaos together. And Riffs, what riffs, melodies and catch guitars falling out all over the place. Even on the fade out they're trying to cram in new riffs the likes of which I can't get out of my head. Epic, loud, intimate, raging and restrained.... If only they were still around. I've never heard anyone like them before or since. I still don't know what the lyrics are about (Apparently its some stream of consciousness stuff).....Arcane, obtuse, weird and catchy as hell. I can't recommend the album highly enough. It’s still one of my albums of the year, every year.

04.FIGHTSTAR - PALAHUNIK'S LAUGHTER (from the 'They liked you better when you were dead' EP, Island records, 2004; Also on Kerrang Awards Nominees, covermount CD issue 1071, 2005)

Embarrassing to admit, but welcome to the 'attack of the emo' phase. Yes, it's very emo this; loud, quiet, loud, louder, and catchy as hell. God, is it good. You expect something to carry on its the same metal manner and then - quiet, choppy guitars and raw vocals.(I'm not in your house, but you're in my head - Please don't help me, Please don't hate me) But the best bit is the perfectly constructed build up to the chorus, ramping it up stage by stage with instrumentation. And then the main riff come sin again - one that gets in your brain and won't ever bloody leave, not even after you get the restraining order. Far, far better than i ever thought the pretty boy from busted could ever do. Yes, its embarrassing, but I really like Fightstar. I saw this on MTV once, and thought - Ok, this isn't that bad, and then it was on a covermounted CD with Kerrang. And I’ve been playing it to death since. (Though sadly, it’s not on the album, which is a shame because it'd be the standout track by a mile). Incredible, just fade it out before the 30 seconds of self-indulgent feedback at the end gets too annoying.

05.PANIC AT THE DISCO - London Beckoned songs about money, written by Machines. (from 'A Fever you can't sweat out of' CD, Fueled By Raumen Records, 2006)

Who says mp3's are detrimental to the music industry? Not me. I heard this album on Mp3 which a friend burned for me, and have been playing it to death since; so much so, in fact that the panic! At the Disco album was the last album I bought. And that was new, surprisingly enough, (though heavily discounted - £6 in virgin). Aside from a couple of tracks of introductory weirdness, it’s a damn good album. Rather than most albums which seem to bore me in their tedious repetition of similar instrumentation, this is all jumbled up and mixed up - drum machines, pianos, accordions, acoustic guitars, and loud punk rock riffs, all bundled up with self-aware lyrics, introspection (try 'Lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off' for some); dammit, its enough to make you envious that they are not only much younger than me, and prettier but more talented too. Damn it. I wish the bands I had been in were a fraction as good as this. If only I’d followed the advice of the opening lines ; stop stalling, make a name for yourself....

06.THE KILLERS - Mr. Brightside (from 'Hot Fuss', Lizard King records, 2004; Also on Q Magazine 'Best Of 2004' covermounted CD)

For a long time, i used to joke about how I didn't like new music; even now I occasionally say there's not been any good music made since the year 2000. Everything new I hear just sounds like something I'd heard before. Nowadays I'm not quite so uptight, thank god. And again, blame MTV; it used to come on sometimes when I was channel hopping. And I found myself singing 'Somebody Told Me', at random moments. So I downloaded it, and played it more and more often. And then a friend of mine had the CD, so I burned a copy out of curiosity. And I got into it, playing certain tracks over and over again, until I realised - hang on, I really, really like every track on this. Damn, was that a shock. Some days I like certain other tracks more than others, but this one is especially resonant at the moment. Just think about the fact that someone you love is in bed with someone else and not in a good way, if there ever could be a good way to such a thing. Think about how that little idea can wrap itself around your brain into jealously and despondency.... It started out with a kiss, How did it end up like this? I just can't look, it’s killing me...

07. EAT - Shame (From Epicure, 1992)

First of the too many in the nineties nostalgia trip, Eat weren't the biggest band in the world. Never were going to be. Singer Ange Doolittle was a bit too quirky, not quite photogenic enough, to make the front pages. Again, like all the bands of the time, they collapsed under the weight of the young bucks (and now the old statesmen) that were Britpop. And I can't get this particular song (probably their only hit, really; the one that Ange Doolittle still played two or three bands later). Its about someone whose mouth is too big and just shouts it off, speaking out loud and doesn't care for the consequences that other people have to pay. Jingly, jangly, catchy nineties indie pop doesn't get better than this one song.

08.SENSELESS THINGS - Hold It Down (from 'Empire Of the Senseless', Sony Records, 1993)

Never liked the Senseless things. They never did make sense to me. Until four weeks ago, in a sweaty nightclub in Islington, where at least, for about 20 minutes, the Senseless things made perfect, perfect sense. Mainly because outdoors in a sandpit is a terrible place to see them, and that’s the only place I'd ever seen them before. But At the Wiz tribute... it all came back to me about why they might have been quite good after all. Three hit singles aside (of which is one) does not a great band make though, so best to remember them as they were that night - at least they didn't overstay their welcome there. And since then, this has been rampaging all over the internal jukebox like a flu virus on a transatlantic flight. I just can't dislodge it, no matter how much else I try....

09.A HOUSE - Endless Art (From 'I Am The Greatest', EMI, 1992)

Back on the internal jukebox after a break of years - I've been after this track on CD for so long its untrue. I have it on scratchy, crackly old vinyl from when it was a #46 chart smash back in those days. Aside from having one of the best opening lyrics of time ("All art is quite useless, according to Oscar Wilde", which is second only to in terms of opening lines to 'Auschwitz, the meaning of pain' which is Angel of Death by Slayer, which is guaranteed to win any competition of 'best opening lines of all time'), and then being merely a list of dead artists poets, writers and thespians, its surprisingly cheery. Because as the chorus says....'All dead, yet still alive - in Endless time, in Endless Art'. So there's hope for us bloggers yet writing on our internet diaries to be remembered for time immortal eh?

10.COLDPLAY - The Scientist, (from 'A Rush of Blood to the Head', EMI 2002)

Ok, You probably all know this. But a beautiful song, and one that perfectly encapsulates the chaos in my head. The chaos of trying to fit the complexities of this world in which I live into my narrow defined, logical, rational worldview. And then you realise You've loved someone all along, and even now after they've moved on - and yet, I am still right here where I was all along, trapped in the same four walls without her. (yes, here I am moping...) You try to make sense of it, and there's no sense to it at all. No logic. And how do I feel, like I'm trying to make sense of it all, "pulling your puzzles apart; Questions of science, science and progress do not speak as loud as the heart....".


- Morning Rise (from 'Heartworm', Sony Records, 1995)

After all, you’ve got a suitable closer to this as a listening experience, so I chose this. Its been burrowing into my head for ages too. And from the extremes of brutal battle metal to emo to 90's indie miserablism (what, no Tindersticks?), its been a loud/quiet thing. And now, to the end...'Morning Rise' the Closing track from 1995's long (and criminally) unavailable 'Heartworm'; an album everyone should have. Even after 10 years, I find new things in it. This is the sound of someone resigned to an uneasy peace with themselves and the future for whatever that holds...all wrapped up in a string section....melancholia, resignation, regret, acceptance. The verse that starts 2 minutes, in, 'John came home from work' one day, is particularly resonant for anyone whose ever had someone they love walk out on them..... yet we are still left with all that which we can't leave behind. Maybe I'm no ordinary fool...Uninhibited, Unfinished in everything I do. Another obscure, long lost, yet fantastic tracks from the depths of the good ol' nineties. Fondly remembered - as so many of these are now - by us people with mortgages, children, and failed marriages. When we were young, we had the world ahead of us. And now, it’s behind us like a road map of mistakes. When our time comes....

Near misses :

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN - Dancing In the Dark (Born In the USA, 1984 / Greatest Hits, 1995) (Courtesy of the Pub quiz last week; if you want to squeeze it into the listening experience, try it after The Killers - Mr. Brightside)

AT THE DRIVE IN - Pattern Against User (Relationship Of Command, 2000, Virgin records)


Ah Graham. with this loud rock music, you are really spoiling us. I like loud rock music, and I have fond memories of some of these bands: If I remember correctly, I once had a massive plastic bottle filled with piss land on my head at the Monsters of Rock Festival when The Almighty were playing.

Happy days!

Still, it's not all rock is it? What's that I see? Coldplay? The Killers? That's pretty much mainstream isn't it? I have a feeling (assuming the compiler is still interested in making them) that this is going to make an absolutely *kicking* podcast.....

Thanks for playing G.

Next Time: Samantha (6/4)
Forthcoming Attraction: Cat (13/4)

[Previous Guest Editors: Flash, The Urban Fox, Lord Bargain, Retro-Boy, Statue John, Ben, OLS, Ka, Jenni, Aravis, Yoko, Bee, Charlie, Tom, Di, Spin, The Ultimate Olympian, Damo, Mike, RedOne, The NumNum, Leah, Le Moine Perdu, clm, Michael, Hyde, Adem, Alecya, bytheseashore, adamant, Earworms of the Year 2005, Delrico Bandito, Graham, Lithaborn, Phil, Mark II, Stef, Kaptain Kobold, bedshaped, I have ordinary addictions, TheCatGirlSpeaks, Lord B rides again, Tina, Charlie II, Cody Bones, Poll Star, Jenni II, Martin, Del II, The Eye in the Sky, RussL, Lizzy's Hoax, Ben II, Earworms of the Year 2006, Sarah, Flash II, Erika, Hen, Pynchon, Troubled Diva]


Thursday, March 29, 2007

stands on shifting sands...

Ecuador trip - Part four.

[Part one - Part two - Part three - Part four - Part five - Part six - Part seven - Part eight]

in which our heroes watch coffee being made, take a power-shower beneath a waterfall, enter the circle of 'Cuarenta' initiates and learn that knowledge is power.....

Saturday 10th March

I wake up in a log cabin in a place called Nangulvi and with the sound of the rapids of the river Intag rushing downstream just behind me. The bed isn't the most comfortable in the world, but after 4 nights on a thermarest mat in a tent, it feels just dandy. We get up and head next door to the thermal pools for a dip before breakfast. One of the pools is fed directly from the surrounding mountains, and although it is a slightly brown colour, it is wonderfully refreshing (although let's be honest here, I spend most of my time wallowing in the really hot pool). After breakfast, we climb into the Land Cruiser with Ivan and head off to a local Coffee Plantation. In common with many latin american countries (and other countries around the world), the coffee growers in Ecuador have historically been screwed by the big coffee buying companies: prices have varied wildly and there has been virtually no guarantees that it will be a worthwhile exercise. The growers in the Intag region have taken a stand against this and have formed themselves into an association. Growers join the association and immediately benefit from a pooling of knowledge and expertise, access to cheap supplies and plants, and -- most importantly of all -- to fixed prices for their coffee. In return, the coffee association expects the growers to meet some very strict standards for their plants: all plantations must be strictly organic and only the very best coffee beans will be selected for processing. When they are dried, the beans will be carefully separated into three standards (each with a different price) and all the individual beans are then carefully examined by hand for any kind of defect. A bean that is defective in any way is rejected. In this way, the quality of the Rio Intag coffee is assured.

When we arrive at the plantation, a meeting of the cooperative is well underway, and the local growers are sat outside around a flip chart and carefully listening to a lecture on growing techniques. We are introduced to the brains behind the cooperative (a lovely chap), and learn how he has sometimes been forced into hiding and hunted by men with guns. Apparently there are people who don't like the idea of the local community getting organised and making a stand against big business. Not surprisingly, this cooperative of coffee growers has also been a prominent part of the local resistance to central government plans to allow a big Canadian mining company access to the area to carry out open cast mining for copper. So far, the miners have been kept out.... but for how long? They are also currently gearing up resistance to another plan to dam the river for a Hydro Electric Power station. The dam would flood much of their land and would remove what is a very attractive spot. We wander around the farm and I sample a coffee berry straight off the plant. All of the coffee plants themselves are sheltered from the sun by larger plants - banana palms, lemon trees, avocados... all of which provide the farmers with a handy second income.

The Intag river - would you want a dam built here?

From here we drive up to Apuela, the main town around these parts, and we head over to the offices of the Coffee Association itself. From here, Franklin shows us how the beans are separated from the husks, how the coffee is sorted, quality checked and then how it is roasted. Rather to my horror, I learn that one of their biggest customers is Nestle.... not for the coffee, you understand.... Nestle are interested in buying the husks, which they use to bulk out Nescafe. Think that's bad? Wait until you hear this: there are several reasons why a coffee bean might be rejected. It could be because it's slightly soft, or because it has mould, or even because it is showing signs of insect infestation. All of the rejected beans are collected together, but they are no binned. Why are they not binned? Because Nestle buy them too and chuck them into Nescafe too. Think on that the next time you are thinking of buying a jar of Gold Blend. All that remains is to buy a few bags of coffee to take home. We watch as Franklin takes the beans straight from the sack, grinds them for us and then seals them all up. It doesn't really get much fresher than that. Look out for it: Rio Intag coffee. Organic. Fair Trade. Delicious.

On the way home, Ivan kindly stops so I can make a call to my parents to check on my dad. The good news is that he's now out of hospital and back at home. The even better news is that when I enquire about his health (a subject that is uppermost in my mind), all he wants to talk to me about is how my company has been the subject of a management takeover bid (I don't care) and that Ecuador has just been featured on some holiday programme or other (mildly interesting). Reading between the lines, I think he's going to be okay...at least for the time being.

After lunch, we take a short stroll up behind the cabins to a waterfall that is cascading down the mountain. This is an unmissable opportunity to take a shower and have a nice massage all at the same time. God knows how many pounds of pressure are in that water, but it's quite a feeling to slide underneath the stream and then try to hold yourself in place as the water tries to push you down the hill.

"ooooh that's fresh...."

After that we have an easy afternoon, wallowing in the springs, reading and learning how to play a very Ecuadorian card game -- "Cuarenta" or "forty". You can follow the link to read about the rules, but this is the Ecuadorian national game and I have never played a card game before that allows such free expression of the latin spirit. Cards are slapped down on the table from a great height and there is much bravado and shouting and general excitement.

it's all in the wrist....

It's tremendous fun, although I am paired with Ivan's youngest son, Pablito (the family have travelled down from Otavalo to spend the weekend with us), and we have absolutely no luck at all and get roundly trounced in every game that we play. Happily, in spite of the fact that we play this game nearly every night from now on, this is the last time that I am to taste defeat until we get to the Amazon (and under no circumstances am I to dwell on the 10 point fine for a misdeal that caused our defeat there.... that's all in the past now)

It's certainly nice to have a relaxing day after all of the exertions of the trek.

Sunday 11th March

We're off back into Apuela this morning, this time to call in at the offices of the "Intag" local newspaper. This is something that started up a couple of years ago and is mainly staffed by volunteers. Their aim is to provide news for the local community and to give them a voice. Just like the coffee association, they have been a focal point for galvanising (or at least informing) the local community about some really serious issues like the plans to rip up the landscape for open cast mines or for dams. The print run isn't very large, but each copy is avidly shared around the community and word quickly gets around. The team we met in the office are a slightly odd mix of an American ex-pat editor, an Italian volunteer, a Colombian and a local girl, but they all have a great light of enthusiasm shining in their eyes. We learn that the paper is supported by the work of volunteers and with the help of grants from various organisations and individuals across the world. We ask why the paper has a cover price at all (it costs 25c) and we are told that it is vital that the paper is seen as having an intrinsic value and isn't just seen as propoganda. The mining companies apparently distribute free papers all of the time, but because they are free, the people see no worth in them. The cover price is purely symbolic. It's quite inspiring actually.... it's little things like this that will help the people here to understand some of the issues that are facing them and to help them to make informed decisions that may help to preserve their way of life and their environment (one issue featured a report from a town that had also had an open cast copper mine - it was an ecological disaster zone.) Informing people like this is tremendously powerful.

In the afternoon we head out on a long drive across some wonderful unsealed roads as we head over to Mindo. The journey takes us something like 3 or 4 hours and although we travel about 70km along the road, we only go about 35km as the condor flies.

Initially we track along the Intag valley, but soon we are ducking up and down small mountains as we cross through several other valleys. We are going to Mindo because it is the birdwatching capital of Ecuador: the little spot of cloudforest above the town is said to be the second best place in the country for spotting the largest variety of birds in the shortest space of time (after the Amazon). It's not really much to look at, to be honest, but the hostel we are staying in is simple but well appointed (it's got a washer and a drier, for starters!). In the garden at the back are a number of bird feeders that are filled with sugared water.... flocking around these are literally hundreds of hummingbirds. It's not an entirely natural scene, but it's impossible not to be captivated by the chance to look at these magnificent birds. There are probably about 8 or 9 different species here. As they hover over the feeders and jockey for position, it's not terribly hard to see why these birds were the inspiration for the original design of the helicopter.

In order to see the birds tomorrow, we're going to have an early start, so after a quick wander around the town, we have a couple of quick games of Cuarenta and have an early night. Ian and Val, our travelling companions for this leg of the journey seem somewhat distracted.... they've received an email from their bank telling them that their account has been the subject of multiple logon attempts and so their account has been suspended, and would they mind confirming their security details.... it's a phishing attack, of course, but before I have had a chance to confirm this for them (and the word "Lloyds" is spelt wrong in the email, for starters) they rather think that they *might* have already submitted their details....ooops.


I lend them my phone so that they can try calling the bank tomorrow. I hope no Nigerian businessmen email them in the meantime.

Tomorrow's all about the birds....

To be continued.....

Labels: ,

a mystery now to me and you...

Scott Matthews @ Nottingham Rescue Rooms, 28th March 2007

For various reasons I ended up with spare tickets for this gig. Rather than let them go to waste, I made various enquiries around the office and elsewhere to see if I could find any takers. Not only was nobody interested, but a couple of people also told me that they had already been offered tickets to the same gig already. That didn’t bode particularly well, and I was therefore not in the least bit surprised to see that the gig was bumped from Rock City to the Rescue Rooms. It’s true that the smaller venue was therefore absolutely packed, but the main hall in Rock City would have been echoing (as it was when I went to see Gene a few years back, when they were supported by a performance poet by the name of Selina Saliva. Yes, she was as bad as the name implies, although Gene were excellent).

It has to be said that Scott Matthews didn’t look especially fazed by this situation as he ambled amiably onto the stage and started fiddling quietly with his acoustic guitar. Initially I thought he was just engaging in a bit of onstage tuning, but when he turned to the mic and started to sing, it turns out that it was actually a song. Here’s the thing though: he was really, really quiet. It wasn’t just a volume thing – although the amps were hardly turned up to 11 – nor was it especially his voice – which I suspect has Ray LaMontagne-like foghorn tendencies when roused… it was just that the sound was so mellow as to be almost somnambulant. Things didn’t get much better when Matthews took up an electric guitar and was joined onstage by the rest of his band, comprising a cellist, a bassist and a drummer. It was just, well, quiet.

At first the audience was respectfully hushed, but after a couple of songs something of a background burble started to emerge. As I was standing off to one side and my view was slightly obscured by a pillar, my attention started to wander into the crowd. It was very mixed. Most of the gigs that I go to are attended by earnest looking men of various ages and very few women. This gig was different, and I would guess that the mix was much closer to 50:50 (ah, but he’s a sensitive singer/songwriter type, so what was I expecting?). There was also quite a large age range too: the youngest person I saw was probably a teenager and the oldest person there was probably pushing 50. As I looked about, I could see that I also seemed to be surrounded by quite a few couples (of all sexual persuasions) gently holding hands or nuzzling up against each other during songs, which was quite sweet, but did rather emphasise that the place wasn’t exactly rocking. I think it’s fair to say that our Scott seems to have a fairly wide appeal. I turned my attention back to the stage just as the tempo lifted and caught a sight of the cellist looking as though he was sawing through a log....

I quite like Scott Matthews and I quite enjoyed the gig. I first discovered him when I heard "Elusive" being played on the radio, and this remains both his most famous and substantially his best song. He sensibly saves it until the encore, but even then, as soon as he has played it, people begin to leave. It is a really excellent song though. The rest of the set rather pales in comparison. Matthews has an interesting and distinctive voice, but for someone who hails from Wolverhampton he rather oddly sings in a very American way - a little bit like that guy from Gomez. This is compounded by the fact that a lot of the backing music sounds very US soft country rock too. When voice and music are put together, the overriding impression is that it is vaguely derivative. There's also the inevitable Jeff Buckley comparison: Matthews looks and sounds a touch like Buckley. The whole sound of the gig was strongly reminscent of Jeff Buckley's "Live at Sin-é" album. But Matthews can only suffer in the comparison. Buckley was a better singer, a better songwriter (in the main) and a better guitarist. That's not to say that Matthews is bad by any means, just that he's not *that* good (and frankly, how many people are?).

Perhaps it's best summed up by the fact that a certain element of the crowd seemed far more interested in the England score (vs Andorra, for heaven's sake!) than they were in the gig.

Verdict: pleasant, but not much more than that. 6/10


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

how high is the sky?

Ecuador Trip - part three.

[Part one - Part two - Part three - Part four - Part five - Part six - Part seven - Part eight]

In which our heroes get adopted by a dog, visit the local community, get excited about some large birds in the far distance, ride some horses and attempt to play football at high altitude.....

Thursday 8th March

At yesterday’s campsite we were adopted by a dog. That might seem a strange thing to happen at 4100m, but we are walking along an ancient (pre-Inca) trail through the mountains that has been used for centuries by the indigenous people and is still used by them today. Apparently a guy went past riding on a horse with his dog trailing behind whilst Manuel and the arrieros were setting up camp and waiting for us to arrive. The dog saw the camp, weighed up his options and decided that we were the better bet, promptly deserting his erstwhile master and taking up with Manuel. Sensible dog. He’s really only skin and bones, but he’s got these great big bat ears and a winning way. I don’t think it took Manuel long to start feeding him scraps, and soon enough he was given a name: Sac à Pus (“Fleabag” in French). I wake up this morning to the sound of Sac à Pus chasing off some cows – apparently he already feels enough at home to want to protect the campsite. The camp itself is in a lovely spot – nestled against the curve of a small river and filled with the sound of bubbling water. It’s really very pleasant indeed. We’re only a few hundred meters lower than we were at the first campsite, but it looks and feels positively spring like by comparison.

Today’s walk takes place in similarly lovely countryside as we stroll the remaining 3 hours or so that it takes to get down to the Pinyan community itself at about 3200m. It’s a beautiful sunny day and I feel on top of the world, a feeling that only increases as we descend into the village itself and I spot no fewer than 5 condors, all circling together. That’s nearly 10% of the entire Ecuadorian condor population and I am suitable awe-struck. They really are magnificent birds and we watch them for a good half an hour as they circle higher and higher on the thermals above the village until they are too high to see any more. In all that time, I only see one of the birds flap his wings – once. When they have disappeared, we walk down into the village itself and gratefully flop out on the scrappy little bit of lawn in front of the school building.

the view back towards the Pinyan community

Pinyan is an indigenous village in the middle of nowhere. It’s taken me the best part of 3 days to walk here. The villagers do this walk whenever they need to get down to the outside world. They usually do it in a day (albeit they presumably don’t stop to climb up the mountains, they just follow the path around them). It’s in a beautiful setting: nestled against a gently bubbling river in a small hollow between the large hills around. The villagers don’t really like to call themselves indigenous as they see this as some kind of an insult suggesting that they haven’t really joined the modern world. The fact remains however that they live in houses built in the traditional manner – we go to visit the family of one of the arrieros, and we meet his mother who is proud to show us into her kitchen hut. This is a building that is essentially made of sticks and mud, with the roof lined with leaves. An open fire is burning in one corner but there is no chimney: the smoke is allowed to billow freely around the building and find it’s own way out as this helps add to the weather proofing (and this particular hut has been in use for about twenty years). There is a pot of some kind of stew bubbling on the fire and some strips of meat hanging up to dry. Hundreds of guinea pigs are running free around the place (guinea pig is considered a delicacy in Ecuador and in other parts of the Andes. Apparently, they consume about 65m of them a year, and they are so entrenched in the culture that there is one picture of The Last Supper in Peru where Jesus and the disciples are dining on Guinea Pig. Here they are both pets and a walking larder). Once my eyes get used to the gloom and the smoke, I am struck by quite how beautiful this ladies two daughters are. They are aged about 4 and 10 and are dressed traditionally, both sitting in front of the fire tending to the stew. They both have the most astonishing eyes and they are looking at C. and I with a combination of bashfulness and curiosity. They are adorable. Ivan acts as our translator and we learn that the meat hanging over the fire to dry was given to the family by the local hacienda owner for a full days work rounding up cattle. As these cows are able to roam freely across many thousands of acres of páramo, this naturally takes some time and is extremely hard work. We ask Ivan if the meat from the cow was a fair exchange for that work. Ivan tells us that when the cow was found, it was already dead – the hacienda owner was giving them the meat of an already dead animal, something that obviously cost him nothing. We are appalled, but worse is to come.

Apparently the hacienda owner doesn’t like the Pinyan and wants them moved. It’s not because they cause him any bother or that he wants to do anything in particular with the land, it’s just that he doesn’t like the look of them and because he can. He wants them to be shifted away from their traditional home and a few miles further off the beaten track and out of his sight. The only road (and it’s not much of a road, frankly) to the village passes through the hacienda. The owner has put a locked gate on it: anyone coming down to the village in a truck has to ask him to come through. Ivan tells us that they are frequently kept waiting there for hours before he deigns to send someone out with the key. There’s nothing they can do because the hacienda owners are not policed and can basically do what they want. The Pinyan are powerless and at this clown’s mercy. Ivan tells us how he has been trying to work with the community to give them a sustainable future. As well as being used as arrieros on treks, the Pinyan community has been involved with the community projects at the hot springs at Chachimbiro. Ivan sees ethical tourism as the best way of giving these people the money to maintain their traditional lifestyles. Tourist dollars – our dollars – will help the Pinyan to break their dependence upon the hacienda owner. They will make far more money from people like us than they ever will from trying to scratch out a living from agriculture at this altitude. A teacher in Ecuador earns about $150 a month. The arrieros are paid $15 a day for every day that they work with us, which is very respectable indeed, and certainly a lot better than dead cow. Ivan has plans to open a lodge here, he also dreams about opening up the pre-Inca trails that lead from the back of the village all the way down to the coast. These trails are ancient and lead through hundreds of miles of untouched countryside. The people know that they are there, but knowledge of them has been lost. Ivan has high hopes that he will be able to find these trails and to use tourism to help preserve habitat that will otherwise quickly be lost to farmland. He’s a passionate man and I have to admit that I’m quite moved by his commitment to these people.

We set up base in the village school. Teachers make their way up to the community and stay for 20 days out of every 30, giving all of the kids a basic grounding in reading, writing and arithmetic. As the teacher’s drove past us in their truck as we were walking down into the village, I’m pleased to be able to report that we will be able to spend the night in their hut tonight instead of in our tent. It’s dusty and there’s no electricity in the village, but it still feels like an unbelievable luxury. The day isn’t done yet though: first we go riding up on horseback to a crater lake a few miles from the village (and I haven’t ridden a horse in something like twenty years. Frankly I’ll be astonished if I can have children after this) and then when we get back to the village, I am roped into playing a game of football with the locals. You might remember that England scraped past Ecuador in the second round of the 2006 World Cup last summer? Well, in spite of the fact that there aren’t any televisions here, all of the locals are well aware of that fact, and are absolutely delighted at the chance of a spot of revenge against “David Beckham” (as they insist on calling me, presumably because they’ve never seen me play football before). At over 3000m, this is quite hard work but it is tremendous fun. The team containing Ivan and C come out winners in a closely fought 4-3 game, but I scored a cracking right-foot curler into the far corner…. (even if at one point I was rather humiliatingly dispossessed by a five year old).

It’s another magical day, rounded off perfectly when Manuel serves us a Quimbolito for dessert. This is a delicious, delicate sponge-like pudding that arrives wrapped up in a leaf. Quite how he managed to prepare that on a gas camping stove, I have absolutely no idea. The man’s a magician – and Sac à Pus clearly agrees.

Friday 9th March

We say goodbye to Sac à Pus (who is being adopted by one of the arrieros) and head up out of Pinyan and towards the cloud forest that lies beyond. On the way we pass above another beautiful valley. Apparently the hacienda owner had tried to sell this land for damning. Luckily he failed, as the thought of this beautiful spot disappearing beneath a lake is pretty awful. Ivan tells us that he is now trying to buy this land from the hacienda owner as he thinks it would be the perfect spot for the Pinyan village and would provide them with beautiful, fertile land, plenty of water and easy access to the various trails and communication routes. I’m slightly confused as to why the hacienda owner would want to sell this land to people who he is trying to shift, but Ivan tells me that money talks and he knows that the Pinyan Foundation has some money.

We slowly walk up and away from the páramo and begin to climb into the cloud forest. This is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a forest that is smothered in cloud.

It is hot and it is humid and it is absolutely cram packed with orchids, bromeliads, exotic looking birds and biting insects. Naturally, this paradise is under threat as the local hacienda owners have been busy pushing indigenous people out of the páramo and resettling them here. In order to survive, these people are being forced to chop down the trees and try to make some farmland on the slopes. Once the primary forest is gone, the wildlife and plantlife soon follows. This is a national park. How can the hacienda owners get away with it? Because there is no one to enforce the law. We walk past the sign announcing that we are leaving the reserve, and as we look back at it, we can see that it has been riddled with bullets. We slowly begin to descend out of the cloud forest and back into open farmland.

In the course of a long day we walk about 10km as the condor flies, but about 30km all told as we climb up hills and down into valleys. Up, down, up, down, up and finally down about 1000m into a dusty little village and the end of the trek. As we wait for the Land Cruiser, I am presented with a most welcome bottle of local beer and told that a cold shower is waiting for me at our next stop. After four days of yomping up and down mountains and sleeping in a tent this sounds like a very welcome prospect indeed (as do the flushing toilets, frankly...). As it turns out, things are even better than that. We are driven the hour or so it takes to get to the Rio Intag area and are dropped in front of some log cabins where we will be spending the next couple of nights. Ivan smiles at us: “You’ve got 10 minutes to get your swimming trunks on. We’re off to the thermal pools next door”

I could have kissed him.

to be continued.....

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papa's in the swing....

Just a quick one.

Several of you have been kind enough to ask me how my dad is getting on after his operation. The answer is that he seems to be doing fine.

I saw him in hospital on the Thursday before we went away (he had the operation on the Monday). He was still pretty poorly and had apparently had a rough night, but he basically seemed alright and was complaining about how crap Windows Vista was on his new laptop and was looking forward to having his tube taken out and to being able to eat solid food again. I left feeling much relieved and ready to go on holiday. I checked back in with my mum on the Sunday and heard that he had been able to go home which was great. By the time I spoke to him once we had finished our first trek the following Friday, he was more interested in talking to me about the proposed management takeover of my company than he was in discussing his health. I took this as a good sign.

I'm popping in to see my folks on the way back from Oxford this weekend, so I'll be able to see him for myself, but in the meantime it looks pretty good. I don't think he's had the results of his biopsy yet, but he's doing as well under the circumstances as could possibly be hoped. He's a tough old bird.

Thanks for your concern guys... it's really much appreciated.


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

move any mountain...

Right. This is turning into a bit of a marathon, but I'm determined to capture these memories whilst they are relatively fresh in my head. This is going to be another post that's relatively photo free, I'm afraid....

Ready? Here we go....

Ecuador Trip - Part two.

[Part one - Part two - Part three - Part four - Part five - Part six - Part seven - Part eight]

In which our heroes start their trek in the mountains with an enormous breakfast and have a very happy birthday....

Tuesday 6th March

The day starts with another quick dip in the thermal pools, stepping past the llama who is standing outside the door to our room, calmly munching on the flowerbed as though this was the most normal thing in the world. I think perhaps it is the most normal thing in the world around these parts. This time I have to be a bit careful not to stay in for too long as it will take me about two hours to cool down, and I think my body is going to be hot enough walking up the side of a mountain already, thanks very much. Ivan tells me that this is going to be a 4000 calorie day as we will be walking something in the region of 25km up and down various small peaks whilst carrying a daypack containing something like 4 litres of water and my waterproofs. Under these circumstances, the only real option to take is to order something called the “Chachimbiro Breakfast”. It duly arrives and I can only look at it and goggle: my breakfast consists of a whacking great big piece of steak covered in some spicy chilli sauce, a mountain of rice, and a huge stack of chips. I’m a touch daunted, but bravely soldier my way through it, only pausing to enjoy the enormous double-take that the three “rebirth” gringas from last night all give my plate as they walk past on their way to their croissants (or mung beans, or whatever).

After that, I spend the next few hours fairly zooming up all of the hills that are put in front of me. The day’s walking sees us go from 2600m up to our first camp at 4100m. For the first half of the day we are mainly walking through farmland, but soon enough we rendevous with our arrieros (the guys who are leading the horses carrying the majority of our luggage, the tents and all of the food) for lunch. After a delicious and wholesome meal of soup, followed by meat and rice, followed by some fruit (well, it has been 4 hours since my breakfast), we set off again. We quickly leave the farmland behind and start walking through Páramo. We are now in the Cotacachi Biological Reserve, but we continue to see cows grazing here on every day of the walk because the hacienda owners are pretty much left to their own devices. These guys care so little about the preservation of a scarce habitat that they will regularly start fires so stimulate the growth of grass to feed their cattle – grass that grows at the expense of some of the other plants that are crucial for the maintenance of the ecosystem.

"Let's offroad!"

As we continue to climb, the skies clear so that we are afforded absolutely magnificent views of the main peaks in the region: Cotachi, Imbabarra and snow-capped Cayambe. It’s simply a stunning sight, only slightly marred by the fact that Ivan is earworming “Give Peace a Chance” and apparently only knows the one line of the song.

We reach the camp just as the sun is going down. The arrierros are able to move a lot faster than us, so they have long since arrived and have put up all of the tents. We are quickly instructed by Ivan to change into our warmest clothes before we do anything else. I’m still pretty hot from the long walk, so this seems like a slightly odd request, but as soon as the sun drops the temperature at this altitude just drops like a stone. In spite of the fact that I am wearing a full set of thermals, a hat, a fleece, gloves and a big down jacket, I am soon shivering. We have another big dinner, but by 9pm, all I can think about is my bed. I pause on the way back to my tent to look up at the incredibly clear sky and ponder the lightshow going on above me. I watch a few shooting stars fall over the summit of Mount Yanaurcu – tomorrow’s peak that towers over the campsite – and then head off to bed.

Wednesday 7th March

It’s my birthday today and we celebrate by climbing up to the summit of Mt. Yanaurcu de Pinyan. At 4535m, it’s a new altitude record. The clouds have drawn in by the time we reach the top, so we don’t get the magnificent view we might have had, but it barely matters. The sense of achievement and exhilaration is reward enough. We’ve hiked up a pretty big peak here and we’ve done so in our walking boots… no specialist equipment required around here. As if the day couldn’t get any better, we see our first condor as we hike back down towards our lunch. It’s the national symbol of Ecuador, but they’re now quite rare. It’s only a young one, but it’s still a pretty damn big bird.

gaiters rock

By the time we get back to about 4000m and our lunch, C. is feeling a little the worse for wear and is pretty much unable to eat anything. It’s altitude sickness – apparently the quick descent from altitude can hit you harder than the much slower ascent. She perks up as we walk down to the next campsite at about 3600m, but the standard has been set: now every time we climb above 4000m C. will start to feel the effects of the altitude. Me? I’m fine. Must be all this food I’m eating. Tonight, in spite of the fact that we are in tents and Manuel is cooking our food on a gas stove, I am treated to a plate of the most delicious French fries I have ever eaten as a birthday treat. As if that wasn’t enough, Ivan also pulls a bottle of red wine out of his bag (he’s a teetotal vegetarian and C hardly drinks, so it’s all mine! Mine!). There was more to come: when we had finished our main courses, Ivan, Manuel and all three of the arrieros shuffle into the dining tent with a cake, candles and sing me “Happy Birthday” in Spanish. It’s a wonderful moment, made perfect when they ceremonially present me with an Ecuador football shirt as a present. Cake all round. Mindful of the altitude and because it feels appropriate, we also share the wine with the arrieros.

Who could ask for anything more than that? A brilliant day.

to be continued..... (even if it takes me bloody forever - which it might)

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Monday, March 26, 2007

I've breathed the mountain air, man...

I have a really bad feeling that this is just going to be thousands of words that aren’t in the least bit interesting to anybody but me. Sorry about that, but the moment that I found myself writing the odd note here and there at the end of a day, I just knew that this day was going to come. You can take the blogger away from a computer, but apparently you can’t stop the urge to blog.

I’ll try to make this as painless as possible, otherwise it will take me all night to write, and you all day to read. It's going to be in several parts, I'm afraid... and given that we lost most of the photos we took in the first week when C's memory card went mental, there aren't going to be too many pictures either.

Ready? Here we go.

Ecuador Trip - Part one.

[Part one - Part two - Part three - Part four - Part five - Part six - Part seven - Part eight]

Friday 2nd March

A 4am start to make it down to Heathrow for a flight at 9am. It sounds bad enough as it is, but if we hadn’t driven down that extra 70 miles down the motorway to my parents’ house straight after work yesterday, then we’d have been starting at 3am. Besides, it gives me a chance to see my Dad in hospital before we go away. Needless to say, I was extremely relieved to see that he’s doing okay and should be home in the next few days.

After 9 hours we land in Miami. Ah, US Customs. With their attention to detail, America is assured of winning the War on Terror. In order to catch our connection to Quito, we are required to fill out a visa waiver form for entry to the USA, go through Immigration, pick up our bags, go through customs, drop our bags off, go back through security and get on the plane. At the immigration desk, C. is given a major grilling about the stamps in her passport. She has visited countries like China, Taiwan and Korea in the last seven years, and the US needs to know why she has been there in order to assess if she is a threat to national security. I have no such problems. My passport is brand new and has no stamps to be admired. Of course, in my last passport I had stamps to Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cuba and to Hades itself, but apparently they’re not interested in that, only in what they can see. Thank God that all terrorists have that fact stamped as their occupation in their travel documents, eh?

We finally arrive in Quito and are met by our guide for the next 2 weeks – Ivan. Ivan greets us warmly, introduces us to his wife and then takes us out to his Land Cruiser for the 90 minute trip to Otavalo. We arrive there about 24 hours after we initially set out for Heathrow, so all we can do is find our way to our room and to collapse into bed. It’s market day tomorrow, so Ivan tells us we’ll have to make an early start if we want to catch the livestock market.

Saturday 3rd March

Otavalo is a lovely little town, but its real claim to fame is that it has probably the most famous market in South America. It’s actually three completely separate markets: the livestock market, the food market and the textiles market. The latter is the most famous and is the one that is mentioned in all of the guidebooks and attracts all of the gringos (many with horrible dreadlocks, 'ethnic' trousers that no ethnic person would be seen dead in, and carrying backpacks), but the first two are probably more interesting. We spend a happy couple of hours wandering around the market watching cows being loaded onto the back of trucks and sampling fruits I have never heard of before, never mind tasted before (my favourite is the Grenadilla – a member of the passion fruit family that you split open with your hands and suck all the seeds out).

The textile market is interesting though, and I manage to pick up the mandatory Panama Hat (here it’s more properly called a “Montechristi”) and we both pick up nice thick woolly sweaters to keep us warm in the mountains. The asking price for a handmade wool sweater? About $8.

Otavalo is at about 3200m, so it’s a good chance for us to acclimatise to the altitude before we head out on our trek. In the afternoon we take a gentle stroll up past a waterfall at the edge of town and out towards a big lake. It’s not far or very arduous, but somehow it takes much longer than it should as we all seem to be walking very slowly. We reach the lake and hop onto an absolutely banging bus back into town – literally… there is a band hitching a ride into town with all of their instruments and they play all the way back to the town centre. It’s aces!

Calzone for tea. Not very traditional, I know, but tasty.

Sunday 4th March

Our breakfast is cooked for us by the hotel’s armed guard. He wears a natty little uniform and a beret with the hotel’s name on, but to be honest he doesn’t look like he’s ever fired a gun in anger in the whole of his long life. I think they reckon it makes the guests feel safer. I must say, he looks quite the picture in the kitchen with his pinny on.

Today we head out towards the Cotacachi volcano and walk around the lower crater lake at Cuicocha. It takes about 4 hours in all to walk the 10km around and climb up as far as about 3420m. It’s a beautiful spot, no?

I see my first hummingbirds here as well as an American Kestrel. Ivan seems thrilled that C. and I both show some interest in the birdlife, so we begin THE LIST. Every day from now until we go home, I am more or less forced to write down in my notebook a list of all of the birds that we have seen. Apparently nobody is as interested in birds as the British – especially not the French Canadians. I like birds (I used to be in the YOC, you know) so I decide it’s probably better not to tell Ivan that the British are probably just too polite / repressed to tell their enthusiastic guide that they don’t really need to have a comprehensive list of every bird they see over the next three weeks. I made the list. Email me if you’re interested. No one’s interested? Damn your eyes! I didn’t write them all down for nothing, did I? Did I?


We have a leisurely lunch afterwards in a restaurant with Ivan’s family: Alexsita his wife and his two kids, Juan and Pablo (I simply had to ask him if he was planning on calling his next two sons Jorge and Ringo. Apparently not.)

We then wander around the town itself, which appears to sell nothing but leather goods. Tempted though I am to buy a pair of chaps, I content myself with buying a band for my wrist made out of horse hair. When I have a shower later on, I realise that the whole bathroom honks of wet horse. Oh well. What can you do?

I’m not sure what else we did with the day, to be honest. I’ve just looked in my notebook, and the only thing I have written down about the afternoon is (and I quote) “lovely spicy chilli sauces”.

Make of that what you will.

Monday 5th March

An 8am start to head up the cobbled road to the lagoon at Cariocha de Mojanda (passing a bit of the Inca trail on the way up) and a hike to the summit of Mount Fuya-Fuya. At 4275m, it’s our highest peak yet and it gives Ivan a chance to see how the two of us are handling the altitude before we head out on the trek tomorrow.

On the whole, I don’t think we’re doing too badly – I had been warned about the nagging headaches before we arrived, and Ivan has been watching us like a hawk and making sure that we drink lots of water and stop regularly for breaks for nuts and Guava jelly to keep our energy up. I feel a bit breathless, but basically okay. In fact, the most noticeable thing happening to me is that all the water and coca tea I’m drinking is making me want to pee all of the time (but what else is new, right?).

It’s cloudy and cold at the top, but the exhilaration and sense of achievement is fantastic. We climb down (slowly) and head back into Otavalo to gather our bags and set out for the starting point of the trek in the Land Cruiser. On the way out of the town we stop in an untidy little shanty town off the main road to pay a visit to Don Carlito. For the last 60 years, Don Carlito has been buying wool on the market, carding it by hand, spinning it out into a thread on a spinning wheel and then using a back-strap loom that predates the Spanish Conquest to painstakingly create the most beautiful clothes. It’s a painstaking process and as I watch him doing it, I can’t quite believe how much effort goes into it. A scarf – a simple scarf – will be woven from a single piece of wool in this way, it will be dyed using natural pigments (the brown is made from crushed walnuts, for example) and then brushed with a dried thistle head to soften the wool. And how much would one of those scarves set you back? All those long hours of painstaking craftsmanship? Why, that would be $5.

We buy two, and leave with a new appreciation for something that Don Carlito does in his spare time from running his smallholding.

We climb back in the Land Cruiser and head on to the Chachimbiro thermal springs. This is a beautiful spot nestled against a dormant volcano where the water comes out with a natural temperature of up to 50 degrees Celsius. With the help of the local government, the community here has constructed a lovely set of pools, together with some Turkish baths, some hydrotherapy rooms and a few rooms. The hope is that this will provide a steady source of income for some 450 indigenous families in the local community. It seems to be working, with up to 3000 people paying $3 for access every weekend. It’s a bit quieter than that when we are there, and we have the pools more or less to ourselves, give or take the local mayor and his bodyguards and three gringas who sit and talk earnestly with each other about re-birthing experiences (oh yes - literally spending time in "Lake Me"). We spend an hour or so wallowing in the pools before dinner and an early night.

We start the 5 day Pinyan trek tomorrow.

to be continued........... (sorry, it's going to be a series)

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beep beep! beep beep! yeah!

Amidst all the entirely understandable excitement of my first day back in the office for more than three weeks, I had to drag myself away early at a little after 4pm.

The reason?

I picked up my new car.

So far I have driven him the grand total of about 6 miles and have already given my stupid brain plenty of trivial things to worry about.

Even so, I think it's pretty cool....

I had no plans to assign this car a name - it's just a car, right? Why would a car need a name? But somehow my car has already acquired a name. When the dealer rang me up to offer me a choice of three different number plates, I chose the first one he mentioned because I didn't much care. I got home that night and C. asked me what plate I had chosen. Her instant response when I told her? She turned around with a big smile on her face.
"Vynnie? Vynnie the MINI!"

The reason for her excitement? The number plate I had chosen ends with the three letters "VYN". Something I hadn't given a moment's thought to until that second. They were just letters. In that instant those three letters became a name.

So now I drive a car called Vynnie the MINI.

What can you do?

Right. Enough procrastinating! Write that damn holiday post man.


Sunday, March 25, 2007

I'd rather be a forest than a street...

Hello. We're back.

It's taken some time, but we're finally back in Nottingham. We left Ecuador at 08:05 on Saturday morning and after a brief stop in Miami to enjoy at first hand the somewhat arcane customs procedures of the USA, we finally landed in London at 06:35 this morning.

It's been a long day, so I hope you'll forgive me if I save the interminably long rundown of what we got up to for another day.

For now I hope it will suffice to say that we had a brilliant time. Ecuador is a remarkable country of diversity and contrasts.

Where to begin?

We sat and watched a volcano erupting.

We climbed snowcapped mountains on the same day as we crossed the equator (it's certainly the only holiday I've been on where I have needed to pack my sleeping bag, my down jacket and my skiing gloves as well as my shorts, a big sunhat and masses of insect repellent).

We sweated it out in the rainforest as we fished for piranahs, watched toucans flying overhead and tried to avoid the spiders, mosquitos and the many other forms of insect life.

At various points in our trip, we travelled by car, by bus, on foot, on bikes, on horseback, by canoe, in wobbly open cable cars, down some rapids on a set of lashed together inner-tubes and on the roof of a train as it wound its way down some switchbacks carved into the side of a mountain.

It was a brilliant way to spend 22 days.... although I have to say that I will be quite pleased to be sleeping in my own bed tonight.

How are you?