Monday, 19 January 2015

Welcome to the Jungle: Misahualli

A while ago I explained how we found ourselves in the remote Ecuadorian town of Misahualli with its hundreds of monkeys and butterflies. It was here that we arranged our jungle trip with EcoSelva. The night before we went into the jungle there was really heavy rain fall and despite his house being flooded and the loss of his butterfly collection, the owner, Pepe drove us to meet our guide.

Running out of Misahualli there is a brand new tarmac road, surrounded by heavy green banana plants. At the time we went the bananas were all covered with blue plastic bags so precious crops weren't lost. We got out of Pepe's truck at a small shelter, and he headed off towards a small collection of basic houses to get our guide. The houses were in a small clearing of the plantation, there was also a tiny church and a playing field, with lots of chickens wandering around to their hearts' content.
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We busied ourselves packing our lunch and water supplies in our bag until Gregorio turned up. Pepe told us it was time for him to leave us in Gregorio's good hands. He wasn't what I was expecting as a jungle guide. He wore wells and trousers that had been ripped off at the knees. He had a huge machete hanging from his belt and a baseball cap. He was really short and looked really young, although later we found out he was about 35. He was the son of the chief of the small settlement, and was preparing himself for his future as chief.Apparently the role of chief in these settlements is to make all the decisions concerning the people, but also acting as the doctor and teacher.
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We set off across the road, through what appeared to be someone's back garden, and entered the edge of the jungle. He explained that everything we were walking though was his father's. There were fields filled with pineapple, banana and cocoa plants.

I loved seeing how pineapples grow, I always thought they grew on trees, not from small prickly bushes from the ground, and there's only one pineapple per plant. We hunted around and around the field for a ripe one and he let us try it. It was really white, instead of the yellow that i'm used to, but was still really delicious.
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Every few steps we went, Gregorio would stop and point out a plant and tell us the medical properties of the plants. There were long, finger shaped mushrooms filled with clear liquid that cured ear ache, ferns that were tied to children's legs to encourage them to walk, contraceptive plants, plants to cure diabetes and even leaves that felt like sandpaper that they used to file nails!
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We came to a clearing in the jungle where there was a small swing made of vines that hung from the very top of the canopy and laughed as I had a go and was incredibly worried I was going to go crashing into a tree. We saw hundreds of insects and butterflies, and Gregorio even managed to spot a tiny little black and yellow frog which he declared was the most poisonous animal in the whole jungle.
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We'd been walking for a few hours when we decided it was time to stop for lunch. Gregorio was very curious about us, as much as we were about him, and would flit between English and Spanish to get his point across. Little did I know that lunch marked the end of the fun part. Gregorio warned us that rain was coming and we needed to make as much headway as possible to get to camp. He wasn't joking. Not long after the rain started to pour down and nothing really could help us, he gave each of us a huge leaf to use as an umbrella, but as we were so wet already, it wasn't worth it. The ground got incredibly muddy and slippery and I really struggled to keep up with the boys who were powering ahead. There were times when I'd lose them and not know which path they'd taken, and it was only when I came face to face with a huge spider who was sitting on their web across the path that I'd realise they had obviously gone the other way. We would be hopping over and ducking under huge fallen trees, climbing up and down muddy hills, all while carrying big bottles of water.
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Late afternoon, the rain stopped and Gregorio finally announced we were only 500 metres away from the camp, the only problem being that it was all down hill, an incredibly steep downhill. We gradually got to the bottom where I spotted a small log cabin on stilts. A woman sat in one of the huts, surrounded by her army of children who all wore dirty, ripped clothes that had been donated by the local community. They watched us walk into the clearing suspiciously. Some of the men came to greet Gregorio and chat with him, while the others hung back and watched us. I don't know what I expected the people there to look like, but I was quite shocked that they looked like other Ecuadorians in terms of the clothes they were wearing and their hair, only a little more weathered. Eventually a couple of the kids got brave and started a game of creeping upto us while we looked the other way.

The next family we came across tried to bribe us by not letting us pass through their little clearing without giving them alcohol. Sadly for them, Gregorio didn't have any and they had to let us pass anyway. Another 5 minutes walk and we had arrived at our camp, which although very basic seemed a world away from the other settlements in the area. The camp had a few huts, a toilet, a volleyball court and a sheltered area to eat. A little path lead to a small secluded beach that looked out onto the huge river, and most importantly for Nick there was a hammock.
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Nick spent the evening fishing, trying to catch our dinner, while some of the women from the community came round and tried to sell me some gifts. It was hard as I knew they really needed the money, so I bought a few things that were very expensive, and bribed them a bit more with some sugar cane sweets which they seemed to be a sucker for!
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After dinner we sat by candlelight around the fire, and Gregorio pointed out some of the animals that were loitering around our camp in the dark, hoping for a scrap of food. We decided to go to bed, exhausted from all the walking, and just as we got back to our hut, Nick froze and ordered me to get Gregorio, we had a snakey friend in our room. Gregorio seemed completely unfazed, scooped the snake up with a stick and flung it into the trees behind us. Drama over,w e managed to get some sleep.

The next day we were up at 8 and went for a walk around the lodge, we saw toucans, big spiders and alligator prints. We had a bit of success catching some fish and learned a lot more about the families around our camp. Pepe uses some of the money he makes at EcoSelva to fund the community, he runs a school for them and hosts football games for them. It really made me feel happy about giving money to the company, and would strongly recommend anyone else to go with him if you are considering going into the jungle.
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That afternoon we spent around our little beach. I watched some of the brothers pan for gold in the river, and we crossed to the other side to go fishing and have a dip in a rubber ring. That was a great end to the day, and what was even more exciting was the Shaman of the village was coming to visit us that evening. Again, what I pictured him to look like was 100 miles from what he actually was. I imagined him to have long hair, a long beard and be wearing beads and be carrying a big stick. Instead, he rocked up in a pair of wellies and addidas shorts. He explained to us ayahuasca, smoked a cigar and did a ritual on us to rid us of bad spirits, which involved him hitting us on the head with a broom made of leaves and sucking on the top of our head.
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We slept well in the knowledge that we were free of bad juju and knowing we'd survived the jungle. We were up at 6:30 the next morning to prepare to go back to civilisation. A motored canoe came to pick us up and drop us off at a different point along the long, tarmac road. We waited on the edge of the road for the bus to come, and soon enough it was time to say goodbye to Gregorio.
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We went back to our original hotel and pleaded with them to let us have a shower and get changed, I realised I looked like I had the bubonic plague with some very nasty mozzy bites, but there was no time to dwell, it was time to get on the bus and go to Ecuador's capital, Quito.

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Thursday, 15 January 2015

Hello 2015

2014 was fun and exciting, challenging and rewarding, swelteringly hot and freezing cold. I climbed mountains, saw things I can't even dream of seeing again, went back to school, got a job, petted alpacas, visited the jungle, made shapes in salt that looked like snow and settled into living the life of the 9-5 grind again. We met amazing people I hope to see again sometime in the future, and got to spend some time with family and old friends we hadn't seen for such a long time. We saw in the year with the lovely Rosario and Antonio in Buenos Aires, sat in a park and watching the sun come up, and ended it back where I was three years ago, in the Coppards' front room.

This was the year I felt I got a few things out of my system, resolved that there were lots of other things I wanted to do and really got my head down to try and achieve a few things.

Here are a few highlights of 2015:
January
February
March
April
May Tree
jUNE
July
August
September
october
november
december

What a wonderful year it was! Let's hope 2015 is just as memorable!

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Friday, 26 December 2014

Belgium: Happy 60th Birthday Mum!

I hope that everyone had a very Merry Christmas and you got to spend it with your loved ones!

I was up at the crack of dawn this morning to hit the January sales, it's the first time I've ever made an effort to go, and will probably be the last too! It was far too manic for my liking.

Not only does today kind of mark the end of Christmas, but it's a whole week since my mum turned 60. This also means a whole week since we arrived in Brussels, Belgium.

That was another early start for us as the plane departed at 7:50, and we arrived in Charleroi by 10:00am. We wearily made our way to the guesthouse, Sleephere, which I had made reservations for, and we were pleasantly surprised when we came out of the metro and we were in the Christmas Market. Although the guesthouse is in a really good location, it took me a while to find it as I didn't have a map and the building didn't have a sign outside. We were so relieved when we did find it, as it was raining and we were absolutely soaked. It turned out we'd actually walked past it a few times.
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
When we got inside it was really nice, it is an old fashioned town house with high ceilings, it was very welcoming to walk in and be greeted by a burning fire, a huge Christmas tree and a dog. The owner, Karel was very friendly and spent a lot of time talking through recommendations. Once in our room it was time to do some all important hat drying.
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
We wandered around the Christmas markets, did a little shopping, admired the treats that were on offer and drank hot cider. Yum.
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
That night we ate at In't Spinnekopke, a traditional Belgian restaurant that was filled with strange puppets and served home brewed beer. Not being a big fan of beer, I tasted my mum's it wasn't too bad! The food however, was delicious. I tried Sausage and Stoemp and my mum had meatballs.
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
Walking off our dinner we decided to go to the Grand Place. It was amazing to see it at night, all lit up with the sparkly Christmas tree in the centre. There were lots of people in the square taking photos or drinking in the cafes and bars around the perimeter.
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
On Saturday we decided to take in the sights properly and joined the free Sandemans walking tour. I would really recommend this as it gave us a bit of insight into the history of the country, the struggle between the Flemish and French, and also the colonial history involving the Congo. Our tour guide was an English student who had lived in Brussels while he studied. We followed some of the comic murals around the city and got to see the Mannequin Pis.
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
Belgium- Brussels and Bruges
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
After the tour finished we decided to try a Belgian delicacy, Frites with mayonnaise and went to Fritland, they were incredibly good chips! I decided to be brave and try and order in french, the chips were fine to order, but then I had to ask for water, not knowing the French word I decided 'Acqua' was a safe bet. The man got the water and handed it to me, then asked in English 'Are you Italian?' Feeling a little proud that he thought I was very continental I announced proudly, 'No! I'm English!' to which he responded, 'I know, it was a joke!'. Obviously French isn't as similar to Italian or Spanish as I thought, and he was far from fooled by me!
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
Belgium has many famous comic book and cartoon characters such as Tin Tin and the Smurfs, so we went to the Comic Strip Centre which is in an amazing old art deco style building.
Belgium- Brussels and Bruges
Belgium- Brussels and Bruges
Belgium- Brussels and Bruges
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
The second night we ate at the Greenwich Taverne, a French style bistro. The building was amazing, the food was average, but I think we made the wrong choice by going for a roquefort and pear burger and finished our night off with a few drinks.
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
Brussels and Bruges December 2014 for mum's 60th birthday
With only one full day left, we decided to go to Bruges on Sunday as so many people had told us how picturesque it was. Sadly it was a very cold, windy and wet day, so I don't think that we saw Bruges at its best. The tour guide did his best to engage people, although being the only native English speakers, I think a lot of the information was lost to others behind his strong Scouse accent! Try saying in your best Liverpudlian accent: 'If ya look down yonder, you'll see that building with a burrr on it, I think that's mad, that burrr innit?'.
Belgium- Brussels and Bruges
Belgium- Brussels and Bruges
Belgium- Brussels and Bruges
Belgium- Brussels and Bruges
Belgium- Brussels and Bruges
Belgium- Brussels and Bruges
Belgium- Brussels and Bruges
Belgium- Brussels and Bruges
Belgium- Brussels and Bruges
We got back to the hostel, cold and hungry, so decided to stay in the hostel in front of the fire with some cheese and wine.

We finished our short break with a bit of shopping on Monday, lots of waffle eating and chocolate tasting before we caught the plane back to England.
Belgium- Brussels and Bruges
Belgium- Brussels and Bruges

Happy 60th mum! I hope that you had a lovely weekend!
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