Thursday, February 23

Sick in bed

You'll recall my earlier post on our bed moving drama. In the end we had to abandon our old bed as it didn't fit up the stairwell at Swiss Cottage. I'm pleased to report that our cosy new bed arrived this morning - and made it safely up the stairwell.

We're quickly learning a few Londoner secrets. If you want a large bed in your flat, buy a base that you either assemble on site, or one that's made from two smaller divans. We've opted for the two-divan solution, buying a version that includes handy drawers. You can never have too much storage in a tiny London flat.

The bed is very comfortable but sits higher off the ground than our old one. In fact you'd think it were an operating table. However, once you've conquered the bed's dizzying heights, it's just perfect for hiding from bitter winter days. We've had a few of those this week, with day time temperatures close to zero. Poor Garry's also caught a nasty winter cold, complete with temperature and nagging cough, so I suspect he'll be making good use of for the next few days.

Return of the prodigal SAAB

Garry collected the SAAB yesterday. It's been in storage at removalist's depot since it arrived in London last month. We shipped it out of Australian unregistered, so it's now got to go through a bewildering UK registration process.

£500 face lift
First up, Garry has taken the car to the VOSA testing station (the RTA or MOT equivalent) for an initial British Standards compliance check. As expected, the car failed, but only on one item. The speedometer needs to be converted to read mph rather km/ph. This is a relatively simple exercise as we only have to get the face-plate changed on the dashboard. The odometer can continue registering kilometres. SAAB wants to charge us £500 for the face-plate. Garry's taken up the challenge of shopping around for a far cheaper supplier!

Once the dashboard has been modified, the car goes back for another test. If it passes we can then apply for registration. Incredibly, registration has to be conducted by post and takes up to six weeks to complete. Once the car is registered, we can then arrange the manufacturing of our licence plates. That right, we have to get the plates made ourselves, they're not supplied by the Government. Once these plates are installed, the SAAB is finally ready to transport groceries between the supermarket and Swiss Cottage.

How to make a fast £50
Of course, there's more to this tale. We have no off-road parking. To park the car on the street we need a resident's permit from the local council. Parking warden seem to permenantly camp outside our flat, waiting to issue a whopping £50 fine. Our removalists were hit with a fine the day they unloaded our furniture.

You've guessed it. We can't apply for a parking permit until the car is registered. All in all, it's going to take at up to eight weeks before the car is on the road, and free from the wrath of over zealous parking Nazis. For now, Garry's rented a garage about two blocks away. The SAAB will live here until it's safe to leave permanently on the street.

The irony of this saga, is that we could avoided all of this drama by simply importing the car with a valid Australian registration. The UK authorities would have given us 12 months to convert the registration and make the dashboard change.

Tuesday, February 21

Picasso, tapas and a wall of aging groceries

Garry and I have just returned from a relaxing-four day trip to Madrid. I was in town for two days of work, which we extended to include a weekend of tourist highlights. It was the first time in Madrid for both of us.

We arrived on Thursday morning, parking at the new Teminal Four in Barajas airport. This incredible work of art opened for business on February 5. It's a stunning building of red and yellow steel lattice, capped by an long, flowing roof of undulating 'seagull wing' waves. The complex was designed by Richard Rogers, a prominent UK architect.

Food, glorious food
We ate at some wonderful restaurants. Our first night was spent in the narrow, exposed brick basement of a tiny local establishment called, Arte Divino, located on edge of Plaza de le Provincia. The owner was delightful and keen to meet our every whim and the wine cellar was stocked with some fine products.

Our second night in town was spent in the basement of Bazaar, a local dining institution that even Lonely Planet raves about. Here we found ourselves seated at a table, surrounded by an eclectic collection of stark white shelves, piled high with grocery items from the turn of the century. Despite the rather stylistic surrounding, the menu was surprisingly cheap and filled with tasty dishes.

Our final night was spent at the ultra-funky establishment of Calle 54 in Northern Madrid. It's a bar come restuarant. Here the walls to the kitchen were made of solid glass, connected to the main dining area by an impressive automated glass door. This fixture had an efficient swishing noise each time it opened, akin to something you'd find on the Starship Enterprise.

Shoe leather shuffle
We spent most of Saturday wandering the streets of Old Madrid, visiting such well-worn tourist sights as the Plaza Mayor, the recently completed cathedral (it's only taken 112 years to build) and the Royal Palace. We also stopped for tapas in the late afternoon near Plaza Sol, considered the traditional heart of the city. It was here we also stumbled across call girls doing a roaring afternoon's trade.

Perhaps the most perplexing highlight was a statue of the city's emblem; a bear climbing a strawberry tree. I'm sure there's a story here, but we were at a loss to explain it.

The Royal Palace was particularly memorable. Here we saw multi-million dollar Antonio Stradivari violins from the early 1770s, stunning gilded thrones in a red velvet lined room and a spectacular array of Victorian pharmaceutical equipment on display in the royal dispensary.

Sunday was spent at the Sophia Museum viewing the works of Picasso, Dali and other modern masters. Most note-worthy was Picasso’s famous Guernica, a dark and foreboding protest on the horror of war. The canvas itself is almost eight metres long.


I returned to Madrid for another visit in September 2007. Click here to read this post.

Ello, 'ello, ello

I've mentioned our neighbour's description of Swiss Cottage's previous tenants in earlier posts. We're starting to build quite an interesting picture of these occupants. A few weeks ago, Garry had a couple of policemen pay a visit, looking for a old tenant. Then, this morning at the ungodly hour of 6:30am, a local court official buzzed the flat, seeking another former tenant.

Garry also tells me that the Gas Company was about to cut off supply when he first called to register our details. It seems that our party-going friends have left behind quite a trail of unpaid bills and court summons in their wake. I can't help wondering what impact our flat's checkered history will have on future credit applications we make.

Monday, February 13

A day in the office

I'm pleased to report that the final room in our flat was transformed into a permenant home office this week. The furniture arrived on Thursday, flat-packed, as usual, Poor Garry spent his fourth day in as many weeks assembling furniture, including our new desk, drawers and cupboards. He'll be keen not to pick up another screwdriver for quite some time.

The furniture looks great and fits our smallest bedroom-come-home office perfectly. Our next mission will be to install a custom shelf we've also purchased. The new home office looks out across Primrose Hill and the London skyline. However, we'll lose this view in a few months when the trees along our street start to send out spring growth. We'll keep some of the view from our main bedroom located on the floor above. Its windows just peek over the tree tops directly outside our home.

Perhaps the most noticable icon on the skyline is the BT Tower. Learn more here:

Sunday, February 12

Talk of War

In my last post, I shared a little history behind our flat. Let me share two further tales from the past.

Don't mention The War
On the south side of our street, stretching for several blocks, is a series of four drab, grey, concrete high-rise apartment buildings. In between each tower is a series of equally drab, low-rise apartment complexes. Picture this. Elegant red brick buildings on one side of the street, drab grey monoliths on the other. These buildings are so drab it actually made us think twice about moving into the neighbourhood.

We naturally assumed that these soul-destroying buildings were the misguided vision of a 1960s architect, or the result of some profit-seeking developer hell-bent on demolishing beautiful streetscapes. The truth is some what more sinister. It appears that our area was heavily bombed during the Second World War. Entire sections of our street were literally razed to the ground by German bombers. Effectively, the mismatch of housing on our street is long-forgotten scar of war. Not something you really encounter in Australia.

This photo shows you how it looked in 1906 before a century of death and destruction took hold.


A limo of ladies
Garry and I ran into our neighbour this morning. The same man that we locked out the day we moved in. He was pruning the roses in our front yard which, to our surprise, are already starting to send out early leaf shoots. Winter is almost over.

"I never hear you," he commented. "You're much quieter than the previous tenants. They were always partying and making noise. Up all hours, day and night. People were always coming and going. We'd watch limousines filled with beautiful women pulling up at 5:00 or 6:00am during the week, dressed in the smallest outfits. They'd disappear inside. Lots of noise. Later we'd find old joints lying around."

Garry and I feel quite dull when compared to endless limos of legless ladies.

An airless excrescence

While researching the age of our flat, I came across a detailed history of housing construction in the immediate area. Until the 19th Century, our neighbourhood was part of a rural estate known as Chalcots. As late as 1811 there were only six houses on the whole estate. How times have changed. According to the most recent census (2001) the same area now has more 95,600 households, home for more than 198,000 people.

My research reveals that the bulk of our neighbourhood was built over a period of 80 years. Our house was constructed in the later half of the 1800s. In 1881, a gentleman called William Willett the elder undertook to erect 200 houses in north-western 15 acres of the estate. He agreed to complete this assignment by 1900. Although he didn't erect as many buildings as planned, he was responsible for 37 red-brick houses built in our street between 1882-5, including our own.

Willett's red-brick houses were popular at the time, although later described as 'airless excrescences'. The dictionary describes 'excrescences' as "an outgrowth or enlargement, especially an abnormal one, such as a wart." Here's the airless wart we live in. Judge for yourself.

Friday, February 10

Who you gonna call?

It’s been very handy having Garry at home these last few weeks. He’s been able to sort out all kinds of household challenges as we continue establishing our own Swiss Cottage. Every day we find the most simple of tasks taking on a life of their own. Take for example, organising home contents insurance. What started as a ten minute task, has taken a week to finally sort out.

We can’t just call the insurance company and make it happen. The first problem we encounter is simply, “who’s the best company to use?” Being new to the UK, we don’t know who the local players are, or which have a good reputation. As a result, we end up doing a lot of research and asking work colleagues a lot of questions.

The research all takes time and drags out the entire process. Then, as you start preparing an application, you encounter interesting questions like, “what’s the age of your building?” or “are your door locks compliant to British Standard XYZ?” All of which requires more research.

If you’re curious, the age of our building is somewhere between 1881 and 1884.

Wednesday, February 8

Last box standing

Last weekend saw us pass a major milestone at Swiss Cottage. The last box of our belongings was finally given a permenant home in our new flat. This event was made possible thanks (yet again) to the miracle of IKEA and it's storage solutions. We still have a couple of boxes filled with CDs and DVDs, but all of the large items shipped from Australia actually have a real home in London.

This link gives you an idea of the storage units we've assembled in the main living room:

  • IKEA link 1

  • The last of our new home furnishing purchases are also due over the next week or so. With luck our suite of home office furniture will arrive this Thursday and our new bed some time next week. The story of our new bed is rather amusing. Some of you will recall that Garry and I bought two bulky leather sofas last year. To refresh your memory, here's a picture:

    Given this bulk, we used their measurements to help short list flats we could to lease. Basically, if we couldn't fit our sofas into a flat it was immediately struck from the list. All sorts of dimensions were considered, including access points to each house. Garry even measured up the stairwell in our Swiss Cottage building before we finally signed the lease. However, neither of us thought to measure the rigid, Queen-size, bed-base before moving in.

    Needless to say, when moving day came, the base wouldn't fit up the stairwell and we were forced to abandon it. It was one of several items we discarded that day. Nobody lifted an eyebrow as it seems the removalists have this happen all the time in London. On the flip side, our move to London has proven well timed as we've managed to secure terrific deals on replacement furniture items thanks to the post-Christmas sales. Our home office was at least 40% cheaper than normal and the new bed, close to half price.

    Now, I need to be careful here, as I'd hate people to get the impression that our sofas fitted into our new home with ease. They didn't. It took almost 20 minutes to work out how to get the first sofa up two flights of narrow, twisting stairway. In the end we asked our neighbours to open their front door before we successfully angled the sofas around a particularly tight corner.

    In the midst of all this drama we managed to lock our neighbour out of his apartment whilst he was standing in his pyjamas, suffering a dose of winter flu. The situation was further complicated by the fact that his wife was out, he wasn't carrying a mobile phone and didn't have his key to hand. Even worse, a small child was locked inside. Imagine this scene; within minutes we're standing on the landing with a sofa wedged in the stairway, with a sick and bewildered man beside us listening to the sounds of his distraught toddler locked inside. Fortunately, we share the same landlord so I was able to make a call and relay a message to his wife, who promptly returned home.

    It's great to have a real home again.

    Now there's just the insurance to sort out, the broadband access to arrange, the off-street parking to find, the cleaner to hire, the UK credit cards to apply for, the driving licences to transfer and on it goes. How much further could modern life be from cavemen days?

    Sunday, February 5

    What's in a name?

    I came across this handy summary of the local neighbourhood recently. It gives a quick and simple explanation for the name of our suburb.

    Swiss Cottage is located in North-west London in the Borough of Camden. The area is named after a Public House built between 1803 and 1804. This opened as "The Swiss Tavern" and is now called "Ye Olde Swiss Cottage". The building, reconstructed in 1965, is loosely modeled on a classic Swiss chalet and remains in active use today.

    We've yet to trial the delights of this local icon. No doubt we have quite an experience in store for us!

    Two decades of American memories

    In 1983-4 I spent an exchange student year living in upstate New York. Here I shared my life with the Kimball family in Syracuse. I was 17 at the time and had never traveled beyond the shores of my birth place, New Zealand. More than twenty two years later, it's clear that this experience first fueled my love of travel. In the intervening years since, I've had opportunity to visit more than 45 nations, setting foot on every continent with the exception of Antarctica (don't worry, it's on my list of destinations to explore next).

    Memorials, museums and memories
    Many of my childhood memories of America came back to life during a two-week tour of the US east coast last year. Garry and I stopped off in Washington DC in mid-October while enroute to London. This gave me the chance to see many places I recall visiting in 1983 and take in a few new sights I'd missed the first time around. Garry had also spent several weeks in DC about four years ago.

    For me, new expriences this trip included:

    • The Vietnam War memorial (which didn’t exist 17 years ago)
    • Going to the top of the Washington Monument for fantastic views of the city (in 1983 I visited in Summer which meant that the waiting queue wrapped completely around the monument)
    • The popular tidal basin walk to the Jefferson Monument through the gnarled Cherry tree groves.

    Garry was also able to show me a few of his favourite haunts, including a street near Dupont Circle where we discovered a new, mouth watering variety of sushi that bore more than a passing resemblance to a Liquorice Allsort log. As you do in DC, we also visited several museums including the Air & Space Museum (Which hasn’t aged well. Most of the exhibits were dated and appeared unchanged since my first visit in the early 1980s) and the Natural History Museum. One new venue had a far more profound effect on both of us; the very moving, emotional Holocaust Museum. You could see our mood change dramatically following such a confronting experience.

    Hairspray and history
    From Washington, it was on to Boston for the weekend. I'd always wanted to visit this city, but had never quite made it. The first day was largely washed out by heavy rain, but we did take time out to see a hilarious Broadway show called Hairspray. It's about a chubby girl that defies the odds to becomes a teen idol TV star. I'd seen it in NYC several years ago and wanted to share it with Garry. He loved the show. It's just as funny second time around. Sunday morning dawned with better weather, enabling us to see most of the old town on foot. Boston is filled with beautiful old buildings and history.

    I was thrilled to finally visit Trinity Church, made famous when it's steeple was used to warn locals of approaching British soilders during the American revolution. We've all heard the story of Paul Reeve who saw this signal and went on to ride through the night warning nearby counties.

    Glass-blowing politics
    A most unexpected highlight was our visit to the Christian Science headquarters. Here we saw the Mapparuim, a three-story spherical stained glass globe room glazed with a political map of the world as it appeared in 1935. You effectively walk into this room across a glass bridge suspended in mid-air and view the world as if you were standing at its core, looking outwards. An incredible experience! You can read more here.

    From Boston it was on to Princeton for a global Text 100 conference that I had to attend. This was also my first chance to meet the team I now work with in Europe. I'd last been in Princeton during my exchange student year. My host father, host sister and I had driven down from Syracuse to see the University campus. My host sister, Marcia, was considering Princeton as college option to take on a computer science degree. I recall that she visited the campus computer lab, a room filled with large clunky desktops. It was more than a little ironic that I found myself back in town 21 years later, pursuing my own career in the technology industry.

    While I attended the conference, Garry spent most of his time playing golf, shopping and enjoying the parklands around the town. Princeton is stunning, filled with many old gothic buildings and many parks littered with autumn-coloured oak trees. As you'd expect, the squirrels are everywhere preparing for winter.

    Fall is autumn

    From Princeton it was on to Montreal where we rented a car for the week. Coming in to land at Montreal airport was stunning with hundreds of acres of trees wearing their bright autumn colours and the spectacular St Lawrence river as a backdrop. After a lazy morning we spend most of the first day wandering around Montreal including the quaint old town area.

    We finished the day with a short drive to the Olympic Park, site of the 1976 games and then on to a nearby hillside Park called Mont Royal for another stunning view of autumn colours radiating across the city. Brilliant autumn shades could be seen stretching in every direction, with the dramatic Olympic Stadium rising up on the distant skyline.

    The 56,040-seat stadium is a stunning piece of architecture – and one of the most expensive white elephants in Olympic history. It had cost a staggering C$264 million to build by time it was opened in 1976, despite still being incomplete. Its estimated price tag had a far more modest C$134 million when first approved in 1970. The stadium’s soaring tower and retractable Kevlar roof were eventually completed in 1987, however it took another nine year, until November 2006, before the full cost of construction was finally paid off. The final price tag? An estimated $1.47 billion once repairs, modifications and interest payment are taken into account.

    On our last morning we then took in a few sights north of the city before continuing a leisurely drive along the Ottawa River to Ottawa itself. More Autumn colours and a few quaint riverside towns. Ottawa is a beautiful city set above the towering banks of a broad river. The Government buildings are wonderful gothic creations, capped by green copper roofs.

    Our last morning in Ottawa was spent visiting the stunning Canadian Musuem of Civilisation, conveniently located opposite our hotel. This curving venue sits on the banks of the Ottawa river looking across to Parliament Hill. The main hall houses a minor forest of towering totem poles, including several sporting men in Victorian top hats.

    A head for colourful heights
    Our last couple of days in Canada were spent driving along the St Lawerence River to Toronto. The drive was well-timed, as the day of our longest road journey was also a day of persistent rain.

    While on the road to Toronto, Garry and I stopped off on the US-Canadian border to climb a rain-soaked and leaking tower. The Skydeck looks across the St Lawerence river and Thousand Island region from a wind-blown height of 130 metres.

    What a sight! A sea of breath-taking autumn colours and delicate islands spread out as far as the eye could see. For a brief moment, we forgot how cold and wet it was outside. Learn more here.

    While in Toronto, I had the chance to revisit places more place I'd first seen in 1984. Highlights included a vist to the CN Tower, the world's tallest free-standing structure. It looked just as spectacular as I remember it all those years ago. We also wandered into the theatre district one evening and discovered Lemongrass, a wonderful Asian restaurant serving the best Thai food in North America. Check it out for yourself..

    Sadly, this is the last post covering our trip to London. From this point forward, it's all about Swiss Cottage and the adventures that still await us. If you're keen to learn about our time in South America, click on this link.

    In the footsteps of Paddington Bear

    Every morning I pass through Paddington station on my way to the office. The station's name recalls childhood memories of my favourite Michael Bond books; the life and adventures of Paddington Bear. He was so named after being found huddled in a corner of Paddington Station, fresh off the boat from Lima, Peru. Garry and I can now claim to have retraced the steps of London's most famous bear as we spent two days in Lima while enroute to the UK.

    We recommend the goat!
    Our first day in Lima was spent walking around the old colonial part of town. It’s full of colourful plazas and ornate churches. Watching the changing of the guard outside the Presidential Palace was a spectacle that almost defies description. Try to imagine brilliant red, yellow and blue costumes, a jazzy brass band, plenty of goose-step marching and a ring of heavily armed police officers keeping the crowd at a distance. Picture this and you have sense of the drama that unfolds in central Lima every day.

    While in town we were bold enough to try a few local delicacies including goat (delicious), alpaca (tough and tasteless) and ceviche, a marinated dish of raw fish that rapidly became our favourite meal (Garry says it's more my favourite than his). In keeping with our cultural theme, we also booked ourselves seats at the cabaret performed each Friday evening in our hotel. The show was a flurry of colourful costumes and amazing dance moves from almost every South American genre.

    The artifacts aren't the only things that's fake
    Sadly, our most definative memory of Lima was a classic tourist rip-off. For our last full day in town, we visited the infamous Gold Museum, home for one of Peru's most notorious scams. Several years ago, almost all of the musuems star attractions were found to be fake. They say the items now on display are the genuine thing. They certainly are beautiful pieces, but one still can't help wondering if the local artisans have simply been hard at work.

    However, it appears that we were victims of the museum latest scam. After paying our admission fee, the cashier gave us change using fake currency. This was no accident as the man insisted on rounding up our change, thereby enabling him to hand over freah, clean notes. Afterwards, our taxi driver became most upset with us as we tried to pay our fare! We though he was trying to pull a scam by refusing our money until a shop assistant at Pizza Hut also rejected our money! A handy $20 lesson in local forgery printing skills.

    Our final evening in Lima was spent watching hang-gliders soaring over the Pacific ocean, not far from El Parque del Amor (the Park of Love), complete with a statue of interwined lovers. We also met members of our tour group, including Gwen, our guide for the next two weeks. She was an English lass, full of beans, who took time to connect with everyone on the tour, making it a most memorable experience. Garry and I took her out for a night on the town the last night the group was together. As the evening wore on we soon discovered that Gwen loved to tear up the local dancefloor with some rather fancy moves.

    Our adventure in Peru continues here.

    Chasing condors

    I must admit that Peru proved to be a far more spectacular destination than expected. Aside from the more popular experience, Machu Picchu and like, we encountered many more memorable locations. Take for example, Arequipa, our first destination beyond Lima. We knew that Arequipa would be magical the moment we stepped out of the plane. We were greeted by a series of stunning snow-capped volcanoes, including Chachani over 6000 metres high and El Misti a perfectly conical mountain.

    Living in thin air
    Arequipa is about 2300 above sea level. You notice the attitude immediately. Garry and I took several days to acclimatise but managed to avoid any serious altitude sickness. However, at least four of our group took to their beds with nausea and headaches. Arequipa is a truly beautiful town, centred around a picture perfect central plaza, dissected by a fast-running stream and framed by towering mountain below.

    Aside from exploring the town's colonial buildings and markets, we also took a day trip to Colca Canyon. This stunning location is 3191 metres at its deepest point (deeper than the Grand Canyon). The road leading through the area traverses a valley tiered with ancient Inca agricultural terraces, many still in use today. At the valley's deepest and narrowest point, we stopped for several hours to watch Condors soaring on the morning thermal currents.

    Our last full day in Arequipa was spent wandering the streets of Monasterio Santa Catalina, a colourful old convent in the centre of town. The photos we took here are truly stunning. We also took time to visit the town's famous Ice Maiden, a frozen Inca human sacrifice that was discovered nearby in 1995. From Arequipa we drove to Lake Titicaca, stopping to watch wild Vicunas (a rare type of Llama) and tour the crumbling funeral towers of Sillustani.

    Dress smartly, we're at 4000 metres
    Lake Titicaca was another incredible experience. We visited the famous Uros people on their floating reed islands and stopped overnight on the tranquil island of Taquile. The people of Taquile are reserved, friendly folks, who have preserved many of their traditional culture and customs despite the daily visits of up to 800 tourists.

    The women wear large flowing skirts and brightly coloured shawls, while the men wear white shirts and black trousers with large, home-weaved cummerbunds. The men’s costume is topped off with a large, floppy ‘santa’ hat. Different colours denote single and married men. At times you feel as if the entire island is preparing for an endless black tie event.

    Andean sky show
    We climbed to the summit of the island on our first night and watching the sun go down. At 4000 metres, you think you're above the fray. However, as the sun sinks, it drops behind Andean mountain peaks lying beyond the horizon. At this moment spectacular black shadows streak across the sky. We saw this phenomenon repeated one evening while on the Amazon, almost 4000 feet lower down.

    Pune: partying in the streets
    From Tequile we returned to Pune where the town's annual street festival was in full swing. Our last evening in town was filled with a riot of colour, sound and women in swirling skirts as thousands of people participated in a stunning street parade. The parade lasted for more than two hours, dancing down narrow cobbled streets including the doorway of our dinner restaurant. The costumes were bright, loud, hand-sewen garments. Everyone, young and old, male and female, rotated and swirled their way through the cobble-stone streets singing and dancing in time to flamboyant, local music blaring from trucks and houses. The entire evening was a highlight our entire time in Peru.

    Our adventure in Peru continues here.

    Guinea Pigs lives in castles

    My last post covered our time in the Amazon. Prior to this we'd spent a week exploring the Inca heartland; Cusco and environs of Machu Picchu.

    We reached Cusco by train on November 6. Our journey started from Puno, nestled on the shores of Lake Titicaca and was quite simply an experience to remember. We upgraded our tickets to First Class and travelled for ten hours in total luxury through picture perfect plains, valleys and mountain passes. Each train carriage was a refurbished wood-panelled Orient Express style affair, complete with a glass wall and glass roof observation deck at the back of the train.

    Gastronomic heaven
    Cusco was a noisy, bustling city of red tile roofs sprawling down a valley bordered by towering brown mountains. More colonial Spanish architecture, more childern offering hand-knitted finger puppets and more ankle-twisting cobblestone streets. However, even this well-worn tourist town has its moments. On our first night in town we tried a Tapas restaurant called Cicciolina. It had been recommended by an Australian friend. We loved it! The bar was kitted out with bundles of hanging garlic, onions, chilli peppers and other dried goods, while the food itself was the closest thing to heaven found in South America. We duly recommended it to the rest of our tour group.

    This site gives more details:

    Our first full day in Cusco was largely spent out of town visiting Sacsayhuaman and the Sacred Valley. Sacsayhuaman is an enormous fortress, come Inca temple, high on the hills overlooking Cusco. The foundations are the only remains but what a sight they are. Individual stones in the foundation walls are up to four metres high. Pisac in Sacred Valley was equally memorable. We visited the local market while in full swing and took many colourful photos.

    The market is renown for it miniature guinea pig castles. Here our furry friends live in multi-storied mansions while awaiting their fate as tomorrow's meal. Guinea pig is a delicacy in Peru and every one seems to enjoy growing their own no matter where you go, or how poor they may be. Garry and I both tried Guinea Pig but have to admit that it's full of bones and tastes like old mutton. It's also just a little off putting to be presented with the plate containing a flat, four-pawed animal, looking more like fresh roadkill than a tasty meal.

    Rocking climbing for real men
    From Cusco we caught the train to Machu Picchu. The ride was another stunning journey through valleys where towering mountain walls seemed to almost touch. The Inca ruins were exactly as you see them in postcards and books. This is one tourist site the not only lived up to expectations but exceeded them. We enjoyed a picnic lunch overlooking the ruins on our first day, before walking the final part of the Inca trail up to the Sun Gate, which overlooks the entire valley. The day had been largely overcast until we reached the gate. When the sun emerged, Machu simply shone bright green in the distant.

    The next day we visited the site again at dawn. The clouds were still swirling around as when we arrived giving everything a completely different mood. I then bravely climbed the nearby peak of Huayna Picchu. The trail was damp and near vertical in places. But the view from the top was well worth the huffing and puffing to get there. However, the trail back down the mountain was a whole different story.

    What the guide books don't really tell you is that you have to climb down two flights of ancient Inca stairs more than 100 metres in length, each with a sheer drop of literally hundreds of metres to the valley floor. Of course there are no hand rails and some of the rock steps are less than 40 cm wide and 20cm deep. I literally clung on to the side of the mountain and watched my life pass me by!

    The second worst section of stairs can be seen in the photo above. The little white dot that you can see at the bottom of the stairs is a large rubbish bucket. Beyond the stairs is the valley floor, almost 800 metres below. Earlier in the day Garry had sensibly refused to even consider climbing with me. He spent a comfortable day drinking beer at a local restaurant with others from our tour group. A wise man.

    Later that day we returned to Cusco, where a final relaxing day was spent wandering the city with others from our tour group. It was from here that we flew onward to the Amazon.

    A most Amazon adventure

    I promise I'll start telling you more about our life in London soon. For now, I thought I'd tell you more about our grand tour of South America. Perhaps one of the more exotic places we visited was the Amazon Basin.

    Animals at the window
    We flew to steamy Puerto Maldonado from Cusco on November 10. The contrast between the Andes and the jungles was obvious from the moment we touched down. Within minutes of walking off our plane we had sweat pouring from very pore, a situation that never changed while we were in the Amazon. I’ve never felt so perpetually damp in my entire life. From Puerto Maldonado we caught a boat up the Rio Tambopata, traveling for almost two hours to reach our jungle lodge.

    The lodge was far more luxurious then we expected. Our rooms had windows open to the neighbouring jungles, where you could hear the endless sounds of animals going about their daily lives. I never realised how noisy the jungle is. It's never silent. Crickets chirp, monkeys screech and birds call out. On our second day, while sitting in our room, we watched an agouti wander out of the bush searching for dinner among the scattered leaf litter. The agouti is a short-tailed rodent, about the size of a large cat, but with a distinctive, flat snout.

    Don't fall in, the fish bite!
    Our first full day we fished for Piranha in a nearby lake on our first full day in the Amazon, then climbed a 125 foot canopy tower to look down on the surrounding jungle and river. It also happened to be the only place in the jungle where you can get a cell phone signal so we called Garry's mother for his birthday. The following day (Garry's birthday) we were up at the crack of dawn to watch parrots and colourful macaws gather by the dozen at a local clay lick. This was an incredible sight that I’ll never forget. To complete the day, our friendly lodge staff sang Happy Birthday to Garry that evening and presented him with a delicious cake.

    Our final morning saw us rise at dawn to catch a river boat back into town and then on to the airport for flights to Lima. We'd done Peru! The trip was shaping up to truly be an experience of a lifetime. After five weeks on the road Garry and I were still in good humour and enjoying each other's company. Next stop: Brazil.

    Brazilian Nut Mix

    Perhaps it's time to fill you in on our first week in Brazil. We arrived in Rio on November 14, after two weeks in Peru. This next part of our RTW ticket proved to be another whirlwind of sights, sounds and smells.

    Our less-than-direct flight from Lima to Rio passed without incident. As some of you will know we flew Lan Chile which saw us transit via Santiago. The flight left Lima at 1:15am and took three hours to reach Santiago. However Santiago is currently two hours ahead of Peru so we found ourselves awakened for breakfast barely two hours into our flight. Ouch! The early rise did enable us to watch the sun rise over the Andes. A magic moment. From Santiago we flew to Rio with a brief stop in Sao Paulo. Flying into San Paulo was an experience itself. From the air we could see that this was truly an enormous urban expanse that seemed to extend to the horizon in every direction.

    RIO - Grand Prix seafood
    Rio was incredible! We wished we´d had more than 1.5 days here. I think we´re definitely going back. The city is set in one of the moment beautiful locations I´ve ever seen. Sydney harbour pales by comparison. Our hotel was close by Flamengo beach, which sits within the main bay of Rio looking directly at Riõ´s famous Sugarloaf Mountain. We spent our first afternoon strolling along the beach promenade trying our best to soak in the wonderful laid-back culture.

    We caught a cab to Marius, a popular seafood restaurant later that night. The meal was an endless degustation menu consisting of every fresh seafood dish you can imagine. We literally rolled ourselves out the door after one too many prawns! Marius also operates a meat restaurant with the same format next door. Garry immediately made me promise we’d try this establishment the following evening. Those of you that know Garry will also know that there is no more dedicated carnivore than he. We did indeed return the following night and consumed every conceivable part of a cow known to man, plus a few pigs, chickens and other meats I was too nervous to ask for a translation.

    Catching a cab to both restaurants is something everyone should experience once in their life. Rio cab drivers are all in training for the national Grand Prix, revving engines loudly at every red light, taking any corner at breakneck speed and generally doing their best to pass every other vehicle on the road. Of course road chaos is nothing new to me after many years in Asia. India and China definitely have random driving as a national sport, however, Rio adds the frightening element of speed to this mix!

    Discovering a better use for Vodka
    Almost ten years ago now, Kinselas, a popular bar in Sydney briefly closed its doors. The bar's new owners gutted the joint, transforming it into a trendy minimalist water hole. Upon reopening, its signature drink became the Caiprioska. What a wonderful beverage. It's the perfect cure for scurvy, and it's preparation is the ultimate workout routinue for any barman.

    Trying making your own version:

    In Brazil, Garry and I soon discovered that Kinselas had simply been cashing in on the nation's favourite drink. The Brazilian national drink is the Caipririnha. It's made from a sugar cane alcohol called Cachaca, which is mixed liberally with crushed limes and palm sugar, then shaken over ice. If you subsitute the Cachaca for Vodka, you've created a Caiprioska. However, unlike Kinselas, the correct method for making this drink in Brazil requires the barman to pour vodka into your glass until someone suggests he stop! This is the perfect drink mixing process for any customer that’s just completed a Rio cab ride.

    Death by cable car
    I shouted Garry a private tour of Rio for his birthday. This involved a whirlwind tour with a personal guide of key Rio highlights including the famous Corcovado mountain where a 30 metre statue of Christ watches over the city. The view from here was spectacular and gave us our classic postcard photos. We took the local cable car to reach the summit, an experience on it´s own. We then drove through the old neighbourhood of Santa Teresa where even the cable car drivers think they´re Grand Prix champions. I´d never seen a cable car sway quite the way they did in this particular neighbourhood! Thank goodness Garry refused to ride one the day before due to pure exhaustion.

    Dancing in the streets
    Of course, Rio wouldn't be Rio without Carnivale. Our guide took us to the famous street where it all happens. Television can be so disceiving. You'd think the parade was snaking it's way through miles and miles of city suburbs, when in reality, it's all taking place on a purpose-built roadway, less than 800 metres long. While in the area, I boldy rented an old costume and had my own little Mardi Gras.

    We then caught the cable car up Sugarloaf mountain for more spectacular views. One highlight was watching ant-sized climber making their way up the rock face the hard way. From Sugarloaf our tour took us past an endless stream of beautiful coastal beaches that reminded us of the best in Sydney.

    PARATY - a Portuguese paradise
    We joined our next tour group later that evening. Early the next morning we drove to the heritage-listed town of Paraty. This is a perfectly preserved Portuguese colonial town about four hours south of Rio. A truly scenic town of old white buildings with colourful painted doorways, window sills and trims, located on bone-jarring cobblestone streets. The town is set in a harbour of islands which we visited by boat the following day. Most of the boat trip was spent swimming, soaking up sunshine and drinking the national drink.

    From Paraty it was on Sao Paulo with yet another bus driver in training for the Grand Prix. Sao Paulo is huge. We spent our first evening here in a classy bar at the top of a 41-storey building, drinking, you guessed it, the national drink. The city spreads as far as the eye can see in every direction. The following day was spent exploring the city. In the morning we took a walking tour with our guide through several city neighbourhoods before leaving the group to do our own thing at the local Zoo.

    Our Brazilian adventure continues here.

    Post modern metropolis

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    Curitiba was our next stop enroute from San Paulo to Iguazu Falls. This city is the regional capital of the Brazilian state of Paraná. It rarely features in tour brochures as it has no significant tourist sights of note. However, despite such short-comings it made for a most interesting and some what unexpected diversion.

    Unlike most of Brazil (or Latin America for that matter) Curitiba is a model of modern urban planning. Despite being home to more than three million people, it has the look and feel of a smaller urban centre. The streets are wide, green and clean. Quaint parks are scattered through the city, many consisting of tidy, creative landscaping. The buildings are modern and clearly designed to complement each other. It has an efficient and accessible public transport system (consisting of long bending buses with ten wheels).

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    Surprisingly, despite the stunning urban planning, the city's old town has been carefully preserved as a safe, clean pedestrian mall. This in turn is one of several people-friendly malls throughout the city centre. We had coffee one morning in a cafe that wouldn't have looked out of place in Eastern Sydney. It certainly would have looked out of place in the rest of Brazil.

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    Urban Activist, Bill McKibben describes the city best when he says "I have never been any place like it." The contrast between Curitiba and other Brazilan cities is stark. So much so that at times we thought we'd stumbled onto a movie set, or a carefully crafted village scene at Disney's Epcot Centre. The modern beauty and efficiency was truly impressive and wonderfully refreshing after weeks on dusty South American roads. At times I could even see myself making a home here. It's a truly livable city!

    Night bus bliss
    To get to the Falls we caught the night bus from Curitiba. In a country where air travel is still a relative luxury, long distance travel is generally conducted using buses. However, these are no ordinary buses. Each is equipped with large reclining seats in a style not too dissimilar to those in the pointy end of a Boeing 747. As a result, our 12 hour journey was literally completed in business class luxury, while never being more than a few metres above the ground. Following a sound night's sleep we arrived at Iguazu Falls soon after dawn.

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