November 12, 2014 § Leave a comment
There was no doubt about it, we were anxious. And scaling a rather large hill in Ollantaytambo less than 24 hours beforehand was beginning to seem like a very unwise decision indeed.
One member of our group had already dropped out of the trek due to illness and many a horror story had been circulated: professional athletes who had succumbed to altitude sickness or other trekkers who hadn’t quite managed to maintain control of their bowels…
Alongside these positive anecdotes were the other bouts of optimistic advice dished out unnecessarily by guides or fellow travellers. “The Inca Trail? Pfft! That’s only about a 6 on the difficulty scale!…. Oh, you’re doing Lares? Ah… Well that’s about a 9, 9 and a half.”
As we collected our walking poles and handed over our bags to the porters (double-checking our rucksacks were sufficiently stuffed full of toilet roll and spare socks), the overall atmosphere was not an enthusiastic one.
Only 500 people are allowed on the Inca Trail per day, only 200 of which are trekkers, so it books up insanely fast, as we discovered when we ourselves failed to get a place on it. The Lares Trek however, we were promised, is equally as beautiful, with just as many opportunities to collapse and die. More so, in fact, given that the second day involves 8 hours of trekking, the majority of which is clambering 1,200 metres uphill.
And I have to admit, day one wasn’t easy. Our guide, Alejandro, walked at a steady pace and we had regular breaks of one every fifteen minutes or so. Despite this, the altitude really got to us. The constant breaks provided a very welcome opportunity to get our breath back, but the second we began walking again, we were instantly panting.
It is a trek that really sorts the men from the boys, and an order began to form on day one which would continue for the rest of the trek. Nick and Victor, due to either a high level of fitness or, more likely, as a result of some sense of masculine competitiveness, were straight to the front, tailing Alejandro, and held this position for the majority of the trek. Indeed, if they were ever behind me, I would let them pass for fear of holding them back from their quest to become next month’s Men’s Health cover model.
The scenery changes at an absurdly fast pace. For the first four or so hours, our surroundings were luscious and green. Just before we hit the first camping point in the Lares Valley, we could just as easily have been in Holland, with grassy, hilly landscapes and flowing streams; all it was missing was a small windmill in the distance.
Four hours later, I had succumbed to the same fate as the Potosi Silver Mine guide and was chewing coca leaves like they were the last bag on Earth. They helped power us up the last couple of hills towards Camp one, where the lovely porters were already setting up our tents. It was such a relief to just sit down and know you didn’t have to get up again – at least not until the next day, when it would start all over again! Our first night was made even better by the realisation that there was a toilet – a proper working toilet with toilet roll! And when a small Peruvian lady turned up, selling Coca Cola and beer, our initial evening felt complete. We very quickly purchased every bottle.
The first night in the tent was bitterly cold. Even in spite of the 6 or 7 jumpers I was wearing, and despite our invention of Battle Slugs – a game where you zip your sleeping bag right up over your head and thrash around and try to roll over each other – I only managed to get about two hours sleep as I just could not get warm.
As a result, our 5am wake up call was most unwelcome. It was still freezing when we set off again, which did nothing to help the altitude breathing. We were deep in the valley now and it was surprising to see that it was home to quite a few communities; it really did feel as though we were in the middle of nowhere.
Although we spent the first four or five hours struggling upwards, this was, in my opinion, the most beautiful part of the trek. The large, white glacier that could be seen on a distant mountaintop from camp was suddenly at eye level, and the air became colder and crisper as we climbed.
Higher and higher we trudged and the scenery changed again. The greenery and grass all but disappeared, replaced by an abundance of grey and brown jagged rocks that lurked menacingly as we watched our step and tried to circumnavigate around them. And then, with only another half an hour to go until we reached the peak, something unexpected happened – adrenaline kicked in. Whether I had finally done enough exercise to release some endorphins or whether I had just had enough of Nick and Victor’s smug faces beaming down at me from on high, I was suddenly determined to make it to the top in double time. And I did.
It was an amazing feeling to finally make it to the summit and the views were incredible. This feeling was, however, rather short-lived as it quickly gave way to extreme hunger! Fortunately, we only had to descend for another 45 minutes before we arrived at the tent that had been set up for lunch.
The food on the trek is definitely worth a mention as, considering you appear to be deep in the centre of no man’s land, the chefs set up a big tent, complete with stove and cooking equipment, and make a delicious variety of chicken, fish, rice, pasta and vegetables. They also boil water in the morning, afternoon and evening and, although we had heard from other travelers that we should take diluting juice as it tasted pretty awful, we really didn’t find it too bad.
We reached Camp 2 at around 4.30pm without too many disasters (minus the fact that Amy had managed to burn her crotch on very hot soup at lunch). The beginning of the descent had gone straight to our heads and we arrived at the campsite in a state of uncontrollable laughter. This was quickly cut short, however, when we discovered that Camp 2 did not, as of yet, have a toilet. A few of us had to… um… improvise.
Fortunately, one of the members of our group was a walking pharmacy and, after sharing his stash of sleeping pills with the majority of us, the second night’s sleep came much easier! On the morning of day 3, we were all sitting in the breakfast tent when Alejandro came in and told us some devastating news – some kitchen equipment had broken and we wouldn’t be able to have a proper breakfast. No one was too fussed as we’d had a big meal the night before and the good sleep had improved everyone’s mood significantly. The chefs insisted on coming through to apologise to us all the same, but, when they came through the door, led by Alejandro, they had a lit birthday cake in their hands, and everyone started singing me happy birthday! (NB. It was my birthday the next day).
After our delightful breakfast of birthday cake, we had a casual three hour walk downhill, finally arriving at the finish line at around 10am, where we all celebrated with one (or maybe four) breakfast beers!
If you do the Inca Trail, you have another night of camping ahead of you. Fortunately for us on the Lares Trek, we got to stay overnight in a hostel in Aguas Calientes. There really is nothing quite like a hot shower and sleeping in a comfortable bed after three days of trekking and two nights of camping in sub zero temperatures!
Day 4 saw us up at 4am to take the bus to what has to be the best place I’ve ever spent my birthday – Machu Picchu! Aside from a man projectile vomiting as we approached, it truly was an absolutely beautiful sight. For half an hour anyway, until the mist descended and, by 6am, all we could see was dense cloud.
I fear I may be cursed, as thick fog seems to descend on any Wonder of the World that I visit. The exact same thing happened with the Great Wall of China; all we could see was wall and mist! Thankfully, the fog lifted after an hour or so, and we were given a tour of Machu Picchu as our guide recounted its history.
This visit has been on my bucket list for many years now, so to be able to do it on my birthday (which actually wasn’t planned) was an amazing experience. We finished an incredible four days with a very late night in Cusco, which provided the icing on the cake for what was, most definitely, the best birthday I have ever had!
And just as a final note, of course, I would most definitely recommend the Lares Trek and Machu Picchu to absolutely anyone who wishes to do it! One word of advice though: don’t believe all that you hear. Take it from me, in terms of difficulty, the Lares Trek is nowhere near a 9 or a 9 and a half. I’d say it was more a seven, perhaps a little less. Although I’m sure Nick and Victor would insist it was a 2!
Take music because it pushes you onward when times get tough, take as many jumpers and as much thermal underwear as you can possibly fit in your bag, take sleeping pills if you’ve not had much luck camping in the past, but, most of all, take toilet roll! And just keep going. It’ll be worth it in the end!
October 30, 2014 § Leave a comment
The death of Gabriel García Márquez brought Latin America to a standstill, in a seismic wave of sadness that left nothing but broken citizens in its wake. On the anniversary of his passing, six readers express their eternal gratitude for the renowned author and his work.
In an isolated camp, deep in the foothills of the Jebel Mara Mountain range, a solitary female figure huddles on the cold, desert floor. The yells and roaring laughter of her inebriated captors are barely audible, as a cacophony of bangs and bullets crack the night sky above. Desperately seeking an escape, the woman turns, as she has time and time again in captivity, to the battered and broken book which she has locked in her arms.
On the fateful day that her convoy was ambushed, Mary* was working to bring education to children in Darfur, Sudan. She was kidnapped and held hostage for 105 days. During this time, she was terrorised with threats of gang-rape, tortured and often subjected to mock executions. A lone captive, her only trusted companion was Gabriel García Márquez; her only escape a precious copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude which she was carrying, by chance, in her travel bag.
Now, nearly four years after her release, the tattered, fragile novel still sits on Mary’s nightstand. Petite and delicate, with her eyes lowered and her blonde hair hanging over her pale face, she speaks of her experience in a disconnected manner, as though it belongs to someone else and she has simply memorised the words. When the subject turns to Gabriel Garcia Márquez (affectionately known as Gabo), however, colour floods to her cheeks and a hint of confidence awakens in her voice. Like a broken toy fed replacement batteries, she comes to life.
“When my nose wasn’t in that book, it was always by my side,” she says. “Gabo and the Buendías kept me company in my loneliest hours, they lifted my spirits in times of despair, and they gave me something incredibly beautiful to delight in day after bitter day. ‘Reading. Always reading,’ the lead captor would often say to me.”
For Mary, One Hundred Years of Solitude became more than just words on a page. She would use it as a pillow to protect her head from the solid ground on which she was made to sleep, and would often awake in the cold light of the morning, clutching it to her chest like a childhood teddy bear.
“Between exhaustive use and the ungodly heat, the glue of the book’s binding disintegrated. Mere weeks into my ordeal, nearly half of the pages had unfastened from the seam,” she recalls. “I had to reorder the jumbled sheets every time I wanted to read, and if a strong wind blew, I would have to chase any loose-flying pages down.”
In her darkest days, Mary describes how Gabo would stay by her side, wrapping his arms around her and comforting her with words of encouragement, helping her to carry on. “He had a profound influence on my experience out there,” she says. “When you’re being held against your will, and when your life is in question each and every day, you reach for whatever you can in terms of inspiration and comfort.”
“The Buendías, in some way, felt like my family. And Gabo’s presence was so paternal, I felt like I was turning to a beloved grandparent each time I called on him for comfort or advice. I never had any grandfathers, so I suppose he was the closest thing I ever had.”
Mary survived her 105 days of solitude. Liberated from her captors, striding in the direction of her freedom, Gabo awaited her on the horizon, smiling with paternal pride. Following her release, she spent half a year in the Himalayas recovering from her ordeal, under the tutelage of a swami yogi and three sage Tibetan Buddhist monks. As she had in captivity, she always kept Gabo’s novel by her side.
“When I was finally ready to return home, I wanted nothing more than to thank Gabo personally. I reached out to him though his literary agent, who sadly informed me that he was too ill to meet,” Mary explains. She admits that she was heartbroken that she couldn’t meet him and hug him in person. “Here was a man who had seen me through the most intense and challenging days of my life. I wished I could be by his side in his time of need, just as he had been for me.”
“When I learned of his death, I cried off and on for days. I wasn’t just saying goodbye to a distinguished author, I was saying goodbye to a faithful friend, a beloved companion. He and his stories will live in my heart and in my imagination forever.”
In captivity, Mary earmarked many poignant passages in order to return to them when she needed hope and reassurance. One of the most thumbed pages of her irreparably worn copy describes Úrsula declaring “I’m alive!”, when her granddaughter believed her dead. Mary would wake every morning, knowing that each day could be her last, murmuring Úrsula’s words aloud, overwhelmed by the precious gift of life she had been granted. She was alive. Alive.
“So many of my experiences in captivity were shaped by the magical realism in Gabo’s book. Some things touch me to this day. Just like I had in captivity, I cannot see a yellow butterfly without imagining it to be an angel,” she says. “Perhaps it is my steadfast companion himself.”
Born in Aracataca, a small town close to the Caribbean coast of Colombia, Gabriel Garcia Márquez was raised in a home that was consistently bursting with visitors – uncles, nephews, cousins and a ceaseless array of vivacious women, who ran the household and looked after little Gabito. Of them all, it was his grandfather, the soldier, and his overly superstitious grandmother who secured themselves eternally in his memory.
His grandfather would tell hero stories from Colombia’s 19th century civil wars, while his grandmother would rock him on her knee, narrating fantastical and extraordinary anecdotes in a deadpan style, without caring to distinguish between the living and the dead. It was this combination of the real and the ethereal that would later resurface in his writing.
Gabo’s life was a jigsaw of vocations. From day to day, he sought the truth through journalism and, more widely, he was a passionate historian of his region and of Latin America as a whole. But it is storytelling, chronicling the fantastic and the fictional that gave him the joie de vivre for which he will be remembered, for it is this craft that he passes on to his readers across the globe.
Forever the narrator, he would often recount with glee the story of an elderly Soviet Russian woman who copied out the entire text of One Hundred Years of Solitude by hand, word after word, disbelieving that she had really read what she had read. No doubt he would have delighted in the anecdotes of other dedicated followers, for every reader, from the untutored to the intellectual the world over, has their own tale about Gabo. Just like the elderly Russian lady, every individual has that one book that rendered them awestruck.
Those who earn a living by educating others on the acclaimed works of Latin America marvel at the sheer accessibility of Gabo’s writing. For Pascale Baker, a Lecturer of Latin American History, Culture and Literature at the University of Sheffield, Gabo’s work is a joy to teach, be it in short story form or even as part of a translation class. “People of all ages seem to love his novels, and never tire of them,” he says. “They seem to have a universal appeal across class, race and age groups. So if you give a lecture on, say, One Hundred Years of Solitude, you know it will go down well, even with a room of non-specialists who may never have visited Latin America at all.
“That is the true beauty of Gabo’s work,” he says. “Somehow, the words just seem able to transport you there.”
Fiona Mackintosh, Senior Lecturer in Latin American Studies at the University of Edinburgh, also finds that Gabo’s writing is able to carry its readers to another time and place. “I read Gabo on a summer interrailing trip across Spain,” she says. “The experience of immersing myself in the world of Macondo while simultaneously travelling through and taking in the varied Spanish landscapes was intense and memorable.
“Whenever I read a passage to my students now, I still feel the heat of the Spanish sun on my face and experience the sense of complete freedom I felt that summer.” She smiles, nostalgically. “Through his words, I try to take my students there with me.”
Though once describing himself to a Playboy interviewer as “a nymphomaniac of the heart”, it was not until he was in his late 50s that Gabo was considered an esteemed author of love. Even then, his amorous tales did not fulfil the idealistic cliché of young, naïve and desperate lovers. Indeed, Love in the Time of Cholera is a tale of the trials and tribulations of aging, of false teeth, deafness and enfeeblement. It can be no easy task to turn a tale of human deterioration into the quintessential depiction of romance, but Gabo does it with an effortless grace.
Alex Griffiths, a Literature student living in Berlin, initially read Gabo while immersed in a haze of smoke. “I first discovered Gabriel García Márquez during a period of my life when I was smoking a lot of weed and reading all seven volumes of Proust,” he says. “I was 20 and pretentious; reading Love in the Time of Cholera cured me of that.”
Alex describes being immediately drawn into a world more vibrant than his own, where devotion and romanticism reigned supreme. “The novel showed me the complexities of love in all its Technicolor sadness, and let me in on a dark secret: that the big, showy protestations of romantic love are most likely bullshit; the real heart of love is in its solitude and sorrow.
“This preoccupation with genuine love is not fashionable anymore. Post-modernism has devoured itself to the point where sincerity of thought or feeling is seen only as naivety and we allow ourselves only a hollow experience of love. Gabo is my antidote to this.
“This is the greatest gift I get from him,” he says, compassionately, “a reminder of how to love.”
To Latino audiences, Gabo’s novels have a direct appeal because they evoke stereotypical Latin American folk; for citizens of the region, his characters are real people. From the young, unrelenting philanderer to the conscientious matriarch who keeps the men in check, they recognise their own friends, neighbours and family members.
Gabo brings respect and honour to these individuals and enshrines them in Latin American history, for the characters and conditions depicted in his novels have not been invented to fit the magical realism archetype. Instead, they are part of a reality which just so happens to be magical.
In his home of Colombia, and the rest of Latin America as a whole, Gabo enjoys the status of an unofficial hero, celebrated in a fashion akin to that of athletes or movie stars. “There isn’t a single Colombian who hasn’t heard of him,” says Liliana Gaitan-Wilson, a Teaching Assistant from Bogotá. “When he won the Nobel Prize it was a matter of great pride for us. His death is a huge, huge loss for the country.”
Liliana clearly remembers the collective mania that hit Colombia with the release of Chronicle of a Death Foretold in 1981. “I was just 19 at the time, and it was complete madness,” she says. “People were reading it crossing the street, stopped at traffic lights, over someone else’s shoulder on the bus, everywhere!” Although she describes beginning to read One Hundred Years of Solitude and being unable to put it back down again, it is Gabo’s journalistic works which had the biggest impact upon Liliana. News of a Kidnapping, which describes the abduction of 10 people by drugs boss Pablo Escobar in Colombia, holds particular relevance for her. “I remember those kidnappings,” she says, “I remember the deaths.
“The book is particularly important for us Colombians because, in the 80s and 90s, kidnappings were just a part of everyday life. A relative of mine was kidnapped and, luckily, the family managed to get the money to pay for his release. The father of a friend of mine wasn’t so fortunate. He was captured and killed. It destroyed their family.
“News of a Kidnapping was very close to our reality,” she says. “We were the victims.”
I, too, am a page in the limitless book of stories of Gabriel García Márquez. He found me when I was 19 years old; I regret that he did not find me sooner. I was living in France, in a petite ville named Mayenne which was buried deep in the countryside, lost somewhere between two much more appealing, lively towns. I was working as an English Language Assistant in a boarding school on the edge of a long road that led to nowhere.
I had left the Spanish city of Salamanca just one month earlier. It was a bustling, energetic place where life poured from the windows of the antique buildings and flooded the golden-bricked streets; where old Spanish Señors would stop in the middle of the road to divulge anecdotes about their long-forgotten childhoods; where contagious conversation – in the clearest, most beautiful Spanish ever to reach my ears – followed me from sunrise to sunset. It was a place where loneliness had never existed.
One drizzly, grey day, with no idea quite what I was searching for, I found myself in the Spanish section of the school library, which ultimately consisted of a dusty shelf of eight or nine tattered books. I borrowed every one.
In reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabo’s words transported me back to a place with life, conversation and stories. They simultaneously eased my loneliness, and made my heart ache for a language which was slowly trickling out of my everyday existence.
His world was ours, but we are only six stories. Gabo influenced lecturers, literary scholars and aspiring writers in more ways than it is possible to recount, but his words went deeper than simply influencing ambitious and hopeful artists. He aided his faithful readers in times of sadness, desperation and despair and he taught the ordinary that they were nothing of the sort.
His words had the power to seize the Latin American consciousness, as well as to gain recognition and glory for its people. He gave his home country accessibility that it had never before been granted and shared the wonder and the beauty of its reality with us all.
For me, however, Gabo was simply there to hold the hand of a scared and lost teenager, who had forgotten the true magic of the world.
Gracias Gabo, por todo.
*Name changed to protect identity
October 29, 2014 § Leave a comment
I must admit, bra shopping, for me, is nothing short of a mission. Countless times I have put it off and put it off until I am forced, out of pure desperation, on to the High Street to hunt down a bra which does not resemble a stained, chewed-up, hole-filled rag.
The problem is, when I do finally make it to the shops, the task itself is just too much for my resolve to take. What colour? What shape? And dear lord, what size?! How can one shop advise me that I should be wearing a 34D when another concludes that I am, without a doubt, a 26HH? (Here’s looking at you, Bravissimo). It’s enough to send me racing back home to hide under the duvet and clutch my stained, chewed-up, hole-filled rag bra to my chest in despair.
So when I was invited along to the Triumph event in my local Jenners to get measured, drink champagne and find out everything there is to know about their new Magic Wire bra, I jumped at the chance. (Figuratively, of course, as this old bra doesn’t support quite like it used to.)
When I arrived, I was immediately taken for a fitting with a lovely assistant who told me all about the importance of wearing a proper-fitting bra while laughing (or at least pretending to) at my hellish lingerie-purchasing anecdotes.
The bra is designed with comfort and support in mind, has no wire (which saves any awful stray wires digging ceaselessly into your armpits) and has been created to feel like a second skin. And, as luck would have it, it succeeds marvelously in ticking all of these boxes.
Normally, any mention of ‘no underwire’ would send me running for the hills for fear of looking like an 87-year-old undertaking a severe crash diet, but the Magic Wire bra held everything in place perfectly. The secret, or indeed the ‘magic’, lies in an invisible integrated silicone wire which, when molded inside the cups, provides the support of a normal wired bra.
The bra comes in many different colours and patterns and, as it is currently retailing at £36, I will definitely be purchasing another one soon! Or perhaps two…
The Magic Wire bra was designed after Triumph research discovered that a bra digging in was one of women’s top daily niggles and the lingerie company set out to remedy this.
Triumph has also launched a new #Nigglefix campaign, a platform to enable women to share those things that frustrate them on a day-to-day basis and share any top tips on combatting them. The campaign focuses on empowering women to come together and collectively help each other find fixes for their niggles.
October 5, 2014 § Leave a comment
In Potosí – one of the highest cities in the world – we saw the sun for the first time in almost two weeks. It was beautiful. Down to the very depths of my rucksack went the abundance of llama socks and out came the summer dresses and shorts that I had stupidly packed without so much as a thought for which season it may be south of the equator.
Though we had been warned that the night life was dire, a couple of bottles of what tasted like dessert wine later and we were off on the hunt for a karaoke bar…
October 3, 2014 § Leave a comment
Word on the street was that a couple of inches of snow had fallen over night and now lay on the route to Bolivia. As a result, everyone had erupted into a Britain-esque panic. The ‘extreme’ weather conditions had caused numerous roads to close, and border control had consequently relocated. What was originally meant to be a one hour journey turned into a frozen four hour yawn fest.
At the faux border, our passports were stamped by a somber-looking individual in a lonely, gloomy room. At the edge of no man’s land, our 4x4s awaited. Our driver, Browley, gave us an incredibly toothless grin, before exhibiting his giant coca leaf stash and enthusiastically waving a stereo jack for our listening pleasure.
To get to our first stop – an electricity deficient, glacial ‘eco’ hotel which we were all very excited about – we had to do three hours of off-roading in the 4x4s. After an especially bumpy journey over some very high, rocky hills and with an abundance of mountainous landscapes, we arrived, famished, at World’s Worst Hotel.
October 1, 2014 § Leave a comment
In the aftermath of this year’s FIFA World Cup extravaganza, The Committee to Protect Journalists implored Brazil to return to dealing with its country’s more concerning issues – such as journalists being murdered regularly with impunity. As the country hangs its head, humiliated by its globally-televised failure, Alicia Simpson reports on what Latin America should really be ashamed of.
Inside the newsroom of Zócalo, there is a disconcertingly vacant desk. Its revolving desk chair stands undisturbed, its worn keyboard remains unbeaten by fast fingers, its phone rings and rings and rings. There will be no stories of savagery for this experienced desk to support today. Today, its previous occupant is the only story.
July 24, 2014 § Leave a comment
The Spanish government of Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, under pressure from the Catholic Church, is set to pass a controversial bill to end women’s right to opt freely for an abortion. Ahead of the rapidly approaching vote, which will take place this month, Alicia Simpson looks at the draconian laws of the Hispanic regions on the other side of the Atlantic.
Through the winding side-streets of downtown Santiago they march, their faces set in steely determination, their placards – spattered with crimson messages of Saquen sus rosarios de nuestros ovaries (Take your rosaries out of our ovaries) and Mi cuerpo es mío, yo decido (My body is mine, I decide) – are held high, contrasting the golden, grandiose architecture of the capital city.
On and on the 5000 protestors twist, like a driven python pursuing its prey. A sea of red and white – the colours of the Chilean flag – men and women, of all ages, hold hands in solidarity as they fill the sky with their battle cries. Some female protesters parade with their breasts exposed; others carry banners with babies on a background of blood. Their message is clear: they want safe and legal abortion and they want it now.