Saturday, 26 December 2009


On Christmas Eve, Tane and I landed back in NZ. It is great to be back, although the NZ accent seems stronger than ever and everything feels much quieter than I remember. It's great to be back and already is starting to feel like we were never away at all. Yay!

With my sisters and niece at Napier airport ...

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Los Angeles, where the sky is smoggy-ish blue

Yesterday Tane and I arrived in Los Angeles from Guatemala City, our third visit to the USA this year and my fourth time in LA. Los Angeles is a strange city - the sky is a strange mix of smog and sun, there seem to be about 4 million cars too many, and the famous sites are fun to visit but feel incredibly gaudy at the same time.

Spirit fingers at Venice Beach. Note the colour of the sky as well.

We did have fun visiting Hollywood though, the Walk of Fame is interesting (did you know Mickey Mouse has his own star?), and the tat shops filled with fake Oscars and Hollywood bling hilarious.

And, it also turns out that Tane has larger feet that John Wayne. According to a guide Wayne's feet look smaller than they actually were because of his boots, but as I am too dense to follow that logic myself have decided to let this photo do the talking!

Friday, 18 December 2009

Let Me Stand Next To Your Fire

We have more than our fair share of volcanos in the North Island of New Zealand, but Guatemala leaves us for dead. The country has more eruptions than a spotty teenager. In a fit of machismo, I decided to climb one of the two live volcanos near Antigua (there´s also two huge dormant cones) - Volcan Pakaya. It has lava continuously flowing down it.

Pakaya. Dodgy.

But I smirk at danger!

Until I actually get close to something dangerous.

Kids aged 6-9 on an active lava flow, where the rocks that aren´t molten are very sharp. Hmmm.

The guides were a tad more relaxed about the lava.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Mayan Time

Ah ruins, our old friends. For us there´s nothing better than spending a few hours gazing at raggedly buildings and trying to imagine what they were like when they were at the heart of living cities. In our trip to Mexico we are getting into Mayan territory, which means there are scores of ruined cities waiting for us. We called it quits after six.

All the sites were cool, each having a different highlight. We started with the newest and most famous one, Chichen Itza, which is top of the pile for impressive buildings. The pyramid is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World and deserves its title because of how brilliantly it was built. It is aligned so that when you clap in front of it you get an echo like a strange bird call, and at the spring and autumn solstices the light falls in such a way as to make a ´moving serpent´ illusion, a homage to the Feathered Serpent Kukulcan.

Uxmal was next, which had an unusual pyramid with circular corners, lots of beautiful carvings, a more laid-back atmosphere than Chichen and - bonus - iguanas.

The Pyramid of the Magician

Kabah is a relatively small but interesting site, with an amazing facade with more than 200 faces of the all-important rain god, Chaak, while Palenque is famous for its beautiful setting in jungle-covered hills, and was Lauren's favourite.

The Palace at Palenque

Bonampak's chief claim to fame is its amazing murals, probably the best in the Mayan world. Like the stonework the murals can be pretty grizzly though, as the Mayan kings loved to show themselves torturing, sacrificing and generally being mean to captives.

Captive bleeding after his nails were removed.

My pick of the bunch though was Yaxchilan, which is deep in the Lacadon Rainforest on the Guatemalan border. Getting there required a 22km trip through the jungle down a crocodile-inhabited river, which was almost worth the journey in itself. There was hardly anyone at the site and best of all, there were howler monkeys in the trees. You would not believe the racket they make. If you did not know they were monkeys you would think they were jaguars, or the smoke monster from Lost.

Yaxchilan´s main plaza.

Sadly we did not have time to fit in what is said to be the most amazing city of all, Tikal, or Copan in Honduras, famous for its stonework. But at least that gives us another excuse to come back to Central America!

Random fact about Mexico number four - Crocodiles

I discovered while in Mexico that crocodiles seen up close are ugly scary looking mo fos that I would never like to see closer than this. Tane, though, really enjoyed it so is cleary less of a wuss than I.

Random fact about Mexico number three - Guadalupe

We were lucky to be in Mexico during the Festival of Guadalupe on 12 December. The festival first came to our attention while on the long bus trip from Palenque to San Cristobel when we kept passing people running up the hills carrying torches, being followed by decorated trucks. Later we learned that they were running a relay for Guadalupe (the Virgin Mary) which covered 220 km.
Guadalupe Church

The relay ended at Guadalupe Church in San Cristabel, where the tired but jubilant relay teams arrived, yelling their praises to Guadalupe and putting out their torches outside of the church. It was an amazing sight to see, and I was impressed at the commitment of those teams for their cause whether I believe in worshipping the Virgin Mary myself or not. The festival really was the cherry on our good-time-in-Mexico cake.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Random facts about Mexico number two - The Mayans

There are almost four million Mayans living in the area covering Southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and some of Hondurous. Where we are at present, San Cristabel, Mayans make up the majority of the population. The Mayans are an interesting people with a facinating history, which the massive pyramids (that Tane will blog about later) are testament to. I am more interested in the modern Maya though, so here are some random facts about them:

1. Many Maya believe that if someone takes a photo of you they take your spirit. This also means that you can't take photos of certain churches, or people participating in religious rites. Lucky the girl above (and her mother that gave me permission) didn't mind.

2. In Mayan records, the date 22 December 2012 is an important one, leading to speculation as to why. Pity that the Spanish burnt most of the information about it so we can only speculate about it (until that date of course).
3. We have talked to three Mayan people on seperate occasions about Mel Gibson's Apocolypto. Two of them loved it, said it was funny and excellent to see the Mayan people and culture on the big screen like that. One other Mayan hated it for being historically inaccurate, which is very much is. Either way I am looking forward to seeing that movie again when I get home.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Random fact about Mexico number one - the cars

Tane and I are currently travelling around Mexico, and soon Guatemala. As I am feeling very lazy at present I have decided to break my impressions on Mexico up into bite-sized random facts. Here is random fact about Mexico number one.

In Mexico, Volkswagens are everywhere. Apparently they are still made in Mexico City, which is why they are such a popular form of transport. We haven't seen so many old cars since Bulgaria, AKA land of the Lada. Needless to say, I would much rather see a Volkswagen' than the Lada. No wonder Mexican's are so much cheerier than the Bulgarians.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Highs and lows in Southern Italy

One of the few downsides about traveling in the cities and towns of Europe is that, after a while, you get the feeling you´ve seen almost everything before, in different forms. The castle on the hill beside the river, the grand church, the narrow cobbled streets of the Old Town. Caucasians and some immigrants walking around in the same clothes you´d see on the streets of Wellington or Toronto. Sure, in Stockholm you see considerably more blondes. In the UK it´s terraced houses rather than the apartment blocks of the Continent. There´s differences in architecture and culture. But really it´s usually variations on the same themes.

Sunday morning in Sorrento's old town

So Southern Italy came as a bit of a shock. In terms of the people it´s the most distinctive area of Europe I´ve been to. There's such uniformity: almost everyone has black hair, olive skin, strong noses and shiny, puffy and ugly jackets. It´s also as close to the Developing World as you get in the European Union. Lauren lived here for most of a year in her teens and has mixed feelings about the place. Me too - Southern Italy is all about highs and lows.
What's not to love about hideous apartment blocks and manky train stations?

The reputation of Italy is that the further south of Rome you get, the poorer, more corrupt and crime-ridden it is. There´s certainly a lot of scuminess around, but also plenty of gems. Take Naples. There are some of the ugliest decaying apartment blocks you´ll see outside of Cambodia. There´s an air of dodginess around the train station. There´s the murder rate, easily the highest in the country. But there are also plenty of elegant apartment blocks, spectacular state and religious buildings, a superb ancient history museum and real buzz in the air at night.
Then there was the day we spent trying to get to the famous Greek ruins of Paestum. We started off in lovely Sorrento, which is perched on the cliffs of the Amalfi Coast, then took a graffiti-covered Circumvesuviana train to our accommodation near Pompeii. Unfortunately, turns out near is a relative term. We were actually in Scafarti, a non-too-nice town next to Pompeii. To get to our b&b we had to trek from the train station, with its distinctive spraypaint, rubbish and concrete decor, in our backpacks down a busy road with no footpaths.
Happily, it turned out the b&b was lovely, with really nice owners and a cute garden. But we then had to get another train to Paestum, on a different Circumvesuviana line, from a different Scafarti station. That station was a whole other level of dirtiness, the ticket machine was broken and the store we were directed to for a ticket was closed.

Scafarti Stazione. Bella.

By now we were pushing it to get to Paestum in time. Some freeriding and transfers later, and a long wait at yet another ugly station, and we were finally there. Ten minutes after the gates closed. But after the day we had, that was not going to stop us. We managed to get in and as the setting sun turned the temples to gold, it was magic.

And, maybe best of all, the pizza place down the road from the b&b was sensationally cheap and sensationally good. So at the end of the day, like Southern Italy as a whole, the highs definitely outnumbered the lows.

All for just two Euros and fifty cents