Nairobi

Kenya. A country I feel familiar with, and instantly more at home in than Ethiopia. The people are friendly – some a little too friendly, such as the bus conductor who held my hand for nearly a whole block to encourage me onto his vehicle, and a likely gentleman who greeted me with a slap of a handshake before informing me I was going to pay for his ride home – but in general I feel welcome as a foreigner, and I enjoy being greeted hi by people I walk past in the street.

The bougainvillea is disappearing day by day but still provides wonderful splashes of colour throughout the city. I smugly told Katy on arrival that I never get sunburned and promptly got burned on my first day, feeling weak and prickly by nightfall. Since then the weather has mostly been overcast, but still warm enough that my standards have completely readjusted. I went for a walk today in 20ᴼ heat and took a coat in case I was cold.

Nairobi is a more developed city than Addis (although maybe not for long), and comparing the two brings home to me the staggering functionality of Western cities. The work required to make sure that on thousands of streets no traffic light switches off, no pavement crumbles into mud, no road loses its surface, is enormous, overwhelming to imagine.

And Nairobi is a big and ever-growing city. Smart, expensive malls seem to be on every junction, and even in residential areas the streets are full of pedestrians. There are more white people wandering around than I remember, although taxi drivers and market stall owners tell me that tourism has dipped since Westgate and Garissa. The Pope’s face is up on billboards in the centre and people are proud of his visit, their enthusiasm undimmed by the huge crowds he drew, the road closures, or that it rained for the duration of his two days in town. The smell of petrol pulses on the streets. Buses are covered every inch in artwork, announcing devotion to Manchester United, Spiderman, Rihanna, or Jesus.

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Public transport works well, in the sense that if I need to go somewhere, there will be a bus that takes me there. The problem is knowing which one to take. The system is completely arcane, the majority of buses without any visible number or route information, instead interpreted by conductors who are more interested in your thirty shillings than your precise destination.

What seems opaque to me is easily managed by local people, of course, so I’m sure working out bus routes is just a matter of familiarity. What I think would take me longer to get used to is the traffic. The traffic in central Nairobi has transcended an urban planning issue to achieve a sort of elemental status, the citizens rendered insensitive to it through its sheer scope. On Monday I had a meeting in a building that would, on empty roads, take perhaps 25 minutes to reach from my flat. It took me two and a quarter hours each way. The queues have to be seen to be believed, and at any time a given road is as likely to be in complete gridlock as not.

Having the meeting felt like a victory. Simply getting through to an NGO feels like a small success, and a face-to-face conversation rather than a phone call or a reply to an email even more so. Prospecting for work is a strange activity and my mood surfs up and down depending on how I feel the search is going. Zora Neale Hurston argued during the Harlem Renaissance that hierarchies are not simply technical; that it’s possible to attain the trappings of a certain class but still be excluded from it if you’re not the right type of person. In my own case I’m talking not about huge social injustice but the finer points of privilege, yet in a tiny way I’m encountering the same truth about the NGO sector. I have my qualification, but I’m still not part of the club. Whether I find work here or not, I’m angry that at 25 and with two excellent degrees I’m still reliant on someone doing me a favour to get even the most lowly of job opportunities.

If nothing changes, I will be home in a week, and will never know if I was attempting something impossible or whether one more phone call or email would have been my lucky break. After so much exertion of making contact with people and attempting to sell myself, there is a curious feeling of things being out of my hands, and my efforts being unrelated to whether there is a prize or not. Or to put it another way, if someone does employ me, it will be through no different approach on my part than to all the people who didn’t employ me.

That is getting a little ahead of myself. There are several days to go during which anything might happen. And, I have to remind myself, if it doesn’t, there are worse things than flying home and looking for work again in my own culture and in the same country as my friends and family. Whatever happens, I’m looking forward to knowing what I’m doing.

Addis Ababa

Tolerance of slow progress is not one of my strengths. After a whole three weeks of unemployment, I decided that applying for jobs was a fool’s game and it would be sensible to fly to Ethiopia to look for work there. I had the offer of accommodation from a family friend, and knew that the country was full of NGOs doing things I believed they could use my help with. So I booked a ticket and a week later, having failed to say goodbye to or even notify a number of people in UK who deserve better, I landed in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.

I gave myself a few days to acclimatise. Apart from seeking work experience, it had also been well over a year since I last had a holiday. And I had a lot to learn about Ethiopia, which locals say as It-yo-pya, and about Addis Ababa in particular.

Addis is a city under construction. A brand new tram network arcs over the city propped up on huge concrete towers, and deep concrete underpasses keep traffic churning along on two- and three-lane carriageways. Everywhere there are new concrete tower blocks going up, chunky grey skyscrapers covered with spindly exoskeletons of wooden scaffolding. Red Sinotrucks from China dominate the roads, carrying construction material from one site to another. What are all the buildings for? No-one’s sure. Hotels. Offices. Apartments. Someone will buy them, or rent them, or use them as an investment. Who’s paying for it? The Chinese. Ityopyans grumble about Chinese workers, Indian small business owners, Arab investors, Turkish financiers, and the lack of opportunities. Security is excellent. No-one worries about getting robbed. They worry about being seen by traffic police.

In a city of several million, it feels like most people have their own vehicle. There is no road tax, and public transport that people actually use is mostly limited to fleets of blue and white minibuses that are halfway between buses and taxis. All hours are rush hour. Being on the road resembles nothing so much as an ongoing negotiation, the traffic politicking with each other in tiny grunts of their horns. Cars, trucks and minibuses nudge, enquire, take advantage, concede and sigh, their drivers gesticulating with resignation, gratitude or annoyance at the caprices of the herd.

Official districts are named in Amharic, and unofficial ones in Italian. The city centre has a number of memorials to heroes of Ethiopia’s history. The Italian legacy is limited to a thousand and one cafes serving macchiato, as far as I can see. I haven’t heard anyone speak Italian or seen evidence of Italian communities.

My host lives in Bole, pronounced Boll-eh, in a district known as Rwanda because of the nearby embassy, or as Little Mogadishu because of its concentration of Somalis. I recognise it now by the Pepsi-sponsored roundabout at the end of the central road and the never-closed wooden stalls of bright fruit and vegetables, lit by bare lithium light bulbs at night, that line the corner on the way to my street. The house is near the southern edge of the city, just close enough to the airport for me to hear the rumbling whoosh of take offs when it’s quiet at night. It’s also near a mosque, which calls the umma to prayer five times a day with a melodic chant, challenged on weekends by a nearby church. Then the two compete to broadcast their devotion over Bole as loudly as possible, as though God looks favourably upon he who has the biggest microphone.

My vegetarianism lasted a matter of hours. The staple is injera, a large, sour pancake that is simultaneously plate, cutlery and carbohydrate, and fillings of vegetables and meat called wot. You tear pieces off your injera, scoop up sauce inside it, and eat with your fingers. It’s very satisfying to get a watertight package of food in your fingertips, and surprisingly difficult.

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On my second day my host family took me to a restaurant serving a local speciality. We walked through an arched entrance to find a courtyard like a pub garden, with something like a box office at the entrance. In the box office was a cashier, with whom we placed an order, and great sides of red raw beef hanging on hooks behind him. A waiter took a cleaver to one of these and sliced off our due amount of meat, which he loaded up onto a silver plate with a stack of injera, a bowl of mustard sauce, and a very sharp knife. With this on our table, we cubed the meat into small portions which we wrapped in injera, dipped in the mustard, and ate.

“What if it makes me sick?” I asked after three or four cubes.

“We have an excellent medicine at home” reassured Lydia.

One of my favourite things is the post-lunch coffee ceremony. Green coffee beans are roasted on top of a small cube of a stove, while nuggets of incense are burned on a brazier, wafting thick clouds of smoke. Once the beans are roasted each guest is invited to breathe in a lungful of the smoke coming off them, like being asked to taste wine before it’s poured. The beans are then ground and made into thick coffee served in small cups, and is brought out in rounds. Two coffees is normal, but you can have three and even, rumour has it, four.

Looking for work, which I got down to after a few days, has not been so enriching. The message is that an unattached foreigner like me is extremely unlikely to gain a work visa, one I’ve heard with such consistency that I wonder how I managed to arrive in the country without knowing this. I’m now spending my time with the NGO people I manage to meet asking about opportunities in other countries, mostly Kenya, where I am going in a week’s time. Some people have been very encouraging and others have been the opposite, and the line between being enterprising and being foolish seems not only blurry but vacillating.

Having left fairly suddenly, I’m very conscious of the distance and time between me and people I can text any time I like, sit in a pub with, or watch the sun go down with on Primrose Hill. While I often feel lucky to be able to simply head to east Africa and see what happens, being so unsure about the future and not having any structure or stability is quite draining. I have a week left to enjoy Ethiopia, and then will start the search again in Kenya.

Return to East Africa

This article was first published by The Student Journals

Mum was practically singing. She had no right to be feeling happy: it was almost one in the morning, we’d been travelling for almost 24 hours and the airline had lost our entire luggage. For my family and me though, being back in Kenya for a two week holiday was more than enough to make up for it. I stood in the grounds of the guesthouse for a moment before bed, absorbing the still-warm tarmac on my bare feet, the raucous cicadas buzzing all around and the quiet smell of the bougainvillea, faintly orange in the dark.

It had been a long time. 13 years, almost, and much of the holiday was spent judging how much had changed in that time. Plenty had. The populations of Kenya and Uganda had rocketed over the last two decades or so, and it showed in Nairobi. If you’d asked me to name infamous traffic spots, I would have said Moscow, Mexico City, Mumbai, but not East Africa. We crawled and baked in the jams, watching billboards proclaiming investment banking and insurance policies, chatting to taxi drivers about politics and football. (“Liverpool,” snorted Kamau. “Most of their fans are ladies in Nakuru.”) I was sad at how completely westernized the development process was: all glossy corporate assurances of a prosperous future.

We spent three days in Nairobi waiting for our lost luggage and getting our hands on a vehicle via an old friend from our residency days. “It’s not a car, it’s a steam engine,” complained Mum as she, Dad and my brother got used to driving the old Land Rover we eventually tracked down. As if the dodgy lights, speedometer that fluttered ceaselessly in a thirty-kph radius and woeful steering weren’t enough to contend with, the ruthless driving practises and pedestrian competition kept things high-octane throughout. Everyone had a car, but the major trunk roads between the biggest cities in the region were still single lane. I saw one working traffic light the whole time, and it was brazenly ignored by everyone.

We stopped in at a giraffe conservation project and an elephant orphanage, both crowded but slightly unreal – almost like watching oneself on television more than taking in how much fun it was. Visiting the giraffe centre was one of my favourite moments of the holiday, as we climbed up to a platform and placed food in the mouth of sauntering, six-meter-tall giants with foot-long tongues that wrapped themselves slimily around our fingers.

Leaving Nairobi, we ventured northwest along the Great Rift Valley towards the lakes: Baringo, Naivasha, Elementaita, Bogoria. Baringo was perhaps the biggest shock, the campsite we’d stayed at years before was almost fully submerged by the lake. My parents reminisced to the owner, Moses, whose courtesy and helpfulness were untroubled by the rising water and falling patronage, even if his business was. We watched crocodiles sunbathing at the bottom of the gardens and went onto the lake in a canoe, where we saw giant fish eagles and tiny kingfishers swooping into the water for lunch.

As we travelled between the various lakes, we made a detour to visit my brother’s old school, where he’d boarded for a year before we moved to the UK. It feels strange being in an empty school under any circumstances, but this venerable English institution in the middle of the Kenyan countryside, with childhood friends still in old pictures on the wall, was important, especially for my brother.

We walked alongside wild giraffe, antelope and wildebeest on Crescent Island, and sneaked up on flamingos that were wading in the warm water of Lake Bogoria. The Land Rover’s engine blasted out a cloud of smoke and we spent a lot of time and money and cortisol on getting it fixed. We drank Tangawizi ginger beer. Every Kenyan we met smiled warmly and talked to us in their beautiful accent, when we could get them to switch away from Swahili with Dad into English.

Halfway through our holiday, we crossed the border into Uganda in a nightmare of traffic queues, persuasive insurance artists and night driving, which is even further from the categorical imperative than day driving. The Ugandan police stopped us to have an exchange of opinion about the Land Rover’s brake lights. Mum got sick. Dad sang. The battery light came on and we all prayed. The car’s electrics flickered on and off and we arrived in Mukono, our home of seven years, five hours later than planned and went to bed.

Over the next three days we explored the town, grown almost beyond recognition. The university where my parents had worked had grown from under 800 students in 2000, when we left, to over 8,000. The journey from there to the capital Kampala, which used to take us maybe half an hour, now took three times that. We met up with old friends, my parents’ colleagues mostly, and Tabitha, the lady who used to work for us. She cooked for us with her family at her home and, at the risk of sounding clichéd, we felt like Ugandans. We met students and young professionals we’d played with as children; they looked us up on Facebook on their phones.

After that, we spent a couple of days by the Nile, including Christmas Day when we ate tilapia and the mince pies Mum had smuggled in from England, and headed back across the border. We had one day left, which we spent in a national park, where we were lucky enough to see buffalo, hippo, rhino and two indolent lions all in the space of a few hours. “Gno gno gno, I’m a gnu!” volunteered Dad.

Back in Nairobi, preparing to leave for the airport in an apocalyptic downpour, I reflected on the trip. For us at least, things like water, electricity and internet were much better than I remembered, but both countries had far to go: what little I saw of Nairobi made the glossy “artist’s impression” of development plans in the in-flight magazine look wildly optimistic. I suppose most importantly, on both sides of the border, the people had been wonderful: warm, engaging, welcoming, quick to laugh. I would miss the tin roofs turned thunderous by rain, mosquitos slapped stiffly onto whitewashed walls, vast, bald-headed Marabou storks loitering balefully on lamp posts. Sitting in the Land Rover and watching East Africa go by: blue sky, green hills, yellow bark on the acacia trees, red earth.

The Vote on Drugs

This article was first published by The Student Journals

Against the plethora of speculation over the identity of America’s next President, it took a more-than-casual interest in US politics to glean any more detail about what happened on Election Day. Peeping out from lefty campaigning websites and freelance journalists’ columns, there emerged a small detail that may in fact turn out to be a turning point in the USA’s longest-running war: the War on Drugs. On Tuesday, November 6th the states of Colorado and Washington voted in favour of legalising, regulating and taxing marijuana.

Two states. Marijuana. It may seem a little innocuous compared to, say, Obamacare, or negotiations with Iran. But consider that the War on Drugs has killed at very least sixty-thousand people since 2006 in Mexico alone, and small pieces of legislature like this suddenly take on a new relevance. In Mexico, President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto was sent scurrying to a press conference by the events in the US, sending a senior aide to speak of the need to “review” Mexico-US security policy.

Mexico gets the bad press – Guatemala and El Salvador less so, despite suffering appalling levels of drug-related violence. In Honduras, a coup in 2009 derailed the country’s political system. Drug cartels have capitalised on the breakdown of security, and their contribution to almost indiscriminate trafficking and violence cannot be underestimated. The situation is so severe that there are warnings the country is on the way to becoming failed state. How soon before the Caribbean, a smuggler’s paradise of un-guardable borders and airstrips, becomes the site of the next turf war? The bodies are now piling up too high to be dismissed as unfortunate collateral. Earlier this year, the presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala issued a bold statement demanding that the War on Drugs be brought under review. Uruguay is currently processing a bill legalising the production and sale of marijuana. These are actions which had previously been politically unthinkable.

In Europe, it is generally accepted that Portugal’s decision in 2001 to treat drugs as a health and safety issue rather than a law and order one has been a resounding success, if kept strangely quiet. Drug use there did rise once it was no longer illegal, but mortalities, petty crime and youth use dropped. By 2011, a decade after decriminalisation, the number of hard drug users in Portugal had halved.

Here in the UK, just last month there was a call for decriminalisation from a group of scientists, police officers and research academics who had recently concluded a six-year-long study into Britain’s drug laws. Britain in the 1980s held a relatively progressive stance towards drugs and initiated systems of needle exchanges, treatment and rehabilitation programmes. Today, it seems to be lagging, going so far as preventing medical research into the potential capacity of psychedelics to help those suffering from depression or even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The spread of those two conditions shows no sign of slowing – saying that researchers may not continue their promising studies with ecstasy or MDMA because the substances are prohibited is a clear example of a complete loss of sensible context. Thinking on drugs has instead solidified into a truism that “drugs are bad and must therefore be illegal.”

The votes of Colorado and Washington may not, at the moment, mean very much: there’s still a good chance that legal challenges and/or federal policy may scupper these two states’ plans. But considering that just two years ago California, one of the most liberal states in the US, failed to vote in favour of legalization, this step shows that the political and social attitude towards drugs is changing. History looks back on the Prohibition of early twentieth-century America and says, “wow, that was a bad idea”; one day, it will do the same to the War on Drugs on both sides of the Atlantic. Let us hope, with the tentative steps in Colorado and Washington, the growing confidence of Latin America, and increasing attention on the counterproductive and outdated drug laws in Europe, that that day is sooner rather than later.

An Ashram And Adios

When I think the word “England” I hear Polly Jean Harvey quiver “The West’s asleep… let England shake;” when I think “Cuba” I hear the slow, two-chord opening strum of Buena Vista Social Club’s Chan Chan; and when I think “La Paz,” I hear my friend Shiona Blackie’s normally softly-spoken Scottish accent biting “La Paz is an atrocity.” A few hours in and around a bus station is hardly enough time to come to any judgement of a city, but I didn’t come across anything to make me think she was wrong. Perhaps arriving on a Sunday meant the number of derelict buildings were more noticeable for the lack of people, but it can’t have made any difference to the dirt, litter and sickly smell of urine. I had half a day to kill which doubtless didn’t help, but I was uncommonly happy to finally set off on another twenty-four-hour-plus bus trip.

I sat next to a Bolivian lady who conducted the following conversation on her mobile every four hours or so:

“Hello my love? Hello darling. Hello sweetheart.” Listens. “We’re in [place along the way] my love, we’re on time, love.” Listens.”You too darling, you too my love. I’m fine my love, yes darling.” Listens. “Yes my sweetheart, yes darling. Yes my love. Thank you for calling, my darling. Thank you my love. OK. Kisses. Bye love. Bye darling. Bye sweetheart, my love. Bye.”

She was, apart from that sideshow, a lovely bus companion, and offered me sandwiches, fruit juice, sweets, chicken legs and indigestion pills from her bag, and apologised humbly for being kicked by me as I lurched towards the toilet at quarter to five in the morning. We complained cheerfully to each other as the stewardess failed to understand the DVD remote and made us watch Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, plus deleted scenes and bloopers reel, for six hours.

After a restorative night in a hostel in Lima, I figured out the two buses and taxi ride to Eco-Truly Park, a Vedic ashram around ninety minutes outside the city. My daily routine started at 6am with yoga and meditation, followed by breakfast at 8.30ish. I worked with the other volunteers until 1pm, for the first week helping the workmen with construction: hauling bricks or mortar, shifting earth, even trying a bit of bricklaying once. The second week I spent in the garden, which was harder work than it looked – my back would start complaining quickly as I shuffled along rows and rows of turned earth placing seeds. After lunch was time for non-work practicalities – clothes washing, going into the village to buy supplies – or talking to the devotees about Vaishnavism (which, in my ignorance, I incorrectly umbrellad under “Hinduism” in my previous blog). My thoughts on Vaishnavism are the material for another entry, so here I will just say that I was fascinated but far from convinced. I did not particularly appreciate being told that my not believing in karma or reincarnation was irrelevant because they exist regardless, nor being unable to extract any reason for those beliefs more detailed than “because it’s true.” Dinner followed at around 6pm, and as the sun goes down and the scant electric lights flicked on there was the option of going to the temple for a short ceremonio to Krishna, or just free time until bed at 9 or 10.

I lived in a hut with a few other volunteers – three at first, and then just one. Volunteers came and went, even in the short time I was there, and I suppose it must have become normal for the residents to see a steady flow of people move through.

The shower was a pipe in the wall, and I didn’t even bother to ask if there was hot water. Toilets were buckets, with sawdust nearby to muffle the worst of the smell. Food was included, three times a day, and varied from exotic and delicious – much of it I could not begin to recognise, but had as much flavour and texture as you could wish for – to barely edible (one breakfast time, being presented with two plain, chewy boiled potatoes was a low). It was all strictly vegetarian and very often vegan, so variety was perhaps a little lacking, but my body is unaccustomed to hours of yoga and manual labour, which made me invariably starving by the time each meal rolled around. I had never done yoga before, and was not capable of keeping up with most of it. My muscles were simply not able to lift, stretch or balance themselves in the way the instructor demonstrated, but it was still fun, often funny and a good way to meet people.

The people were worth meeting, as well: they varied from backpackers completely unaware there was a religious angle to the village at all, to shamans, monks and even an Australian gentleman who told me he channeled healing energy from extraterrestrials in the fifth dimension. It was a very interesting experience but not the easiest environment to live in, and I have now escaped to Lima before flying home. I wanted to squeeze in a couple more breakfasts in hostels, a semi-magical process of being virtually guaranteed to meet some great people. Listening to a friendly, funny and informed man from Ireland and girl from the US enthuse about their extensive travels in Peru and other South American countries, my assertion that my travel bug has gone began to feel like a joke. They began listing the first foods they were going eat when they got home after a year on the road: “Don’t!” I said. They looked at me strangely: “You’re going home,” they smiled, “you’re gonna get all of this long before us!” And I am… I had, briefly, almost forgotten. Not really, though: the glow of friends and family is just around the corner.

Thanks for reading.

A Bolivian Detour

I stayed just over a week in Arica, spending too much time in front of a computer screen, intermittently doing a bit of printing or selling internet time to the scant customers. I had a strange feeling of having too many roles packed into a small space of time: some days, I would have to stop and actively check, now, am I being a backpacker, a guest, working with the public, or occasionally being surrogate Dad. It was a nice stay, with the sunny beach nearby and a slow pace of life, but as a seven-day mark came and went, I found I was not sorry to never again have to sing along to Michael Jackson or the Black Eyed Peas, or hear 6-year-old Jordan scream “I DON’T WANT TO!” at the last pitch available to the human ear.

Facing down a resilient sandwich in Arica bus station, it began to sink in that I was about to spend the next six days on the move, crossing two borders in the process, without a route or itinerary planned, no reservations for transport or accomodation, or a even a guidebook to help me along the way. I also realised that, for the first time since leaving school, the travel bug had gone. Not that I wasn’t excited about Bolivia and Peru, far from it, but I had to accept that I was perfectly happy with the idea of being in Britain and not having any immediate plans to leave again.

That was still three weeks away though, and I had the first of a series of long-distance buses to think about. I trundled through crowd when my bus to San Pedro de Atacama was called, and was turned away by a youth in a reflective waistcoat who informed me I hadn’t bought a ticket to leave the station. I have been charged to enter many a bus station, but never to leave one. Using my rucksack as a croquet stick, I batted a middle-aged lady out of the queue, bought a bus station ticket with some small change, and presented it to the youth, who shredded it without enthusiasm.

Some twelve hours, two customs inspections and an unscheduled change of bus later, we arrived in San Pedro, a tiny speck of a village in the Atacama desert comically overpopulated with tourists. I found a hostel and made some friends to spend the day with, and enjoyed a trip to the feral rock formations in the Valley of the Moon and Death Valley, and admired the sun turning the Andes red before dinner. It all went past very quickly – spending just one night in a place makes it impossible to get any real feel for it. I went to be early and got up early, 6.45am, to leave for the Bolivian border.

I was about to embark on the famous three-day salt flat tour from San Pedro to a town called Uyuni, around twelve hours south of La Paz in Bolivia. I got in a minibus at 7.30, filled in immigration forms and greeted my new companions: a characterful middle-aged English couple from Leamington Spa, an Austrian lady on a solo world tour, and young Belgian couple. The latter got things off to a bad start by asking for the Manu Chao to be turned off, but more than redeemed themselves afterwards with good humour and genuine Belgian chocolate.

The first two days, before the salt flat, were spectacular and tiring, stunning yet repetetive. We drove through the desert, skin-burningly dry and so big and empty that distances became impossible to judge. We stopped at a series of landmarks: lakes turned brilliant colours by algae, rock formations blasted into dreamlike shapes by the unimpeded wind, geysers throwing plumes of sulphur-smelling smoke out of honeycomb-like ground. In between each, there would be maybe an hour of driving, sometimes in silence,  with only the click and snap of the wheels throwing pebbles against the underside of the car, and sometimes in conversation generated by our guide, who, unlike some others we met along the way, was cheerful, engaging and informative. He fed us oranges, the juice burning the cracks in my dried out lips.

Towards the end of the first day, having climbed steadily since crossing the border at 9am, altitude sickness finally began to kick in. Fortunately for me, I didn’t get affected too badly, although there was one moment where I got out of the 4×4 at over 5,000 metres, and after a while realised that my head felt about three feet away from my body, I couldn’t tell whether I was walking up- or downhill and I was breathing as though I’d been running. The guidebooks describe this as “light-headedness,” and is a symptom alongside headaches, difficulty breathing, and nausea. That night, sleeping in a hostel at 4,800 metres, I did get a headache, strong enough to disturb my sleep, but was spared the suffering of my companions, who along with worse headaches couldn’t eat or walk faster than a crawl. We shook our heads at each wordlessly as we drove past a chemical processing plant 5,200 metres above sea level, where the driver told us there was a workforce of three hundred, who would stay for three weeks at a time before descending for a month. There was a football pitch with two netted goals just outside the plant.

On the plus side, the nights high up in the desert presented us with the best view of the stars I have ever seen. Getting ready to leave a hostel at 5.30am, I had maybe thirty seconds when I was standing alone outside in the dark, and could see the sweep of the Milky Way like a giant, shimmering tunnel, before the 4×4’s engine roared on and the headlights blotted it away.

After that came the centrepiece of the tour, the salt flat itself. An area of ten thousand square kilometres, roughly the same size as Jamaica, it is perfectly named: it is made of salt, and it is flat. These two features make trick depth-perception photos obligatory, and they are a lot of fun, but the real effect of standing on in the middle of the flat can’t really be expressed in a photo or a description. The closest thing I can think of is the moment in The Matrix where Morpheus takes Neo from the real world into the teaching program for the first time. We got to see the sun rise over a mountain, stretching our shadows out as far as the eye could see. There were a couple of sights added on, such as the “island” hill covered with hundreds of cartoon-perfect cactus trees, and, just outside the salt flat, a train cemetary of old steam engines left over from the first railways carrying the salt away, but that was effectively the end of the trip. My companions and I shared a farewell beer in Uyuni after saying goodbye and thank you to our guide, and then went our separate ways: half got in another 4×4 to head back to Chile, and I hung around in town until the sun went down and my bus to the capital showed up.

The bus was in better condition that the road, and despite not being the most expensive option, did at least come with blankets, necessary as the temperatures dropped below zero. I was on the top deck, surrounded by a contingent of Quebecois students made loud and bold by weight of numbers. I was thinking about how to cross the border into Peru, hoping the buses would work themselves out. They usually do. We wrapped blankets around our legs like invalids, and the bus shuddered and jolted out of Uyuni and began the twelve hour trip to La Paz.

Travel and Odd Jobs

After a week or so working the nightshift, I found that I had a two night gap and escaped promptly to Valparaíso, an hour and a half straight across Chile to the coast. Valparaíso was constructed like an ant-hill and its malodorous air betrayed a problem with canines, but it had what Santiago lacked in abundance: atmosphere. The graffiti, as in all cities, was variable, but much of it was street art of as high a quality as you could hope for. Pablo Neruda’s house, one of three, had been converted into a charming little museum, the views across the bay were refreshing and the chorrillanas, mountains of chips covered with onions, scrambled eggs and a thin steak, were generous and cheap. I spent twenty-four hours mostly wandering the steep, vibrantly painted streets, occasionally surprised by fluffy piles of rubbish getting to four disorderly feet and scooting out of my way. I didn’t have much time, but I could see why people who stayed said it was hard to leave.

Back in Santiago, at 7am on my final day of work, I slumped into the kitchen to start preparing breakfast, and found a six-foot-two Frenchman leaning on the counter, throwing abuse at the hostel cat. He stopped as I entered and looked sheepish. The cat was crouched in a corner, wide-eyed in indignation. “We used to be best friends,” explained the normally-friendly Cyprian, “but she betrayed me.” There was a pause in conversation, mostly because I could think of nothing to say to this. I tried to move things along: have you slept, no, how was last night, good, what did you do, drink. Another pause. Cyprian noticed the sink, overflowing with plates and glasses. He eyed me with narrow eyes, and asked why I hadn’t washed up. “I’m sick of doing everyone’s washing up overnight,” I replied, “because that’s not my job. There are signs telling everyone to do their own.” He considers this and is not convinced. He considers it unkind and unfair that I leave it for Yovi, the lady who does the cleaning. I counter that I don’t think Yovi should do it either. “Who do you think should do it then?” he sneers, on the point of aggression. “They’re not children,” I reply, absolutely no hint of nervousness in my voice, as I wonder if I’m really about to get into a fight over some dirty dishes. “I think people should do their own washing up.” Cyprian leans into my face. “I think you’re living in Disneyland” he snarls, and stalked into the dawn to try to find cigarettes.

I was not sorry to leave the hostel. Wanting to get away completely, I took an early morning bus Mendoza, a town just over the border in neighbouring Argentina. The road twisted up and over the mountains, into the snow and out again, and ended up in the permanent spring of the wine country. Three days passed like a montage in a holiday movie: sunny avenues, vineyards, endless wine-tasting and good food, all in the company of four pretty girls who were about to graduate from med school. I was aware that many of my friends were sitting finals and almost felt guilty. Argentine Spanish, once I got past the comical quirk of pronouncing Y sounds as “Sh”, was actually easier to understand than Chilean, and I began to regret not allowing myself more time on this side of the Andes.

Soon though I needed to move on to my next stop. I went back to Santiago and got on a thirty-hour bus to the northernmost town in Chile, Arica. With my previous longest bus journey, as far as I can remember, around half that time, I was prepared for a gruelling experience, but actually it went smoothly and didn’t feel too long. I slept effortfully, tried to read during the daylight hours and devoted time to my blossoming relationship with the songs of Patti Smith.

Arica is in the desert, just about, and accordingly is dusty and hot. It dropped to 19 degrees last night, and host mother Magdalena was sighted pulling on a woolly hat and gloves and exclaiming with good-natured surprise how cold it was in the winter. My job is to mind the internet café, which mostly involves wiping dust off the screens in the morning, and helping keep her two boys entertained. It’s a nice town, and a pleasant change to be out of the big cities of GDA and Santiago, but Arica has little to offer and I’m only staying a week. I enjoy having a beach to run on instead of smoggy streets, and the traffic is a whole different game. My now finely-honed urban road-crossing skills (exploit space, safety in numbers, controlled agression) no longer apply. There have been one or two times when I’ve been on the point of enquiring into a driver’s thought process as cars have braked to an abrupt halt in front of me, only to realise that I’m standing by a zebra crossing.

It’s been a strange trip, half travel, half odd-jobs, and time now feels very short until it’s all over. There are just two things left on the list, neither of which I’m sure what to expect of: the salt flats of Bolivia, and yoga and Hindu vegetarianism for two weeks in Peru.