Surprises – Good and Bad

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This is the man I came to see – President Rafael Correa. Whilst in Quito, I was told that he always comes out onto his balcony for the Changing of the Guard ceremony. What surprised me, was the response.

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Hundreds of people were waving flags and shouting, “Viva Ecuador!” The national anthem then started up. Not surprisingly, I didn’t recognise the tune and the older woman standing next to me took the cap off my head and told me to show some respect.

Minutes later, this happened:

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Ecuador’s World Cup football squad arrived. Hundreds more packed into the Plaza Grande to cheer them on. The atmosphere was fantastic. I tried to work my way through the crowds to get a better view, “Let her through” I heard someone say. People do make you feel welcome here. The day before, I went into a shop to ask for directions and the woman gave me her telephone number just in case I got lost.

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Quito is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a beautiful city to walk around. I got a great view from the Vista Hermosa restaurant one night where I tried Canelazo for the first time – an alcoholic drink served in a teapot. What’s not to like?

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The Virgin of Quito can be spotted from most parts of the centro histórico, which is a great place to explore on a Sunday when the streets are closed to traffic. I was drawn towards the gold interior of la Compañía and found that a classical concert was about to start. It was the longest time I’d ever spent in a church.

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Another nice surprise was being invited up to Mindo by some friends I’d made on the road. The town is located in the foothills of the Andes, about a two hour drive from Quito. It was beautiful. I hiked up to the Cascada Reina and felt like I had the entire canopy to myself. Maybe this was why:

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Getting to the waterfalls involves a ride in a cable car high above the treetops. I say cable car, but it’s basically a platform on a pully. It’s not for the faint-hearted. When the attendant dropped me off he said, “Just kick the cable when you’re ready and we’ll know to come and get you.”

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The antidote was a visit I made to a local chocolate factory. They take you through the whole process from fermenting to tempering. Obviously, the best part was the tasting. We tried a 100% cocoa liquid and gradually added sugar to make it more palatable, then some nibs, ginger syrup and even a barbecue sauce. Chocolate is used a lot in the meat dishes here.

After the hustle and bustle of Quito, Mindo was a really relaxing place. This was my favourite spot:

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With good surprises, come bad ones. I’d planned and prepared for credit card fraud on this trip, but I wasn’t expecting it to be inside a bank, during a face to face transaction. But – I prefer to leave Ecuador remembering the kindness of others. One driver I got to know dropped me off at the airport. He gave me a big hug and said “Goodbye my friend!” With any luck, the investigation will be dealt with quickly. The nice surprises will stay with me forever.

Island Hopping in the Galápagos

image For somebody who get’s seasick, it was an ambitious task – taking photographs whilst sailing around an archipelago. In a quiet moment, I wept into my lifejacket.

But it was the Galápagos Islands and I’d wanted to go there since I was a little girl. Here’s why:

image When you meet a giant tortoise, it’s very clear who’s in charge. As they plod down the path, you soon realise you’re in their way. If you accidentally get too close, they hiss at you. It takes you by surprise, especially when they’re hiding at the side of the road. This picture was taken on Santa Cruz. I was told that the females here walk 15km down to the sea to lay their eggs.

image This tortoise on Isabela was one of many rescued by helicopter when the Cerro Azul volcano erupted in 1998. It’s housed at a local breeding centre. They’re trying to get the numbers back up and successfully bred 200 in the first couple of years. The new generation have gradually been released back into the wild. image With their funny little dance and bright blue feet, you can understand why the blue-footed booby is a star attraction on the Galápagos. I spotted this one at Academy Bay. Conservationists here say the population has decreased by two thirds since the early ’90s. They believe it’s partly due to overfishing in Peruvian waters.

image As you wouldn’t expect tortoises to give you the right of way, don’t expect sea lions to give up their seat for you either. Here at San Cristóbal I learned just how cheeky they can be. After finishing the vounteer project, I went down to La Lobearía for an early morning swim. Suddenly, a sea lion pup popped up next to me as if to ask, “What are you doing here?” He then started to roll around in the water. He did it a few times and I copied him. His Mum then appeared, which made me a little nervous, but we played for a short while and the two of them swam off.

image They’re usually the first thing you see when you arrive at any of the islands – a wonderful welcome party. Sadly, the El Ninos in 1988 and 1998 have had a drastic affect on their numbers. Conservationists say about half the population was lost and has yet to recover.

image The Galápagos penguin has also been affected by weather events. The species is endangered – there are now fewer than 2000 living on the islands. That matters, because they’re the only penguins who live north of the equator. I found these ones at Floreana. I was surprised by how small they were – about 49cm long.

image Charles Darwin described marine iguanas as ‘hideous-looking creatures, of a dirty black colour, stupid and sluggish in their movements’.

image This little family at Santa Cruz certainly look quite sinister, don’t they! Their white faces look ghostly. At Las Tintoreras, they were overtaking me in the water. It seemed strange to see these reptiles swim.

image I came across yellow land iguanas on a hike up to the Sierra Negra volcano on Isabela. Pink ones live in the northern part of the island, but the area is closed to travellers.

image I love these Sally Lightfoot crabs. You can spot them out at sea because their red shells are so bright against the black rocks.

imageThey crawl all over the marine iguanas, who don’t seem to mind.

image I was so busy watching the wildlife, that I almost forgot about the beaches. This is Tortuga Bay, about an hour’s walk from the harbour at Santa Cruz. It was a great place to relax. There were more iguanas sunbathing, than people.

image Getting from one island to the other is easy to do. There are plenty of tour companies around the harbours who sell tickets. Some of them offer last minute deals. The average price is about $100. Allow yourself time for the authorities to search and tag your bag – they need to check that nothing organic is transferred from one island to the other. Theoretically, once sealed, you can’t get anything out. If you do have to break in, make sure you keep your tag to show them at the other side. It’s best to put a rain cover over your bag, because it will get wet on board.

image Once on the islands, you can find these white taxis everywhere and they’re inexpensive. The most I paid to get to a local hotel was $2.

image I was very sad to leave the Galápagos. One day, there’ll be a tablet strong enough for me to enjoy the manta rays and dolphins out at sea, instead of quietly acknowledging them out of the corner of my eye!

Cute Crawlers and Creepy Crawlies

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They’re famously slow, but it’s surprising how quickly Giant Tortoises can move once they’ve spotted their breakfast. This was feeding time at the Galápagos National Park and I was lucky enough to volunteer there as part of a conservation project run by the Jatun Sacha Foundation on San Cristóbal. I like this picture. With that backpack on, I look like a tortoise myself.

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The volunteer work has been one of the toughest on the trip so far. It’s based at a biological station in the middle of the forest. Mosquitoes are rife. There’s 90% humidity too. Using a machete is like trying to swing a golf club in a swimming pool – but it’s necessary. Conservationists here say some birds are extinct or endangered because trees like Scalesia have gradually disappeared. So, we’ve been cutting down invasive plants like mora (blackberry bushes) so that endemic trees can be planted instead. The only problem is that these thorny thickets tower over your head. It’s a challenge. Another challenge is getting up close and personal with all the wonderful creatures that nature has to offer. Let me introduce you to my roommate:

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It was the largest of the little gang that was awaiting my arrival. I asked another volunteer if there were any poisonous spiders at the station. “No,” she replied, “although they did find a type of black widow in somebody’s boot.” That would be a ‘yes’ then, surely?

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The conservation project also works with local landowners to help them develop organic farming methods, so that they can sell their produce to restaurants and hotels. It also promotes sustainability by growing its own fruit and vegetables. We’ve been picking pineapples, passion fruit, oranges and bananas but some fruit is best left alone.

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This is one of the smelliest you’ll ever find. Its called noni fruit and it smells like rotting cheese. Despite it’s aroma, it’s loved by many. It’s said to have medicinal or anti-ageing properties and this little specimen apparently costs $60 in the shops.

So, in the middle of a forest, with no shops and temperatures of 80f, how did they manage this?

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It was my birthday last week. It may have been one of the hardest projects so far, but I felt very lucky indeed.

Beyond Bikinis

Beautiful beaches, endless sunshine and Don Johnson’s pushed-up jacket sleeves. That was my mental image of Miami. There’s more.

ART DECO ARCHITECTURE

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The Colony Theatre opened in 1935 as part of Paramount Pictures’ cinema chain

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The Delano was once the tallest building in Miami Beach. It forms part of a show-stopping line of graceful hotels on Collins Avenue

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The Raleigh is another one. Its sculpted pool and waterfall were a backdrop for some of Esther Williams’ movies

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The Carlyle hotel on Ocean Drive

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The nearby Cavalier

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Portholes at The Tides hotel on Ocean Drive

 

ART

The Sagamore hotel owned by the Taplin family on Collins Avenue displays some of their private art collection. It’s a gallery in its own right:

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This is Tony Oursler’s Talking Heads. Look familiar? He directed David Bowie’s Where Are We Now? video

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Roxy Paine’s Amanita Virosa Wall #4, 2001

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Garry Winogrand’s Women are Beautiful series

Anybody visiting Miami must go to the Wynwood Arts District. A playground for street artists and dozens of galleries, studios and cafés:

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Ron English

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Miss Van

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Interesni Kazki

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Meet the lovely, talented Ryan The Wheelbarrow. He’s also the man behind Wynwood Mural Tours.

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Shoefiti – it’s not just the walls

 

The Perez Art Museum in downtown Miami:

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It has a great exhibition on at the moment – The Caribbean: Crossroads of the World. There’s the city’s Art Basel in December too. International art and winter sunshine are a tempting combination.

Road Trip to Phoenix

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It started on the SR 190 from California. The road through Death Valley was everything I hoped it would be – beautiful, barren and often unsettling! I drove through deserted villages with only religious radio stations for company and felt the scorching heat at Furnace Creek. It was eerily silent – probably too hot for any birds to sing. I then found myself in the middle of a jaw dropping landscape.

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Zabriskie Point is one of the places where I’d stopped to stretch my legs. It was surreal. I felt like I’d stumbled onto a movie set by mistake.

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I was a bit cautious about driving through one of the hottest places on earth – it was only April, but all the blogs tell you to take litres of water and hire a white car to deflect the heat. I did both those things, but the one thing I wasn’t expecting was the wind. At certain points, I could hardly open the door. Once I joined the SR 160 there were tumbleweeds blowing across the road front of me. This was Nevada alright. I then saw the neon lights of Las Vegas.

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I always thought I’d hate it, but when I walked down The Strip I suddenly got it – where else can you dress up to the nines and be treated like a celebrity, without having to spend too much money?

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I checked out Caesars Palace (yes, there was a scantily clad centurion outside) and mingled with all the tuxedos and tank tops on the casino floor. Elton John dominated this part of The Strip. He was in residence at the Palace and the water fountains outside the Bellagio were dancing along to one of his tunes. They were watched by hundreds of people. Little did they know they were doomed…

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Preachers with placards were warning anybody who cared to listen that if they were drunk, gay, or gamblers, they’d all go to hell. I wondered what might happen if they were all three.

The next day I set my sights on the Grand Canyon but I wasn’t expecting such dramatic scenery along the way. I took a quick detour to see the Hoover Dam.

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I’ve never really been afraid of heights, but I got pins and needles standing here. An amazing accomplishment, but one hundred people lost their lives working on this.

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I then drove down Route 66 and onto the I-40. The scenery had changed again. It had gradually dropped from 75f to 34f and as I approached Devil Dog Road, I found myself in a snow storm. I was starting to worry. I didn’t want my Grand Canyon pilgrimage to be in vain.

It wasn’t.

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The mind-blowing scale of it and the colours, contours and crevices make it the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen. It’s as simple as that. From the Visitor Centre on the South Rim, I drove east along Desert View Drive to Grandview Point. It took me about an hour and a half to take in the views along the way – and that was just a tiny part of it. The entrance fee was $25 for 1-7 days. I could easily have spent a week there.

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The next day was a very red day. I’d stayed in Flagstaff overnight (an old railroad town with great bars and outdoor shops) and made my way down the hair pin bends of the beautiful Oak Creek Canyon and into the Red Rock town of Sedona. I’m so used to associating beauty with greenery, that I never imagined I’d be so overwhelmed by rocky landscapes, like the ones on this trip.

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On day four, I’d arrived at Pheonix Airport. As I dropped off the car, I realised I’d driven over 1300 miles and had only spent about £80 on fuel. I’d also spent hours and hours on the road, but it only seemed like minutes.

Time for a break. Next stop – Miami.

I Love San Francisco

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I was already excited at the Golden Gate Bridge. As I was coming in from Sonoma I asked my friend about the island on the left hand side. Yes, it was Alcatraz, she assured me. I made a mental note.

Later, I met up with another friend. We spent the day walking around North Beach to soak up the background to the Beat movement and visited the City Lights Bookstore. We then headed towards the cafes and bars around Columbus and had a killer cocktail at Calzone. Dinner was at The Stinking Rose. As the name suggests, it’s not a place for people who don’t like garlic. The booths were great – all curtains and chandeliers.

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The next day we walked up to Coit Tower to take in the views of the bay and admire the Art Deco homes nearby. We then went down to Fisherman’s Wharf and got another extraordinary view.

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We were ambushed by a group of male cyclists shouting, “Naked bike ride – woo hoo!” So that’s how they get an all-over tan…

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The walk from From Pier 39 with its pod of Sea Lions all the way down to the Ferry Building is lovely. Inside, there are lots of great food merchants like the Cowgirl Creamery. There’s an outdoor market there on a Saturday.

Another favourite place was the Foreign Cinema in the Mission area. You can have dinner in the courtyard at sunset and watch a movie projected onto the wall. The Redwood Room at the Clift hotel was also a good place for a nightcap, complete with DJ and digital artwork.

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The day before I left, it was time to tap into those historic headlines and movie moments and visit Alcatraz. One of the first things you see when you step off the boat is this graffiti:

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It’s from 1969 when the Native American activists occupied the island for nineteen months. I like the fact that it’s still there. Inside the prison, everybody’s given a set of headphones for an audio tour. The narrators are a former prison warden and some inmates. They tell you what happened in each block – like the Battle of Alcatraz in 1946 and the actual escape in 1962.

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Can you believe they dug those holes in the wall with a metal spoon?

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It’s such a beautiful view from such a bleak place. It must have added to the prisoners’ torment. I love this city. I’d like to go back.

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What is a WWOOFer?

You’re a what?” That’s a question I was asked a lot in Napa and Sonoma. The other was, “Does it have anything to do with dogs?”

Sadly not. WWOOF stands for Worldwide Opportunities On Organic Farms. The idea is that volunteers help out on the land, learn about farming and support the organic movement. In return, the host family provides food and accomodation.

I looked for a vineyard in California and found Random Ridge Winery. It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. Imagine getting up every morning and walking out to this:

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My main task was suckering. The vines were very lively after a warm winter, so trunk after trunk, row after row, I gently brushed off the unwanted buds and cut off the extra shoots at the bottom. It was a bit like Bonsai on a ten acre scale.

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Random Ridge doesn’t use herbicides. It’s all down to tilling and mowing and using rock phosphate instead. All the wine is bottled without using fining agents too. On this part of the trip, I’ve tasted about fifty different wines. When it’s organic, you can tell the difference. I like to believe it’s because the vines get a lot of care and attention. That’s why after the first week, I was excited to see this:

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Clusters were forming on the Sangiovese. It emphasised the fact that everything I did would affect the way the vines grew the following year.

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Not surprisingly, I also enjoyed driving the truck around. This was another job at the vineyard – going up and down the rows so that we could clear away the dead wood. I’d almost got away with it until I heard, “Stop feathering the clutch.”

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As for the winemaking itself, I’ve learned that there are so many variables that can affect the way it tastes – from the rocks beneath the vine roots to the way the grapes are picked. Do you use wood barrels, if so, are they toasted? Is it Californian oak or French? Is it fermented in a stainless steel tank instead, or a giant concrete egg? Do you use a cork, silicone or screw top? I will never sip wine in the same way again. I’ve also made friends for life.