30 August 2011

Scenes from a (Great) Wall

Violet Dear conquers China.

The Great Wall of China. When I was a little girl my grandfather would call me out of bed, no matter what the time, to show me noteworthy television programs about science, politics or travel. As a result I was probably the only 8 year old on my block to miss a day of school to watch the Berlin Wall come down.

National Geographic programs were my grandfather's favourite, and I was pulled out of many a night's slumber to watch sea creatures snake their way through technicolour coral reefs, intrepid mountaineers scale K2 and treasure hunters search through Egyptian tombs. Shows about outer space always fascinated me above all else, and I remember quivering with anticipation when I would hear Carl Sagan's voice inform me about the “billions and billions” of stars in the sky. Billions. Those are big numbers for a little girl.

It was around that time that I learned of the only man-made structure visible from space- something so colossal, so monumental that it marred the earth's surface like a jagged, winding scar – the Great Wall of China.

Slithering its way across the tops of breakneck mountains and rocky crags, the Wall was started around 200 BC and restored by the Ming Dynasty in the 15th century as a defense mechanism against the barbarian Mongols (I have a little experience with them myself. My grandmother was Ukrainian and had more than a dash of Mongolian blood running through her veins, as evidenced by her epicanthal fold, and my mother and uncle get asked if they if half Asian or Inuit. Thanks Genghis!)

All the king's horses and all the king's men....

When I decided to come here to Beijing it was my one major thing on my “must-see” list, so I was shocked to find out that there are dozens of different Wall sites. Other than a few that have been repaired and maintained, most of the Wall is crumbling and wild, with many stretches far too dangerous to climb. My friend living here in China works for a motorbike sidecar tour company that specializes in trips to the Great Wall, and so he spends his days traversing its lesser known sections. He was excited to take me on a 3 day trip to visit a few that tourists rarely see.

Wild Wall at Jiankou.

We started our tour at Jiankou, a low point in a valley between two peaks. Once we stepped up from the forest trail and onto the Wall itself I was struck with the raw and ravaged beauty of the ancient stones, the sheer size of the structure snaking its way off into the hills on all sides of me. The Wall is less like one long continuous ribbon than a map of the London Underground - it branches off schizophrenically and winds across multiple mountain tops and connects with the ancient guard towers that dot the tops of the hills.

It's a hot mess.

Guard towers, the site of a lot of hot "Brokeback Great Wall" shenanigans, I'm sure.

Jiankou was a serious hike – we spent a lot of the day scrambling up the sides of destroyed towers, scuttling over rubble on hands and feet and climbing up staircases so steep they had to be ascended like a ladder. I'm not normally afraid of heights, but at some points the trail was so treacherous that my knees were shaking like little earthquakes and I thought I would lose my balance and tumble down the side of the mountain below.

Oh, that's ok. I think I'll take the elevator.

After four hours of trekking, and witnessing a fellow Canadian take a nasty spill down a destroyed staircase, we reached another low elevation point in the Wall where we could safely descend back down the mountain and head to the guesthouse. Jiankou was wild, eerie and wonderful.

Huanghuacheng at dusk. The prettiest ever.

The next day, after a motorbike trip though more mountains, we trekked up the side of another Wall site, this time to visit the slightly less ruinous ruins of Huanghuacheng. After a series of steeeeeeep climbs (too steep for stairs – that tells you something) we reached the plateau of the Wall and began the equally steep downhill walk. It was with knees bent and doing a strange little shuffle that I kind of bunnyhopped my way back down. The trademark Beijing haze in the sky couldn't ruin the view of this strange, haphazard Wall zigzagging its way into the distance.

"Stairway to Eternal Palace of Unending Happinesses" just never caught on.

By skipping the typical tourist Wall sites and heading into the wilder, less reconstructed sections we missed out on the throngs of domestic tourists fighting their way along the paths and managed to experience one of the world's most important landmarks in relative peace and quiet. Not quite like seeing it from a space shuttle, but I do think that my grandfather would have approved...

The author with her grandfather, eating ice cream and watching some Jacques Cousteau.

29 August 2011

Back That Ass Up - A Sandwich in Beijing

The Hutong version of grilled cheese and tomato soup.

When I think of "Chinese Food." my brain does not veer in the direction of soup and sandwiches. Sure, no Vietnamese food porn session is complete without a thought or two about Banh Mi, and I have had a few good naan and curry wraps in India, but this is a very, very different part of the continent. This is China. And though my love of the sandwich is well documented, while I am in Beijing on a spur of the moment 2 week trip to visit some friends I was not expecting to enjoy any. Noodles and dumplings and Peking Duck - yes, but not meat and bread.

I was wrong.

Houyuan the dog encounters a donkey earlier in the day while at the Ming Tombs.

After a long, four day motorbike sidecar trip (my friend works for these guys, and so we have had full access to a bike) to the wild sections of the Great Wall spent hiking and eating hearty country food, we arrived back in Beijing's Dong Zhi Men Hutong at 3:30 pm with rumbling stomachs.

"Want to grab a sandwich?" my pal asked me.
"I only want to eat local food!" I shouted back over the roar of the engine. He smirked.
"Oh, it's local. You'll like it."

The proud and noble steed awaits his fate as my sandwich.

We arrived in front of the restaurant a few moments later, and once we headed inside I noticed the walls were covered with photos of livestock. But wait... there seemed to be a lot of pictures of ...donkeys? My friend finished ordering in a flurry of Chinese, pausing only to ask me, "do you want one or two?"

After the waitress had left, I looked at him, wide-eyed. "Are these donkey sandwiches?"
"Yes. They are. They're wonderful."
"Did you get this idea when we encountered those donkeys at the Ming Tombs?"
"Uh huh."
"You're a sick s.o.b."
"Uh huh."

(Now, Ms. Violet Dear has a confession to make. In Peru in May things got a little... weird. I ate a little more chicken than I intended. And when I got back to Vancouver for my birthday I decided to order one of my favourite dishes on the planet, duck confit. And since then.... well, let's just say I am on a pescetarian sabbatical, shall we?)

I decided to eat the donkey, Eeyore be damned.

Philadelphia can go fuck themselves.

The sandwiches arrived, kind of like pressed little panini inside kind of a dense oily ciabatta. Sauteed with the cubed donkey meat were peppers and chilis and onion, making the whole experience feel a little familiar.

"It's like a Philly Cheesesteak!" I exclaimed, happily taking another bite. The meat itself was like tender, slightly fattier beef. It was delicious.

The sandwiches are traditionally served with a garlic vinegar for dipping, and optional chili paste for slathering inside (I went for it, of course.) We ordered a few bowls of egg drop soup to go with the donkey, but the results were less than enjoyable.

A delicate broth of water and egg essence.
Sometimes I feel like China is fucking with me.

I'm pretty sure that the broth was simply the water used to poach the eggs, and there was no yolk to speak of. I valiantly tried a few spoonfuls and then decided that egg water soup was not for me.

The best part of the meal was the bill. For four sandwiches, two bowls of soup and a big 750 mL Yanjing beer, the total was 4 dollars. I gladly picked up the cheque.

So the next time you find yourself wandering around the hutongs of Beijing, make sure you make an ass of yourself and eat a donkey sandwich (sorry, couldn't resist.)

<3 V. Dear

Um. Sorry. My bad.
I feel like an ass about it, I really do. I can't help it if I'm assinine.

K, I'm done. Promise.

Ass. Heh.

24 April 2011

Accepting Where I Am, Right Now - Trekking the Canon del Colca

Walking along rare flat terrain. Day 1.

Chici and I became good friends on my trek through the Canon de Colca, the world's second deepest canyon, but that's not to say that he had any real choice in our burgeoning buddydom. See Chici (pronounced Cheeky)was my trekking guide and therefore bound by a sacred guide oath to stay behind the last person in the group. Which, ahem, was me. The whole time.

"Hey Chici, how long is the trek?"
"Yesseeca, the trek is 6 hours today maybe and then 4 hours tomorrow."
*pale, nervous nodding*
"Ok, sounds good Chici."

The first day of our trek we were to walk, mostly downhill, from about 3300 metres down to 2000, back up to about 2600 and finally down to 2200. At this point we would spend the night at a quaint collection of pools and rustic guesthouses called "The Oasis." The entire journey would take about 7 hours, with a stop for a big lunch of omelettes, rice and potatoes.

The ruins of an old village along the way.

Day 1 didn't worry me. In fact, Day 1 sounded downright fun - a great way to test my Bikram-strengthened legs and gauge where I was at for our Inca Trail trek to Macchu Pichu a week later. I knew that the day would be difficult - I've walked downhill for long periods of time, and I know the havoc that it can wreak on my legs (I stumble around, kind of crabwalking for a few days afterward). However, the day's trekking was 90 percent downhill or across flat terrain. Despite the fact that I was suffering from traveler's stomach, for which I was taking antibiotics, and a mild case of altitude sickness I was confident. Day 1? I could do.

It was Day 2 - a day that was to start with a 3.5 hour climb straight up the other side of the canyon - that was causing me panic.


At the moment that you book them, strenuous treks sound like a great idea. "Yeah! I have a strong, healthy young body! I am empowered in my youthful fitness! I will walk up and down MOUNTAINS! Outta my way, jackoffs!"

However, on the morning of these treks it's kind of different. "oh. ok. up the hill? with only my fragile legs? and the tiny bones of my feet and ankles? ok."

Pathetic as it sounds to admit it, I have always suffered from a strange phobia of hiking up hills. Some people thrive on harsh exercise, on the feeling of their heart pounding through their ribcage and the blisters on their feet filling with fluid. I don't know whether I had a very bad experience with endurance cardio-type hiking as a young child or if I am just inherently some kind of Ukrainian peasant meant to dwell on the prairie far from mountains, but walking uphill is mentally distressing for me.

At home it's not really an issue. Sure, I have to turn down invitations to do the Grouse Grind or hike the Chief, but for the most part the types of endurance exercise that I like to do - Bikram's yoga, Cardio Dance Party faffery, the elliptical machine (in front of Oprah, natch) - don't require that I climb any hills. Which is good, because hell, I get put off by flights of stairs.

What's frustrating is that it's not a physical reaction - I am more than fit enough to trek - it's all mental. It's an illogical terror of the particular kind of discomfort caused by uphill strides. A reaction with no logic. I wanted it GONE.

This is what we walked down. From the very freaking top.

So, wait. Let me put you back in Peru, with me and Chici and the heart stoppingly gorgeous high altitude desert of the Colca Canyon, ok? All around me were huge cacti, agave plants and the occasional donkey loaded with supplies ambling past. The ground was covered in stones and sand, and we were walking down a zig zag path etched into the side of an imposing rock face. It's Day 1 - I am feeling good, often even leading of group of four trekkers (Chici bringing up the rear, of course) until we stopped for lunch.

"Ok, now guys, I want for you now to walk uphill, just for about one hour." My stomach clenched into knots. It was time - shit was about to get real, son.

I plodded, slowly but surely, one foot in front of the other. "You guys better go ahead. This may take me a while."

See, while physically I can do this - I am more than capable of keeping up with anyone of average fitness - my brain didn't quite understand. The moment waves of fatigue coursed down my legs and I felt the hot sun on the back of my neck I froze, started to second guess my ability and beat myself up. The familiar "trekking uphill" feeling of despair started to creep into my head and I could feel myself getting sucked down into the kind of mood that ends up with me standing on the side of a mountain crying.
Beautiful church in a canyon town accessible only by foot or mule.

Just then we approached a particularly dodgy area near an aquaduct and Chici held out his hand. "Nice and slow, Yesseeca. You can do it." They were the words that I needed to hear at that exact moment.

"Yes, Chici - I can do it. I can do this. Just give me one minute, ok?" I stood, with my eyes closed, and repeated those 4 magic words. "I can do this. I can do this." I dug deep into my brain and tried to undo the mental shoelaces that always manage to tie up my synapses, causing them to misfire and create this useless panic reaction that does not serve me.

A saying from my Bikram's yoga classes popped into my head. "Never too old, never too sick, never too bad to start from scratch again."

"Ok, Chici. Let's go. Let's start from scratch."

And I did. I walked slowly. I walked deliberately. I placed my walking stick in front of me with each step and concentrated on right now. Everytime those insidious little thoughts "how long?" "Is it over?" "I can't do it!" popped into my head I simply slowed down, breathed deeply and let it pass.


Now is when we talk about the dirty little word I have been avoiding. EGO. See, part of my problem with trekking has always been my incessant need to avoid appearing weak or pathetic. In the past, I would ignore my panic reaction and push myself hard, fast and early to keep up with the group, not wanting to admit that I needed more time, needed a slower pace.

Another yoga saying repeated through my brain on Day 1 of the Colca trek. "Accept where you are, right now." My ego bucked, once, twice! It put up a grand fight - but I crushed it. I made it lay down and act reasonable for once. It....worked. I didn't freak out.

A small victory on Day 1. Arriving at the bottom of the massive hill.

We arrived at the top and J and J, our two new American friends, asked me "so, how you doing back there?" I smiled.
"Way less self loathing and despair than usual! I'm about 40% less despondent!" I joked. But it was true.

Toward the end of the first day. Blessed - and rare - flat terrain.

Having now climbed in altitude, for the rest of the day Chici and I walked together. Along a flat section of the trail, a long path that snaked around the mountain, we passed bucolic villages, churches celebrating a mixture of Inca and Catholic religions and stunning canyon scenery.

"Hey Chici, have you heard the children's story about the tortoise and the hare?" He shook his head. I proceeded, in simple English, to explain the fable that pits a fast but lazy rabbit against a slow but determined turtle. Though I wasn't sure if he understood me, I finished the story with a flourish - "I'm the turtle!" He shrugged. "It's ok. You go slow." Whether he understood or not, it didn't matter. I got it.


Here's the part where I tell you that, after a good night's sleep at the Oasis, I faltered. The antibiotics I was taking were kicking my ass and I was tired, sore and worried that my old panic-y demon would resurface halfway up the mountain. It was 4:45, and still very dark.

"Chici, how much for a donkey to take me up?" He looked at me very seriously.
"No. You can do it. You no need mule." And that was that. I took a deep breath.

"Ok, Dear. You can do this. You will walk slowly with no regard for how fast anyone else is going, you will stop to breathe often, you will meditate. This. Will. Be. Ok. Because it has to be."

We were the first group to set out to hoof it up the other side of the canyon - 1600 metres straight up, with the zig zagged path increasing that distance at least threefold. The group, including S, politely waited for me every few minutes until finally I insisted that they go at their own speed. I wanted the solitude, the quiet early morning darkness and the chance to compose myself while the climbing was still relatively easy. I didn't see S again for 3.5 hours.

It wasn't long before I saw the bobbing of headlamps and flashlights on the hill below me. One by one, the red faced members of the other trekking groups started to pass me. No one looked happy, they were just pushing ahead past the pain, competing with one another to appear unfazed by the insanely faze-ing task before us. If after 20 minutes people looked unhinged, I wondered, how will they feel after 3 hours?

I made up my mind right there and then. My only goal for the day would be to reach the summit with a calm smile. To not hate the trek. To not be angry at myself and enjoy the day.

Every time my heart rate started to climb and palpitate wildly I slowed down. Every time I began to feel like I should rush past the small tangle of people roughly keeping pace within 50 metres of me I slowed down. Every time I started to moan and whine in my own head - I slowed down. "Accept where you are, right now Dear." I found myself enjoying - really enjoying - an uphill trek for the first time in my life.

Chici, whose real name was Edison.

Chici fell behind, chatting with fellow guides who also had to lag so that they could remain at the rear of the group. Everytime he would catch up to me (more like saunter up) he would smile. "You doing good. You can do it!"

After 2 hours I truly realized that I could. The realization hit me unexpectedly. "I am actually going to do this." It seemed unreal. A big goofy smile spread across my face.

By the third hour I was hungry, dirty and tired - but still smiling. At this point nearly everyone had passed me, and by then the people with whom I was keeping time had set out 20 to 30 minutes after me. I resisted the urge to feel ashamed about this. Instead, I shushed my ego and made friends with the other slowpokes.

Donkeys at 6am going to pick people up. I saw them again at 8am going back up hauling people.

My proudest moment came when the donkeys started to pass me by. On top of the sweating beasts were the 40 folks who didn't want to climb back out of the canyon from the Oasis, those too hungover, lazy or maybe panicked like me to even attempt the trek. As I sidestepped out of the way of a donkey Chici and a fellow guide popped out of the brush beside me, having taken a steep and dangerous shortcut.

"Chici! You scared me!" He smiled sheepishly.
"I rabbit."
He had understood the whole story afterall.

When I reached the top 10 minutes later I understood the story, too.

A turtle, yes. But with a smile on my face.

21 April 2011

Santa Catalina Convent - Corruption, Flagellation and Chocolate?

Locked up tight, not unlike its residents...

Arequipa is a beautiful town in the Peruvian Andes, its colonial buildings carved from white volcanic rock and its food legendary for being spicy and cheesy. Needless to say, I was happy to arrive here on a relatively painless (compared to others in Asia) night bus from Nazca.

After some adventurous experiences I was ready to spend a few days unwinding in this little city, strolling its "squint your eyes and you can make believe you're in Spain" streets, drinking equal parts good coffee and good wine and getting ready for a few intense days of trekking in the Canon de Colca - world's second deepest canyon (twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and beat only by 150 metres by its cousin a short distance away).

Secretly, though, I was most excited to visit the Monasterio Santa Catalina, a convent built in 1580 and still in use today. See, I have a fascination with nuns. Perhaps it was my atheist upbringing, but the first time I visited the Vatican City I used up half a roll of film (yes, it was that long ago) with photos of their different coloured habits. Even at home in Vancouver I nearly cause my mum to crash the car as I point and shriek "Nun! Nun!!" every time we drive near the convent on Victoria Drive. It's a weird quirk. I choose to find it endearing.

I also have a fascination with Catholic iconography - I have covered an entire wall in my apartment in juicy eye-rolling Jesuses (Jesi?), piously blue Marys and sacred hearts and crosses of all kinds. Catholic customs and iconography are deliciously eerie, creepy and archaic - like a live action 1970s Mexican exploitation horror movie. I even have plans for a tattoo of Mary's sacred heart. (Confusing for a pseudo Buddhist/Hindu yogi, I know. Just go with it. I do.)

Oh, Mary.

The Santa Catalina convent is enormous, a true city within a city, twenty thousand (!!!) square metres of passage ways, houses, courtyards, kitchens and chapels. It was built in 1580 by a rich widow, one of the first colonial settlers from Spain.

It was hard, but yes I was.

It was a custom of wealthy Spaniards of the day to commit their second eldest son or daughter to the cloth, bringing them as students (bait? fodder? playthings?) to a monastery and convent at the age of 10 or 12.

But this rich widow, Maria Guzman? She, um, kind of misunderstood what being a nun is all about, namely the whole "giving up earthly possessions" thing. Her convent was only for the rich, and she demanded that the family proffer a dowry of the equivalent to 50,000 dollars, as well as have the girls arrive with all kinds of fancy gifts. Sounds more like a madam to me....

Elaborate hinge.

The young nuns also arrived with another commodity - up to four slaves each. The elder nuns, with their earthly needs (and my mind goes totally dirty here) being met, basically spent all day embroidering, chatting, eating off of posh china and even throwing parties with hired musicians. Nice work, if you can get it.

Like an eerie little nun ghost.

I'm making things in the convent sound a little too easy, a little too sunshine & lollipoppy. The twelve year old novice nuns were not allowed to act like children, no running or playing at all. Instead they were forced to sit alone in their cells for 23 hours a day, praying, painting and most likely developing mental illnesses.

One way to make your teeenaged daughter behave...

The only way, technically (when they weren't throwing parties) that the nuns could communicate through the outside world was to their families, once a month through these double wooden grates. It was actually kind of sad to think of the wee little gals, who must have been so lonely, sitting 400 years ago in the exact spot where I was seated.

My slave simply must ask your slave where she got this wonderful blue paint.

The grounds of the complex were absolutely lovely, decorated like a Spanish village in bright splashes of colour. I mean, if fate frowns down on you and you're the second born, I can think of worse places to be cloistered.

Like a pretty little Spanish town, complete with fiestas.

The older nuns, and especially the older and very wealthy nuns, actually got little houses to live in within the convent. Their size and grandeur varied, but these were very posh digs. Large bedrooms, sitting areas, servant's quarters and huge kitchens - apartments that could reasonably house full families all for one (probably very bitter) old woman.

Talk about pins and needles.

Of course, some of these nuns were truly pious women, here because they genuinely felt called to their marriage to Christ.

These nuns practiced self flagellation daily, whipping themselves with flails, wearing thorny leg braces and sleeping on mats woven from needles. BDSM types, eat your heart out - this is how you truly mortify your flesh and get closer to God. (Or a man in a gimp mask who makes you call him God.)

El Misti - the volcano that rises above Arequipa

By the late 19th century, word of a convent in the middle of Peru that outrageously flouted Vatican rules, that housed pregnant nuns, hosted wild bacchanalias and had slaves working within its walls got back to Rome and Pope Pius IX. He wasn't too happy (probably jealous) and he sent a strict Dominican nun to come and clean things up. She freed the slaves and made the convent more convent-like, banning the pretty little apartments, wild late night parties and the visits from men (I'm totally out at this point).

This reformation was in 1871 and the convent continued on a more traditional bent for one hundred years, when the Peruvian government forced the nuns to open their doors to the public. One corner of the grounds houses a small cloistered section where 20 nuns, from the ages of 17 to 97, still live in silence to this day, separated from the rest of the world by those same wooden screens. I imagine it to be a bit Grey Gardens-y in there.

We could hear them playing volleyball over one of the tall walls. This blew my mind.

When not playing ball games (do they wear their habits during? If so, I need to see this) the nuns who once lived here at Santa Catalina in luxurious sin now spend their days as chocolatiers, making sweet treats to try and hook foreign dollars in what is now Arequipa's main tourist attraction.

Like a little nun Rapunzel. Nunpunzel?

And what an attraction! My hours wandering around the complex filled me with the same intense mysterious wonder that all of Catholicism inspires in me - a mix of awe, historical curiosity and, let's be frank, shock that this religion still has so many rapt believers.

Then again, it all makes sense. We as humans seem to like ritual, dark magic and tales of strange sex, something that nunneries - and Catholicism in general - have in spades. Viva La Santa Catalina!

If these walls could talk - they'd probably ask for a ball-gag.

20 April 2011

The Nausea of the Nazca Lines

So, here's how my morning yesterday went:

I'm totally deceiving you.

Yay! Oh man, I am so excited to go on this overflight of the Nazca Lines! Wow! Ever since I was about 8 years old and saw an re-run of "In Search Of" on A&E about Ancient Astronauts I have been, like, totally excited to come and see these 2000 year old monolithic drawings in person!

Boletas con vomitendo.

Oh, wicked! Even the tickets for the dinky little airfield are cool! Maria Reiche, a German mathematician who did a ton of research on the lines, was like, awesome!

Only 2 fatal crashes last year!

Cool! Look at the little plane! I can't wait to ride in there!

Super twisty arrow funtimes!

Amazing! Here is a little map showing the route we're gonna take. I can't wait to see the astronaut and the hummingbird and the spider! Wow!

Ready, S? Excited!?

Gravol makes the things all slow motion.

I sure am! Woo! Let's go! I'm sure glad I'm stoned out of my head on preventative Gravol for the motion sickness some people report! Woo! Take off!


Something is wrong. I don't... I don't feel so good.

The last photo I managed to take before passing the camera to S.

But that's ok, because look at how beautiful the mountains are! Desert! And mountains.... and.

OK. Seriously. What the #@*%?

Do you have to - urp - do you have to swerve and dip so much, Pilot? *moan* I'm serious... I'm serious, "Pilot"!

ooooooolooooo (makes sounds in own head like dog about to vomit)

Deep breath, Dear. Deep fucking breath now. You will not - I repeat - NOT - vomit into that undignified plastic bag. Suck. it. up.

I promise it's there.

Ok, look where? For the *swoon* what? The hummingbird? Ok. Under the wing, where you keep dipping the plane toward. *angry sick face*

Is...is it hot in here? Ok - seriously - where is the bird? All I see is sand. Oh - I see it.

It's. Hm. It's a lot less vivid than I expected. But then again, I am having a hard time focusing. And breathing.

I'm gonna... I'm gonna have to close my eyes now. Just poke me when we see more lines.

.....what's that smell? Oh. Oh S. Poor S. Shoulda kept your eyes closed.


After a few hours in bed to recover from the worst motion sickness ever, we decided to try to get more out of our Nazca Lines experience by visiting the Antonini Museum. The wee museum has a 2000 year old (still working) aqueduct running through its back garden, a little oasis in the desert.

So what's the opposite of phallic? O'Keefic?

Inside the museum were displays on the Nazca people, the 2000 year old culture that constructed the lines, probably because of aliens, or drugs. Or drug dealing aliens. Or y'know, Jesus. They also practiced trepanation, human sacrifice and mummification - sometimes all on the same person.

This is actually me after the flight.

But best of all, a scale model of the Lines themselves, viewed from atop a small platform. See, if I hadn't told you that both the photo at the top of this post and the one directly below weren't real I could have posted all of these as being from our 30 minute "plane ride of puke" and you wouldn't have known better.

Told you I was deceiving you.

And frankly, as it's been about 36 hours and my stomach still hasn't settled fully, I kind of wish that that had been my plan all along.

A flight over the Nazca Lines. Amazing. Mystical. Enchanting.


Islas Ballestas - You're Fulla Guano

Worst address ever. The flaming bag of poop prank totally does not work here.

Las Islas Ballestas, or "The Poor Man's Galapagos," are located a few miles off of the coast of Paracas, near Pisco. Because I have ethical issues with visiting the famed Galapagos, I jumped at the chance to go and have a look at these guano covered rocks.

Ancient peoples, tripping balls.

After waking up at the ungodly hour of 5:30am we set out from Ica and arrived at the boat about an hour later, pushing just after sunrise. The first sight along the way was the "Candelabra," a 200 metre long geoglyph etched into the side of a hill and visible miles out to sea. Some say it looks like a decorative candlestick, a South American Sea-God's trident or a masonic symbol. Others claim it depicts jimson weed, a hallucinogenic cactus found in California. Guesses on its age date to 200 BC, and it is not related to the Nazca Lines 200 km away. It was, to say the least, a surreal sight that early in the morning.

I've gotta say that the whole hallucinogenic weed thing sounds the most plausible to me. Two thousand years ago it would have been pretty hard to understand that those bright colours, lucid visions and strange noises when one injests a hallucinogen (not that I have, ahem, experience... ahem) are just that - a hallucination and not, say, messages from a trident wielding sea monster god guy. Taking jimson weed probably would have been a disturbingly vivid and excitingly addicting experience in a world otherwise dominated by, well, sand. But I digress.

Where's Tippi Hedren when you need her?

After leaving the candelabra I instantly dozed off due to my remarkable (even awe-inspiring) ability to sleep on any moving vehicle (an automatic defense mechanism to protect me from my ever-worsening motion sickness - I miss out on scenery but also on vomit. It's a decent trade-off). I woke about 20 minutes later, just as we were approaching a cluster of small islands. Two things hit me right away: the cacophony of squalling birds and the smell - a huge, loud smell; a smell of ammonia, urinals and wet dog. "We must be here." I said queasily.

The sky was dark with birds, swirling and dancing in the sky above our boat. These islands are home to dozens of species of birds (some migratory and some permanent residents) including blue footed boobies (hee!), Peruvian pelicans and Humboldt penguins.

Only Ms. Violet Dear could connect pelicans to Brando in one creepy degree.

For me, the pelicans were the most surreal (seen here with bitsy little penguins), especially when flying directly overhead in a V formation. These guys are so strange, so bizarre - their huge pouches jiggling under their beaks, their off kilter dimensions - I felt like I was watching some kind of sci-fi "Island of Doctor Moreau" type movie. Which led me to my ever-unwholesome thoughts about Marlon Brando, so I had to snap out of that pretty quickly....

Every inch of island covered in birds.

This was my first experience seeing penguins in the wild (I had previously seen them in Syndney's Taronga Zoo), and it exceeded my hopes. The little fellows tottered around, hopping from rock to rock like little puppety muppet things. The Humboldt penguin is tiny, only a few feet tall and adorable as all get out. I wanted to hug them.

Oh, what the hell.

The rocky bases of the islands are covered with brightly coloured orange and purple crabs, which our guide informed us have a "very bad, bad taste." It makes sense - in nature, most things that are really eye-catchingly bright are coloured as such to warn predators. "Listen, I'm either poisonous or just plain yucky. Fuhgeddaboutit." Hm. That's really too bad. I like crab. Kind of. Well, ok. A lot.

Home, sweet ho... oh, who are you kidding?

No one is actually allowed to set foot on these islands. See, the tens-of-thousands-of-probably-millions of birds? They, erm, excrete. A lot. So much so that the guano, the Spanish word for bird poop, can reach 50 metres deep and all of the islands appear white. This cache of smelly treasure was actually Peru's largest export in the 19th Century. Huh. No wonder the place smelled.

Once every 6 years the government sends in a team to collect it, using this dock to alight. Worst of all? The two permanent security guards that live here, in isolation, for 4 month stretches. Alone. Nothing but birds, guano and potential guano thieves - a confusing (and confused) bunch if there ever was one. "Stop! Put that shit down! Literally!" Is there any point in punishing these thieves? Hasn't life punished them enough?

Tough job, but someone's gotta do it.

The Ballestas islands are home to a few other notable species - two types of endangered turtles, dolphins and sea lions! These guys mugged nicely for my camera, and moments later a mummy and baby splashed past me in the water, the wee babe's head mere inches from my fingertips.

Walk. Away. Slowly.

But nothing prepared me for this eerie sight as we turned into a small bay. The beach was covered with hundreds of sea lions, collectively emitting a wailing, moaning sound that reminded me of a pack of wolves baying at the moon. They waddled from the beach to the water, swimming past us in alarming numbers and adding their individual calls to the group baying. Despite the morning sun beating down on my head I felt strangely chilled by the sound (you can hear it here in this 6 minute video surveying the island). *shudder*

Mr. Chubbs welcomes you.

The one hour trip around the islands was fascinating - a completely different (and more pungent) coastal landscape than the ones I am used to visiting, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Guano - not just for poop freaks anymore!