Category Archives: World Challenge 2014

“There’s a hole in the boat” ©Bethany Conway

The day dawned greyly, matching my pessimistic mood exactly. I had been worried about white water rafting since the group had signed up for it over a year ago and the past few days had left me increasingly nervous. None of us knew what to expect and tensions ran pretty high with the jokes of some battling with the silent anticipation of others.

After a short journey in a cramped mini-bus we arrived by a muddy riverbank and were ushered out of the bus. This abrupt start left us a little bemused and was not helped by the language barrier of stilted English and rapid Spanish.

Slowly we gathered together and were given buoyancy aids and helmets and a short, stilted safety briefing, which was reiterated by Tim. I didn’t feel safe; my buoyancy aid didn’t completely do up and I wasn’t sure the group had followed the briefing properly but we were ushered into the waiting rafts with little ceremony and our adventure began.

Somehow I found myself at the front of the boat, NOT my plan as I could see everything. Unfortunately, so could Bethany. Some early cursing led to an alarmed cry of ‘Oh my God, there’s a hole in the boat’ when she noticed one of the drainage holes in the edge of the raft. Gales of laughter and some reassurances helped to calm her down before a few practice paddles and spins sent us flying towards our first rapid. It looked fast and bumpy but nothing like the rapids in ‘The River Wild’, which had been my greatest fear. We all paddled as instructed and hit the white water square on. Screams at the cold turned into screams of fear as Katie disappeared over the side of the boat and flashed past us, making us forget to paddle and turn sideways into the rapid. After a bumpy few seconds Tim and the guide rescued Katie and we were all soaked yet relieved to have survived our first white water rapid.

From then on it became a competition to see who could fall in. In our boat Gianni was the winner hitting the water twice from the raft and once from the rescue boat that we accidently capsized! But my favourite was Liam.

We were approaching a minor rapid that I pointed out to the casually chatting group. Liam had his back to it and queried my call but turned and paddled as instructed. He then turned round to me and grinned, as if to say ‘see, it was nothing to worry about’ at exactly the same moment as he slid, grinning and almost frozen in time, backwards into the water!

The other boat survived similar experiences, the highlight being Rachel’s disappearance under the boat only to resurface without her jelly shoes, a minor disaster compared to what could have happened.

It all came to an end too soon and everyone agreed that they’d do it again given half the chance.

Once a team photo had been taken and sweet bananas had been consumed we returned to the bus, now bathed in sunshine and smiles and returned to our hostel, ready for our next adventure.

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‘We Need More Snacks’ – A Peruvian Food Blog

Snacks. A word I never really want to hear ever again. It is a word regularly used in Peru, they have snack restaurants that open at midday until their siesta at 3, that serve a 2 course meal for 7sol (£3.50). These meals consisted of some kind of meat based soup served tepid with a hunk of chicken on the bone and noodles floating like dirty dishwater in the bowl. This was followed by either a rice and chicken based concoction or, if you went veggie (a bemusing concept for the average Peruvian) pasta and liquid pesto.

Peruvian food mostly seems to consist of chicken and rice. Sometimes this may also include some lumps of boiled potato and (yes AND not OR) noodles/pasta. The carb overload is huge and may explain the rotund nature of most of Peruvians in the places that we visited.

Fried is also definitely a thing in Peru. In an attempt to add some variety to my diet I tried a vegetable tortilla. It came with rice (naturally) but it also came nicely fried, which is not generally how I cook omelettes!

Lomo saltado is not fried and is also a Peruvian favourite.  Strips of beef or chicken cooked with tomatoes and onions and served with rice. You can even get it extra spicy if you so wish. My first taste was in a rather unsavoury joint that was the only place open during Trajillo’s siesta time. All I really got was gristle and rice. Not to be deterred, my second attempt was a much greater success when I tasted a delicious version of the dish in Iquitos. I’m lucky I was able to enjoy it though as it barely touched the sides after waiting a very long time for it due to erratic service and sly ordering from some members of the group.

In Nauta I tried Salchepepa which is basically chopped up, processed sausage and chips with sauce, tomato ketchup and mustard. Unfortunately by the time we were served this time they had run out of sauce so I had sausage and chips, ketchup and mustard, which I could have had back home!

Of course I also tried guinea pig! In a restaurant in Central Downtown Lima, after a lovely pot-luck lunch (I couldn’t read the menu so I closed my eyes, pointed and got lucky!) the World Challenge team ordered two guinea pigs; one plain and one spicy. The dishes came whole, simply flattened and roasted, with heads and feet intact.

We proceeded to try and divvy up the dishes between those who wanted it, much to the horror of our waiter who vigorously mimed picking it up whole in our fingers and chomping on it off the bone. I was presented with a wizened paw and shoulder, which did make me think twice. But ever open to trying anything once I proceeded cautiously.

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First of all, there isn’t much meat on a guinea pig. It is mostly bone (hence the knowing mimes of the waiter). It’s quite a struggle to even find a taste of the meat but when you do: it tastes like fatty, slightly overcooked chicken. Quite a disappointment, but that lunch was a welcome change after 4 weeks of snacks.

The Peruvians are also big on biscuits. After years of consuming large quantities of sweet biscuits in the English Office I never believed I could have too many. But in Peru, when every lunch we had on the trek consisted of at least two packets of biscuits with at least three biscuits in each packet, in a multitude of lurid colours and flavours, I discovered I could have too much of a good thing. They are even sold by child hawkers on the streets. When a small girl tried to sell us biscuits to us at the beginning of our trek and we refused to buy Marcus translated her surprised response as ‘but it’s cold.’ As though it was ridiculous for us to contemplate a long walk in the Andes without such sustenance.

On the plus side, I did enjoy the fruit. Sweet bananas, some of them slightly pink on the inside; juicy oranges and, for the first time; passion fruit, were things I really enjoyed. Peeling a passion fruit to reveal the pulp covered seeds held in a tentacled embrace was almost as much fun as slurping them up while gazing at our mountainous view.

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One of my favourite meals was provided by the community of Yarina during our project phase. A daily lunch of rice and fish might sound bland but on this occasion the fish was marinated in a delicious mixture of spices and oil and was meaty with very little bone. It was Steph’s first attempt at eating fish after years of hating it and even she managed to eat some. A second dish was produced: raw fish ‘cooked’ in citrus and mixed with onion and spices to produce a mouthwatering flavour that I couldn’t get enough of. After consecutive meals of egg and pasta it was a blessed relief! I even tried pirana (tastes like chicken) and turtle egg, as fishing and luck determined on the day.

Snacks however, took on a completely different meaning in the hands of the challengers. Our itinerary required a lot of travel and the team was advised to purchase ‘snacks’ that would serve as breakfast or at least sustenance, for longer journeys. At first fruit was purchased, until we fell foul of the customs regulations and we were forced to consume our breakfast oranges as a late supper rather than travel with them on the bus. Soon, snacks simply became biscuits, sweets and crisps, things that were familiar and easily found in shops and supermarkets.

I did try to shake things up a bit by purchasing sweet donut balls from a man in the market in Yarina and we tried coconut water from coconuts in Iquitos, but the group did not take the hint.

One time Steph, Tim and I also chose to buy our own breakfasts for two mornings in Trajillo simply to avoid another morning of bread, jam and cereal bars. Some canny shopping gave us pizza-like rolls, fruit juice and bananas at a very reasonable price and helped lift morale when it was much needed.

I did hit an all time low when one breakfast consisted of dry cereal and tinned fruit. Even when I added stolen chocolate bits into the mix I couldn’t quite bring myself to enjoy it.

While I can’t complain about being catered for during the majority of the trip I did miss cooking for myself and being able to chose from a greater variety of food.

World Challenge offers a number of challenges to our students but my greatest challenge was definitely the food!

Altitude took my breath away © Kathryn Hackett

Trekking at altitude is a bitch! © Katie Parkins. If you go too fast you run the very real risk of altitude sickness, even death if you climb too quickly and ignore the symptoms. Certainly when we first set out on our trek in Santa Cruz keeping up with the youngsters as they raced ahead made my chest hurt and my breath short and I truly feared that my fitness was not up to the challenge.

Thankfully Katie bravely spoke up to the group and told them they were going too fast, resulting to her promotion to pacemaker. Her actions allowed us all to breathe and really took my breath away. A natural pacemaker she enabled us to walk consistently for 30-40 minutes at a time when before, every 10 minutes had required a 20 minute rest. Her act alone helped us to achieve the Punta Union pass at 4750 meters in a good time and with little altitude sickness between us.

However, we all felt the effects of altitude. With half a Diamox morning and evening our extremities fizzed at peculiar times producing numb fingers and tingling lips and toes. Yet headaches were still common amongst the group, coming mostly in the afternoon for me but tormenting poor Kathryn for almost the entire trek. But she managed to complete the trek with a sense of humour and perseverance that genuinely took my breath away.

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When Liam took ill on the third night and Steph and I took shifts in the freezing dark to ensure that he was OK I felt sure that our luck had run out. Yet, in the morning, with a weak Liam on the horse to make sure that he made it to the end, our team voted to complete the trek with him and condensed the last two days into one long 10 hour walk. Even at the end when I was limping far behind they stopped and let me go first so that we could finish the trek together as a team. Their care and concern for others and their team spirit certainly took my breath away.

Of course, the beauty of the Andes also took my breath away. It is a landscape I have never experienced before and really fell in love with. Snow capped peaks towered above turquoise lakes nestled in glacier-forged plains while steep rocky trails and dusty, winding roads led to dramatic high passes and spectacular views. We passed the Paramount Mountain, its distinctive shape used by the Paramount Company in its logo, camping beneath it for a night surrounded by icy streams and green, boggy ground. Everything was still and quiet, the air often filled with eagles (but no condors) and sub-tropical plant life reaching far higher up the mountains than our alpine equivalents. It was wild and heavenly and totally took my breath away.

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Wherever I Lay my Head

On July 6th I became homeless by choice. I know that I will always be welcome somewhere but, by resigning from my job, moving out of my recently rented flat, storing my significant past and giving away my beautiful cat I cut all ties with responsibility and domesticity and liberated my future.

Now, my home is wherever I want it to be. For one month it was Peru.

The Challengers were fascinated by the idea of my homelessness and referred to it regularly, joking at my displacement. But I found it, in turns, invigorating and nerve-wracking.

At one point my home was the Cordillera Blanca: a beautiful Andean region that was home to the mountain Huascaran, a jagged, snow-capped peak approximately 6,700 meters high. Camped beneath it in the thin air of altitude I revelled in the idea of mountains as walls, a starlit ceiling and donkeys as neighbours.

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Another wild and wonderful place I was able to call home was the Pacaya Samira reserve. Home to pink dolphins, turtles, Amazonian kingfishers, macaws, howler monkeys and the tiny community of Yarina, it was a beautiful place to live.

Over nine hours upstream of Nauta and only accessible by long boats that lay shallow in the water to navigate the low water levels and numerous hazards of fallen trees, the World Challenge Team stayed for 6 nights to participate in jungle treks, conservation and community projects.

At night the stars domed above us, unhindered by urban glow, offering us a clear view of the Milky Way and all too brief flashes of falling stars while we watched fire flies and glowworms glitter in the shadows of the encroaching jungle. The rainforest is as I had imagined; dense, soggy, very hot and riddled with biting insects. It is never silent; macaws, bugs, bull frogs and goodness knows what else all vie for supremacy with their squawks and screams, alongside the sounds of ordinary village life: cockerels, dogs, the shouts of the children as they play football and volleyball and the Columba beat of the village DJ!

While I was happy to visit I know I couldn’t settle in a place like that as the itching alone would drive me crazy and the noise, while novel at first, would become an irritation. Plus, going to the toile while attended by mosquitoes, flies and on one occasion, a bat, is not conducive to my peace of mind. Nor is washing myself and my clothes in a slow moving, mud coloured river that is the home to caiman and piranha.

On the plus side, dancing in the regular afternoon showers of fresh, warm rain was a highlight but the full drenching we experienced as part of our jungle trek , while novel, did nothing to encourage me to want to stay longer.

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Hostels were also home for me from time to time. Most were pretty grim: grubby, waterless, even slightly moldy with half working showers and repetitious bread/egg based breakfasts. Some were creepy. Roald Dahl’s ‘Landlady’ attended us in Trajillo and in Lima we were residing in something more like a museum or art gallery that a hostel, with enormous sculptures hiding around corners and bazaar paintings on the wall.

Midway through the trip a cargo boat became my home for two nights. Camped on the top deck (there was no space left to sling a hammock by the time we managed to get onto the right boat) our arrangements looked like a tent village in Glastonbury, crammed together in close quarters with a second World Challenge group. When the heavens opened I felt truly at home so I danced in the rain before retiring to my tent to let the shower pass.

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Sleep came easily here, despite the hot and sticky atmosphere we had created. The rhythm of the engine and the soar of the water past the boat sent me to sleep quite quickly and dockings and groundings barely registered with my consciousness. I was quite relieved not to be on the deck below with the multitude of hammocks and bodies being somewhat reminiscent of a refugee camp although tents on the top deck presented their own challenges: engine vibrations through the floor, some instability in high winds and close proximity to restless Challengers!

Overall, I find that travel frees me from life’s woes and worries; I am able to live in the moment and simply be. If anything, I’ve learnt that I don’t need the trappings of a ‘normal’ life. In fact, I’m at home with myself, and with the world, wherever I am.