Los Cararoles: The journey in pictures

During our winter stays in Chile we would invite friends to come and stay with us.  I am perhaps the world’s worst photographer but thanks to my friend, June, I can display a few photographs of the journey.

This does look like the trails of a snail – Los Caracoles!

Construction happens. Seems to be on-going and necessary too. The sign reads: Welcome to the Republic of Chile.

The lovely Mendoza River meandering beside the highway.

Snow capped mountain in the Andes.  Breathtaking scenery all the way.



Yes we go through tunnels and tunnel-like structures that are specially built to allow rain water and melting snow  to escape.  Thank goodness for that!

June reminded me of the scream I let out at the bus driver as he was attempting to overtake another vehicle on a switchback. In fact, it was not an attempt.  He did, but I did not see it as my eyes were tightly closed. You tell me.  Is this a good place to overtake another vehicle?

I remember writing after our first Andean crossing that going over the Andes was a great adventure that you do only once in a lifetime. Well I lied, because this journey with June was the fourth. On one prior crossing with our friend Mary Lou, there was some excitement as we headed towards Los  Caracoles, those switchbacks.  All of a sudden there was great hullabaloo as people on the right gesticulated and shouted ‘Esta Abierto’! ‘It’s open’ and we found out that as the bus took a turn, the compartment with the suitcases had opened and a suitcase had fallen out. We turned around and there was a battered and broken suitcase with contents spilling over the road.  The driver was relieved that it was one of theirs and not belonging to a passenger!

The scariest part?  Turning around on a postage stamp sized lay-by overlooking a fearsome gorge with a swift flowing river at the bottom.

The Meander: I have not crossed the Andes in Winter.  That will not happen. Yet travel allows you to dare.  To attempt the improbable. To face your fears.


Los Caracoles here we come

Los Caracoles  here we come

The intrepid ones have crossed the Andes by bus!  What an adventure.  These are not hills. How to describe them?  Majestic? Absolutely! Stupendous?  Sure. Verdant?  Not on this Chilean side. They are so bare in places you can see the seams of minerals that abound in them, beautiful in their own way.

We watched the birth of rivers from the snow capped mountain peaks become rushing white waters that morph into dirt coloured roaring rivers carving their way through the crags and fissures of the mighty Andes. The views are magnificent with numerous waterfalls, huge craggy outcrops bereft of sediment, and snow capped vistas so close you think you can touch them.

We were on our way from Santiago, Chile to Mendoza, a city in the Andes in Argentina.   This mountain pass called the Paso Los Libertadores climbs through the Andes to an elevation of approximately 10, 500 feet to a plateau where sits the Customs and Immigration centre at the Chilean/Argentinean border. We had left Santiago where the temperature was 28C nearly four hours prior and now it is 15C.  That is fine.  Food is scarce, snacks only.  That’s fine too.  The line at Passport Control is long as there are six buses ahead of ours and you must first officially exit Chile then join another line about twenty paces to the right for official entry into Argentina.  This is  frustrating but you remain calm as you can’t do anything about it in any case.  Also, it gives your stomach some time to settle as it is the getting to this point that is troublesome, which is the understatement of any year.

Before you can get to this border you would have travelled through a section of this main road called Los Caracoles, the snails.  This road has been designated one of the most winding roads in the world. If you should see it from an airplane it would resemble the coils of a refrigerator.  The hairpin turns turn on themselves.  It is a hair- raising journey.

I am not sure what the signs that indicate the number of the curve you are negotiating are supposed to do.  Will you need to tell a friend to meet you at curve number eight up the Andes Mountain?  Are they to tell you how far you have come?  That may be a possibility except I am convinced that the curve counters cannot count.  I was getting dizzy as we climbed and I was certain we had negotiated at least a few thousand curves when I looked out the window and saw a sign reading ‘curva 21’, curve 21.  Impossible!  Where did they begin their count?   “Those are just Los Caracoles”.  So they say.  Even more harrowing is the fact that there are no guardrails.  I found I was drawing myself up whenever another vehicle approached, as if that could help.  Bert, he who is afraid of heights, kept his eyes closed while I prayed.

After three days in Mendoza it was back on the bus.  I would like to tell you it was easier.  Not at all. The Argentinean side of the mountain is quite different from the Chilean side.  The road meanders beside the Mendoza River and there are grape arbours, farms and many sightings of old abandoned mines. It is a nice slow climb.  However, this is just the calm before the storm as you have to face the downward journey to Santiago.

If you are unfortunate enough to be sitting on the right side of the bus you are treated to seeing the front actually hanging over the edge of the mountain as you hope that the wheels  will remain on the road. Take a peak downward and you see a convoy of snails, trucks, that is, snaking down.  Their cabs are also over the cliffs as they make the turns.  Breathe, just breathe.

We have spent some winters in Chile and have dared to do this round trip journey five times.  It is still terrifying.

The Meander: At the border, I noticed many of us were looking at the seven meter high bronze statue of Christ the Redeemer of the Andes while others looked back towards Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Western and Southern hemispheres. It seemed as if we were suspended between heaven and earth but I did not know which was which.

Bonding with elephants.

Bonding with elephants

“Can I touch her?”

The handler came alongside as I held my hand out to pat the baby elephant.  I marveled at the texture of the trunk and snout.  I petted it and then the handler tells me not to make any sudden movement. I turned my head and there was this huge elephant ambling up.

No need to tell me not to make sudden movements.  I froze.  Was this the mother?  What would happen if she was angry because I was touching her baby?  Where was Bert?  Still feeding a baby?  What could he do really except die with me?  My fellow tourists were calm, still wanting to touch the babies.  My open palms were suspended in air. I could not move.  The handler was softly speaking to the big mama and the baby gave me a little push with her snout. I prayed.

I turned fully and looked at mama elephant and my fear, the pent-up terror was released in a breath.  She looked at me.  Elephants are magical.  No one could be afraid looking at those eyes so full of kindness.  Eyes that spoke of knowledge beyond human ken. Instead of thinking about instant death I wondered instead if she knew I was a mama too.  She made a snuffling sound and elongated her trunk.  I opened my palm and she breathed gently on it.  I smiled.  Her baby snuffled too at my palm. I only had eyes for mama. Emotion welled.  Then she curled her trunk around her baby.  She had finished sharing.  I slowly backed away still looking into those wise eyes. Eyes that knew the futility of asking ‘why’?

The ship was docked in Colombo, Sri Lanka and the tour was Kandy by Motor Coach. It was a full day tour departing very early and returning late.  The tour talk on board ship made it sound very interesting and a ‘must do’ especially when we were told we may be able to feed baby elephants at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage.  At Kandy the great attraction would be a visit to the Temple of the Tooth!

After a two hour drive we arrived at our first stop at Pinnawala.  Feeding time is around 9 a.m. and although I did not feed milk to a baby elephant it was so amusing to see them inhale a bottle of milk in a second.  We listened to the lecture, learned about the orphanage and the work being done and went to view the real feeding.  Leaves, fruit were already at the feeding station and we watched as the elephants came up from the river and went directly to eat.  We had just learned that most of their day is spent eating, bathing, playing and frolicking in the river.

The handlers had sticks but they seemed to be using them as guiding wands, not hurting the elephants in any way. We were told we could approach them.  The path was muddy but that did not matter.  We were all bonding with these magnificent creatures. Then came my moment.  Yes, I could touch them but I was the one touched.

The Meander:  This happened on my birthday in March 2004.  I will never forget it.  What I will also not forget is December 26, 2004 as I watched the Indian Ocean Tsunami that damaged countries from East Africa to Thailand engulf parts of Sri Lanka.  I immediately thought of ‘my’ elephants.  The news reports were unending and then I heard and saw the elephants at Pinnawala who had started to move upwards away from the low lying lands hours before the tsunami hit.  They were all safe.  Elephants are magical.


Have a Madeira M’dear…

Have a Madeira. M’ dear…

…and oh boy did I need it.  My insides were scrambled.    I was scared and my legs were shaking as I gingerly climbed down from the toboggan that had just brought us down from the Botanical Gardens in Madeira. I glanced at Bert and he was peeling his fingers one by one off the bar that he had gripped as he turned a paler shade of white as we descended.  But let’s start at the beginning.

We were on a Transatlantic cruise from Barbados  to Malaga, Spain. We had had a problem on board ship with the water and would be in Madeira earlier and longer than scheduled.   The ship docked at tea time and the island looked so inviting a few of us decided to have dinner ashore.

Four of us were lucky to get Fernando.  My journal says: “taxi driver is Fernando, about 4 ft 2 ins.  and very enthusiastic about his island”.  He was funny, garrulous, a walking encyclopedia of what to see and do on Madeira.  He recommended a restaurant DAVINAS and took us there with a promise to come back for us. This was a seafood restaurant and wonderful, I wrote. I made note too that we had Madeira wine both as aperitif and after dinner drink.

We made a date with Fernando to pick us up next morning for an all day island tour.

The island of Madeira is an autonomous region of Portugal. It is small, very mountainous, flowers always in bloom.  However, if you love the beach then do not go to Madeira.  Rocks, cliffs, craggy outcroppings, wonderful hiking routes on the levadas (irrigation channel found only in Madeira) with amazing views are what you will find in abundance but no good beach.

Fernando was magnificent as he took us around the island and showed us all the sights while peppering us with a running commentary that took in history, social mores, politics and everything in between. At Our Lady of the Mountain in Monte church we saw the tomb of Charles the 1st of Austria.  We had drinks at a restaurant in a Pousada which was located at an elevation of 6000 ft. in the clouds. Literally. We stopped for lunch at Marico, El Padrilo which was surrounded by bougainvillea and where for the first time I tasted passion fruit liqueur.

Fernando then sold us on going up to the Botanical gardens by cable car and coming down by toboggan. We were game.  He would be waiting for us halfway up the mountain where the toboggan ride ended to take us to Madeira wine cellars for a talk and tasting.  Sounded good and off we went.  Bert was not too enthusiastic about the cable car as he is afraid of heights but if I am going then so is he and he was looking forward to coming down on a toboggan.  That would be fun he said.

It was this ‘fun’ toboggan ride that scrambled the insides and resulted in the death grip. The toboggan is actually a wicker basket guided by two men in boaters, white pants and special shoes…think of the gondoliers in Venice but on dry land with you in a basket hurtling down a steep hill of many curves with two mad people running behind.  All you can do is hold on for dear life and pray.  It was wonderful to reach the stop and see Fernando trying desperately not to laugh.  He did not say much as he drove us to the cellars.  Wise man.  We tasted and tasted and after enough Madeira we agreed the toboggan run was sort of ‘fun’. My journal says we bought four bottles of Madeira, two bottles of passion fruit liqueur and two bottles of Vinho Verde.  I wonder now if my insides had settled enough to drink any that night.  I doubt it.

The Meander: We have been back to Madeira three or four times, and have encouraged others to do the ‘run’, but for us once was enough.  Travel to discover, to explore and sometimes to dare.

Turtles are Moms too

Turtles are moms too – Costa Rica

It is as if a large tractor trailer has passed over the beach.  But no.  That cannot be.  Your guide points and you turn toward the sea to see a very large oval sprouting appendages climb laboriously from the water over the beach and upward above the high tide line into the soft sand.  A prehistoric creature, silent, quiet, its head slowly pivots from side to side in time with the huge flippers and legs and the stumpy tail. It looks awkward as it crawls aiming upward to choose a place. It is a slow process.

The creature, a leatherback turtle weighing upwards of 1000 pounds finds a spot and begins to dig.  It is the epitome of patience.  You want to help. But you have been warned, be as quiet as possible, observe but do not touch, absolutely no photographs, give them space and marvel at a wonder of nature.

One hundred or more eggs are laid in the large hole. She makes no sound. Just a slight movement as each egg is expelled into the large nest she has built. Her eyes leak tears which run in rivulets down her cheeks to fall in the sand.  Then tail twitching and flippers working the eggs are completely covered with the fine sand. The women hold hands, the mothers relate in an instinctive manner, bonding in the ritual of giving birth.

Job done, she turns and lumbers back to the sea.  There is a joyous flip, almost a jump as she reaches the surf and rides a wave back to the ocean. She rises and falls, now graceful and balletic in movement as the ocean welcomes her again.

We see eight more turtles come to lay their eggs on Tortuguero in Costa Rica.  We wait as we cross paths with one, yielding to her,  giving her space to make her journey above the tide line to build her nest, to lay her eggs, to do what nature says she must.

Her tears are natural.  The weeping is continuous to clear the sand from the turtle’s eyes as she digs and covers up the nest. To every woman they look like the tears, the pain of childbirth.

Moving, touching, incredible sight, UNFORGETTABLE.

The Meander:  When the eggs hatch only about ten percent make it to sea.  By law, indigenous populations are allowed to harvest a portion of the eggs and there are the poachers too. Then as the hatchlings try to get to the sea many are eaten by birds. It is just so.


Travel Language

Travel language

Bert and I are multilingual speakers in travel language.  Bert actually is proficient in seven languages and I can get by in three and a half. Travel language is different in that it means being able to greet, ask a few very important questions and say goodbye in the language spoken in whatever country you are.  Given our passion for travel we have mastered the stock phrases like  good morning, yes, no, please, thank you, where is the bathroom, a beer please, my name is… in many languages.  

Greek is Greek to me.  Here I was throwing around Kalimera,  Efharisto and parakalo with aplomb to our waiter who was so impressed he offered to teach us more Greek.  He showed us what those words looked like written in Greek.  I looked, I saw and decided this was unconquerable. I was reminded of the oft repeated verse of my high school days when I was studying another ancient language.

Latin is a language

As dead as dead can be

At first it killed the Romans

And now it’s killing me.

Now take Swedish.  Please. It has special significance.  We have family there. I love to hear Swedish spoken but I find it very difficult to learn.  My niece and I have a continuous game.  When we are together I have to say sjukhus and she has to say unbelievable.  For some reason those words are unpronounceable to us in each other’s languages.  She cannot get those syllables coming out the correct way and when I say sjukhus it comes out  ‘cookhouse’.  You should know that sjukhus means hospital. Dissected it seems logical,   sjukhus = sick house= place for sick people = hospital. The Swedish mouth says it so ‘Swedely’.  Coming from my mouth it is bizarre to say the least.  If you are sick would you choose to go to a cookhouse?

Our winter in Bali gave us an opportunity to enhance our vocabulary beyond the norm.  The official language of Indonesia is Bahasa Indonesian, but there are over 300 dialects spoken. We were in Bali so we tried to speak Balinese.  One bonus of our diligence is that  as cruisers we travel on ships with Indonesian crew and they are always pleasantly surprised when right away I greet them in their own language. I can also tell the Balinese the order of their birth by reading their name tags.

In South Africa I seem to understand more than I should in Afrikaans but not isiZulu, the most populous language. Afrikaans is similar enough to the Dutch language that although my husband did not teach me much Dutch I can maneuver through it somewhat. I do not speak Dutch but I could find my way around in The Netherlands and, surprise, South Africa.

The Meander: Travel language is minimal communication that brings a great reward.  Say the simplest word or phrase in the local tongue and the smiles get bigger, the help is forthcoming, the warmth spreads and the welcome more expansive. The effort is very much appreciated