Air Miles Andy, move over!!

So I hit Santiago airport for the second time, and there’s something humorous about the fact that I’ll be here twice more in the week ahead. It’s not really funny, but for some reason it amused me. Actually i think I was just taking solace in humour – I was on my own for the first time since i arrived in Santa Marta, trip day 5, and feeling uneasy. Lonely, actually, if I’m honest.

I took a cab to my hostel; i had a private room booked and was expecting to do little but rest and recuperate post-Rio. It was late and I was hungry, but I was also feeling agitated – that feeling you get in your stomach when you’re stressed about something, that won’t let you eat or sleep even when you really want to do both. God knows, i had nothing to be stressed about, and actually I’d been pretty chilled since my ‘vacation’. Maybe it was just the post-Rio blues. My bed was actually really comfortable but I felt like I had too much energy and wasn’t ready for sleep just yet, so i sat in the common room looking for hotels in Sydney. I was still trying to decide where I wanted to stay and whether i wanted a hostel or hotel – either way, Sydney was going to be bloody expensive! I’d still not made a decision when I was distracted by a couple of guys who had just arrived, a couple of homies from NYC, called (i shit you not) Sinclair and Angel. They were a little full-on, but i spent the next couple of hours talking to them all about my trip so far, and the highs and lows. They were off to Bolivia and wanted tips – since i couldn’t say ‘don’t go’ i offered up the Salt Flats and Death Road as suggestions – they were the best bits! I crashed into bed at 1am; unfortunately my room had no air con so i had to open a window. Even more unfortunately, there was a bar across the street with lots of people outside making a racket, and when the people eventually stopped at around 4am, the stray dogs started howling. I got maybe an hour’s sleep and the next morning, in a fit of sheer temper, i booked myself 4 nights at the Shangri La in Sydney. Bit of a waste for just me, but I’d had a gut-full of slumming-it.

My objectives for the day didn’t extend beyond getting cash and feeding myself. I’d heard that ATM facilities on Easter Island were very limited, and since I’d already had issues finding one i could get money from in Chile I’d best make sure i had this covered before i got on the plane. Firstly, however, i had to move rooms. My first thoughts when i was advised they wanted to do maintenance on my room and therefore move me, were ungracious to say the least. I was starting to feel quite rough and suspected I’d caught Angie’s cold. However i was being upgraded, so I’d live with it. As it turned out, i was upgraded to a self-contained apartment, which was really lovely and had everything i needed to make myself at home for the next 24 hours including … a bathtub!!! I practically skipped to the supermarket to buy bubble bath and a bottle of red.

As predicted, getting cash in Chile proved difficult, and i tried several ATM machines without success. Given that Easter Island was going to be costly, this was potentially a bit of a problem. Then i remembered the wad of Brazilian currency that i was still carrying after having overestimated how much I would need to get me through carnival. It wasn’t enough, but it would certainly help so i set off in search of a Forex, and was pretty chuffed when they gave me a marginally better rate than the one on XE – how often does that happen?!

Since i had the apartment i decided on a cosy night in, and ran a bath while i whipped up a simple pasta with tomato, fresh basil and Parmesan cheese. Then i ate it in the bath with a large glass of red wine. Simple pleasures, but i really enjoyed myself. Then i lay in the huge kingsize bed watching old episodes of CSI.

At 6am the next morning i was in a cab and on my way back to Santiago airport. Here we go again!! Easter Island is around a 5hr flight from Santiago. It’s roughly half way between Santiago and Tahiti, since flying to either will take the same amount of time. At 5hrs flying time from the nearest population centre, Easter Island is the most remote inhabited island in the world. Its remoteness and inaccessibility make it a highly desirable traveller destination, but getting there can be a challenge given the cost of the flights which can weigh-in at up to £1000, or even more during summer. However, there is a loophole, which i was happy to exploit. Since LAN Chile operate flights to Easter Island and are part of the ‘One World’ group, anyone travelling on a round-the-world ticket with One World can get this flight included at no extra charge – you just have to watch your mileage. Needless to say, I squeezed just about every possible mile out of mine (not counting the extra flights around Columbia and from Santiago to BA), so i think i got a pretty good deal! The flight was pretty comfortable – i settled in with a cup of tea and a cake and watched ‘Argo’, which apparently just took the Oscar for ‘Best Picture’ and deservedly so.

As we were making our final approach i looked out of the window to get a look at the Island, and was surprised that i could actually see all of it – it really isn’t very big!! In fact, it’s tiny at just 63.2 square miles, with a population of less than 6000. The airport is tiny, and as we disembarked I noticed that people were being met by their relatives on the tarmac – can’t imagine that happening anywhere else!! My host was there to collect me as I exited the airport with my luggage. Alvaro is a native of the island, although he lived in Sydney for a number of years. His parents own the hostel where I was staying, and his family have an interesting history and are quite famous within the community, mostly for work done by Alvaro’s grandfather, who at one time had been mayor. I think he was responsible for bringing palm trees to the island from Tahiti, and erecting the first of the fallen Moai statues (he subsequently believed he was cursed as a result). His wife, Alvaro’s grandmother, is the oldest woman on the island at 100 years old. And she’s still feisty – this I know first hand! I was greeted with a traditional flower necklace, and then Alvaro drove me to the hostel, stopping to point out all the places I might need, including restaurants, supermarkets, the pharmacy, ATMs and the beach. I’d made a good call with the hostel – I was going to be well looked-after!

I decided to spend the afternoon exploring the locality, well it was all pretty local but I mean the part I coud walk to in sandals. I set off in the direction of the ‘beach’ – a lung-full of sea air was just what I needed since I’d started to snivel quite badly, and was now pretty sure I’d caught Angie’s ‘Rio Flu’. I walked down to the shore and discovered that there wasn’t a beach as such (there’s actually only one sand beach on the island), but that the rocks formed a beautiful natural swimming pool on the edge of the shore. Beyond the rocks, the surfers paddled waiting for the next big wave. I sat for a while watching the swimmers and surfers, and then walked along the shore to a small harbour where a bunch of fishing boats were tied. Beneath the boats I could see shoals of brightly coloured fish, and every now and then something dark would break the surface close to the boats. It took me a while to realise that these dark shapes were the heads of sea turtles – big ones! Think I was going to like it here …

Down by the little harbour I got my first look at a ‘Moai’ – the reason I dragged my ass all the way out to the middle of Pacific Nowhere. The Moai or ‘Mo’ai’ are monolithic human figures carved by the Rapa Nui people from rock between the years 1250 and 1500. Nearly half are still at Rano Raraku, the main Moai quarry, but hundreds were transported from there and set on stone platforms called ahu around the island’s perimeter. They are chiefly the living faces (aringa ora) of deified ancestors (aringa ora ata tepuna). Thank you Wikipedia!! Everyone’s seen the photos of the Moai, in magazines or on TV. They are on the list of things I never actually expected to be able to see for myself, so to actually be there and be able to make my own pictures was, well, pretty awesome actually! There were 2 Moai at the harbour, one looking a lot less weathered than the other. The statues around Easter Island are all in varying states of erosion, and conservationists are currently working on ways to preserve them. I walked further along the coast to a spot that is apparently perfect for watching the sunset. I had just missed the island’s week-long festival, and they were in the process of dismantling a large stage. Apparently the previous night had seen the biggest fireworks display ever on the island. Trust me to rock up a day late for the party! I grabbed lunch at a local restaurant which served great shrimp empanadas (fried, but still great), and then headed home via a supermarket. I was starting to feel pretty rough and had a feeling I wouldn’t be going out tonight. I’d arranged a full-day tour of the island with Alvaro for the next day, so an early night was in order!

The next morning, the cold had gone full-blown. However, I was here for a reason so today I would suck it up. I had two more days to relax afterwards. I got into the car with Alvaro and a Chilean guy called Ivan, and headed out for a day of hardcore sightseeing followed by, hopefully, a little bit of beach! First stop was a local grocery store where they make fantastic empanadas – they only make empanadas one day a week, and they are baked, just the way I like ’em! With lunch in the bag, we were off to spend the morning visiting some of the coastal sights where the Moai currently stand, and have stood in the past. Some of these were more impressive than others – there’s not much left to see in some places now, but you can see where the Moai used to stand on their ahus. Statues, or no, the thing that really took my breath away was the scenery – it really is absolutely beautiful, a little slice of Polynesian heaven! I’ve been to some amazing places and seen some beautiful beaches but nowhere, ever, have I seen the ocean so blue. Unfortunately my camera doesn’t quite do it justice, so you’ll have to take my word for it – it was absolutely stunning. Not the turquoise blue you get in the Caribbean or Indian Ocean, but deep topaz or cornflower blue. And so clear you can see every detail of the bottom. I stood on the edge of the cliff and stared along the coastline – the sun, sitting in an almost cloudless blue sky, was reflecting off the water and sparking, and I thought it must be ones of the most beautiful places I have ever been. It was at that point that I really felt, for the first time, that I was a long way from home. A long way in fact from everyone and everything that I care about. I felt that unsettled feeling again, but only briefly – it was time for me to snap out of it, get a grip and get back in the car!

After lunch, it was time for the good stuff! Most of the statues, and a lot of the ones you see photos of, are still in the quarry at Rano Raraku where they were carved, yet to be moved. They are commonly referred to as the ‘Easter Island heads’, but they actually do have bodies buried beneath the earth, which has protected them from erosion. The average Moai is about 4 metres tall and weighs about 12 tonnes. There is one unfinished statue in the quarry however, the biggest ever made’ which would be around 21 metres tall when erect – it’s absolutely huge!! Apparently only a quarter of the statues were erected. Half remain in the quarry, and the others can be found lying around the island, apparently in transit to their final resting places but for some reason never made it. The jury is still out on how the statues were moved, but there are certainly plenty of theories! Ivan and I walked around the quarry snapping away – not sure how many photos we took between us, but it was too much for my iphone which decided it wasn’t going to store anything else! We were very lucky, in that we had the place almost to ourselves. I felt incredibly privileged, as although Easter Island is a bit of a mission to get to, the flights come over pretty full! I’d expected it to be a bit more like Machu Picchu or the Salt Flats in Bolivia in terms of having to fight with lots of other tourists to get my shots, but we were extremely fortunate and I managed to get some great shots without any people in them! We pretty much walked around in stunned awe, but Alvaro had something else to show us and we climbed to the high point of the quarry and looked in the direction he was pointing. Some distance away on the coast but clearly visible, we could see Ahu Tongariki – the largest ahu on the island and one of its most famous sights with 15 Moai sitting atop. One word – wow!

Back in the car we were on our way to get a closer look at Ahu Tongariki. This site has actually been restored after a tsunami swept the Moai inland back in 1960, and there are 15 Moai standing now. Only one of them still has his ‘Pukao’ (headdress or topknot), as it wasn’t known to which of the statues the others belonged and to get it wrong would have been regarded as unbelievably disrespectful. Apparently one of these guys is the heaviest Moai ever, weighing in at around 82 tonnes. Any idea which one he is? Me neither. Once again, we got lucky and had the sight almost completely to ourselves.

By late afternoon it was hot and we were tired, so Alvaro took us to the island’s only sandy beach, where we swam in the warm pacific water and stretched out to dry on the white sand. This was the first place that was really busy – it was a weekend, so all the locals were at the beach! There were another group of Moai here, which we thought looked a bit fake, on the basis that the edges were so sharp and the definition in their faces was really quite good. Apparently this is so because they had been preserved by the sand, and sand is apparently a pretty good preservation agent! I went to bed that night feeling really satisfied – another item off the list, and one of the more difficult ones.

The next morning, I woke up feeling like shit. Rio Flu had well and truly caught hold, and I wanted to curl up and die. However, I was on Easter Island and i was very likely ever to make that trip again, so i’d damn well better get out there and enjoy it! I headed down to the coast, via the pharmacy. With my limited Spanish I managed to communicate the issues (actually it was more hand gestures and funny faces than use of Spanish), and I left with enough drugs to take down an elephant. I spent the next 2 days lying in the sun at the edge of the natural swimming pool, getting up whenever I got too hot to take a dip in the warm Pacific water, which felt like it had heeling properties. These’s something about the sun and sea air when you have a cold – it makes everything feel better somehow, even if it actually isn’t! I spent my last day at the island trying to get as much rest and as much tan as possible. My flight was due to leave just after midnight, and the journey was expected to take around 30 hours (bleurghhhhh!). This is where I started really stacking up the airmiles – between here and Bali i was going to feel like I was perpetually in motion!

I waved a sorry goodbye to Easter Island – like Ilha Grande, i feel sure i’d have got stuck there a while if i’d turned up there without a schedule. Unfortunately though I did have one, and I had to be in Sydney for a birthday party in just a couple of days. I left Easter Island first thing wednesday morning, and arrived in Sydney early evening Thursday having crossed the international date line. 5 hours to Santiago, 7 hours on the ground and then 14 hours to Sydney had just about killed me, and I was half deaf from the congestion in my ears. The flight hadn’t been particularly relaxing because the stupid cow sitting in the window seat had picked really inopportune times to go to the bathroom. She would wake up the guy in the middle seat and me, and also the 2 guys sitting in front of us because (being fat as well as stupid), she couldn’t climb out with their seats reclined. We let her out, and then wouldn’t be able to relax again until she came back, and she didn’t come back for the best part of an hour. God knows what she was doing in there – I can only speculate that she got her arse stuck in the toilet. Anyway, I was glad to arrive in Sydney.

I got my first taste of how expensive Sydney was going to be when my cab from the airport cost me 50 dollars. Ok, not ideal, probably should have got the train, but at that point I was too tired to care. The fun wasn’t over yet though, and I almost burst into tears when my credit card was declined checking in to the hotel. After hastily transferring money between accounts I managed to use my debit card, silently cursing at the additional 2 per cent the bank would charge me. There was a moment of panic when that was declined too, but after I convinced the check-in clerk that when it asks for a pin it ACTUALLY NEEDS IT, i had a key in my hand and a room upgrade. Despite initially feeling I had been a bit frivolous with the hotel, I was so glad i’d booked it. Apart from the amazing view of the Opera House that came with my upgrade, it was wonderful to be able to lie in a hot, deep bath before sliding into a huge and ridiculously comfortable bed and order dinner and a movie at the touch of a button. Only I didn’t get to do any of that on the first night – I had business in Sydney and it was time to drag a change of clothes on and meet Elsa and Tom in the Blu Bar on the 36th floor!

I’ve been away for a long time, but within 10 minutes I felt like i’d never left! Noting has changed, and seeing friends was good for the soul given i’d been feeling a bit lost since Rio. I managed to get 2 glasses of wine and some pizza down before hitting the mattress for an early-ish night – I had stuff to do the next day. No rest for the wicked! I went out like a light as soon as my head hit the pillow, and woke up feeling pretty refreshed if still full of cold. I looked at the clock, and to my horror it was 1.30am. Bloody typical, i was having enough problems with the cold and I didn’t need to add jetlag to the mix. I tossed and turned, dozing on and off for the next few hours. Finally I gave up at 7am and made myself a cup of tea. I ordered myself some breakfast, and ate my eggs florentine in front of the tv with a pot of Earl Grey tea. Plans for today were to meet Elsa and Tom for Brunch, and then go costume shopping. The theme for the party was ‘nautical’.

‘Bruch’ actually consisted of a cup of coffee. My appetite was decidedly off, which is unusual as I normally want to eat everything including the furniture when I have a cold. I just about made it back to the hotel before I got sick, and spent th next hour sweating away on the bathroom floor with my face pressed against the tiles. Hmm, maybe it really is the flu! Plans for costume shopping were swiftly abandoned, and I headed out to the pharmacy and to grab some cash. Armed with a fresh supply of drugs with English instructions, I staggered off to find an ATM. It wasn’t hot outside, but I could feel the sweat running down my back and I just wanted to go back to the hotel and suffer in private. After 3 unsuccessful ATM attempts I was done – I couldn’t be bothered to play the ATM game again, so I would just have to call the bank when they opened. I spent the rest of the day in bed, ordering room service when I got hungry and eating 2 bites of it before pushing the tray outside the door. 8pm and time to call the bank – I knew something was up when I was transferred straight through to ‘special investigations’, who enquired whether I had used my card on the 21st February in Brazil. Since i’s arrived in Sydney on 21st and had actually left Brazil a week before, it was apparent that my card had been cloned in Rio. My account was henceforth in lockdown, and the card was useless. Great. Perfect. Just what I need. I’m not really surprised given how many ATMs I had to try in Brazil to find one that would actually give me cash. luckily nothing was taken from my account, and it could have been worse – it could have happened in Columbia at the start of the trip. Now THAT would have been a problem!

Anyway, the next day was Saturday – party day. The costume shopping mission was quite successful, and at 3pm I was looking into my mirror to see ‘vixen pirate wench’ looking back at me. I was going to need another suitcase for all my fancy dress costumes. The party was being held on a sailing ship on Sydney harbour, and had it been a beautiful sunny day it would have been absolutely amazing. As (my) luck would have it … the wind was howling and it was raining sideways. Things really hadn’t been going my way lately! Weather conditions aside, everyone did manage to enjoy themselves, although towards the end I couldn’t stand to be outside in the cold and wind so had to retire below decks to face the seasickness. After docking we all headed to a bar where the party continued. It’s great fun being the sober one when all your friends are pissed, and since I was feeling too dreadful to drink I was pretty much stone cold. There are some funny photos from this, although since I didn’t take any of them I haven’t been able to publish them here. I put in a valiant effort, but unfortunately was in bed by 10.30. Pretty upsetting given I rearranged my whole agenda around the party, but I guess that’s Murphy’s Law in action. That Murphy dude was a real wanker.

The next day I managed to drag myself out for dim sum, which was some of the best dim sum I’ve had for a long while. It was also probably the cheapest meal I had in Sydney. Now at this point, I’m afraid it all gets rather boring. You see, I’ve not been able to shake this flu, and in fact it’s been worse since the day out on the boat. I therefore spent the rest of my time in Sydney in bed (at least I was making the most of the hotel room), before I flew to Melbourne the next day. The Melbourne trip was a late addition to my agenda, and was written in purely to congratulate my friend Lucy on her engagement and forthcoming wedding, and catch up with some friends I’d made on the trip. Basically the 3 days I spent in Melbourne were either spent in bed or eating – Mexican with Lucy on Monday, Thai with Angela and Angelica on Tuesday, and good honest pub grub with Josie on Wednesday. It was really great to catch up with everyone, and from what I saw of Melbourne it’s a great city – I should think I’ll go back in the not too distant future, when I’m in a fit state to get out and explore a bit more. It was also a good opportunity to bounce some ideas around for the next trip, or at least the next adventure, but more about that as it unfolds … watch this space, 2014 could be another epic year!

So now I’m back in Sydney. Actually I’m sitting in the lounge at Shangri La having checked out of my room, waiting until it’s time to go to the airport and get on yet another plane. If I was planning this trip over again I wouldn’t have squashed so many flights together – I’m still half-dead with the flu and all the travelling isn’t helping me get any better. Still, I have 2 weeks of sunshine ahead in Bali, and 2 weeks with no busses or planes. Time for another vacation …!

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