I've always wanted to speak five languages. It's an arbitrary number, but if you include English and Japanese, which I already speak, Spanish and perhaps Arabic and Mandarin, you could go almost anywhere in the world and be able to converse with locals. This week, I started on the path to Spanish fluency by enrolling in classes at Antiguena Academy in Guatemala. I was recommended to start in Guatemala because the people speak slowly and clearly compared to other Latin American countries, and Antigua because it's such a quaint, friendly city. I'm not sure whether Antiguena is the best school, but it's cheap, they arrange daily cultural activities on top of the lessons, and my teacher makes the classes interesting. In one week, we've covered all present tense verb forms and a number of useful phrases. That may be fast because I've studied Spanish before (then lost it learning French while living in Belgium), but it seems to be the standard curriculum. Best of all, the classes are held in a private garden on the edge of town, with fifty teacher-student pairs scattered throughout. It's ringing with laughter, yet otherwise tranquil. Tostadas and other local dishes are available very cheaply during the morning break, when students gather on the garden's lawn to catch up and plan their weekends. I plan to spend a few weeks here, but am open to studying in other towns in Guatemala or further afield. Do you know of other Spanish schools worth trying in Latin America? What's good about them?
My new home is on the northern edge of Antigua, hidden behind a metal workshop and surrounded by greenery. The open-air home is walled well enough to keep out the dust of the town, but the raised roofs allow fresh air to flow down from the rooftop patio, past the dormitory-style bedrooms to the kitchen and living spaces on the ground floor. I’m currently sharing the first floor with the owner’s brother and two other students, which leaves four free rooms. The family sleeps in similar accommodation on the ground floor. For US$85 per week, I’m provided with 3 meals a day, 6 days per week and plenty of opportunity for practising Spanish. I start lessons tomorrow, so my attempts so far have been pretty poor, but last night we worked through my story of drinking mice in Peru.
Carob trees along the Turkish coast hum with bees busily gathering pollen. Internet reviews claim that carob honey is something special, so it's strange that the many apiaries we came across advertised their pine honey. Our guide called out to each of these, and was invariably asked when he thought the tourists would return, since that is how they make their money. Vedat couldn't give them good news--the political instability was likely to keep tourists away despite the serenity of the area--but they appeared to maintain a good humour. At one point, Vedat asked if we could taste the honey, and was promptly brought a plate full along with four teaspoons. The honey had a distinct, piney flavour, and it was difficult to stop at just a couple of spoonfuls. I would have bought some, but there was no way I'd get the hand-sealed jars through Australian Customs. Unfortunately, the commercial, sealed jars are a blend of whatever honey comes in at the time, which wouldn't have helped these local apiarists and had little appeal to me as a souvenir. Bees weren't the only insects of note. At every meal while on the coast, Dave and I were constantly swiping away wasps. Apparently attracted to our water, the few that found us each time were so persistent that I felt the need to watch every time I put a fork to my mouth in case I swallowed one and it gave up it's friendly nature. I needn't have worried. They never stayed with the food.
Each day of our walk on the Lycian Way, a different dog joined us. It would spot us leaving town and trot to catch up, then lope along side us until it was sure of acceptance. The one admiring the view joined our guide, Vedat, and me as we arrived in town, then turned back to greet Dave and Julie when it heard them following. It slept on the couch outside our hotel room, then followed us for 17km the next day. Whether it had a collar or an ear tag, or was clearly a stray, each dog was well behaved with friendly eyes and nary a bark. They all had the same hopeful, but not expectant, look in their eye when we produced food from our packs, and would lap water from Vadet's hand when he poured some from his camelbak. Vadet told us of a time he'd received a call soon after arriving at his hotel. The caller asked after a dog that had followed them for five hours. Vadet began a defensive explanation of how the dog had followed of its own accord, and the owner assured him that it was a frequent occurrence but he'd appreciate if the dog were kept at the hotel until he could pick her up. The dog was nowhere to be seen, but a couple of hours later the owner called to say that the dog had found its way home. The dog in the tunnel escorted us on a walk along Pigeon Valley in Cappadocia. It climbed like a mountain goat and knew a network of secret tunnels. It would disappear into the scrub on one side of a hill and appear ahead of
I came to Turkey to clear my head by walking one of the best tracks in the world. The Lycian Way (pronounced Lickian) is over 500km long, but we've just done 70km of it from Kayakoy to Sydima over four days. I had expected to be walking fairly close to the coast, swimming regularly along the way, but the terrain rises steeply out of the sea, so we frequently climbed to 700m and had to suffice with the spectacular views of clear water nuzzling verdant hills. The rocky scree made walking more difficult than the average tourist would like, but the views and the Turkish people made it all worthwhile. Our guide, Vedat of Alternatif, kept us company each evening, helping to translate conversations with our B&B hosts, and sharing his knowledge of the country and any topic (music, in my case) we wanted to delve into. Our hosts were universally welcoming, usually making us feel like part of the family or old friends rather than visitors.
After a day resting by the hotel pool, today we returned to the adventure theme. A bus picked us up at 7:15 and took us to get fitted with harness and helmet. For the next 3 hours, we traversed 10 ziplines through the Angkor park. The gear was all top-notch and the entire enterprise as safety conscious as the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb. Our guides had been with the company right from the start, carrying wood, and hauling materials up to the treetops. I asked how people were chosen for this work, whether they'd had any experience with rope work prior to Gibbons. Apparently the main criteria were good English and fitness. Despite a fear of heights, I never felt uncomfortable. In fact, the highest point at 45m felt more like 10m, because the canopy of trees below is so dense it appears to be scrub on a hillside. The guides are so focussed on safety that they are not allowed to be distracted even for photos, but at stops, they would talk about the nature around us, pointing out the variety of trees, the squeal of cicadas and, back on ground, even drew a tarantula out of its hole. The day comes at a hefty price compared to other local activities, but it's well worth the money.
We finished our tour with a ride into the ancient city to visit three major complexes. The first, and most famous, was Angkor Wat, which, aside from the tourists, was as beautiful as it's known to be. Our guide, who was a uniformed official, explained that it was built on volcanic rock for stability, but adorned with sandstone to allow the intricate carvings of three-headed elephants and Apsara dancers. The restoration work funded by Japan and Germany integrates well with the original stone, though it will need a few years of moss to disappear. The hour wait to get to the top of the main temple was too long for all but the most avid temple enthusiasts, but the view over the treetops did provide a certain tranquility. Writing 2 days later, Angkor Thom has already faded in my memory. It was built later than Wat, but without the volcanic foundations, so it has slipped further into ruin. Here I asked our guide about the colours used in the heyday, but unlike Mayan culture, the Angkor people left the stone in its natural state. The final ruin, whose name I will need to look up, was my favourite, and not just because a busty Lara Croft once ran through its corridors. Strangler Figs and other strong trees had taken up residence, perched on top of buildings and draping their roots down walls into the earth below. Cicadas let out a constant high pitched squeal, in contrast to the rhythmic tenor of their Australian cousins. The jungle gave this site a sense of age the previous two only hinted at. To finish the day, we returned to Angkor, where the late afternoon light turned walls and
Cambodia hass definitely been hotter than Vietnam, though that may be because we've been on open roads. Long dusty, bumby stretches leave us coated in red and dry of throat. As in Vietnam, people call out 'hello' as we ride by, chilren running to wave or touch the foreigner's hands. They spend their days in the shade under their stilted houses. I assumed that the stilts implied regular flooding, but Polo told me that's a secondary consideration. The primary reason for getting the houses off the ground is to get closer to the gods - the more affluent the family, the higher the house. Shade for family, motorbike and livestock is a happy bi-product. We stopped at a river where a local man fished with a net while his sons did somersaults into the water and dove off each others' shoulders. The fish he caught were tall and flat like an angel-fish and small enough to belong in a goldfish bowl, but they were clearly intended as food. He practised his English with us while he worked. For a country that lost all its educated people thirty years ago, they are doing well.
The road between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap is always under construction. Apparently the government uses it as a way to get funding from other countries, but most funds go into official's pockets. The materials used are poor, so by the time the road is finished, work must start again. This meant that we could only ride 40km today, which was a relief because their was little cover and the heat was oppressive. Instead, we visited a number of temples including a complex on a hill, which looked like it cost all the money collected for the road. Tall marble spires decorated with three-headed elephants and busty women housed 4000 Buddha statues. Hundreds of locals had turned out in their best clothes to donate food and money to the temple, presumably because it was harvesting time. Other temples on this path were in dire need of repair after being destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, and were presumably left that way as a reminder. My favourite temple, earlier in the day, was much quieter, with a large pond and a building stacked with carved wooden statues, A group of people sat on the steps to one side of the building, palms pressed together in prayer, while a monk threw buckets of water over them. I asked if I could join them and soon became the target for most of the water. On such a hot day, that was all the blessing I needed.
No cycling today since we had to cross the border from Vietnam to Cambodia, a journey that took 4 hours by speedboat. We had to disembark at two separate ports for customs out of Vietnam and in to Cambodia respectively. Our new guide, Polo, met us in Phnom Penh and took us on an atrocity tour. First stop was another killing field, but this time one specifically intended for the purpose. Second stop was S-21, a prison for suspected spies and their families - the order chosen mainly to avoid peak hour traffic. The history was too convoluted for me to follow, but the relevant aspects were that Pol Pot came into power in 1975 and advised people to leave the cities for a few days because the US were planning to bomb them. Once the people were away from their homes, and in many cases isolated from their families, he turned them all into slaves, forcing them to grow rice. They were also only allowed to eat rice porridge, and anyone seen munching on a grasshopper found in the paddies would be punished. Punishment usually involved being move to a prison to be tortured. S-21 was one such prison. The Khmer Rouge destroyed temples, factories and education institutions, but some of these, including S-21 (an old school) were converted to prisons. Anyone disobeying orders or believed to be educated was brought to these prisons to be tortured until they confessed to being spies for the CIA or KGB. Once they confessed, they were taken to the killing fields. In the killing fields, groups were made to dig their own grave, then blindfolded and made to kneel in beside the hole. They were then beaten