Saturday, June 23, 2012

-- Ciao Italia! (Part 1: Venice) --

It had been four and half years since my last swimming competition back in Sao Paulo when in 2008, swam my best at the South American Championships, then I decided I would quit swimming for a while and focus in some other things like my last year in college and my job.

Little I knew about that phrase: "Once a swimmer , always a swimmer" so after my journey through the world started and as soon after I set roots in Ireland , a particular interest in being fit started and I kept on swimming regularly.

The opportunity of competing on a World Master Championships arose this year as I had finally turned 25 years old. Qualifying time reached easily and my mind sailed onto that direction for months.
Entries were organized long ago and with the help of our lovely Ryanair, I managed to book very cheap tickets into Milan Bergamo airport.

Everything set, training done (the best I could anyway) and excitement as it utmost, I took an early departure from the already crowded Dublin airport which was overflowing with fans flying to Poland for Ireland's first match at the Euro 2012. Then over the United Kingdom , Paris, Basel and the Swiss Alps welcomed our final descent into Bergamo while Lake Como shined in between heavy rain black clouds and completed the scenic descent into this tiny airport.

Bergamo or Orio al Serio Airport lays some 60km away from Milan where I was going to catch my train south to Riccione where the competition was taking place.
Little I knew about my change of plans and as soon as I saw a train departure to Venice just right besides my train , I decided to pay my first visit to the Romantic Capital of the World, alone.

FrecciaBianca train, featuring electric plugs and a very eclectic crowd of passengers took around three hours in between hills and small villages and onto big cities until a long bridge welcomed us into Venezia Santa Lucia train station.

I had booked a hotel through my iPhone on the train so I knew where I was going. Minutes after leaving the train and just as soon as I left the train station, my first big shock: a big canal with classic postcard-style gondolas, medieval architecture and bridges just in front of me. It looked a bit like a mirage really and completely unexpected in my mind to find such a picturesque scene just outside the train station.

My mind was blown by the landscape and a rush of energy invaded my body as I dragged the little carry-on luggage through narrow streets , bridges and over canals and gondolas. Venice appeared to be everything I had expected and I was finally being part of it.

Few more narrow streets and with the help of my phone's map, I finally made to the hotel, just hidden in between the streets and close to Rialto bridge, left my luggage in the room , wore some comfortable flip flops and camera in hand , decided to explore this unique city.

Made my way through narrow alleyways and streets following the signs stating "Rialto" which would bring you from corridor to corridor, to bridges, to squares surrounded by chapels and churches and underneath very rustic old balconies, open windows and laundry hanging off clothes line facing the street.

Bumped into the Main Canal (or what I think it is) where several crowded "vaporettos" (their public transport shuttle in the water,  as the city has no buses) fought their way around with slow and charming gondolas with their romantic golden details and couples smooching around.
On its shore , several cozy restaurants serving all kind of fancy dishes, seafood and coffees packed with tourists and passing strangers making its way to Rialto, the largest bridge in town.

The sight of a beautiful white medieval style bridge with two big slopes on each side made the day of the tourists on it , making it look just like a bunch of pigeons holding onto a cable on the street.
Taking a decent picture here seemed a bit of a challenge but I made it after a while.

Just a few alleys down and I reached the stunning Piazza San Marco. A world icon , the place works as an immense open space surrounded by top end shops, restaurants and galleries on three of its sides and the even more impressive San Marco Cathedral on one of them.

Just besides the Cathedral , a massive orange bricked tower with a pyramidal green roof complete the landscape. For some minutes, I just stood in the middle of everything and felt like time froze for a few seconds while the warm oceanic breeze was blowing and some classical music was being played by some very talented musicians in one of the corners.

Some more pictures taken and I headed towards the Cathedral to take a look at its very well preserved artwork on its facade and then on to another Main Canal where bigger boats were roaming around and the waves were crashing against the very shallow shores.

Thought about following this Canal all the way down to Accademia bridge, while enjoying a nice gelatto to fight the heat and humidity of the late afternoon.
Walked around this beautiful and quiet part of the city while a massive cruise liner made its way through the main canal for the delight of the tourists having an early dinner.

My legs were already tired and following a suggestion from a friend, I took a "vaporetto" on its circular route to chill out and enjoy the views of the city from the water. Peak time for doing this, I saw some very interesting local manner manifestations in between amused tourists with them.

Sunset in San Marco after an hour on the boat and a light seasick feeling, time to get to the hotel for some rest, or at least I thought I would until my roommates arrived and we decided to have dinner together.

Two backpackers from Finland and a guy from Australia became great company as we had a nice dinner with seafood, pasta and cheap wine, underneath beautiful vineyards and with an interesting and amusing conversation about traveling and language barriers.

They went drinking afterwards. I could barely stay awake. Time to hit the hay. Early morning departure to Riccione via Bologna meant I had to wake up as early as 4:00am.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

-- VVI - LIM - SJO - SAL - JFK - DUB --

Two weeks after the eventful Uyuni trip and after a short trip to the rainforest with my father and brother,  it was time to go back to reality which meant going back to Ireland.

A row of good-bye parties and dinner meetings with friends took place before I could hug my mother and stepfather and say those sad "I'll see you later" words again at the airport departures lounge in the cold early morning. This time with the feeling of accomplishment and relief of going to a place I could call home and the promise of visiting them more often. So even though I felt sad of leaving them, I knew everything was going to be alright.

The journey started with an early flight across the Andes to Lima again, where the fog descending from the mountains created a nice view from some great snaps.

Just a few hours wait (again with the free wi-fi) while the day picked up and a stunning sunshine made its way revealing the Pacific Ocean just behind the airport, it was time for me to board my second flight of the day to San Jose de Costa Rica, most of which I spent sleeping after a heavy but oddly tasty meal.

As the hills of San Jose Alajuela welcomed our flight, the little delay on departure from Lima made me along with other fellow passengers to run across the airport terminal and board our connecting flight to San Salvador which was fully booked.
Also came to my attention that this flight was operated with only male cabin attendants, not something you see quite often in Latin American carriers.

Short but bumpy hop across Central America, the sun set behind us on approach to San Salvador International where I had to clear security three times as the last flights of the day were departing to the United States and South America.

My mind was already tired of all the flying but there was the last leg of the race for today and it was our four and a half flight to New York JFK which departed a little bit delayed and took us over the Gulf of Mexico and onto North American territory while a nice dinner was served and two very cheesy "chick-flicks" were played, won't lie that I actually watched all of them out of my boredom.

The lights of Manhattan made their way through our windows as we approached and landed into a very quiet and deserted JFK airport. It was already 2:00am in the morning and only 19 hours after I had started flying.
Made my way to JetBlue terminal 5 where I set my backpack as a pillow/mattress and enjoyed the free wi-fi to pass time and relax until 5:00 in the morning when I took the subway into town to meet my mom's friend for a quick breakfast.

Manhattan looked as busy as usual as people were just heading into work and the city was waking up from its lethargic cold night.
Just met her outside Madison Square Garden for a coffee and a nice bagel, followed by some last retail therapy in Macy's just near Times Square as my three-t-shirt-and-jeans combo was needing a holiday and some retirement.

Just a short walk away , my Irish friend from the UN was waiting for me to have our last lunch in the beautiful Amish Market where a conversation about the holidays took place while a plate full of fresh salads and meats was enjoyed at its best.

My mind was getting sleepy at this time, so it was time to say good-bye to this continent and head back to the airport. I incredibly felt asleep on the train and almost missed my station down in Jamaica Bay.
Sun was shining timidly in this very cold and wintery afternoon. Boarded my flight with no hassle or any TSA drama.

"Shamrock Heavy" was actually fully booked and thanks to some powerful tail winds, flight was gonna take just under 5 hours across the pond. I couldn't really notice as a very nice conversation with my seat colleague from England and Dance student made me forget about time until dinner time, when I finally collapsed waking up just minutes before landing.

Final descent into Dublin International and the rain and fog started to kick in. A few minutes later we were just clearing immigration into the brand new terminal. No further questions asked, a big cheeky smile from the agent and I was indeed back in my new home.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

-- Moon Accident --

After a night of odd noises around our room and some well-needed rest in the most old and uncomfortable beds you could ever imagined, we had a quick breakfast in order to endure for the third day of the trip.

I was feeling a bit sick, consequence of the altitude. Just remembered my years of swimming when we used to be told the third day was always the worse as the body is starting to make changes in metabolism to cope with the thin air and it can be a bit uncomfortable for some people.

We drove down the road and heading towards to border with Chile into a land in the middle of nowhere. No trees in sight but a jungle of rocks and a landscape resembling the Moon or even Mars. First stop was Valle de Piedra (Stone Valley) where erosion over thousands of years created the most amazing shaped stones I have ever seen. Figures resembling condors (Andean eagle) , tigers, half donuts and arches played with our minds and our imagination was tested as its best. A great place for pictures and a good start of a very long day.

Laguna Honda was our second stop, a small and round lagoon with very step edges where an exotic fauna curiously stared at this group of tourists taking pictures, surrounded by more incredible stone figures, some of them defying gravity in an almost perfect and very impressive balance.


A few minutes down the national road and we entered a complete rustic track taking us into the 'wilderness' through very steep valleys and highlands until we faced the amazing cone-shaped Corina Volcano rising up to 5000m above sea level just in front of us, covered with a layer of snow and setting up a perfect background for our pictures of Laguna Chiarkota, a very shallow lagoon where some flamingo birds were playing around.

At this point the other groups of tourists arrived almost at the same time so we started traveling in convoys in case something went wrong as the nearest town was about two to three hours away.
The sun was starting to heat up the day and as we drove down a beautiful valley and around the Volcano until a combination of red and orange sand welcomed us to Laguna Hedionda (Smelly Lagoon), name gained because of the massive sulfur and minerals combination, giving it its particular rotten eggs smell and where we finally saw hundreds of pink flamingo birds playing around, flying and getting their food out of the muddy, silver soil.
A surreal place surrounded by completely dry yet colourful hills and a little hotel stuck in the middle, where we were charged 5 Bolivianos for using the 'surreal' toilets.

It was almost lunch time and as we drove back to meet the main road, we bumped into a group of Canadian motorcyclists traveling around South America and asking for directions. We also managed to see the impressively big condors soaring up the skies with their stunning flying and massive wing span confirming why this animal has become such an important symbol around this countries.

Some hour later, we were back in Villa Alota for a quick last lunch together. Group had really bonded by now and Facebook and e-mail exchange were necessary again.
Half an hour later we were heading back to Uyuni under a rather heavy summer rain until we got to San Cristobal, last pit stop before getting into Uyuni where we would be taking our connections to different places. My friends and I were taking a bus to Potosi and then a taxi to Sucre where we would overnight and catch the flight back to Santa Cruz in the morning, the rest of the group was continuing to La Paz by bus and then head into Peru.

A long day with an early start had taken its toll on us and we were all asleep when we entered an extremely muddy and slippery part of the road, consequence of the rain that fell minutes before. Suddenly the driver lost control, everything happened in slow motion as I was in the front passenger seat. Steering wheel spinning with no control, our car dove into a deep ditch and a feeling of being hit in the head several times disoriented me as the vehicle turned over twice with the roof becoming our floor.
Seconds of complete silence followed and then a rush to leave the car as soon as possible in case of any dangerous fuel leaks.
We were all shivering as we left the car, a friend of mine had a massive bump on her head and a convoy of vehicles stopped by the main road to help us.

Our driver did not help at all and instead, he just kept worrying about the car and how this would affect his job. He was completely useless and our adrenaline rush became anger when he clearly stated that it was actually our fault and he did have nothing to do with it.

Other foreigners offered us coats and help as our bags had been crushed under the car until, with the help of the crowd, the vehicle was finally turned over again to show us the big damage and how close we were to have a serious accident.

A pick up truck offered us a lift back to Uyuni some two hours away while the rain cleared a bit and the road became a bit more settled. My back was in pain and I had hit my knees against the dashboard but that wouldn't stop me and the group to get into town and report the accident to the Police (who were absolutely helpless) and get a full refund of the trip.
We also saw a general doctor, as the hospital was closed, who couldn't really find anything wrong with us and after struggling for a couple of hours with the staff of Huracan Tours, we managed to get a bit of a refund in order to just leave town and get proper medical care in Potosi or Uyuni.

It was a pity that such an amazing place and trip could easily been ruined by the incompetence and rudeness of the people in Uyuni. A truly amazing place with horrible people.

The Argentine girls decided to head back to Jujuy to get proper medical care while the Peruvian and the Venezuelan guy decided to continue with their trip to La Paz and onwards to Peru.

Our journey back to Potosi was a rush of emotions as the rain transformed the road into a slippery massive muddy slide down the cliffs and drivers had to be extremely careful in taking up the hills. At some point we were stuck in the mud and the feeling of having an accident hours before it made us anxious enough to leave the bus and wait outside in the cold rain until they finally manage to free the bus from a muddy downhill trap.

Lights of Potosi appeared in our windows some six hours after leaving Uyuni and I felt relieved. We immediately took a taxi down to Sucre where we decided we would spend the night.
As a bullet, the little white Toyota Corolla rocketed down the hills in a mixture of heavy rain and dry patches, and some odd talk about insurance, families and car accidents. Two hours later we were in beautiful Sucre, completely quiet and peaceful in the middle of the night.

Checked into a very cheap but nice hotel, just to have a shower, send some news and e-mails through my phone and collapse in bed for an early morning start, when we had a small breakfast down the local market (and the biggest "empanada" you could possibly imagine) and then up to the airport to catch our flights back.

My friend with the head injury was on the "stand-by" list and flights were delayed due to fog, so for about an hour we were running up and down the airport trying to get her a place in any flight back to Santa Cruz as her head needed to be checked for any possible internal injuries. In the end, we managed to put her into an AeroSur flight departing some minutes before ours and a feeling of relief for a moment when we finally managed to board all flights.

Our little military BAE departed the hills of Sucre and a very pleasant and uneventful forty minutes flight took us to Santa Cruz El Trompillo Airport , apart from a horrible steep landing.

I was relieved to feel the hot humid air at "home" again. Mom welcomed me at the airport with the biggest hug, in the end , her little kid had been in an accident. Lunch time, picture organizing and now to enjoy my last week in this beautiful country.