Return to Florence
April 23, 2012, 9:42 pm
Filed under: travel

The Tribune of Galileo

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

For the last week I’ve been in Italy for work.

A decade ago I came to Florence during my gap year in Italy – a poor student. Coming back as a presenter at a conference has made me reflect on ten years of travelling and how my life in general has unfolded.

Italy is the ideal place for such philosophizing.

Embracing my philosophy of science geekiness that brought me to Florence this time, I’ve visited La Specola (pictured) and Museo Galileo.

I’ve stayed away from the art galleries, given I’ve been here before. There are people lining up for hours who I assume are really into it – why make them wait longer by competing in the queue?

I didn’t have fond memories of Florence – I’ve referred to it as the Disneyland of Italy – but this trip has given me a new appreciation for it.

The churchbells. The cobblestones. The food. The architecture.

If someone sends me back here for work I certainly won’t complain… maybe I’d even come back voluntarily as a tourist. If only all the other tourists would go away.


It’s been a while
April 23, 2012, 9:31 pm
Filed under: travel

Sea nettle jellyfish

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

I’ve had the best of intentions to blog during my travels within Australia, but it never happened. I have some beautiful photos from the Northern Territory and Queensland that I’ve yet to even share.

Nonetheless, time marches on. Last month I reached the final year I can blog under this title! I’ll endeavour to make it a great one for travelling then.

I’m on another round-the-world adventure. First stop California. Here’s a sea nettle from last week’s visit to Night Life at the California Academy of Sciences.

Lauca National Park
August 3, 2010, 5:33 pm
Filed under: chile, environment, nature, south america, travel, video

Lauca National Park

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

What Lauca National Park lacked in oxygen it made up for in wildlife.

The first llama I saw in South America looked dejected despite its bright little hat and Aymaran drapery. It reminded me of a sad clown. It was being led around by an old man selling photos with it, in Parque Quinta Normal in Santiago. My sympathy for this undignified creature made me all the more eager to see proud llamas in their natural environment.

In Lauca wildlife clearly have an edge. While our lungs struggled to extract oxygen from the thin climate, baby vicuñas galloped comically alongside their more gracious parents.

Vizcacha among the rocks groomed nonchalantly as we took photos, pulling their bunny-like ears over their eyes.

Alpacas and llamas intermingled amicably in the bofedales, as the highland swamps are called. They nibbled at tender vegetation emerging from the shallow water, distancing themselves if we got too close, but otherwise unperterbed.

There were some exceptions, such as a llama which spends most of its time with the Carabineros, the police, who have a strong presence near the borders of Bolivia and Peru.

Her name is Loli. You can meet her in this video.

The Altiplano – don’t forget to breathe
July 12, 2010, 7:25 pm
Filed under: chile, culture, health, mountains, south america, travel, weather


Originally uploaded by cobismith.

For us, a big attraction of the north of Chile was the Altiplano. Santiago is interesting as a city, but it wasn’t what I expected from South America. I wanted llamas, mountains and colourful garb reminiscent of the Incas. Patagonia is freezing at the moment, but up north it’s warm enough to go surfing (with a wetsuit) on the endless beach at the frontier of Chile and Peru.

So up we came, with one adventure firm in mind – visiting the Altiplano. I was apprehensive, however, because the majority of my travel woes and general maladies result from pressure and balance challenges. Flying offends my sinuses, while rocking boats or winding roads distress my inner ear to the point of nausea. Thus I anticipated altitude sickness.

I Googled the altitude of past sickness-free mountainous trips with self-deceptive optimism, but French glaciers and Canada’s high lakes were more than a thousand metres lower than the Altiplano would be.

I prepared with natural and mildly pharmaceutical remedies. Plenty of garlic meals and clove tea to thin the blood the week before our journey up, plus aspirin on the morning. In the wisdom of my late twenties I’ve finally found a cure for my motion sickness: fresh ginger. When my powdered ginger tablets last ran out I realised I was paying more for a less potent form, which is harder to come by in foreign-language pharmacies as well. But I’ve found ginger itself universally available and unmistakeable, so I need only point or pick it up at the market. So on the bus ride up I had ginger in my pocket, an edible talisman to fend off the spirits of sickness.

This worked a charm for nausea, but not for the thinning air. As the bus ascended by hundreds of metres our drink bottles swelled, popping indignantly upon opening. We began yawning; I drank more of the expanding water in attempts to fend off headache.

The bus, destined for the dizzying heights of La Paz, reached Putre, our point of departure. We tumbled out with our bags into the sunshine and crisp rarefied climate, which seemed more translucent than at sea level. I felt I could touch mountains far in the distance if I reached out enough, my arm perhaps becoming more translucent and lengthening as it stretched. I stretched some more, boldly defying advice to move as little as necessary after ascent. But after being cramped in the bus my muscles demanded release. I slowly, cautiously, stretched my head down to my knees, breathing deeply, as yoga taught me. I felt triumphant. I was well! My body hadn’t betrayed me!

I sat on the bus stop bench, and I realised it was good that I had. Things were not quite right. My body was fine, but my head was light. I realised I was shaking a little, the stretching had exerted me more than it should have, at least in the air it was used to. I took another gulp of water and looked out again, my head swimming.

We waited some minutes before our guide arrived, in a car full of young blonde women. I’ve grown used to what’s normal here, so I felt startled and curious by the foreigners, forgetting that I too am foreign in the same way. Three Dutch girls jumped out onto the highway, nonchalant, tanned in that northern European way from the UV-rich mountain sunshine. The driver of the car looked anxious and ushered them to the side of the road.

“Are you sure you’ll be okay?” he asked. They laughed and assured him, confident in their trinity of youth and blondness. As a freight truck destined for Bolivia approached they stuck out their thumbs; the Andean driver put on his breaks, slowing in wonder. The three Dutch girls danced up to the driver and chattered in Spanish. It was the stuff of dreams – who needs cocaine to keep you awake when three exotic young women appear, as if stepping from a magazine cover, to keep you company on the journey? They departed.

My triumphant feeling of adventure had already vanished with my light-headedness and now was further muted; our adventure, a conventional bus trip and a conventional B&B, outdone by the hitch-hiking Dutchwomen. However with my system muted I felt recovered. It was true; exertion brings on altitude sickness.

Later in the day I discovered just the exertion of digesting lunch brought it back with a fierce thumping in my head. Our host suggested perhaps I go to the clinic to take some oxygen; stubbornly and proudly I insisted that I sleep on it and hope for acclimatisation by the morning.

I took some more aspirin, but the headache remained. As I lay on our comfy bed (where did the hitch-hikers sleep?) I thought about how we take for granted the oxygen at sea level, except when we dive below it and then come up for air. This was the same air, but too refined. Like watery powdered milk for starving babies without mothers, it lacked the nutrients to keep my system glowing.

I realised I was breathing shallowly. It occurred to me that perhaps it was little coincidence that yoga flourished in the kindred heights of the Himalayas. I practiced breathing deeply, fully, using my diaphragm. The bed covers rose higher and crumpled deeper with me. I resisted the urge to breathe in again immediately after exhaling, willing myself to lengthen the moments between whole breaths. After fifteen minutes my headache dissipated, and my mind sparkled with the feeling of learning something for oneself; the glow of understanding what had before been just words of wisdom. There was enough oxygen in this air, if you know how to use it.

I fell asleep content already with my trip to where the Inca shadow is long and Spanish is a thin veneer over proud, ancient cultures.

Ayamara winter solstice festival
June 26, 2010, 1:03 am
Filed under: chile, culture, dance, events, festivals, south america, travel

On Saturday evening we happened to be on the main street of Arica, 21 de Mayo, when we saw a suspicious number of people wandering around in intricately sequinned outfits or with feathered hats. I was compelled to ask a lady about half my height, but with a feathered hat that made us equal, at what time they were parading.

I knew there would be a parade because there are parades almost every day in Arica, as you might have seen if you keep an eye on my photostream. Sometimes it’s hard to discern what they’re for, though of late they’re mostly related to the World Cup.

The tiny lady with the large feathered hat confirmed that they would be parading in “about ten minutes” this can mean anything from in fifteen minutes to in a couple of hours, in reality. So we strolled along the main street anticipating a parade at some point.

We were not disappointed. Rather than a half hour flash in the pan as happens most days, this festival involved people dancing for four hours down the main street, and then dancing for late into the madrugada (Spanish for 1-5am). I’ve never seen so many astounding costumes or so many colours.

On Monday I discovered it had been an Aymara winter solstice festival. However it wasn’t just Ayamaran dancing (the Ayamara are one of the indigenous communities in the Andes near here). We also saw Tinkus, Marinera and even some African dancing. But these words will mean little to those outside of the region – here are some photos that will give an idea of the different styles.

My favourite was the Tinkus. It reminded me a little of Maori hakas but much more colourful and a bit less scary. But if I’d been a conquistador coming across some of these guys it would have been pretty intimidating.

This experience was my biggest South American cultural education so far, and it was completely free as well as hugely entertaining. South Americans know how to party and celebrate their heritage better than anywhere I’ve been so far.

Settling in
June 21, 2010, 11:54 pm
Filed under: travel

Tim on the beach in front of our apartment

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

We’ve been in Chile almost two months, so we’re starting to settle in. We’re enjoying exploring the beaches in front of our apartment. Playa Chinchorro takes us into town, while Playa Las Maches takes us to the edge of Peru.

I took this photo on our sunset walk tonight as we were returning home.

World Cup fever
June 19, 2010, 3:44 am
Filed under: travel

World Cup parade in Arica, Chile

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

In case you haven’t noticed, the World Cup is happening in South Africa. Over here on the other side of the world, Chileans are so happy about it they’re parading in the streets here in Arica.

Mind you, people here parade in the street for no apparent reason every few days (not apparent to me, anyway), so this is not extraordinary.

I’m not too optimistic about Australia’s prospects, so I’m happily pledging my devotion to the local team. I changed my Spanish lesson on Monday to start at noon rather than eleven in the morning so I can watch the Chile vs. Switzerland game, which starts at 10am here. I’m planning on wearing blue, so it’s clear I’m not there to support the Swiss team, as otherwise my blondeness might suggest otherwise.