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Valparaiso – last port of call

Santiago de Chile. One last day before the journey to the fin del mundo is over. We don’t know the city at all and it seems too huge for a quick sample, so instead we plan a day trip to the coast and drive through the flowering fields of Californian poppy, vines, orchards and a national park forest to the port city of Valparaiso.

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“Valpo” has been described as gritty and groovy. It is both. Many of the city’s iconic and historical neighbourhoods and buildings have seen better days.

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Prior to the opening of the Panama Canal it was certainly a very significant 19th Century port town and the architecture  reflects the influence of its  European immigrants and also, its naval importance.

Valpo Amada

There is now much urban renewal and the fortunes of the city are again rising. Many of the buildings in the faded hilltop “hoods” are being revitalised.

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Valparaiso is definitely on the tourist route in summer.

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With its historical buildings and monuments, arts scene, shops, cafes, bars, boutique hotels and nightlife it does not disappoint.

Valpo plaque

 

The funiculars  – the oldest operating since 1883 – provide quirky, creaky  access to  locations such as Cerro Concepcion.

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Side by side are beautifully restored  colonial buildings,  brightly painted houses with their bohemian vibe,  walls of street art and political graffiti.

Valpo street art

As in many other places in South America, sleeping dogs lie undisturbed in any convenient spot.

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Back in Santiago on the last evening before our departure we sample just a little of Barrio Lastarria before dinner.

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A stroll in the park close to the hotel, an appreciation of colonial influences on the architecture  (Museo de Bellas Artes); then an empanada and a pisco sour, the music of a street performance ……..the journey is over.

“This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.” Pablo Neruda

 

 

 

 

Tierra Patagonia

Images of a wild and beautiful place, the urging of a former guide in South America, and a romantic notion of the “uttermost ends of the earth” – all were convincing – so we followed the adrenalin rush of our experiences with Cruceros Australia to Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn with a visit to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine – a UNESCO biosphere reserve since 1978 – and more time in amazing Patagonia.

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Our drive from El Calafate in Argentina on the first day provided a gradual introduction to the unique environments of the Magallanes and Chilean Antarctica region, including Patagonian steppe, Pre-Andean scrubland, Magellan forest, glaciers and watercourses.

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But nothing could quite prepare us for the location of the Tierra Patagonia Hotel on the shores of Lake Sarmiento and the ever present magnificence of the peaks or for the soft (but nonetheless amazing) adventure of a few more days at the end of the world.

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Tierra Patagonia Hotel is uniquely placed to provide visitors to the national park with an uninterrupted vista stretching from Paine Grande, including the “Cuernos” (horns), the “Torres” (towers), the Almirante Nieto and Nido de Condor.

The weather here can be notoriously changeable with bone chilling winds – it was not.

 

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We saw sunrise, sunset, moon rise and moon set, reflections in lakes and the mesmerising presence of the peaks of the Paine Massif from different perspectives as we travelled on excursions, a navigation, hikes and on horseback throughout the park. We were spellbound by the 360 degree picture postcard moments but also felt utterly privileged to go out each day with our very experienced guides.

Thursday afternoon – arrival day – Cornisas (Cornices) hike

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From this plateau we had stunning views of las Torres del Paine, Sierra Contreras and Sierra del Torro. The sky was blue, the breeze fresh but light and the condors were soaring and performing for the cameras.

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The unmarked trail was strewn with small flowering plants, the most notable the red mate guanacos.

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Our expert guide was relaxed but reassuring as we made a skidding, zigzag descent.

Friday morning – Hunters Trail

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After a frosty start, the weather was again unbelievably bright, sunny and calm.

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The trail gave us a chance to pass close to herds of guanacos.

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A key focus was a visit to the rocky outcrop with “pinturas repestros de Aonikenk” – cave paintings of a native people who were hunter gatherers and occupied the area some 6,000 years ago.

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Again, the initial descent was a little challenging. It then became obvious that we were in the territory of a hunter – the puma (the predator of the guanaco).

Puma etching

The grassy sierra was strewn with their remains – some recent kills. According to our guide, the nervous behaviour of the guanacos also indicated that a puma was not so far away.

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Friday afternoonLaguna Azul

There was a relaxing option after lunch. A drive north to the Blue Lagoon, stopping along the way at the Paine waterfall – such a powerful, deafening surge of water and an exhilarating experience to walk along the path and feel the spray on our faces.

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The picnic spot in the forest above the lake had more breathtaking views.

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A curious (and obviously scavenging) Caracara approached us hopefully.

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The picnic spread provided by the hotel included a refreshingly crisp white wine. Pure pleasure.

Saturday – full day including navigation on Lago Grey

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A very long day but there was so much to see and do! The drive included stops along Lago Pehoe, views of another impressive waterfall on the Rio Paine, an informative visit to the administration centre of the park (CONAF), a “typical” lunch at Rio Serrano, a forest walk, a (stony) beach walk and a trip aboard the Grey II on the lake right up to the Grey Glacier.

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We boarded the boat late in the afternoon for the cruise to the glacier.

Grey Lake ice floes

The little boat was crowded and there was the usually difficulty for the photographers to that ‘perfect’ shot.

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The sky again was a brilliant blue and the skyline of the Paine Grande was imposing. The boat manoeuvred among  the ice floes along each face of the glacier – it was an amazing, if slightly unnerving experience to hear the ice crunching under the bow.

Grey Glacier and skyline

We would have appreciated a guide aboard the boat. This was not provided but the friendly crew offered pisco sours with clinking glacier ice.

Sunday – Baguales and Estancia Lazo

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Our last day in this beautiful hotel – an option was to simply relax and experience its picture perfect location, sympathetic eco design immersed in the landscape with spa, library, relaxation areas, extensive picture windows overlooking the lake, dining room and bar. BUT we opted to go out again. In the morning after an interesting drive we reached a higher altitude and walked beside a stream looking for fossils.

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We were outside the park and crossed the boundaries of estancias. Wild horses roamed freely.

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In the afternoon, eager for one last opportunity to be out in the park we spent a couple of hours horse riding accompanied by our guide and a couple of local gauchos, through ancient forest of lenga trees to a lookout point.

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On the drive to the estancia (and during the drive south to Punta Arenas the next day) it was quite confronting to see how much of the forest has fallen victim to massive fires (2011) and ongoing destruction caused by a parasite (commonly called Chinese lantern).

Monday – departure

Soft clouds were dimming the brilliance of the southern sky and the wind was beginning to rise. It was time to leave. As a parting gesture, the manager handed me a password. It was the key to my ongoing connection to this land. If I chose to activate the link, Tierra Patagonia Hotel would plant a tree on my behalf as part of a renewal program for the depleted forest.

Our guide drove us on the long road south to Punta Arenas through a rather desolate open countryside of immense sheep stations. We turned for one last look at las Torres del Paine (towers of blue)), the condors wheeled in the air in farewell and flamingos provided a surprise flash of pink in the landscape.

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Faithful pairs of upland geese were a constant reminder of a land appearing dry and desolate but carrying so much water in its lagoons, lakes, streams, rivers and glaciers – I added my tears in farewell.

“Why then – and this is not only my particular case – does this barren land possess my mind? I find it hard to explain…but it might partly be because it enhances the horizons of imagination.”   Charles Darwin.

 

 

Reflections on Tren Crucero – a train “cruise”

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The promised volcanos of Ecuador were elusive, lost in the clouds and mist along the route. Cayambe, Pichincha, Cotopaxi, Tungurahua, Chimborazo. Instead, the changing panoramas of villages and farmlands, forests and rivers moved sedately past our windows as Tren Ecuador took us on a leisurely journey from the mountains to the coast.

Vistas of beautiful hills and valley

Vistas of beautiful hills and valleys

Encounters with artisans, musicians, crafts men and women and other producers were arranged at each of the many stops.

The haunting music of the Andes

The haunting music of the Andes

One of these, San Antonio de Ibarra, is internationally recognised for its wood carvers, great artists and sculptors who have given continuity to the XVth century-born Quito School of Art.

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El diablo –  San Antonio de Ibarra

Many along the Tren Crucera route would rely on the patronage of travellers to supplement their incomes and revitalise the village economies.

The knowledgeable guides, Sixto and Adeline, gave so much interesting information about this land and the culture of its people. The itinerary had been designed to give a variety of opportunities to understand Ecuador’s history as well as the geography, geology and economy.

First Roman Catholic church in Ecuador - at Balbanera

First Roman Catholic church in Ecuador – at Balbanera

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Fabrica Textil Imbabura – a museum in Andrade Marin

The service staff in the train’s cafeteria/bar, the suppliers of fresh fruit and snacks on board, the accompanying outriders on motor bikes, the security guards staff and stall holders at the stations, and of course, the crews of the steam and diesel locomotives, all had jobs dependant on the successful operation of this venture of Tren Ecuador.

Outriders - ensuring safety at road crossings

Outriders – ensuring safety at road crossings

Large international companies like Nevado Roses put out the welcome mat for Tren Crucero and provided guides for tours. Rose production makes a significant contribution to the economy of this region in Ecuador.

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Roses for export – a flourishing industry in Ecuador

Haciendas and restaurants were obviously delighted to make Tren Crucero welcome for our overnight stays and lunchtime repasts.

A beautiful hacienda

A beautiful hacienda near Riobamba

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Lunch at La Roka, Ambato

Red steam engine 14 at Riobamba

Red steam engine 14, Riobamba

Colourful market stalls were everywhere, proudly displaying colourful Andean handcrafted items in wood, ceramics, beads, wool and other textiles. Market day in Guamote was a special stop. This was a day for local people to trade and although our patronage was welcome, the focus was not on us, but on a busy, family day out.

Guamote market day

Guamote market fresh produce

Guamote shoe shine

Guamote shoe shine

There is one section of this train track which deserves a special mention – Devil’s Nose – an incredible feat of engineering. (This near-vertical wall of rock was an obstacle to overcome when the rail line was first built to link Guayaquil and Quito (1899-1908). A series of tight zig-zags were carved out of the rock which allowed the train to climb 800m at a gradient of 1-in-18 by going forwards then backwards up the tracks).

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Nariz del Diablo

A special highlight for everyone on this trip followed a tour and information session at a cocoa plantation. Producers are very proud of this industry which provides the resource for another industry – chocolate! And then…. LUNCH! At the stunning Hacienda La Danesa.

Plantation demonstration - from cocoa to chocolate

Plantation demonstration – from cocoa to chocolate

Beautiful Hacienda La Danesa

Stunning Hacienda and Restaurant, La Danesa

Last lunch on the trip

A very special lunch on the trip

La Danesa wines

La Danesa wines

But of course, nothing can surpass the excitement of a steam engine, with all the noise and fuss when it is shunted in to replace the diesel locomotive for the last part of the journey – from Yahuaci to Duran.

What a journey Tren Ecuador! Ama la vida!

All cameras clicking

All cameras clicking

Steam engine for the last part of the trip

Steam engine 53 for the last part of the trip from Yahuachi to Duran

Tren Ecuador can be very proud of its faithfully restored steam engines, rebuilt railway tracks, gracious carriages and immaculate stations. The Tren Crucero route opened our eyes to the country and its people.

Folklore Olga Fisch outlet, Guayaquil

Folklore Olga Fisch outlet, Guayaquil

Ecuador – la costa y la sierra

The people are proud of their cultural and geographic differences. To a stranger who does not speak the language, it is difficult to absorb more than a superficial understanding of this cultural difference without some serious research.

The physical landscape transitions from the rampant green growth of sugarcane, bananas, rice and cocoa plantations through the ferny and treed “cloud forest” to the high and much drier landscape of the true Sierra. At the highest altitude there is a more alpine appearance. There are  green valleys which support chequered farmlands and picturesque and traditional Spanish buildings – white with terracotta tile roofs. Black and white dairy cows make it seem almost European.

The cities, towns and villages are crowded and the covered mercados are packed and stifling. On the humid coast the common dress is predominantly Contemporary in style; jeans and T-shirts for men and variations of tight fitting jeans or leggings and skimpy tops for young women. In the highland areas the youthful uniform is much the same but the older men and the women in particular, are striking in their traditional clothing. Distinctive hats, and the colours of  shawls or capes and skirts are indicative of the particular area. The peoples of Ecuador are quite short in stature. Their diet is normally high in starch from potatoes, rice, beans and corn. This is now supplemented with inexpensive, readily available and highly refined foods inevitably labelled “ALTO” in either salt, sugar or fat or all three.

As I struggled in the higher altitudes, I marvelled at the stamina of tiny, wizened old men and women walking up steep hills and carrying very large loads slung in big baskets or sacks over their shoulders.

Children are obviously nurtured by all but they can be seen alone or in groups quite independent of adults in situations where our parenting style would demand closer supervision. Teenagers and Millenials look like young people everywhere – particularly in towns and city streets. The young men obviously pay close attention to branded clothing and cool haircuts and young women to meticulous application of make-up, hair styling, glittering accessories and tight, body hugging stretch fabric.

While there are quite obviously wealthy and middle class communities within these towns and cities, So many of the people in the streets seem “poor” to our Australian eyes. Many dwellings in the country are little more than basic shelters and even in the towns with their more affluent suburbs there is an array of haphazard buildings – some in ruins, some apparently abandoned but actually ‘under construction’ as funds become available; in many areas the houses have small, untidy gardens with a few chickens, ducks or geese and maybe a vegetable garden or some fruit trees. Further into country areas there may be a few pigs. Some homes are brightened with flowers and most have at  least one sleeping dog. The dogs may be part of a household but most look, at the best neglected with matted coats and at worst, diseased. Inevitably there is washing to be seen strung on a variety of inventive outside lines.

BUT who are we to say these people in a land and culture strange to us are “poor”? Without interacting with them we do NOT KNOW THEM. We do not know how satisfied the might be with what, for many, is probably a subsistence style of living.

The markets and roadside stalls are amazingly abundant in produce of all types – especially fruit and vegetables; street food stalls, household goods, the inevitable array of bright plastic gadgets and toys; all spill out onto pavements from tiny shopfronts or are crowded together in the covered mercados. Handcrafted clothing, the ubiquitous tight jeans and branded T shirts beckon and most of it, apparently, is for local consumption.

It is fortunate that the roads (on the whole) are good because the traffic can be daunting. There are heavy fines for exceeding speed limits but other rules seem to be optional. Depending on the driver, the journey can often be a hair raising experience.

I would much prefer to take award winning photos to record the experience.  I will add a few to highlight points in my observations. Note to self; if you have not mastered the basics of the language or learnt about the history and culture of the places you travel to before your visit, your experience will be so much diminished.

Next post – Glimpses of places visited in Ecuador – photo story

A journey – to Ecuador

LEAVING AUSTRALIA – ARRIVING IN SOUTH AMERICA

Day one

ON a breezy Spring day we fly out of Sydney through the Heads – almost feels like we are sailing away instead of looking down from the pointy end of a 747-400 ‘Fraser Island’. The name seems to make a personal connection to our coastal Queensland home – we will be safe on this first step in our journey which will take us from Ecuador to Patagonia during August and September.

It is the same date but seems like an eternity since leaving Sydney. A stunning sunrise over the Southern Ocean will be one of the ‘wow’ moments to remember; then as we fly closer to our first destination, gradually the coastline of South America is revealed. The snow covered Andes are there too and will be a backdrop to many of our days from Ecuador’s Tren Crucera trip and later when we travel in Chile. Santiago is just a stop over today – we will return in October.

Days two and three

The arrival in Guayaquil in the evening was initially reminiscent of a first experience of other balmy evenings in Hawaii or Mauritius. The same soft, warm air and soft calls of birds and frogs.

During the day Guayaquil downtown and the Malecon provide a glimpse of the city and the extensive recreational and commercial development on the bank of the river Guaya. Horns blaring, families out to wander through the malls of the Malecon and the city streets, a few stray cats, and stalls holders setting up for weekend activities. There are some lovely trees and garden areas and some gracious, if faded remnants of old buildings facing the river contrasting with the utilitarian, unattractive and rather grubby  city centre. It is too warm (31C) and we retreat to the hotel to recover from jet lag.

Interesting to drive to another suburb of Guayaquil for a private lunch today. Samborondon is over the water via a bridge and we are dropped back into 21st century suburban life complete with mega malls , gated communities and estates with middle class families, dogs and kids on bikes. The discussion ranges from options for university, estate facilities, jobs for classes of workers, holiday plans, work and lifestyle and  Australian crocodiles, sharks and snakes as well as our beautiful beaches. Time to pack for tomorrow’s flight to Quito and to ‘La Sierra’ and Tren Crucera.

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Guayaquil to Quito

TAME were very efficient and it was surprising that Guayaquil airport was open, airy and not at all crowded. Our Tropic guide  in Quito was very keen to get us to the car as quickly as he could. The new highway was fast – with police every 200m – we learned later WHY.

Hotel Patio Andaluz was full of character, a quiet oasis in colonial style with wide verandas, heavy timber furniture and interesting art pieces – and very tiny bathroom. There was a little confusion initially about the early departure the next day but a breakfast box was arranged. Before lunch we walked to the Presidential Palace through ranks of police, barricades and crowds of locals and discovered that the square had been taken over by a huge rally. There was a meeting of the presidents of Bolivia,Venezuela, Columbia and Ecuador’ Correa.

Lunch was in a cafe in a side street away from the crowds and opposite the partly restored Simon Bolivar Theatre. Another foray in the early evening took us to the San Francisco museum and convent. There was a thundery sky so back to the hotel for a cocktail in the garden courtyard.

That did little to steady the dizziness from the high altitude. ( Quito is 2850 m above sea level). Dinner there was pleasant in the central courtyard.

TREN CRUCERA

Quito to Quito

A very long day!

Chimbacalle station – Ibarra – San Antonio – Andrade Martin – San Roque – Otavalo –

We saw glimpses of Cotopaxi emitting ash as we drove in the bus to the northern Andes and the White City of Ibarra. Aboard Tren de Los Lagos to Otovalo with excursions to artisan wood carving (photo Le Diable) at San Antonio de Ibarra and Fabrica Textil Imbabura. Off the train at Otovalo and lunch at Puerto Lago Lodge which was a breezy location right on San Pablo Lake. There was a very LONG bus trip back to Quito. We were absolutely exhausted but joined in the ‘special’ dinner in the restaurant at Hotel Quito.

Quito to Abrasprungo Hacienda – a lovely day!!

Cunchibamba – Ambato – Urbina

Steam train from Quito to Tambillo ( rest place). A visit to a Russian owned rose plantation ((Nerado) to see the roses grown specifically for export. Lunch in a beautiful courtyard restaurant – the Roka Plaza – at a table with the guides in the town of fruit and flowers – then the train from Ambato to Urbina. A highlight of the day was meeting the 71 year old “last ice maker” at Urbina. It was 6 degrees outside with a cool breeze but everyone was keen to know his story – as told by guide Sixto. The afternoon’s journey was then sabotaged by the film crew on board who wanted us as extras in a little bar scene with Santiago the barman. Christina was not at all keen. It was a late arrival at Riobamba but there was a brass band playing and film crews everywhere. This is obviously part of a big effort to promote the Tren Crucera and boost the flow of income to the towns along the route. We drove on to the very lovely Hacienda Abrasprunga. The rooms were in separate patio bungalows – ours had a huge picture window overlooking the lawn.

Riobamba to Bucay

Riobamba – Colta – Guamote – Alausi – Devil’s Nose –  Bucay
A Zumba class was in progress at the station as we took the steam train from Riobamba to Colta. A visit to the first church  built in Ecuador, a little market browsing for some then on to Guamote for the huge local Thursday market on the town streets. Lunch was served on the train; then the highlight of the afternoon was riding the spectacularly engineered Devil’s Nose switchback section. Overnight was spent at “tourist” Hotel d’Franco in the cloud forest where the staff were so very keen to please.

Bucay to Duran

Bucay – Naranjito – Yaguachi – Duran

The last day was full of special surprises. The train took us through coastal plantations of sugar, cocoa, pineapples, balsa, teak and rice. There was a visit to a cacao farm where there was much bragging by the guides about the fineness of Ecuador’s cocoa and chocolate for export. Hacienda La Danesa was a paradise on earth and the chef was applauded by all after a gourmet lunch. Then followed the unique experience of watching and photographing the historic and restored steam engine replace the diesel locomotive with much whistling and tooting for the run into Duran. Another surprise was cocktails provided by the guides in the cafeteria car AND a 3 man drum, guitar and pipe band playing vibrant South American music. At Duran our group dispersed to taxis or the bus for hotels in Guayaquil.

Weekend  in Guayaquil

Back to base at Hampton Inn, 9 de Octubre Boulevard. Oasis in time to upload photos, catch up on sleep and have a lazy weekend. Despite some travel related unsettled stomachs we do manage to have a lovely evening walk to the cathedral and Seminario park to see the iguanas and then to the quite elegant colonial  government precinct and back through the warm and noisy Saturday night throng before a late supper. On Sunday for a spot of extra outfitting for the Patagonia part of the trip, a $5 taxi ride delivers us  to Mal de Sol to mingle with the families on a Sunday shopping excursion.

San Carlos work days

Our travel mode is suspended as the work part of our trip commences. We are driven from Guayaquil to San Carlos plantation by Sergio and installed in the guest house. For Graham it is straight to work; for me an exercise in discipline to attempt some study of Spanish. There is no one else here during the day except a rather abrupt houseman so I will have to manage the solitude and the sound of my own voice.

A walk in the immediate compound area reveals some residences with flowery gardens, a few pretty little birds and the constant noise, dust and smell of  a sugar mill operating 24 hours a day. AND mosquitos!!