Friday 10 April 2020

Lockdown life: The joy of small things

Over a year has gone by since I last published a sixtyat60 post. And in truth I didn't really expect to be writing another entry, mainly because I didn't envisage a situation or experience that would nudge me back into action. Until now that is. 

Pandemic, self-isolation, social distancing, personal protective equipment. Words that had little meaning to most of us in January 2019 when I last blogged. But words that have now become everyday terminology and a whole new way of living. As lockdown life stretches ahead of us with no end yet in sight, I find myself revisiting tried and tested ways to fill my time and give my wellbeing a bit of a whoosh. So here I am once again in blog mode. And rather than have a little rant about the unavailability of supermarket delivery slots, lack of PPE for frontline staff and people flouting the quarantine, I'm going to focus attention on some small things of joy that are helping me to stay sane on a day to day basis. Well, sane-ish anyway.  

1. Set up an animal hospital
You may have come across animal hospitals and rescue centres before, but have you ever encountered one that treats Christmas elves and hamburgers too? Thought not. Day 8 of the lockdown and my fingers were getting restless. And then my eye alighted on a small pile of torn and discarded doggy soft toys lying forlornly on the worktop in the utility room.  

Why this cluster of distressing injuries? I'm not going to name names but I will just say that we acquired a very bouncy golden doodle puppy a year ago.  More about her below. Of the trio of maimed toys, the hamburger has an especially strong emotional pull in this household, as Lucy bought it for our much loved loopy labrador Alfie not long before his demise two years ago. It disappeared, seemingly for ever, into the far reaches of the garden, only to re-emerge, Lazarus-like, in doodle puppy's mouth a few weeks after her arrival. Like I say, it's a bit special.   

Back to the present. These toys clearly needed help and fast (ok technically they'd been lying in a heap completely ignored for at least 3 months but never mind that). I sourced myself a needle, thread and and old raspberry-red tee-shirt and scrubbed up. An hour later, my surgical work was complete. Three revived toys lay propped up in recovery with lovingly inserted rasberry-red patches. I like to think Alfie would approve of Hamburger's heart-shaped one. Definitely a small thing of joy.

However I'm not going to lie, a mere two days on from their life-saving ops, two of the toys took another mauling from the same doodly assailant. So it looks as though I'm going to have a regular stream of patients to keep my hands occupied over the next few weeks of social isolation.  Elf's injuries look especially traumatic. Although as Lucy says, he's managing to keep a smile on his face, a lesson to us all in resilience. 

2. Compulsive cake-making 
I'll admit it, I'm a bit of a feeder. Andrew was a skinny 10-stoner when we first married. That didn't last long. And when family or friends pay us a visit, I always produce six times as much food as we need (seriously, ask anyone!) This compulsion used to bother me until one day a friend explained to me that it's because I'm half Welsh. Ah yes, those groaning tables piled high with laverbread, bara brith and Welsh rarebit whenever we visited my relatives in Aberystyth during my childhood. It all makes perfect sense. So much so that that these days I make no apology for my behaviour and openly embrace my cultural roots. In lockdown life, this is resulting in multiple cakey traybakes and a surge of happiness every time we open the cupboard or fridge door. Which, let's face it, matters a lot at a time like this. 

From a distance the family circles like a flock of virtual vultures as I send them photos of my latest bakeoff indulgence.  When I posted a photo of my renowned chocolate brandy biscuit cake a few days ago, Jonathan and Liz could bear it no longer and made a fine-looking  one themselves, which gave me a huge glow of maternal pride. Perhaps that quarter Welshness is kicking in Jonathan? Although I have to be honest, their idea of a 'piece' of chocolate biscuit cake seems slightly at odds with ours. 

Carrot and banana cake, Dorset apple cake, rasberry and lime-infused cake, cocoa-based brownies..... compulsive cake-making is definitely proving to be a standout joy of small things in this household right now. Although at this rate by the end of lockdown Andrew and I are very unlikely to be small things. 


3. Desktop travel
Back in January, the year ahead looked to be quite a busy one on the travel front for us. With the coronavirus crisis only just beginning to extend its tentacles beyond China, Andrew and I were on our way to covid-free Costa Rica for our first planned trip of 2020. At the back of a minibus taking us from Arenal National Park to Rio Negro (a 2-hour drive), we found ourselves sitting next to Colin, a friendly 75 year old celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary. Colin explained that he was 'self-isolating' himself (the first time we'd heard that term) because he had a persistent cough and wanted to keep away from his wife and friends at the front at the bus. 'Cheers Colin, feel free to pass it on to us instead' I muttered to myself. But that was the only moment on our 12-day holiday that we found ourselves slightly rattled by someone showing corona-like symptoms. And in truth I did feel very sorry for poor Colin. 

How quickly the world has changed. Just six weeks later, self-isolation has become a way of life, and travel is off the menu. On our forthcoming holiday agenda was an eagerly anticipated visit to Ischia in the Bay of Naples to celebrate the wedding of my friend Linda's son Alistair....and a week's holiday in the Greek Islands....and a road trip to the North of England for a reunion with my cousins and to celebrate another wedding....and a weekend in Edinburgh to see Lucy's new home. All cancelled or postponed for the foreseeable future. 

But Andrew and I did at least get to go to beautiful Costa Rica.  And since it's likely to be our only holiday destination in 2020, it does seem important to milk every last drop of it.  So last week I downloaded the many photos I had taken on our Costa Rican travels, whittled them down to a final fifty and uploaded them into a shiny paged photobook courtesy of Snapfish. Now we can revisit our Costa Rican memories at the drop of a hat. So satisfying. Joy on many levels. Just in case my mention of Costa Rica has piqued your interest, here are a few (only a few, promise) of my favourite pics from the photobook..... 

Top pic award goes to a sloth of course. Sloths are solitary animals and like to hang out at the very top of super tall trees, so our sightings of them were almost invariably limited to non-specific balls of fur curled up on branches 30-50 ft above us.  However this one was very close to the ground, perhaps because she'd just descended to take her weekly comfort break (yes, they really only pee/poop once a week). And total joyfest, she had a baby sloth at her side. 

Our successful sloth-spotting took place around Arenal National Park at the beginning of our trip. We then travelled to Monteverde Cloud Forest where the climate was cool and, er, cloudy, and very lushly green. Spot the friendly tarantula....

Our final stop was Nosara on the Pacific Ocean. En route, our driver took it upon himself to make two stops, firstly to show us a flock of macaws screeching in the palm trees above the cafe where we were having a coffee and secondly, to give us the chance to get up close and personal to a gang of iguanas lurking in the ramshackle back garden of, somewhat randomly, a small town police station.   

In Nosara the temperature soared up into the mid-30s. Our hotel looked out over an endless white-sanded deserted coastline, and we woke to the sounds of howler monkeys in the treetops.  

Happy memories indeed. Nothing like a spot of desktop travel to soothe the soul and forget the v-word for a while.

4. Testing technology
I suppose this one's a bit of a cliche now. Two plus weeks into lockdown and everyone's at it. Trying out new technology that is.  I've always remained resistant to such platforms as facetime and video conferencing, mainly because I have an aversion to looking at myself whilst I'm prattling on. I'm not a complete Luddite, in that I do use whatsapp, with a bit of google chat and messenger thrown in, but otherwise I'm perfectly content emailing (don't mock me guys, it has its place) and texting, and I frequently default to that dinosaur of communication, the landline telephone. But after being denied the opportunity to chat to family and friends face to face for days on end, the yearning to be able to see them was becoming quite acute. 

I decided it was time to challenge my negative attitude towards the videocall experience.  A few days ago, with teeth tightly gritted, I downloaded zoom, google hangout and houseparty apps onto my ipad and prepared myself to join meetings.  And oh my goodness, what rewards I've reaped. It's been so exciting to be able to see my whole family together on one screen, even if, in my case, it isn't always possible to hear what they're saying. It's a definitely a thing of joy, and by no means a small one.  In a moment of utter abandonment, I've now booked myself a live Pilates class on Zoom next week, and I've agreed to have a one to one flute lesson on houseparty. So even at my senior stage in life, I've proved to myself that I can successfully challenge old habits....

5. Delights of a doodle dog 
I've already alluded to this member of our household in Item 1. She burst onto the scene like a crazy little tsunami of fluffiness in March 2019 to be a companion to our wheaten terrier Mabel, a middle-aged hound of more, shall we say, sedate temperament. We named the fluffy tsunami Betty. She's the puppy on the right in the pic below, being held by the breeder (can you imagine trying to choose between the two of them? Anguish of epic proportions). 

Now it's fair to say Betty has had her moments since making her home with us. Like the time she decided to throw herself into our super muddy pond 30 minutes after having her first very expensive shampoo and set at the local pooch pampering parlour.

And then there was the time when I discovered that she'd stolen and wolfed down 6 months-worth of worming/flea treatment tablets four hours before Andrew and I were due to catch a flight to Madrid (one large vet bill later she was fine, and somehow we made it to Gatwick in time). And then the multiple times she's taken it upon herself to forensically dissect new and/or expensive walking shoes of mine. And so on. You get the picture. A high-maintenance girlie our Bets. But that said, she's also the most exuberant, carefree, happy, entertaining, lovable character, and right now, she's the perfect foil to the never-ending flow of distressing and scary news items we encounter on a daily basis. Low testing rates, oxygen supplies running out, stricken prime minister? Betty doesn't give a toss. Give her a squirrel to chase or a lap to drape herself over and she's like a pig in clover. Yes indeed, the sheer joy of fluffy doodly things in the midst of a pandemic.

NB In case Mabel sees this, I should just emphasise that we love her devotedly too, and admire her uber-chilled 'we're all doomed, whatevs' attitude. 

NNB And of course we also love Jonathan and Liz's dog Bobby to bits. He's the most supercool urbane Italian greyhound in the whole of South London. He has his own Instagram account, obvs, 757 followers and counting.

6. Lend an ear and do a handclap
There have been umpteen moments over the last few weeks when I've felt a sense of helplessness about the situation unfolding around us. Yes, Andrew and I have been doing our bit to protect the NHS and save lives by following all the government guidelines as instructed. But I did wish I could do something more proactive and useful. So when the NHS Volunteers Scheme was launched, I signed up to it in a flash. I couldn't put myself forward for running errands and ferrying services, as Andrew falls into the, ahem, older age bracket, and also has an underlying health condition of Parkinsons Disease. But the 'check and chat' role, to be carried out from the safety of one's home, sounded right up my street. I registered my interest, along with squillions of other people, and a week later, following a DBS check, I received an email from the Royal Voluntary Service to say I was now officially a member of the NHS Volunteer army. Woohoo!

I read the 14-page 'Getting Started' guide. Then I downloaded the GoodSAM Responder app onto my phone and familiarised myself with it as suggested. The app has been adapted from one used to alert off-duty medical professionals to cardiac arrests. On the plus side, it's a 100% tried and tested system.  On the minus side, it's a little strange to see ' I have a defibrillator on me' on the menu (although the toggle has been deactivated of course), and to discover that a siren sound is used to alert volunteers that they've been assigned a task.  My main concern at the moment is that when the siren goes off, the shock of hearing it will give me a heart attack. I think that's what you'd call a paradox. Anyway, I've been on duty now for a full week, and guess what, the siren hasn't gone off once. I've been told that's because the Responder programme has gone for a soft launch of 1000 referrals. And since, according to the Sunday papers, the Duchess of Cornwall has already spoken to two of them, that leaves 998 cases for the other 749,499 volunteers. Somehow I don't think my ears are going to be over-bent for the time being.

Whilst I wait patiently for Responder to alert me to my first task, Andrew and I are throwing ourselves into the Thursday 8pm clap for care workers. I'll be honest, the first week I was a little ambivalent about the idea, as it seemed to me that hospital and care home staff would benefit more from being given protective masks and gowns than a round of applause, however well intended. But I've now found several ways of making donations, one to a local NHS trust charity to provide staff with cups of tea/care boxes, another to a crowdfunding initiative to buy protective personal equipment for NHS staff on a national basis, and to top it all, a really special and very touching fundraising effort by a 99 year old army veteran, Captain Tom Moore, who's doing 100 laps of his garden with a walking frame to raise money for NHS Charities Together (to date he's raised an astonishing 14 million pounds).  So I'm now feeling much more fully invested in the Thursday evening ritual. As a celebration of care workers' commitment, dedication and bravery, it's a thing of joy indeed. 

So there you have it, half a dozen ways that are helping me to navigate the unchartered waters of the pandemic with relative aplomb.  As I've been writing this post, it's surprising how many more little joys are popping into my head.  The wonders of weeding. The beauty of bird-watching. The acquisition of previously unattainable items (toilet paper - hurrah! A tin of tomatoes - yay!!) And the excitement of watching grey roots emerge (only kidding, I miss my hairdresser almost as much as my children).  Wow, there might even be enough material there to bore you with a follow-up post if the lockdown goes on much longer. 

Finally, and most importantly, Andrew and I want to say a huge hello to our friend Bill who has been hospitalised with Covid-19 over the last 10 days. We hear that he's on the mend (even taking part in quizzes now!), which is fantastic news. We're sending our warmest wishes to him and his family.

And to anyone and everyone reading this post...... 


Sunday 20 January 2019

The charms of Chile

Here we are in 2019, and against the odds, this blog lives on.  Since completing my sixtyat60 challenge almost three years ago, my output has settled down to a couple of yearly posts, just to keep my core sixtyat60 supporters in the loop about any challenge-related moments of interest. But much to my surprise, the blog has also continued to draw in a modest-sized readership from across the globe. And so on the basis that a few fab folk in the ether, or indeed closer to home, might wish to whizz through my whitterings, I've decided to carry on posting whenever I have a quirky and/or meaty story to tell. Which leads me nicely onto the purpose for this particular blog, which is to regale you with an especially meaty (brace yourselves guys) account of Andrew's and my recent expedition to Chile, the most beautiful narrow ribbon of a country in the whole wide world.....

So what was it that attracted Andrew and me to Chile? Well, from time to time we've heard about its strikingly varied landscapes from intrepid traveller friends and have quietly earmarked it as a future holiday destination. Then two years ago Andrew joined the local gym and as he toiled away on the dreaded exercise bike, he became obsessed with tracking the Torres Del Paine trail on the bike's display screen. Added to which, out of the blue, British Airways opened up a direct flight to Santiago from Heathrow.  Perfect synchronicity. Within the twinkling of an eye Andrew had established a hotline to Audley Travel (best travel company ever) and his old buddy British Airways, and hey presto, flights/hotels/excursions were all lined up for January 2018.  So far so totally excellent.  However.....six weeks before our outward flight, our lovely loopy labrador Alfie became seriously ill, and we couldn't bear the idea of leaving the country only to have him slip away during our absence.  Amazingly Audley Travel was willing to shift every single booking back a year without financial penalty. Soon afterwards Alfie headed up to that great labrador park in the sky and thanks to Audley we were able to be by his side to the very end. 

As November 2018 drew to a close, Andrew and I found ourselves at last on a BA Dreamliner bound for Chile. Ciao chilly damp wintery London. Hola hot sunny summertime Santiago. 

We instantly fell in love with Santiago. It's a vibrant cosmopolitan city, incredibly clean, nicely laid out, not too touristy and perfectly framed by the magnificent Andes mountains. That said, we had been warned endlessly about wily pick-pockets and scamsters. So when we became lost in the business district whilst trying to locate a stop on the hop-on hop-off bus route, we were instantly on high alert when a very charming and beautiful twenty-something girl approached and offered to escort us to the bus-stop, which she reckoned was about 10 minutes' walk away. Glass-half-empty Andrew was a little suspicious of her motives. Glass-half-full me was more inclined to think what a helpful and kind person she was. In the event, my optimism proved to be justified. She guided us safely to the stop, and turned out to be a newly qualified international lawyer who was delighted to have the opportunity to practice her English on us. A brief but significant encounter that gave us pause for thought about the challenges of juggling trust and caution. 

Our first port of call was Santiago's famous Costanera tower. Apparently it's the highest building in Latin America, completed in 2010, and the views from the top are stunning. On a cloudless afternoon, it gave us a great overview of the city and beyond.  

In a total contrast of architecture and social history, we next paid a visit to La Chascuna Museum House, the wacky wonderful building that the Nobel-prize winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda built for his flame-haired mistress Matilde in the 1950s. As we navigated the low doorways, twisting corridors and brightly decorated rooms of La Chascuna, we quickly gained the impression of Neruda as a larger than life bon viveur character who loved to entertain the great and good. Although I've since discovered that the #MeToo movement is currently trying to stop Santiago's international airport from being renamed 'Pablo Neruda Airport' after drawing attention to some, shall we say, less than savoury aspects of Neruda's behaviour towards women in domestic service.  

Later on we meandered around the tree-lined plazas and streets of Centro Historico, admiring the statues and museum/government buildings, all looking at their finest against the azure sky-ed backdrop. We weren't able to walk through any of the parks as their staff were out on strike that week and the gates were padlocked and guarded by a small line of resolute if affable pickets. 

On our last day in Santiago we took a 90 minute local bus ride to Valparaiso, a coastal city described by Lonely Planet as bohemian, colourful and dilapidated. was certainly dilapidated, although it did have a certain faded beauty about it. And we loved all the quirky street art for which Valparaiso is famous.

Our civilised city-break was over. Next stop the Atacama Desert, driest place on earth, and a destination well outside my comfort zone. We took a flight to Calama in the far north of Chile and towards evening time our guide dropped us off in San Pedro De Atacama, a small dusty adobe town with a hippy-ish vibe, crammed full of bars, restaurants, tour operators and well-fed stray dogs. 

Our first excursion in Atacama was a visit to the Valle de Luna (Moon Valley) and Valle del Muerte (Death Valley), just a few kilometres from San Pedro. The landscapes were, well, out of this world, a plethora of soaring salt formations and sand dunes that definitely gave the impression of being on another planet. We walked to the top of The Great Sand Dune, a super massive sandy mountain with far-reaching views. Then we drank pisco sours and watched the sun go down in Death Valley.

Our next expedition took us to the Atacama Salt Flats in the Los Flamencos National Reserve. Another day, another extraordinarily beautiful landscape, made picture perfect by the vast gathering of elegant flamingos in residence for the summer. We watched them picking their way delicately across the shallow waters, stretching their long slender necks to drink and taking brief flights in total symmetry across the salt flats.  

The altitude was increasing by the hour. Starting out from San Pedro, at an altitude of 2300 metres, we reached 3000 metres at Atacama Salt Flats, and then moved up to 4100 metres at our next destination, the Miscanti and Miniques Lagoons. Our guide Connie encouraged us to drink plenty of water to minimise symptoms such as headaches, nausea and dizziness. My word, it was worth it though. Another memorably surreal landscape greeted us.... 

We were lucky enough to have Connie all to ourselves for the whole trip as no-one else had signed up for the Altiplanas tour that day. So we were able to ply her with endless questions and swop stories about life in the UK and Chile. A truly stand-out day in our Chile trip.

The next morning we were up and out at 4.30am to watch the sun rise at El Tatio Geysers. It's the third largest geyser field in the world and a must-see in Atacama. Our guide Max turned out to be a part-time musician with some interesting beliefs on the existence of extra-terrestrial life. Fortunately he knew his stuff on the Atacama Desert too. We arrived at El Tatio at 6.30am, a few minutes before the sun eased its way over the mountain tops. The altitude was 4320 metres and the temperature was minus 13 degrees. Oh my days, was it cold, even with five layers on. But the 80-strong geysers were a jaw-dropping sight, and definitely at their spooky best in the early morning light. 

Two rugged young guys in our tour party announced their intention to bathe in the lukewarm springs of the geysers. Were we tempted to pull on our swimming togs and join them? You've got to be joking. We ate a modest breakfast al freezing fresco, which frankly felt like an SAS initiation test. Then we all clambered back into the minibus to defrost our extremities and admire Max's photos of flying saucers hovering above the Atacama plains. On our way back to San Pedro we saw llamas grazing in fields, just as cattle and sheep do in this country, and paused to observe another community of fabulous flamingos in the swamp lands. 

With Atacama in the bag, we bade the desert farewell and flew down to the Lake District, the next destination on our itinerary. I can't lie, much as I was blown away by the magic of Atacama landscapes and wouldn't have missed it for the world, I was pretty relieved to be going back to sea level, as I had been experiencing some absolutely cracking altitude headaches at night-time and was beginning to feel quite sleep-deprived. That said, the bone dry conditions had been perfect for my moisture-sensitive barnet - I had lustrously smooth hair for 4 whole days, blimey, it was almost worth staying there for good.

Two back-to-back local flights later, we finally arrived at Puerto Montt Airport. We picked up a hire car, and navigated our way successfully to Puerto Varas, a very attractive town on Lake Llanquihue in the heart of the Lake District. In the 1800s, large numbers of German, Swiss and Austrian settlers transformed the lush hilly countryside into top-notch dairy farmland, and the whole area continues to have a real Alpine feel about it. Puerto Varas was no exception, with Bavarian chalet-style architecture in evidence everywhere.

Our hotel room had a sensational double-aspect view across the deep blue waters of Lake Llanquihue to two perfectly snow-capped volcanos, called Osomo and Calbuco. We were transfixed. Honestly, we felt as if we had landed in Paradise.

The next day we drove to the far end of Lake Llanquihue to visit Frutillar, a pretty village with German-influenced buildings. Frutillar is now world-renowned, thanks to its newly built and very striking theatre/concert hall, which has been constructed on a pier of stilts to stand proudly over the waters of Lake Llanquihue.  How do the staff ever manage to coax concert attendees inside the building, when the views outside are so awesome?

We left Frutillar in high spirits. The weather was glorious, the scenery looked gorgeous, everything was going so well......and then out of the blue the gear box of our hire car decided to throw a huge wobbly in the middle of Llanquihue town centre and refused to budge out of fourth gear. We were stranded. Thank goodness for Whats App, Google Maps and our highly responsive Chilean travel company, Trails of Chile. Within an hour we had been rescued from our predicament by the car hire company and a brand new car was ours for the taking. 

Day 2 in the Lake District and we were off to the Petrohue Falls in the Vincente Perez Rosales National Park.  The Lake District has a reputation for rainy weather all year round, but we were blessed with another sunny morning and the Falls looked spectacular against the backdrop of Osomo Volcano.

We were really sad to leave the Lake District. It's a sublimely attractive region of Chile, and a surprisingly under-promoted jewel in its' crown. But we were equally excited at the prospect of visiting the next destination on our itinerary, remote and remarkable Patagonia, the original lure for our decision to visit Chile. We flew down to Puerto Arenas (our sixth flight in 2 weeks....), at the southern-most tip of the country, and then boarded a bus for a 3 hour ride to the town of Puerto Natales. The bus journey was mesmorising, with one rapid scenery change after another, from bleak and desolate Antarctic flatness, to rolling green hills, streams and vast cattle ranches and finally those majestic snow-topped mountains.

Puerto Natales is a small fishing port best known as the gateway to Torres Del Paine National Park. it's a curious mix of corrugated iron-roofed shacks and hip hotels/restaurants. It reminded us a little of the Icelandic town featured in Fortitude, a drama series in which multiple characters meet their untimely end in unpleasant ways. Our hotel room had very fine harbourside views, and also overlooked a rather unedifying graffiti-daubed skateboard park. In the park's defence it was well used, both by local kids and stray dogs. The dogs spent much of their time playing Spanish roulette games with passing traffic on the harbour road. How they avoided being run over I shall never know. It didn't make for easy watching.    

As the next day dawned, we donned our layers for a tour to Torres Del Paine National Park. The weather was cool, clear and sunny - and windy of course, it's always windy in Patagonia. We were buzzing with anticipation. We waited expectantly in the hotel reception. And we waited. An hour went by, and we were still waiting. So we decided to WhatsApp our trusty Trails of Chile contact. Things moved fast after that. A local taxi was summoned, and 20 minutes and some nippy driving later, we'd caught up with a tour bus with two spare seats that was heading towards the National Park. We'd missed the stop-off at the famous Milodon Caves, where the remains of an extinct giant sloth were found and identified in 1895/6. But we put our frustrations firmly to one side, and the day quickly developed into a very fantastic one. Our first wow moment was when we saw the iconic jagged spires of the Torres (towers), completely unfettered by cloud, mist and rain. Andrew was in seventh heaven. He didn't even have to pedal to look at them.

A few minutes later, the minibus stopped so that we could take photos of a herd of guanacos, one of the most common wild animals in Patagonia.They're very graceful animals, extremely hardy and according to our guide, can run at up to 35 mph. They're also really photogenic. 


As we piled back onto the bus, someone spotted a condor soaring through the air high above us. That got everybody super excited, especially when three more condors showed up. Condors  have a massive 3-metre wing span, so they're quite something to watch in motion. One of them clearly decided it was worth putting on a performance for us and suddenly dived downwards towards the minibus, before swooping gracefully across its roof. Another wow moment I can tell you. If only I'd had my camera at the ready....

The rest of the day was filled with driving, pausing, photo-taking and oohing/aahing as we saw one breath-taking landscape after another. Whenever we stepped out of the minibus we were nearly swept off our feet by powerful gusts of wind. But the sun continued to shine. The snow-topped mountains looked spectacular and the lakes were an unbelievably intense turquoise colour (caused by rock flour particles left from glacial erosion, explained our guide). 

On our second day in Patagonia we were scheduled to take a boat trip along the fjords to view glaciers. Just one problem. When we attempted to check in, we were told that our names weren't on the passenger list. Negotiations ensued and two spare seats were duly offered to us. A Groundhog Day moment.

The rest of the day was pretty perfect.  Our boat navigated its way swiftly through the waters of Fjord Ultima Esperanza (Fjord of Last Hope) towards Bernardo O'Higgins National Park, where the Balmaceda and Serrano Glaciers were to be found. We paused at a noisy cormorant colony.  We paused again to admire a pod of sea lions, who waved their flippers at us. Only kidding, they just gazed back at us with studious disinterest. Those poor animals must have thousands of people peering at them from visiting boats every day - still, better that than incarceration in a zoo I suppose.

An hour later we could see Balmaceda Glacier ahead of us, an impressively vast sloping wall of hanging ice, and only accessible by boat. The temperature out on deck was teeth-chatteringly chilly and the wind was whipping up. Time to slap on our woolly hats and tie them down.

Half an hour later we disembarked to take a gentle hike across to Serrano Glacier, located on the other side of Balmaceda Mountain. Chunks of ice were floating in the waters below the glacier, an awe-inspiring sight. It would been nice to have had fewer fellow hikers milling around us. But given that Balmaceda and Serrano Glaciers are both gradually melting due to the effects of global warming, it's good to think that as many people as possible are visiting them while they're still in existence. 

We boarded the boat to head back to Puerto Natales and were offered glasses of whiskey enhanced by chunks of Balmaceda glacier ice.

We had one final stop at a fjord-side sheep ranch with barbecue facilities. We all sat at tables for ten and feasted on lamb chops. Our fellow diners, who were Chilean, German and Spanish in nationality, seemed a friendly bunch of people. However, due to language limitations, it's fair to say that conversation between us was a little spasmodic. Until, that is, the word 'Brexit' was uttered. Oh my goodness, how the table erupted into an animated group outpouring of bewilderment and dismay at what was happening in the UK. All we could do was apologise profusely on behalf of the UK population. Probably best that I say no more.

The next day or two were spent quietly in Puerto Natales, as Andrew was laid low by a cough and cold. I took long wanders along the quayside to watch black-necked swans and all manner of shipping vessels going to and fro across the grey waters, whilst Andrew dosed himself up with various remedies. 

With our stay in Patagonia at an end, we waited in the hotel reception to be picked up and taken to the bus station. And we waited.  Oh no, surely we hadn't been forgotten again? Cue one panicky WhatsApp message to our highly efficient Trails of Chile contact. Five minutes later a car came squealing to a halt in the middle of the road outside the hotel, local travel operator at the wheel, and we made it to the bus station with two minutes to spare.  We were given a bottle of decent red wine and complementary tickets for a vineyard tour/wine-tasting at our next destination, La Colchagua Valley, as an apology. A lovely gesture by Trails of Chile, and greatly appreciated.

One three-hour bus journey and one two-hour flight later we were back at Santiago Airport, and after an overnight stop-over at the Holiday Inn, our charming Santiago driver, Oswaldo, whisked us off to the multi-award-winning Casa Silva vineyard in the Colchagua Valley for our tour and wine-tasting experience. The Colchagua Valley is famous for its red wines so our wine-tasting session was very reds-heavy. Not my thing, so Andrew nobly stepped up to the plate for both of us. He left Casa Silva in an, ahem, mellow mood. 

We checked in to the final hotel on our itinerary for a three-day gentle unwind before heading back into the pre-Christmas madness of the UK. We wrote festive cards, knocked back a few glasses of Casa Silva's 'Cool Coast' (a particularly fine Chilean sauvignon blanc I have to say), mulled over all things English Premier League with the chef (a Man City fan), soaked up the warm sunshine, read some good books and reflected on our stupendous Chilean travels. We agreed that Chile's extrordinarily beautiful and varied scenery was the absolute pinnacle of our holiday, and I hope I've managed to convey something of its stunning landscapes in this blog. But no country can ever be experienced at its best without a special supporting cast, by which I mean its inhabitants. Chileans were the nicest, most friendly, fun-loving people we've ever come across in 42 years of visiting other countries - and their relaxed and warm-hearted hospitality is what made our trip so special.  Best go there for yourself to see what I mean, I feel sure you'll thank me for it!

Our sincere thanks to Ian at Audley Travel Company for an outstanding service - we especially appreciated his understanding over our dilemma with our poorly dog last year.  We're also very grateful to Mario, our local travel contact at Trails of Chile, who did a brilliant job in ironing out any problems as we made our way up and down Chile. A special shout-out and thank you to our guide Connie in Atacama and our driver Oswaldo in Santiago, and all the other guides and drivers who helped us on our travels.  And if you're reading this paragraph, it must mean that you've managed to plough your way through the longest post I've ever written. Thank you so much for your persistence - I'm both touched and impressed.