Winner! 2011 Raffles writing competition

6 Dec

One door opens, another door closes. I didn’t get selected for the finalists of the 2011 Royal Geographical Society/BBC Journey of a Lifetime award, which I was hoping would kick-start my research on second-hand clothing in Bolivia (I got short-listed again but no cigar), but I have won the 2011 Raffles Hotel writing competition!

The prize is a six night stay in their places in Singapore and Cambodia, valid until December 2012; but in honesty the real prize is being recognised for some nice writing, and I’m hoping that this will lead to some commissions in travel journalism in 2012. My entry was a shortened version of my Travelblog about my trek to Macchu Picchu – you can plough through the full version here  if you want to.

Here is what the judge of the competition said:

“Choosing the best has been an invidious task, but, in the end, the clear winner for me was ‘Facing myself – vertigo and dynamite in Peru’s Sacred Valley’. The author managed to convey such a strong sense of place that I almost felt myself breathing it in. But there was also something else, which – to me – is fundamental to good travel writing: the evocation of ‘foreigness’. This author managed – very skilfully – to weave in tiny details that gave this piece a wonderfully exotic feel. At the same time, managing to convey their own feelings, giving a sense that we too were there.”

And here is my entry!

Facing myself – vertigo and dynamite in Peru’s Sacred Valley

My trek from Cuzco to Macchu Picchu spanned four days and three nights. It didn’t occur to me how physically and mentally demanding that might be. Talking through the coming days events, our guide Rayman made it sound easy – he liked to use the words “flat”, “not far” and “not long” – but I discovered that he divided everything in his head by three before telling us. Therefore, if he said we were only walking for an hour, we were walking for only 3 hours.

The bus ride to where the trek would start was stunning and death defying in equal parts. The road the bus usually takes was out due to a recent landslide, so our route on a crowded public bus took 14 hours instead of 7. Being hideously off-schedule,the driver s imply sped through most of it. Us helpless, hapless tourists could only cling on as we took hairpin bend after hairpin bend, crunching to a halt to let oncoming juggernauts or camiones pass.

My reward was the window seat: for me alone were the unforgettable, breathtakingly beautiful widescope views of the Sacred Valley in all its mysterious, colourful glory. Looking down was like looking out of a plane window from 30,000 feet, and the windows opened – so the wind and dust blew into my face. Later, as we ascended into cloud forest, towering bamboo stands along the road brushed against my face as I hung my head out of the window. We passed a hut by the roadside where I spied jungle boars, with tusks and speckled fur, running around chasing a dog, itself being chased by a couple of kids in mucky tracksuits; when they saw us coming, they fled to the safety of the hut and peered out from behind frightened, curious eyes, one head atop the other.

Setting off the next sunrise, alongside the Urumbamba river, we reached a village washed out by El Nino. Passing the carcasses of people’s homes, we ascended into lush, dense jungle, passing through coca plantations with morning dewdrops hanging heavily from every leaf.

It wasn’t long until I was totally knackered. It was getting hotter. I could feel my chest tighten with every step, my throat burning as I tried to get more air into my lungs, and my knees beginning to moan. Eventually, the shade from the vegetation eventually disappeared as we came onto the high pass on the side of a mountain, the full force of the elements on our faces.

And then we took on our toughest challenge. We joined the original Inca Trail: that is, the steps carved out of the rockface by Incas themselves. These steps cling to the very edge of the mountain, and are under one metre wide. Why didn’t I didn’t realise this would be part of the trek, I asked myself. What did I think would be meant by Inca Trail – A wooden escalator? Weathered soft by time, the steps gave no grip, and there is nothing to hold on to on the rock side. I clung to each little jagged bit of the rock face that I could find and fixed my gaze on my feet, so as to take each measured step onto each measured area, literally at some points squatting down down to do so.

Worst of all, there was a gang of road-builders working at the bottom of an adjacent mountain, blowing it up with successive dynamite explosions. Each explosion threw up a huge cloud of dust and thrust a fearful sonic boom towards our party, reverberating around the surrounding mountains as we clung to the dirt and prayed for our lives.

Amid such surging fear, animal spirits took charge. Every so often my brain requested fresh information on the landscape so that my eyes automatically looked out to size up the rest of the work in front of me. The sound of my own whimpering tuned out: we walked with eyes forward, unflinching. I didn’t know how I was going to do it – but somehow, I did. And in my tattered old sneakers.


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