Centro de Salud, Santo Tomás (and Somodo Canyon)

This week we took up residence at Centro de Salud in Santo Tomás, something less than an hour away from our place by car. It’s a lot smaller than the hospital – they do blood tests and treat some things but nothing major – but there’s a lot more work to do here because there are no technicians to be seen and as a result it seemed that inside every cupboard door in the laboratory there was another piece of out-of-service equipment. In total, over the four days (Monday we stayed at the hospital and fixed some blood pressure cuffs) I think we put 4 centrifuges, 3 microscopes, 3 nebulisers, 2 baby scales, 2 blood cell counting thingos and a thermostatic oven back in service, which I dare say is more than we would have accomplished at the hospital even despite our efforts to snatch each piece of damaged equipment out of the technicians’ hands.

Capillary centrifuges are turning out to be quite a confidence boost for us – we’ve fixed four so far by replacing the lining where the tiny tubes hit the wall with tyre inner tube. This includes the one from last week which we called them about to make sure was still doing alright, as the lady from the lab in Santa Tomás came to tell us that one we’d tested with her hadn’t quite been fixed after all. I felt awful at first because she said it was full with 24 capillary tubes and they’d all broken… we got a relief to learn, however, that the tubes that are used are in fact disposable, so it was ‘just’ their time that we’d wasted, and we wouldn’t have to improvise tubes anytime soon… a bit more lab experience and that probably would have been obvious to us, but we don’t look so bad next to the refrigeration technician who is kind enough to be (got roped into?) taking us around to different health centres in the region. I knew we had learnt some stuff about medical equipment during our month of training in Granada, but it became even clearer when, after being told that the tubes were breaking in the centrifuge, we were headed straight for gloves while the man tries to wipe the rubber clean with his fingers, cutting himself with blood-covered glass in the process :/ We learn a lot of things from him, of course, we just have to warn him of things a few times because he’s less familiar with the equipment. He also does a great job of finding us lunch spots and introducing us to which pig will be Friday’s lunch.

Fixed capillary centrifuges (right one also had a burnt motor connection and a missing prong on its plug) and a thermostatic oven.

Fixed capillary centrifuges (right one also had a burnt motor connection and a missing prong on its plug) and a thermostatic oven.

Rabbit not for eating.

Rabbit not for eating.

Horse ‘dancing’ is a big thing around here (but rocking chairs bigger). regrettably turned down an opportunity for a horse pic in my scrubs.

Reastorse ‘dancing’ is a big thing around here (but rocking chairs bigger). regrettably turned down an opportunity for a horse pic in my scrubs.

One of the most interesting pieces that we’ve come across this week has been the sterilisation oven in the picture above. It was old enough (acquired 25 years ago) to have a mechanical temperature control system instead of what would these days be a much less exciting soup of barely serviceable circuits and sensors. When you select a temperature with the dial at the front, a tube with a bit of mercury inside gets tilted to the left based on the value. Inside the tube, to the left, there are two circuit connections, and if mercury is joining them then the circuit will be closed and the heating element will be on (this is the starting state regardless of temperature). As the element heats the oven, the mercury expands and eventually causes the tube to tip over because of its shift in centre of gravity. This will happen later if the tube was left-tilted a lot originally because of a high set point, and the effect is that the mercury doesn’t close the circuit anymore so the heating stops. Eventually the mercury will tip the vial backwards and heating will begin again, and the process will continue so that the temperature of the oven is maintained around about the set temperature. Our fix involved fixing a previous fix and making sure it didn’t suffer the same fate of getting cooked by (presumably) touching the mercury tube. We also adjusted the dial so that the readings corresponded to the correct temperatures again, which conveniently meant we got to spend ages watching the mercury make sparks as it tipped back and forth while we calibrated it.

Mercury thermostat.

Mercury thermostat.

Cable ties have come in handy quite often.

Cable ties have come in handy quite often.

My most excited moment for the week came from the first all-mechanical device that we’ve seen: a thing used for counting the types of blood cells seen under a microscope. I liked it because of how I originally had no idea how it worked, and wasn’t really certain that we’d ever be about to fix it! The problems that it had were that some numbers weren’t incrementing the total, some weren’t incrementing at all, and some weren’t resetting back to 0 with the others when you turned the wheel. For a good 20 minutes or so I was just absorbed by it, clicking away, but even once we’d figured out how it was supposed to work it was an even more interesting challenge to figure out why it wasn’t working correctly. For the numbers not incrementing, they were just missing springs so I put some rubber bands there instead. For the numbers not resetting back to zero, I still don’t know for sure the process of resetting but I suspect it is something on the inside of each wheel that gets caught at a particular number by a wiper attached to the shaft through them all. I guess for the numbers that weren’t working, the bit that gets caught was either worn down or loose.. I didn’t risk pulling out the shaft to try to fix it incase it all fell to bits, but you can just increment the broken number to 0 through incrementing the counter then turn the rest around to join it. The numbers not incrementing the total was the most interesting fix, I think – it turned out that the further away from the total they were, the more likely it was that the total would skip. There’s a bar below each of the buttons which will pull down the springs of the total count if any of the buttons are pressed. After a bit of poking around I realised the hole that the shaft permitting the bar to get pushed down goes through was enlarged through wear. This didn’t affect the counts of the buttons close to the total, but pushing the ones far away would lift the shaft a bit, and that energy loss was enough to make the total skip the count – by preventing the shaft from lifting with a cable tie the bar then pulled the springs of the total down far enough that it would increment like normal. Then I found out the method that increments the hundreds digit was a bit overzealous and would increment on the tens digit’s 8 and 9, meaning the total went 89-90-100-101. It was just from wear, and I had an idea of how to fix it, but it might have risked taking the tens digit out of action completely so I didn’t bother. Anyway, the scientist lady told me she doesn’t even look at the total much and counts in her head….

In terms of outside-hospital activities, there was some sort of event for the hospital staff this week that we were invited to and even got a special mention at.. Some María got cheated out of her title of Miss Hospital Asunción by another María. A birthday party or two at our house this week so a few nights off from pizza, and we made the trek to Estelli for the weekend to join up with our friends and do the Somodo canyon lazy river/cliff jumping that the home stay family of some of our friends runs, which was incredible.

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karaoke

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To the hospitals..!

Earlier this week my partner and I have arrived in Juigalpa, a few hours by car from Granada where the EWH Summer Institute has just finished spending the first month training as a big group. Probably the pace of things will slow a bit as we adjust to the Nicaraguan lifestyle but so far I am feeling like we’ve had a pretty productive 3 days!

First day we got a tour of the hospital by the head of the maintenance department. While introducing us to everyone you could hear them all say ‘oh like the guys who have been here the previous years’ so that will probably help us with gaining acceptance at this hospital (assuming the previous guys did alright!). We set up in the maintenance shed and got to work on the incubator that had been brought in with a broken door. While the technicians crafted a brace to hold the plastic back together we opened up and cleaned all of the inside components (after visiting the neonatal department to understand the problem for ourselves since someone had [I think] told us that the heater wasn’t working well but in the end it was only the door that had been the problem). The buzzer for the alarm had come apart a bit so we fixed that but in general we were just getting experience with preventative maintenance.. I saw something new in the way the case was closed: the door was secured closed by inserting a screwdriver into the piece below and turning, like a lock and key. I’ll be on the lookout for bits like this from now on.

Bottom of the incubator

Bottom of the incubator

Magic keyhole lock

Magic keyhole lock

Ultrasound physiotherapy device success!

Ultrasound physiotherapy device success!

That afternoon, presumably prompted by our arrival, a man in a lab coat brought some things from storage such as a briefcase for which the key’d been lost, a piece of EKG equipment that I’m not sure where ended up, and another device (Exogen 2000+) that they were asking me about. It was showing an error, but beyond that they weren’t even sure what it did or what department it belonged in. Since it had a manual with it, I could tell them it was for delivering ultrasound physiotherapy for broken bones but not a whole lot else since it only described how to use the device, not why/when/where. Unphased by the crypticness of the error message ‘repair unit 32’ and the instructions in the manual to send the unit away, we opened the device hoping there would to be a fix staring us in the face. We found flawless circuit boards, but the battery pack gave us a bit of hope. After reassembling a variable power supply that had been left behind by a previous group but robbed for parts, we used it to replace the batteries and hey presto ‘add coupling gel’ error – success! Slap in some replacement batteries (different type but similar total voltage) and now we have a working device.. just with no one to use it.

Improvised 9V battery connector..

Improvised 9V battery connector..

The neonatal nurse brought us a cable for a warming bed that had been disconnected at the earth prong and, when we fixed that, a surge-protected power board that had had its power switch broken. Apparently it’s common for the neonatal department to spill stuff on the power boards so there were some spares lying around that we could salvage a button from, just getting it out was the annoying bit because we had to de-solder a few components to get the circuit board out of the way.

Dodgy cable

Dodgy cable

Inside a surge protector

Inside a surge protector

We asked about a capillary centrifuge sitting in the shed and apparently it was brought from another hospital/health centre which I assume doesn’t have technicians. It was missing the rubber lining that stops the samples from smashing when they hit the wall as the device spins. We searched for a replacement when we went to pick up the new batteries for the ultrasound device, but just ended up buying a bunny rabbit..? Later Sindora made one from truck tyre inner tube, and then we fixed the motor support so it wouldn’t scrape when spinning (after cleaning out the wasps nests).

Capillary centrifuge

Capillary centrifuge

what

what

Serious winds atop Cerro Negro

Serious winds atop Cerro Negro

For the weekend we headed to León, just a few multi-hour bus trips away, to reunite with the rest of the group and head volcano boarding. I really enjoyed the views of and around the volcano.. some cool craters, a mix of colours from the lava, and phenomenal wind speeds… just about got pushed off a tiny edge we were walking along at the top once the boards we were carrying got picked up by the wind. Hung out at the pool in the arvo and made our debut at the local karaoke/salsa bar before the night was up.

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Returned to our pizza shop/home stay in Juigalpa for some hand washing in preparation for whatever our first full week has in store..

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Ometepe as our month in Granada comes to a close

Thai food in Nica

Thai food in Nica

Raina and I made red curry for our host family earlier this week which went down a treat despite a few mishaps (turns of cream of coconut is definitely not the same as coconut cream). The rain was so loud I even had a hard time understanding the other english speakers properly, but it was still the most people we’d ever had at the dinner table at once I think. They commented on how healthy the meal was with all of the vegetables.. I’m not sure why we don’t see more veggies around, if they have money to buy new furniture every other day and build new rooms.. a cultural thing perhaps, or maybe there’s more to the financial situation than I understand.

Instead of visiting a hospital this week our half of the group went to the offices of service crew for the public hospitals in Nicaragua. And then, as it happened, we split up into groups and went to different hospitals… we ended up at maternity hospital and managed to fix an infant incubator just by looking at it, just about. Guess sometimes fixes are perplexingly simple.

Just a temperature sensor, fan and heater to this incubator.

Just a temperature sensor, fan and heater to this incubator

Over the weekend we headed for the island of Ometepe and had groups hike each of its volcanoes. I opted for a waterfall hike (finally got to see a glass-wing butterfly by chance) and a lot of lazing around otherwise, enjoying the nice food and playing bananagrams.. it was fantastic.

La Cascada de San Ramon

La Cascada de San Ramon

Finca Mystica, Ometepe

Finca Mystica, Ometepe

It’s sad and a bit of a shock that we’re already wrapping up the first month of the EWH Summer Institute.. feeling like there’s a lot more left to learn but I guess it’ll have to be done on the job once we hit the hospitals. The spanish school hosted a wrap up party for us which was great fun, and each group gave a performance (ours was Let It Go in spanish). Of course we had our own farewell party after winning one last round of pub trivia, but I think we’ll still manage to see each other despite being scattered throughout the country next month.

Party at NSLS

Party at NSLS

Poste Rojo for our 3rd weekend in Nicaragua

Writing from atop a tree house on the side of a volcano a bit out from Granada. It’s been a pretty relaxing weekend and it’s only Saturday arvo.. got here yesterday around lunchtime and for the most part have been in a hammock ever since (the rest of the time being spent either dancing or making the climb between the sleeping hammocks and bar). I’ve been enjoying watching the animals.. butterflies, hummingbirds, leaf-cutter ants trails from start to end, monkeys, and squirrels even. Still haven’t seen a scorpion but that might be for the best. Overall though it’s just a nice vibe here.. people just hanging out, chilling in the rain, or watching the silent electrical storms which I’m still wrapping my head around. The rest of the group arrived at dark and left in the morning but I’m making 48hrs out of it with no regrets (especially given the relief from the heat!). Have plans to make red curry for the host family tomorrow if all goes well.

Hammocks at Poste Rojo

Guys working on a centrifuge

Guys working on a centrifuge

This week has gone the fastest so far… perhaps because the pool/bar routine has become a bit too comfortable, so the days aren’t particularly distinguishable. Even winning rum at trivia is losing its novelty 😉 I also think going to the hospital in halves over Thursday and Friday might contribute to it, as suddenly Wednesday seems like the end of the study week. After learning about common repairs to more types of equipment we’re likely to come across in the hospital during the week we got to test out our diagnosis, repair and testing skills at Nandaime hospital this week. Last week the other group were asked to work on a microscope which turned out to have a fried lizard inside plus eggs which hatched. We returned with a replacement fuse only to further discover that the back of the circuit board had been charred to bits from (presumably) the lizard, so they weren’t too happy about that news. I think over the day though we put a reasonable amount of equipment back in service: some centrifuges, some autoclaves – pretty much all connection problems – an IV bag stand on an incubator, and almost some blenders from the kitchen. It’s a different dynamic working under such strong time constraints – I’m looking forward to being able to take time to read more and search for appropriate parts next month.

As for spanish classes, we’ve been powering through some more tenses this week (given that it’s review for most of the group) so I’m learning a lot but at a rate faster than I can keep up with in terms of practice, so there’s a bit of a delay but I’m trying. I had a reasonable conversation with a German nurse in the back of the ute on the way Poste Rojo for the first time at a comparable level to my catalan, and if my new 5 year-old friend keeps coming to our house and correcting my spanish and pretty much miming games with me then I should be ready for the hospital in no time.

Second week in Nicaragua

This week started off on a high note as I, for the first time despite who knows how many attempts, have finally been on a winning trivia team! I’ll have to keep in mind that it definitely helps to have a team the same age, with the same interests, and from the same town as the host…

Classes have mainly been about different types of equipment that we’re likely to come across and case studies on the types of faults they commonly have. In labs this week we made torches and regulated power supplies and working with the instructor to get to the bottom of my originally stumping questions regarding fuses. On Friday we went back to the same hospital as last week so saw some familiar faces, and they were probably happy to have their cleaning assistants back. At least from my perspective this visit wasn’t as interesting as the last, as the equipment wasn’t actually broken. On one hand, it’s a shame to spend time cleaning equipment instead of repairing it and doing things closer to what we can expect for the second month when there isn’t such an established maintenance team, however on the other hand it’s really great to shadow the technicians while they’re available and pick up on things, which makes the experience better. The men are happy to explain processes and vocabulary to us as mentors of sorts. We didn’t really fix so much equipment this week but we worked on fans (pedestal and ceiling), a through-wall AC unit, an EKG machine (poor connection in hub), an autoclave (only good for spare parts it turns out) and a pulse oximeter (meant for babies, hence the bad readings).

Learning from the technicians

Learning from the technicians

Sunday Funday

Sunday Funday

At the end of the week there was a split of the group to either go volcano boarding in Leon or beach/partying in San Juan del Sur. I went for the party option though I started wondering if I wasn’t actually more interested in just staying at home and chilling… Usually when I push myself to go to something it ends up being worth it though (albeit at the subtle cost of the push which appears to slowly wear on me), and this case followed suit. We had a nice day on the beach that seemed to go on and on and tacos for dinner, although I kinda regret not checking out the food that must have existed at the street party for Mothers Day. Back home at our host family’s house there are five generations under one roof (including a 95 year-old) because Mother’s Day is kind of a big deal (public holiday level). Meanwhile, we ended up at a bar by the beach and of course exploited the combination by the end of the night. There’s an infamous pool crawl on Sundays which lived up to the hype – the most surprising part of the day was how we somehow managed to make it on the bus back to Granada with five minutes to spare.

First visit to a hospital in Nicaragua (as an engineer)

The Engineering World Health 2015 Summer Institute has begun!

After hanging out with a fellow participant’s family friends for a while while waiting to be picked up from the airport, around half of the 24 of us in total boarded our old US school bus and made our way from Managua to Granada (more touristy and safer), listening to two from the Spanish school’s tips on life around here. Ladies, don’t buy the cut-up mangoes in Parque Central, and men, don’t follow sexy ladies who invite you down to a particular area of town because you’re gonna have a bad time. Don’t bother avoiding ice in drinks etc, you’re going to get sick (he said it also happens when he goes back to the US after a while here. Interesting.). Already happy to have come here because of the opportunity it’s given me to reflect on how I might have changed since leaving Australia 3 years ago. For example, this is the first (and possibly last) time I’ve ever been the lightest packer…

Feliz cumple Santi

Feliz cumple Santi

The house (for my roommate and I) is wonderfully modest, as anticipated, but luxurious compared to my time in Zambia. Personally I’m happy to be forced to sit and read or whatever instead of wasting nights on the internet. I’ve met 10 people at the house so far, including baby Santiago who celebrated his 1st birthday this evening, my host mother Irene, and a volunteer from Denmark Louise who told her tales of public transport dramas on the way back from Ometepe island that weekend.

Granada

Our street

I showed them my catalan book in an attempt to at least have them understand why I am not understandable sometimes when I think I’m speaking spanish..  I didn’t completely bomb the placement test for spanish classes so my attempts to switch from catalan to spanish before arriving haven’t completely failed, but they must have found it strange to mark the test of someone who can manage past perfect tense but not the numbers… Here’s hoping my spanish improvements don’t come at too much of a cost.. One of my goals is to one day be able to speak multiple foreign languages at the *same* time, without them interfering with/overwriting each other, as catalan did for french, and probably now spanish for catalan. Hopefully one day I’ll manage – and then the other latin-based languages will be low-hanging fruit.

Classes this week included how to not kill someone with electric shock from one of our repaired devices; how to engineer makeshift battery substitutes, and hands-on practice with soldering and making our own extension cords. Our host families bring us a hot lunch each day, and we’ve found some good places for after-class drinks. Other examples of how we’ve been keeping busy in the evenings include pub trivia, gelato, bananagrams, walks to the lake, homework, movies or sports on tv in Spanish, and a beach night club.

At the end of each week while we’re in Granada for the first month we’re going to be spending a day at different hospitals so we’re not just thrown into the deep end when we do this fulltime next month. Since the group in total is so large we split up into two for alternating days. The split is based on our spanish classes to give the teachers days off – level 4 went with level 1, which meant for at least part of the day it was me and another level 4 as translators (we split in half again at the hospital so we weren’t 15 following one technician). This in itself was worth the trip for me because I got to gauge how my conversion to Spanish-speaking is going. My listening level seems to be about the same as it ever was in Catalan, so I could follow and translate what the technician was saying alright, but speaking could definitely use some work.

I got a glimpse into how different the vocabulary is in a hospital and how you will have a hard time trying to explain anything technical without words like valve, leak, pressure, unplug, etc, which you’re not really going to come across in class typically. This was relevant at least for the context that we were dealing with, which was fixing a leak from the pressurised water container on a dentist chair. First thing we realised was that the dentist’s office is the place to be because for some reason they’ve got aircon on, patients or not. Then the technician went to grab a spare pressure release valve because that’s where the leaking water was coming from. Why is there a spare, though? Because the bottle on the other chair had broken from pressure one day, thought it’s not exactly clear why – the dentist said that she always presses the pressure release valve until there’s no more sound before she opens the bottle, but the technician on the other hand said it happened while no one was around… All we knew at that point was that it maybe wasn’t a good idea to put the valve from the system that broke into the one that was leaking, in case a faulty valve was the problem. Maybe they didn’t unplug the air compressor, or something else was a possibility that we didn’t realise, because the technician seemed pretty convinced the valve was fine. In the end, the leak was caused by a crack in the flexible tube the water travels through which just happened to be leaking onto the valve, so that’ll be the first thing I check from now on, but it was interesting to see how complicated the process can get by he said-she said situations, of which there are sure to be many more..

Fixing a leak 'with the valve'

Fixing a leak ‘with the valve’…

Other things we worked on for the day include an electrocautery unit in the morning which was getting stuck at particular power levels, but the behaviour couldn’t be reproduced in the lab nor operating room so we gave it back to the doctor (before a hard-earned ‘pausa’). After a super long lunch break (including the mysterious calala juice) we headed to the paediatrics unit to grab some neublisers (which deliver medicine through inhaled steam if I understood) that needed servicing. This hospital is quite special in that it has a very proficient staff base who regularly service equipment on a schedule. Two of the three nebulisers weren’t working, so we busted out the toolkits and hoped for the best. In the end, it turns out that this equipment fixing thing is not necessarily super complicated, and that one was just clogged and the other had a loose connection that needed resoldering of one of its components that was buried under some shrink wrap. As a result I don’t think I’ll be so concerned about having a crack at fixing things any more (provided I don’t suspect exploding springs or collapsable gearboxes).

The week finished up with me feeding a monkey trapped on an island in Las Isletas, and hanging out by a volcanic crater lagoon.

Laguna de Apoyo

Laguna de Apoyo

Back in Paris

Wow. Ok, I understand now what people are on about – for real. I got some of the Parisian vibe last week, but this time around is something else completely. I think it might just be because I’m not with a group of people and so when I want to stop and appreciate things, I can. And on Monday night when I was walking around trying to find my hostel, I did that a lot. It wasn’t at all a sense of ‘oh no what am I doing in a foreign country by myself’ but more like ‘how did I end up here?! In Paris?!’. It’s the first time I’ve felt this sort of excitement, which really is a pleasant surprise!! But it wasn’t touristy anymore – crêperies were filled with French conversation. Laneways with patisseries and cheese stalls.. is this really my life??

I’ve been very impressed with myself so far in terms of independence, to the effect of having “this isn’t so hard” as my new motto. I’m on the TGV at the moment to my new home (it’s surprising what a workout you can get on a high-speed train, just trying to keep yourself straight when centrifugal force wants otherwise), and while I’m not entirely sure what I’ll do once I get there, I’ve made it this far alright on my own.

On Monday I flew from Rome to Paris after a morning of sightseeing (some of the stranger sights perhaps, like a Roman pyramid and a non-view-obstructing flat-roofed church painted to look (from one angle) like a dome). Ok, I did learn a lesson on that trip about the need to validate a ticket before getting on an Italian train.. found that out when I was written a fine with $500 written on it. Luckily the decimal place was just missing!!

After arriving in Paris and catching the train into the city, I checked out Notre Dame since it’s right near my hostel and then took a bit of a ‘scenic route’ home. I wish I was hungry but after two lunches I thought it best not to give in to the crêpes… There were 4 Swedish girls in the 8-bed room I was in who conveniently arrived as I was checking in and so were able to help me carry my things to the 6th floor… There was a wall in the middle of our room though so it was as if I had the place to myself. I woke to an additional two roommates, though – they must have gotten in quite late.

A bit of breakfast and out the door to the Eiffel Tower, with a quick stop at the Australian embassy to check that the water damage on my passport is nothing to worry about. By this point I’d realised that I’d left my credit card in the train ticket machine the night before, but fortunately that was uneventful.. alright, I guess there are a few things that I could have improved on in my travels but I still stand by my previous comment about being impressed with myself!

I had the idea of brunch under the Tower in my mind, so spent probably close to an hour searching for the ideal setting. Nice cafe, no view; nice view, no cafe – what’s going on!! Well, I ended up right back near the embassy for an €8 coffee (I think they might have been generous with their own tip there), with the view I’d been searching for.

Crepes at MontmartreOff for a bit of shopping at the famous Champs-Élysées – hopefully for some shoes, dresses and jackets, but looks like I’ll settle for a French sim card and some macarons from Ladurée!! If I had to get to one of the SNCF train stations anyway to buy my TGV ticket, I might as well stop off at Montmartre for a visit to the Moulin Rouge, Sacre-Coeur and some crêpes with a stunning view..! New shoes, umbrella (red polka dots) and a ring can be my souvenirs for the trip. How practical! I walked home via the train station to buy my TGV ticket for the next day (today), and found that the early trains had sold out so I’d ‘earnt’ myself a sleep in. Another stay-at-home night, this time with a full hostel room of awkwardness.. It’s hard to tell who is French and who would speak English if I wanted to make conversation!

A soup-bowl of coffee (is this a normal French thing!?) before checking out of the hostel and setting out for the walk to the TGV station, stopping for petit dejeuner on the way. If I make an effort to go out for breakfast, I usually expect something significant, but French breakfasts seem to all be juice, coffee, bread and a croissant. I settled on a western breakfast of bacon and eggs and croissant which was so good that I’m concerned for my arteries. Which pretty much brings us to this train ride! Exciting!!!

Pisa, Florence, Rome..

An early start to make it to Florence with a stopover at Pisa for the cliche leaning tower photos and our first taste of authentic Italian food. The rest of the day involved gelato, a swim up bar, a three course Italian meal, and dancing in the hostel bar until closing time. A good night!

Super early morning to get into town for a walking tour of Florence which was really great. We had a lovely born-and-raised Florencian old lady guide and covered the major monuments within 1.5hrs, such contrast to the vastness of Paris. The Duomo was really magnificent: 3000 tonnes in the double-layer dome, first in Europe, built over a course of 300 years, in the age before computer simulation (and still standing). The statue of David was also quite a sight: 16ft tall and chiseled from one block of marble, with Michael Angelo not working from a clay model or anything. You quickly realize that the majority of statues were of biblical/mythical characters – she also pointed out one with the artist’s face hidden in the back of the statue’s head (benefit of having a guide!). As always I enjoyed taking photos down lane ways, and soaking up the sense of Italy that comes with cobblestone streets and old men riding stepthrough bicycles with baskets. We went to the leather shop for a demonstration on how to detect fakes (to be honest I didn’t pick up much of it.. I may or may not have been napping in my seat a bit) and then had a group lunch at a great Italian (obviously) restaurant. A man with an accordion came along.. It was too perfect! Topped the afternoon off with some gelato and a trip to a terrace for a view of the city, before heading back to the bus to make our way to Rome. [insert joke about roads]

Florence

In Rome we stayed at a campsite a few metro stops out of the city (but we were staying in cabin-like things not camping) which was apparently popular with Topdeck tours: 6 buses in on that night! We didn’t get home till late because as soon as we hit Rome we were out on a walking tour of the city. Again it was so cool to see so many of the tourist hot spots in one sweep: I’m starting to become quite a fan of walking tours! We went to the Spanish Steps (an area of Rome governed by Spain, with a fountain, monument and $100 high tea place nearby), the Trevi Fountain for a coin toss (like, the most spectacular fountain in the world, complete with a tap/fountain with water which restores virginity… (they have heaps of continuously running water spouts which are free to fill their bottles up at – not sure why they run continuously though)). The other monuments were impressive, but perhaps could have been found anywhere. What was mind blowing though is the part of Rome that is absolutely unique: the ruins. While Florence apparently was built ontop of the ruins of ancient cities (possibly something to do with flood problems, she said), Rome has kept its ruins for all to see – with the exception of the chunks of the Colosseum which were taken for building other monuments! It gives just a glimpse into history but certainly enough to get your imagination going. At nighttime the Forum looks like eerie caveman ruins.. which I guess isn’t all too far from the truth. A massive contrast with 150-year-old colonised Austalia..

Flat-domed chapel

I spent the next day exploring the city in daylight, Vatican included.. phwoah. Is Rome just full of giant, incredible things?

I even managed to track down a pyramid, thanks to a tip off from Rick Steves.. Which I’ll admit was a little underwhelming.. but, he came good on his second ‘offbeat Rome’ stop: a flat-roofed chapel with a 3D painted ceiling. The mostly-black dome part had me pretty impressed! A bike-taxi tour around the sites I’d missed, and a toga party marked the celebration of the end to a fantastic tour. Now, just to plan my journey to my new home!

Switzerland, you’ve outdone yourself!

Picturesque is absolutely an understatement for Switzerland.. For Lauterbrunnen, at the very least.

360x90o of pure postcard. Whatever you picture Switzerland like in your head, this will most likely live up to it – our bus and the two others that were in town the same two nights as us spent the majority of our time in awe of our surroundings. The Swiss flag-marked waterfall right near our cabins probably helped with that.

Swiss houses

London, Paris: their beauty was as a city – in their buildings and icons. Switzerland’s beauty lies in its landscapes and cute cottages. You would think that the village had been set up just for tourists, to pander to the old-time stereotype of the Swiss Alps, but this town of 800 and one bar isn’t a particularly hot tourist destination – there was no exaggeration! After dinner (fondue and roast at the campsite) we took that bar by storm though. With some exceptionally Swiss-looking cider chilled in the stream, the party began, and continued on through the night with the other tour groups.

The bus journey to Switzerland took longer than I had expected, taking the majority of the day. This seems to create a false sense of hope for sleep catch-up, with late nights ensuing. I hope I learn to remember that they insist on playing music on the bus even when everyone is clearly trying to sleep, and that stops are required every two hours for the driver, so hence the “false” hope, making the bus days not just a missed opportunity for sleep, but a source for a wrongly seized opportunity for a late night beforehand (double whammy!). Don’t regret a thing!

I’ll explain the rest of the night with this:

The best (and only) bar in Lauterbrunnen

Adrenaline junkie..?

The beauty of Switzerland just kept coming today. Up early to catch a train up to Jungfraujoch, the highest train-accessible point in Europe. Before leaving I popped into reception to find out about the bungee jumping I’d heard someone speak of despite our tour leader not knowing of any when I asked (the tour only advertised the skydiving which was $500 plus another $1something for the DVD) . Only $150 for a more exhilarating experience (in my experience)? Sign me up! I asked others if they wanted to join me and the only one to say yes was Chong Sol (very much to my surprise)! We were booked in for 4pm, which I later realized only gave us 2 hours at the Top of Europe because of the 2hr train ride.. No worries, still another $150 well spent.

Jungfraujoch cows

Cows. With bells. Yes, really.

The views were spectacular at Jungfraujoch – we couldn’t quite see as far as France and Germany as is sometimes possible, but with a schnapps and wearing every item of clothing that I brought, it was beautiful. A play in the snow and a go on the 250m zip line and it was pretty much time to head down again, on an earlier train so that there was some spare time for taking a million photos on the way back to the reception, which we absolutely did (as well as some Swiss chocolate shopping).

The next few hours were ones not to be forgotten. Imagine the most picturesque Swiss lake, completely surrounded by green mountains with only a log cabin, dinghy and picnic bench in sight. Oh, and a cable car full of backpackers, 290ft above the lake, chanting a countdown….

Such an incredible experience, bungee jumping aside! Which is good, because I can’t remember much of the jump itself, except the headache like last time, and the sore back I got from this time unlike last. I think it might have to do with the Gold Coast one being more of a ‘fall off the edge’, and this one a ‘throw yourself from the cable car’. I found the falling way scarier (more fun – man that was a scream), but throwing yourself definitely makes for a better photo!!

Swiss bungee jumping

I went third (I’d offered second but the girl next to me got clipped onto the rope first) which meant that I got to sit for still-not-long-enough next to the beautiful lake and watch everyone else. Apparently I was so psyched that I even skipped the countdown!! My throw out of the door (sideways for the photo) must have been good because I ended up going backwards for most of my jump!

Chong Sol was terrified and needed a few count downs but ended up loving it and plans to do many more back in Korea – can’t blame her!

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