Monday, 10 March 2014

La Paz - Bolivia's Protest Capital

We pulled into La Paz at 6am. The bus journey was probably along terrifyingly precarious cliff faces but due to the majority of it being through the night we spent a relaxing time, heads lolling around, snatching 2 minute microsleeps in between potholes and comfort breaks.

La Paz is Bolivia's administrative capital and is built at about 3600m above sea level in a valley surrounded by impressive mountains with red brick barrios balanced perilously on sheer cliffs emanating from its humble central business district. Despite its Spanish colonial history it has suffered from a pretty depressing economic climate and as a result many of these old buildings have been torn down due the inability of the owners to afford the upkeep. As a result the centre looks a lot more industrial and stoic than other Latin American capitals.

Our hostel's check in wasn't until 1pm so we dumped our bags and went for a wander around the centre of town.

Unlike Rio and Buenos Aires the atmosphere wasn't one of extreme poverty and dicey street crime despite Bolivia being one of the countries in South America with one of the lowest average wages and we wandered around taking it all in. One of the old cobbled streets we ended up meandering along sold an eclectic collection of tourist tat including, among other things, a full range of Al Paca wool clothes, pan pipes, bowler hats and Llama foetus. Dried Llama foetus is commonly bought by proud home owners to bury under the front of your house to ward off evil spirits. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn't but definitely one of the most aesthetically frightful things people around the world put their faith in.

Whilst holding up one of the petrified llamas staring at it, glassy eyed, we started to hear what sounded very much like explosions echoing through the valley. They were far too loud to be a car backfiring and we assumed that some ropey city centre establishment had exploded in a fire ball due to a gas leak or some other avoidable disaster. When it happened again, we became a little concerned but when it kept happening and we saw everyone around us casually going about their daily business we realised that whatever it was did not seem to be causing undue alarm. We asked one of the shop owners what the noise was and he answered 'manifestacion' which means protest. I asked where it was happening and he pointed down to the main street we had just come from. We walked back down the hill a little and were greeted with quite a sight.

The main street we had crossed an hour before was now packed with thousands of people who, we found out later, were protesting the absolutely horrific conditions that the miners in Bolivia have to endure every day. This was particularly poignant having just arrived from Potosi, home of the mine known locally as 'The Mine that eats people'. The explosions we'd been hearing were the miners detonating dynamite on main shopping street in La Paz. The protesters seemed to be divided into different unions, or mines. Each section had its own flag at the front of the group and each group would light a stick of dynamite at what seemed to be completely random intervals before sprinting away from the fizzing explosive before the blast sent out a shockwave that would physically knock the wind out of you and leave your ears ringing as you stood there bewildered, wondering what had just happened.

We eventually learnt that when you saw people with their fingers in their ears running for cover, you should probably do the same thing. The comparison between the protest we were witnessing here and those you see back home in the UK or here in NZ was so far removed as to be almost a different thing altogether. Whilst this was happening I think I saw 4 policemen standing in a doorway smoking with their backs to the protesters. Compare this to the hundreds of police you see back home sent out in full body armour to deal with a tenth of the number of protesters, most of whom are shrieking female students with dreadlocks it makes you wonder who's democratic rights are more developed.

These protests were to be an ongoing part of our time in La Paz and the Policia weren't always as placid as the ones we saw on that first day but the ubiquitous dynamite, along with the highly repetitive indigenous pan pipe music were to become the soundtrack of La Paz for the rest of our stay.

Probably the most stimulating arrival to a city we'd experienced to date, one that fits perfectly in with Bolivia, a country of incredible extremes and a country we were rapidly growing to love.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Potosi and the most dangerous mine in the world.

I know, I know. It's been a couple of years since the last post but better late than never eh? eh? Guys........

Potosi is a city famous for two things; being one of the highest cities in the world and being the city that boasts the most dangerous working mine on the planet. Established in 1545 its makeshift tunnels have been the cause of over 5 million deaths. From collapses and overwork by the Spanish during its long colonial past and the catastrophic lung complaints that nearly 100% of workers currently excavating the silver and other minerals in its depths will certainly die of before the age of 45.

We arrived in Potosi, breathless from the altitude (4090m above sea level) and the white knuckle ride along the Cliffside tracks that constitute the majority of the Bolivian road  network. The driver, obviously unhappy at the lack of excitement during the journey made a last ditch attempt to plough into a car as he swung the bus into the station but thankfully the other driver was on point and swerved wildly into oncoming traffic to avoid him. No harm done.

Potosi is a nice city, a mixture of colonial churches, plazas and the more modern single storey brick dwellings the majority of Bolivians call home with what looks like a giant hill looming ominously over the city. This hill it turns out is a veritable ant colony of brittle tunnels and dangerous silica where the vast majority of Potosi's inhabitants make a living by collecting silver and various other minerals used in mobile phone and laptop production.

We shuffled around the city for a while before booking our guided tour into the mine for the next morning. Despite having more or less acclimatised to the altitude by now it felt like we had the fitness levels of a morbidly obese 75 year olds as we crawled up and down the hills of the city. It did not bode well for the visit to the mine the next day, where oxygen in the tunnels would fall to dangerously low levels, muscled out by the cancer causing properties of the silica dust blowing in clouds throughout.
The tour started with a visit to the local market to pick up gifts for the miners. Bottles of 96% alco puro and sticks of dynamite as well as bags of coca leaves to combat the effects of altitude and stave off hunger for the duration of their 16 hour shifts. Dynamite in hand we went to change into the overalls and hard hats we'd be wearing for our journey to the centre of the earth.
'Do we have masks?' another tourist asked. 'No' answered the guide. Nervous looks were exchanged as we wrapped scarves around our faces and boarded the bus that would take us to the entrance.
The entrance itself did little to dispel the nerves as we arrived up to its crumbling threshold. It was at this point that two women decided it wasn't for them and made their way back to the bus with horrified looks on their faces. As you can see here it most certainly does not look too appealing to the claustrophobic.
As we entered, the air immediately became stiflingly hot and the scarves we'd tied across our nose and mouth did nothing to help our breathing. We pulled them down and instantly started coughing as a rush of dust was inhaled into our lungs. The capful of 96% alcohol we'd ingested at the market burned reassuringly in our empty stomachs as the passageway continued to narrow.
After crawling on hands and knees for a while we reached a hole barely big enough to squeeze my shoulders through. our guide pointed to it with a big grin on his face. Three more women decided to opt out at this point and were escorted back to the entrance. One of them was crying.
As we descended, so did the oxygen levels, we were to go to level 4 in the mine. The deepest was level 17. I cannot even imagine how unpleasant it must have been down there as it was already pretty horrible where we were, as you can probably tell by the state of me in this photo.
We continued through the mine, tunnels opening out into large caverns where kids as young as 14 were pulling bags of rocks up to the surface by hand on a dangerous looking pulley system rigged up to the unstable rock formations. They were there working during the school holidays apparently. Although once their legal responsibility with the state education system ended, they would certainly join the co-operative that all the miners belong to. The guide informed us that if you managed to work down here for 15 years you could retire on a pension funded by the co-operative but that by that time, even if you make it to 15 years, you are almost guaranteed to have a terminal lung complaint.
Imagine a such a lack of options that you had to, knowingly, shorten your life by 20 years just so that you could afford to feed your family. The workers in the mine do earn almost double the average wage in Bolivia so you can understand why so many make the decision to work there. Whether or not double the money is worth it, is a different question altogether.
Because of the omnipresent danger that working in this mine exposes the workers to, they are a spiritual and superstitious bunch. Walking and crawling kilometres through the mines' tunnel network to visit statues of 'uncle' or 'tio' as they call him. Tio is a representation of the devil that gets the blame for the horrors that happen so often so deep underground.  Cigarettes, bags of coca leaves and miniature bottles of spirits surround the crudely constructed monument whose proud triangular penis pointed upwards as though seeking out the light so far above.
We were only underground for a couple of hours, an eighth of the standard shift worked by the miners, but we got an insight into what must surely be some of the worst working conditions that human beings have to suffer anywhere in the world. It really was an eye opener. So thoroughly unpleasant. And how much money do you think makes it worthwhile to endure these conditions? Roughly 10 of your English pounds.
Next stop, La Paz

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia - The Largest Salt Flats in the World

After packing up and taking another alarming shower we headed out and found our bus to Uyuni. The bus was over an hour late setting off. We would eventually come to expect this as standard and even romantically mythologise about the days of buses 'only' being an hour late when we realised quite how bad the public transport in Bolivia really is.

After the locals lashed their tyres, barrels of cooking oil, bags of Coca, chickens and a fridge to the top of the bus and stowed the rucksacks, sacks of grain, a chest of drawers and yet more Coca underneath it, we eventually set off through Villazon, stopping briefly to pick up a man with a huge satellite dish tied to his back. And we were off.

The driver was obviously skilled and by our standards was not driving fast, but when you looked out of the windows and saw sheer drops, hundreds of feet, straight down, just inches away from the wheels of your rickety bus, 30 kmph makes it feel like you're on the back of an irresponsible Ducatti riders poorly maintained bike. We were glued to the windows, silently planning our escapes if the bus did suddenly start to roll, gently at first but soon gathering speed, down the skree.

Periodically, we would stop to let people off or pick people up, but we never saw any villages. It was surreal. They would get off, shoulder huge bags of grain and set off into the vast expanses of wilderness. We came to the conclusion that they must be walking tens of miles to get back to their villages as the horizons on all sides were completely clear of any kind of settlements. It must be an exceedingly hard life. Although it looked incredibly harsh and unforgiving, the area has a kind of quiet beauty that is difficult to describe. The altitude means that few living things, with the exception of humans and their livestock, tend to live there and when we got off the bus the only sound was the bluster of the wind in your ears. I'm trying desperately not use the word 'lunar' to describe it, but I suppose the reason so many people do, is because that is exactly what it looks like.

We stopped off in a couple of towns along the way for food and 'comfort' breaks. This one was probably the most sizeable but had nothing comfortable about it. Nothing.

After one of the most uncomfortable and exciting journeys we'd ever had (barring our Greyhound bus journey earlier on in the year) we arrived in Uyuni. A short wander later and, after finding our digs and booking a tour around the salt flats and surrounding areas the next day, as well as seeing a man punch a dog in the street, we bedded down for the night. What has Bolivia got in store for us next we asked ourselves. The answer was some absolutely incredible shit.

The tour picked us up bright and early the next morning. Before the main event of the Salt Flats we had a pretty impressive undercard to get through. First stop a steam train which had somehow arrived into the middle of one of the most barren areas in the world and had got itself stuck. Our guide wasn't much help when we asked for some kind of explanation. He just upped the volume on his portable radio and wound up the window, so we could only imagine why this train had been left to sink into the earth, which was so mineral rich it sparkled in the sunlight.

We then took a little detour to swap our angry guide with a friendly one and his mate, who was supposedly the cook. Although we worked out throughout the trip that he was was no such thing. He was nice enough, but took up a seat and a half in an already crowded 4x4. No matter we thought, this is Bolivia, at least he isn't carrying a cage with 6 chickens in it. Onwards to the Salt Flats. We had the obligotary souvenir stop to negotiate first, but the sales techniques I saw involved, among other things; sleeping, chatting on mobiles and ignoring the tourists, so it wasn't as aggressive as running the gauntlet of gift shops in SE Asia or India. Al paca woolen goods, and statues carved from salt cluttered the tables we walked past before we got back in the car and motored towards the Salt Flats. We had heard that they were flooded due to unseasonally heavy rains and, having only seen photos of them completely dry, were a little concerned that we may be arriving into some kind of quagmire that could be viewed only from within the vehicle. We needn't have worried though as when we stopped on its outer edge, this was the view that greeted us.

It was absolutely beautiful. The water which sat on the surface was perfectly clear and varied from ankle to shin deep. When the 4x4 stopped for a while it created a mirroring effect which actually confused the brain with its vastness. For 270 degrees, all we could see was the reflection of the perfectly blue andean sky. We asked to sit on the roof of the car for the journey to the hotel made entirely of salt where we would be stopping for lunch. A hotel made entirely of salt sounds a lot more impressive than it actually turned out to be. When we got there, it transpired that actually, it was just a shoddy building, cobbled together with blocks of salt that had browned gently over the years giving the impression that sewage was leaking into the foundations and seeping throughout the structure. We spent about an hour eating and then drove further into the 10 000 square kilometres of what is effectively the largest salt mine in the world. People still work, as they have for centuries digging huge piles of salt to be refined for dinner tables and kitchens throughout the world.

If we thought our bus driver was skilled he wasn't a patch on our new guide. The guy had an almost telepathic understanding of the tracks we were driving on. Veering suddenly onto an invisible path, he took us to our next destination. Some weird rock formations that I really cannot for the life of me recall the name of. Apparently they were dead old though.

We were gradually going further and further above sea level the more we drove and by the time we got to our next stop we were over 5000m above sea level which, to give you an idea, is near enough as high as the Everest Base Camp which sits at 5364m. I'd suffer the dull ache which had started in the centre of my skull again if I was guaranteed a view like this again, however.

It started snowing shortly after this picture was taken, which was weird considering that when we were on the salt flats just a few hours before, the thermometer was touching 30C but that's altitude for you, gives you a headache, makes you feel sick and then starts to snow a bit. Laguna Verde next (Green Lagoon) which is so inhospitable to life it glows green with unkind minerals to warn off potential inhabitants and the thirsty.

After a brief stop on the border of Chile to drop off one of our party, a particularly mouthy Brazilian, we made our way to a lake which is home to flocks of flamingos, which I had no idea lived at these altitudes but as you can see by the next photo, they don't only live but thrive there.

We had to make it to our accommodation after this and the next day we were simply driving back to Uyuni, but almost on the stroke of nightfall it started to snow extremely heavily. The roads weren't roads, they weren't even tracks, they were grooves cut into the mud since the last rains so this is when our guide displayed almost super human driving ability. I was sitting in the front seat so I could see everything he could, which was practically nothing. I'm not exaggerating when I say that visibility couldn't have been more than 4 or 5 feet in front of the 4x4. I was now suffering quite extensively with altitude sickness, a thumping headache and almost overwhelming nausea were threatening to force me to open the window and return my rice and mystery meat to the land from whence they came until the adrenalin kicked in. He honestly must have been driving the tracks from memory because I really couldn't see a single thing. His driving really was astonishing. I think he was also a little tense as, when we arrived and after prising my hand from the door frame where I'd been grimly holding on for dear life, I turned to him and said 'increible' (incredible) and he responded by letting out a whoop of joy and high fiving me. I was starting to get the impression that if you embarked on a journey, in any vehicle, in Bolivia, there was a very real chance that it could, quite easily, end with you trapped in mangled wreckage at the bottom of a ravine. This however, also made for extremely exciting times and that, after all, is what travelling is all about.

Next stop Potosi and a visit to a mine that has claimed 8 million lives in its 500 or so years of operation.

Bolivia - The air is thinner the closer you get to the sun.

The bus journey to the dusty border town of  La Quicha was largely uneventful barring the 7 hours of films, dubbed in Spanish, depicting the horrors of Human Trafficking as well as the soothing tones of Bolivian Folk Music at full volume out of the pitiful speaker of an early 90's Nokia mobile phone, repeated more or less for the full 26 hour duration. As you can imagine, sleep didn't come easily. The first thing we noticed as we alighted, shrugging on our rucksacks, was that the air had become a lot harder to breathe. A side effect of being almost 4 vertical kilometres high on the Andean Plateau (Altiplano). I had been expecting the air to thin out, but having never experienced it first hand, was surprised at the effects none the less. Eventually your body gets used to it but at first it really is a little uncomfortable having to regulate your breathing and conciously thinking about each breath, as you inhale and exhale, becomes tiring for your oxygen starved brain. We shuffled slowly into the centre of  Villazon in search of a bus to the Uyuni Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni). It turned out we would be spending the night.

We checked into a hotel on the main street and went out for a walk and to get some food. We'd been subsisting on weird cakes we'd bought from a shack on one of the stops betwen Mendoza and La Quicha and were absolutely ravenous. Quite different to the land of milk and honey that had been Mendoza, the choice in Villazon was somewhat limited. We ended up opting for some kind of gruel with bones in it bought from a friendly woman sporting a bowler hat like some kind of wizened, colourful skirt wearing 1950's London commuter.

It didn't look all that nice, but once you'd fished the pieces of spinal column and and shin out of it and thrown that to to the pack of stray dogs congregating nearby, it was actually quite tasty. It was impossible not to reminisce about our very recent Argentinian steak bonanza, but Emma and I both agreed that we were secretly relieved that the option of tenderloin was not and would not be available to us for some time. Bolivian food is very simple and tends to be comprised of roughly 12.5% protein and 87.5% carbs. It's not unusual to get a meal (either chicken or beef) with potatoes, rice and pasta piled high, which for me, is too much.

We took a wander around after that and although the town didn't have much by way of amenities we pottered around happily, pausing only to buy a bag of coca, which, according to the locals, helps adjust you to the altitude. Almost every store has a huge sack of Coca leaves sitting in front of it. Coca is a hugely contraversial issue in large swathes of South America particularly across the Altiplano. It has been used for centuries by the 'Campesinos' or peasants of the Andes due to its health benefits, hunger suppressing qualities and the slight narcotic high it produces. Evo Morales became hugely popular in the United States after becoming the first 'Campesino' President of Bolivia, immediately expelling all US DEA representatives and generally becoming a short stout thorn in the United States' effort to erradicate drugs. He was born into a family of subsistence farmers, whose main crop was the coca leaf and therefore has been a welcome voice for the poor majority in Bolivia, gaining a 69% majority in the most recent elections. Whether or not the cause of all this political upheaval I ended up chewing, did anything more than hurt my gums is debatable, but people always say that you should do as the locals do, so I did.

We wandered aimlessly around, stopping to peer curiously at things cooking on spits and in huge pans of oil and trying to avoid the packs of semi wild dogs, covered in scars from years spent on the streets. Women in local dress consisting of the ubiquitous bowler hats and colourful skirts carrying impressively heavy loads in multi coloured, multi purpose blankets slung over their shoulders. It was as though we'd gone back in time compared to Mendoza.

The tall and beautiful people of European origin, prevelant in Argentina, were replaced with the stout powerful build of Mountain people, built for maximum efficiency in the thin air found at altitude. The roads, little more than dirt tracks as heavy lorries and buses with exposed engines barrel past kicking up an amalgam of dust and toxic fumes in their wake. It was without doubt the poorest country we'd visited until now but we found ourselves begin, almost immediately, to like it.

That evening we returned to our hotel and took a well earned shower in one of the most dangerous looking contraptions we'd ever layed eyes on. The shower, to all intents and purposes looked like any other, apart from the dangerous looking collection of bare wires just a little too close to the shower head.

It would smoke angrily after each dousing, reminding us that, in Bolivia, life and death was only a matter of inches. Something that would become even more apparent on the frankly terrifying bus journey we would undertake on route to Uyuni the next day.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Mendoza - Argentinian Wine Country - Muy delicioso.

We only visited two places in Argentina. Buenos Aires, and Mendoza, the heart of Argentinian wine country, so it's difficult to say with any certainty whether the whole of Argentina eats quite such magical amounts of Steak, but I can say for certain that Mendoza is not the place to give a rest to your poor overworked stomach. We thought we'd be able to lay off the meat for a bit but if anything, things went from bad to worse with the introduction of a communal Barbeque at the hostel we stayed at. Now we could eat fillet steak for about £3 from the local supermarket which was a two minute walk away and if anything the wine, was somehow cheaper and more delicious than it had been in BA. We would just have to ride it out.

The main attraction in Mendoza is just outside town and consists of a boozy cycle around the vineyards on a kind of mammoth Tour de Argentina, drink-a-thon. It's really good fun. Really good fun. You arrive at the jump off point by bus, the only public bus in Mendoza with foreigners on it, and alight about an hour from town to rent the bikes. We rented from Mr Hugo, a grinning veteran who is happy to ply you with free wine before you embark on a tour of wineries that include barrels of free wine. Health and Safety lies comotose with stained red lips in the garage, along with his poorly maintained mountain bikes. 'Are there any hills?' I asked whilst trying to find a hint of resistance from the brakepads. Mr Hugo looked a little baffled, let out a hearty laugh and went to fetch me another glass of his home brewed vinegeraitte. Mr Hugo's first language is not English.

We set out and luckily there weren't too many hills or we would all, almost certainly, have received quite serious injuries and arrived at our first winery. Which unfortunately was closed for lunch. I say unfortunately as the next closest visitable manufacturing outlet specialised in Absinthe which I can assure you is up there with the worst possible things you can put into an empty stomach. It was about 70% alcohol and as sweet as concentrated Haribo extract. I'm not going to lie, it was a real struggle not to spray it all over the group of scandinavians standing in front of us, who had sensibly opted for the coffee liquor. Resisting the urge to buy a 3kg packet of fudge from the gift shop, the only edible thing on hand, which may, or may not have provided sweet relief for our now inflamed stomach linings, we pedalled frantically towards the smell of food to have our first meal of the day.

Having sworn never to touch the stuff again, the last time I swore never to touch the stuff again was after I wandered for 5 hours completely lost in Barcelona, we eventually made it to our first winery. Stomachs sated we enjoyed a number of delicious wine tastings. Nathan and Shauna who we had met along the way, declared this to be alot more satisfactory and we easily slid into that routine for the rest of the afternoon. The picture below rapidly becoming a most familiar sight as we left each vineyard.

We must have visited 7 or 8 different wineries throughout the course of the afternoon but the way we looked at it we were cancelling out the wine by cycling 2 or 3 kilometres between each one, thus rendering our drunkennes completely guilt free, despite it being no later than 4 in the afternoon. We eventually wobbled our way back to Mr Hugos at about 5pm and having covered a fair distance on the way out were in for a fair old cycle on the way back. The journe would have been a lot worse if it had been along a non descript a-road on the outskirts of coventry, luckily we were in Argentinian wine country and we had Mr Hugo's welcoming grin and violently acidic wine to look forward to, so we left the final bottle of (decent) wine behind us and pedalled slowly back along the roads that had brought us here.

Only one more thing of note really happened after that, as we were unwinding with a glass of what could only be described as 'Rancid Ribena on the nose and downright methelated on the pallate' back at Mr Hugo's place having handed back our boneshakers, we heard an almighty crash as a cart being pulled at not inconsiderable speed, detached itself from a 4x4 that had rolled past. It careered off the fence protecting us from the road and completely desimated Mr Hugo's sign outside. Had we been pushing our bikes in 15 minutes later, having no breaks would have been the least of our worries. Siezing the opportunity to pour our wine onto the ground in the commotion, we went outside and joined those aimlessly milling around and staring at the offending trailer.

A bus ride back and still not completely convinced that Gout is actually a real, painful and very contractable affliction, we decided to keep the lush's lifestyle in full swing or should I say flow, by purchasing a handsome piece of fillet and banging it on that BBQ I mentioned earlier. Along with another, completely unnecessary bottle of wine. It took a while to fire the old girl up but when she got going she blackened that steak up like a champ. Here's a photo of Nathan and I looking absolutely delighted with ourselves and our steak.

We had an excuse, of sorts, we would be moving soon, to the more barren and austere setting of Bolivia the next day.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Street Parties and Day Trips to Uruguay - Buenos Aires Pt. II

Those who know me will be aware of a familial link between myself and one of Argentina's most well known leaders Juan Peron. Personally I think 'President Peron' has a nice ring to it, but that's just me and I AM a meglomaniac so that shouldn't surprise you too much. Despite having been ousted in 1955 there remains to this day, much evidence of his political legacy, with Graffitti espousing the virtues of the 'Peronistas' and 'Peronismo' a political movement based, as I understand it, on something not much different to Fascism. I like to think of it more as a 'no nonsense' kind of viewpoint, much like a Jim Davidson stand up comedy set or a Daily Mail comments page. Luckily for Juans legacy he married the wonderful Evita unfairly portrayed by brash loudmouth and cause whore Madonna in the terrible film of the same name (this may be completely unfair as I have not, nor have any intention of ever seeing said film). Evita was declared the 'Spiritual Leader of the Nation' and after her death at the age of 33 became a saint like figure for the millions of poor Argentinians she had made it her lifes work to help. She is buried in La Recoleta Cemetry in Buenos Aires where the mausoleum remains a huge draw for Argentinians and tourists alike, who go to pay their respects to someone who had a huge impact on Argentinian history. Emma and I cycled to the cemetry on a scorching day, which in itself is an impressive sight. There are street names and the tombs, some as large as a house, are meticulously looked after by generation after generation of the families entombed there. 

We had heard reports of certain tombs containing piles of human bones which had somehow escaped the attentions of under zealous coffin makers and sat gently bleaching in the Buenos Aires sun. Macabre I know, but come on, like you wouldn't have a look.

After ticking that gruesome box off the list we eventually found our way to Evitas grave sight and after waiting patiently in a queue of whooping Americans took some respectfully sombre shots of my namesakes final resting place. Its a strange feeling to stand in front of a mausoleum with your family name on it. But stand in front of it we did. And here's the proof.

That evening, after a days cycling and mausoleum viewing we managed to convince ourselves that we'd somehow 'earned' a few beers which coincided nicely with a big street party, the reasons for which completely escaped us. There was a stage playing Argentinian folk music with impromptu traditional dancing breaking out everywhere like rhythmic epilepsy. We joined in with the dancing where there was scarves involved and also the one where there was alot of finger clicking, I have absolutely no idea of the significance of either but we had a lovely time joining in and the locals all had a lovely time openly pointing and laughing at us not having a clue what we were doing. A fair trade I think.

One of things I didn't know about Buenos Aires was its proximity to Uruguay and in particular the viability of a day trip over there. The boxes this would tick would be two fold. The first being that we would have a lovely day trip to a beautiful town in Uruguay called Colonia, the second would be that we would also be able to have an extra stamp in our passports. Yup, we are those kinds of arseholes. The ferry took in the region of about an hour and a half and we arrived at about 10am, Colonia is a really pretty wee town right on the coast so it didn't take long to box off the sights until the early afternoon. There was 4 of us, Emma and I of course, a dutch girl and an Ozzy guy. After the sightseeing our collective mindset soon turned, as one to the prospect of enjoying the early afternoon sun with a bottle of the cheap and delicious local wine. This soon turned to 2 and three and before we knew it things had deteriorated to this: 

In my defence, the wine was delicious and cheap so cheap in fact that at those prices you couldn't afford not to drink it. We made it back in one piece although not before nearly missing our return trip to Buenos Aires that evening. I also remember hazy snapshots of the Arsenal v Barcelona Champions League game that was being shown on the way back. I think Barcelona must have won.

Next stop, Mendoza, where the wine consumption really starts to spiral out of control. In a good way!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Buenos Aires - Carne, Carne, Carne!

Sometimes you arrive in a city and you just know you're going to like it. Its impossible to put your finger on why, but as the bus pulled into Buenos Aires I had that feeling. It just has a good atmosphere. European colonial architecture, a lively nightlife, an open disdain for vegetarians reflected in every menu of every one of its thousands of cafes and restaraunts. The place is a melting pot of French, Spanish, Italian and countless other influences which makes for some of the best food, wine and nightlife on the planet as well as being home to one of the most hotly contested footballing derbies, El Superclassico - you'll see what I mean if you click on that link. In short, Buenos Aires has everything you need to become one of the worlds great cities. It was one of the few places Emma and I decided we could happily live in and we spent over a week there, and that wasn't nearly long enough.

We checked into our hostel and imediately went for a walk around the historic San Telmo district, home to one of the largest antique/art/food markets in South America as well as to countless hole in the wall eateries specialising in meat in general but specifically in a simple sandwich known as a 'Chori Pan' as you can see this consisted of nothing but a bit baguette with a sausage, unceremoniously sawed in half and cooked on an open grill and then liberally covered in two different types of garlicy pesto, one red, the other green. Best served with a glass of red or cold beer dependant on ones preferance of course. All this would set you back around £1.50. These sandwiches became part of our daily routine, as you can probably tell by the photo, they weren't the most nutritionally rich, particularly when washed down with wine or beer, but my goodness they were delicious.

Staying in hostels means you meet all kinds of people, those screeching 19 year old gap year girls travelling on their parents credit cards who 'paaahty awl night, yah!' and wake up at 3 in the afternoon never seeing or experiencing anything but the hostel bar. Those irritating, constantly smiling blond guys who insist on strumming Bruno Mars' I wanna be a billionaire over and over again. Those guys with dreads who end up acquiring a street dog and living in a squat selling friendship bands. The old guys with tattoos, whose story you never quite get to the bottom of and then you got Levi. Levi was a very strange Brazilian gentleman who spoke perfect English and worked on a cruise ship. Its hard to describe exactly why he was weird, but weird he most certainly was. We first met him in the hostel bar when he approached the group we were sitting with and asked if anyone was hungry. Yes we replied, it had been 6 hours since our last Chori Pan after all. I have a friend, he continued, a friend who owns a very nice restaraunt not 10 minutes walk from this hostel.
Now, I don't think we would have gone anywhere with this very overtly strange man if it had just been Emma and I but we were sitting with an Ozzie guy called Tim and the safety in numbers he represented emboldened us and we agreed. And I'm glad we did. The restaraunt was called 'Rosalia' and it was absolutely brilliant. Probably the best all round dining experience I've ever had. We arrived at the restaraunt still a little dubious of Levi's claims. 'The owner is a very close personal friend of mine' etc. etc. but sure enough, on arrival we were whisked directly to the best table in the restaraunt, directly in front of the stage, pausing only to let Levi creepily kiss each waitress that we passed on both cheeks.

The menu was just varying sizes and cuts of steak, with varying different types of offal to start. Doesn't sound great, but even the offal was delicious. The steak was brought out by an officious waiter who unashamedly cut each of our steaks with a spoon. It was without doubt the best steak I've ever tasted and made me understand finally why each Argentinian personally ingests 100kg of red meat every year. The US is a distant second with 45kg per person. The steak was amazing, the wine was amazing and the Tango show that began halfway through the meal was incredible. 4 impossibly good looking couples suddenly emerged from behind the curtains and did some of the sexiest dancing its possible to do whilst fully clothed. At one stage I was pulled off my table and awkardly spun around for a while by a smouldering Argentinian woman until I think my awkwardness started to make her look bad and she let me sit down again. It ended up costing us about £10 per head, I'm still not sure whether this was because of Levi's bizzare influence or whether it really was that cheap, either way though, we were delighted and I maintain that this was the single best dining experience I've ever had. Cheers Levi, you odd, odd fellow! We heard unconfirmed reports a few days later, that Bono aka Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ ate at that very retaraunt the day after we did. Must have heard we were there.

We didn't get any less debauched for the rest of our time in Buenos Aires, with Steak featuring highly on most of the meals we ate for the rest of the duration of our stay. At one stage, we'd eaten a fillet steak lunch and I'd polished off a bottle of wine by half past two in the afternoon. I felt contented and ashamed at myself at the same time. I would do it all again given half a chance, so I don't know if I've learned any lessons.....

Too much happened in Buenos Aires to pack it all into one blog so going to end this one here and continue in another one. Next stop, mas de Buenos Aires.