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.

Monday, 31 October 2011

A brief stop in a Megacity and one of the Modern Wonders of the World.

We were heading to Foz do Iguassu but had to change buses in Sao Paulo, Brazils biggest, most frightening, industrial, economic and political centre that boasts a population of around 20million people. The term Megacity had never seemed so real and well deserved as it did when we set off from the bus station in search of the Municipal Market at rush hour. The train passed through what seemed to be a never ending sprawl, none of it particularly aesthetic, at one point passing over an 11 lane motorway which was at a complete standstill in both directions. I don't even know how that would work. After a short journey we alighted and made slow progress towards the market where we had been advised to try a Mortadella sandwich. Something that is apparently a Sao Paulo delicacy, but not something designed to be the introductory meal of the day. I tell you what though, it was absolutely delicious. Here's a photo and if anything, ours was much bigger than this one.


I'm not ashamed to say that we both had real difficulties finishing them and got the helpful staff to wrap the remaining two thirds that we hadn't physically been able to fit in our stomachs to eat later on for lunch AND dinner. The market was pretty good all in all, fresh fruit, juices, and countless eateries made for a a few hours of bloated wandering before we had to make our way back to the bus station, which was the size of an international airport, for our connection to Foz do Iguassu.

It was a short overnight hop on the bus rendered even shorter by the fact that the driver had clearly taken on a bit of a sideline as a delivery driver. We stopped at a small town in the middle of the night and watched in bafflement as the driver and a couple of other guys took half an hour to load what looked like medical supplies alongside our various rucksacks and suitcases stowed beneath the bus. After this point, I swear the bus didn't drop to below 65mph, a full 10mph faster than was required by Dennis Hopper in Speed. This resulted in us arriving at 4am (our scheduled arrival was 6.30am) and being uncerimoniously deposited outside a locked bus station before our bus driver could fishtail out of the car park, wheels spinning to deliver his cash cargo of  surgical scalpels or whatever it was. Its not a good feeling when you know you've got 2 hours to wait until the station itself opens and 3 until you can get a bus to somewhere semi close to your hostel is, on top of having had next to no sleep the previous night. We settled down to wait and eventually, after what I remember as a blur we ended up outside our hostel and was being let in by the cleaning lady who had poked us awake with her open toed sandle. The next day we were up and at 'em bright and early to hop on a bus and hit the falls.

We'd heard good things about the falls and weren't sure whether we would bother going over to view them from the Argentinian side the next day but as soon as we arrived on the scene our mind was made up. And this was why

The Brazilian side is all about the panoramas with breathtaking views from viewing platforms at varying levels set into the cliffs, but on the Argentinian side, you enter right into the heart of the waterfall on raised walkways with views over the top of the waterfall watching the tonnes of water drop over the edge of a 50 metere cliff face. The raw power is unbelievable and the noise is overwhelming, just a tiny insight into the potential power of our mother earth.

So after 2 days and one border crossing, we had been blown away by what surely must be one of the New 7 Wonders of the World which you can actually still vote for until the 11th of November by clicking on the link. I haven't because it reminds me a little of a worthwhile X-Factor and the dichotomy is too much for my tiny mind. It should be noted that the wildlife in and around the falls is almost as impressive, with Turtles, various Lizards and huge numbers of green and yellow butterflies standing around in clumps pretending to be flowers.

We were in Argentina now, and finally, after 3 weeks in a country where I could not speak one word of the Portuguese required in order to make myself understood, it was finally time to put my very, very poor Spanish, learnt 13 years previously at High School to the test.
Buenos Aires Here we come.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

The first bit of sunshine in Brazil. - Paraty

A 5 hour bus journey was all it took to shake off the 'I'm definitely getting robbed' paranoia that had been hanging over us like a nosey aunty for the duration of our stay in Rio. As it turned out, I think the threat of robbery is made far too much of in Rio and in South America in general. We met a resident of Rio who had never had any trouble in Rio for 24 years only to be robbed when she visited Edinburgh for three weeks during the festival. To be fair, Edinburgh's the only place I've ever been robbed and I'm more than happy to wander around with a camera, I-pod and wallet full of money hanging half out of my back pocket whenever I'm there so it just goes to show how shreekingly hysterical the  Lonely Planet can be and also how the fear of the unknown can manifest itself. Our arrival in Paraty was uneventful. It's a small town with the roughest cobbling I've ever experienced. There is honestly a very real chance that you could break your leg just walking on its quaint, Portuguese colonial avenues. Many of which have remained unchanged for over 250 years.

Paraty itself, unless you are WELL into Portuguese colonial architecture, can be walked around in about 45 minutes but the real draw, for us at least was the incredible excess of natural beauty that surrounds it. Islands just off the Costa Verde (Green Coast) poke out of the Emerald sea like rotten teeth and, when it stopped raining, the temperature  rose to a very pleasant 28-29C, with sea being maybe 6 or 7 degrees below that. Something we learnt the day after our arrival when we went out for a day on a boat stopping at various islands, beaches and snorkelling spots.

Spare a thought for a moment for poor Hernan and the captain of the boat who have to endure this almost every day of their lives. Moving sedately from white sandy beach to white sandy beach, snorkelling amongst the seahorses and brightly coloured fish and, on top of all this, generally being two of the handsomest men I've ever seen. They were literally swatting two of the ozzy girls we were sharing the boat with away like persistent flies for the duration of the trip. To the visible dismay of the guys they were with. We moved across the bay, stopping from time to time to dive off the boat or swim onto a postcard style beach like this one.

It was our first bit of total relaxation since we'd left, I was heard to remark on at least 3 or 4 occasions that 'this is what travelling is all about' after a while Emma began to point at me and snore every time it looked like I was shaping up to say it. But in my defence it really is. So, after a day of really having a lovely time of it we returned to the hostel and had a significant number of beers to celebrate. We had heard reports of a natural waterslide as well as a rope swing hidden deep under the jungle canopy a little outside Paraty town and were determined to check it out the next day.

I had visions of one largeish boulder smooth enough to slide down into a small pool of water. As it turned out that couldn't have been further from the truth, the photo here will give you an idea of the scale. The area you have to aim for at the bottom is a little small for completely reckless abandon like head first dives, unless you don't particularly value your skull, but we did hear reports of locals sliding down in a standing position. Which by all accounts is pretty impressive to watch!

The waterfall was fun, but all it did was whet our appetites for some ropeswinging. We set out, badly prepared, with no water and a map drawn in crayon to find it. We walked for some 6km all the while becoming more and more disillusioned, until finally, just in the nick of time we came across a promising looking turn off. We took it and marched a further 2km into the jungle following a well worn path until we arrived to the end of the path where the canopy opened up a little and presented a pool that belonged in Jurassic Park. Vines hung down as thick as cables and the noise of birds and insects was nearl deafening. Streams of sunlight broke unevenly through the trees in an uneven light show, dappling the pool and making it look even more appealing than it aleady was after a 3 hour trek. We didn't need to be told twice. We swang and leapt and sent the birds scattering out of the trees overhead with whoops of pure fun.

I was again heard to exclaim what was rapidly becoming a mantra for me here in Paraty 'this is what travelling is all about'. What a couple of good sets of funs we had. Everyone was grinning from ear to ear as we set off to try and flag one of the sporadic buses to Paraty town.

There was some drinking after that, due to alcohol being freely available but that doesn't make for such a good story unless something really awful happens, which is exactly what happened to one of the guys we were with during the day. A few beers down and he told us all about the time in Sheffield when he was visiting his friends. There had been an ongoing feud with a couple of locals in the area and the house he was at was egged. Being more than a little absolutely reeking on strong spirits he thought it would be a good idea to go out with his friends air rifle and scream threats at the now long gone assailants waving what to all intents and purposes looked like a real gun. He awoke a little later staring down the barrels of Armed Response's not insignificant arsenal and hauled off to jail. The thing that stopped him getting a 5 year mandatory sentence? The fact that the gun was springloaded and not air loaded. He was spared jail, but due to a strict policy of no fire arms offences among teachers he can no longer follow his chosen career path. Perhaps the most surprising and ironic facet of his punishment is that he can no longer legally enter the US! You may feel sorry for this gent, apparently the victim of his own drunkenness, but I don't think being drunk is necessarily what the made the difference. A couple of weeks later we saw him in a club in Bolivia and by way of a greeting he whipped his trousers down to reveal his newly pierced scrotum. Make your own minds up.

Next stop, one of the modern wonders of the world Iguassu Falls that straddles the border between Argentina and Brazil quite beautifully.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Sambadromo Party

In Rio, they have dedicated about three city blocks to an ominous looking structure known locally as the Samb√≥dromo - the 'Samba Drome'. It is a huge, roofless, stadium sized building about a mile in length that all the Samba Schools, parade down come Carnavale. Emma had procured tickets to the grand final, the champions parade. The week before had seen various heats, the winners of which would get a final chance to impress the judges and hopefully clinch victory for their particular Samba school.

Built in one of Rios less upmarket neighbourhoods, it didn't look particularly inviting the couple of times we'd passed previously but with sheer mass of people going to enjoy the final parade of Carnavale the atmosphere was electric.
The underground to get there was packed with performers in costume banging drums and blowing whistles and practicing their Samba for what is, for many, the most important day of the year. The floats had been under construction since last years parade and despite a fire that had destroyed several schools efforts, the turnout was truly spectacular. We had bought our own beers in a rucksack like true Brits abroad, as the talk was of a horrendously overpriced tourist trap on arrival. To be fair, the beers were fine and if there was anywhere worth paying the extra it was here. We arrived in our seats in between schools and we neared the end of the first Brahma there was still no sign. This was due to the fact that each school has between 5 and 10 thousand people in it with anywhere between 10 and 25 floats. When they did arrive it was worth the wait.

Unfortunately, we were still far too para about Rio to take our own camera out so I've dipped into Google to help us out, I will eventually go back to using our photos just as soon as I've covered the stuff we got up to here. These are just to give you an idea.

We stayed in the Sambadrome until long after we'd finished our beers as the flow of Samba schools doesn't let up until 3 or 4 in the morning. We have no idea who won and have no idea of the criteria for deciding what's a 9 out of 10 and what's an 8 but the sheer scale of them and the effort put in by every beautiful, semi-nude woman and every perfect male specimen dancing, girating and doing god knows what else in the thronging mass below us. The amount of energy in that place is on a par with the game of football we'd seen a day or two before. After about 5 hours we left, a little tipsy and absolutely blown away by the sheer scale of what we had witnessed. On our trip back to the underground, which luckily for us runs 24hrs a day during Carnavale, I felt a tug on the now empty rucksack we had used to transport our beer and turned round to face a less than perfect specimen of manhood behind me having a little rummage inside. I pulled the bag away and pushed him back, he was less than apologetic, leering at me and grabbing for the bag again. The guy must have been about 70 years old but he wouldn't have made it to the final audition for a Werthers Original ad let me tell you. Toothless and leering he turned away with a horrible cackle and disappeared into the crowd as we made our way home a little bemused but delighted with what has to be one of the best shows on earth.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Football Brazilian style.

There were of course many incidences of early afternoon beer and Capirinha sessions and I could devote about 4 pages to recounting them in list form but we did also do some other stuff. One of my personal favourites was going to see one of the many local derbies that take place between any of the 4 teams who play in Rio. Unfortunately we didn't get to sample the unbelievably spicy atmosphere stirred up in the cauldron-like Maracana as it was, and as I understand it, still is closed for renovations for Brazils hosting of the World cup in 2014. A tournament which promises to be one of the best yet in a country that is truly fanatical about football as we found out when witnessed the 0-0 draw between Flamengo and Fluminese. We sat with the Flamengo fans who are without doubt a set of the maddest, meanest looking boys I've ever seen in my life. The police who swarm within the stadium at every game I've ever been to back home, were no where to be seen, there were a couple with guns, but they seemed to be there only to open fire from the other side of the huge moat that seperated them from the pitch and opposing fans if things got even more out of hand then they seemed to be already and the game hadn't even kicked off yet.

Emma and I had consumed a couple of Brahma before the game and decided to use the facilities before kick off, I think the womens were alright but I'd never seen such a big group of muscular men standing together in a toilet before, much less a large group of muscular men standing together in a group openly taking cocaine in a football stadium, the worst I'd experienced is the smell of a crafty cigarette floating out from under one of the cubicle doors, this was something else altogether. I studied the floor as I relieved myself for what seemed like a tortuously long time before checking that the floor was still an inch deep in piss on the way out as it had been on the way in. It was and as I left what felt like a very real and immediate danger and re-entered the area underneath the stands a manic drumming began.

I met Emma and waited for the group of about 50 coked up drumers and fans dancing wildly and chanting with such fervour that they looked like their jugulars might start exploding at any given moment, to move out of the way politely and let us past. During a lull in the drumming Emma and I took our opportunity and tried to slip through the group. The timing couldn't have been worse if we'd planned it that way. The reason they'd stopped was to give themselves a chance turn around and make their big entrance into the stadium. As we entered the middle of the group the drummers resumed and we were almost lifted off our feet as the group which had by now swelled to number closer to one hundred and fifty bounced into the stadium screaming in heavily accented Portuguese something about the rape of the referee, not even a joke.

We got to our seats largely unscathed and with another beer to settle the nerves the game began. Not that the seat came to be any use to us at all. The game finished 0-0 but it could have been 4-3 for all the difference it would have made. We couldn't see a thing the whole game. Flags, the smoke from the flares and the height of the average Flamengo fan being roughly 6ft 5 conspired against us. To give you an idea, watch this video.

I've never experienced an atmosphere like it. If you stopped singing or clapping there was always a crazy looking guy with an enormous scar running the full length of his face on hand to remind you not to. The game was exhausting for us, but not as exhausting as it was for the guy standing directly in front of us waving the 20ft flag for the entire 90 minutes. The game was awful, but I don't think I'd have watched the game even if the flag infront of us hadn't reduced our visibilty to 0. The passion displayed by the fans, possibly aided by pharmaceuticals granted, was a spectacle in itself, one that may well have ruined european and the ever more sterile and subdued British game for me, for ever. The ticket to a Rio de Janeiro derby cost in the region of £1.50, there are some clubs who charge a minimum of £50 for a ticket in the UK, that to me is like a savage mugging. I'd rather run the risk of an actual savage mugging every week for £1.50 then get get a guaranteed one once or twice a season like the majority of fans of the top 4 EPL clubs personally, but that's just me.

It wasn't comfortable, at times I felt downright unsafe and the standard was probably the second worst I've seen after the SPL (Despite Ronaldinho having played for Flamengo for a season or two) but my god when you came out you felt like you'd experienced something. I wouldn't have minded seeing what happened when a goal was scored but something tells me we probably would have simply tumbled 15 rows over the barrier and fallen a further 20feet into the moat so maybe it was for the best that we didn't! Admitedly, it may have been frightening and at times, scary. as. shit, but if going to a game was like that in the UK, I'd be there every week.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

South America and in particular, Rio.

 Rio is one of those places that everyone wants to go to. Its iconic topography, beaches and of course Carnavale makes it one of the top destinations to visit anywhere in the world. Tourists flood here during the moveable feast of Mardi Gras when the whole city erupts in a festival of debauchery unparrallelled anywhere else in the world. Unfortunately for us and our meagre, backpacking budgets this also means a 1000% increase in the price of what can only be described as filthy and in some cases gangster infested accommadation. But let me start at the begining, or at least the beginning of our trip to Rio.

We arrived after three flights and about 24 hours, from LA. This was the first country neither of us had visited, the first country where neither of us spoke the language and the first country neither of us had visited previously so we were apprehensive anyway, but when you add to this apprehension a terrifying propensity for violent crime, I'm not ashamed to say, we were downright paranoid.

We stepped out of the Terminal with our bags and the first thing that happened as we sat waiting for our bus to the Bota Fogo (Mouth of Fire) area was that an insect the size of a Golden Eagle flew directly into my face. OK so that was an exaggeration but I'm not exaggerating when I say it was actually the size of a sparrow and that vehicles actually swerved to avoid it when I saw it again later. I jumped up, wildly swatting the empty air around me to the unsympathetic laughter of Emma and about 5 or 6 locals. It would not be the last time that locals shook their heads and muttered 'Gringo' under their breaths in an apparent attempt at exacerbating my already keenly felt embarrassment.

The bus journey did little to put our over active imaginations at ease. The traffic was awful and the ride into the city was beset on both sides of the highways with sprawling Favellas, all housing, to our paranoid minds, armies of handgun toting armed robbers just yawning and stretching and looking forward to a lovely day of relieving us of our possessions whilst facing minimal resistance.

The bus dropped us off in Bota Fogo and we scuttled as fast as we could to our hostel. Which it turned out, as with the rest of Rio, was absolutely fine, if a little crowded. Its hard to write about long, irresponsible Capirinha sessions, but that is what we did for extended periods of our time there. Not our fault you understand, we were merely immersing ourselves in the culture, but in between liver punishment we also found the time to do a few 'activities' too. I'm in danger of making this post far, far too long to be read with any discernable level of enjoyment but boy did we enjoy them. We should really have gone to bed when we arrived in order to catch up on the sleep that we didn't get on all three of our flights, but the resident barman in our hostel was having none of it. What felt like hundreds of Capirinhas later and with the hours spent awake, or at least semi concious, standing at a respectable 50 hours, we felt that we had indeed not disgraced ourselves in the entering of the Carnival spirit and collapsed into bed to sleep for about 18 hours.

Monday, 1 August 2011

‘The paedophile used a parrot to lure children to a secluded spot, where he’d molest them.’ – American News Reader.

The drive to LA was largely uneventful until we arrived. Then it quickly became a series of jump outs to enquire whether or not that particular Motel had any rooms. They did not. Until we arrived at a pleasant little place which was also sorry to inform me that they didn’t have any rooms but that they did know a place that had a vacancy. One phone call and an efficient series of wrong turns later we arrived. At $70 dollars a night, it was the most expensive place we had stayed so far in the US, but, needs must and we gratefully accepted the keys from the man in the open dressing gown, the vest and the boxers before dragging our bags into the room. It wasn’t the nicest place. For one, it had a colony of Ants leading onto and off of a large brown stain which was half in and half out of the stinking bathroom. The sheets were a different shade of brown than the stain on the floor, but brown nonetheless and there was a pane of glass missing from the window. Emma and I scanned the room, seeing everything at exactly the same time before looking at each other with horrified expressions. Not only that, but there was a fucking parrot in the room next door and it was making a bloody racket all night.

The next day, the screeching of the parrot still ringing in our ears, we moved to a hostel on Venice Beach, which was a lot better. We dumped our bags and went for a walk along the promenade. Oh the humanity. Rollerblading cats being dragged by their owners as they skateboard along in a pair of stonewashed hotpants past the stall owners who proclaimed themselves to be ‘Kush Doctors’ – this being California, the same rules apply here as in San Francisco where cannabis is concerned – people dressed in every conceivable get up are parading their individuality up and down Venice beach. The place has a horribly fascinating aspect to it, as well as good bars, hustlers, players, the world famous ‘Muscle Beach’ and highly competitive games of Basketball, Handball and ‘guess where the ball is when I move these three cups around’. In a lot of ways it looks like the recreation yard at Pelican Bay. You’ll only get that reference if you have watched ‘America’s Hardest Prisons’ but I make no apology for it. We spent a lot of time there and, barring certain places in India, is my number one spot for people watching in any of the countries we’ve visited so far.

On our return to the hostel we got a couple of beers and went to the common area to drink them. We came in as the news was starting and in between the post Oscars chatter there was a story regarding a paedophile, now thought to be in the Los Angeles area, who was easily recognisable by the fact that he often walked along nearby Long Beach with a parrot on his shoulder. We both thought back to the previous night’s sleeplessness. The co-incidence was too great, surely not? The story continued and in rip roaring American broadcasting style ‘The paedophile used a parrot to lure children to a secluded spot, where he’d molest them.’ Should we call the police? Na, fuck it. We’re off to Rio in two days, what we should do, is get more beers before the shops shut. So we did.

The next day we took two buses, the car was parked in a non paying zone and we didn’t dare move it for fear of losing the spot, to Hollywood and walked along looking at the stars with people’s names written in them. That was pretty much that in Hollywood. I don’t know exactly what we were expecting, but whatever it was, we thought it would be better than that. So back to Venice Beach for some more gawping at the weirdos , a good old fashioned American bar meal and then bed. My cousin Marianne lives in LA with her husband Jose and their son Romain, possibly one of the cutest kids in the whole American continent, not too far from Venice Beach and we went round to hers for a delicious meal, probably the healthiest thing we ate during the entirety of our trip around the states and some excellent chat and insight into the LA way of life. A good evening was had by all and if you’re reading this Marianne, Emma and I would like to thank you once again!

The next day, our last in the US, was spent rollerblading from Venice to Santa Monica. I bought a silver banana hammock for the journey but Emma stopped me from pairing it with my rented rollerblades for an ensemble that really wouldn’t have looked that out of place next to some of the get up these uber cool LA hipsters were wearing without any hint of shame or irony. We had a nice blade around until we saw a bar offering some crazy deals on giant, American sized Margheritas. We met some characters in that place. One gay 40 something took a shine to Emma’s front boobs whilst we watched one of the cheesiest men in the United States chat up a girl. “Are you spiritual at all?” He asked. I involuntarily laughed at this toe curling attempt at painting himself as some kind of guru in the pursuit of ‘tail’ as the Americans charmingly refer to fanny. Even the flamboyant gay guy raised an eyebrow, but I think his face may have been permanently frozen in that position.

After returning the skates we inadvertently stumbled onto the set of the American Torchwood filming on the beach, we only realised when the director came round to tell people what position to sit in as the wind whistled around the goose pimpled extras. “Are you with us?” He shouted. “Na” I replied. “LOVE IIIIT!” he stated before carrying on back to the cameras for another take. It was about then that we took our leave. After all, we were heading to Rio de Janeiro the next day and the flight was by no means direct, so we headed on back and packed our bags in readiness for the next stage of the trip. South America and Carnivale.

‘California’s nice but I like seasons’ – ‘So do I, that’s why I live in a place that got rid of all the shitty ones’ – Daniel Tosh (Continued)

We left San Francisco in the rain and were able to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge to view the full majesty of SF as well as Alcatraz in the blazing sunshine about a mile and a half away. Evidently, SF has its own meteorological prerogative and just refuses to fall into line with the rest of California like some kind of non conforming, LSD quaffing poet. I should point out that the view’s pretty nice once you’re over there.

We drove down the coast and gradually the built up areas thinned out and we were soon catching our first glimpses of the Pacific, and SF’s suburbs eventually became distinct towns and then we took our first stop. Santa Cruz. We were nearing the end of February and as such the normally bustling, college town of Santa Cruz was lacking its usual party spirit. An old wooden rollercoaster dominated it’s skyline and loomed imperiously over a rubbish beach which we went and sat on, almost out of a sense of duty, before wandering around its almost closed theme park. I say almost closed because we did stumble upon the most elaborate crazy golf course I’ve ever seen. With its Pirate theme and animatronic figures popping out from boxes it looked more like a Disney ride. It beats the UK ones hands down, where a badly made windmill with blades that don’t even turn pass for an activity worth £4.

The next day we drove into Monterey Bay, an upmarket resort town which we arrived, ascertained that we couldn’t stay there (even the Super 6 Motel was over $100, little in joke for all the American travelling salesmen reading this) and walked along the boardwalk before getting back in the car and driving to Big Sur National Park. We didn’t stay there long, I have to be honest. Drove in, looked for somewhere to swim, saw that the river looked like it would certainly take both of our lives should we be stupid enough to get in it and left before hitting the Pacific Highway, where the views suddenly got excellent.
Now that I’ve worked out how to put photos on I no longer have to bother describing anything anymore. Needless to say, we drove and round each bend came yet more breathtaking views.

We, or I should say, Emma, drove a long time that day, so far, that we had to kind of make an emergency stop a nightfall in an unapologetic college town, where the barmen in every bar we visited that night, looked and behaved like Stiffler from American Pie. The drinks were not cheap and the people, despite their perfectly straight, white, plastic teeth, weren’t really my cup of tea. But then most people aren’t. The next day, we went to the public library to use their internet and after ascertaining that there weren’t any rooms available, we didn’t let that phase us and battered on straight through to LA regardless.  The lack of accommodation would be an inconvenience, but would also lead us to within a hairs breadth of catching a wanted, Long Beach paedophile in a Motel just off Sunset Boulevard. Well, kind of.

‘California’s nice but I like seasons’ – ‘So do I, that’s why I live in a place that got rid of all the shitty ones’. - Daniel Tosh

After picking up a new and much worse hire car from the MGM Grand it was a long drive to Shoshone, a tiny hamlet with one motel, some trailers and a bar/diner that seemed only to sell Hash Browns. We arrived late after stopping in numerous other hamlets, each with fewer amenities than the last. Shoshone was the last stop off before entering the Death Valley National Park, a fact it seemed to be almost arrogant about, judging by the cost of the petrol, water and sandwiches available at the only store for 50 miles.

Death Valley, if you aren’t acquainted with it, is the hottest place on earth. It has the highest year round average temperature and was pipped by Libya for the highest ever recorded temperature (57°C if you’re wondering) as well as this inhospitable claim to fame it is also the lowest point on earth, 287m below sea level to be exact and within this hellish basin is contained impressive salt flats, cacti and various scurrying rodents and carnivorous birds who pick clean the skulls of deer and other unfortunate beasts who wander unaccompanied into a very bad time indeed. The park itself was massive, despite looking like the much quicker route to Bakersfield on the map the 30mph speed limits and exceptionally law abiding New Jersey and New England tourists made for another long days driving and we gratefully pulled into a crap Motel for some rest in Bakersfield before Emma steeled herself for the drive to the first major city we’d been to since New Orleans – San Francisco.

San Francisco is notorious in the rest of the US for the lack of kerbside parking, as well as the sheer expense of it, with space at a premium the cost of a days parking can be upwards of $9 an hour, a cost we could not accommodate given our limited budget so we set out with gritted teeth to look for one of the rarer than a Golden Eagle free spaces the woman at the front desk of our hostel had told us about. Although she did say ‘There’s so few of them they might as well not exist’ That’s good then. She told us where there was one and we went to look for it. ‘It should be painted green.’ She told us. We found the right street but each parking bay was of a depressing uniformity. Standard grey. I asked someone who looked like he may own a shop on the street. ‘Do you know if it’s OK to park here?’ I asked. He looked at me, blinked twice and without saying a word started dragging a motorcycle out of the way and gesturing for Emma to pull into the space it had left. ‘Thank you, thank you so much’ I said, he had after all, saved us about $250 dollars in parking over the three days we planned to stay there. He gave me a huge smile and waved his hand at me before scurrying back into his shop. ‘I think I just met the best man in the whole of the United States’ I told Emma as we took our bags up to the hostel.

Now, we’ve all seen the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and that twisty road that featured in Bullit (I think) but what you won’t have seen unless you’ve visited certain parts of California, is the extremely laid back view that Californians take towards Cannabis, The Chronic, Sweet Mary Jane, Ganja, The ‘Erb, Marijuana, Puff, Weed or whatever else you kids are calling it nowadays.

The thing that made it so surprising, was coming so recently from States like Texas and Nevada where possession results in instant chemical castration and over 500 years in prison. Everyone was smoking mad blunts -On the way to work, dropping off their kids at day care, bus drivers, hipsters, doctors and tourists all at it - So that’s an exaggeration, of course, and what, I hear you ask, can you expect from a place that basically spawned American counter culture – Ken Keasey, Jack Kerouack, the Merry Pranksters and LSD all originated here – but the smell of it permeates the city, it’s even more prevalent than Amsterdam. The reason for this is a legal grey area and a source of much debate for San Franciscans. It remains illegal at a Federal level, meaning the FBI could basically close San Francisco down should the need arise, but on a state level, it is absolutely legal as long as you can prove that you have Glaucoma or a bad back or bunions (that’s not even a joke) to a doctor who will then write you a legal, over the counter prescription to be filled at a state sanctioned Marijuana ‘facility’.

That there, is how they roll (pun) in San Fran. Apparently they hate it when you call it San Fran. A lesson I learned the hard way in a bar on South Progress Street, a bar with over 150 beers on tap, putting to bed once and for all the myth that Americans only drink Coors Light, Bud Light and in certain states (Alabama)exclusively a home brewed 96% distilled spirit called Hooch. The Micro Brewing scene is thriving, particularly on the West coast and we sampled a great deal of them whilst chatting to a restaurant manager and head chef about subjects ranging from gun control, the cannabis question and why it’s frowned upon to call their city ‘San Fran’.  Don’t ask me the reason, I’d forgotten a minute after they’d told me but the main thing is that I won’t make that mistake again. Even, if I don’t know why.

We spent a number of very enjoyable afternoon hours in that bar, due to the fact that San Francisco - once again bucking the trend set by the rest of California; 75°F and sunny, every, single, day – was under a slow moving sheet of grey drizzle, which, in one of the very few walking cities in the US, was a real pain. We persevered anyway trudging from landmark to landmark in the rain like arseholes until nightfall when we found ourselves in China Town.  There’s only so many Tsing Tao you can drink however and we eventually returned to our hostel, the Green Turtle, drunk as bastards and went to sleep. The next day was more of the same if I remember correctly except that we ended the evening listening to some pretty good live bands in a few bars with some people we’d met at our hostel. A good night was had by all and we slept soundly for the drive south, towards LA, via the spectacular Highway 1.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

How to beat the Casinos.

The air in the car was one of excitement as we started seeing the first Casinos in Nevada, big, tacky overlit Bastions, declaring Cabaret and all you can eat buffets started to appear on the horizon once we passed the Hoover Dam, the enormous feat of human engineering that marked the boundary between Arizona and Nevada. We also gained an hour, as the time zone shifted from Mountain to Western time. We came into Vegas at dusk, the lights were coming on just as we arrived onto the strip and tried to locate our respective hotels, Pat and Judge in the old school Circus Circus Casino, made famous by Jonny Depp hallucinating out of his tits in the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which was about a mile and a half away from the main strip and Emma and I in the Imperial Palace, no less old school but right in the thick of the action, our balcony overlooked the Bellagio fountains and was closer still to some kind of outdoor club which played obscenely loud music until 4am every morning. No matter, we thought, we are in Vegas after all.
We met Pat and Judge, still sweating from their trek from Circus Circus and immediately embarked on a $1 frozen Margerita binge. This was to set the tone of our Vegas experience, the cheaper the better. The first night was a quiet affair and we split up at about midnight, Pat and Judge, after making sure they had enough water and hiring a guide so as not to get lost on the impressively long walk back to their hotel said goodbye and we got some beers in and went back to the room to watch how to play all the different variations of Poker and listen to the thumping Usher medley being played in the tent club just outside our balcony.
The next morning Emma and I awoke to the eerie quiet of no Usher and left our room to go out and try to find some natural light. As we made our way through the casino it was remarkably similar to when we had previously walked through it at midnight the evening before. A Tina Turner lookalike belted out Simply the Best before climbing off the stage and taking over from Lady Gaga on a blackjack table and dealing to the vacant eyed patrons who looked like they may not have seen their rooms that night. All the tables were full and almost everyone had a drink in front of them. Welcome to Vegas.
We went outside, blinking in the sunlight and got ourselves a beer, crossing the road we were just about to enter the Bellagio when I spotted Dog the Bounty Hunter chatting to someone at the entrance. If you’re not familiar with him then that’s your loss, the guy is a HERO. His golden mullet spilling onto his well muscled shoulders was just as I remembered it from the Bravo marathons I used to do as an unemployed gentleman. Best day of my life. I didn’t have the balls to go and speak to him so we went into the Casino and had a wander. The place is incredible, we walked past the $200 tables with little Chinese guys in suits betting more in one hand than we spent on a month’s accommodation in Bolivia, people playing that dice rolling game the rules of which may as well have been written in Hindi for al I understood them, but people seemed to be having a lovely time nonetheless. Eventually we entered the famous Bellagio buffet, the biggest all you can eat buffet in the world. We had many a discussion on how they could possibly run it at a profit and came to the conclusion that it was impossible. A sushi chef hand rolling sushi to order, Fillet steak, Pork Belly and gourmet Pizza sat side by side with Mountains of king prawn and lobster with about a hundred other things for you to eat in between. It was impossible not to feel guilty at the unashamed excess on display. I’m writing this in India and having seen full families sleeping on a blanket next to some of the busiest roads on the planet I can’t help but feel ashamed to the core of my being. Luckily, I’d never been to India at the time and I gorged myself with the other pigs blissfully unaware of what a horrible person I’d inadvertently become. It got to the stage, and I’m not proud of this, where I was filling a plate with steak among other things and eating only the pink bit of the medium rare cut of meat before discarding the ‘wastage’ and going up for yet another plate. After the first I wasn’t even hungry, any more, after the second dish piled high with all sorts of delicious stuff it was actually painful to eat and after the third, well I was actually worried about what was going to happen to me when I finally attacked the desert shelves. I stumbled out of there clutching my stomach and groaning in very real pain. Emma looked at me in disgust, shaking her head and scolding me like she’d caught me stealing 2 quid out of her purse, not angry, just disappointed.  And all this cost was 20 of your American dollars. Once I’d regained the ability to walk we carried on into the casino and going  entirely against the spirit of Vegas parked ourselves on the penny slots and did not leave until we were niiiice and toasty, me on free coronas, her on free double cosmopolitans. If you’re interested, we ended up about $16 dollars up with these pathetic, frugal bets so in your enormous bloated face Vegas, we took on your casinos and WON!
The next day, by way of an activity, we made our way down the strip to Glitter Gulch in downtown Vegas, this is where the glory days of Vegas took place, the Vegas of legend and folklore where the gangsters ruled with impunity. It’s obviously not like that anymore, but still definitely worth a visit, the main strip where the battered old casinos, very obviously from the 70’s, scream at you for your business like tired 65 year old whores. The ceiling of the whole complex, lights up all day, trying it’s hardest not to look like the Rock’s skinny, balding cousin in comparison to the recent billion dollar refurbs that the strip has had in the past 5 years.

On our penultimate day, we had to up and leave the gloriously decrepit  Imperial Palace and carry our enormous rucksacks over the road into Caesers Palace, where due to the fact that people at Emma’s work actually valued her contribution, they had bought her a night in one of the major casinos of my choice. We went in early to leave our bags with the bellhop and see whether or not we could check in. We couldn’t so we went to try and find a waitress on the penny slots. We returned to reception, dragging our rucksacks past the tanned, fit and above all, rich clientele that usually frequents the lobby of such an establishment and, half cut from yet more free, penny slot beers, started trying to lay our ‘free upgrade’ spiel on Jason, who looked like a cage fighter in a suit. He was having absolutely none of it and Emma and I looked at each other with a disappointed face. Once the check-in was complete, Jason placed the key on the counter in front of us and said ‘So, I’ve given you guys a sweet upgrade’ He really did emphasise the ‘sweet’ like that. And he wasn’t lying. We arrived at the door and put the key in the lock. The door opened into a corridor which as we alked down it, opened out into a fucking SWEET room indeed. A Jacuzzi in the bathroom facing a flatscreen TV, a huge double bed in a room bigger the than the entire ground floor of my house with the window on one side facing out to the pools and the window on the other facing out onto the strip. I’m not lying when I say it was much better than an ETAP.
We really didn’t make the most of that room, apart from a Jacuzzi at 4am we just went out and found the most hospitable waitress, by that I mean one who didn’t get pissed off when she realised that we had blatantly not put another dollar into the bandit since the last beer we had about 7 minutes ago.
All in all Vegas was amazing, but I have to say, I’d love to go for two weeks with 3 grand to waste. Then I might have something else to feel bad about apart from gorging myself on fatty foods. Next stop, Californ I A.