Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Ho, Ho, Ho and a bottle of Malbec!











We’ve had a couple of steaming hot n’ humid days recently but even with three fans going full blast in the apartment, it’s still been pretty hot. I had a feast of turkey cooked in my honour last night (xmas eve), as the custom here is to celebrate the night before Christmas Day. This includes opening the presents after the countdown to midnight and as the clock strikes twelve, the skies light up with impromptu firework displays and the whole city echoes with mind numbingly loud bangers. This spectacle goes on for a couple of hours and then, at around 2.30am, people start heading to bars and clubs. I guess I must be starting to slow down and show my age, as at that hour, all I was fit for was my bed.

Seasons Greetings, Merry Xmas and Happy New Year to ALL!


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Saturday, 22 December 2007

Can you spare some change?


There is an unusual custom here of paying bills in cash. e.g. You get a telephone, electricity or gas bill and you can go to a pharmacy to pay the bill in cash. You do have an option to call and pay by credit card or direct debit but there seems to be a big reluctance to do so.

Certain pharmacies and stores have a special section known as Pago Facil (Easy Pay) where you can go to the counter and pay your bill in cash. The strange thing is you often have to queue for considerable time to do this. It's as if the impatient porteno's distrust of financial establishments supercedes their reluctance to 'wait' and they just get on the long line and tolerate the wait. More bizarre is the fact that the Pago Facil is often short on change so unless you have close to exact change, you may have to go searching nearby shops willing to break a 100 peso bill.

The change problem is more widespread and has been around for a while (see BBC News link attached from 1 year ago - http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/6163238.stm). It's obvious there is a huge shortage of coins to go around so why not mint more? Generally the first thing you're asked when paying in a shop, supermarket etc is, do you have a smaller bill or more importantly do you have close to the exact small change. I was refused point blank at a shop recently for trying to buy a 50 cent item with a 5 pesos note.

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Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Danger on the Roads


Above: Avenida 9 de Julio (20 lanes)

Buenos Aires has a mix of extra wide avenues and narrow cobblestone streets and a confusing one way system in many places. I used to think it was a figment of my imagination, that taxis seemed to veer across the street to try and run me over (extra points for a gringo n' all that) but others have also confirmed this to be the case. These are typically busy taxis since the available taxis curb crawl annoyingly slow as they try and pick up a fare.

Zig zag driving is par for the course for most porteños as they try and get a fraction ahead of the car in front so they can cut them off and hence gain one spot advancement in the traffic. It's almost comical as you watch the constant criss cross in the flow of traffic as porteños have debunked the theory that the quickest/shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Oh contraire! - It's actually more like a snake pattern.

Avenida 9 de Julio in the micro center lays claim to being the widest avenue in the world with twenty lanes and as a pedestrian you need to cross two sets of traffic lights just to get to the other side. The most interesting driving concept however is in the suburbs, where intersections have no traffic lights ('right of way' and 'stop' signs don't exist here). Thus ensues a perilous game of 'chicken'. Cars will literally brake then accellerate as they approach a blind intersection, seemingly hoping (praying), that if there is an oncoming car, it will back down and brake. Amazingly, this seems to work and I've yet to see a serious accident (touch wood).

Car theft is a big problem and steering wheel locks do big business, although there are some more novel approaches to car security as shown below.

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Monday, 17 December 2007

Mar Del Plata











Mar Del Plata is the biggest resort on Argentina’s Atlantic coast (approx 5 hours south of Buenos Aires). We went for five days in what would be considered off season. Apparently in the height of summer it’s completed over crowded and best avoided but at this time of year it was quite pleasant and somewhat better than I expected.

There are several large beaches and the further out of town you head, the less crowded they become. The ‘in’ thing to do seems to be to rent your own little canopy and set up base camp on the beach. These private enclosures have access to café’s, clean toilets and showers and even sports activities (paddle ball = mini tennis, volley ball etc)

While we were in town they just happened to have the annual Reina del Mar (Queen of the Sea) beauty competition where we somehow managed to blag our way into the VIP section for a close up view of some of the local chica talent and mighty fine talent it was too! (purely from an artistic perspective of course!)

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Monday, 10 December 2007

San Telmo



We visited the neighbourhood of San Telmo at the weekend. It's most famous for its 'touristy' market set in a plaza surrounded by cobblestone streets with restaurants, cafes and bars. As with most tourist destinations there plenty of old gypsy women and young kids trying to coerce you into giving them money. Some of them are very determined and a bit hard nosed and pester you even if you respond with a firm 'No'. One enterprising young lad claimed he needed just 20 pesos for his school and his target donation dropped in 5 peso decrements till just a 'moneda' (coin) was required as he reeled off his oft practiced speech. I'm not belittling the fact that some of these folks really need the money, but the approach is a little too much in your face and the philosophy is to drive you to the point of handing over somehthing just to get rid of them.

The market itself is interesting and has plenty to offer in the way of jewelry, trinkets and souveniers albeit overpriced. There were three cruise ships in town and there were people handing over dollars and pesos for trinkets like it was monopoly money, which considering the exchange rate it, I suppose pesos are like monopoly money.

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Sunday, 9 December 2007

Back to B.A.


A wee 24 hour delay due to the snow and I headed back to Buenos Aires via Miami. It was a relatively ‘hitch’ free journey and I left at 4pm NY time and arrived as scheduled at 7am B.A. time. It was great to see New York again, albeit briefly. It was slightly strange to go from cold and snow to hot and humid since most of my previous experiences have usually been the other way round i.e. cold Xmas to the warmer climes of a vacation. This time it was heading for base camp Buenos Aires, which had 40 degree celcius for much of the previous week.

There is something strange and unfamiliar about seeing Christmas trees, Santa’s and advertisements plugging the holiday but people wearing shorts / tee-shirts, literally on the back of seeing snow in New York. It is a novelty however, to plan a trip to the beach resort of Mar Del Plata for a few days before the official Xmas holidays begin.

The big question right now is can we survive without air con in our apartment or will the experiences on the buses have acclimatised us to the extreme heat?


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Sunday, 2 December 2007

New York, New York

Five days after the five week trip around Argentina, I headed to New York for a work opportunity to help subsidize my newly found life of leisure…hmm … working for leisure, isn´t that a oxymoron or something?

The work which was actually in New Jersey, involved disconnecting and removing computer servers at one data centre and reinstalling at another location. I clocked up 70 hours in the 5 days including an 18 hour day on Friday, which will buy a lot of beer vouchers back in B.A. even after the flight and shopping. While I was there, they turned on the Christmas lights in NY, including the tree at Rockefeller Centre and to cap things off, the first snow of the season arrived. It was great to catch up with some old friends but unfortunately I didn’t have time to catch up with everybody. As I write, the forecast is for more heavy snow and flights are being cancelled all over the north east, so fingers crossed I can get out on time.

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Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Back to Buenos Aires & Trip Recap



We looked at the guide book for the highlights on route from Iguazú back to Buenos Aires but compared to what we’d already seen, they were few and far between, so we decided to finish on the high note of the falls and head straight back to the capital.

We got on a ‘cama’ (bed) bus which is supposed to be the most comfortable with DVD’s, fully reclining seats and a steward to serve meals including wine. This was going to stand us in good stead, considering the 18 hour journey ahead. However, it wasn’t long until we noticed the air-con wasn’t working properly and everybody was shifting around in their seats in sweaty discomfort.

To make a long story short, despite numerous protests and a near riot onboard and despite being promised the air-con would be fixed or we’d get a change of bus, we had to endure the 18 hours with no air-con in hot, humid, stifling conditions, but, we made it. They say what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger and after more than five weeks on the road and more than six thousand Kms on the clock as the crow flies and closer to nine thousand Kms on those winding roads, crossing five international borders (Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil), it was good to be back in B.A. and more importantly, off long distance buses (for a while).

In retrospect, much of the north of Argentina (where we spent most of the trip) is still very under developed for tourism which is both a blessing and curse. It’s much cheaper than visiting the south of Argentina (Bariloche, Patagonia etc) which is almost over developed and in my opinion over priced. The diversity of the scenery in the north is immense and spectacular. The people in the north seem somewhat reserved and in some cases detached. It’s almost as if they haven’t made the connection that their Porteño and southern cousins definitely have and that is
happy tourists equals more tourists equals better economy. If you’re coming here with pounds, euros or dollars, then your money will go a long way and your only problem will be allocating enough time to see as much as possible. Anyway, although the road trip may be over, but the adventure continues, so stay tuned.

Journey Kms
Buenos Aires to Cordoba 641
Cordoba to San Juan 413
San Juan to Mendoza 152
Mendoza to Vilparaiso 260
Vilparaiso to Mendoza 260
Mendoza to San Juan 152
San Juan to Tucuman 616
Tucuman to Salta 226
Salta to Villazon 573
Villazon to Potosi 379
Potosi to Sucre 78
Sucre to Santa Cruz 302
Santa Cruz to Asuncion 873
Asuncion to Foz 311
Foz to Buenos Aires 1075


Total Distance as the crow flies 6311


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Saturday, 17 November 2007

Iguazú Falls (Brazil & Argentina)
















Four hours east of Ascunción, three countries meet (Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina) with 3 border towns, literally minutes apart from each other and all in close proximity to the widest waterfalls in the world, the Iguazú Falls, which is a serious contender for one of the 'wonders of the world'.

Ciudad del Esté in Paraguay is a smelly, congested market town where you can buy anything from an apple to an Apple MAC computer. Visitors (mostly day trippers) from Brazil and Argentina, arrive in droves to buy and sell. Beware, as lots of the merchandise is fake, especially the electronics, perfume and clothes. You can use any of the three currencies of these countries in shops, restaurants buses and taxis etc in addition to dollars and euros.

You only have to cross a bridge to go from Paraguay (Ciudad del Esté) to Brazil (Fóz de Iguazú a.k.a Fóz). Fóz is a well develeloped commercial centre and from here you can visit the panoramic Brazilian view of the Iguazu falls (cataratas) which many people say has the best photo opportunities. We did a boat trip to the base of a thundering waterfall which is highly recommended.

Twenty minutes from Foz you can cross over to Argentina (Puerto Iguazú) which is smaller and less developed than its Brazilian neighbour. From Puerto Iguazu its about 30 minutes to the Argentine side of the falls, where you have by far, the better perspective / experience of the sheer gargantuan size of the Iguazú falls. You can take two walking circuits (upper and lower) which will take you above and below some of the most impressive cascades in the world and also provide excellent photo ops with rainbows almost guaranteed.

You need to resign yourself to the fact you are going to get wet, whether its the boat trip or the walk out to the viewing point for the highlight which is 'The Garganta del Diablo' (Devils Throat) where several waterfalls collide into one huge gushing cascade, but it's absolutely worth it. No trip to Argentina or indeed South America is complete until you've seen Iguazú.

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Monday, 12 November 2007

Asunción, Paraguay

Visiting Claudia's brother and family in Asunción



In Photo above, left to right, Alex, Pablo, Giuli, Me, Claudia


Photo: Our nephew, Lucas.

The 24 hour bus journey departed on time and it was actually fairly comfortable. Dinner, breakfast, lunch (albeit a bit basic) and movies were included in the price (USD$45). Compared to the Bolivian bus ride, this was going to be a VIP ride (he said to himself, with hopeful optimism.)

We were travelling thru the Chaco region in southern Bolivia and there were four police checkpoints throughout the night, before we even reached the Paraguayan border. There were two native South African women on board who were getting lots of grief as apparently there have been a lot of fake South African passports doing the rounds and they got the third degree at every checkpoint with Claudia acting as translator since they hadn’t a word of Spanish.

The a.c. on the bus was struggling to cope with the heat but at 2pm we reached the official border crossing which turned into a two and a half hour drawn out saga. Everybody and everything (literally every bag) came off the bus for inspection by the sniffer dog and then every bag had to be opened for a second inspection. It was a mere 49 Celcius and even the locals were suffering in the sweltering heat. The customs and immigration officials literally lived in the offices where we had to have our documentation verified, so you could see people sleeping as you got the official stamp in your passport. Claudia visited the ‘wee ladies room’ to powder her nose and this too, turned out to be the residence of the female contingent of customs officials. It was all a bit weird and you could only feel sorry for the poor mugs who had to work in this hell hole, day after day.

At about 8:30pm we arrived and were picked up by Claudia’s brother Pablo and his family. A quick shower, then pizza and a beer or two, capped off a very, very long day.

I got my first round of golf in South America the following day and played pretty bad, but it was an enjoyable experience. We played on a private course with way too much water for my liking (or my left hook and right slice shots at any rate) and had our own caddy who did his best to guide us thru the traps. The ladies went shopping (as ladies always do) as we were golfing and we regrouped later that evening to quickly change for a wedding that Claudia and I were going to sort of gate crash. As with all weddings in South America, this one went to the wee hours and was a lot of fun. As I write, we are just ‘chillin’ by the pool at the house and planning where to head next. Iguazu, the widest waterfalls in the world are looking tempting.


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Santa Cruz (Bolivia)



The flight arrived on time and the only hitch was that the temperature shifted from about 15 Celcius to 35 Celcius so we were baking hot. We got on a bus (or an oven with 4 wheels) to the centre and found a reasonable hotel with air conditioning. It was 2:30pm and we decided to go to a ecological park supposedly 15 minutes away. All we had to do was get sandwiches next door and jump in a taxi. 40 minutes later we were still waiting for the friggin’ sandwiches and very close to going ‘postal’. We had to cancel the order just to get moving as the park shut at 6pm. After about 30 minutes in the taxi we saw a sign indicating another 18kms and the taxi driver wasn’t even sure where we were going, so we had to get him to return to the hotel as at this stage we would only have had an hour in the park. We retreated to the hotel and cranked the air-con on full blast and decided to call it a day.

Second time around didn’t start off too smoothly either. We asked the taxi driver to stop at the bus terminal on the way to the park so we could reserve our tickets for the next destination, Asunscion, Paraguay, where we would visit Claudia’s brother. Unlike anywhere else we’ve been travelling, where the price on the board is the price you pay, here, you are bombarded with people from different companies aggressively trying to get you to onto their bus and the price often drops as the sales pitch progresses. We needed something comfortable as this was going to be a 24 hour marathon trip and after 45 minutes of filtering thru the hard sell merchants, we booked our tickets for 8pm that evening.

We had the rest of the day to spend in the park which was actually really good. It has the largest butterfly enclosure in the world. There are numerous activities like hiking, biking, kayaking and horse riding, but rather than risk burning precious calories, I voted for veggin’ by the pool drinking beer and when the votes were counted, thankfully I won. After five hours of hard core veggin’ we got the taxi back to bus terminal and boarded the bus to Paraguay.

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Sunday, 11 November 2007

Potosí and Sucre (Central Bolivia)




We escaped the bus from hell and were the only two passengers to alight in Potosí at 4:45am. The scene that awaited us was far from refreshing or welcoming. About 100 homeless people lined the street by the bus terminal which was nothing more than a handful of ticket offices by the side of the road. To make matters worse¸ it was about 2 degrees celcius and everything was closed (so much for that bucket of beer ).

We discovered we had just missed our connection to Sucre and would have to wait 7 hours or try and get a shared taxi, which, after a little bargaining we did. (40 Bolivianos per head for the two and a half hour journey = approx $5.50 each X 4 people)

I had read the so called highlight of Potosí is a visit to the nearby mines, but it gets a bad rap due to safety issues e.g. unprotected baths of sulphuric acid and toxic fumes, so we decided to give it a miss. We had no regrets either, after the taxi driver gave us the low down on the high level of crime and stories about tourists getting into taxis, only to be brought to some remote area, stripped naked and robbed blind. We waited in the taxi as the driver ensured his heavy set wife, sprinted two blocks thru the no go zone to reach their home in safety.

After an interesting dawn drive, we arrived at Sucre at 7am. We were on a mission to find a bed asap as at this point we were beyond exhausted and we were lucky to find a hotel near the main square that would check us in early. I had a beer; then collapsed into bed in a near coma – sleep, sleep, sleep at last!

Sucre has a really comfortable small town feel to it although the suburbs spread far and wide. It’s very laid back and has several walking circuits of historical and cultural significance. There’s a dinosaur compound 5kms outside town which has the largest collection of dinosaur tracks in the world. They were only discovered about 15 years ago and because the earth has shifted over the years, they are now vertically exposed on a cliff face.

We weren’t too keen to jump on a 12 hour bus ride so soon so we stayed two nights in Sucre. Despite the best efforts of two travel agents NOT to sell us tickets (they have a nonchalant, I can’t be arsed, attitude), we managed to find a flight to our next destination Santa Cruz for 200 Bolivian (approx $27). It was a little strange thinking of flying as somewhat of a luxury but it was definitely more comfortable than most journeys over the last 4 weeks.

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Wednesday, 7 November 2007

BOLIVIAN BUS JOURNEY FROM HELL (Rated PG)


Note: This is a long post, but don’t just skim thru, it’s worth the time.

It was a fresh cool wind that blew in that Sunday evening. It was almost as if nature itself was signaling a change in the air and we felt uneasy but weren’t exactly sure why. The day had passed without much to see or do and a dreaded bout of ‘Squirt Alert’ (see previous post from Cachueta) had left me drained, tired and a bit raw round the nether regions. The bus terminal was particularly busy with travelers, most of whom were locals and the few gringos that were there, stuck out like nuns at an orgy. Local old ladies, donned in traditional dress, were aggressively selling their wares of knitted blankets and clothes.

The price of the ticket from Villazón to Potosí varied depending on the quality of the bus (from rust bucket to brand new double decker) and the number of intermediate stops, so we went for the express luxury option of 8 hours in a semi-cama (half bed) coach supposedly with toilet, DVD, drinks service, air-con etc. The ticket agent was coughing and spluttin’ everywhere as she hand wrote out the tickets, but thankfully there was a glass screen between her and us to block the north easterly gale of flem and mucous that spewed forth. The bus was full, so we would not be able to sit together, but figured we’d be able to swap seats with someone, once we got onboard. The bus was due to leave at 7pm and arrive in Potosí at 3am, where at 4am, we would get a 3 hour onward connection east, to the of city Sucre. 7.20pm came and went and we could see our bus sitting in front of the terminal but no driver in sight. We went to information to get a status update and were told ˝Yes, the bus will leave at 7pm˝. ˝ But its 7.20pm now˝ we said, which was shot down with a surly ˝7pm Bolivian time – NOT Argentinian time!˝, so we just figured that Bolivia wasn’t too punctual and made our way to the bus and waited patiently.
At 7.45pm the driver arrived and we handed him our bags to load into the luggage bay, but to our surprise, he told us the bus didn’t stop at Potosí. A few minutes later, after consulting with someone from the ticket office, he was reminded that the bus did in fact stop at Potosí. Great Start! I thought to myself, the driver doesn’t even know where he’s going. We piled onboard and took our allotted (separate) seats, but to my horror, I was on the upper deck, in the BACK ROW which meant no reclining seats. Even worse, I was in the middle of the back row of five seats, sandwiched between five people already there. Fabulous! Six people in five seats – Welcome to Bolivia!
On my right was a large old lady traveling with her grand daughter. The old lady, who I nicknamed ‘Big Mama’ (not unlike the woman in the photo above) was wrapped in at least 8 blankets and had that strong musty old lady smell. To my left, was a young couple and their 2 year old child who had the lungs and pitch of Pavorotti (may he rest in peace). The father, who I nicknamed ‘Handyman’ (for reasons soon to become apparent) seemed exhausted and none of us were too thrilled about our seating arrangements. It seemed to take forever to get everyone onboard, as they were bringing large boxes and bags and I was just waiting for the cage of chickens, but finally at 8:30pm, the engine started and I settled back for the adventure ahead. We circled the terminal once and two minutes later we were right back where we started. Fifteen minutes went by and we were still stationary at the terminus and the driver was nowhere to be found. A chorus of ‘Hora!, Hora!’ (Time!, Time!) erupted and people started to pound the floor with their feet. REVOLUTION!, Bolivia style, was in full swing. Finally at 8:50pm (110 minutes behind schedule) we set off. Twenty minutes later, we ground to a halt and the driver was slamming the back of the bus with what looked like a sledge hammer. I’m still not sure what that was all about. Maybe he was just taking out his frustration and if so, I could definitely relate. So off we went again and it soon became apparent that there was no paved road. This was going to be bumpy, dusty, winding dirt road for eight hours and the bus was vibrating so hard, it felt like full-on severe turbulence. Bags were falling out of the overhead bins and windows were rattling like 220 rpm hard core techno. The air-con was on full blast and it was like Siberia in the back of the bus. People were shivering in the back but apparently it was like an oven in the front. After about an hour, we made our first official stop to pick up more passengers, but there were no seats left, so these people had to stand in the aisle. A pregnant woman and a family with a new born baby got onboard and made their bed in the aisle. Although there was a toilet downstairs, there was no way to get there, with the obstacle course of people, boxes and bags in the aisle.
Although the lights were now off, there was going to be little chance of sleep on this journey to insanity. Two hours later, we made another stop and lots of people hopped off for a pee or to grab a sandwich or drink but more people piled onboard and took their seats. When the ‘pee people’ returned, fights broke out over who had the right to the seat, but the driver set off oblivious to the riot breaking out upstairs. To make matters worse, the stench of onion sandwiches wafted thru the bus and I began to feel green around the gills. It was probably sheer exhaustion, but somehow my companions in the back seats, to my left and right, ‘Big Mama’ and ‘Handyman’ managed to doze off. Big Mama started to lean into me and squash me over towards Handyman who was also leaning into me, so I was gradually being squeezed like a melon in a vice. I christened him ‘Handyman’ as he had a tendency to flail his hands around when he slept, so I would was getting slapped on the side and on the leg. I tried to push Big Mama back to her side to avoid the bitch-slappin’ I was getting from Handyman, but she was built like an ox, so I would have needed a car-jack to shift her. With my knees firmly locked together and no way to move, the bus suddenly started a series of steep down hill descents. My jeans started to compress my privates and I was basically getting a ball crushing wedgie. I started to lose the plot but refocused and repeated to myself – ‘Keep it together – Keep it together. ‘Don’t worry’, I told myself, you’ll have a bucket of cold beer once you get off this hellish nightmare ride.
It was pitch black and it seemed like hours had passed and every now and then, the drone of snores reverberated around the bus above the turbulence and rattling windows. The little kid (Mini Pavorotti) was screaming his lungs out with every big bump we hit and we were hitting lots of them. Only the occasional light from a house in the distance partially illuminated the surroundings for a few seconds. Suddenly, I noticed what seemed like specks of light on my black fleece sweater. As I moved my sleeve the specks moved, so this can’t be specks of light I thought. The logic within me tried to reason the source of the specks so I thought, maybe with all the squashing into Big Mama, her blanket had left some kind of fluff residue, but as I tried to pinch the fluff away nothing moved, so this wasn’t fluff. Maybe I’m hallucinating as I haven’t slept well in days. I’ve read sleep deprivation can lead to symptoms of hallucination and paranoia, so don’t worry Enda, I said, ‘Keep it together – Keep it together’, focus on that bucket of beer. The specks seemed to grow and multiply – what the hell was going on? If I rubbed a speck hard, it faded, so this had to be some kind of powder. Perhaps the young couple had baby powder for their kid in the overhead bin and it was dropping down on me. Just then, we pulled up to a security check point and the bus in front was waved to the side and the passengers disembarked for what looked like i.d. verification.
Paranoia went into overdrive, as suddenly I had a flash of horror. Wait a minute, I thought, we’re in Bolivia and I’m covered in powder, Argh! What if it’s DRUGS?! Maybe I’m a decoy or maybe someone stashed cocaine in the overhead air duct. What if we’re stopped and asked to get off the bus. Memories of the sniffer dog in the border crossing in Chile came flooding back. I’ll be hauled away and locked up for years. Visions of the movie Midnight Express flashed by! ‘Keep it together – Keep it together’, focus on that bucket of beer. I gave a huge sigh of relief when we were just waved on by the police control, but I was still uneasy about the mystery powder that just seemed to multiply.
At another scheduled stop, the lights finally came on and I could see I was completely covered in this powder which was light brown. It was on my jeans, sweater, hair, face, everywhere, but only on me. Big Mama and Handyman were completely clean. I examined the air duct directly above me and discovered it was indeed the source of the powder and the powder was in fact dirt or dust. I can only hypothesize, but reckon the wheels at the front of the bus were whipping up the dust from the road and a broken ventilator at the back of the bus (maybe missing a filter) was sucking in the dust and showering me from head to toe.
Handyman’s wife could see I was shivering with the Siberian ice blast coming from the air-con so she leaned over and gave me a corner of the family blanket. Big Mama, the Handyman family and I, all snuggled together under our blanket to keep warm. An hour later (4.45AM) we arrived at Potosí. The journey to the fiery depths of hell and back was finally over, at least for me. I bid farewell to my shivering traveling companions who only had another 12 hours of this madness to endure, to their final destination of La Paz.

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Monday, 5 November 2007

La Quiaca, The Final Frontier






It´s difficult to say anything positive about this most northerly border town of La Quiaca or its Bolivian neighbouring town of Villazón (10 minutes walk across the border) , in fact the term ´areshole in the middle of nowhere´comes to mind for both of them.

La Quiaca has practically no commercial enterprise, except for hotels, since everybody just takes the 10 minute walk across the border to Bolivia because its significantly cheaper.

The situation reminds me of a previous trip to Ciudad del Este on the border of Paraguay and Argentina and Brazil where you cross the border on a regular local bus. Some guy hopped on and gave everyone on the bus a carton of 200 cigarettes. The customs guy hops on and checks that nobody is bring anything dodgy or over the allowance. In this instance he happened to pick on my brother Ian´s back pack and poked it with a big knife as he said ´open it. Unfortunately for the boder guard Ians dirty laundry was on top and a waft of sweaty socks that would make a grown man cry, filled the bus. The guard simultaneously shouted ´CLOSE IT, CLOSE IT!´as he made a hasty exit stage left off the bus. As soon as he left the guy collected his cigarettes off everyone and was on his merry way.

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Iruya







3 hours west of Humuauca on yet another winding, dusty, mega bumpy, unpaved road is the village of Iruya, set in a valley and surrounded by huge mountains. We had a flat tyre about 45 minutes into the journey but luckily that was fixed in jig time.
The journey winds up one side of a mountain thru barren, desolate and yet captivating scenery and then back down the other side into a beautiful valley with massive plateaus of green fields with some agriculture which seem eerily out of place given the relative remoteness.

Iruya is really only worth a day trip unless you plan to go to the plateaus, so we just spent half a day there and had lunch. There´s a slightly unusual setup for cafes/restaurants in these more remote parts. The eateries tend to be just someones house with a few tables piled into a small room. There´s rarely a menu, so you just have to ask what´s on offer and that tends to be simple fare like empanadas, salad and of course beer (phew!). Although it´s never expensive, I´m a bit dubious about the bill since it´s delivered verbally in total with no receipt or breakdown and always rounds up to a nice even number. The more touristy you look the bigger that even number becomes. No receipt means no audit trail and hence no tax for them to pay. If you do ask for a bill, that takes 10 minutes or more as they scurry around trying to make the sum of the parts fit the total but miraculaously (hint of sarcasm) it always does!

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Sunday, 4 November 2007

Tilcara & Humauaca

You can definitely feel the altitude in these parts. Any sort of exercise leaves you a bit ligt headed. Every time the bus stops for a break, everybody body spits out their cocoa leaves like spittin' bakky in a cowboy movie.
The small town of Tilcara has pre-Incan ruins of a fortress now restored but not as impressive as Quilmes ruins. One hour north is another small town called Humauaca which was almost completely closed when we arrived, due to a public holiday but we eventually found a place to stay for the night.
The holiday was for 'All Souls Day' or 'Day of the Dead' where the locals parade thru the streets and bring flowers to the cemetaries and lay out food for the souls of dead relatives. It's believed that the souls that haven't yet made it to heaven can pass thru the pearly gates on this day.
It's so dry and arid here that there is dust evrywhere. One minute you're walking down the street and it's perfectly calm. The next minute the wind picks up and in a flurry, you're baptised in dust from head to toe. You can even feel your nose tingle with amount dust you're inhaling.

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Saturday, 3 November 2007

Pumamarca

East of the Salinas Grandes is the small village of Pumamarca and the descent into the village from over 4,000 metres is absolutely spectacular. Trivia fact: Much of the landscape appears in Lord of the Rings. (so it wasn't all New Zealand)

Pumamarca itself is pretty small and the locals will try and flog their wares (llama skin, gaunaco skin, in hats, gloves, scarves etc). The local specialty is llama meat which tasted like tender beef and its really good.

When you are ascending and descending this type of altitude quickly, the locals recommend you chew cocoa leaves, so we decided to give it a try and it definitely seemed to work as we had very limited symptoms of altitude sickness. If you'd like to get a idea of cocoa leaves are like, then for the taste, try chewing some leaves from the garden and for the buzz, wash it down with an espresso (repeat as required).

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Friday, 2 November 2007

Salta & the Salinas Grandes







1500kms from Buenos Aires is the historic capital of Salta. There are numerous interesting buildings including the neoclassical Iglesia San Francisco. There are several notable scenic excursions close by such as the 'train to the clouds' (tren a las nubes) which unfortunately is closed for restoration until 2008, but you can take almost the same route by car, since the road criss crosses the railway line and the scenery is pretty good.
North of the train/car route to the clouds is the huge salt flats of Salinas Grandes where you can traverse tracks to the center of the flats and see where the salt is extracted from rectangles dug into the ground and piled into mounds.
I don't think I'll be applying for a job here however as they pay the workers 40 pesos per tonne of salt extracted and many of the workers eventually go blind from exposure to the harsh elements of sun, wind, salt and dust.

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Thursday, 1 November 2007

Cafayate to Cachi

It was only nine pesos for the two and a half hour bus journey to Angastaco but in 35 celcius heat in a rickety old rust bucket of a bus with no air conditioning and on an unpaved road, it sure was no picnic.
The potential to hitch a ride was slim to none so we had to go door to door with anybody who had a car outside and ask if they could drive us the 3 hours to Cachi. Eventually we haggled a ride for 3 of us for 120 pesos in a small car with no AC, so had the windows open. This part of the country is incredibly dry and we got completed covered in dust which was whipped up on the dirt road by what looked like mini tornadoes.
Our journey was made all the more exciting by the fact that our driver was falling asleep and was chewing ferociously on cocoa leaves to give himself a wee boost. This was a tad unsettling considering we were going around cliff hanger hairpin bends, but the scenery was fantastic.

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