Sunday, 31 May 2009

La Buena Vida

Lou Reed wrote a song about a perfect day - sangria in the park, a movie and sex. Well my wife and I did none of those activities but had a day to rival Lou and his bird´s. The day before we had left Buenos Aires. Despite being a city of grand culture, the experience was made difficult to enjoy because of the jet lag, cars and lack of sleep. On our last night in BA we scored an eigth of nicely compressed, dark green sativa bush. From the first smoke it was apparent that it had been worth visiting South America after all. Playing with my head in an oddly level manner, similar to Indian charas. The symptons of which are having vague thoughts about not being stoned and then giggling to yourself.

The first two smokes sent us to a sleepily blissful state and so we bid goodnight to the collected company of a Portuguese bloke who worked in a Weatherspoons pub in London and his dutch photographer mate who had driven a car from Holland to South Africa and then got it shipped over to Argentina. Nice bloke but that shows far too much love to the great symbol of pollution, namely the automobile. Having brushed my teeth, I settled down and drifted effortlessly off to sleep after two pages about a an english explorer in Congo adopting a gorilla baby and mothering it in the heart of the jungle. Only my dreams of giant birds with startling plumes was soon disturbed by the lurching footfall of a young French man who fell over his locker. A few loud fumbles later he had opened his locker and had opened a bottle of Quillmes and was pouring into his glass. He gulped it down and then re-filled his glass. Obviously he did this in the dark stupidly assuming that he wasn´t disturbing the people sleeping. How daft. Waka and I listened forlornly as he proceeded to close his locker and knock his beer glass on the floor over.

Anyway this secret bar routine went on much of the night. I met the chap the next morning hanging to the wall in the toilet corridor like some pathetic monster gecko.

And then we got on a mega luxurious bus to Rosario, a town 4 hours up the Parana river famous for being the birthplace of Ernesto ´Che´ Guevara. The seats were massive, like massage chairs; and they reclined far back almost horizontally. On arriving we had an educational 30 minutes waiting for a local bus from the coach station to the centre of town. We got on a bus only to be ejected for having a 2 peso note. I sort of remembered reading that you needed kiosk cards to pay for bus journeys so we went back into the coach station and found ´the kiosk´ thanks to tourist information. This delayed us somewhat. The we got dropped up at Plaza Sarimento and I read the map wrong causing us to take a few wrong turns.

No biggy: we found the hostel and were rewarded by a dormitory with only one other incumbent. The hostel didn't have a bar and was close to a supermarket. Apart from the irregularly cleaned toilets it was a cool place. Kitchen, smoking area, TV lounge all housed in an old colonial building with high walls and tiles. Needless to say, that after returning from the supermarket with some great meat and wine bargains we chowed down, sorted our kit and got blazed on the balcony. It rained quite a bit, but that was the start of it. That´s when the perfect day started happening. Namely it started the day before.

A great sleep and then a bright sunny morning. Free breakfast and then out to hunt down Che´s home (more of which later) followed by mass at the local cathedral (also more of which later). Then back to the supermarket for lunch. We bought bread, olives, and an amazing Italian style lentil stew. And some Quilmes stout. What a find! Lunch and a smoke and then off to stroll along the river. Lots of people were out walking their dogs and drinking mate. There was traditional dancing, a bmx stunt course, kids driving electric cars, caporohea duelling and circus acts. Boxed and watching the people enjoying their Sunday pleasures was primo. We made it to a market and I bought an orange fleece because I had somehow managed to not pack a sweater. The steet vendor wouldn´t even drop 2 pesos off the 42 peso asking price.

Then back to the hostel for smokes and spare rib with olives, salad and bread. Oddly accompanied by the TV anti-spectacle of a crowd watching a local football match. I watched the crowds ´ows´ and ´ehs´ for 15 minutes before I got what was going on. Namely if you hadn´t given Ruperto Murdock a few pesos you weren't getting to see anything but the crowd and the score board.

Not to mind because the bottle had already been opened and I was settling into a relaxing late afternoon and evening of showering, smoking and watching Jimmy Hendrix at the Isle of White. Also we met Santi who was up from Buenos Aires for a weekender away from the big city and a nice Australian couple who turned out to not be a couple but cousins.

To return to Argentina, the commemoration to Che Guevara is very small. Just a small sign like a bus stop next to an un-extraordinary door that forms the main entry for several flats. On the same street is a place offering Microsoft Lessons. Nearby a garage and hostel. Quite unremarkable excpet that it seemed to continue the trend set by fashion of turning the great revolutionary into an icon capable of generating revenue for multi-nationals and big companies. The supreme Jacobean style revenge - fitting and insulting - making Che another pixel in the capitalist matrix. Che envisioned a united Hispanic federation for South America not individual countries. He was too radical for his own country and indeed too radical for Fidel Castro it seemed. Perhaps Argentinians admire him because he was an important man in history and a great changer, a true man who held his destiny in his hands and chose to sacrifice it for an unbending moral dogma.

Of course the reality is Catholicism and the state. These two towering institutions mimic each other´s architectural styles and often sit next to each other around the central plaza. The church next to the Presidential Palace on San Martin Plaza doesn't even look like a church from the front. Instead of the high door and grand entrance of a church, the building had huge roman columns. It look like a senate. And inside there was a side chapel guarded by men in ornamental military costumes. Inside was enshrined a monument to, or perhaps the ashes of, the revolutionary heroes. General Belgrano, Vincente Lopez et al. Just as the church pays to homage to the state, legitimizing and engrandizing big ideas like Argentina, liberty, and independence so the state similarly goes down on one knee for the church. In Rosario the state memorial to the war dead is a huge Roman platform with towering columns at the entrance, a pinnacle with female statue and the eternally burning flame set off further down the platform, separated by 2 sets of stairs. And beyond that a a 3 petal rounded ending with massive statues of neptune and some liberation hero. All done in that Michelangelo style where the muscles and thighs are huge but the mars bar a piddling fun size. It was on a grand scale; broadcasting the pagan religion of sacrifice and the Christain one of state supremacy.

On the same theme of church and state, Santi told me that San Martin (proudly commemorated by the names of countless plazas, roads and towns), that great leader of a people, passed a law saying that anyone caught blaspheming the Holy Madonna should have a hole put through their tongue with a burning hot poker. This might in a round about way be connected with why Zidane got himself sent off in that final against France.

The fact that my mental faculties were being fired by thoughts not even remotely connected to work and the grim monotony of holding down a steady life, made me happy. The fact that I had at last got into the herbal story of a continent and that I had a stroll in the park and seen so much new culture made me happy. And all these facts made a perfect day.

I will sign off with a quote from Che. It´s not in keeping with my elevated mood but it does rail against political apathy in a way that obviously frightened a lot of people, not least of whom was the CIA.

It is a sad thing not to have friends, but it is even sadder not to have enemies.

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Thursday, 28 May 2009

Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires or City of Fair Wind is polluted from too many cars and the streets are covered in dog crap. Nevertheless it is a city of charm and culture. The colonial architecture makes the city look like Madrid.

We are staying in Lime Hostel on the corner of Avenida de Mayo and 9 de Julio Avenida, the main thoroughfare in the centre. It is a funky hostel with marble floors and a high ceiling with a skylight. Dorm rooms are 28 pesos. (At present 1 US dollar is 3.7 pesos). Not mega cheap, but a crap breakfast is included and use of the kitchen. Like all hostels around the world there is an abundance of young people and the obligatory perennially pissed Irish man. His name is Jimmy. To my puzzlement he always carries a red towel when he´s on the lash. (Which reminds me of the hitch hikers guide to the galaxy).

There are lots of street cafes and everywhere sells pizza, pasta, hamburgers, expresso and a genius food called empanada, which is a pastie filled with meat, cheese, onion and tomato. Every 50 metres there´s a street vendor selling newspapers, magazines and porn. One imagines there must be a huge demand for news and nudity. Also very numerous are MacDonalds. Although evil forerunners in the globalization conspiracy, they supply the only public toilets to be found anywhere in the city.

The locals are called Portenos. They are famous for being arrogant and loud. Apart from a bloke at the Museo de Belle Arts who told me roughly to get out of the way, this has not been my impression. What I have noticed is the sadly high percentage of posterio grande. This must be the result of the doughy fare on offer. The keen eye will spot a few chicolita magnifico.

The average porteno is pale skinned and casually, if not scruffily, dressed. As a result Buenos Aires is only the third city that I have visited outside of the UK where I have been mistaken for a local. This results in me being bombarded with a barrage of Spanish. Sometimes a smile and a slight nod of the head or a si produces favourable results, but mostly I have to reveal my gauche Anglo-Saxon inabilty to parley espanyol.

It is only my second night in the city and I have already discussed the relative merits of the Liverpool football squad with a bloke selling fags.

As far as fags close cousin beer goes, litre bottles of Stella Artois cost 5 pesos in the supermarkets. The local brew is called Quilmes. It is an average drink that is less toxic than Thai Chang beer and is a moderate 5% in strength.

Finally, Family Guy comes out the latin mangle as Family Gay.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Lariam and the Swine Flu

Two oddities I've experienced in my preparations today.

Firstly, Lariam or Mefloquine - the new wonder malaria pill that perhaps sends you mad or gives you a heart attack costs a whopping 1,500 yen or $15 a pill in Japan. Considering we need 50 of the little buggers, I've decided to try and buy malaria prophylactics once we get to Argentina. My god, no wonder Japanese people only go to Italy, Guam and Hawaii.

On the plus side, because of the N1H1 virus epidemic (which has jumped exponentially from 20 cases in Japan to 140 in one day) the doctor's surgery was empty. All the usual mothers with their kids and bored old people are forgoeing the pleasure of a visit to the local clinic. Marvellous. We only waited 5 minutes for the receptionist to tell us that the doctor would not see us or advise us or prescribe for us anything to do with malaria pills. What a dick! At the least the refusal was quick.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Mission Statement

Trippy Traveller Sets out the Plan

After slogging our way through 10 months of gruelling labour in Japan, me as an English teacher and my wife as a convenience store clerk, we have saved enough pennies to do South America. We have very little clue exactly about where we are going to go or what we are going to do. Obviously there's Machu Pichu and the Nazca lines in Peru; Patagonia and the Iguazu Falls in Argentina; the Amazon in Brazil; and coke in Bolivia. Other than these obvious must do's and see's we are hoping to be guided by the good advice of fellow travellers and my own whims. We have an open 6 month return back to the land of the rising sun. We have 6 grand US in traveller's cheques which makes the maths simple - that's a grand a month. To help make the money go further we've bought a cheap tent and sleeping bags plus a few cooking pots. We are also armed with the LP to help us locate those cheap deals out there. I'm ambivalent about the whole LP phenomenon but at least it provides a place to start research on a given place.

Neither of us has been to Latin America. For me it represents perhaps the final continent that I've been wanting to go to. I've ticked the boxes of Asia, Africa and Europe and now it's time to go for the Latin box.

Talking of boxes, we hope to get boxed and stoned and tripped as much as possible. On this front South America holds great promise.

Other draws include food and music and culture. Somewhere where people don't have the bowing fever; somewhere with good cheese and bread; somewhere where a steak doesn't cost an arm and a leg; somewhere far away from salary men sleeping on trains; somewhere away from school kids mesmerised by their mobile phones; and somewhere cheap with less rules and more chaos.

Naturally trepidation is mixed with excitement. I always fear for our safety but try to placate the anxiety with thorough preparation.

We leave on May 26th and arrive in Buenos Aries the following day.