Tuesday, 26 January 2010

A Day out cycling in the Quebrada de Cafayate

We rented out mountain bikes for 35 pesos per bike from the the Rusty-k Hostel where we were staying. The man preparing the bikes gave us a quick lecture as he handed us a puncture repair kit and pump each. The gist of the talk was that we should only ride on the road and push the bikes on the gravel. We cycled off to the bus stop with a Swiss woman, Sonia, who intended to do the excursion with us. At 9.30 am we had put the bikes into the luggage hold of the El Indio bus and paid the 17 pesos each for the bus fare. Luckily the Swiss woman spoke good Spanish so she explained to the driver where we wanted to be dropped off.

The bus travelled up winding mountain roads for an hour before we finally disembarked. We unloaded the bikes and re-attached the front wheels. Then we locked them up and went to see the first sight on the tour, the famous Garganta del Diablo (the throat of the devil). It was an impressive gorge in the mountain side that started as a narrow gap and then opened up to a circular amphitheatre. The mountain face was various stripes of pink.

At the entrance to the natural rock phenomenon there were various hippy looking young people selling trinkets and snacks.

We spent 40 minutes clambering around the devil’s throat before pushing the bikes back to the road and heading off back to Cafayate. Before we started off we stopped to chat to another tourist who was struggling to replace the inner tube on his front tire. He had obviously not heeded the advice given to him when he hired the bike, or perhaps, he had not been fortunate enough to get the pre-departure lecture.

Ten minutes down the road we came to the next natural attraction called el Aphitheatro. It was similar to the previous place but opened up into a bigger amphitheatre with a sand floor. A hippy played guitar and sang. Her voice echoed eerily off the walls. By this point I wanted to buy a cold drink to quench my thirst. We had some water but I really fancied a cold coke to hit the spot. Bizarrely enough we could buy all manner of hand -made jewellery but not a drink.

We had 50 kms back to town so we didn’t linger too long at the amphitheatre. The road was all up and down and twisting. The wind blew viciously into our faces making the going slow.

Just past the rock that looked like a frog (el Sapho) we happed upon the young German who had been changing his inner tube. He was one lucky bugger. A van had stopped and the owner was helping him load his bike into the back. His wheel had never been right again and he had decided to hitch back into town. He told me all of this quickly as he squeezed in the van with his naff mountain bike and sped off. I was quite envious because the riding was hard going and our water was running low.

Not to be unduly disheartened, the three of us continued to ride the mountain road. Sonia was loving it. She brought up the rear of our little posse. She wanted to see everything. She had a guide book with her and notes from a local about all the sights along the way. At one point we left the bikes to trek through some scrub to a river. On the other side of the river was a rock decorated with lots of white pebbles. The scenery was stunning – vast and unforgiving under a bright blue sky, with no signs of human habitation for miles. The mountains were multi hued and oddly shaped by the fierce blasts of the wind. It was easy to imagine I was tripping because I could make out all kinds of figures in the lumpy mountain sides.

About half way into the ride we came across a shack selling pottery. I went to inquire about cold drinks. No they only sold vases and cups. Oh my kingdom for a coke. Sonia wanted to go off on a trek at this point to view another odd rock formation she had been told about. Bugger that I thought, I want a drink and I want to be back in the hostel. So we parted company: Sonia plodded off up a mountain path, and my wife and I got back on the bikes.

From there on the fun bike ride stopped being fun. It just goes to show it is all to do with your state of mind, and your supply of fluids. By the side of the road were signs every 5kms telling us how far we had left to Cafayate. At every marker I stopped and waited for my wife to catch up. Each time we had a fag and a sip of water and headed off again. I no longer took much notice of the scenery. My biggest thrill at this point was reaching another marker.

The final few kilometers of the road were flat. On our left were vineyards. We passed the occasional local on his horse.

As soon as we reached the 0km marker and the edge of town we spied a kiosk. With joy in my heart I finally got to buy the coke I was fantasizing about. My wife had a mineral water.

At 4pm we rolled into the hostel and gave back the bikes. I headed straight for the kitchen where I had put a bottle of black beer in the fridge. To my chagrin it was gone. That was the down side of hostel kitchens with communal fridges. I cussed bitterly and decided to seek my own justice. I grabbed 8 empty bottles from under the sink and marched wearily to the corner shop where I managed to exchange the empties for 2 full bottles. I was soon back in the courtyard quaffing on my cold beer when I ran into an Argentine hippy I had previously befriended. He owned up to stealing my beer. I had doubled my beer stash for no extra money so I didn’t vent my wrath on him. He was a nice lad with a beautiful girlfriend. Instead we chatted in the late afternoon sun.

That evening he scored a lump of grass and got us stoned so he more than made up for his transgression. As we smoked up in his room and laughed about this and that I looked back on the day and decided it wasn’t so bad after all.

The next morning I had not only the devils throat but the devils head to deal with, not to mention aching muscles.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

A Perfect Man in Medillin

Chuck Aranal the semi professional body boarder was a definite type. The type who you just know will never get into trouble, indestructible. A man who could stroll through a battle field with bullets flying left, right and centre, mines under foot exploding, bombs falling from the sky and he would emerge from the conflict unscathed and a hero. And naturally such a gift was given to an irritatingly shallow man who could do nothing except boast. We met Chuck in Pablo Escobar`s hometown in Columbia, Medellin. He was a tall golden boy with dark curly auburn hair and square-jawed good looks from Newcastle in Australia. He was travelling with a spotty mop haired sidekick surfer dude who also hailed from Newcastle. Chuck was a non-stop talker and his sole topic was of course himself. At any pause in the conversation he would look to take centre stage, which funnily enough as he got more stoned, he found harder to do. It was our first night in the city. We were staying in the Casa Kiwi Hostel. I had scored my usual box of cheap red wine and was sitting around the communal table in the back garden guzzling plonk and smoking tabs trying to get a bit of distance. My dear wife was hustling in the kitchen to concoct a nourishing slop for our evening meal. I had just met Danny from Huddersfield and we were enjoying a good natter about footie and drugs, as you do. Chuck and his mate sat down at the table and started making friendly noises so I found him a glass and poured him a helping of box wine. This started his first big ‘me’ conversation about how he used to work in a ‘bottle shop’ and how it was his job to pick the wines. He bizarrely enough liked my cheap plonk and began a tedious monologue about his ‘bottle shop’ days. It was hard to tell what his job description actually was. Perhaps he was a manager or perhaps he was a box shifter, but boy could he rabbit on. I could see total boredom enveloping Danny like a cloud. Luckily, the conversation moved on. It turned out that Chuck was waiting on a guy who worked in the hostel to score some weed for him. Chuck`s mate bought up the possibility that the local in question looked pretty rough and beaten up and he might be conning them. Chuck thought otherwise – of course the bloke would come through, after all this was Chuck Aranal we were talking about. Danny was visible heartened by the escape from the ‘bottle shop’ reminisces and just to make sure that subject was truly dead and buried he started upon the pertinent topic of drugs. This sent Chuck into overdrive. Man had they snorted a lot of coke in Columbia. Death defying amounts. One evening they picked up an ‘8 ball’ (I forget how many grammes that is). Not only did they do it in one night, but they tried to do it in one line each! Chuck gleefully described how his silent spotty partner in crime had only got through half his mega line when snotty white stuff started oozing from his nostril. That led on to the astonishing claim that in the six weeks that they had been travelling from Mexico to Columbia they had only had six days when they didn`t ‘party’. I made a quick calculation that`s one day a week or 2 days a month of sobriety. And then just on cue the dodgy geezer appeared and gave Chuck the nod and they both vanished to make a deal. It was good timing for my wife had also finished cooking so we sat down to our pasta slop with bread and wine.

After dinner Chuck reappeared with the smug grin of a man in possession of gear. He showed me a bag with about an eighth in and told me how wickedly strong it was and how reasonably priced it was. His only problem was that he didn`t have any papers to roll with. Me being me had a ready supply for just such a contingency; so off I went to rummage in my pack. We reconvened on the decking at the front of the hostel with my wife and Danny in tow. As Chuck clumsily got a number together he told us of some of his plans. They were heading south. They were keen to find surf. First up were the breaks in Peru, then Chile, Argentina and finally Brazil. Astonishingly enough Chuck thought they might have to miss out Machu Picchu for lack of time. This struck me as being profoundly bigoted and not a tad Australian. And then Chuck said the oddest thing. They planned to fly to Las Vegas for two weeks and then fly back to Brazil to continue their surf tour

Danny: Las Vegas?

Chuck: Yeah my dad`s paying for me and my mate to meet him in Las Vegas.
Danny: Why?

Chuck: Because I`m going away for two years and he won`t get to see me.

Danny: Where you going, mate?

It was obvious to me and my wife that Danny was taking the piss. However, the moment passed as the much anticipated joint was finally ready, a badly made one skin. It only made it around the circle once but my couple of tokes hit the spot. Chuck apologized for this sign of imperfection and then made the incredible assertion that everybody in Australia only smoked weed from a bong.

Chuck to me: You ever heard of the DariƩn pipe in Mexico?
Me: No. Oil pipe?
Chuck: Surf pipe, dude. You could fit a bus in that pipe.
Me: Whoa.
Chuck: Some of the waves were the size of the one, no two, no third story of this building.
Danny: No way.

Chuck: No kidding. We were in a hotel 500 metres away from the beach and even from that distance the waves looked huge. There`s a picture I took with my camera. I can go and get my camera and show you.

Danny: That`s alright.
Chuck: There`s a dude in the picture and he`s tiny in comparison to the wave. I thought it politic to move the conversation on; after all we wanted Chuck to make another of his shoddy single skin efforts.
Me: And after you get back from Las Vegas to Brazil and do some surfing, you`re going back to Oz, right?
Chuck: No we`re going to Sweden for a year. We`ve got Swedish working holiday visas.

Side tick: Swedish work visas are cheaper than UK ones.

Chuck: And Sweden is full of hot chicks; there`s snowboarding and my mate got some kind of council job in Sweden and he makes loads of coin.

Me: What`s he do?

Before Chuck could answer Danny butted in with the obvious.

Danny: He`s a councilor.
Chuck smiled and didn`t take offence. Instead he set to work on joint number two. And while he clumsily worked on that he continued to expand on their plans.

Chuck: And after Sweden we go to Canada.

Danny: How long do you think all that will take?
Chuck: About two years.

Chuck: I figure if you`re gonna take time out when you`re 21 you might as well do it in style.

At that point Chuck complained about joints and started off on an eulogy about bongs and his perfect set up in his garage (presumably his parent`s garage) with sofas and the world`s biggest and most perfect water pipe. As the lumpy joint made the round we giggled at the thought of a bong the size of a Japanese car. The Colombian gear was impressive, stronger than the standard Paraguayan fare we had been used to smoking throughout South America. We chatted about this and this spurred Chuck on to make the announcement he was heading out to buy a bong. I checked my watch. It was eleven o`clock. I told him that seemed unlikely at this time and besides how wise was it to walk the streets of a Colombian city late at night.?Chuck manfully pushed aside these reservations and told us that he had spotted a man selling bongs on the street in a nearby square and besides he could do with a Big Mac. His spotty wingman also fancied a burger. And so stubbing out the joint the two Australian heroes departed to score a bong. Danny and I thought their mission absurd but I conceded that it was most evident to me that Chuck was indestructible and he might well prove us wrong and re-appear with his much vaunted bong. Indeed we both wanted him to return and continue to share his stash.

It was over an hour before Chuck and his mate returned. They hadn`t managed to buy a bong. Instead they had got a taxi to a McDonalds to indulge in globalised burger sins. He promised to join us in a bit but first he wanted to hang with some other travelers and let them bask in the glow of his perfection. So Danny and I got a beer from reception and shot the breeze. It was a beautiful warm night without mosquitoes. Chuck emerged from the dorm thirty minutes later with three big blunts. He sparked up the first and hit over-drive.

Chuck: I am a semi-professional body boarder. I`ve made money in body boarding competitions and been sponsored and shit. This one time in Mexico I entered a body board competition. Cost me a few bucks. And guess what?

Me: What?
Chuck: I won it! I busted out some great moves and won it.
Danny: What was the prize?

Chuck: It was a new shinny scooter all chrome. It was cool. I drove it around Mexico for a week then sold it for a thousand bucks.

The joint was really pokey and I was fading in and out of reality as Chuck was giving us the good news. My wife had had enough and went to bed. I stayed for the next one. By this point Chuck was slowing down and Danny and I were struggling to form sentences. Stoned silence is not a bad thing to my way of thinking, but to Chuck it was producing existential discomfort. He wanted a captive audience. He squirmed on his seat as he tried to prolong the stories of his exploits. It was too much for me. I went to bed and stared into the dark listening to the multiple conversations going on in my head before blissfully passing out.

The next morning Chuck sold me the remains of his gear before heading out in search of waves. My wife and I had an awesome day in the city. We went to the botanical gardens and the Fernando Botero museum; cultural stuff of no interest to Chuck. Thinking back to the previous night I realized how convoluted Chuck`s proposed journey was: Brazil, Las Vegas, Sweden and Canada and yet no Asia or Africa. His exposition was full of half baked assumptions about hot chicks and loads of money and his idiom was so full of ‘dudes’ and surf jargon that it left me pondering how does Chuck manage to be so perfect and untouchable and yet so superficial and self-centred? It struck me that shallowness can be perfected and can produce something wonderful that deserves some type of admiration. As Oscar Wilde wrote, “Ignorance is like a delicate fruit; touch it, and the bloom is gone.”