Jelly Wrestling

I have just come back from eight weeks, mostly in Eastern in Europe, some of which I spent walking about 600K from Sopron in Hungary to Trieste in Italy.

I brought my iPhone with me and the idea was that I would blog stuff to my website as I wandered along. I think I did it once. So much for that idea! I suppose other things – drinking super cheap beer and dealing with blisters and blackened toe nails – got in the way.

I had a wonderful and memorable time and I kept thinking how boring my home in Australia is when compared with the sights and scenes throughout Eastern Europe.

I returned home last week and I went down to my local – boring – pub for a quick pint before dinner. In recent years, the place has been tarted up so that on one side is the “family-oriented bistro” and on the other side is the so-called “sports bar” joined to the TAB or betting shop where a few elderly men hang out, watching the races or footy on the large screen TV’s.

This night the car park was unusually full and I thought there might be a “skimpy” serving the drinks as they usually drum up custom. As I walked up the back steps to the sports bar, I overheard some guy on the phone excitedly explaining why he couldn’t leave just yet because of the “jelly wrestling”! What?

Inside, the place was packed with tradies, still in their work boots and hi-vis clothes of yellow and orange, talking animatedly and drinking up a storm – it was Friday night after all.

In the middle of the floor was an inflatable child’s paddling pool filled with blue, gelatinous, soft, squishy beads. In the pool itself were two bikini-clad girls grappling with each other, slipping and sliding around in the blue goo.

Whenever one girl managed to “throw” the other, the victor would mount the victim and cursorily simulate sex with a few thrusts of her glistening hips, to the uproar and applause of the watching men.

Well, I never saw that in the country towns and villages in Slovenia or Croatia for sure, I thought to myself. I just wish Australian beer was as good and as cheap as it was there!

Footloose & Fancy Free or Footsore & Weary

Started this European Peace Walk — this is me on the first day – on Tuesday July 04, from Sopron in Hungary and ending in Trieste in Italy, passing through Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, Slovenia and finally Italy. In Croatia now and about half way there but the blisters are mounting. So far, great food, interesting people and cheap beer. On the down side, I am sick of trudging through muddy, ploughed up corn and wheat fields and getting lost in dark forests where I am a main course for voracious insects and fair game for stinging nettles!

In Krapina, Croatia, letting the blisters heal. Seems like a fantastic little kip – loads of bars and cafes and there is even a museaum devoted to Neantherthal Man!

South America Summary

A rather amazing trip, from Cuba in the far north, down to Ecuador and on to Peru, where I ate guinea pig, alpaca and llama, missing out on Machu Pichu but taking a 22 hour bus ride from Lima up to Cusco in the heart of the Andes. Over then to Lake Titicaca and a boat trip out to the weird, artificial islands of floating reeds and over the border into Bolivia where the bus seemed to climb endlessly and I lay sprawled in my seat, munching coca leaves and gasping for breath as we topped 4800 metres. A gradual descent then, of only 200 metres towards La Paz, only to find the city blocaded by local indigenous people who had thrown up ramparts of earth and rubble blocking the main highway into the city. Eventually we had to stop and take on an Incan guide who showed the bus driver how to thread his way rough narrow, grimy back streets until we eventually arrived, me exhausted and still panting, in La Paz. The next day, the whole city ground to a standstill as angry miners paraded through the city centre, while heavily armed police with pump-action grenade launchers stood on every street corner, heavy steel chains in their hands ready to seal off any street disturbance. The next day it was the turn of the students and again the city centre was paralysed. Enough was enough for me, and, still breathless, I managed to get a bus out and south, although that took unneccesary hours as again we had to thread our way past endless blockades. Finally, a train, one of the noisiest and decrepit trains I have ever been on, down as far as the Argentinian border. What a relief – an ordered, organised city with working traffic lights, freeways and highway diamonds and gorgeous wine. Even better was the black market In foreign currency – the official rate for US dollars being about 9 pesos to the dollar. Unofficially, the rate was about 16 to the dollar, and quite openly so – touts hanging around outside banks and exchanges. Made quite a difference to the budget and was able to afford some very decent wine. On from Salta, on the border into serious wine country, thought the most magnificent canyon and arid countryside to the little town of Cafayate where I spent more than a week eating huge steaks and plundering their bodegas. Down to Tucuman and Córdoba (cities I had never heard of, where accomodation was hard to come by as it was the middle of an exceptionally long holiday weekend. On again to Mendoza , the real heart of Argentinean wine and more steaks, huge 500 g slabs of bleeding cow on a plate washed down with more than a bottle of red wine. Bliss. I seem to have adopted a paleolithic style diet where all I ate was meat – no veg or fruit, just meat and gulped wine.

I made enquirers about a bus over the Andes to Santiago in Chile, only to be informed  that all bus services over the Andes between Mendoza and Santiago had been suspended due to bad weather and snow. So more steak and red wine and eventually I managed to get a ticket for Saturday but no guarantee that the bus would run the 8 hour trip.

What a ride! Probably the most exciting and certainly most scenic bus trip I have ever taken.

Finally the end of the trip approaching in the form of Santiago, Chile and I could breath again, altitude a mere 480 metres only. A few days there, more steaks, and yes, more red wine but now that I have arrived in Valpariaso, it is gorgeous seared tuna fish with a salad of avocado, asparagus and tomato and white wine.

I must admit, with tales of the Gringo Trail in mind, I was expecting to be offered tons of coke and weed, but it was a surprisingly sober trip. I bought a gram of coke in Ecuador for $15 and approached it with trepidation, rolling up $100 bills in expectation. I thought it might be best to do it straight and then go for a beer and that is what I did. A tiny bit of speed, maybe, and nothing else.

Bought another gram somewhere else and marginally better – I was only doing this, of course to help with the breathing. Somewhere else, in one of the hostels, got chatting with one of the guys working there, I think he was a Brit, and he invited me to share an actual lump of coke which was – I think – much better but as I stayed up until 5:00 am, I’m not too sure. I then had to face a 14 hour bus trip so I was a subdued little man for a while.

General Observations

Cuba – very fat ladies squeezed in to tight Lycra pants; very generous measures of rum; great music in the bars, mildewed buildings.

Ecuador – organised and efficient, gorgeous ceviche, panic buttons in this taxis, dry Sundays!

Peru – no pepper in restaurants, crap coffee, grey Pacific, rum served with whipped egg white, coca leaves for chewing with a lump of stevia (to help with altitude), super clean wet markets, amazing displays of fruit, veg never seen before, enormous servings of meat, inca women with very long plaited hair, shawls and bowler hats perched on their heads

Bolivia – a shambles, road blocks condoning off La Paz from the outskirts, erected by local indigenous in protest at …, huge street protests in La Paz, seriously armed police with pump action tear gas shotguns, trouble breathing most of the time.

Argentine – easy border crossing with no paperwork at all, bus searched by troops at a military checkpoint, huge highways and flyovers, a modern country (compared to Cuba and Bolivia), a black market in U.S. Dollars.

Chile – Lovely wines – Colchuagua Valley (despite the fact that I never made that pilgrimage) being one of my favourites.

Lounged my time away in Valparaiso and small coastal towns like Viña del Mar, bravong myself for the long flight actoss the pacific to Sydney na d onwards to perth.

 

Cuba and Beyond – part 6

CHILE

I arrived in Santiago after I dragged my beef and wine sodden carcass on to a coach in Mendoza for the most amazing and hair raising bus ride over the Andes to Santiago in Chile. Definitely one of the highlights of this trip so far, with the coach following the original route of Los Liberadores. They first crossed over the Andes on their march to kick the Spanish out of Chile way back in January 1817, gallantly led by San Martin and his illegitimate half-Irish sidekick, Bernardo O’Higgins. The Paso Los Libertadores is now the main transport route connecting the city of Mendoza to the Chilean capital, Santiago via Aconcagua, aka ‘High Mountain’.IMG_0250

I didn’t really notice the bus climbing up into the Andes, it was all so gradual and easy, faraway snow capped mountains seemed like they were from another planet and then we were in the midst of them. IMG_0299

Upstairs in the very front of the bus with two spacious seats to myself (super executivo class), the views were absolutely breathtaking while we weaved and slithered through snow-capped mountains.IMG_0316

An easy crossover at Las Cuevas the border point between Argentine and Chile and then, from the Chilean side, the most, incredible series of at least 30 sheer hairpin bends where the bus was reduced to a 5kph crawl with snow and ice on both sides the road, one of which was a sheer drop to the bottom of the world, while the mountains towered over and all around us. Mind blowing and me panting away as usual.

A magnificent central Plaza des Armas in Santiago that my taxi from the bus station was unable to completely navigate, for reasons best known to its surly driver. Decided to celebrate my safe arrival in Chile by having a boozy seafood lunch in the central fish market in Santiago. I have almost got tired of my semi-Palaeolithic diet of red wine and huge, thick and juicy steaks with an occasional cup of coffee so have decided to move on to the fish. IMG_0382I started off with a Pisco Sour – no sign of the egg white here – and then a bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanco Leon de Tarapaca, to accompany this huge plate of albacore covered in a salsa Santa Margarita, which appears to be small prawns and rings of squid in a white sauce, bread and a spicy dip of toms and onions and god knows what else.

Disputed with the waiter as to whether the fish was albacore, aka Spanish Mackerel. It certainly wasn’t the usual, across the backbone, cut of albacore with the central spine bone. See how wrong you can be! The waiter graphically explained, much flashing of sharp knives and glinting teeth, that my cut was “un filetto“, vertically along the spine. Not sure I liked his grazing the back of my neck with his filet knife, so I agreed with his conclusion of “Bueno, bonito y barato.”  He then presented with a gratuitous, but vile looking, glass of green stuff, “una menthe,” as a digestivo.

Plaza des Armas – where I’m staying in this funky place right on the square -seems like a mad place. Last night as I wandered around it was packed with punters, hop off my thumbs, jugglers, tricksters and fly by nights – wonderful. Fountains, palm trees and mad fellas – a bit like Hyde Park corner.IMG_0360

Despite my sudden change of diet to fish and white wine, I decided to have a relaxing afternoon, sitting by the open window of my 4th floor hostel looking out over Plaza des Armas in the very centre of Santiago while enjoying a bottle of superb Viu Manent Cab Sauvignon from one of my favourite vineyards – Colchagua Valley and thinking about where to go for my last week of semi indulgence.

Sunday night was a bit quiet here, rather like Ecuador. I went out around 10 pm for aIMG_0359 quiet drink in the only place open in Plaza de Armas. I ordered a pint of beer for a change and was absorbed reading in a cafe with maybe four or five other tables scattered around. I rather rudely ignored some mad punter who came up to my table and started jabbering away at me. I didn’t even look up until suddenly he grabbed my pint and started swilling it down. (Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks – “you’re drinking my beer and I’m gonna punch your teeth out”). I rather surprised myself by erupting, like an angry belch, up on the hind legs and grabbing him by the shirtfront, one arm raised to punch his lights out while roaring, in English of course, “I’ll f@#king kill you, you c**t”. Startled by my violent reaction, he twisted away while other punters at the outdoor cafe applauded and the waitress bustled over apologising and whisking my (nearly finished) pint off for a fresh one. No harm done, I suppose and a free pint, so I can’t complain. A promenade around the square later on, a surprising number of punters wrapped up in rugs, sleeping on the long park benches, despite police patrolling fairly regularly.

Probably going to stay another night here before heading off – perhaps- to Valparaiso. I suppose I could end up anywhere in my last few days. A different ball game to all the places that I have been to so far. First impressions, a bit of a laugh here, I like it.

IMG_0487One hour forty five minutes by bus from Santiago and arrived in Valparaiso shortly after12 noon. The first guest house was looking for 36,000 pesos a night so I moved a bit down market, private room with bathroom across the hall for 15,000. I’ll stay two nights and then look for something else – maybe at Viña del Mar, just down the road. Lovely to be beside the ocean again, although I am looking down at it as my hostel is up quite a steep hill but with no altitude, no problem.

IMG_0432Drinking a 750 ml bottle of Altamirs Amber ale, lovely but a bit pricey at $15 Australian. Waiting for a “tun de mediterraneo” for lunch. “Que rico” (as they say here.) The place looks great, hundreds of hills and houses clustered around, all the colours of the rainbow. Pleasantly warm at the moment, t-shirt weather.

IMG_0447Valparaiso must be one of the most perpendicular cities I have ever been in. Hugging the coast, it clings to sheer hills that are accessed by elevators! Everywhere is a blaze of colour from the murals – think Banksy – on walls and hoarding and even the steps leading to my pensione. A stroll along the beach at Vina del Mar where the pelicans clusters at Castillo Wulff IMG_0466before returning to a tiny bar to watch the rugby between South Africa and New Zealand. Managed to swill down three pints in the company of a few South Africans.

Rather a nice dinner later that night but then at a bit of a loose end – choices – drink more here or somewhere else, go to bed (it’s only 10:15pm) wander around lost, find a cafe and drink coffee and read my book or back to the hostel to hang around until Lethe wards I sink

Leaving Valparaiso tomorrow for Santiago to catch my long haul flight back to Perth. I may very well have to go on the dry for a few days to recover my lissom figure. Goodbye South America probably for the very last time.

 

 

Balut

The Philippines

I do not know what it is about islands but I am always drawn to them. If there isn’t an island handy, I make do with a beach. The first time in the Philippines, I had spent my time lolling on White Sands beach on Mindoro, an island south of Manila. So, this time, after one day of wandering along Roxas Boulevard in urban Manila, admiring the sludge called Manila Bay, sidestepping hordes of ragged children clamoring for dollars, I decided to head to the far north of Luzon and the Bay of a Thousand Islands.

Easier said than done, sometimes in the Philippines. The buses are old and bone-jarring, crowded to bursting point with peasants and country folk who always seemed to be traveling inordinate distances with out-sized sacks and bags of produce, the occasional trussed chicken and the odd pig squealing mournfully at my cramped feet on the floor, as if it knew it was being taken to the nearest market to have its throat slit. Even more worrying, for me, at the time, was the way my carry bag was roughly tossed on top of the bus’s dented and battered roof rack, along with the baskets of mangoes and gunny sacks of … I couldn’t tell you what not. Say goodbye bag, I thought to myself, convinced that that would be the last I would see of it as labourers, passengers, scavengers, children and assorted hop-off-my-thumbs swarmed over the bus, adjusting bundles and tightening bales before we lurched off into the night with a sickening jolt and an explosive backfire.

Every bus journey I have ever taken in an Asian city always seems to go through the dreariest, seediest, roughest parts of town. This trip was no exception. Endless industrial zones with grimy workshops advertising “Re-Vulcanising” which could have meant anything, as far as I was concerned, litter strewn, desolate streets, groups of ragged men standing around smouldering braziers, tattered children playing in petrol streaked pot-holes but then, almost with a gasp, we were out of the city and trundling north towards Baguio.

Eventually, after what seemed hours, the bus rumbled into San Fernando La Union just as dawn broke on the Gulf of Lingayan. Numbed by sitting bolt upright for the last 8 hours or so, I was too exhausted to even be surprised that my bag – intact – was still on top of the bus.   Even more surprising was the charm of first place I came to which was a set of picturesque chalets nestled on the side of the bay.

“Balut, Balut” repeated cries later that afternoon woke me from the deep sleep I had fallen into almost immediately after my arrival. The sun was already beginning to sink over the Gulf, flooding the area with a peculiar rosy hue that only lower atmosphere pollution can achieve. Still stiff from the bus journey, I decided that the best thing to do would be to stroll along the beach and see what was what.

Hawkers and vendors were out in force selling fried bananas, crispy on the outside, succulent and gooey on the inside, fresh coconuts, the tops of which 5 year old children could whack off with what looked like WWII bayonets, sliced pineapples in plastic bags, and the ubiquitous mangoes which the hawkers would slice in half, rapidly criss-cross the flesh with a knife and then partially fold inside out so that the juicy flesh was pushed up and out in bite sized chunks. Smiling, dark-haired girls proffered skewers of cooked meat from small charcoal hibachis while lovers strolled hand-in-hand along the beach, enjoying the serenity of the sunset.

“Balut, balut, balut” the cry came again and a pretty girl in an embroidered peasant blouse and wraparound skirt, a woven basket over her arm, approached me. Nestled in the basket were a dozen eggs, slightly larger than chicken eggs, with a faint bluish tinge to them.

Annalisa was 23 years old and only sold the eggs for her grandmother, who lived down the coast in Vigan. During the day, she worked in a museum, commemorating the death of a “padre” executed by the Spanish in 1872. When I asked her why he had been executed, she smiled and admitted she didn’t know. “But you work in the museum,” I protested. A delicate shrug of rounded, tanned shoulders, a coquettish toss of the head, “Never mind-ah, lon’ time ago, you buy balut fro’ me. Balut bery goo’ for man, make you stron, bery goo fo’ you”.

Hard-boiled eggs always reminded me of childhood picnics in Dublin and I was hungry, come to that, and she was pretty, in an elfin way. Rummaging carefully under the clustered eggs in the basket, Annalisa produced a twist of newspaper containing a sprinkling of coarse sea salt and proffered it to me with an encouraging gesture.

Slightly stung by her assertion that I should need a few eggs to make me strong – after all, hadn’t I just completed the bus journey from hell, I reminded myself – I handed over a few pesos and walked along the shore with her at my side, attempting to juggle the eggs to impress her with my manliness.

“You eat now-ah, goo’ for you, make you stron.’” she insisted.

Throwing an egg high up in the air so that in spun in the diffused light of the setting sun, I caught it left handed and gave it a sharp crack on my forehead to break the shell, preparatory to peeling it away. Instead, a thin viscous liquid trickled down through my hair and slid down the side of my face. A scrawny gosling, all paper thin bones, pointy beak and bedraggled feathers gaped up at me from the shell!

Annalisa looked at me in utter amazement before doubling over with laughter as I stood there, aghast, eggs in each hand and the remains of a semi-boiled, fertilized duck egg smeared over my hair and face.

Luckily, the night was rapidly darkening and no one else was there to see me with egg all over my face. Annalisa was quick to proffer tissues, fearful of losing a potential customer, but unable to hide the giggles from breaking out again, as I made rather hasty and flimsy excuses and fled back to chalet to wash the gunk out of my hair and to wipe it from my mind with liberal doses of the local dark Mabuhay rum and calamansi limes.

 

 

Cuba and Beyond – Part 5

Argentine

Panting for breath in the high altitude of La Paz in Bolivia, which seemed to verge on the chaotic with strikes, blockades, enormous protests and heavily armed troops and police everywhere, I made a break for it and descended a few thousand metres to Salta in northern Argentine which was pleasant and warm, even when I arrived at night after a fairly lengthy bus, train, and three more buses, the last of which was stopped by a military style roadblock just outside Jujuy. Everybody was ordered off the bus and while the locals were all searched and questioned, I was totally ignored, thank God.

img_0803Salta, the first major city over the border from Bolivia, looks and feels pleasant and actually warm at night compared to semi freezing temperatures in the mountains further north so I had a refreshing ale (40 pesos) before I even bothered to look for a hotel!

A few days to rest up and enjoy the amenities – my hotel bathroom actually had a bidet and excellent free Internet connections. Despite Google Maps claiming the existence of an Irish pub, there was no sign of it – the location img_0119now an expensive jewellery shop which had been there for at least ten years. Never mind, plenty of other bars to enjoy a beer and a few empanadas around the Ninth of July plaza before gaping at the mummified bodies of three Inca children sacrificed centuries ago.

 

 

Four hours further south then and 190k through the most amazing canyons and rock formations to the small town called Cafayate, the second premier wine area of Argentine, after Mendoza.An incredible road winding through the most bizarre colourful mountains and canyons img_0152similar to what I imagine the Painted Desert in Nevada would be like. Cafayate is probably the smallest town I’ve been in so far. Brilliant little wineries scattered around, almost at sea level, well, just over 1500 metres, warm and sunny. I got off the bus, found a hotel, had a litre bottle of excellent cold beer and a deep bowl of soup with beans, meat, and God knows what else here thrown in. I will probably stay here two or three days and explore local wineries – specialising, img_0824apparently in an Argentinean white which is Argentine’s only native variety of grape, Torrontes, and I’ve Just booked myself in for a fantastic tastings of five of the same white grape specific to this region!

Dinner every night is a huge steak and a bottle of Malbec now. In heaven, food and wine wise. I am quite content to let Peru keep its speciality dish of guinea pig, as far as I’m concerned.

Cafayate is a fantastic little town, best place so far on the whole trip. Baking hot in the day, cool at night, loaded with fantastic bodegas of which I am taking full advantage. img_0177Every night seems to be a festival here – usually religious with processions adoring the rosary and the Virgin Mary, all of which was accompanied by noisy bands, people dancing in the streets and a never ending flow of wine. Great fun.

Much as I am enjoying Cafayate – another very pleasant lunch with two classes of wine, a Malbec flavoured ice cream and a bottle of Torrontes to enjoy in the afternoon in the garden of my hotel – I am aware that this is kind of a dead end. To continue on to Córdoba or Mendoza, I would have to go back to Salta – which I don’t want to do – or take another bus from here to Tucuman, which I have never heard of and (unreasonably) don’t like the sound of – and from there on to either Mendoza or Córdoba.

An 8 to 10 hour very comfortable bus trip (think business class on an airline) south to Tucaman – where Argentinian independence was declared from Spain but a bit disappointing. I arrived at sunset but every hotel seemed to be full. Eventually found a dump, well over priced but no choice so I checked in late and left the next morning at 5:30 for Córdoba, Argentine’s second largest city.   Meant to be a hotbed of bars and nightlife – got in around 3:30 in the arvo and COULD not find a place to stay – must have tried at least 12 hotels and hostels and by 7:30 still hadn’t found a place to stay – beginning to get desperate, cold, drizzly, beginning to get dark when I eventually found a very rough place – Hostel Pomelo – a right dump. Probably among the worst places I have stayed in over the last 40 years. Absolutely desperate, but what choice did I have – there or a night sleeping upright in a cold bus terminal. Even then when I arrived, the host said he was full and timg_0826ried to give my money back, which his ratty partner has just accepted. At this point it was about 8:00 pm and cold as buggery so I played dumb and just sat down on a ragged sofa and began to doze off. Eventually I was herded into a dorm with 6 rickety bunks and torn, stained mattresses – fresh sheets, the host proudly claimed. However, no choice so I dumped my bag, took the important stuff and headed out to the best restaurant I could find and had a magnificent steak, gorgeous malbec and then, in lieu of a brandy, ½ a bottle of champagne. Back to the hostel and across the street into one of the roughest bars that would outshine the toughest outback bars in Oz by a long shot where I sampled the local favourite, Fernet and coke and became involved in a semi scuffle over the price of a single cigarette while unfriendly girls snorted Coke in the grubby, (unisex, I think) toilet. Back to the hostel where everyone seemed to be smoking dope, and into the bunk bed and slept like a log.

Next day, Sunday, the city seemed deserted and I really had to change money. – none of my cards worked in the atm and street touts didn’t want to change euros, only US dollars. Beginning to get pissed off, especially as Ireland was playing France in rugby and I was unable to find a bar open in the afternoon. So off to the bus station once again, a grey and fairly miserable day, and bought a ticket on an overnight bus (180 degree reclining seats) and eventually found a bar and watched Ireland thrash France before leaving that evening from Córdoba.

Mendoza, the premium wine district of Argentine, should knock Cafayate into the shade with its wineries and wines. Arrived in a freezing cold dawn and drew up a short list of five hotels before taking a taxi to the first one – “completo” – and that was the story with all of them that I trekked around, getting increasingly pissed off. Some hotels said come back at 11 0’clock, others said come back at 12:30!

Eventually I found a rather smart (for me, that is) Hotel International on the corner of Calle Peru that let me in by 8 o clock for 800 pesos a night. Gorgeous soft, fluffy pillows, crisp sheets and duvets, boiling hot water – what a contrast to Hostel Pomelo!img_0222

Argentine could be expensive as there are less than ten peso to the US dollar. However, at one of the crossroads on the pedestrian areas of Calle Sacrimento which cuts through the huge Plaza Independencia, past the pink water fountain, near a few newspaper kiosks, seedy looking punters hang around whispering “cambio” as you stroll past. On this so-called “mercado azul” you can easily change one dollar for about 16 pesos which makes thing seem more reasonable.

Nevertheless, I moved to Hotel Zamora on Calle Peru, a nice outdoor tiled courtyard but the room was small and dark and the shower crappy.  Next-door in the Melbourne Coffee Company, I was offered a job as a barista so that the incumbent could focus on wine tasting. No time for that nonsense, of course as I planned to move to Hotel Petit, a bigger, brighter room, just past Plaza Chile.

img_0227Loads of cafes line the beautiful tree-shaded streets with deep, cobblestone-lined irrigation ditches on either side. Presumably it gets hot in the summer and the trees provide a welcome shade. I don’t have gps and I never bother with maps, depending on my unerring sense of direction to guide me to the wrong side of the tracks as usual but with the huge Plaza Independencia – the art gallery is underground and the usual gaggle of street entertainers, dressed in motley and on stilts do the most amazing dances and contortions – and the other four main plazas on each corner, all with huge statutes of local heroes, even I found it easy to get around on foot.

Cold but not freezing with occasional splashes of sunshine filtering down through the trees onto a street cafe where I drink a large bottle of Andes beer and scribble in my notebook or just gape at my surrounding before returning to the hotel in the early evening. Just as well because no one in Mendoza would dream of going out to eat or to the bars until well after 10:30 pm. So, a snooze in the late afternoon and then fresh as a new coat of paint, I blunder out for a steak dinner later that night.

In Mendoza, the wine capital of Argentine, heavy-duty, meaty wine flows freely, cheaper than a bottle of beer. Excellent wine for less than 100 pesos so I indulged myself freely and enjoyed the last of the sunshine, wandering aimlessly around the city and the parks stopping here and there for coffee and ice cream!

img_0847The main attractions seem to be snow boarding, expensive wine tours, white water rafting and that sort of thing, so I focus on what I do best!

The steaks here are magnificent, better than the steak in Lardos in Hong Kong where I used to live, or the steaks in El Gaucho, an Argentinian restaurant, in Saigon. Here, in Mendoza, the best steaks have been in El Florencita on the corner of Peru and Sacriemento – an enormous slab of bloody beef, cooked over charcoal.img_0234

Despite gorgeous sunshine yesterday in Mendoza, which seemed to exacerbate the effect of a lovely bottle of Trapiche Malbec I was enjoying with my lunch of half a cow on a plate, there were hail stones as I was making my way to the bus station to buy a ticket to Santiago in Chile, a mere 149k as the crow flies. However, the road over the mountains winds back and forwards for more than 350k and the road is so steep in parts that the bus has to slow down to 10 or 15 kph. So the journey, in good weather, might take more than 8 hours.

Amazing, but not as amazing as when I arrived at the bus station and discovered all the buses were “completo” for the following day and it was only after I had tried half a dozen different bus companies that it was finally explained to me that all bus trips between the two countries have been suspended since last Sunday due to the mountain passes being blocked by bad weather – one company said because of “nieve”. Incredible! No one knows when the route over the Andes will reopen.

I still have plenty of time before I fly out of Santiago but I don’t know if my liver will last that long under the unremitting onslaughts of free flowing Malbec! Thank god for the “mercado azul” which makes a big difference to a budget traveller like img_0849myself. I’m looking forward to the coach trip over the Andes into Chile, the seats as good as airline business class and the views should be spectacular.

After a delay of several days I finally managed to get a bus over “La Routa de las Liberatores.” and had one cigarette, a small bottle of beer, 380g steak, 500ml bottle of plonk, an espresso, a brandy and a large ice cream in preparation for this second assault on the Andes, to Santiago, from where I eventually fly back to Perth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cuba and beyond – Part 4

Bolivia

Named after Simon Bolivar from Venezuela who, in 1804, declared that he would fight to the death to break the chains binding South America to Spain, leading to the Declaration of Independence for Venezuela in 1811 followed by most of the other Spanish colonies after the invasion of Spain by Napoleon. As far as I know, Bolivia is the only country in the world to be named after its liberator!

img_0082The journey on the bus from Cusco to Puno on Lake Titicaca on the border between Peru and Bolivia, crossing over 4000 metres, left me gasping with the effort of breathing at this altitude. However, Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America on the border of Peru and Bolivia and the “highest navigable lake” in the world at about 3,812 metres, gave me the illusion of sea level and my ragged breathing was enough for me to take a day-trip to the fantastic, floating islands on the lake. img_0087Small manmade islands have been constructed by the Uros (or Uru) people for generations from layer upon layer of cut totora, a thick buoyant reed that grows everywhere along the shores of the lake. Many of the golden coloured islands are more or less half the size of a football field, containing several thatched houses, with about 25 people living on the island I visited.

La Paz, in Bolivia, the highest capital city in the world, is at about 3,600 metres above sea level. The air felt very thin so a simple task like tying my shoelaces left me breathless and panting for oxygen.

On the surface, Bolivia seems to be the most under developed of all the countries I have been in so far on this trip, with the exception of Cuba. For starters, the bus trip from Puno, on the border, to La Paz should only have been 7 or 8 hours. Instead it ended up being nearly 12. By no strimg_0094etch of the imagination could the bus from Puno cater to the “super executivo” class and it was a jerky ride to the border post. No problems there, off the bus and into Peru Immigration to get an exit stamp, walk 100 metres and enter Bolivia and get an entry stamp.
Then, across the lake on a small, cramped and crowded motor boat while the bus laboured across the lake on a barge powered by a tiny outboard engine, back on the bus again and onto a nondescript border town inside Bolivia where a change to a inferior bus was delayed by hours and then finally off to La Paz, img_0117through barren, desert country until the outskirts of the capital city approached.

Protesting, indigenous people however, had blocked off the city, with rough barricades barring all the main roads to the centre. The bus was forced to stop and take on a native guide who then directed the bus up, down and round about through a maze of unpaved, rutted, dirt roads only suitable for a 4X drive and somehow the bus lurched and twisted and limped past the rough blockades of piled heaps of dirt and stone blocks until eventually beginning the descent into the valley where the heart of the city lay.

Pretty amazing but by this time I was having serious problems catching my breath and I just took a taxi to a hotel in the centre and crashed out on the bed.

img_3363Massive demonstrations began in the city the next day with thousands of protesting miners parading through the streets. Every corner was covered with heavily armed police, img_3383toting pump action shotguns, teargas and heavy duty riot gear while the protesters poured into the city, firing off bangers from what looked like bamboo tubes, blocking off all exits. img_3378 Toyland soldiers stood guard outside principal buildings, in rather sharp contrast to the heavily armed police on every street in the centre of the city.

Had enough of gasping for breath in the altitudes of Peru and La Paz and I decided to leave to anywhere south and at a lower altitude. I just needed to get down to sea level again where I could breathe properly and I decided to leave as soon as the city barricades were removed. I must admit I was not prepared for the high altitude, as anywhere from 3600 metres plus didn’t do a lot for me despite me chewing my way through wads of coca leaves with my breath rasping in the lungs. Consequently, many of the activities on offer – mountain climbing (!), trekking, white water rafting, zip lining, death route cycling downhill and so on – were all out of bounds for me so I pretty much confined myself to armchair drinking and sampling the local cuisine – roast guinea pig (not much to gnaw on, as I mentioned) and roast alpaca – delicious and almost a cross between lamb and beef but slightly gamier.Bolivia was also notable for appearing to have the greatest number of indigenous people. img_3390img_3362Monstrously broad-hipped women in voluminous coloured skirts, heavy shawls which doubled as blankets and makeshift backpacks, their heads topped with incongrous bowler hats while all the men seemed smaller and dressed in standard jeans and t-shirts with baseball caps.  Amazing!img_3357

Sights are extraordinary but hard to do justice to with my camera as I took a bus meandering through the blockades 5 hours south to the small town of Oruro where I connected with one of South America’s rare trains running down to Villazon on the border with Argentine. I love train journeys – possibly my favourite mode of long distance transport and I was amazed that train travel is relatively rare in this part of the world. That was until I caught the noisiest, slowest and bumpiest train I have ever been on for about 15 hours down to Villazon on the border with Argentine. No sleepers, a minimalist buffet car and only 140-degree reclining seats here!

An easy border crossing, no paperwork or forms involved whatsoever, merely answering a desultory question or two and walk over into Argentine and another world. While Cuba was behind the times, Ecuador organised and capable, Peru suave and cosmopolitan, Bolivia half arsed, Argentine immediately struck me as being modern with its highway diamonds, flyovers, sky scrapers, functioning traffic lights, traffic cops with white gloves – and all this in only a small cross border town and then on to Salta, on the edge of the Andes and the breathing is almost back to normal.