Cuba and Beyond – part 6


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.




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


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


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.


Cuba and beyond – Part 3


Arrived in Peru on a very comfortable overnight bus from Cuenca that took me down to Tumbes, Ecuador’s border post with Peru. Before I go any further, I have to clarify here what I mean by a bus. I have travelled on Greyhounds across the US back in the 70’s and on long distance buses through Western Australia since then but I have never come across such luxurious bus travel as I have done so far in South America. First off, most of the buses – excuse me, coaches – are modern, sleek, two storey jobs with plush, airline style seats. Unlike most airline seats however, all of the seats here recline from a minimum of comfortably back to completely back, i.e., 180 degrees or “Executivo” class, each seat fully contained and separate with its personal TV screen while the on-board loo would not be out of place on Airforce One. I digress.

Minor delays to exit Ecuador and enter Peru – a bit like going from Saigon to Cambodia, – and then back on the bus until a beach resort called Mancora before dawn. I could have gotten a room right away but the night porter obligingly suggested that I wait until 6:00 AM as, that way, I wouldn’t have to pay for the previous night! I waited outside the gated resort at a small kiosk drinking beer and waiting for daybreak with the local desperadoes and long term ex-pat exiles, Patrick and Giorgio. The latter, a wrinkled veteran, hinted the upscale resort was pretending to be a backpacker place before offering me tours to watch whales or deep-sea fishing, treks to hot springs and mud baths.
I’ve always enjoyed beach holidays – in fact up until my late teens or early twenties, they were the only type of holiday I had ever had – and this was the Pacific, rolling in along an endless flat coastline as far as the eye could see in either direction, while Stuka winged img_0698birds swooped in img_0711
a stormy sky but the season here was coming to an end and there was never any pepper in the restaurants, the coffee was crap and long Pacific waves rolled in constant curls and I ended up being the only person staying on an isolated beach strip.

On down the west coast from Piura, a small northern town on a “Super-executivo” to Lima. It was like flying business class.  My seat was called a suite and reclined all the way back to a flat bed.  Two meals and drinks were served by a pretty little hostess, just like on a plane, and the loo was twice the size found there as well. img_3294The approach to the capital was along sand-blasted looking cliffs while a sullen slate-grey Pacific rolled relentlessly against the shore where an immense grey city, perpetually wrapped in a silver sea mist or fog, sprawled.

img_0726It is always such a fantastic thing to go somewhere and then indulge with the national dishes and one of Peru’s national dishes is roasted guinea pig – I bet it tastes like chicken! Of course the other national essentials are ceviche and pisco sours – rum, lime, sugar and egg white whipped up in a blender.

Down on the Malecon I felt dwarfed by the magnitude of the leaden expanse of the Pacific stretching endlessly away, awed by an ocean too vast for me to get a handle on.

Another super executivo inland then, along with a few cocoa leaves to chew, to Cusco, an old Inca Indian capital, somewhere around 3400 metres. High iimg_3319n the mountains in Peru, the old Inca capital, at about 3600 metres above sea level means difficulty breathing – but not for the Incas who built the city more than 500 years ago. The Spanish came then and raped the city, stole the gold and used the blocks of img_0759stone from the Inca temples to build their own churches and buildings. An amazing, solid city high in the mountains – a Siam Reap or an Ayutthaya alive with their original inhabitants, along with the tourists. Churches and squares everywhere instead of temples and pagodas – atmospheric and bewildering, warm during the day and then freezing at night. Timg_0752he steep climb between my hostel and Paddy’s Bar, the highest 100% Irish owned bar in S. America at 11156 feet, was an exhausting and panting effort! Machu Pichu become unattractive to me at an even higher altitude and I headed to the lower altitude city of Arequipa, surrounded by snow capped mountains and guarded by three active volcanoes – the last eruption only a dozen years or so ago.

To compensate for missing out one of the wonders of the world, I had my first roast guinea pig for dinner. I thought it would just be like chicken but it was more like rabbit or quail. Not a lot of eating on a guinea pig I have to say and I was glad I hadn’t ordered the fillet but instead had the whole beast, head, tail, claws, the works.

Before I had left Lima, a friendly bar-tender had given me a handfulimg_0788 of cocoa leaves, for the altitude she had insisted and I decided to go to Cusco’s local wet market where I was sure to find more. For a few cents a withered crone stuffed a bag the size of a pillow case with the bitter leaves and then threw in a few sticks of some grey resin, stevia it turned out, to offset the bitterness of the leaves when chewed. There was the most incredible variety and abundance in the market, fresh squeezed juices, fruits and vegetables, most of them totally unknown to me, piled high in gleaming mounds. Potatoes ranged in sizimg_3311e from peanuts to cabbage size and in colour from black to purple and yellow while the market itself was spotless, bright and airy. Corn was everywhere and in every size too from tiny kernels to knobs as big as my little finger joint.

Squat Inca women, all wrapped in heavy, embroidered shawls, colourful duster-like arrangements on their heads, sat in the main square, their legs straight in front of them, doing traditional weaving or selling local handicrafts.img_3328 Smiling girls in elaborate costumes decorated with silver coins and outlandish headdresses cuddled baby alpacas in their laps and posed against the massive stone blocks of an imposing church for tourist photographs but I was more interested in food.

Picanterias – local, family run small enterprise restaurants – serve traditional stews of beans and corn, stewed endlessly and served with meat barbecued on a cast iron parilla and I wanted llama. Although everyone seemed to know about picanterias, nobody seemed able to direct me to one so in desperation I took a taxi and told him to take me to his recommendation of a picanteria. After a moment or two of goggling at me uncomprehendingly, he slammed the car into gear and we roared out of the town centre up a gravelled road to a large, whitewashed building climbing the steep hillside. No llama, they assured me but ‘same-same but better” alpaca cooked on the parilla. The slab of meat was too much for me and I was glad of the extended stroll back into the city centre when the picanteria unceremoniously shut down in the early afternoon. Maybe a picanteria where the guinea pigs run around in the kitchen instead, feeding off scraps, would be more my size!

img_0770Fatigued from both the altitude and the culture overload about cities I had never before heard of, and their extraordinary churches, convents img_0783and castles – all built at the behest of a handful of Spanish (less than 180 men) who invaded in 1530 or so and conquered the ruling Inca tribes and their vast empire stretching almost the length of the continent, I moved on to Puno, the stopover point for Lake Titicaca, the highest and one of the largest lakes in the world, making Lake Argyle in the Kimberley in West Australia look like a puddle.

I remember reading about the extraordinarily strong convictions of Thor Heyerdahl and his Kon-Tiki expedition and thinking how exciting to venture on such a trip on a balsa-wood raft. But for the small communities on the border between Peru and Bolivia who lived on massive floating reed islands showed just how buoyant their floating homes were. img_0087Their high prowed reed boats provide both a security and a living on the immense lake. A bit like the old Celtic habit, I suppose, of building fortified, enclosed homes on brushwood platforms over water or bogs – the Crannóg.

Those reed boats now seem mainly for the tourists but at the same time I was rather relieved when my bus drove onto a sturdy wooden raft powered by a tiny outboard motor before attempting the border crossing into Bolivia. I warily climbed, with the other punters, into a tiny speedboat to make the same crossing in a fraction of the time it took our bus! The road would endlessly and sinuously up and up, it seemed into the snow-capped mountains and the high altitude began to affect my breathing again long before we seemed to make a circuitous descent into La Paz.

So far I’ve covered the length of the continent from Quito in Ecuador down to the tail end of Peru and thank God for loads of things like hot, sunny days and cold nights and heavy warm duvets on the beds, I mused, as I sipped a small bottle of good rum I had thoughtfully provided myself with against the cold.


Cuba and Beyond – Part Two

Banana Republic

The above pejorative term for a country run as business for private profit, shared between the State and favoured monopolies, was first coined by the American writer O. Henry in 1904.

Take a wild guess – which country is the biggest producers of bananas in the world and is also the highest capital city in the world? (provided you don’t count La Paz in Bolivia, which is only the seat of government and not it’s constitutional capital). Bingo! Quito, at 2850 metres (or 9350 feet) above sea level, is the national capital of Ecuador.

Arriving late at night in Quito, via Panama from Havana, the last thing I expected was to be pulled out of line by customs as I strolled through. Politely but very insistently, they went through my bag with a fine toothcomb, checking the lining and the straps fairly thoroughly and insisting on seeing how much money I was carrying. No hassle, just an hour delay or so but in repacking my bag, I forgot my jar of vitamins! Quito seems a different ball game with fast, free wifi at the airport and hair-dryers in the hotel bathroom!

img_3233At about 2800 metres above sea level it is lovely and cool, compared to Cuba. What that also means is that it is a little hard to breathe, with not enough oxygen, for me, anyway, so I had to walk very slowly but even then I was panting a bit. Radically different too from Havana – market stalls here in Quito have more stock than entire shops did in Havana.

Surrounded by some active volcanoes, the air fresh and light I took a cable car up to 4100 metres and then tried to continue up hill on foot for another 45 minutes or so, each breath a rasp on the lungs hungrily sucking in the oxygen. img_3235img_3249Active volcanoes ringed this amazing city but I began to feel light-headed and aching so back down to the city level at about 2800 metres and into the Archbishop’s palace for a refreshing ale.

Staying in the historic centre which is beautiful and substantial – the old Spaniards knew how to build to last, or at least they made sure their slaves did so. Despite staying in the centre of the old historic part of Quito and asking policemen and newspaper sellers and other sundry hop-off-my-thumbs, I could not find a bar. All the bars and nightlife are tucked away in a different part of this vast city apparently and I need to take a taxi to “la zona rosa” for a refreshing beer. Luckily taxis are cheap, the flag fall starts at .50 U.S. cents and most rides cost less an 3 dollars!

Going into a bar just opening up for the evening trade, Dieter, the manager and part-owner of the bar was proud of his Spanish. From Jo’Burg, he told me with a strong South Africa accent, he had only been in Ecuador a short time when he had been mugged and had both his ankles broken. img_0648During his convalescence he had met Rosa his fiancé and it was with her father’s help that he was now part owner of a bar, he boasted. Insisting I try a local speciality, be busied himself preparing a Michelada – a salt encrusted beer mug filled with lager, lime juice, tomato juice, hot sauce and then decorated with an olive. Hmm.

Moving on to another bar, looking for a place to pass on my illegal tender, I found a busy corner place, dimly-lit both inside and out where the service appeared casual and lackadaisical among the young and carefree crowd. Ordering a jug of Margarita, knowing the twenty bucks would more than cover it, leaving a generous tip for the server, I sat back to enjoy the scene. Leaving the note protruding from the payment wallet tossed down on the table beside the empty jug, I slipped around the corner and into a taxi.

Leaving Quito tomorrow by bus and heading down to sea level to a fishing village called Canoa to get a beach bungalow and enjoy some beach life for a while. I am looking forward to the bus trip tomorrow down through the mountains. How the Spanish ever found their way up here in the first place is absolutely amazing. And then to build not just one but several mighty cities, and all under the control of less than 500 native Spaniards?

Dr. Denny, an American expat ran a seriously minimalist backpacker place just off the beach. Lurching slightly and gesturing with a beer bottle, he inducted me into Ecuadorian essentials. Wearing a stiletto on a chain around his neck, he showed me how he dealt with anyone trying to put any muscle on him, half pulling the stiletto out of its up-side down sheath on his chest. “It’s all they understand, man”, he assured me, explaining that everyone in Ecuador distrusts everyone else so that their taxis all have webcams and red panic buttons for both drivers and passengers. Sundays were dry, with no booze on sale, he warned me before solemnly leading me over to a shed in a corner of his property. Removing a heavy padlock he threw open the door to reveal a rough and ready bar with a shuttered window giving onto the side road.

I am still always surprised when a season is actually given precise start and end dates. Summer officially ends on the first Monday of September with a suddenly barren beach, img_0650everything shuttered and closed down and the sea no longer looking inviting.   Chasing the sun, further south to Puerto Lopez and on down the coast to a bigger beach resort – Montañita – but while there were still cafes and hotels open, what would have been loud and bustling now seemed tawdry and shonky.img_0662

Intrigued by the sound of “why I kill” I moved on again, inland and east to Guayaquil – but found it dull despite its reputation for being a dangerous city – thank God!

Early the next morning my bus laboured up into the mountains to Cuenca, 2600 metres above the beaches. In a high valley, surrounded by mountains, small rivers, with solid stone bridges, sectioned the town. img_0693Refreshingly cool and sunny during the day but chilly at night, Cuenca is famous for its reviving use of chocolate in both drinks and cooking, and, left breathless after wandering over a local zoo spread over half a mountain, I determined to try chicken in chocolate as I sipped hot chocolate with cafe liquor – didn’t know that chocolate was a big speciality. Things seemed much cheaper here in the mountains compared to the lowlands so I thought I might stay for a few days before contemplating the next onward stage.

One attempt, so far, at a partial mugging in Cuenca and I just laughed and pushed a bit out of the danger. A barmaid in one of the pubs I stopped off to have a quiet drink in, warned me not to go near a certain corner nearby because, she said, there is always trouble there. Not knowing the area anyway, I blithely paid no attention to her directions of how to avoid that particular spot. When I eventually left to look for a late dinner, I almost immediately came to a corner where a group of young toughs moved meaningfully to block me as I approached. Without slowing down or faltering in any way, I grinned and nodded maniacally at them as I brushed through them and kept going. No harm done to them or me.


Pub Talk – ‘Stralia

The sandy path from my hotel led past a massive squat water tank and then skirted the muddy mangrove-lined banks of Roebuck Bay before turning sharply left down towards Broome’s Chinatown area. I don’t know quite what I was expecting but it was certainly more than the broad street with a row of corrugated iron, beach style, huts on either side of a boardwalk. Despite the temporary look to the shops, they were by no means cheap, despite their tawdriness. Anasstaia’s Pearls – one of about ten shops selling Broome Pearls, Argyle Diamonds and Kalgoorlie Gold – stood opposite The Sun Picture Theatre – the world’s longest operating picture gardens (an open air cinema without a garden), where the shows change weekly – which shared the building with a Broome Realty business.

Despite the guide book’s assertion that a stroll past these tourist shops with kitsch names like “Kimberley Kreations” and “Shells Galore” would “evoke a startling sense of days gone by”, the squashed and scattered beer cans in the small park at the top end of Chinatown gave me a more realistic sense of the present. The Roebuck Bay Hotel had a slightly sagging wooden boardwalk outside and several completely sodden people inside. The bar was a huge cavern of a room with three pool tables at one end leading off to the adjoining TAB section. Several plastic topped tables were scattered around the room and four arcade games were lined bravely up against one wall.

A large notice behind the broad jarrah topped bar stated that footwear must be worn at all times and that no sarongs or singlets were permitted at any time. Thongs were allowed until 6:00 PM but men’s dress must be clean and tidy. A tall, bearded man slouched at one end of the bar wearing a collarless, horizontally striped T-shirt and vertically striped torn shorts that may once have been blue and white. I couldn’t see his feet, but it was a fair guess that he was wearing thongs. A narrow metal gutter, presumably for cigarette butts and rubbish ran along the foot of the bar but this had been tipped over and concealed his feet. Groups of overweight Aborigines lounged, shouting, at the tables and clustered noisily around the pool tables. A slatternly woman of indeterminate age with long, grey-streaked, untidy hair shrieked “C’mere you” at someone – was it me? as I edged into line at the bar. Australia’s best – Swan Gold and Emu Draft – were the only draft beers on offer so I ordered a middy before I noticed that all the men were drinking tinnies out of oversize Styrofoam stubby holders. The bearded man swung himself violently in my direction and thrust out a large hand at me “The name’s Greg, mate and this here’s Bill – the stupid bastard‘s just got himself divorced. Shit happens, eh?” As if to confirm this, Bill, ducked his head nervously and uncrossed his thonged feet.

“You’re a tourist, or what?” Greg asked, relighting the stub of a hand rolled cigarette.

I told them I was there for a conference and this was received in silence. Hastening to fill the gap, I asked Greg if he was involved in the pearling business without mentioning that he fitted my stereotypical idea of a cutthroat privateer but he was more interested in pointing out to Bill that divorce was not the end of the road.

“Jeez, mate, I jus’ come up from Perth 2 weeks ago cos I couldn’t pay me fines, y’know and then last week I gave the missus a ring in Brisbane and she tol’ me that she wanted a divorce. Jeez, I jus’ doan know”.

“What are you going to do now?” I asked him.

“Oh I reckon I’ll hang on here a bit and see what happens, I reckon I can pick up a bit of work here, y’know”.

A small, natty-looking, middle aged man finished his tinnie of Emu and got up from the table he was sharing with a blowsy Aboriginal woman, whispered something to her and walked towards the door. The Aboriginal woman moaned something I didn’t catch and then carefully checked his tinnie to see if there was anything left in it. Seeing me looking at her, she fumbled up the coins on the table and lurched towards me.

“Wha’s you name?” she demanded,

“Stephen” I said. She rolled one eye at me and said “Wha’?” “Stephen,” I repeated, “What’s yours?”

“Buy usmob a drink but”, she said, ignoring my question.

“Tell her to piss off”, Greg advised from the other side of me.

“What’s your name?” I repeated inanely. A tremendous effort wrinkled her weathered looking face and again one eye rolled at me “Name’s Margritta,” she slurred. “Whe’ you from? You bin come Darwin?”

“No”, I said, “I come from Ireland.”

“I knew youse was a paddy,” Greg said. “I was thinkin’ youse wasn’t a pom”.

Again a puzzled frown creased Magritta’s face and then enlightenment, “Ireland” she muttered. There was a moment’s reflective silence and then that odd roll of the eye at me again. “When Irish eyes are smilin…” she crooned at me, and then waited for a response. While I desperately sought one, she leaned precariously back on her stool and flung her arms wide in my direction and burst into “When Irish eyes are smilin…” again. This time I was ready. “That’s right,” I said, “That’s as much as I know, what comes next?”

Magritta sniggered knowingly and lurched a bit closer to me “C’mere you, buy usmob a drink.”

Before I could answer, there was a loud crash from the back of the barroom. The small, blonde barmaid behind the bar said “Danny” in a clear, calm voice and a square, young giant, with a crew-cut and a Roebuck Bay Hotel T-shirt stretched across his massive chest, came out from some back room and stood beside the barmaid, frowning impassively towards the back where an Aboriginal youth shamefacedly picked himself and his chair up off the floor to hoots of derisive laughter from his mates.

“C’mon, Stevo, I’ll give youse lot a game of pool” Greg suggested.

“You’ll just be in time for the end of happy hour if you order now” the barmaid piped up so I bought tinnies for myself, Greg, Bill and Magritta before following Greg and an unsteady Bill towards a vacant pool table.

“Jeez, mate, where did youse learn to hold a cue like that?” Greg burst out as I missed a simple shot. “Look, do it like this, see, bend your hand at the knuckles here and raise this finger up like this, see, an’ you’ve got a perfect bridge – no, like this, see, do this, can you bend your hand like this? Like you’re waving goodbye, yeah, like that, see, steady as a rock”.

“She’ll be right,” Bill chimed in as I contorted my hand into the required shape, feeling inept. “I guess I’ve always believed that proficiency in pool indicated a youth misspent” I joked. Greg paused, beer in one hand, cigarette and cue in the other hand and looked at me seriously “I’d say that’s fair enough” he agreed, “Whaddaya reckon on that one, Bill, eh”?

Magritta, lurching on her stool at the bar, leered, waved her tinnie at me and burst into “Irish eyes” again.

“Y’ver been divorced, Steve?” Greg demanded as he effortlessly potted three balls in a row.

“Yep, I said, “a few years ago”.

“Me too,” he replied. “See, Bill, what I was tellin’ you, shit happens. Best thing that ever happened to me, though.”

“Why’s that?” I wondered.

“Cos I married a Fiji princess then and I got myself a whole swag of land out in the Cook Islands. We’re gonna build us a swank resort out there soon for the tourists once I get my act together here in Broome. But I tell you, Bill, women, who needs ‘em, eh?”

Bill continued to look doubtful while another burst of singing erupted from Margritta as a group of fat, swaying women joined her.

“Mind you,” Greg pointed out, gesturing with his thumb over his shoulder, “She’s a bit of all right, int’she?” “She” was a blonde bikini-ed hussy draped over a leopard skin pillion of a Harley Davidson motorcycle poster, tacked to the wall behind us.

The noise, cigarette smoke and the crash of falling people and chairs were was building up to such a state that the square headed young man in the crew-cut, that the bar maid had called Danny, now took up a permanent stand down one end of the room, a fixed scowl on his young face.

Greg suggested going down to the picture gardens to see what was on and while Bill returned to his morose position at the bar, we sidestepped lurching groups of Aboriginals who stretched out long arms in half-hearted attempts to detain us. Greg weaved and ducked his way towards the door. “That’s Thursday for you, mate, it goes to their head, a bit, you know. When I looked puzzled at him, he added “Social Security, mate, why do you reckon they were all boozin’ up, but?”

Outside the Sun Picture Theatre, there was a decorous crowd of young people milling about, leaning on the roo bars of 4WD’s and eyeing the girls. Inside the theatre was a display of early film projectors and signed photos of famous people who had attended. Rows of linked deckchairs were lined up under ancient looking plane propeller-type fans dangling from a high wooden roof. Further down towards the screen similar deckchairs were laid out under the stars. A sign at the kiosk pointed out that no matter what the weather the show would go on.

Outside the theatre, Greg met a crowd of people he knew from ‘aut-ah town’ and despite noisy invitations, I decided not to return to the Roebuck Bay hotel with them.

Walking back the way I had come, I had to step over a group of sleeping people stretched every which way on the warm sand near the water tower, the squashed remains of a case of Emu draft beer scattered around them. One of them mumbled something at me as I walked past but I doubt it was “When Irish eyes are smiling”, so I kept going