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Santiago, Chile

Looking out of the plane window at the extensive sprawl of Santiago and the rugged mountains which surround it I was already captivated. South America is one of those places that seems very familiar even though you may have never been there and I felt immediately comfortable in our new surroundings. The first thing that happened would prove to be a stark reminder of it´s dangers.

Actually that is a bit dramatic. We weren´t held at gunpoint or bitten by a snake or anything. What happened was we walked out of customs and were led by a smart and official looking man (he even had a walkie-talkie) to a mini-bus. I had asked for a specific type of mini-bus recommended by the hostel which would get us there cheaply and we were assured that this bus was with the same company (although suspiciously it had no markings) and we were asked to pay 20,000 pesos each. This seemed like too much. I had sleepily made a note of the recommended price from the airport to the hostel but this was now in my hand luggage bag which was in my rucksack which was in the back of the bus which wanted to leave.

I was suspicious enough to go to the lengths of retrieving it and found that what I had written down was 5,000 pesos each! We were being mugged off by the very first seemingly helpful people that we had met! It was like Beijing all over again! Anyway, we grabbed our bags and found a taxi who would take us for 5,000 each - I use the word "taxi" loosely here, the guy had a car and charged people to take them places. He was friendly though, and within seconds I had completely exhausted my Spanish vocabulary and our driver had moved on to gesturing wildly and saying the same word louder and louder until I nodded, si. I immediately wished I had done a Spanish course.

We spent the next few days exploring the city, visiting the visual arts museum (which was a load of nonsense) and getting the fenicular up to the virgin Mary statue in the Parque Metropolitano. We also explored Bandero Street which is filled with vintage stores bursting with second hand American clothes. The city is not the most beautiful place we have been but the mountains offer a spectacular backdrop, particularly when you get up high, and it did have it´s charms. Beautiful old churches and intricate, colourful graffiti create an interesting juxtaposition of old and new while numerous universities buzzed with familiar groups of skateboarders, goths and emos.

Our evenings were mostly spent in the hostel where we cooked our own dinners to save money. Eating steak in order to save money seemed like slightly warped logic but I wasn´t complaining. We also had a huge pool table and, for the first time since Thailand, free internet. In an attempt to catch up on this blog, I stayed up late on night and was confused to find, fumbling my way around the pitch black dorm, that a wet patch had appeared on my bed! I sat in the dark trying to work out what it could be. A spilled drink? Maybe I had left a wet towel there earlier? Then I noticed the smell. Piss?! I reached up and felt the bottom of Josh´s matress. Although he has an alarming habit of shouting loudly in his sleep I doubted he had moved on to bed-wetting, particularly on the scale required to soak through a whole mattress. Then I remembered Bob.

Bob is one half of a duo that make up the hostel pets (the other being Sausage the dog but i didn´t think Sausage had it in him). A cat by trade, Bob is (like a lot of travelers) usually found lounging around the communal areas looking for the affection of strangers. Today, it seemed, he had been making himself very comfortable on my bed. I decided I was too tired to resolve this particular issue in the middle of the night so I simply pulled a duvet over the wet patch and slept under a wool blanket on the other side of the bed. With explore Santiago, eat steak and eggs and sleep in piss off my to do list it was time to move on.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on June 3, 2009 from Santiago, Chile
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Santiago, Taxi, Bob, Catpiss and Steak

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Cordoba, Argentina

Apart from the straightforward jump over the border and the troubling jump in ticket prices once in Argentina, our journey to Cordoba was pretty uneventful. The Argentinian buses feel more like trains, particularly after so much time spent on the rattling deathtraps that cloud up the crazy roads of Bolivia. I was careful not to mention, while we still used the Bolivian deathroads, Niall´s accident- but now that we have escaped them I think I can relay the story without raising my mums blood pressure too much (she is, after all, pretty much the only person who reads this blog). Niall was on his way to Sucre from La Paz. He has a habit of taking diazepam before a long journey and was just easing himself into a drug induced sleep when his bus swerved off the road. Apparently a lorry or bus was driving on the wrong side of the road and the driver was forced off the road in order to avoid a head on collision. The bus turned on its side and although there was not (as there often is) a steep drop off the side of the road, the crash resulted in a number of small injuries and two fatalities. This could have been any bus in Bolivia. Niall escaped, with the other passengers, through the windscreen and was forced to return to La Paz. Shaken and understandably not wishing to relive the experience, he headed to Potosi instead, where we found him still in shock and nursing a rather pathetic bruise on the nail of his little finger.

It was, therefore, with understandable relief that we were able to bid farewell to the Bolivia buses and welcome the long, straight roads and the smooth, spacious new buses of Argentina, with their unlimited free tea and generous supply of films. The lavish luxury of these new buses was extended once we got off to the galleries, restaurants, cafes and museums of Cordoba. The streets were smart and lined with orderly rows of tall trees, the roads were wide and busy, the shops had shiny shelves filled with rows of goods. We hadn´t seen anything like this for a while. The dusty shelves of a typical shop in Bolivia would contain a scattering of products, most of which look like they belong in a museum. Suddenly we were surrounded by supermarkets, statues, electric buses and more tight jeans than Reading festival. Smart old men wore tweed jackets and cravats and everywhere seemed to me to have a sophisticated European feel to it.

This is all very nice on one level but when you are a traveller with little money such a transition is also a bit of a worry. We had come up with a few money saving ideas, one of which was to invest in hip flasks (secretly I had been looking for an excuse to buy one for a while) and when we got to Cordoba we were eager to try them out in the local bars. We filled them with frenet, the local spirit of choice although I´m not sure why because a) it is Italian and b) it tastes like leaves and medicine. Anyway, our experiment was a success - we topped up cokes in dark smoky corners while listening to reggaeton and hanging out with our room mates - a pair of quirky Finnish vegetarians. Niall, who had found his way down to Cordoba after being seperated from and then reunited with his bags (he really wasn´t having much luck with buses) topped off the night in characteristic style by vomitting a lomito out of the cab, which then refused to go on.

In case you are wondering, a lomito - meaning a small steak – is a kind of steak sandwich popular in Argentina. My first lomito also contained two eggs, ham, a slab of cheese, salad and mayonnaise. By the time I had finished my head hurt and I was pretty sure that if I listened closely enough I would be able to hear my heart faintly sobbing. It did taste pretty good but was nothing compared to my second Argentinian steak experience in one of the citys more credible establishments. It was the best steak I have ever had in my life. Over an inch thick and the most mouth wateringly juicy and tender piece of meat imaginable, I vowed to eat as many of these as possible before Brazil. No more ice-creams, no more snacks, I would even cut down on water if it meant that I could feasibly have one of these every night. It is a strange feeling to at once devote your life to the consumption of meat but there was no doubt in my mind - I needed to make the most of these.

Before we left Cordoba we visited the house in which Che spent most of his childhood - it is now a museum with some rooms still "intact" and some devoted to various articals and exhibits, my favourite being a a 500cc Norton motorbike identical to 'La Poderosa'- the Powerful One- which famously carried Che and Alberto across South America in The Motorcycle Diaries. Our own (only slightly less epic) journey continued the next day to the place of Che´s birth, Rosario.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on August 12, 2009 from Cordoba, Argentina
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Argentina, Steak, Lomito, Fernet, Hipflasks and Che

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Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires, Argentina

The first place to go in Buenos Aires for anyone who is serious about devoting their life to beef is La Cabrera, a cosily candlelit restaurant beautifully decorated with hanging model planes, teacups and other vintage bits and bobs. More impressive than the décor was the menu – a long list of meaty delights which I probably would have mulled over for hours if the waiter had not tipped us off about the rump steak. We ordered one each despite being told one was big enough for two and when they were brought over they were followed by every pair of eyes in the restaurant. These were the most outrageously generous slabs of meat I had ever seen, looking more like joints of beef you would pick up back home for a Sunday roast than individual steaks.

When I finally finished it off my plate was covered in blood – it looked like a tiny massacre had taken place and the bodies cleared away. I suppose with the size of the portions in that place that is pretty much what is happening every day. We walked out of the restaurant breathing heavily and toddled slowly to our bar where we could sit down and rub our bellies. We found a place with a live jazz band and didn’t move for the rest of the night. Mostly because we couldn’t.

We spent the next day exploring La Boca, a poor area of the city where colourfully painted streets filled with artists and Tango dancers underline the city’s unique character. It is also home to La Bombonera, the home stadium of football team Boca Juniors where Maradona made a name for himself. He is so idolised in fact that when we took a tour of the stadium we were shown a special box from which the Maradona family has the privilege of watching every game. The stadium itself is not particularly grand but on match days it would be filled with 80,000 Boca fans who passionately (and easily) drown out the 3,000 away fans who are squeezed into one end of the stadium.

Unfortunately, due to some familiar sounding issues around TV stations and money, the Argentinean league was on strike and we were not able to watch the first game of the season – initially scheduled for that week. Instead we found our own game, in a small cage on the corner of some multi-coloured streets, where we held our own against some typically skilful Argentinean and Spanish youngsters. Although my trainers now greet me every day with a wide, frayed smile, it was worth it to get a genuine feel for the area and its people beyond the insincere friendliness of the bar touts and the irritating tango dancers who think you want to have your photo taken wearing their hat.

During the day in Buenos Aires the most common way to pass the time seems to be shopping and the vintage shops of San Telmo caught my eye as I flicked through Time Out Buenos Aires (which would, for the duration of our stay, replace Lonely Planet as our Bible). We walked down a long stretch of road filled with huge white mansions, most of which seemed to be gracefully falling apart. Antique shops sprung up regularly, filled with old, intricate furniture, brass lamps, black and white photographs and costume jewellery. The best finds were a collection of clothes shops where you could get amazing items for a fraction of the boutique prices. I decided I had accumulated enough gaudy cardigans from Bolivia so managed to resist the temptation. I would later come to regret this decision when my hoody disappeared from a club but we can come back to thievery later.

The nightlife of Buenos Aires was the best we’d seen in South America by a long way and after a few days you realise that the most interesting time to explore the city is an intoxicated tour of the various bars, clubs and shows. During our stay we saw live jazz and indie bands, went to a massive hiphop club, a funky little drum and bass club, a bar with a VJ(!) playing 80s music videos and an amazing bar covered entirely in stencil graffiti. Every night there would be something to keep you entertained until the early hours.

One of these messy nights caused us to miss checkout – we were planning to move to another place because we were finding our current hostel, based in the city centre and inundated with trustafarians (middle-class white guys with long hair and beards who come travelling with their trust fund), slightly tedious. Luckily me standing in reception in my pyjamas, pleading ignorance in the voice of a pubescent chain smoker and with one eyelid securely stuck down, was enough to evoke what was either sympathy or fear in the hostel staff and they decided to let us leave. We moved to Palermo where boutiques and pretty streets are fused with a vibrant art scene which seems to spill out of the shops and colour their walls with bold and elaborate designs.

It is very difficult, when writing about a place, to describe the things which reflect the true character – beyond the buildings, parks and museums. One particularly fascinating scene which I saw on numerous occasions in Buenos Aires, was the lunchtime barbeque of the local workmen. The coals would be fired up and by lunchtime a nice collection of meat would be sizzling away ready for the hungry dozens. It was a very sociable set up, with all the workers gathering round to cook and take their share of the meat; it always made me smile. And hungry.

The week disappeared in a blur of late nights and lazy exploration. On the last day we made sure we stopped by the cemetery in Recoleta where Evita and various other famous, eminent and necessarily wealthy figures have their final resting places. The extravagant tombs form beautiful and spooky corridors of stone and statue where cats wander creepily as if they are waiting for their owners to wake from an eternal slumber. Nearby was also an interesting sculpture – a huge aluminium flower which opens every morning and closes every night.

With Buenos Aires suitably sampled and thoroughly photographed we got on our night bus to the Iguazu Falls. Knowing that this would be our final opportunity to experience the luxury of Argentinean buses we decided that only the very best would do. The “suite” ticket was not much more expensive but promised some deliciously unnecessary perks. We had a steak dinner with red wine, champagne and best of all, fully reclining seats with a foot rest that came up to create a completely flat bed! It was better than a plane. In fact, it was better than a lot of the hostels we’d stayed in! But I suppose that isn’t saying much.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on August 30, 2009 from Buenos Aires, Argentina
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Steak, LaBoca, SanTelmo, Barbeque, Vintage and Cemetery

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