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The art of being lost

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Vamos a la Playa

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Our final bus ride was also the longest yet, an arduous twenty five hour journey via Sao Paulo. It was cruel to have such a city, particularly with their football team and striker Ronaldo on form, dangled so temptingly in front of our eyes. However, what we did see out of our misted windows (the rain followed us all the way) was not particularly inviting and as we came closer to Rio the green, tropical mountains were blanketed with lazy clouds and it promised a much more spectacular introduction. I scanned the horizon waiting for the moment when the hills would part and the glorious city would reveal itself but it never happened. Gradually it got dark and we were introduced to the city slowly, with dark suburban streets and seedy hostels with neon signs – the most memorable of which was medieval themed.

Our hostel was reassuringly devoid of neon advertising and although I would have welcomed being a knight for a night, our simple room up a small, winding staircase had a very Brazilian character and was more than adequate. I slung my bag down and was ready to go and get my first decent Brazilian meal when we were introduced to a Brazilian guy who was on his way to watch one of the local sides, Flamengo. One fleeting moment of hungry hesitation later and we were on the bus to the Maracana stadium.

The stadium was amazing – a huge, circular structure with the pitch only a few yards from where we stood – but disappointingly the fans formed only patchy groups in the wet stands and the noise came mostly from above our heads where the “real” fans seemed to have arranged to congregate. Still, it was a good game. Flamengo, with a heavy footed Adriano (actually he was pretty heavy everywhere else too) struggled against a lively Cruziero side who, after conceding an early goal, came back to win 2-1. We got a metro back and at midnight I couldn’t quite believe I was wandering the dark streets of Rio de Janeiro but it seemed we had chosen a good area (Ipanema) and I found my paranoia easing with every mugging-free minute.

My carefully staggered storytelling style leads me back to Buenos Aires where you will remember La Boca – the colourful streets, the football stadium, the football match inside the cage. We actually visited this area twice – the second time with Niall so that he could see what Josh and I agreed was one of the best parts of town. We left him at the football stadium, having already done the tour ourselves, and arranged to meet him at the cage for a kickaround. To pass the time we went to an art gallery, which had been closed the last time we were there, and looked at some huge but otherwise fairly unremarkable photographs.

When we got to the cage we found Niall wide-eyed and with his shirt torn. He had been targeted by two guys who had tackled him to the floor, held him down and raided his pockets, stripping him of his camera. None of us could believe it – only a few days before we had been wandering around with phones, cameras and money with no real sense that we were in any danger of being robbed. We had even left our jumpers lying around while we played football.

We reported it at the police station and, feeling responsible, bought Niall a steak. If he hadn’t been on his own it wouldn’t have happened. It was a well-timed warning for Rio, particularly alongside the numerous stories we’d heard about robberies there, and it underlined the importance of moving in groups. Josh likes to point out that without him I would have been robbed by now, and this is probably true but I’m also pretty sure he would have been targeted too had it not been for my, admittedly less convincing, back up.

We were still being plagued by rain and our first trip to a deserted and windy Ipanema beach was not what I had imagined when I dreamt of Rio all those months before. Huge waves crashed heavily onto us as Niall and I, red with cold, struggled to stay upright. The tide sucked our legs from under us and even with a hazy glimpse of the green mountains at the end of the long white beach we all agreed it was a bit of an anticlimax.

It was Niall’s birthday on the Saturday after we arrived and with the “Favela Funk Party” on the Sunday (yep, a party in the favela…gulp) it promised to be a good weekend. We started the celebrations on the Friday with the Brazilian favourite, caipirinhas. These basically consist of cachaca, a spirit made from sugar cane, mixed with sugar, crushed lime and ice. They were so good we drank all of our cachaca and ended up too pickled to do anything beyond a local bar. On the Saturday we started things a bit more tentatively with just a few beers but once we got to Lapa where a busy street party was ill full swing we were tempted by offers of caipirinha by the pint.

When we eventually reached the club, Niall was picked out by the bouncers as being too drunk. A few minutes later any argument to the contrary was vomited along the busy street and the birthday boy ended up in a taxi with a plastic bag. Our association with such a spectacular wreck was enough to see us blacklisted from the club and we ended the night a few hours later after spending a while watching a ten piece band playing samba music and wishing that we could dance. The night was pretty bad and this coupled with the constant spells of rain and the windy beach amounted to a really disappointing first few days.

Bitterly hungover, the next morning should really have been a low point. Instead I was woken by excited shouting; bright sunshine filled the room. It was a miracle! The weather forecast predicted cloud and rain for the whole week and yet there wasn’t a cloud in the sky! It was hot! I dragged my physical remains out of bed and after a hurried breakfast, wasted no time in heading up to Christ to thank him for his part in the glorious day. Seeing Rio in all its sun drenched glory was amazing, the city is spread across such a stunning coastline and surrounded by towering green hills – from every angle it is a spectacular location.

Conscious that this may be our only day of sun, we headed to the beach which was buzzing with the bronzed and beautiful crowds who until now we had only seen in tacky postcards. I must say that surrounded by these pumped up thong clad beach types my own luminescent loins seemed deeply inexperienced and comically out of place. Being self-conscious is what travelling is all about though isn’t it?! Anyway, the sun eventually disappeared but our spirits were lifted and we approached the favela funk party with renewed vigour and enthusiasm.

Josh and I dressed down but soon realised we were the only ones that had and that any attempt to blend in was hopelessly futile. After being delivered to the door in minivans (which I assume were bullet proof) we, the gringos, were gathered in a separate line to enter. Once inside we were no more inconspicuous; it wasn’t a problem though. The crowd was mixed and friendly and although there was a lot of testosterone on display it tended to take the form of topless gyrating men rather than the embarrassing fistfights which are the mating cry of the Brits.

There was no hostility whatsoever and when we arrived the club was already crowded with an unmistakably Brazilian party atmosphere. Guys danced synchronised routines and the girls threw their ample posteriors around energetically. Typically of South America, drinks were paid for in one part of the club and collected in another but as they were priced at four beers for £2 I had little cause to complain. My favourite part of the night was a dance off which involved some of the more confident dancers getting up on stage and showing of their most impressive, or most sexual, moves. It was hilarious; I’m pretty sure their mothers wouldn’t have approved but then what do I know? This is Brazil.

It was an experience I will never forget and gave me the sense that there is a lot more to life in the favela than the prevalent drugs and violence. I had always been curious about life in the shantytowns but now my curiousity was heightened. The hostels always offer overpriced tours which are best avoided as most of the time you can go without them for a fraction of the price. For example, when we went to see Flamengo play the tour group who left before us were paying 75 reals. We went on the bus and got a ticket on the door for 20 reals! It was ridiculous. Still, when it came to the “Favela Tour” I didn’t feel so confident. Although I resented paying a lot of money just to walk around an area of the city, we both agreed it would be worthwhile – if only for the privelage of being able to take your camera without any worries.

It turned out to be a really exciting tour. First we were driven up to the top of the favela on the back of motorbikes driven by teenagers – an interesting shuttle which, as far as I could tell, has been set up specifically to taxi people in and out of the favela. Once at the top we left the main streets – busy with shops and stalls – and entered the more familiar narrow concrete alleys that I had seen so often in films like City of God. I had seen and heard so much about favelas at school and in the media that now wandering through one seemed almost as absurd as snorkelling after sharks or stamping around looking for snakes. I had always seen them as completely unapproachable places but, as our guide explained, the politics of the area creates a tightly controlled environment where drug dealers rule and where less lucrative crimes (ie. theft) is not tolerated.

To put it simply, robbing gringos in the favela will get you killed. The drug gangs make a horrendous amount of money– the business is highly organised, an integral part of the favelas, and they are careful not to attract unnecessary attention from the police. Everyone who enters and leaves the area is monitored by young guys with walkie-talkies - they are paid around 2,000 reals per week (this amounts to £35,000 a year) so it is easy to see how people get into this dangerous line of work. It is a fascinating but deeply worrying set up – anyone who knows anything about favelas will probably not find this a shock but it struck me harder than ever when I actually saw the scale of Rocinha – the population is estimated to be anywhere from 60000 to 150000 and the whole area is controlled by a 23 year old drug dealer.

It was a gloomy, wet day and the alleys were empty. Rain flows through them, carrying rubbish down into the lower favelas. The filth builds up the lower you get and at the bottom, fittingly, the drug dealers process and sell their product. A few open doors along the way gave me a sneaky peek into small but well furnished homes where small kids watched cable TV. Most of the houses have electricity, cable, even the internet – all of which is hi-jacked from pylons struggling under an amusing tangle of wires. Young women padded around barefoot doing washing. In spite of the rain, a number of small bars and shops were open with music blaring out of little radios. A number of locals stood around drinking and smoking, seemingly indifferent to our tentative invasion.

Approximately 10% of the favela population are involved in the drug trade. Most work in the city and it was good to see that part of our money was going towards a youth centre/ crèche where parents could leave their children for the day. One of the kids, who was white with light brown hair, had been nicknamed “gringo baby”. The tour guides (who inevitably make the same jokes day after day) had made so many jokes about gringo visitors being the child’s father that he had started calling any white people “father”. The tour operator agreed that these jokes must be stopped in order to prevent any lasting psychological damage to the poor guy.

Our trip was coming to an end. Although I was vaguely aware of the depressing situation I would find myself in when I got home I was also excited to be putting a full stop on the end of such a well executed adventure. It was pretty amazing, considering all the stories we’d heard, that we hadn’t suffered any serious physical, financial or psychological damage ourselves. Niall had a catalogue of catastrophes to take home with him – even as he got on the bus to the airport he stepped nonchalantly into a cycle lane and was almost run over by a bike. Still, there was time...

On our last night the two local teams, Flamengo and Fuminense were playing the second leg of their Copa Sud America match – an irresistible local derby which we hoped would be louder and more exciting than the game we had seen on the first night. We went with Raphael, a Fluminense fan who worked at our hostel (and who provided me with a shirt for the game!) and Declan, a charismatic Irishman who we had met a few days before. Before the game I found myself alone in the stadium toilets and considering that perhaps wearing a Fluminense shirt was not a particularly good idea. Unlike English stadiums, you see, the home and away fans are not kept separate in the Maracana. At the last game we had seen police holding back crazed Cruziero fans who seemed to have an aversion to the Flamengo supporters that surrounded them. This suddenly came to mind as I stood entirely vulnerable and I hoped that I wouldn’t turn around to see a wall of black and red (Flamengo) shirts between me and the door. I don’t ever want to die in a toilet.

Thankfully no such incident occurred and I was particularly glad to be alive when we walked out into the stands. We were now in the higher section where all the noise gets made and we sat down among a large group of Fluminense fans banging drums, holding huge balloons and waving incredibly large flags – something which I noticed requires considerable skill. These were the real fans. When we arrived I was given a massive balloon and I can not express my childlike joy. This balloon was everything. It meant I was one of them! In this group I was invincible! If I needed the toilet again I would just hold it in…
At the players came out onto the pitch we all released our balloons and the fans really got going. The chants were filled with music and dancing, the smoky air with flags and flares. The players gave them plenty to shout about too – each team scored and had a goal disallowed and by the end, with the scores level and Fluminense looking set to win with an away goal, two Flamengo defenders were sent off for desperate last ditch tackles! We danced and clapped when we were supposed to and even joined in a few of the more basic chants. It was such a good night that I bought the shirt off Raphael when we got back.

And so came our last day. Pachamamas parting gift was a full day of magnificent sunshine and we spent most of the day on the beach, drinking coconut milk and being flung around happily in the crashing Ipanema waves. We had meant to move to Copacabana but our little room in Ipanema – which we had to ourselves the whole week – was too good to give up and a couple of trips to Copacabana confirmed it as a larger, more touristy version of what we already had.

In a generous, if slightly undignified, gesture, Josh gave away his camera to a small child who was selling chewing gum on the beach. I saw undignified because moments later every beggar, salesman and prostitute within a five mile radius was to be found lounging alongside us on the beach, gesturing towards what was left of our possessions. Josh left the beach in just a pair of shorts.

Before our flight we treated ourselves to one last slap up meal. I loved the Brazilian food and an all you can eat buffet seemed like the best way to say goodbye to each and every dish. I said goodbye to rump steaks, to roasted spring chickens, grilled sausages, lasagne, baked fish, beans, rice and roasted vegetables. Then I said goodbye to the fruit. I always joke, when I go to all you can eat places, that I might do a poo halfway through to make some room. This time I actually did it and I can tell you that it doesn’t work. There you go, I’ve taught you something. And on that bombshell I will bloatedly bid you farewell.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on September 2, 2009 from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Rain, Beach, Christ, FootballMatch, Favela, Cachaca, FunkParty and CharityBackfire

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Iguazu Falls

Foz do Iguacu, Brazil

Arriving at Puerto Iguazzu I was slightly devastated to see that it was grey and miserable outside. We were only going to be around for two days so we just had to hope it would clear up quickly, in the meantime we headed into town for our final Argentinean dinner – a mixed grill which arrived sizzling and answered any questions about what they do with the rest of the cow.

The night was wild and stormy and the next morning we set out feeling glad that at least the rain had relented. The Iguazu Falls (which I will spell like that despite all the different spellings I saw – Iguacu, Iguassu, etc) are surrounded by a network of metal walkways and when you enter from the Argentinean side there is also a little train to take you to the furthest points. It feels a lot like a theme park which could very easily be depressing but actually the train does save a lot of time and the walkways allow people of all shapes and sizes to get right up to the edge of the waterfalls without risking their lives or getting into a boat.

If getting into a boat does take your fancy there are also a range of additional tours – we couldn’t resist being taken under the waterfalls. It was a spectacular and hilarious ride, the huge waterfalls loomed over us and the roaring of the water grew louder and louder until it was thudding onto the boat and then us. I believe I would have wet myself had the waterfall not been doing such a good job- we were all completely hysterical by the end.

We squelched along pathways afterwards feeling utterly immune to the sprays of the waterfalls and not at all troubled by the presence of dark, heavy clouds in the sky. Although the bad weather prevented us from seeing the falls in all their outrageously photogenic glory, the contrast of the dark, moody sky and the white clouds of mist rising from the waterfalls created stunning and atmospheric views and I couldn’t wait to see the Brazilian side the next day.

We wasted no time when we got back to the hostel. After a much needed hot shower and change of clothes we got in a taxi and, with the help of a friendly and alarmingly bug-eyed taxi driver, headed across the border. Foz de Iguazu, the town on the Brazilian side, was to be the penultimate stop on our world tour. We now had only nine days left.

The Iguazu experience in Brazil was very different. It was a bit less like a theme park, more like a National Park, and the visitors didn’t have the same sense of excitement. They day before we had literally seen grown men screaming and running for the train, it was like they were trying to be the first up Space Mountain in Disneyland. However, this more subdued atmosphere could also be blamed on the weather – a white mistiness had descended on the area and our first glimpse of the falls was comically bad. You could barely make them out!

As we got closer the landscape began to emerge out of the mist and we were thankful for it – miles of immense waterfalls which cut through the green forests and crashed down cliffs. The views were less varied but more extensive than the Argentinean side, and equally beautiful. Even awful weather couldn’t take anything away from such an awe inspiring landscape. After taking a few hazy pictures and immersing ourselves in the wet sprays of the Devils Throat, the most violently powerful of the falls, we were soggy and pretty well acquainted with the place. Warmer climates beckoned and dreams of defrosting on the beach in Rio.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on August 31, 2009 from Foz do Iguacu, Brazil
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Rain, Water, Waterfalls, Wet and Cloud

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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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Robbed in Rosario

Rosario, Argentina

Rosario is divided by a web of wide, crisscrossing one way roads which at first seem very dangerous. Of course once you realise that there is no right of way and the nonchalant drivers simply slow down when a collision course appears imminent you just sit back and enjoy the tension of every crossing.

The tree-lined streets are dotted with fragrant shops selling smart leather goods and we meandered through the city getting a feel for the place and finding the city’s few attractions – including Rio Parana which I hear (and can easily believe) is the widest river in the world – to be fairly uninspiring. The most laughably anticlimactic attraction was the place where Che was born – a big office-looking building where a little sign on a lamp post outside quietly announces the city’s feeble claim to fame. Nevertheless Rosario was a very comfortable place to stay and our hostel, an intimate reggae themed place, had a great atmosphere and a good crowd.

Rosario has a large student population which promised live music, clubs and bars and delivered them happily in no particular order. I liked the bars, which were loud and filled with the entertaining banter of the well dressed Argentinean scenesters, but the live bands that we saw were of a disappointingly bland, generic variety – made up for young guys who were more interested in attracting women than playing music. Which is fair enough I suppose, Argentinian women are inarguably the most attractive we had seen in South America.

It was after one of these nights out that we found we had been robbed. At first I couldn’t believe it but we looked and rummaged and looked again and realised it was definitely not there. Someone had stolen our pie out of the fridge. Normally I would not relay such a marvellously unremarkable tale but in this case I feel that my whole view of Rosario was slightly tainted by this rare moment of heightened emotion. So please take absolutely no notice of my scathing review of Rosario, I was just hungry.

Aside from spinach pie, Rosario left me hungry for some real music, some decent places to explore and a bit more of an interesting art scene. We had not planned to go to Buenos Aires when we first set off in April but the more you hear about Argentina the more you realise it can not be skipped. By the time we reached South America we knew it would be one of the highlights and now, finally on our way there, I was sure it would not disappoint.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on August 17, 2009 from Rosario, Argentina
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Theft, Bars, Pie, Bands and Bored

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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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Tupiza, Bolivia

We had planned to catch a train to Tupiza that night but the tickets were sold out and we were forced into yet another early start in order to catch the 6am bus the next morning. It was a no frills affair – the bus was filled with the frost of morning and people wearing an unreasonable amount of blankets. We were forced to sit apart as it was already so crowded and we both found ourselves next to bulky Bolivians enveloped in hundreds of warm, enviable layers. I waited until my guy had fallen asleep before I considered cuddling him but eventually decided against it. In between broken sleeps I noticed a great deal of banter around a guy getting on with a huge wheelbarrow. It was a strange morning but when I did finally rouse myself somewhere towards consciousness we slowed and stopped off at a small mountain town for breakfast.

The landscape had changed once again and now we were in the presence of cows and goats who grazed in dry fields- I took this to be a sign that we were no longer so uninhabitably high in the mountains. Soon the sun drove all the cold from the bus, I was sweating now (you really can’t win with these Bolivian bus rides) and shedding layers as I looked out onto cactus strewn hills and immense, towers of layered rock. The landscape was that of a Western film. By the time we reached Tupiza I was wearing a t-shirt and feeling suitably smug to be able to do so.

The following three days were dedicated to hot showers and lie-ins. After the hotels of Potosi and Uyuni, our new abode seemed extravagantly comfortable. It even had a kitchen so we could make our own breakfasts and lunches and then consume unhealthy amounts of burgers and fried chicken from the street stalls by night. Relaxation and cholesterol aside, there wasn´t a great deal of anything in Tupiza and soon we were restless and eager to get to Argentina, our first stop being the capital of culture, Cordoba.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on August 6, 2009 from Tupiza, Bolivia
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Busride, Wheelbarrow, Tupiza, HotShowers and Streetfood

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Cold in the Desert

Uyuni, Bolivia

Uyuni is surrounded by some of the most spectacular and surreal scenery in Bolivia so, like every other gringo who visits the tumbleweed town, we hopped in a jeep for a tour of the nearby salt flats and National Park. We set off on a cloudy Sunday, our first stop was to pay our respects at the train “cemetery” which lies on the outskirts of town. Rows of rusty old trains create an amazing spectacle – abandoned in the baron wasteland, the tired brown relics lean passively, resigned to the slow erosion of the desert. We took photos and climbed all over them before being ferried off to the salt flats.

Both salty and flat, the salt flats were everything I was expecting. The endless white desert was fascinating and, above all, provided the opportunity to take vaguely amusing photos of us treading on each other and swinging on Josh’s beard. Josh’s beard really does deserve a mention. Cultivated since our departure and affectionately known as “The Wedge”, it has received praise and extended stares the world over. It has become a tourist attraction in itself. Now, after almost four months, Josh’s meticulous beauty regime has been extended to include a daily combing of The Wedge, which is habitually twisted and tangled in times of reflection.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, in the middle of a salty nowhere getting back into our jeep. The roads were thin smudges across the landscape and we gazed out of the windows at the blankness until we reached our lunch stop, the Isla Inchahuasi. An island upon the salt covered in cacti, Inchahuasis claim to fame seemed to be the fact that it is so spectacularly out of place. Nevertheless, it is a good place to climb up for a view of the flats and the distant mountains. After lunch and some more time dedicated to the perfect photographic illusion (it’s actually really hard to do if your camera is clever enough to have auto focus) we headed towards these mountains.

Our hotel was located on the edge of the salt flat where the terrain suddenly turned brown and rough. It was fairly comfortable, with hot water and a dining area from which we could see the colourful beams of the sun setting behind the mountains. Its most notable feature however was that it was constructed almost entirely out of salt! The walls, the tables, the chairs, even the beds were carved out of the stuff! If your chips were a bit bland you could simply scratch a bit of table onto them! It was a beautiful looking building, with salt crystal chandeliers illuminating the white uniformity of the rooms. In one corner they had a huge pile of salt and a stack of salt blocks – I like to think they just make anything they find lacking: “No, sorry we don´t have a bar but if you just give me a few minutes…” etc.

That night we got to know the other half of our group, a trio of flatulent Frenchmen who had a mysterious collection of cuts and bruises. They told us that they had just come from La Paz they had been robbed on two separate occasions, once by a fake taxi driver and then again at the hands of some Bolivians they had befriended who had drugged their drinks and beaten them before taking (what was left of) their valuables. To add injury to insult, one of them had also fallen off his bike on the Death Road. It was fair to say that these were an unlucky bunch but it did make me realise how fortunate we were to get out of that place unscathed – particularly considering the risky nature of our adventures. Anyway, we played some poker, drank some palpably cheap wine and retired to our salty beds for a good nights sleep. The pillows, mattresses and sheets were made of more familiar materials.

We set off as the sun came up the next morning. Our first stop, after an hour or so, was unplanned. Our jeep suddenly went quiet and we found ourselves watching hopefully as our driver tinkered with the engine. His toolkit consisted of a screwdriver and a knife, it wasn´t very convincing, but after a helping hand from the driver of another jeep (there were loads, breaking down in this desert was not as dramatic as you may imagine) we continued on our way to see Volcano Ollague, an active volcano which I had heard smokes like a Feltham housewife.

Due to the somewhat dangerous nature of active volcanoes we viewed this one from a distance – the “mirador” an interesting set of rock formations which I found almost as impressive as the distant smoke-tipped spectacle. The rest of the day was spent driving between picturesque lakes where the high mineral content means not only a welcome collection of flamingos but also spectacular variations in colour from deep reds to rich greens and streaks of yellow. Around the edges the lakes were framed with thick ice, this and the icy wind gave us a taste of the freezing night which we had been frequently warned to prepare for. We also visited the surreal and other-worldly landscape known as Salvador Dali Desert because the strange rocks are set to have inspired Dali when he visited the region.

It was an indescribable day of sights and I am well aware that my descriptive language fails to deliver the necessary images – even my photos don’t do the places justice – but to attempt to describe the constant, often baffling, changes in landscape would probably mean me dedicating the remainder of the trip to sitting hunched in various internet cafés across Argentina and Brazil. Thankfully, the hotel we were staying in requires very little description. It was basic and cold. We huddled around a small iron oven for warmth, played cards and the Frenchmen attempted to play the Beverly Hills Cop theme tune on panpipes (their Ipods had, after all, been robbed) – eventually the bitter cold of the night began to set in and we retreated to the warmth of our beds wearing as much as possible. It was the kind of night where you wake up to find an arm has fallen out of your sleeping bag and started collecting icicles but I slept well and, at 5am when we had to get up, was even fairly chirpy.

We set off in darkness, with stars scattered generously across the sky and our bodies still clinging to the warmth of our beds. I joked that breaking down now would be the worst thing ever. Then we did. Our driver tried to restart it but the engine gave nothing but a pained groan and a clangy rattle. We shivered patiently in the back. He tried the screwdriver, then the knife but nothing seemed to work! We tried to roll back to the hotel but we had driven too far and down too many hills – eventually the driver told us to wait while he walked back and got another jeep. By the time we watched the sun rise from the icy windows of our jeep, my chirpy mood had frozen over. We had been sitting in the cold for an hour and my feet were so cold they hurt. Our driver returned in a new and improved jeep and, happily abandoning the frozen corpse of that which had taken us so far, we continued on to the steaming land of the geysers.

Pools of thick, muddy water bubbled furiously and everywhere cracks in the ground shot streams of warm mist which drifted over us and filled our nostrils with its horrifically pungent sulphuric odour. I was amazed at how active the geysers were – there was a constant hissing and bubbling – and we were told that this was the case 24 hours a day. In an attempt to thaw my frozen feet, I stood nonchalantly on one of the smaller holes and immediately hopped off as the scolding steam burnt through my thin shoe! My feet half numb and half burnt, I got back into the jeep. I wasn´t particularly enjoying our last day.

We had breakfast at the nearby hot springs where we were also able to revive our feet. While Josh and I sat on the edge watching our toes come back to life, Niall and the Frenchmen braved partial nudity and went in fully. I was tempted, the water was nice and hot, until I considered that one has also to get out of the springs at some point. I decided to devote all my energy to eating as much breakfast as possible.

Fully defrosted and revitalized, the mornings mishaps were actively repressed and we proceeded to our final stop, Laguna Verde. This was a huge, deserted lake surrounded by red rocky mountains where the sulphur content repels flamingos but demands photography with its brilliant green water. Our driver said something in Spanish about the landscape being similar to Mars and that it is used by NASA for training purposes. That is at least what I decided he was saying – it could have been anything really. I have to confess that despite a tenfold increase in my vocabulary I probably only know about ten words of Spanish and most of them are only of any use when bargaining for alpaca jumpers or looking for a train station which is on the right hand side (I don’t know the word for left).

Anyway, so began our epic drive back to civilisation. It really was epic too; once we had bounced over the surface of Mars we crossed vast stretches of sand, slate, rubble and rock, splashed our way through icy frozen streams which trickled down through the valley from frosted mountaintops and eventually watched the sky changing colour as we roared across the flat, limitless landscapes before Uyuni.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on July 31, 2009 from Uyuni, Bolivia
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Desert, Photos, Lakes, Ice, Salt, Flamingos, Cold, Springs, Jeep, Breakdowns, Geyzers and Epic

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Potosi, Bolivia

Potosi is famous for its mines. Once a wealthy city with rich mineral resources, its former glories now exist as souvenirs, in museums and the impressive buildings of the Central Plaza . Much has changed since the days of slavery when the mines were forcibly constructed under the Spanish; now the miners are free to use the government owned mine as they please (paying a certain percentage in taxes of course) and the tunnels are invaded twice daily by tourists bearing gifts if soft drink, coca leaves and dynamite in exchange for being put up with. It sounded a pretty good set up to me and after kitting ourselves out in wellies, waterproofs and rather fetching helmets, our small group each bought gifts and we headed up there to see what was going on.

Along the way we stopped off at the processing factory where lots of complicated separating procedures take place, eventually producing silver, lead and… something else. Obviously I was listening, taking in and fully understanding the science involved but I won’t bore you with the details. The machines were a lot louder than our guide. Basically they crushed up rocks and then took all the nice shiny bits out using machines that went round and made lots of noise. Really though, it was a pretty elaborate looking process and I just enjoyed the crowded collection of machines busily spinning, whirring, grinding and stirring.

Our next stop was the entrance of the mine. We switched on our headlamps and stooped carefully through the tunnels, trying not to hit our heads too many times and listening to the strange hissing of the pipes along the walls. We stopped at a point where the air suddenly turned warm and sickly. A young boy and (I assumed) his father pushed a big metal cart full of rubble along the metal tracks. It was hard to imagine children working in mines despite the prominence of working children across Bolivia . We had been served by children in restaurants, seen them shining shoes in the towns and cities, even been told off in a hostel by one for trying to use the wrong shower! There was a certain charm about it at times- like if a chubby four year old with a chocolatey face brought you your change or something – but this was a bit more disturbing.

We became used to the smells and sensations of the tunnels and soon found ourselves crawling on our bellies through the dust. Josh had been unsure about going into the claustrophobic mines but he didn’t seem too phased now that we were in there – even less so after a drinking session with some miners who we found relaxing at the end of their working day. With dust tickling our throats we climbed up and down spinning trap-like stairs and crawled shuffled and squeezed our way around the rocky tunnels, their wonky wooden beams looking set to collapse.

Eventually we felt a welcome rush of fresh air. We filled our lungs and moved excitedly through the well ventilated corridor to freedom, my helmet rattling happily along the ceiling. Once outside we were given a dynamite demonstration. We all stood silently as the bomb was constructed – it looked pretty harmless at first, like a little round plastic bag full of sweets, but the fuse gave it a menacing touch and, once lit, a sense of imminent destructive power. Oblivious to this, the guide passed the fizzing explosive to Josh who jokingly accepted and then quickly attempted to hand it back. But he wouldn’t take it! He managed to pass it on to an Irish girl whose fleeting moment of enthusiasm was quickly replaced with genuine concern as she failed to find a willing recipient. Eventually the guide took it and ran off onto some wasteland where he planted it before returning to safety. We waited until we started thinking it may not have worked when suddenly a bang shook the ground beneath us. I would not like to be in a mine when one of those goes off. No sir.

Potosi had introduced us to a harsher climate. Although sunny, the wind was bitter and patches of ice testified to freezing nights. We had come prepared – layers of long johns, fleece and alpaca kept us toasty – but as we set of towards Uyuni on a colourful little bus I noticed that we were practically naked compared to the bulky, blanket clad locals who shuffled onto the bus and shuffled sideways down the inadequate aisle.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on July 28, 2009 from Potosi, Bolivia
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Children, Rocks, Cold, Mines and Explosives

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On the Road (and a bit on the lake)

Oruro, Bolivia

We left Copacabana and headed for Oruro . The journey was not without incident - first our back tyre appeared to burst and our driver appeared to ignore it. The rest of us struggled to match his indifference and we sweated along mountain roads uncomfortably. When we miraculously arrived at the lake crossing, we were told that it was too choppy and we would have to wait because there were fears that our coach would topple off the feeble raft. It was partly a blessing, as our driver decided he might aswell fix the tyre while we were waiting. It hadn´t actually burst but the thing had completely fallen apart; the flapping we had heard was half of the grip coming off and the bald tyre would not have lasted much longer.

We eventually were permitted to cross and made it to La Paz where we got a bus to Oruro. I hoped it would be a nice, uneventful journey but no… A young boy selling biscuits got on (which is not unusual) and, in what I can only assume was a desperate marketing ploy, started singing loudly (which is). And I use the word “singing” loosely. It was so loud not even my headphones could block out the sound. I suppose the idea was to subject the helpless passengers to ear shattering renditions until someone bought something just to shut him up. Eventually, it seemed that someone had.

Oruro is a busy, modern market town with good street food and a distinct lack of gringos. The latter was underlined when, after a meal, our waitress start taking photos of us on her camera phone. We were planning on getting a train to Ururo but decided that a stop at Potosi along the way would be worthwhile. After another bus, from which we watched the amazing changing hazy layers of another desert sunset, we were there – checking into the kind of hotel room you normally only see in the movies when someone is on the run. Breakfast wasn’t included but we did find some chicken bones in the corner. Still, a bed is a bed, even when it is creakier than an old people’s home and partly constructed out of flattened cardboard boxes.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on July 25, 2009 from Oruro, Bolivia
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Tyre, Indifference, SingingBiscuitBoy, Oruro and CardboardBed

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Tear Gas and Trucha

Copacabana, Bolivia

We spent a final couple of days in La Paz and for our last night invested in a bottle of rum which we got for just over a pound. It was a good night although, despite four separate attempts, we failed to find a decent club in La Paz. I´d heard that some of the rival clubs in La Paz tear gas each other (this also happened in Cusco while we were there) and after a few minutes waiting for the music to divert from its monotonous pounding I would find myself painting pictures of pandemonium and planning my escape route.

Clearly I was ready for a change of scene and after eating away our hangovers the next morning we said our farewells and took the (nice and short) bus ride to Copacabana. It was a fascinating and beautiful trip through miles of arid mountain farmland until we came to the calm expanse of Lake Titicaca. Along the shore cars and coaches were being loaded onto flimsy wooden rafts and ferried across. We joined this surreal traffic and Josh and I decided to remain on the bus as we crossed rather than take a separate boat. Safely on the other side we continued our journey around the lake

When we reached Copacabana the sun had begun its slow descent into the lake which stretched as far as you could see. The golden light cast spectacular shadows as we came down into the town and I couldn’t help but think that this was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. I dribbled to think that there would also be fresh trout in every restaurant. I´m really very easily pleased sometimes.

The ferry to Isla del Sol, a scenic island on Lake Titicaca, left early the next morning and we headed to the Northern part which was supposedly the most spectacular. The lake looked even bigger and in the light of day snow capped mountains were visible on distant shores. The day was sunny with a cold breeze and we made the most of it by walking up into the dusty hills where we found a maze of Inca ruins and striking views in every direction. Challapampa, where we were staying, was sandwiched beautifully between two sandy beaches and we spent the rest of the day relaxing and eating more trout.

Aside from the incredible surroundings, one incident stood out for me that day. We had just finished eating when a pair of local kids appeared mischievously as the window. The smaller of them, a little boy with a dry face and a wonderfully snotty nose, was particularly excited to meet us and let out an incredible fart – way beyond his yeas – which we all found genuinely hilarious. I rewarded him and his slightly less controversial sister with a couple of sweets I found in the bottom of my bag. I also decided to demonstrate my own abilities when we got outside (by now Josh was unimpressed with even my most creative morning expulsions) but, disappointingly, little Snotface was gone.

We explored the south of the island the next day – more Inca ruins and scenic trout consumption – before heading back to Copacabana for a final night next to Titicaca. By the time we were delivered back, the sky had clouded over. As we got off the boat, huge clouds of dust blew across the town. Then, for the first time in South America, it rained. Actually it was more like hail and it didn’t last long but I couldn’t help noticing that Copacabana didn’t look quite as attractive this time around as we power-walked to our hostel, making strange faces into the gritty wind.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on July 24, 2009 from Copacabana, Bolivia
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Ruins, LakeTiticaca, TearGas, Trucha and IslaDelSol

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