Monday, 28 March 2011

Peru-sing South America's most unexpected gem...

With the poverty and scenery of Bolivia behind me, I was anticipating good times and great experiences to be had in Peru, South America's 3rd largest country by area. I was flying from La Paz to Cusco, the traditional jumping-off point for people going to the world-famous Machu Picchu. This may not sound remarkable in itself, but on my flight there, I was accompanied by only 14 other people on the plane (an Airbus A319 painted to look like a crocodile - a plane that can supposedly carry around 134 passengers). This made me feel especially guilty about my carbon footprint, which is more of a 'carbon trench' being carved out in South America's lovely landscape.

This wasn't the only air travel-related incident of note. On arrival in Cusco 'International' Airport, all 15 passengers were forced to wait while the immigration official ambled slowly to his desk from goodness knows where. When he had finally arrived, he had a look on his face as though the passengers had asked him to wipe their arses one by one.

Once I had finally made it into Peru, the patriotism was almost tangible. Every single Peruvian with whom I came in contact informed me of the great joys of Peru and how much of a wondrous place it is. A typical line was "Peruvian women are fantastic". This turned out to be mostly codswallop. Despite their false promises, I was made to feel very welcome in Peru. One incident that springs to mind is my first lunch in Lima, when a local chap, having spotted my map of Lima, shook my hand and said "welcome to Peru, amigo". I was touched. But my sexual assault case is a story for another day, Peruvians were simply incredibly welcoming.

I must say, I wouldn't remain quite so friendly if my home had been overrun by 'gringos' (a South American term for backpackers). Cusco was full of them. And this was the low season allegedly. This in itself wasn't a major issue for me, it was more the general ignorance of all of these gringos. Whilst sitting in a café (named Inka-fé - geddit?) enjoying a cup of maté, a group of 4 English gap year girls sat on the table next to me. When they ordered, not once did they attempt a word in Spanish. Surely everyone knows at least the words 'gracias' or 'por favor'? Alas, no. The English had managed to embarrass a whole nation once again just through sheer ignorance and laziness.

So from Cusco, off I went to arguably South America's best-known tourist attraction. Machu Picchu. For those ignoramuses (ignoramus of course being derived from a latin verb form, not a noun, thus rendering the pluralisation 'ignorami' ironically incorrect. But I digress.) who don't know, Machu Picchu is basically a city of ruins high up in the Peruvian mountains. I must say, the whole day was a pleasure, right down to the transportation to and from the site. Getting there involved a train. Not any old train though: this was train travel as it should be. The carriages were large and spacious with plenty of light and just before departure, the whole platform was a chaotic scene of passengers, conductors and catering staff. It was the most enjoyable chaos I've seen in a while. When we finally got under way, there was a trolley service with delicious and thoughtful meals provided. I was indeed a happy bunny.

When I had finally reached the site itself, my first thought (other than 'wow' of course) was "why the Dickens did someone decide to build a town here?". To put this in perspective, it took us 25 minutes in a bus to get up the mountain. That was in modern times, how did they manage it in the 15th century? Either way, the journey was worth it. Despite being riddled with tourists and the driving rain, I had a thoroughly interesting time at Machu Picchu, and would recommend it to anyone.

Back to Cusco. A fairly unremarkable colonial town with a pleasant central plaza and some nice architecture. The city itself has more-or-less 400,000 inhabitants, which puts it on a par with Liverpool. "This all sounds wonderful" you may be saying, "but why the hell should I care?". I'll tell you why: every night at 10 p.m., the city of Cusco turns off the water supply. No running water. At all. Until 5 a.m. In a city the size of Liverpool. Insane.

So I left Cusco (smelling terrible) and headed to the capital, Lima. A city of some 9 million people and one of the former capitals of the Spanish South American Empire. Yet sadly, Lima seems to be omitted from most people's itineraries. I must say I was surprised by Lima: many people had warned me I'd be bored and that there was nothing to do there. With this in mind, I turned up with low expectations.

I was staying in 'Gringo Central', an area of the city called Miraflores. This just so happened to be the wealthiest part of the city, and thus was filled with shops, pleasant parks and fewer homeless people than elsewhere in Lima. In fact, Miraflores was the richest place I had been to on my trip so far. I saw people driving around in Hummers, Mercedeseseseseses, BMWs and a host of other luxury cars. All of which seemed rather pointless. I'm not going to criticise the capitalist system at this point, merely point out how Limeños are the worst drivers I have ever seen. They made Romans look like careful, considerate motorists. Lanes were painted on the roads, but the local government may as well have painted pictures of frogs spinning plates whilst playing billiards with a seahorse. This probably would have made more sense than trying to persuade Limeños to stay in their respective lanes.

And for those of you wondering if the standards of the women had improved since Bolivia, they certainly had in Miraflores. This was Peruvian rah central. I hadn't seen so many Ugg boots since my time at Durham. This was truly a beautiful place filled with beautiful people.

The city centre was a different proposition, however. On my one day (it'll become clear why I didn't go back) in the town centre exploring the sights, I was accosted by a German. Now, being British and a bit of a Germanophone, I was too polite to simply ignore the man, so I humoured him and engaged him in conversation. He fed me some cock-and-bull story about how he was attacked and mugged, and how the German Embassy had told him he needed to travel to another one of their consulates to get hold of a new passport. At first I refused because I clearly didn't believe his story, but in order just to get him away from me, I offered to give him 2 Soles (about 50 Pence). As I was rummaging around in the coin section of my wallet, he somehow managed to take a 100 Soles note out without me noticing at the time. He left me alone, seemingly content with the 2 Soles and I was happy to escape. Only later did I discover the missing monies and curse myself for my naiveté. I felt like the Allies in 1939: completely betrayed by the Germans following various unkept promises.

This German wasn't the only unpleasant person I encountered in Lima: the service in restaurants was almost as bad as the driving on the roads to get to the restaurants. Staff were slow, inattentive and rude. The worst part was when they had the audacity to ask for a tip at the end. No chance. I nearly spat out my Inca Kola. But Peruvian dining wasn't all bad: they have both the aforementioned Inca Kola - a new favourite soft drink of mine - and Pisco sour - a new favourite alcoholic drink of mine. Inca Kola is a bubblegum-flavoured fizzy drink, occupying the same market as Coca-Cola or Sprite. Except Inca Kola is a lot more popular than these two pretenders. A lot more popular. In fact, Coca-Cola was so worried about its dominance on the Peruvian market, that instead of trying to compete, it just bought the Inca Kola company.

Pisco sour is an alcoholic cocktail made from lime juice, egg whites and a local spirit called Pisco, a sort of grape-derived brandy. Again, this was delicious and certainly did the trick.

Besides its drinks, Lima is home to a great number of surfers' beaches. However, these are all named after other famous beaches: there was a Redondo Beach and a Waikiki Beach, all of which led me to think: do they really want to name parts of their country afters places traditionally filled with Americans..?

So after a few days enjoying the hidden delights of Lima, I was off to Colombia. But that's a story for another day.

So long for now, and remember: never trust an injured German.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

It's unboliviable Jeff!

When I left you last time out I was gasping for breath in La Paz, the world's highest capital city, at over 4,000 metres above sea level in parts. The sad thing is, I wasn't even joking about being constantly out of breath: just sitting down makes you pant like a dog in a hot car after a particularly strenuous walk (I exercised considerable restraint with that analogy). The locals advise getting through this by drinking vast amounts of Maté de coca (Spot test: which country was especially keen on Maté? The answer will be at the bottom of the page.), which I gleefully took part in and soon developed an alarming coca habit.

The second thing to hit me (well the third if you count that Bolivian woman with the enormous hand luggage that bashed me in the face) was just how comparatively poor La Paz is. Having previously been to Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile, all countries in the top 5 richest of South America, Bolivia was a shock to the system: houses were half-built yet still lived in; the public buses had had their heyday in the US... in the 50s; children apparently paying homage to Oliver Twist swarmed on the pavements in abundance and everywhere I went there was someone trying to sell me something, be it an Incan charm, a pickled llama foetus or even bits of chewing gum. One thing I found particularly cruel and unnecessary was the ubiquitous Samsung billboards advertising products most of these people would never get close to owning through legal avenues: what the hell is a homeless Bolivian street child selling chewing gum to tourists going to do with a 3D television? The guy didn't even have any shoes on, let alone a reliable source of electricity or the means to subscribe to a very generous and good value satellite service, offering all the sports, movies and documentaries one could wish for, all available in stunning 3D and high definition.

 Yet all this poverty is a blessing in an horrendous disguise for idiot tourists like me: Bolivia is ridiculously cheap. A typical lunch from a set menu comes in at less than a Pound. A Pound. For 3 courses and a drink. Sure, the food was average at best and I considered myself lucky every time I woke up the next day with my vision relatively intact, but Bolivian food does represent excellent value.

The food wasn't the only health risk I encountered. La Paz is extremely polluted. The ancient buses and similarly aged cars made Chinese heavy industry look like a Greenpeace oxygen, environment and happiness factory. If each cigarette takes 8 minutes off your life, then 8 minutes in La Paz must take at least a week off your lifespan.

Now call me a speculator (if that's the worst I get called by the readers of this blog I'd be very surprised), but I suspect all of this pollution may contribute a tiny bit to one of Bolivia's most remarkable aspects: Bolivians are ugly. Seriously, I didn't see one attractive Bolivian (male or female) during my entire time there. Maybe I was just unlucky, or maybe I have a very bizarre taste in women, but I can safely say I did not glance twice at any one Bolivian female.

Bolivia's not all bad though. Far from it in fact. La Paz now has the great honour of being home to my third favourite museum in the world: El Museo de Instrumentos Musicales in La Paz. I felt like I was 5 again, as I was surrounded by all these weird and whacky instruments, a lot of which I was allowed to have a go on! If I felt like this aged 23, how would I have felt aged 5... I can't remember the last time I had so much fun bashing, plucking and tinkling...

Having offended the hearing of everyone within 2 miles of the museum with my overenthusiastic musical efforts, I decided to escape town for a while lest I be lynched by angry La Pazians. My destination of choice was the hilariously-named Lake Titicaca. Now to say it was pretty would be plain wrong. Beautiful would still undersell it substantially. I can honestly say that Lake Titicaca is in the top 10 most stunning Bolivian bodies of water I have ever been to. But seriously, it was incredible. Just amazing. The scenery was breathtaking, the sapphire-coloured water complementing the dramatic surrounding mountains perfectly, all fittingly wrapped in an envelope of sunshine. If you only have time to visit one place in Bolivia, this should be it. This wondrous place was only made better by my accommodation, which was an enormous room with 4 beds, 2 hammocks and a kitchenette. This may sound quite good in itself, but the icing on the cake was the view from my window. Just outstanding.

Titicaca (giggle) is only 1 of the 2 recommendations I have for anyone headed to the La Paz area. The other is to go for a bike ride on the so-called 'World's Most Dangerous Road' (about 300 people died on it every year until a safer replacement road was built). This takes you along a 40 mile route along a narrow, rocky road with some fantastic scenery. If I wasn't concentrating so hard on staying on the road I could describe it far better to you. 40 miles may sound like a lot, but the whole route is basically downhill, meaning the only thing that gets tired is your fingers from all the braking.

Bolivia is truly eye-opening then, both in a bad and a good way. Poverty and daily struggles are happening in front of one of the most glorious backdrops in the world. The landscape and the prices (but not the women) have left me wanting to return to Bolivia one day, although next time I'll have to pack my thesaurus to help me adequately describe Bolivia's natural beauty.

Until next time, when I'll be discussing the delights of my current location, Peru. And please, don't have nightmares.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Red hot Chile's better

What does anyone actually know about Chile other than it being the basis for a lot of awful 'Chilli/chilly'-related jokes?

Well, it's one of South America's richer countries, has a long and proud history involving both European immigrants and indigenous peoples, it has a population of nearly 17 million (of which 4 million live in Santiago, the capital) and they're good at getting trapped miners out of the ground.

Chileans are also tremendously friendly. The hardcore followers amongst you will remember my ranting about the friendliness shown by Montevideans. Chileans come close, with everyone out and about ready to help ignorant, lost little tourists like myself.

I only had a chance to visit Santiago, which is relatively boring on the face of it, but scratch beneath the surface and you find a population ready and willing to engage in some serious fun. One of Santiago's stand-out traits is its apparent peculiarities. Santiago seems to have more stray dogs than the rest of the world put together. What surprised me though was that these dogs didn't look mangy or flea-ridden or anything; they just looked like someone owned and indeed looked after them and had forgotten to put a collar on them. I saw huskies, German shepherds, sausage dogs and poodles. It was truly bizarre. Furthermore, they seemed to have better road-crossing skills than most Brits I know.

Something the Brits can do, however, is drink. The Chileans less so. The police in Santiago insist all nightclubs shut at 5 a.m., meaning there is a host of illegal clubs behind locked doors. These have all sorts of peculiar customs, such as look-outs informing revellers when the coast was clear to leave and a range of secret knocks to gain access to said venues.

Apart from illegal clubs, Santiagons have another vice: 'Café con Piernas', or 'Coffee with legs' to the non-hispanophone. These are cafés where the waitresses (and they are all waitresses) all wear very short skirts. The strange thing is that they don't normally serve alcoholic drinks, which begs the question of 'why bother?'. Well, the coffee served there is no more expensive than in most other places, and I have been reliably informed that the quality of coffee there is actually superior to most other places. I think this is an idea that could be exported to the UK. Although they'd have to apply it to things that aren't coffee, seeing as most Brits are about as sophisticated as sack full of dog turds. 'McDonald's with legs'? 'Jobcentre with legs'? The options are plentiful...
Cafe con Piernas

Moving on now... Having met and grown friendly with a large group of people at my hostel, we decided to take in a Chilean League football match featuring Chile's largest team, Colo Colo. The atmosphere wasn't as good as the one I experienced in Brazil and the standard of football was insulting to many in the crowd, but the ride home on the Metro was something else. Really one of the most fun times I've ever had on public transportation with my trousers still on. We were in a packed carriage with lots of victorious Colo Colo fans, who were all singing and clapping very loudly and generally being happy at the result. Then they started jumping up and and down. This wasn't just a few people, this was a carriage full of about 200 people, all jumping simultaneously. This made the carriage move around more than the north-east coast of Japan. I was genuinely concerned we would derail whilst going round a corner. Things got so shakey that the train had to stop at a station for an extra 5 minutes or so whilst everyone calmed down a bit... and then continued once we started moving again.

Unfortunately, the people of Chile are used to the ground shaking a lot, seeing as they suffer from a lot of tectonic activity. In early 2010, they suffered and earthquake and resulting tsunami which killed over 500 people. Speaking to a Chilean about this particular earthquake really opened my eyes. He told me it happened at around 3 a.m. on a Friday night, meaning a lot of people were enjoying a night out. When the earthquake struck, they are alleged to have gone out to the streets quickly and cheered, apparently ignorant of the scale of this fatal 8.8 magnitude tremor. The Chilean attitude to earthquakes seems to be one of only mild annoyance. They perceive earthquakes occurring with the same mild irritation we do when the sky's slightly cloudy when we're trying to have a barbecue.

Now I'm sure you've all been religiously reading these posts and have been blown away by their quality and insightful. If you'd like to read more on the topic of travelling, with an emphasis on South America, I'd recommend the following, each with a slightly different twist on the travelling theme:  A serious and intelligently-written blog on the uncertainty of the post-degree gap year. A light-hearted, more personal take on all things Gap Year written by one the most qualified people I know.

For now, I'm in La Paz, a city so high above sea level, breathing is constantly difficult. Hopefully you're also now feeling slightly breathless after reading this. Farewell. 

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

BA's Maracas

The problem with France is that it's full of French people. Sure, there are some nice ones, but the majority of the French manage to offend nearly all 5 senses. If this fact puts you off going to the traditional Paris - you know, the one in France - you can always do what I did and hop on a plane and take a trip to the self-proclaimed 'Paris of the South': Buenos Aires.

Buenos Aires is a curious place: it has elegant baroque architecture in abundance, but when the local government were planning where to put all of their 60s tower blocks, someone must have sneezed on the blueprints. This is only explanation I could come with for why every pleasant colonial-era building seems to have a hideous great hunk of concrete next to, in front or on top of it. This is a crying shame, because Buenos Aires' buildings (the nice ones at least) really surprised me with their splendour. The Palacio de Congreso for example was supposedly based upon Washington's Capitol building, but in execution there was one crucial difference: they actually thought about it, rendering it tasteful and not garish.

Buenos Aires is indeed a proper big city, with all walks of life represented and all sorts of locales in which they live and work, so a lot like Rio really in this respect. Where it differs - and it differs hugely - is the sense that all Porteños (as residents of Buenos Aires are known) know that work also has to be done and that there is a time to be serious as well as a time to have fun.

And fun they do have: on my first night in Buenos Aires, I decided to check out the local cuisine and so headed to my nearest Parilla, or steakhouse to you and me. I was sat down and immediately given a shot of Jerez for no obvious reason. Not wishing to offend my beaming waitress, I obliged and drunk it. Following this I ordered a steak with chips, expecting a relatively standard steak-based affair. How wrong was I. The cow from which the steak seemed to have been cut must have been 40 feet tall and had a rump the size of Sunderland. It was humongous. It was also delicious.

When I finally finished this gargantuan pile of protein, I was offered more complimentary alcohol, which I gleefully accepted (Limoncello in case you were wondering). The greatest surprise came with the bill. All of 
this excellent food and alcohol and it amounted to less than £10. What a place this was turning out to be.

What every good Porteño does after their nightly steak (it is estimated that Argentinians each eat on average 70kg of beef a year) is let the meal digest until about two o'clock in the morning and then head out on the town. The Argentinians like to leave it late. And I mean late. In one nightclub we visited the doors opened at midnight and the dancefloor didn't open until 3 a.m. They all enjoy it as well. I was hard-pressed to find a miserable-looking clubber, although that may have had something to do with the 'clubbing aids' readily available in the lavatories. 

Not even I could dampen their spirits with my horribly broken Spanish: I managed to sort-of converse with an Argentinian financial analyst for nearly an hour and she humoured me throughout, not once pretending to go to the bar or the toilet. I would say she was just more desperate than other women to whom I've spoken in the past, but I like to think it's just the Argentinian way.

The undoubted highlight for me was going to see a percussion group called 'La Bomba del Tiempo'. This was a group consisting of drummers, bongo players and even a Bez impersonator on the maracas, all of whom were expertly led by a conductor who seemed to be frantically trying to communicate with the group through what looked like some primitive sign language. Either way, it worked.

So if you're looking for somewhere with lovely architecture, great food and a cracking nightlife, go to Paris. If you want all of the above, but with fewer Frenchmen and bigger steaks, head to Buenos Aires.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Montevideo grilled the 'acado' star

Author's note: You may have seen that I've located the image-insertion function, so expect more visual accompaniments to my ramblings.

Terrible. Awful. Horrendous. The worst place I've ever been to. A pointless globule of pigeon turd spoiling what would otherwise be a fine continent.

None of the above describe Montevideo, city of some one and a half million people and capital of the bovine powerhouse of Uruguay. It's actually a really nice place to be. It has the same sort of endearing quality as your favourite grandparent who used to take you on all sorts of exciting trips but is now senile, incontinent and can't remember who you are or why you're hugging them. Montevideo is akin to a faded Spanish seaside resort: all the ingredients are there for litoral perfection, but they lack polish and care.

You see, Montevideo is on the surface very well run and maintained, with seemingly little poverty and few negatives. Then you start noticing more and more little things that detract from the whole; large chunks of pavement missing, tramps hidden cunningly behind signs and bins so they aren't moved on by the police and the fact that most of the public buses seem to be older than than Uruguay itself.

Despite all of these shortcomings, Montevideo is without doubt one of the friendliest places to which I have ever been. The tramps mentioned above greet everyone with a cheery 'hola' and people will try and start conversations with you wherever you are and even though they might as well be trying to communicate through interpretive dance for all the Spanish I know. One excellent example of this willingness to not let anything get in the way of a good natter was when I was on a bus one day. We were stopped at some traffic lights and another bus pulled up beside us. The two bus drivers then proceeded to discuss seemingly everything that's ever happened in the world ever, not even hinting at moving. This continued even though the lights had long since changed to green. It was only after one more cycle of traffic lights that they decided the time was right to continue with their jobs. The strangest thing about this whole episode was that noone in the cars behind honked their horn. I don't even think they noticed, such is the chilled-out vibe of the place. People in the UK may complain about infrequent rubbish collections, but in Montevideo the pace of life means they use a horse and cart to collect people's rubbish. It's utterly bizarre and confusing.

The friendliness aspect of the residents of Montevideo can once again be illustrated by buses. Each bus has 2 types of horn: one normal horn to make pedestrians move off the road when necessary, and a second, quieter horn which emits a whistling noise. They use this second horn to 'whistle' at other bus drivers, nothing more. 

As mentioned above, the Uruguayans are really quite keen on their meat. Their two national dishes involve meat as much as they can. There are acados, which are basically huge barbecues with as many different types of beef thrown on top as possible, and there are chivitos. A chivito makes a burger from a US branch of McDonald's look like a snack. For a mouse. Who's just eaten a large roast dinner. In short, they are enormous burgers, with all sorts of unhealthy and hilarious extra ingredients. Initially, it looks like a regular burger, just a lot larger. Then comes the shovelling on of extras: ham, cheese, eggs, artichoke hearts, chicken, more beef, more cheese, pickled onions, pickled carrots (seriously), more cheese and about a gallon of generic pink chivito sauce. These things could keep even the most stereotypical of Americans full, for a few hours at least. 

Then there's Maté, a drink similar to tea to which Uruguayans seem to be addicted. You will often see people out for a stroll, Maté mug in one hand and a Thermos flask in the other to top up the hot water (see image below). Maté is made of bitter herbs brewed in hot water. It is then drunk through a special straw with an inbuilt strainer. 

This fantastic friendliness and feeling of welcome is only one of Montevideo's fine attributes. The women there were generally extremely attractive, a feature enhanced by their seeming self-deprecation. If these women were in the UK, they would be eternally dressed in bikinis and trousers so tight you'd think their backsides were doing their best impression of Vanessa Feltz taking part in a lasagne eating contest. This, and the pleasantly warm weather make it really not hard to see why so many Nazi war criminals chose to come here. 

Montevideo effortlessly exudes bonhomie and never feels like a city with 1.5 million residents. This quietness is further emphasised on Sundays, when the entire city centre is eerily empty, and again on week nights, when most bars seem to shut at half past 8 in the evening. Nightlife during the week in Montevideo is a lot like the clitoris: it may take hours of searching and several moments of doubting its existence, but when you do find it, it will bring hours of enjoyment.

"Montevideo is your home, as is this square"