jueves, 22 de marzo de 2007

Big climbs big steaks and big decisions...

Oh Latin America. How I love your internet cafes where I sit next to fellas pretending they're playing solitaire when actually they're looking at porn and where an hours work can be lost with the flicker of a dodgy connection.

So here goes for a second attempt.

Señora Lola

If there's one thing that's really precious when you're travelling its the warmth of someone who's not in transit. A none backpacker whose first question is likely to be 'have you eaten?' as oppose to 'how long are you travelling for... dude?' I really think pensioners in Latin America could cash in on a sort of adopt a back packer scheme. It was in Punta Arenas though that I got adopted by someone else grandma.

Set just before Chile's tip and Tierra Del Fuego; the end of the world, Punta Arenas is a small town with a harsh climate. People here wear thick jumpers and hats and don't go out after seven pm because of the weather. And that's in summer! I was staying with Señora Lola (real name) ahead of going to Torres Del Paine. Señora Lola is Pablo's grandma and one of the humblest, most generous and kindest people you could wish to meet. She spoke in one of those high pitched singing Chilean accents and ushered me into the warmth as soon as I tapped on the door. With a bed piled with blankets I was about to be very well looked after. She showed me photographs of my friend Pablo as a child, talked about her Spanish ancestry and asked me about my journey. Her wide eyed expressions made me realise how much I have already experienced. But just as enriching was eating roast lamb and corn cake, made by Señora Lola's own fair hand.

Looking down from the top of the hill, where Señora Lola lives, I saw a sea of coloured roof tops. Because of the weather people have to take very good care of their roofs. Some years back a trend started up and people began painting their roofs different colours, giving Punta Arenas its patchwork fame. In the distance you can also see Tierra del Fuego and across from there an island used by Pinochet to detain and torture political prisoners. Punta Arenas has a bleak beauty that really does make you feel like you are at the earth's edge. Big wide quiet spaces. And no rush. No rush at all.

A friend of Patty J, Zaida took my out with her for the day. Rosey cheeked from her work as a gardener in Punta Arenas her love for nature was infectious. When she asked where young people went walking in the UK she seemed baffled by the idea that we spend more time trying to walk straight than walking through in the countryside. She took me to the local cemetery, a land mark in Punta Arenas, where you really get an idea of Chile's complex diversity. Spectacular imposing tombs and graves bearing names of Spaniards, Germans, Croatians, French and English men... I wondered about who they were and what had brought them to this place. Working the land maybe? Escaping their own countries maybe?

As we walked I saw a funeral procession. But strangely the funeral goers did not look solemn or sad. No one was crying and the children appeared to be skipping as though this was a regular day out. I asked Zaida about this she said perhaps it was part of the Chilean character, part of their composure. She remembered people crying in the past. Then there was perhaps more hysteria. But now she thought people were more accepting of death as a natural part of life. Either that or they had learnt to keep their feelings inside.

I could have stayed with Señora Lola for weeks. Even when I sat by the stove in her kitchen I felt like I was wrapped up in blankets. But the peeks of Torres del Paine were calling so I bid Señora Lola farewell.

Taking on Torres del Paine

To get to the national park of Torres del Paine you have to travel to Puerto Natales, a small town where trekking is the main business. Bright eyed tourists pound the streets with shopping bags full of nuts and dried fruit for their journeys or at a slower pace looking for a cosy spot to rest their weary legs after the trek. Some people visit Paine for a day but most either chose to do the four day W circuit or the 8 day full circuit. You can stay at overpriced refugios on the W or camp, but the circuit is for fearless trekkers who aren't fazed by the elements.

As much as I hate to admit it I am one of those girls who always had a boyfriend to put up her tent or a friend who liked orienteering at school a bit too much (sorry Abs). I had never put up a tent, never lit a camping stove, and turned my nose up at packet soup. I had certainly never trekked alone before. And somehow in my delusion and because of all of the above I had decided to do the full circuit. Genius.

A Swiss guy who insisted on speaking his best Buenos Aires Spanish to me directed me towards a hostel where they held a daily briefing on trekking in Paine. The hostel was called the Erratic Rock and the speaker was a lanky white yank guy with blond dreadlocks and a 'hardcore' posture. Whether you're hitting the beach, the city or the mountains there's always a 'scene'. And all scenes are equally pretentious.

After thirty minutes listening to the dreddy trekker talk about the pros and cons of goretex, how cotton kills, why you should use gaiters and sticks and his list of top power foods I decided that maybe the full circuit wasn't for me. Not least because it might involve meeting more people like him on the way.

Camping in the wilderness, following the map and carrying my supplies for four days would be enough of a challenge. But I was still nervous. In Colombia we carried our clothes and sleeping bags and we walked in the heat and the shade. Here Paine was famous for exposing trekkers to all four seasons in one day. The nights are famously cold. It can rain for days and you have to carry everything. To seasoned trekkers this is probably very obvious but I was impressed by the notion of carrying my house, bed, fridge, wardrobe and bathroom on my back.

There really was nothing to worry about. Back at my hostel I met a trekking partner. A fireman come hiking guide from San Francisco called Don. Half Mexican half Irish he seemed somehow familiar and I figured there was no chemistry so we should get on fine...

I also met Annabell on route to Torres del Paine. With long strawberry blond hair and a pale complexion she was an elegant figure next to the two mongols and she was great company. Looking out the window as we watched the landscape change on the way to Paine she told me her story of having come to Argentina to set up a travel agency with her boyfriend who promptly decided he'd rather be a travelling free agent than a travel agent and went to Bolivia with the company car. Stuck in Argentina's lake district Annabel befriended a house full of actors working on a low budget gaucho western and managed to get adopted by a seventy year old local boot maker. You can see why we got on.

But Annabel was staying in refugios and starting at the other end of the circuit so it was just me, Don and a whole lot of mountain.
With the sun shining and the peaks kissing a clear blue sky we set off on our first climb. I have to admit that there was a moment when I thought 'did you really think you could keep up with a San Fran fireman you dick head' but panted on. The route is dotted with back packers clambering up and looping down. Wiping the sweat from their brows and unwrapping chunks of cheese and salami to feed on. I would keep seeing the same people for the entire four days and beyond... not always ideal...

Climbing over the last few rocks on this first days hike I saw the most spectacular view. The great horns of the towering mountains stand out like huge pillars of nature. In the distance a snow capped speckled mountain and below a pool of ice cold turquoise water. We sat with our beers cooling in the remains of yesterdays snow and ate avocado. I am getting used to finding myself in amazing and quite romantic places with people I don't fancy. Not that I'm that fickle of course.

Walking back down to the camp site you look out into this amazing vast space. All you see is the mountains and the pampas. No signs of modern bustle.

That day we hiked about 15 kilometers and over the four days it reached about 80 kilometers. But what I was most proud of was that I put up my own one man tent, washed in the river and was self sufficient.

As the days went on the landscape became even more wild, inspired and beautiful. We scrambled across rocky rivers, past booming waterfalls, looking out at huge glaciers and barren valleys. You can literally experience four seasons in a day in Paine so one minute it's sunny and the next it's hail. And the wind blows so hard it turns ripples in the lakes into crashing waves. When it was cloudy and rainy the landscape was bleak and powerful and when the sun shone nature's detail became illuminated... butterflies, wild flowers, insects.

But trekking is an intense experience and unless you really get on with your trekking partner I reckon it's probably best to go it alone.

There was a leak in my tent, my sleeping bag wasn't really warm enough and my back was aching. But what was starting to get to me was Don's offers to share his tent, listen to music in his tent or get my shoulders rubbed... in his tent. Perhaps it was my saying 'it might be nice staying or eating in a refugio because then you'd get to talk to other people' that sent him into the quiet zone. Whatever, I felt a bit trapped and awkward and it was probably starting to show... On the last night he decided to take the boat back and not see glacier grey the next day. I could either leave too or camp and trek alone for . Of course I did the latter and it was undoubtedly my best day in Paine.

I have never seen a glacier up close - there rather few and far between in the West Midlands. I hadn't really thought much about what it would look like when I stepped over the brow of the hill and saw the huge bed of ice. I felt so emotional I nearly cried. I don't understand how these huge cones of ice form in the water. It's like a graceful layer of icing as tall as houses stretching further than the eye can see. Fantastic.

But you don't cry. In fact there's only so long you can sit there staring before one of the Israelis you've seen along the way pops his head over; 'vat are you trawvelling alohn now?' Well I thought I was. Actually as much as reoccuring backpackers can get on your nerves they can also be quite comforting. And I rather liked the obnoxious Israeli boys fresh out of the mili and the two french sailors practically running along the circuit to make it back to their cruise ship home.

I liked the camping camaraderie, even though it made me realise that with my new found passion for trekking there really is no return to cool for Kika Duvet.

I spent a day in Puerto Natales nursing my chaffed thighs (nice), feeling pre menstrual and calculating how long it would be before I could get some proper sunshine again. I drank red wine and ate chocolate cake and looked out at the Turkish delight colours in the sky. In Southern Chile the sky always looked like Turkish delight. Pink and blue especially in the morning. I had got a lot out of Chile. But it was time to cross the border to Argentina.

Love at first sight in Argentina

From the moment I arrived I just knew I would love Argentina. I wanted to head up north as fast as I could so planned to see the infamous Perito Moreno in a day. The bus stopped in Calafate and then carried the remaining passengers around the corner to a service station for lunch. How can you not like a country that serves the best steak sandwich you have ever tasted at a regular service station? Cheese and pickle. Give me a break. Even the moody cashier had so much attitude I wanted to dip her in mustard and take a bite.

And if I was impressed by Glacier Grey the best was yet to come. Nestled in the Austral Andes this is one of the wonders of the world and it is just completely magnificent. People sit on the shore near by, stand on the cliff face balconies or take a boat to get up close to the glacier and watch huge chunks of ice crashing into the water.

All I had in my purse was a soggy ten dollar note which they wouldn't accept so I couldn't take the boat. Instead I asked the guide if I could walk to the balconies. At first she was hesitant saying it was a bit tricky but then pointed me in the right direction. It wasn't tricky at all. In fact it's a very well kept secret I reckon. I didn't see anyone else all the way. So I really felt like I had the view and the glacier to myself. Wonderful.

I didn't hang about in Calafate. Instead I took another bus straight to Chalten. The bus driver was a bad tempered good looking Argentine who snarled at the gringos and smoked when we stopped at a tiny shack absurdly situated in the middle of nowhere. A squeaky little man (similar to Manuel from Fawlty Towers) and a proud hostess served cakes and pastries to hungry travellers in the evening rush. The light was dim and you could practically hear people pissing in the toilets next door but the atmosphere was great. An old man with a rugged face and two younger companions sat at a gingham clothed table sipping coffee and looking in bemusement at the tourists. I got the feeling that this was the one rush of the day. Because there are very few buses that head along route 40. That woman must have been baking for hours.


With no reservation when I got to Chalten I lumbered along to the biggest hostel and managed to claim the last bed. It felt more like a throbbing holiday camp than a Patagonian retrieve. There must have been two hundred people there... or at least that's what it felt like. I was tired but I wasn't ready for bed. So I went and sat at the bar and got drunk with some of the local guys. They told me about how Chalten had changed since the economic crash in 2001. Ten years ago there wasn't any light here and there's still no ATMs or mobile phone reception. But when the bottom fell out of Argentina's economy young people flocked here to try and get work in tourism, which was starting to take off. A once struggling rural community has now been rejuvenated with a younger generation claiming it as home.

Like the rest of Argentina the guys in Chalten eat steak, show off (the men that is) and pout (the women.) It's a confidence and warmth that seems typical in Argentina.

I found a better place to stay the next day where I shared my space with a scruffy toddler, chickens and a very nice German girl, Yvonne. We met after another days hiking both singing from the same 'I might be done with hiking' song sheet and went for a parilla.

In case you've never had a parilla before (and let me tell you you have something to look forward to) let me explain what it is. Heaven. Sex on a plate. As good a reason as any for the Argentines reputation for being arrogant. If I came from a country where they had this for dinner I'd be arrogant. Basically it's a mix of generally grilled meat. The finest cut of prime steak and then anything from juicy chorizo to tender morcilla (black pudding) golden chicken and more beef. You get it bit by bit. Piece by piece. Not a vegetable in sight. You have to order those things.

I know now that Argentines don't eat steak or milanesa every day. Obvio. But when they do they eat it at ten or eleven at night. That's dinner time for them and that's just so Argentina. This is a country where they cook up condensed milk and serve it on toast for breakfast; dulce de leche. It's a country where people walk out in front of cars to cross the road. They have so much attitude and so much confidence. If they are a bit in love with themselves they've got got reason.

Chalten is beautiful. I was sorry I only spent a day hiking to see the Fitz Roy peak and sit by the beautiful lake and walk in the rich and vibrant woods. But I wanted to get up north fast and I'd said I'd meet Annabel in Bariloche.

The only way to get to Bariloche... in fact the only way to get anywhere without going back to Calafate and taking a plane is to take the so called Chalten Travel Tourist Bus. And my oh my are they onto something there. The company has a monopoly as for the moment the road is in such poor condition that few bus companies want to use it. So tickets are expensive and unlike most coaches here there's little comfort. Oh and did I mention that it takes two days?

We set off with a full bus and no air conditioning. Sat next to a beefy American from Denver who'd been working in EYE-RAK for a while and talked about going back to the States to see 'MY PEOPLE' I started to wonder whether I might have been better hiking.

I became slightly deluded thinking that I would ask a van driver at the next services to take me wherever he was going. He'd probably look like Antonio Bandarras and speak no English and very little Spanish either... just grunt. But I didn't see any truck drivers at all. In fact over the two day period I think we only saw three cars. And there was a nasty sort of fermenting smell of sleeping breath coated in digested junk food that festered as we went on.

True, at first it is amazing looking out at the pampas and the llamas and the ostriches and the condors. All you see for miles is rugged land and the sky. And the sky is amazing. It feels lower, as though the clouds are just above, sewn into the silk blue sky with silver thread. So I don't want to sound ungrateful. But that is literally all you see for six hundred miles. You'd never get that much uninhabited unused space in Europe. Surely there would be a power station or an Ikea there or something. But once again that's Argentina. So much space they don't know what to with it.

There was some relief. When we stopped for the night at the end of the first twelve hours of the trip at a hostel on Route 40 I bumped into Annabel. We spent the following day eating biscuits at the back of the bus and slagging off the German guy who didn't want the window open.

And then we arrived in Bariloche. By this stage in my travels I'd gotten fairly fed up with the guide book. It's a love hate relationship. So I trawled off and got lucky with a hostel called Nomads. It was late when we arrived but one of the guys from the tourist agency wanted to take me out for dinner. I didn't realise it then but he was probably the second or third Chamullero I had met and he certainly wouldn't be the last.

Oh so easy Bariloche

Chamullero is a word particular to Argentina. I just tried looking it up and found a translation reading 'conman shyster bullshitter'. I'd like to think it's somewhere between that and a schmoozer but basically its a word you could use for a lot of the men here. They're often good looking, very charming and full of shit. Although as one told me... it's not always a lie. They really do think you are gorgeous and the girl of their dreams... while you're standing there. They're chancers, romancers and they don't seem to take it personally when you say no. Too much confidence again maybe?

I fell in love with Bariloche. It is very touristy, crammed with ice cream parlours and the most Divine chocolate shops. Cabañas that look more like Swiss Cottages poke out from the road along the lake shore where there are look outs to take photographs. The view even from the town is very beautiful and the pace of life is slow. You can take a bus or hitch a ride out of town and within half an hour you're at the starting point of beautiful and rewarding day hikes.

I was so tired from all the trekking I'd been doing that I let myself go a little. I relaxed. I slept and pottered. I made friends with the people that ran the hostel and the people staying there. One of my favourite guests was a red haired Israeli guy travelling alone. People are put off by Israelis because often they travel in big groups and their manners leave a little to be desired. In fact I'd go as far as to say some of them are pretty rude. But you'll never meet a stupid Israeli or an apathetic Israeli. This one was called Dimaz and on the first day he told me 'I don't like za sun and za sun doesn't like me.' That can't be easy I said living in Israel? 'No. We decided Van of us had to leave and it was I.' Great response. And then later when I offered him salad another gem; 'No. I need to eat samfing which had parents.' He didn't realise he was being funny either. And I didn't realise he wasn't being funny when he told me he was a magician. Yep he made a spoon bend right in front of my eyes.

It was nice just spending time with people like Annabel and Dimaz. Sometimes you get tired travelling but you feel like you have to go on. You can't stop. Most of all I enjoyed spending time with my favourite hostel guest. Ale was an Argentinean / Brazilian who'd been studying in Australia after travelling for years. Very tall and very interesting and very much on my wave length. Oh and also very nice looking. We got on well.

When you are so far from home and your family and friends you really do miss affection. I think we take for granted how much affection there is in plane interaction and conversation with the people we know and love. So a bit of romance with someone that I enjoyed talking to, who taught me to sip mate and took me out on a boat with his friends, was well deserved. I had a big crush on him but I wanted to leave.

Maybe I left too soon. But I left for a good reason. Since pretty early on I've been wondering about whether four months is long enough here. Wondering whether I wouldn't like to write about some of the places I am seeing and people I am meeting... properly like not in a blog. Wondering whether I want to go back to Birmingham at all in fact. Work was great to let me go off in the first place. I am really grateful. And I don't work for or with wankers. I work with really good friends. So I wanted to tell my boss that I was thinking of staying longer. With interviews coming up he asked me to make up my mind within the week. I needed to do a lot of thinking.I suppose I wanted to go to Buenos Aires to see if I could hack it in a big city. To see how I felt and test myself in the smog.

Three hours into the 20 hour bus journey we stopped and one of the drivers asked me if I would like to take mate with him and the other drivers. Mate is a little pot that you put (legal) herbs and hot water in and sip through a metal straw. It's a bit like coffee in that it wakes you up but it's more calming and good for your digestive system. Not that it seemed to calm the drivers down.

One O'clock in the morning and I am sat with three Argentinian drivers all making rude jokes and pushing their luck with me. It felt quite surreal but I also felt quite privileged. As we laughed I noticed that the man driving had very delicate hands and slim legs. And for some reason the other guys kept calling him Matilda. The driver who'd invited me to join them went to take his nap and that's when Matilda told me his story.

Born into one of the richest families in Cordoba Matilda was a little girl who liked football and in teenage years became attracted to other girls. In essence my driver had been born into the wrong body. So twenty years ago at the age of 18 his family flew him to Cuba where he had a sex change operation. Although it is more common now, Doctors told him he was the first woman to become a man in South America.

Once again there I was with this inspiring crazy world dishing up another great story. Was there more like this in South America? Would I learn more if I stayed? Could I use this adventure to take me onto something else when I got home? Those were the questions going through my mind as I arrived in Buenos Aires. I had a big decision to make in a wonderful and fiercely intimidating city that would test my nerves and the courage of my conviction.

1 comentario:

Chorizo Wagon dijo...

You bugger... talk about leaving it on a cliff hanger!!