martes, 10 de abril de 2007

All about isimo...

BA the beast

If you want to get an idea of just how big Argentina is go to the bus terminal in Buenos Aires. Tickets are sold out of booths along an endless corridor with each booth representing a different coach company and different destinations. It probably takes fifteen minutes to get from one end of the corridor to the other. With many journeys taking twenty hours (they go up to about sixty I hear) companies compete for passengers offering movies, dinners and drinks. It's a maze.

That was where I landed in Buenos Aires. A sea of coaches and chaos. Dorothy had well and truly left Kansas (or Patagonia). But she wasn't necessarily after the way home.

So where do you start when you arrive in probably the best city in the Americas if not the world ever ever? A museum? One of the great parks? The market? Don't be silly. I had been clambering up mountains, carving up my dinner with a pen knife and shamelessly taking photographs of lakes for three weeks. I looked like a trekking geek. And that's not a good look in Birmingham let alone Buenos Aires. Sure I'd come here to decide what to do with my life but first I had some serious shopping to do.

Could this desire to spend have been an avoidance tactic? My dad always says you won't find the answer to your anxiety in your wallet but what does he know he's only a bloody shrink! So after arriving at a fairly grotty high ceilinged hostel I stepped out into the smartest part of Buenos Aires, a shoppers delight: Palermo.

Palermo is the smartest dressed district in Buenos Aires. It's full of boutiques and bars, beautifully formed shops and eateries dotted along leafy residential streets, all competing for a peso in a totally pretentious Porteño none plussed way. On Saturdays and Sundays street stalls spread leather wear and jewellery out on the ground, gorgeous gangs of Buenos Aires beauties float between boutiques mainly to admire themselves in the latest designs before putting the items back on the rack. But it isn't all pap and posers. The level of creativity is really impressive. Whether it's smocks on hangers behind glass walls or buckles on belts siting out in the Buenos Aires sunshine, there is no shortage of style, colour and individuality. It's like walking through a gallery of ideas, just most of them relate to the bits of fabric we attach to our bodies. Everything in Palermo, wants desperately to be beautiful. And as ashamed as I am to admit it so did I.

But how far do you take that wish to be beautiful? For me it meant a new pair of shoes and a leg wax. But in Buenos Aires some people take it much further. This is a city with one of the highest (second last time I looked) rates of Anorexia in the world. You quickly get used to seeing women who look ill hanging over bars or rattling along streets. And without sounding like a fat European (shut it) I have to say that the sizes in the shops are totally screwed up.

I know everyone from the States and the US says this but it is true. In fact last year a law was drafted to make fashion designers stock bigger sizes but I was told that only affected the bigger stores outside of central Buenos Aires. So it seems size 0 is about the smallest and a size 10 or 12 about the biggest. I felt really put out to find myself unusually at the larger end of he rail where in England I happily sit in the middle, until I was told by one girl that I was lucky to even be able to shop in these places. 'Some of my friends just can't find any clothes to fit them and they aren't big at all. Shopping is an exclusive activity where anyone that isn't totally tiny becomes a fashion outcast.'

On the plus side the fact that people look after their bodies means people of all ages are pretty fit and you see less obesity than in the UK. The downer is that as far as I could tell Anorexia is pretty much acceptable here. Don't get me wrong I am not necessarily being critical. After all who are we to judge with our highly acceptable binge drinking culture. Argentines would probably be just as shocked to see how much booze the average Brit consumes at the weekend. Maybe not eating here is like drinking too much in the UK; just something people, especially the young, do.

Whatever; Thin, stunning Buenos Aires was the first thing that hit me. Then came the Mosquitoes. There was an infestation of the little bastards in Buenos Aires this year and they don't wait to get you in the night, they start biting at noon.

So I'd replaced mountains with office blocks, lakes with the gutter, chocolate shops with fast food chains and friends with a sea of strangers. Here you don't win any favours by smiling. Everyone's got enough friends, enough problems, enough to be getting on with and really they just want you to shift out the way. At least that's how it felt at first, Like I was very small in this very big city in a very big country in a very big continent. A city where everyone had a purpose except for me. And all this to the constant chunter and screech and roar of car motors, heaving buses and squealing taxis.

And then came the email. Not wanting to put pressure on me at all my lovely boss (and he really is lovely) had also sent me an email asking me to decide by the end of the week whether I wanted to come home to my old job or stay away for longer.

So feelings of inadequacy, insignificance, discomfort and uncertainty met with panic. And an initial... yes please let me come home now thank you please. Tomorrow in fact.

Any sensible person would at this point have taken a long walk had a cup of tea and maybe phoned their mum. What did Kika do? She went out to get twisted.

Before you run away with images of a Spanglish Midlander swaggering through the streets of Buenos Aires with a bottle of vodka let me assure you I was not alone. Al (yep him again) had put me in touch with a dear friend he'd met here whilst travelling. Clara and I got on instantly and hooked up with her Danish boyfriend, his friend an Irish fella a staunch manc and some more likable porteños and headed to a St Patrick's day party. I am not sure anyone, except the Irish guy (who was actually called Paddy), had any idea what St Patrick's Day was. It was just another excuse to party. It started well; nice people, nice place, nice music but by ten o'clock in the morning It had that not so nice now feel. Still in my heels and with a drunk Dane at my side it took an age to get back to Clara's flat. And then that awful feeling after a night out... you've been caught in the wrong time zone or something... then I couldn't seem to sleep at Clara's so I left and walked and walked and it's getting hotter and hotter and I know the only place I can sleep is the hostel, which is going to be hectic and what am I going to do with my life and why am I here anyway and.... Yep. I think it's what's commonly known as a come down.

Problem was the down just seemed to keep coming. I couldn't sleep at the hostel because of the Poles playing ping pong and various guests darting around the dorm as if it were a pinball machine. I couldn't think straight because I hadn't slept. I couldn't sleep because of the thoughts whirling around in my head and worst of all I had nowhere to escape to. So at approximately seven o'clock in the evening I did the only thing I could think of. I phoned my best friend all the way in Leytonstone east London and I cried. I cried like a child and Rachel told me it would all be OK and I shouldn't try to think about anything until I'd eaten something and had a good night's sleep. And that all my friends and family loved me very much and would still be there in a month or a ten, whatever I decided. Told you I cried like a little girl. But I felt better for it. And then I did exactly as Rachel ordered. I sat in an old fashioned cafeteria full of Argentine men mesmerised by the football. I ate a bowl of pasta and went to bed.

A new day

Next day I woke up and met Buenos Aires. I met an old lady who taught piano and wanted to speak French when I asked for directions. I met the waiters at a typical pizzeria watching the commotion as politicians chatted to voters and photographers hustled for the best shots. I met a fabulous Mama who waxed my legs with her bare hands and told me not to trust any men in Argentina as they are all lying Chamulleros. And I saw scurrying children on the walls of a Jewish school being met by their elegant Orthodox parents; Anti Bush graffiti in the famous Plaza del Mayo, where the grandmothers of Argentina's disappeared still hold a vigil; I saw street kids sleeping in the station, exhausted from smoking Paco (a derivative of cocaine) which has hit Buenos Aires like a plague. An old man dancing tango with his shadow outside of the city's grandiose cemetery where Eva Peron is buried. And it felt like I was waking up to my adventure... lots of stories lots of faces lots of colour and lots more to come.

So I spent the next few days thinking things through. Did I want to go home in six weeks time? What would I gain if I stayed ? What would I come back to? Could I come back more experienced or would I lose the experience by staying? I emailed lots, called my mum and carried on wandering about Buenos Aires. And in the end I decided that actually I really didn't want to go home after four months because the adventure had only just begun.

I realised I probably couldn't carry on 'just' travelling. It's not the backpacking life that I've fallen in love with its the different stories and people that appear when you walk around with your eyes open instead of fixed in a guide book. So really what I wanted to do was keep travelling, get involved with some different projects as I went - voluntary or otherwise - and maybe write about some of it for the BBC or other newspapers so as to pay my way. I was worried about how this would look to employers in the future but all of the responses I received from the people I emailed for advice were encouraging. And in the end I decided that if I went home it would be about fear and stability and if I stayed it would be about adventure and possibilities.

I will miss my family and friends but I think if I went home in May I'd be missing out. And besides I haven't thrown in the towel completely. I am still on a loose career break which means that the BBC will allow me to apply for internal positions when I get back.

In the midst of all this I went to La Boca, one of the poorest barrios in Buenos Aires and home to the mighty Boca Juniors. I walked around taking pictures of the coloured painted houses and watching the tango dancers and the overly made up waitresses languish over tables on a raised terrace. A boy of about twelve asked me for some change and when I said I didn't have any spare he asked me where I was from and where I had been and what my country was like? Did I havea coin from my country? I gave him five pence and a coin from Chile and one from Canada. He said he was collecting them so one day he could travel like me. OK so maybe he is saving for more paco. But for that moment he made me feel lucky to be doing what I am doing. No looking back. Now I just have to make it work. Gulp.

Back to Bariloche

With more time to play with now (eight and a half months to be precise unless I change my plans again) I realised what I actually needed was some time just hanging, studying Spanish, getting organised before friends arrived in April and OK OK I wanted to see Ale again. So off I went back to Bariloche.

I know it sounds like a strange thing to do after deciding so boldly that the adventure must continue but sometimes you really do need to give yourself a bit of space to breath and digest before you move onto the next big thing.

Ale had moved out of the hostel and into a friends flat, which he had to himself. It was so nice not sharing a bunk bed or a bathroom or kitchen with backpackers. Instead I had my books (Left wing Latin American history and Borges ), a view of the lake, really great company and best of all a pair of straighteners (thank you to Ale's friend).

Ale (pronounced Ali as oppose to the flattish beer) is the kind of person you want to be near to. He smiles with ease, speaks with Passion and is fiercely positive. He has beautiful bluey green eyes that mirror Bariloche's lakes shaded by sleepy lids that give them mystery or maybe make him look like the kind of boy most mothers would rather you didn't know. Oh and he has a bit of a mullet but that's to be expected in Argentina (blame Maradonna.) On the one hand he's totally ALPHA male; building a house for his mum, not showing weakness or giving into a dodgy injured shoulder and on the other hand he's into zen, hangs out with Lesbian hippies and would happily wear a daisy chain (OK I made that bit up but you never know). When he spoke to me in Portuguese (he lived in Sao Paulo until he was ten) I nearly wet my pants. But seriously, the conversation never dried up. Stories, ideas, humour, energy and affection, I didn't tire of him at all. In fact it just felt lovely being around him. (Ahhh.)

We did a lot of eating and drinking while I was in Bariloche; platters piled high with smoked meats and fish and artisan beers or cheap red wine and the daily special at cafeterias crammed with workers and families on their lunch breaks, hunching over checked table cloths, tearing into bread, chatting, nudging, laughing to the clatter of trays and the hum of the radio. And we went to lots of asados at Ale's friends houses. Asados are regular events in Argentina. I'm told they happen at least once a week and sometimes more. Like the parillas they involve lots of meat, but this time the meat is cooked on an open grill in a Quincho, basically a boys den. I say a boys den because in short the men take great pride in dealing with the meat and the women just chat or make the salad. There's lots of showing off and it's very much a hunter gatherer affair. So I felt right at home. The tradition is partly down to gaucho heritage and partly down to pure economics. People don't have that much money to spend so it make sense to take time to cook your own food and buy your own wine or beer.

The one problem with asados and all this sexy meat is that it does leave you somewhat constipated. Six days without a dump at one point in fact. I do not think that mate (the herb that Argentines people sip) is purely intended to give energy and clarity as locals will tell you. It is a laxative. I am convinced they take it to shit because they eat so much meat and very little in the way of greens. OK I know I am being crude but I swear it is, on the quiet, a national obsession. It doesn't take long to spot it. Supermarket isles are filled with foods that have added fibre, soya burgers, milk and even yogurts with weird names like regularis. There's plenty of dried fruit on sale too. But the biggest thing I noticed was that a lot of the toilets have these kind of shelves or levels so when you get up and check behind you normally see what you've err produced. Which wasn't much for a while for me. Embarrassing when you're temporarily living with someone you fancy a lot who greets you with a 'have you managed to shit yet' look in the morning and buys you prunes as a romantic gesture.

Still I can not think of a nicer place to be stuffing dried fruit down your neck in an effort to relieve constipation. Wherever you go in Bariloche there's generally a lake or a mountain and lots of fresh air. It's peaceful place and the walks are easy to get to. Not to say that the peace can't be shattered even at the top of a mountain. On one occasion Annabel and I hiked to Frey admiring the gorgeous scenery and the light as it hit the jagged rocks. Sitting inside the wood cabin at the top we looked out onto the lake, illuminated by the stars and full moon above and then heard the drone of three Virginia Freshmen. Is that what they call these student types who seem to belong in an episode of the OC and certainly not in Patagonia? It was all like totally like really that's awesome like so cool. Yah? Stop it Kika. Nature's for sharing right?

One thing you quickly realise about the Argentines is how bloody enthusiastic they are. You don't need a word to sum up Argentina. It's just 'isimo'. Everything here is buenisimo or lindisimo or barratisimo or (if it's bad) malisimo. And they really sing it. When Annabel and I arrived at the frozen lake at frey we responded with a typical English 'fuck it's gorgeous' and then heard the Americans and their 'this is so cool.' An Argentine would burst with elation: LINDISIMA! BUENISIMA.TOTALMENTE HERMOSA.

You get these constant reminders of how friendly and enthusiastic they are. Like a worker we met cutting brambles who asked if we wanted water and then advised us on the best route and how to avoid the yellow jacket flies and where to go in Northern Argentina. Then there were the drivers we hitched lifts from who want to take you directly to your destination and tell you all about the places they love in Bariloche. Hitching by the by is something you must do if you're in Argentina. You get to meet such a mad range of people, from an architect working on properties for the rich and famous to meat heads organising motorbike tours around Argentina.

But what I liked best this time in Bariloche was going to a Gaucho festival in a tiny village called Comallo. We found out about it thanks to Annabell's landlord Renato who at seventy something is still making boots for the local cowboys. Me and Ale rented a car, just in time and packed sleeping bags and a pile of food before heading out on the dirt road. The landscape changes dramatically from a green and blue patchwork of trees and lakes to masses of barren dry land with little civilisation apart from the odd pick up truck and grazing animals. We weren't sure what we would find as the festival had started a day earlier and would be drawing to a close. But just as the light started to fade we crawled into the village and were told to follow the Alamo trees. Clad in a poncho and jeans I couldn't help my eyes darting around. I was the one that looked out of place but for me this open air hall of leather clad gauchos and horses was captivating. Faces sun burnt, wrinkled and warn down, with tufts of black hair poking out of caps or flat rimmed cowboy hats. Loose gaucho trousers tucked into leather boots and fastened at the waste with a tied belt and a large knife poking out. Checked shirts, neck ties and waistcoats. They were the real deal; macho but also elegant. Even those gauchos who'd passed out on the wooden benches from too much wine had a certain grace about them. As if they'd been plucked from a painting and left in the dust.
We watched the last of the gauchos ride their horses rodeo style, falling to cheers and claps. And then there was more wine and fireworks and the best lambI've ever eaten, salty and cut straight from the bone on a wooden bar. Under a night sky we tried to dance like the gaucho boys and girls who step a pasa doble like they were still trotting along on horse back, bobbing up and down to the old fashioned melodies. As the night drew to a close we drove the car to a quiet spot and slept... until our wake up call that is.

In the depths of sleep I had heard voices but hadn't thought anything of it. But at about nine o'clock I woke up to a tapping and a slightly drunk gaucho with his face pressed against the car window. Trekking Lola would have acted immediately but I'd gotten used to having a bloke around so my instant reaction was to prod Ale in the side, unable to speak. The gaucho seemed to live near by in one of the only two houses, or shacks in view. He was after twenty pesos or failing that one would do and he was most curious about what this strange pair and their tin house. We drove home stopping to pick up some hitchers who'd been fishing and for coffee in an Argentine Saloon like hotel. I loved it. The dress, the colours, the sounds and the silence. It was something else for me all together.

When we got back to Bariloche semana santa was upon us and the tourists had started to arrive in droves. Chocolate shops mounted decorative eggs in their windows, restaurants filled up and trekkers filed in and out of town. In the midst of all this came the anniversary of the Falklands Invasion. There was no national TV channel in the flat so I missed a lot of the coverage. In fact if it hadn't have been for Ale picking up special edition newspaper it would have passed me by (call yourself a journalist hah!) What struck me about all this was the level of knowledge people here have about the Falklands. I don't feel like I know much about it at all or as if people at home really feel particularly affected by it. The wound is much deeper in Argentina even if opinions are divided. One of the most interesting people I spoke to was a young soldier who said military personnel aren't allowed to have opinions for fear of losing their jobs, but they face insults and taunts every day because they are blamed for what happened. It is strange thought; that not a million miles away from where I am sat right now people pay with pounds and post letters into red pillar boxes and celebrate the Queens birthday.

I've painted a very rosy picture of round two in Bariloche. It wasn't all moonlight and ice creams though. At times fitting into someone else's life in their home town left me feeling vulnerable. Argentinian Spanish can be difficult to understand, you don't know the culture and you don't always get the jokes. I could understand how my sister and mum may have felt in Spain in the past. You are an outsider, an alien at the dinner table. You get lots of attention but sometimes you aren't sure if the joke is on you. And besides there I was this English girl who'd come back to Bariloche to see a boy... I was bound to be a bit worried about looking like a mug. I think that's natural. You expose yourself to lots of new and strange experiences when you are travelling but you never lose that desire to belong, in fact you feel it more intensely and that's what makes you vulnerable I guess.

Generally though there was no pressure, no games and just a lot of laughs and smiles. At times I did wonder why this was happening now; such a beautiful beginning to a story that couldn't really go on, not very easily anyway. I am getting used to saying goodbye to people and places I've come to love. And this time I'm lucky because the hardest goodbye is being muffled by the arrival of friends.

As the bus pulled away I felt truly sad and wondered what it was all for. And then a Chilean guy sparked up a conversation about Salta and its enchanting villages and told me about crossing from Brazil to Bolivia through the jungle. And when the bus stopped I drank beer and talked football with three Argentine guys. And when we picked up the journey again I was woken from my sleep by a tap on the shoulder and asked if I wanted to come and sleep at the back of the bus. And far too sweetly (because sleaze is sleaze wherever you are) I declined. But the sadness went I felt very happy to be somewhere where you really never know what's around the corner.

Shameless Shea and pretty P arrive tomorrow and I can not wait. I will actually cry, dance an Irish jig and start talking in tongues as a result of the sheer joy at seeing old friends for the first time in three months. And then a week later my partner in crime and inspiration Thacks arrives and we'll hit Brazil before I start trying to earn a little... I hope. And I hope you won't tire of me blogging. I know the chunks are sometimes too long and I waffle but i am truly enjoying reflecting like this. It makes me appreciate it all the more and gives me a reason to taste even more magic and mischief on the way. So whatever happens next... I hold you entirely responsible... enjoy the ride.