I didn’t realise how much my life and my place in society was defined by my job and my routine at home and how much I have clung to that in the past. Letting go you find yourself falling into an abyss of uncertainty as well as possibility. Of course I know what I have achieved before, but in moments of doubt I find myself questioning who I am and what if anything I am good for now. I am realising that as self assured and independent as may be, I also need reassurance and am sometimes (or maybe often) oversensitive. Now that I have taken the decision to stay away and am attempting to do something challenging it is up to me to buck myself up. If I don’t believe I can do this and make it work no one will tell me otherwise.
OK so that’s a bit of an exaggeration; I mean even from afar friends and family still push you on. But what I miss sometimes is the confidence they inspire just by being close by. When you share a joke or a trouble, seek advice or confess a sordid exploit it reconfirms who you are and that you exist. As if someone else, someone you love and respect understands you and thinks you are alight. A touch on your shoulder, a familiar smile, a healthy bit of piss taking; all that disappears when you are thousands of miles away travelling alone.
So when my friends Pretty P Paula and Shameless and later Sarah Thacks arrived everything just felt a whole lot easier… and a lot cockier too.
I am still not sure what the Russian was doing in Buenos Aires. He drove a shiny black city jeep but was staying in a hostel dorm He said he worked in the oil business but the photos he showed us of him ‘vurking’ on a pipe line looked more like pull outs from a homo erotic magazine. He didn’t eat meat but was happy to watch the three ladies dribbling steak juice down our chins and carving up the internal organs of a cow in front of him. It’s true, we had no shame but perhaps we didn’t feel the need to impress him after a surreal ride across town in which we were introduced us to the delights of Russian dance music. He would turn up the volume then pause the track and after something between a hmm and a grunt explained what the song was about: ‘hmmmgh this van is about a wohmen who is getting old has no love but she says she vill meet her handsome prince van day soon Hmmmgh;’ Or ‘this van is about a man and he is in love wiz a girl who is only 16 but he is also a boy.’ Was this Buenos Aires or Vladivostok? We laughed so hard it hurt and because of his ego he didn’t realise what we were laughing at and took it as a sign of approval.
Likewise when at dinner he started telling jokes it wasn’t the jokes that made us laugh but the way he told them; Sitting to attention, eyes wide open, clears throat with the hmm like grunt ‘ Giryls… do you know ze joke about hmmmgh how are zey called people who can not talk or hear?’ And delighted as he remembers ‘Ah yes deaf and dumb! Three deaf and dumb, wan English, van America, van Russian…’ And so it went on. Suitably impressed Shameless did her usual pout and pounce and ended up spending the early hours of the morning in a love hotel.
Love hotels are not unusual in Argentina and more of them have sprung up since the economic crisis of 2001 as people still live with their parents and so have to find some where to hmmmgh get intimate. People in Argentina are surprised when I tell them I have my own house. Here banks won’t lend money and there’s no such thing as a mortgage so getting on the property ladder is tough. Though, that doesn’t really explain the Russian’s expert use of these dens of sin…
And then the main course...
We also hired an alternative guide for the afternoon; a left wing history teacher who quickly got the measure of us. We stopped at the Plaza de Mayo, where the pink house, probably best known for that scene from Evita. Madonna’s casting caused huge offence in Argentina because people thought the role should have been played by a native, but when it came to filming they queued for hours to get in on the act as extras or at least catch a glimpse of the leading lady. The Plaza de Mayo has an incredible energy about it. This is of course where Peronist politics took form but also where mass demonstrations and rioting broke out after the 2001 economic crisis.
It’s also where the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo still hold a vigil every Thursday for their disappeared children. Thirty thousand people disappeared under the military dictatorship of the late seventies and early eighties. It’s been termed the dirty war but human rights activists prefer to refer to it as state terrorism. And the ripples of that state terrorism are still being felt today. The children of the disappeared are now the same age as me. Some were adopted by military figures responsible for their parents’ torture and murder. Today there are efforts to reunite them with their grandparents, but for some that’s too much to ask. They’ve been brought up to think of their biological parents, as oppose to their adoptive parents are enemies of the state.
Later when Thacks arrived we went back to the Plaza de Mayo to see the vigil. As it happened we were there as the mothers marked the thirtieth anniversary of their formation so they were the focus of an array of photographers and cameramen as well as tourists and supporters. I really don’t know enough about their struggle. I can not imagine what it would be like to have a child disappear in that way; to grow old without answers or justice. There is something enormously humbling about the image of these old women and their signature head scarves walking arm in arm through the square. They could be anyone’s grandmother or mother, but these women had their children stolen. Today their group is one of the most influential human rights organisations in Argentina if not Latin America.
I sat down with one and unusually felt lost for words. Why was I talking to her and what did I have to say? Was it as a journalist or the granddaughter of holocaust survivors? I was both in solidarity with her and also wanting to know more so really we just spoke as human beings. And our exchange was very simple. I told her that I was from England and thought she was very brave and that I was interested in her fight and supported it. And she said I probably knew more about it and what was going on than she did because someone had stolen her radio so she didn’t know too much about what was happening in the world.
As is the case in other parts of the world where the perpetrators of atrocities and their children breathe the same air as their victims and their children, Argentina is struggling to come to terms with its past. There has been debate and argument over the creation of a museum about the dictatorship and the disappeared, which opens this autumn. President Kitchner has been both praised and criticised for his efforts to bring the military leaders of the dictatorship to justice, and in fact a witness in the trial of one of them was recently shot dead. Even the Park dedicated to the memory of the disappeared stands on the outskirts of town. It is not yet finished but so far consists of numerous sculptures and many hundreds of photographs of the faces of the disappeared. It looks out onto the river where bodies were dropped during the military dictatorship. But it also seems convenient that it is so far from the buzz and the babble of tourists who may find steak and tango easier to swallow than Argentina’s recent history.
Our guide also drove us past Calles de la Miseria or the streets of misery where the poorest people in Buenos Aires live. They are a mass of crumbling shacks, tin roofs and piled garbage akin to shanty towns or favelas. This is where the paco generation come from. I think I mentioned paco in the last blog. I said it was a derivative of cocaine, bought for a peso and smoked through a plastic bottle. What I didn’t say was that apparently it leaves these children so numb and in a vegetable state. The inexhaustible appetite for this drug leads them into crime. They stop eating, stop sleeping, stop living; often dying within six months of first coming into contact with the drug. These are children as young as seven or eight years old. That is according to our guide and a taxi driver anyway. The fact this drug, which seems to have little effect either as a downer or an upper is a release for children from la miseria says a lot about the conditions they have to live in.
A few miles further and our guide presented us with another view of Buenos Aires. Puerto Madero or Argentina’s answer to the South Bank. Most of Buenos Aires looks more like Paris or Madrid, taking their inspiration from the French or as remnants of the colonial past. But Puerto Madero is more modern with slick modern bridges crossing the river, a wide bank and overpriced ultra hip restaurants and bars along the parade. This is where the tourists eat and Argentina’s rich live. It was probably my least favourite part of Buenos Aires, though interestingly enough it’s the place that many portenos direct you to when you tell them you’re visiting their city.
Our final stop off was the so called English Tower. The once elegant clock tower was given to Argentina by the British as a gift after the Argentines gained independence. Now it’s defaced with graffiti relating to the Falkland Islands or Malvinas ‘We’ll be back for you Malvinas’ it reads or ‘Patriotism not Colonialism’. It seemed strange to me that more attention was given to the Malvinas anniversary than the anniversary of the Plaza de Mayo Mothers group being formed. But then I have never really understood why people get so hung up on land. What does it mean and what does it matter? I’m still trying to figure that one out… answers on a post card please…
Malvinas was one of the subjects I discussed with numerous taxi drivers. We also talked about tango and politics and food, often with Paula and Shameless and then Thacks sat in the back. When you can speak the language it always feels like you are in the front of the cab chatting with the driver, with the people who can’t speak the language taping on the dividing glass trying to hear or be heard. (Actually there is no dividing glass in Latin American cabs but I am not speaking literally). Shameless spoke a bit of Spanish and Paula was eager to learn some too so they had more luck with their tap tapping. Thacks just sat back and looked out the window (metaphorically I mean) without trying to converse because she wasn’t here for long. But I was always in the front of the car and I loved being there. And the cabbies had so much to say. I would later find being relegated to the back of the taxi in Brazil, where I do not speak the language, as frustrating as being trapped in the boot.
Not wanting to leave any part of the Buenos Aires experience out Shameless and I bought tickets through a tourist agency to see a major football game. Paula has been cursed with a bad back, caused by a slipped disc earlier in the year. She has not let it limit her too much but on this occasion decided to stay away from the pushing crowds and unpredictable seats and instead wander through Buenos Aires’ crafts markets. I wish we had done the same. Boca Juniors were paying Riva in what we had been informed was the biggest game of the year. They love their football here. I mean they really love it… like a family member; never questioning it or explaining their passion but taking it as read. So in cafeterias and train stations and airports and shopping malls you will never see 24 hour news coverage as you might at home, but football. And if you like football you can always find a game to watch or commentary to tune in to. Boca Juniors was Maradonna’s team. It’s world famous. And Boca is an area I have mentioned before; poor, colourful and edgy. The kind of place where tourists come and photograph the painted houses and then get their camera nicked when they stray along the wrong street. Remember? Not a place you would want to be dawdling about on the day of a home match, which is why we went with the agency.
Packed into a mini bus we trundled across town making inane conversation with some of the other tourists, rich kids killing time on their parents cash… you find lots of these in Latin American cities, learning Spanish (badly) and making me wish you could turn down the volume on people.
When we arrived we all stuck out. Everyone else was local and dressed in football shirts and mullets. They had football faces and football postures, hunched over cars or on the pavement clasping cans of drink, frowning, growling, waiting. It was people watching at its best and although I wished I was with the real supporters rather than a group of gringos I was glad Shameless and I hadn’t braved it alone. We went through one turnstile and then another into a car park. But we still didn’t have our tickets. Nacho we were told had a master ticket for the group and we just had to wait until it was time to go in. That was fine to start with. We took the piss out of last nights casualties, two lads in their early twenties now frothing at the mouth after coming directly from a night club. And we hankered after the spicy choripan sausages we had been promised on arrival.
After an hour and a half there was still no sign of our tickets and the crowds inside the stadium were getting louder. There were fewer people to watch too as the number of people waiting to get in was dwindling. We could see Nacho pacing up and down on a mobile phone. Never a good sign wherever you are in the world. After some pushing and shoving at one entrance we were told to make our way to another entrance. This time it was on the other side of the stadium leading out to Boca’s residential area where riot police lined up in front of ragged locals. Another push forward, but the supporters were behind us now, thrusting and shoving through. It didn’t feel like we were getting into the game and it didn’t feel safe.
A roar from inside the stadium and we realised that not only had the match started but within the first minute a goal had been scored. We were out on the street now with just the police and the railings between us and Boca. We should have left then and there but I hesitated, worrying about stepping out into unknown territory. It was only when a beefy policeman suggested that we might have been ripped of and might be better leaving before the predictable violence at the end of the match that we left. I gave a now weeping Nacho a piece of my mind as we scampered off in search of empanadas and a paper bag to hide my camera. It was tense and deserted in Boca. The woman in the pastry shop told us to be careful and that she would be shutting up and hiding away after half time. Lots of shops and restaurants were closed with just a few stray ill-informed tourists looking up bemused at the police on horse back and wondering where the tango dancers had gone. We had tried and failed to see the Boca match. Admitting our defeat we went shopping.
It’s funny how the people you travel with really influence the way you travel. With Shameless it was all about pleasing the senses with delicious things to eat and drink, finding fabulous leather and clothes to stroke and try on and lots of laughing. We were a little gang made sad only when the time came to part company.
To Salta and beyond
Pretty P and I were now headed for Salta in northern Argentina. As we waited for our flight I spotted two tall dark and rather hairy Argentine men. We would get to know Martin and Andy or Sideburns and Randy as they became known, later.
We had been in BA for a week and could feel the smog in our throats. Buenos Aires or good air it certainly is not. Salta would offer fresh mountain air and a lot more. This is the poorest part of Argentina. It feels closer to neighbouring Bolivia with its humble dark skinned inhabitants chewing on cocoa leaves and taking life a little slower. We were staying in a large colonial house with a court yard full of plants, run by three sisters in their seventies it was a welcome relief from the sweaty ten man dorm we’d made do with in BA. We ate humitas, soft mashed sweetcorn wrapped in corn leaf, temales, which look like fat wrapped sweets and are filled with spiced mincemeat and the most delicious empenads I have tasted yet, perfect pastry with goats cheese or chicken or corn inside, it’s like comfort food that melts in the mouth. You don’t eat them with a fork unless you want to be laughed at as a gringo but with your fingers and a little paper napkin.
On our first night we dumped our stuff and got a message from Sideburns and Randy to meet them for drinks. They had introduced themselves on the flight and at this point they seemed respectable, not that that’s ever mattered before. Both Randy (a TV producer) and Sideburns (an out of work actor with a wonderfully deep voice) had come in search of trekking in the hills and they were nice Jewish boys too… told you they were respectable. But inevitably boys talk to girl because errr they want some. Sideburns got his wicked way with Paula, who would have been fit, had it not been for the fat hairy slugs crawling across his face. I tried to wave Randy off with a fictional boyfriend and watched as a random punter got on top of the bar to dance raunchily for the crowds below. Was she paid? Was this one of those bars? No she came here every Monday and just did it for a pint of larger. And with Randy and Sideburns now trying to persuade us to come and take acid in the mountains with them you’d be forgiven for thinking this was Stoke not Salta. Randy and Sideburns were undoubtedly twisters of the lowest order… but we hadn’t seen anything yet.
Ignoring invitations to see the sights with Randy and Sideburns the next morning, we set out in search of Salta la Linda (Salta the gorgeous as it is known.) Marcos was a local guide we tracked down at his fathers modest little office a few blocks out of town. He was to organise a three day trek with one nights stay at a gaucho farm, miles from the nearest village. Short, stocky and dark with a cheeky smile and a mechanical walk, I would spend the entire time calling him Super Mario. We tested Paula’s back the first day in Saint Lorenzo. Here there was a micro climate, which I learnt meant more rain fell than in other parts of the region. Everything was greener and the air more humid. We passed moody looking cows and gauchos leading trains of horses through the woods. We sat in the meadows and by the stream eating bread stuffed with cured ham and a fat avocado. And Paula’s back held up ok. It sounds like a small thing but it was actually an important junction. For months she’s been restricted in her movement and in constant pain and was terrified at not being able to take advantage of Latin Amreica’s many delights – dancing, hiking, lying in a hammock – because of her injury. But we had made it through day one so went home to pack for the trip.
When we arrived back in Salta that night we heard the beat of a drum and rowdy shouts and saw hundreds of demonstrators piling into and out of an old cinema building. I asked one of their supporters, Daniel, what was happening and he told me they were demonstrating in favour of their candidate ahead of the local elections. ‘We want fair treatment’ he told me, ‘an end to poverty and better treatment for indigenous people. Things are changing in Latin America. In the seventies revolution was in the air but we were pushed down and shut up by the US. Now people want change. It’s happening in Bolivia and in Venezuela and it will happen elsewhere too. There is an alternative to neoliberalism and being ruled by the rich.’ And then he asked about dear old England and what did we think about the Iraq war and had we marched too because he had seen the pictures on the internet.
With so much to talk about we invited him for dinner and met up a couple of hours later. Daniel took us to a restaurant where we ate parilla. The grill plate arrived baring bits of meat that we could not identify… ‘What part of the cow is this’ asked Paula. ‘The good part’ replied our guide. The restaurant was for tourists, being slightly more expensive than elsewhere and putting on a show of traditional dance. But the tourists were mainly from Argentina and I loved watching the long table of boisterous women, perhaps on a hen night, and families from BA taking their holidays in the cheaper low season.
The dancing was brilliant too. It’s a traditional dance from the North of Argentina, which looked to me like a mix of Indigenous and Spanish dance. The girl could have been from Andalusia with her ruffled flowing skirt and generous smile, whilst the boy looked Indian and dressed as a gaucho with boots and baggy cotton trousers. He hooted as they danced ‘epa esa’ and with outstretched arms, clicking fingers and a straight back sashayed around her as she glided in and out of his web of entrapment, him pulling her in, her pushing him away then beckoning near again with a flirtatious twist of her hips or head. They played out a mating dance, each song seemed to tell a story of the man trying to convince the woman of his love for her and ended with her tightly clutched in his arms. Romantic maybe but it seemed to say a lot about the Chamullero culture if not Latin American culture when it comes to love and lust.
Latin lovers have a bad reputation in Europe and when they try their luck with women they are sometimes accused of being sleazy or overbearing and over confident. But the difference is very much cultural and I might even be coming around to the Latino way of doing things. Here each glance, each smile, each whisper or caress is another step in the dance. The men expect the women to push them away and then twirl them back and they will push their luck as far as possible, though often they don’t expect to get more than a phone number or a kiss. When the dancer pulled me up to dance with him on stage (yep in hiking sandals and err red beach trousers I really gave flouncey skirt a run for her money).
I wonder if we have forgotten how to dance in Europe, not just literally but in love too. Ok I know I am sounding like a big soppy girl but just indulge me for a moment will you? Here in Latin America men and women know how to move and how to dance. It could be tango or salsa or samba or whatever but it serves both as a release and expression and as the first move in attraction or seduction. In the UK in particular we often won’t get up to dance unless we’ve had a drink and rarely dance with a partner. And it’s the same in the mating game. Men will often only pluck up the courage to come and talk to you when they are sufficiently drunk or wired to feel confident and when they do they are habitually bumbling and clumsy or failing that sound like they’re reeling off chat up lines. And the women too are often unapproachable or hostile… and I absolutely include myself here… what was it I remember saying to some poor chap trying his luck at my leaving do? ‘Sweetheart your very pretty but you really do need to try a bit harder on the personality front… where’s the mystery?’ In my defence his opener was something like ‘you’ve got great legs do you fancy going back to my place?’ Then there was a beautiful man I kissed at New Year whose sweet caress met with an ‘urgh don’t kiss me like my grandma,’ to which the poor bloke looked slightly put out. I said a similar thing to Ale actually and his response was… your grandma must have been a very passionate lady! And there maybe lies the difference between here and home: Ale’s response was his next step in the dance. I am rambling I know but I guess what I am trying to say is that maybe we need to learn how to dance again; to play and flirt and rely on our imagination when talking to each other rather than booze. Having said that some of the men here are JUST TOO MUCH… But I will get onto that later.
In this case, Daniel was the perfect gentleman. He was a bit older than Paula and I and was I think just genuinely interested in talking to us rather than getting in our knickers. I was interested in the Spanish influence both in dance and music and Daniel said that in the north of Argentina the indigenous people had fought back and as a consequence, unlike in Bolivia, the local culture and traditions had merged with those of the conquistadors as oppose to being annihilated. I don’t know how true that is though…
Next day we set off on our trek. Paula had managed to get hold of a thing called a faja which she strapped to her back to support herself whilst trekking. When she flashed her belly it looked like she was some sort of invalid, but out in the hills of Salta it gave her support and great posture, which did make me laugh as five foot tall Super Mario clambered along beside this tall Uma Thurman look alike. We were blessed with glorious sunshine and at every turn the landscape changed.
There were hundreds of butterflies running away with the streams and a gorgeous smell somewhere between mint and lemon barley. But beauty always has its ugly side too and those same sweet smelling plants also left our clothes covered in spikes and splinters. We saw cacti and fantastic views of coloured rocks and in the distance the ever present Andes. Wild flowers of violet, red and yellow illuminated the dusty path and then huge clearings where cows grazed and grasshoppers lept out from below. So much space. Marcos showed us ancient art work (or perhaps graffiti) from pre Colombian times snuggled under rocks depicting people and animals in faded red, black and copper.
Thirsty and tired we reached where we would be staying after six hours walking. And what a place. This was the home of Emma and her family; gauchos who farm sheep and goats and live simply, with a generator for electricity and open fire too cook food. She must have been in her sixties and her nutty brown skin was lined and wrinkled. She fed a calf in the front yard with a baby’s bottle, its mother having died at birth. It was only the sound of the geese and the hens and the sheep in the distance and a gentle breeze when all was still. A clutter in the kitchen and Emma brought hot matte cocido and home baked bread. Hanging above us were freshly made sausages stuffed with her own hand that same day. She served these later when night fell with rice and chicken soup. The taste of chicken soup, though a different variety to my mum and grandmas Jewish chicken soup, was comforting and warm. And Paula looked like she was about to burst when she tried the sausages.
No television, no phone, nothing for miles. A cousin was staying, who had walked seven hours to get to see her. Others at our table were two men who rode around on horse back and chirped their words slowly. The women ate in the kitchen despite our playful protests and we sat in quiet awe of this other world so far from everything we were used to. It is true, football is the international language. And despite our sketchy knowledge there was plenty to muse over when it came to their fallen hero Maradonna. I stopped fooling them when I asked innocently if Pele was from Brazil… Sorry.
There was little light and we used candles. But the biggest laugh came when I retuned from the room wearing a head torch. Seeing me with a bright light coming out of the front of my head was for Paula the funniest thing she had witnessed though it took me a while to realise what she was laughing at. The head torch is for me a highly useful apparatus that I no longer question and often use. Equally funny she thought was the fact that when I looked at anyone I instantly blinded them with the powerful strobe of white light coming from my forehead. As I write this I have this vision of myself as a super hero. I think I would be super geek and the head torch would be part of my signature outfit. I suppose it isn’t really very sexy but you know what… Blondie wasn’t laughing so hard in the middle of the night when she stumbled over a goose to try and find the toilet. She has since become a convert and is intent on buying a head torch of her own… watch out for it at Glastonbury.
Before we left the next morning there was one final surprise… As Paula and I cooed at the baby lambs and took photos of our surroundings we noticed the men eying up the goats and then moving in for the kill… literally. They grabbed said goat by the horns and pulled it into the front yard where they held it down and then cut its throat, collecting the blood as it poured out for making morcilla later. Then they lifted it onto a wooden table and crowded round to skin it and examine the meat they would be extracting later. Praise be that I wasn’t with a vegetarian. Paula was only a tiny but squeamish and I have to admit I found the whole thing really interesting and (eeesh can I say this) kind of beautiful. There was something very graceful about the way these people lived off the land, something very natural.
We arrived back to Salta that evening feeling refreshed and rejuvenated and not really in the mood for a big night out. But there was a message waiting from Sideburns and for all their forwardness I have to admit we quite liked them. We tossed a coin on whether to meet them or heads we did.
For anyone with a disapproving disposition or a tendency towards feeling shocked please look away… (and dad please pretend I am not your daughter for a few minutes and I am sure you will find this entertaining rather than disturbing.)
Randy and Sideburns arrived, already somewhat wired and toked waving for a waiter and ordering Fernet con coca cola; a traditional Argentine drink that is highly alcoholic and brown coloured. Like coffee it tastes like bitter muck to start with but soon seduces your palate. We started off telling our friends about the gauchos and the goat but to be honest they didn’t seem particularly interested and before long the conversation turned to matters of a sexual nature. I don’t know how. Really. I think one of them made a comment about Fernet loosening up the bottom or something to which my natural response was ‘yeah you lot are obsessed with shitting cause you eat so much steak!’ ‘No no’ responded Sideburns, ‘I am talking about making love through the ass.’ At this point I think Paula and I really started to feel like Shirley Valentine; shocked but kind of curious.
Looking back I realise now that the conversation that followed was all an attempt to convince the two of us of their sexual prowess and adventuring talents under the covers… Had we heard of tantric sex? We must have. Oh for them sex wasn’t about ejaculation the pleasure was in giving pleasure and tantric sex was about training yourself not to blow your beans in one go. (Ok they didn’t say blow your beans but if I put it the way they did this would sound like some sort of badly written soft porn and I’d rather it sounded like something from Viz to be honest.)
And then came the bomb shell, tantric was what happened when they got together for group sex. GROUP SEX? I mean you can pretty much hear it now, Paula and I making faces like spitting image characters; I MEAN GROUP SEX? ‘Yes’ they responded as if this conversation was nothing out of the ordinary. ‘Group sex, it’s just what you do in Buenos Aires,’ Obvio. Had they done it with each other I asked. Oh no, they laughed, Randy had only done it a couple of times. With women or men and women I asked? There were two men and three women he responded. And did you do it with the man too? I asked. He looked round to the side, swinging a long glass in his hand and said ‘I don’t know. I mean. An ass is an ass.’ To which Paula and I collapsed with laughter.
Thing is the Carry On comedy value of what they were saying was sort of lost on them. Actually it wasn’t all talk. They had their motives even if we hadn’t quite cottoned on yet. I should add that neither of the boys spoke particularly good English so there was a lot of translating on my part, conversations that Paula wasn’t part of conversations that I was listening into. I began to realise that actually what these twisters were after was group sex with us! ‘Paula’, I hissed, ‘I reckon they’re after an orgie,’ ‘No’ she responded ‘dirty bastards they wouldn’t dare.’ A few more drinks, a bit more chat, some talk about whether Paula had ever slept with a Jewish guy or two, some talk about would I like a massage and it was clear. ‘Lola,’ said Paula in the darkness of the nightclub ‘I think you’re right. They’re after group sex.’ And then shiftily ‘would you have group sex?’ To which I responded ‘I haven’t shaved my legs!’ (Shirley would be proud).
There was no group sex. There was no sex. Sideburns gave Paula such a sloppy snog she gave up on him all together. And I finally convinced Randy that I really wasn’t interested and I really did have a boyfriend (I’d had to work it so much I think I believed the lie myself). When he finally accepted that he wasn’t going to get nothing nada not ever never he actually started talking to me normally and we had a really interesting conversation. In fact he told me all about his childhood sweetheart who he’d been with for fifteen years and had only been apart from for a year… maybe this explained the subsequent debauchery. I went from feeling like a hunted whore to his mother (and actually preferred the latter.)
Next day we said goodbye to Salta and hired a car. It was, absolutely, the right time to leave. Road trips are brilliant. Especially when you are two young (but not too young) women. I think we felt like Thelma and Louise getting lost trying to make out the one way system as we left the town and then spending far too long choosing dried fruit and cured ham in the super market. But every part of the journey felt like an experience. As we left Lionel Richie’s All Night Long crooned through the radio speakers, so wrong for Latin America and yet so right. In the supermarket, which was full of locals with not a tourist in sight, we spotted a shop selling saddles, leather wear, and gaucho boots… equivalent to a Claire’s Accessories in the Palisades. The journey took us through small towns and villages and when we stopped at a petrol station an old man with a kind face urged us to take a detour before continuing south. We passed racing cars, in the area for some sort of regional event and then came to a bay with boats and a rather scared Israeli girl attempting a bungee jump as the locals looked on in amusement. But the best was yet to come.
We knew the route from Salta to Cafayate was supposed to be beautiful but this was something else. It was like driving through a painting, breath taking, awe inspiring, a view that left us speechless. Unlike a tour, when you are driving along a road there is no drop off point, or gate of entry or sign post that says ‘you are here, this is the bit where you get your camera out’ it just happens. So from driving along very pretty roads with golden meadows and sleepy villages we suddenly came into valleys and mountains of burgundy, purple and rouge that changed coloured as the sun slipped across their shoulders. At every point we found ourselves stopping to try and take it in. We were surrounded by what I can only describe as this graceful enormity… Huge towering coloured mountains, painted a different shade by every shadow, illuminated by every last splash of sunlight. And below silver threads of water and handfuls of perfect green foliage offset against glossy black cows grazing in the calmness that comes before night.
Later we learnt that this was in fact the magic hour to drive through these valleys. We were lucky. By this stage most tourist buses have offloaded their passengers to shower before dinner. Paula and I were still there mesmerised with only a lone crafts seller to keep us company. She stood at the side of the road gathering up the rocks and pottery she had been selling with two llamas sulking behind her. It was for Paula, who I might as well call Doctor Doolittle, a perfect photo opportunity until one of the llamas seemed to snot disapproval in her face causing both of us to splinter the stillness with laughter.
We arrived in Cafayate tranquil. It was Saturday night but the village felt docile. There was wine, and nourishing Saltean food and some tears too.
When morning came we shook ourselves out of sleep and headed towards a local vineyard. Because it was Sunday there was less to see but we still did our best amusing impression of people who know how to taste wine and don’t just gulp it down at the first opportunity. They make the only white and red wine sorbet in the world, or so they claim, in Cafayate and a flavour made from cactus fruit. The creator, a proud yet laid back old man, watched as we sat outside his ice cream shop and debated whether the white wine sorbet was better than the red wine sorbet. I had seen him there the night before at about midnight and got the impression that he sat there outside of the shop watching the world go by most days, content in the belief that he created sensational sorbet.
On our way out of town we saw the aftermath of a road crash. Two young lads had literally just crawled out of the wreckage of their overturned car. They were lucky, escaping with minor cuts and scrapes. We weren’t sure exactly what to do, offering to call for help or fetch help. Paula ended up giving one of them a hug and I ended up giving the other some water and some fruit. But as we drove away we both thanked our lucky stars that we hadn’t arrived a few minutes earlier, or else the situation could have been much worse.
The rest of the journey to Tucaman was picturesque too but nothing compared to that first day. We laughed a lot and saw wild llamas and horses along the way. We stayed overnight in a tiny town nestled in the hills where the people spoke with such a strong accent I could hardly understand them. The boy running our hostel was a big fan of Bob Marley and couldn’t believe he had two women that had been working for the BBC staying with him. He was slightly goofy and very sweet and in Paula’s eyes came second only to a bouncy little puppy that lived in the hostel. Honestly, it’s like some conspiracy to make me like dogs travelling with Paula. Here I am in South America, a very unsympathetic to dogs type, and my partner in crime is someone who coos at a yap yap or a waddle or points out dogs in trainers or dogs with funny hair. She even makes me take photographs of her and the dogs and has insisted that her obsession is infectious. Not in my lifetime Mrs.
Our journey ended in road blocks on the outskirts of Tucuman that forced us to take back routes that were buzzing with life: Four children balancing on a bicycle on their way to school; others running along by the cars; women in tight bright clothes sitting territorially outside their homes; tin roofs and rusty faded cars. As we finally hit Tucuman we saw horse drawn carts mooching up the motorways, as if they’d been tugged out of another time and left to make their own way back to town.
At this junction I should say that anyone looking to plan a trip to Latin America should not take any tips from my route. It has no logic, no reason and makes little sense except to me. I have gone back on myself, ahead of myself and done things in completely the wrong order. That’s possibly why Paula and I found ourselves back in Buenos Aires for a third time. Long ago I had told all friends and family to come out and visit but failed to coordinate the wheres and the whens so we headed back to BA to meet Thacks, who was to travel with us for three weeks. But you will never run out of things to do in Buenos Aires and the shear elation at seeing one of my best friends and catching up over cocktails in Palermo was worth any long bus ride.
She brought with her a lap top and digital recording device set up and installed by one of the world’s nicest blokes. PH knows who he is and I am indebted to him and my brilliant mother for setting me up with the tools I need to write over here and hopefully find, write and sell stories to pay may way and make the most of what I am seeing. What I will be attempting to do in the coming months scares me enormously but I feel spurred on by the faith people seem to have in me. People like PH, my mum and Thacks, who doesn’t seem to think anything is beyond my reach. She should realise the same is true for her. But biggest gift Thacks brought with her was her radiant self. She’s in love. For the first time in a long time and with someone who really is worthy of her… a brilliant brilliant person. That shit’s better than chocolate.
On our last night in BA we headed out to try and sea some Tango. You have two choices in Buenos Aires if you want to see Tango. You can either go to a pricey Show or you can go to a Milonga, which is where the locals (and the tourists who can dance) practise. We poked our heads through the curtains at a show, and then after being told to leave headed to a Milonga where we watched admiringly as elegant women curved around their vigorous partners. It’s not like Salsa where if you can’t dance someone is happy to show you the basics. Here you get asked to dance and if you can’t dance tango they look away with disdain and you stay sitting. From there we headed out with Annabelle, who was also in BA with friends and even met the two twisters Randy and Sideboards who rang on landing after a week in Salta. I think they probably wanted to redeem themselves and this time they were sheepish and affectionate. At one point Randy said to Paula, ‘can we just forget about an ass is an ass?’ Bless. Looking back they were just two lads trying to push the boundaries and score some mischief that they could tell their mates about.
We didn’t sleep but as Thacks had gone home early we made a very special effort to make the most of our last day in town. I should say here that Paula and Thacks did not know each other before this adventure. Today was the day they bonded by drowning their handovers with tequila. We were not in a good way but it was the most I had laughed in a long time and our uncouth behaviour was made all the more delicious by the fact that we were sitting outside a very smart Palermo bar showing complete disregard for the portenos around us. We left, drunk and happy watching the bright night lights of Buenos Aires pull in and out of focus on a night bus to Iguassu.
Iguassu was our last stop in Argentina before we crossed into Brazil. I had heard about the waterfalls but hadn’t imagined how staggeringly beautiful they would be. On the first day we were limited for time so visited the falls on the Brazilian side, where the route is shorter and the view spectacular. It was absolutely swarming with tourists but for me that didn’t take away from the impact of the falls. These enormous sheets of water spilling out over and over and into the fierce rushing water, spraying out a film of wet mist that made our hair wet and our faces damp. All over there were beautiful butterflies and creeping tropical plants. We were there in the early evening when the last rays of sunshine kiss everything with gold. Beautiful. As you would expect, before we left I ran out onto the look out point that guaranteed an absolute soaking from the falls and laughed hysterically as I struggled to stay upright with the water drenching me from the side.
I think the tourists got on Paula and Thacks’ nerves more than mine as the next they opted to sit in the sunshine and relax ahead of our flight to Salvador. I went to the Argentine side and played at being a geek overcome by beauty! It’s true. I nearly cried when I saw the crashing falls under a beautiful blue sky and the most perfect rainbow reaching out ahead. I didn’t have enough time. I could have spent hours there going from look out point to look out point, walking under water, watching children collect butterflies on their hands and arms. Typical that on the Argentine side the butterflies are so cocky that they will literally collect on your body if you let them. And I didn’t mind the tourists.
I think I have mentioned it before but it is sometimes just really lovely to watch people having a nice time on their holidays, enjoying the simple pleasures that make us all human. You could be a diplomat or a dustman but when you are out on that ledge, looking out on that incredible view and watching the water and the butterflies dance you are equal. Saying that people do find happiness in different things when they experience a place like Iguassu, I like watching that too. The children balancing as they walk on with their arms covered in butterflies, comparing colours and numbers and sizes, concentrating, studying. The eighty year olds who have already seen so much in life but feel a gladness in still being able to cross the bridge or get onto the little train that takes them back to the entrance. The parents holding on to moments with their children, taking photos or filming on hand held cameras. And then there’s me, the grateful geek feeling glad to be alive. Of course tourists can also be obnoxious, pushy, ignorant and annoying. But not that day.
When the plane took off from Foz de Iguassu I felt my head jerk back (what a great feeling) and then fell asleep. In Brazil planes have stops where you can either change flights or pick up new passengers. So when our plane stopped in Rio for a half an hour I got quite a wake up. We didn’t leave our seats but I watched as an army of efficient masked workers got on to spray and clean and pick up the debris from the last lot of passengers. Bossa Nova played out through the speakers above my head and a new breed of people got on. This time they were rounder, with generous features and curvy bodies; their skin of so many different shades, smooth and glossy. They blinked, pouted, smiled and spoke a language I could not really understand. The plane took off and as we headed to Salvador ripples of excitement made their way through my body. We were in a new place now. Brazil.