Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Christmas comes to Rosario

Well, that's a lie, but with two posts in just one day, it must really feel like all your Christmases have come at once (although, hopefully not in the case of members of the Wood family [or other Christmas-haters out there] reading this... because "all [y]our Christmases coming at once" would probably be like some kind of massive nightmare for you/them/us). Anyway, after a couple of hours by the pool, a nice refreshing cold(ish) shower (even the cold tap isn't that cold) and a daydream about a nice cup of tea (such a thing unfortunately does not exist here in Argentina), it's time to get back to business and try to slacken this blog's pace of decline. So, WFA (that's "without further ado", BTW - and if it's not already an accepted acronym, after appearing on this blog, it soon will be - I've had 17 page views since I updated this morning: that's almost as many as the BBC gets*, I'm sure), let's get this cliché-mobile on the road:

Saturday 22nd January 2011

After an exhausing day of being sociable and whatnot, Saturday mainly involved relaxing by the pool. It was very hot (quelle surprise!). Luckily the pool and garden of the hostel are lovely, and so was the company, so it was a most pleasant way to idle away the day. We did manage a little excursion to the supermarket (a big Carrefour about 3 blocks away) to buy food for dinner, but other than that it was evening before anything approaching "activity" commenced. So, any French people reading this should say a big thank you for helping to support one of your giant multinationals. "You're welcome - just make sure you pop into Tesco the next time you're in Thailand or the Czech Republic, okay?"

As the evening air started to cool (how many times have I used the word balmy in the last couple of months? Well, I'm sorry for the repetition, but once again it was, ok?), Oscar and I ventured out. We walked the other way along Av. Oroño (or is a a Boulevard? Hmm Bv. or Av.? - it doesn't really matter, why don't you choose!) towards Parque de la Independencia. I said before how lovely Bv/Av Oroño was, well it was still lovely and also a hive of activity on this glorious Saturday evening. I've never seen so many walkers/joggers/idlers before, and that's including watching the London Marathon on TV (okay, okay... another teensy exaggeration there, but it was really busy with people). The park was also lovely with it's verdant lushness and it's backdrop of deep blue sky replete with setting sun. And treat of treats: a son and lumiere (sorry, no grave accent there to do full justice to the French language, of which I've been speaking a lot lately) show to accompany the dancing fountain in the middle of the lake. Yes, it was tacky, yes it was a tad underwhelming, yes it did have a whiff of Sidmouth Carnival about it, but still (!) with Queen pumping out across the water (the band, not HRH) and bats swooping overhead and a parade of girls dressed as if to go to a wedding, posing for photos by fake-Roman columns, what's not to love? It was a winner! :-)

Hard to match that, obviously, but the steak dinner almost did! After worrying about the quality of the slightly cheaper cut of meat, and the fact that the pan-fried potatoes and peppers kept sticking to the bottom of the bloody saucepan, it was triumph. Even Oscar, with his complex Chinese, palate enjoyed it! And the wine was good too (although after all this time and all those bottles, I can't really remember what wine it was - it was red, it was Argentinian, and frankly, they are all beginning to taste a little bit, well, the same**). You will be shocked to hear that no Fernet was consumed on this particular evening. After the exertions of the last couple of days it was early to bed (around 1:30am), although not before we had had a laugh with the girls, making up increasingly silly Spanish names for the non-Argentinians of the group. Oscar Axel Fernando Rodriguez Ramon Chino Puto Natalio Esclavo Boludo, being the pick of the bunch!

*in about a nano second.

**in addition to the sea, I am looking forward to drinking Old World wine (or, well, wine from just about any other continent will do, although I'm not sure Asian wine is up to much - is Lebanon classed as Asia? I think it probably is, and it produces some semi-decent wines, but it gets confusing what with Israel appearing in the Eurovision song contest and Isreal being even further away from Europe than Lebanon...). Anyway, please don't get me wrong (especially any rabid Argentinian nationalists reading this), I like your wine, I really do, it's just that I'm used to variety (it's the spice of life, after all) and after a while I find your big, gluggable, fruit-driven wines a bit, well, one-dimensional. Oh, and I'm not looking forward to drinking the sea, in case that was how it came across - just being near it, listening to it, watching it and maybe (as summer approaches) actually going in it (or at least, dipping in a single toe).

Sunday 23rd January 2011

Oooh, I slept well! My stomach was almost totally back to normal by this stage (it occasionally felt a bit "uncomfortable" at times, but there were no more loose stools and no more nocturnal shitting, that's for sure [as if it's something you can be unsure about - well, there might be cases of sleep-shitting, I suppose, as it is only a natural extension of sleep-peeing, and we've all been there, haven't we. Haven't we? {when we were children, I mean, well, I hope}]). Anyway, greeted by another sunny day, (and after the yummy croissants and not-quite-so-yummy coffee) the decision was made (not hard!) to spend the morning by the pool. A group of girls from Buenos Aires had arrived at the hostel (this is not the reason for spending the morning by the pool, just an aside), and they were clearly on a hen-weekend (not in the raucous style of a group of pissed-up ladettes from our fair isle, no. More in the style of a giggling, cake-baking [complete with chocolate penises], mate-drinking, long-hair flicking, strange hybrid bikini-wearing, Argentinian-style hen party. Actually, they were a bit annoying, and didn't really get into the spirit of hostelling (keeping themselves to themselves and moaning when Oscar did some "top bombing" in the pool and splashed them a teeny-weeny little bit). Miserable cows!

Luckily our own little group comprised some of the loveliest people of the trip so far and it was really sad to say goodbye to Gigi and Fer, who were heading back to Buenos Aires. :-(

With our group now shrunk down to 6 people... In the afternoon we got the bus to the beach (La Florida), only for our trip to be aborted when we discovered that there were no more sunshades for hire (the beach was so busy - what with it being Sunday and all - that they were all already taken). Bugger. It was stinking hot (yes, again!) and with a blazing sun (ditto!) and so we decided (especially with Kevin among us, and his alabaster Breton complexion), that it would be more sensible to head back to the hostel and lounge (in the shade) by the pool instead. Thankfully, it wasn't a completely wasted trip. There was some kind of World Marathon Swimming Championship in progress (up and down the river), and so it was quite interesting to watch that for a while (especially seeing how strong the current was - on the way back down the river the more savvy swimmers headed out for deeper waters, where the faster current saw them overtaking the crawlers in the slow-lane).

So, it was more time spent in and around the pool. Which I love! I don't know why I bother with all the "acutally travelling" lark. I think I'm just a simple package tourist at heart. Give me sun, a pool (and a beach - ideally with crystal clear warm sea on the other side), and I'm happy. I should probably just spend the winters holed up in Playa de Las Americas, drinking lager with big-bellied Brits (after all I'm fast becoming one of those with all the meat I'm comsuming!). Alternatively, I suppose I could upgrade in class and do it in the Caribbean, but, basically, anywhere warm and sunny (with somewhere to swim) and I'm as happy as a pig in shit.

In the evening we had a date (Kevin, Oscar and Me) with the lovely Argentinian ladies (Agustina, Roxanna and Paula) at The Club de Milanesas. Crikey, that sounds far more exotic than it actually was! For anyone unfamiliar with what a milanesa is, then think breaded escalope and/or Wiener Schnitzel, which Argentinians are contractually obliged to eat at least twice a week (varying the meat content in order to spice up their lives somewhat). Anyway, this particular establishment treated its milanesas as if they were pizzas, garnishing them with various pizza-style toppings, which invariably including a huge dollop of sticky melted cheese. It wasn't fine dining (by any stretch of the imagination), but boy was it filling! We were all absolutely stuffed afterwards, and headed back to the hostel, happy in the knowledge we wouldn't need to eat again for three days. Actually, it was another lovely evening, and the combination of great company and the feeling of being on a proper holiday, are rendering these few days as some of the very best of the trip so far!

Oh, when we got back, the hostel had a power cut. Apparently, the town has various different electricity circuits and at times of peak demand (it was so hot that EVERYONE must have been using their air-conditioning), they switch one of them off in order to cope (I might just be making this up, but from various Spanish discussions that't how I understand it). Anyway, what's strange is that the hostel must itself be on more than one circuit, because the lights went out, but the air-conditioning kept working. Weird. So, it was in (almost) complete darkness that we went to bed...

Monday 24th January 2011

Another day in and around the pool (I sense one of this blog's many themes developing)! It was my last day with Oscar, as he was going back to his slave duties at the supermarket. We had lunch together (I put together some pasta/chickpea concoction, which I made really spicy a) to appeal to Oscar's tastebuds and b) to camouflage the fact that the pasata was rubbish and I didn't have any olive oil). He got his bus at 4pm, but it turned out it was the wrong one, that left him several blocks away from the supermarket. Thank goodness for his smartphone with GPS (I think I'm gonna get myself one of those upon my return - Dad, you can start researching for me, if you like! And anyone else with any recommendations/advice - just let me know), otherwise god (capital letter or not? Always a dilemma for an agnostic-going-on-athiest) knows where he would have ended up!

Anyway, he got there in the end (probably receiving a good beating from his boss for arriving back late - actually I later found out that the boss' wife did indeed give him a good telling off, firstly for daring to take a few days off and secondly for only wanting a summer job and not wanting to enslave himself to their tawdry little enterprise for the rest of his life. She makes the woman from the hostel in San Luis seem positively civil, nay delightful, in comparison!)

Whoops, pressed publish by accident. Hope I can edit this time... Let's just see...

Yup, it seems that I can edit this time, so I'll just finish off writing about Monday and then publish properly before going out for my evening constitutional.

So, where was I? Oh, yes, having just said goodbye to Oscar... Well, I subsequently spent some more time by the pool, then went for a bit of a walk in order to take out money (it was still really hot... and not exactly the temperature for being very active!). I had dinner with Kevin and the girls (making the world's biggest ever rice salad - where is Norris McWherter when you need him*). It was the last evening with everyone all together (the next day I was going to stay at the house of Vanesa - a Rosario resident all her life, for a bit of local flavour). So there was a touch of sadness in the air (and more power cuts)... but it was still a lovely, candle-lit evening, full of Spanish conversation (and French conversation - which has actually stopped being confusing now, as I can finally switch relatively painlessly between French and Spanish - not something which can be said about my Italian, I'm sure, which I fear has now become so Spanglified, that I might never get it back!!!). Anyway, it's all good brain exercise, and should stop the old grey matter from wasting away too much (especially necessary in the face of the wine and Fernet onslaught that it is up against).

Well, I'm going to leave it there for the moment. The last couple of days have been fractionally cooler (glorious, clear-blue skies allowing some of the heat to escape out into the atmosphere, perhaps), so it is the perfect evening for a decent walk around the city. I'm off out to explore some parts of Rosario that so far remain unknown (to me) and other parts that I have seen several/many times before (and like a lot!).

Best wishes to all my lovely readers.

Love J xx

*I know, he's dead.

STILL in Rosario!

Hello there,

Just time for a quick update before lunch. I'm still in Rosario (but back at the hostel now - lured back by the swimming pool and not wanting to overstay my welcome chez Vanesa). I'll try and get two days done in this sitting, and then (fingers crossed - if no-one else is using the computer), come back once I've had lunch and a siesta next to the pool!

Right then:

Thursday 20th January 2011

After a night of getting up every hour or so to go to the toilet I was tired of/from shitting. Luckily it was just coming out of the one oriface (not the double-whammy of concurrent puking/shitting), and it wasn't totally liquid, so it could have been much worse. But diarrhoea is never pleasant. In the end I took some Immodium and that seemed to reduce the frequency of my thunderbox visits!

After all that nocturnal exercise, it was hard to drag myself out of bed. However, despite my shitting-induced lethargy, it was still a gorgeous day, so it wasn't too much hardship to spend the day relaxing next to the hostel's very nice swimming pool (even if it wasn't big enough to actually swim in).

By lunch time (and a little siesta) I was feeling much better, so in the afternoon I went off to find Oscar (who was working in Rosario, at a Chinese supermarket - which sounded like extremely hard work, for very little pay and with the added bonus of a slave-driving boss who barely let him leave the shop. Still, that was better than spending the summer doing nothing in the boiling furnace of La Rioja, apparently). Anyway, he somehow managed to get the afternoon off and we walked together to La Florida, which is a beach in the northern suburbs. It was lovely... another balmy late-afternoon/evening, strolling along the beach... people watching... gawping at the huge ships which occasionally pass by... paddling in the silty brown water. As we strolled back, we passed some beautiful houses in that part of town, and took refuge for a while in a plush new air-conditioned shopping centre. It was great... and especially nice to have some good company once again!

Oscar decided that he would take a break from the supermarket for a few days (a mini-break, if you like), so gathered up his things and came back to the hostel with me. When we got back we met some lovely Argentinians who were staying at the hostel (Fer, Gigi, Roxana, Paula and Agustina). We ate pizza with them and drank beer and Fernet. It was a lovely evening, and my stomach was feeling quite a bit better by that point. I had a slight relapse during the night (only one toilet visit required, though!), so didn't sleep all that well, but the diminishing frequency of toilet visits was reassuring, nonetheless (and a blessed relief for my sore bottom)!

Friday 21st January 2011

It must be said the hostel breakfast is a triumph. It's simple - nothing more than 2 types of croissant (butter or lard - the former sweet, the later savoury) and cafe con leche, but it does the job and tastes nice too (except when they don't put enough coffee in the machine and it comes out watery... but it's a minor quibble).

After breakfast Oscar and I met up with Vanesa and did some proper sightseeing in Rosario (with our local guide leading the way!). First we sauntered up Av. Oroño (with a beautiful tree-lined promenade all the way down the middle) to the river's edge. It was getting hot, with the sun already high in the sky by 11am (I believe we are on an equivalent latitude to southern Morocco in this part of Argentina). We then took in various waterfront parks (including a huge private school, which is sort of located under the esplanade), all of which have great views across the river, and our visit culminated in the impressive (if massively Fascist-looking) Monumento a la Bandera. As the name would suggest (if you understand Spanish), it's a monument dedicated to the Argentine flag, and it is certainly monumental! Although I'm not sure I would exactly call it beautiful, it looked really dramatic against the very blue sky! The views from the top of the tower were fantastic too. (as always, visit for pictorial evidence).

We had a lunch in a riverside restaurant, which, naturally, given the location, was over-priced and a bit disappointing, but the setting was lovely, so I'll forgive it (this time!). I had Cesar Salad, which was okay (I'm in a forgiving mood, otherwise I would be more critical of the lumps of stale bread that passed for crutons and the mediocre pre-packaged dressing).

Vanesa had to return home to get ready for work, so we walked back to the hostel (along Cordóba, which is the main street in Rosario, and another pleasant place fora  wander). We quickly grabbed our stuff for the beach and went to meet the 5 Argentinian ladies from the night before (and Kevin, from France), who were on the beach up at La Florida (getting the bus for a bargain 2 pesos). It was lovely to be on the beach (it felt like a proper beach holiday - something which I'd rather been craving all the time I've been inland) and although the river looks absolutely disgusting ("thick brown sludge" would be an accurate discription, with islands of debris floating by, along with ships [and people!] of all shapes and sizes), it was still refreshing for a quick dip. However, I couldn't bring myself to swim with my head in (plenty of people did!) as it just seems so counter-intuitive given the colour and squelchy mud underfoot (I'm sure it's just silty, but when water looks that brown, it isn't something that invited prolonged submersion). Oscar and me tried to teach Shithead to the others, who, apart from Gigi, didn't seem that receptive an audience (or maybe the sun had made them a bit slow), and we drank mate with squash (think: squash drunk through a straw with bits floating in the glass). Oh yes, before I forget, a quick comment on the bikini bottom fashion here. I have to admit I don't quite get the style, which is best described as a cross between a normal brief and a thong, therefore cutting in half-way up the bottom. I guess it is supposed to accentuate the round curves of the bottom (which I believe is the most important part of the anatomy here in South America), but on most people it just kind of looks ridiculous (culo means ass in Spanish [and Italian] for anyone who didn't pick up immediately on this hilarious pun). Hmm... Maybe it's me, but you just can't beat a good old-fashioned knitted swimming costume IMHO!

Well, as the sun was beginning to set, it was back to the hostel to contemplate bikini fashion, cook pasta for dinner, drink wine, drink (more) Fernet and prepare to hit one of Rosario's premier nitespots. Madam was the name (don't worry, it wasn't a whore-house [as the name might suggest], just a night-club), and dancing was the game. Actually, we were all feeling a bit tired after the exertions of the day, but still managed to have dance-related fun until 4:30am, when we headed back to the hostel. Vanesa had come to join us and (having lost each other in the Reggaetonified melee) stayed a bit longer at the club with Udi, from Israel. Unfortunately, on the way to the bus stop, she had her handbag grabbed by a passing motorcyclist (a common form of theft on the streets of Argentina, apparently), and so had a rather longer night that the rest of us (reporting it to the police before finally managing to get the bus back home around 7am, I believe).

Right, it's time for lunch so I will leave it there for now. Another two days down, another couple of weeks to go (am I ever going to get this thing back on track?)...

Best wishes y'all...

Take care,
Love J xx

Friday, January 28, 2011

2 Days Forward, 10 Days Back

Back again!

I'm still staying with Vanesa in Rosario, so after a day on the beach yesterday, it is time for a bit more blog action today. One more day's update and I'll be telling you about the city where I'm actually staying. And that hasn't happened since I was in Salta - so, it's progress of sorts (even if I am still well over a week behind schedule)!

Right, here goes:

Tuesday 18th January 2011

My bus wasn't leaving Tafí until 16:30, so I had most of the day to kill after checking out of the hostel at 10:00am. At least I was able to leave my stuff at the hostel, but still, I didn't feel inclined to go on any major hikes (which would have been nice had the hostel been better and I had therefore felt inclined to stay longer). But, as it was, I made do with talking to Lucas and Victoria and wandering around the town with them. I then cooked lunch and chatted to another Argentinian guy, Omar, who was having a work-crisis, similar to the one I had when I decided to stop being a landscape architect 4 or 5 years ago. He was an actuary, so had even more reason to be in crisis, I suppose! ;-) Anyway, it was interesting to compare notes and realise that there are plenty of other people out there who aren't satisfied with their chosen careers.

It was another sunny day, but relatively cool (mid 20s, I would guess), so the walk to the bus station was quite pleasant (and downhill, which always helps with a 15kg rucksack). The first stage of my mammoth bus journey was from Tafí to Tucumán. The bus was late leaving (giving me the chance to get the wind up about whether I had heard right when the driver I spoke to told me to wait for the double-decker bus). But it was okay... and the bus even made up time en route - arriving a little bit early into Tucumán.

It was really interesting to see how the landscape changed on the way down into the lowlands (and how your ears popped too, what with the change in altitude [nearly 2000m of vertical drop]). Alpine meadows gave way to misty, scrubby mountainsides, to a jungle-clad ravine (with a gushing rock-strewn river far below) and finally the sugarcane and tobacco plantations of the plains below. Innumerable hairpin bends and steep drop-offs made it a rather hairy ride at times, and once again I had that annoying combination of aisle-seat and smoked glass windows. However, I must say the seats were incredibly comfortable (with a great recline) and the bus clean and new, so I have to give Aconquija credit for that! Alas no photos, but you hopefully get the gist from the description outlined above.

I was lucky to have a relatively quick (45 minute) connection in Tucumán, prior to getting the bus to Rosario. This was something else that I had been worrying about because for the first time I hadn't bought my ticket in advance. (As usual) I needn't have worried, though, as there was no problem getting a seat.

One observation from the bus station (check Picasaweb for photographic evidence) was the presence of coin-slot TVs on the concourse. It struck me as quite odd to see small groups gathered around TV screens in the bus station, but I suppose it is as good a way as any to idle away the time waiting for a bus!

At first I thought the bus journey was going to be a complete nightmare. There was a hyperactive child who wouldn't stop talking (loudly) and playing with a toy-sword that made a loud whoooshing noise when he waved it in the air (which he did approximately every 15 seconds). If only I'd known the Spanish for "if you don't stop making that bloody racket, I'm going to stick that flipping sword where the sun don't shine"... Instead, I just sat there (feeling increasingly irritated) waiting for him to fall asleep. I also tried ear-plugs (but to no avail - it was still incredibly loud). He didn't fall asleep, though... He just continued talking and waving that bloody sword. And then, just to add insult to injury (don't worry non-native speakers, this is just an expression, he hadn't literally injured me with his sword), he started to pretend to be different animals: "soy un tigre... RRRRRRRROOOOOAAAAAAARRRRRR!", "soy un cock... (yes you are)... COCK-A-BLOODY-DOODLE-DOO." Didn't he realise that animals don't have swords? Idiot. He then repeatedly  tried to get him mum's attention : "Ma, Ma, MAA, MAAAA, MAMIIIIIIIIII"... and failing that (ignorant cow... of course I blame her for her son's behaviour), tried talking at the poor kids sat next to him (some indeciferable waffle, that I couldn't make out).

In the end I was forced to use the "glare". I cut out the middle man and glared straight at the mother, and on the second attempt she took the hint and told her spawn to be quiet and go to sleep.

Shortly afterwards I fell asleep myself and actually managed a few decent spells before taking out the ear plugs and removing the sleeping-mask (which I sketch I must look - even more than usual) just after 7am. I treated myself to some coffee syrup from the coach's coffee dispenser, which was utterly foul. I guess they just pour in more and more sugar until it reaches saturation point and will dissolve no more - it was even sweeter than dulce de leche. No wonder diabetes rates are soaring in Argentina - everything is just so SWEET.

And before I knew it (how these journeys just fly past - and on this occasion I'm actually not kidding), I was in Rosario...

Wednesday 19th January 2011

Upon arrival at the hostel I discovered that it cost 5 pesos more than advertised (annoying) and that I would have to wait until 10am to move into my room (less annoying, because I expected to have to wait until 12 noon).

I watched a bit of the Australian Open while waiting (Federer winning a 5-set epic) and did some stuff on the internet. Then I moved into my room, had a shower and started writing my diary (in physical, hand-written form). The hostel seemed nice (good kitchen and a CLEAN swimming pool out the back). The weather was very hot and humid (we had already had a few thundery showers, but luckily not until after I had walked to the hostel from the bus station). While I was writing my diary there was a group of 6 Israelis discussing things very LOUDLY and very aggessively (well, it sounded aggressive to my sensitive British ears). Maybe it's just the language. They really seem to spit things out. The only things I understood (thus confirming my suspicions that they were Israeli) were TEL AVIV, KIBBUTZ and FACEBOOK - all articulated with what sounded very much like pure venom!

I was hoping to get to the supermarket in between showers and then have a bit of a siesta...

Hahahahaha... that was a joke. I got to the supermarket between showers, but didn't manage to get back! While I was shopping the rain just got heavier and heavier. By the time I came to walk the 3 blocks back the hostel the rain was sheeting it down and the streets were awash (and I mean awash - the water was over a foot deep in places) and I literally had to paddle back. Once I had overcome the initial reluctance to get my feet wet (impossible), it was actually quite amusing to be wading through knee deep water just to cross the road. As noted in a previous blog post, Argentinian drainage leaves a little to be desired.

Well, back in the (assumed) shelter of the hostel, I managed to dry out a bit... and because I had been walking about in bare feet (while my flip-flops dried out) I decided to go and wash them before having a well-earned siesta. But, while I had my foot in the sink (no, not an idiom), I heard a bit of a commotion downstairs. After drying them off, I went back downstairs... only to discover the entire ground floor (including my dorm) covered in a good couple of inches of water! Ooops (I was now beginning to regret my oft-proclaimed "I like a good natural disaster" interest in the power of nature)! And it was a wasted foot-washing effort, as well!

First, I thought it had rained so much that the water had come in from the street, but no... what had actually happened was that there was a bit of a drip in one of the upstairs room, so the guy from the hostel had gone onto the roof to investigate. He found some leaves blocking a drain, so decided to remove them. Unfortunately, said leaves were also blocking a hole in the roof, so when it was cleared, the water rushed straight on in, down the stairs and ended up pooled on the ground floor. Whooops!

I spent the next couple of hours helping to try and get the water back outside (a mixture of squeegy-thingies, brushes and cloths) and in the end it was sort of dry(ish). Thankfully, the Israeli guys were in the room at the time and had kindly put my bags on the bed, thus saving me from flood damage and a subsequent insurance claim! ;-) And thankfully the rain water was clean... it wasn't like the stinking brown flood water you see on the news... if that was the case, Houston we would have had a problem!

Luckily, as is often the case in times of war, famine and flood, people are brought together and a community is formed around the hardship. Thus, a strange mixture of people bonded over the receding floodwaters: the aforementioned Israelis (not much bonding on their part - they were already happily ensconsed in their own little group) a nice Anglo-Irish couple (well, totally Irish, but she had lived in London for years and almost totally lost her accent), Kevin from France (who was over the moon at the opportunity to speak French after a week of stilted discussions in a mixture of English and Spanish), a weird American doom-monger (everything you said was countered with tales of woe and hopelessness) and, well, I think that was probably it. So, I had a pleasant evening chatting with them, with intermittant visits to the toilet (oh yes, the shits had begun!). Still, it didn't stop me enjoying a steak and some rough plonk... although they might have further contributed to my downfall, which will be detailed in the next installment of "A Sidmouthian Abroad" aka "The shit hits the pan: surviving the trots in Rosario"!

So, that's all for today. I'm about to head out into the balmy (or still sweltering - judging by how hot it is in here) evening air... and get the bus into the centre... paying a visit to the guys at the hostel (I'm now staying with Vanesa, slightly out of town) and then meeting up with Oscar for a drink.

I'll hopefully have more to report tomorrow, but if not, have a good weekend everyone.

Best wishes,
Love J xx

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Further updates from Rosario

Good afternoon from a hot and sticky Rosario,

The weather is still rather thundery and unpredictable, and it is deemed by Vanesa too early to head into the centre (only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the 4:30pm sun, it would seem... but I'm one of those, so I wouldn't really mind... still, it gives me the opportunity for another blog update, so the number of days outstanding will soon be down to single figures). Yay, a manageable amount of typing is on the horizon! Right, back to business:

Friday 14th January 2011

The number of people passing through the hostel was staggering. Most people only seemed to stay one night (max 2) and then move on. It's the north-west Argentina tourist circuit - tick places off a list and then sally forth! They also seem to leave at the crack of dawn - buggers! Indeed, there was one couple who came back at about 2am and then got up at 4 am to leave. Odd antics, it must be said: what is the point of paying for a hostel for the night if you are only going to sleep there for 2 hours? Hmm... puzzling.

So, it was a reasonably early breakfast (why am I always tempted to try dulce de leche "just one more time"?... It's not suddenly going to become any less sweet, is it?). After breakfast I had a nice chat with Ellie and Rem, sat in the hostel's lovely courtyard (another hot/sunny day, so happy to just relax in the shade for a while). We decided to take in a couple of wineries before lunch, but were thwarted at each attempt. The first couple were closed, the next one was so busy that we couldn't get anywhere near the tasting room (3 tour buses in at the same time - that's what you call good planning!) and at the fourth one we had just missed the last tour before lunch. So we gave up and turned our attention towards food instead (a recurring theme of this blog, it must be said). We assembled a nice salady lunch back at the hostel (one of the advantages of people continually moving on [at the crack of dawn] is that the hostel remains blissfully quiet during the day) and after lunch we had a nice little siesta (to avoid the blistering heat of the middle of the day and make up for the lost sleep from the noisy hordes coming and going during the night).

Post-siesta we resumed our wine-tasting. First we returned to Vasija Secreta (scene of the morning's tour-bus scrum) because Rem had lost his locker key and thought that was where it might be. We couldn't find the key, but had a tour and tasting (free! So therefore bought a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon - another recurring theme). After wine had been consumed I plucked up the courage to ask about the key. And lo! They had found it - it was waiting for us behind the tasting bar (as if my magic). We decided against the tour and tasting at El Esteco because they wanted 20 pesos for the privilege (I believe it's owned by Diageo, so big business demands big profits!). We decided to spend that money on a bottle of wine for the evening intead (our own private tasting, if you like). This time, Tannat. We then headed to the southern end of the town/village (the campsite zone - heaving with [slightly crusty] people) and were lucky to catch the last tour at Domingo Hermanos (Sunday brothers). It was free and included cheese (goat's) which was delish. Bought a bottle of Torrontés and some cheese for after dinner. Cafayate was bathed in the usual gorgeous evening light (illuminating the mountains beyond) and the whole place looked (and felt) lovely.

Dinner (shared with Rem and Ellie) consisted of a spicy tuna, pepper and tomato pasta, which was rather good, even if I do say so myself (I was the chef on this occasion), washed down with a lovely fragrant Torrontés. Cheese and Cabernet Sauvignon followed (also damn good). Naturally, an early night was required in order to digest effectively! :-)

Saturday 15th January 2011

I decided to stay in Cafayate a bit longer than orginally planned because it was just so lovely there. The hostel was great - even the music was good (which is a rarity in hostels - you get the usual hippy dross: Bob Marley, acoustic-surfy-crap, that kind of thing). Modest Mouse was playing on the stereo as I wrote my diary and all was good with the world. It was also good to spend some time with some like-minded (English-speaking people). All in all, it felt a bit like a holiday from travelling, which would recharge my batteries and set me up for the next stage of the adventure.

Continuing very much in the holiday spirit (and because it was getting hotting and hotter with each passing day), we decided to go to the local outdoor swimming pool. It was 7 pesos to get in and surrounded by shady grassed areas. It was also absolutely huge and while not crystal clear, it was a damn-sight cleaner than most of the (small, hostel-based) pools that I had experienced up to that point. And it was just lovely to have a refreshing dip, when it got too hot out of the water!

After a good session in and around the pool we had a late lunch back at the hostel (great empanadas + tomato salad [with expensive Argentinian olive oil {which I am trying to eek out}but which I could eat every day] + pretty decent bread), and an even later siesta. It was the hottest day in Cafayate so far (sweating even in the shade!).

We took in two of the wineries which I had already visited (they were just around the corner from the hostel - how convenient! - and Ellie and Rem hadn't been before). I even managed to get a second tasting in El Tránsito and bought a bottle in each. We then toddled off to purchase the ingredients for our steak dinner (having steak twice in a week is something I would only ever dream of doing here in Argentina!)...

Another nice Torrentés was quaffed as an apperitif (while playing a few games of Shit Head [a card game loved by travellers around the world for those not in the know]) and then drank a Tannat with the steak (accompanied by mash, green beans and caramelised onions). Yum Cabernet Sauvignon and more goat's cheese followed. Totally stuffed (and a little bit squiffy) as a result. Wandered slowly around town for a while (to help shake things down a bit and thus speed up the digestion process). The main square is a lovely place to loiter, with good people watching to be had (boys dressed in weird baggy trousers and cowboy boots and hats - dancers of some kind?, people drinking mate [everywhere you look in Argentina], folk singers, empanada sellers and, of course, groups and groups of young Argentinians, spending their summer holidays travelling together).

Sunday 16th January 2011

I woke up to another scorching hot day (I'm getting tired of writing it's the hottest yet, but it was, I swear!). The hostel was again very quiet with everyone having left early, so I had a leisurely breakfast and spent a while updating my diary (you don't realise the hard work that goes into the blog! Hand-written notes later transcribed and embellished on the computer, all for your reading pleasure)! ;-)

I booked my hostel in Tafí del Valle for the following night and then went to get my bus ticket. And how lucky was I? I got the very last seat on the 2pm bus... otherwise I would have had to get the bus at 6am in the morning (or wait another day - hmm... which one do you think I would have chosen?). Anyway, I didn't need to face that dilemma - lady luck was dancing by my side. We (me and Ellie and Rem) then went to get some bits and pieces for dinner (in case the shops closed on a Sunday afternoon) and assemble the ingredients for a picnic lunch beside the pool.

Armed with food and sun cream and playing cards, we went to the pool and had another lovely day lounging in the shade (simply to hot to spend more than about 5 minutes in the sun)! In the afternoon a strange (Torremolinos-style) cloud came over (and circled around) the sun, but as it was in the high 30s it provided welcome relief, rather than turning Michelle blue (as happened in the south of Spain that time, all those years ago)! The pool was really busy (I guess all the locals were making the most of their day off work), but no-one seemed to be actually swimming, so the deep area in the middle was always quiet. The business also made for good people watching (I was surprised by the number of very young-looking parents - or maybe it was old brothers and sisters, I wasn't entirely sure).

In the evening we made a chicken salad (marinated in garlic, chili and oregano and fried in small strips on a griddle pan - people in the hostel commented about how often we cooked "proper" food - hopefully in the process dismissing a few stereotypes about British food!), drank Torrontés (when in Cafayate...) and then I accompanied Ellie and Rem on their first tentative steps into the wonderful world of Fernet. After the initial shock, they soon got used to it and maybe even enjoyed it come the end (of the bottle)! We played more Shit-head (Rem losing a whopping 19 times [over the course of 2 or 3 days] before his mammoth losing streak finally came to and end the following day. Ellie and I limited our defeats to 4 and 5 respectively, thus demonstrating that the UK still dominates the world in the field of international Shit-head).

Well, that was almost it for Cafayate. Our time had come to an end. I was really going to miss the town and Ellie and Rem's company and the hostel... I had had a great time: lovely place, nice people, gorgeous scenery, wonderful wine and brilliant weather. What more could I ask for?

Monday 17th January 2011

It was a leisurely start to the day after the Fernet of the night before! We didn't drink that much but maybe it was the effects of the altitude again (!). We used the remainder of the chicken to make some mighty fine sandwiches for an early lunch and then headed off to catch our respective buses.

The bus journey again was gorgeous (running out of appropriate adjectives and/or superlatives), with more sand-dunes, rocky escarpments and barren mountain backdrops, but I had an aisle seat (boo) and the smoked-glass windows gave everything a gloomy look, despite the sunshine. It became even more gloomy as we headed up to the pass (over 3000m above sea level), which would take us over to Tafí del Valle. We were in the clouds by that stage, although that gave everything an atmospheric, Wuthering Heights, misty-moorland feel. Indeed, it could have been the North Yorkshire Moors, were it not for the occasional llama/alpaca (not sure I can tell the difference - are the latter hairier?) silhouetted against the murk...

As we descended into Tafí del Valle, the clouds parted and the landscape became more Alpine in character. The town sprawled rather (no European-style planning controls here!) but if you looked beyond (ignoring the foreground mess), up into the mountains, it was beautiful.

Less beautiful was the hostel (Nomade). It was grotty and hippified and rough around the edges, to say the least. Maybe I had been spoiled in Cafayate, but my first impressions were not good. For a start it was difficult to make out who worked there and who was a guest (I later guessed that it was two lesbians and their coterie of adopted children [all female] who worked there, but of course, it could just be my imagination working overtime). Anyway, I didn't like the hippy-comune-style atmosphere and, frankly, the bathroom was disgusting! All in all I was glad to be only staying one night.

Thankfully, things improved when I went out for a wander around the town in the evening sunshine (enjoying the views, which were framed by the mountains everywhere you looked). It was noticably fresher than Cafayate, although still pleasant in the sun.

When I got back to the hostel I discovered that the young Argentinian couple from Cafayate (who I knew were also coming to Tafí) were in the bunk next to me! We comiserated with each other about the state of the hostel (it was the only one in town, as far as we were aware) and then proceeded to spend the evening together (sharing the cheap wine I had bought [nothing special but not too bad] and the hostel's [very meagre] homemade pasta - which I am blaming for the runs which were to come on a day or so later: hygiene certainly wasn't one of the hostel's strong-points). Actually, at least by this stage there was a nice atmosphere in the hostel. Most of the guests were eating and drinking together and it made for a friendly and sociable evening. Which was just as well, as it was getting really cold (inside and out), which I suppose is what happens when you are perched on the side of a mountain! I spoke to the only other non-Argentinian in the hostel (a French guy from Paris - lots of Frenchies about in this part of the world), but mainly enjoyed the company of Lucas and Victoria for the duration of the evening...

Well, I think it's now probably cooled sufficiently to poke our noses outside the door, so we're off to an art gallery for a spot of culture, before going to a birthday party of one of Vanesa's friends later on. Therefore, I'll get this up and posted now, because it will be tomorrow at the earliest before I get the chance to write any more.

Have a good evening everyone (or whatever time period your own personal time-zone dictates)...

Best wishes,
James xx

Rosario and a computer at last!

Hola chicos,

My last attempt at an update was thwarted by the computer crashing, and me subsequently taking my ass in my hands and storming off in a strop (well, that's a typcial Wood-style exaggeration, but I decided not to continue writing it at that point, at any rate). And then, you know what happens... the hostel floods, the power goes out for hours at a time, you spend time drinking Fernet and chatting and lounging by the pool and scratching your ass (once said hands have been removed), and before you know it nearly a week has passed and there are now almost two weeks of updates to write (which necessitates a great deal of procrastination, obviously). So, I will leave in the bit that the computer did manage to save before crashing, and continue from there. By the way, I am now staying at Vanesa's house (still in Rosario) so at least I don't have to worry about other people waiting to use the computer (unless Vanesa herself needs to use it, of course, in which case I might have to abandon and come back later!). But, anyway, here goes...

"Good afternoon,

I have finally arrived at a hostel (in Rosario) with a computer (that works) and a bit of time to update the blog, so without any waffle (a first!) let's get the show on the road. Oh, apart from the fact that I've got the shits for the first time since I arrived, which is another excuse to take it easy and update this instead of hitting the town to explore in the heat of the day.

Wednesday 12th January 2011

I was quite sad to be leaving Salta. The people at the hostel had made me feel really welcome, it was cheap (!), the breakfast was good and I liked the atmosphere. Thumbs up to Hostel San Jorge in Salta, if you should ever be heading that way.

Before leaving I had a good Skype with Mum and Dad and made the most of what I assumed would be the last good internet connection for a while (I was right!). I took a taxi to the bus station (a rare extravagance) because there was a clear blue sky, a blazing sun and it was probably the hottest day in Salta so far.

It was an absolutely stunning bus ride to Cafayate. It started off lush and tropical, drying out as we got up into the mountains. I initally thought that I had shat out with my seat. I was next to the window but on what I thought was the wrong side of the bus - most of the good views seemed to be on the opposite side. Grrr... But, as we got further up the valley/canyon, the bus crossed over the river and the views from my side of the bus were absolutely spectacular (and far to superior to the other side of the bus! Ha! Suckers!!!). There were amazing rock formations and sand dunes and cacti and a winding river and in the evening sun the rocks were all illuminated various shades of copper, orange, vermillion, red, gold, yellow... and  all set against a deep blue sky."

Well, that was as far as I got before the computer crashed, so I'm now updating in real-time (my blog-time-line is so confusing, even the most avid Doctor Who fan would have trouble keeping up!). So we will get back to the bus ride and take it from there...

As the bus headed into Cafayate, the vineyards for which the town is famous came into view and the landscape changed once again: rows of green vines, with an occasional bodega painted white - acting as a beacon against the desert landscape and blue sky (well, a beacon to me, certainly - wine was my main reason for coming to Cafayate).

Wow! I have to say my first impressions of Cafayate were great. A small town/large village, with neatly kept streets, a lovely main square, a golden evening light and a balmy air. What more could I ask for (well, the sea, obviously - but you can't have it all). Anyway, I was forced to explore earlier than anticipated because I couldn't find the bloody hostel (the first time that's happened on my entire trip - and in what is probably the smallest place so far)! I later realised that the map I had been looking at earlier in the day wasn't orientated north-south (eejits), and because Cafayate was so small I didn't create my usual hand-drawn map to lead me to my destination. In the end I was forced to ask (and as with most men, this is not something that comes easily when it concerns directions!). I plucked up the courage to approach a group of young lads (who initially thought that I was looking for a room), and they pointed me in the right direction...

...and what a lovely little hostel was waiting for me. Hostel Ruta 40 was lush! A gorgeous little courtyard, nice dorm, en-suite, firm matress (yes!) and it was all very clean and well equipped.

But I didn't have time to hang around enjoying the atmosphere - there was wine to be drunk! ;-) So, I dumped my stuff and hit the wineries straight away (it was already 6pm and nearly closing time!). I tried two, both of which included the usual tour (I think I could probably do it myself now [even in Spanish] because they all say the same thing [perhaps they are issued with a script by the ministry of tourism!] and [usually] have the same "this is so boring, I've said it 500 times before" tone). I could happily skip the tour and just go straight to the tasting (I don't wish to sound conceited [it just comes naturally], but I probably know more than most of the tour guides, anyway). The first, Nanni, cost 5 pesos for tasting and there I met two guys I had been staying with in Tilcara, earlier on my trip (small world, yada, yada!). We then went to El Tránsito, which was free, and therefore better (I'm not sure if the wine itself tasted superior, but the pschological effects of it being free clearly outweigh any taste difference - note to any bodega managers reading this: people are more likely to like and therefore buy your wine if you offer free tastings!). Ooh, I'm in a patronising mood today! ;-)

During the tastings I sampled some nice wines (Tannat, Malbec [enough already], Cabernet Sauvignon and Torrentés [the local speciality, both sweet and dry]). I was most impressed with the Cabernet Sauvignon, although the dry Torrentés was pleasingly light and floral (and very dry), with a whiff of elderflower cordial.

As a little aside, wandering around the town, it struck me how every girl in Argentina between the age of approximately 16 and 24 has (very) long hair. Without exception (yes, another slight exaggeration). It would seem to be the current fashion, and to go against the grain would be deemed such a shocking action that you would immediately become a social pariah and sent on your way to Coventry with a big arrow above your head, marked "lesbian". Come on girls - when you've got such pretty faces (which is also without exception), a neat gamine crop would look lovely. Not only that, but it would also set you apart from the crowd (in a good way), and it would stop you from all blurring into one large mass of "groups of 5 or 6 Argentinian girls, all travelling during their summer holidays, all giggling and swishing their long hair, waiting until 2am to go out, just because it's the done thing". There, I've said it.

Anyway, back at the hostel, I met Agathe and Caroline from Paris. And they were very Parisienne indeed! If it wasn't for the lack of small dog dressed in a Chanel doggy-coat, they appeared that they could have been elegantly sashaying down the Champs-Elysées every time they set foot outside the dormitory. Despite the physical appearance though, they certainly didn't fit the stereotype of being aloof and English-hating. They were lovely! We decided to buy and cook steak together, which was yummy, and it was a thoroughly pleasant evening, sat in the courtyard of the hostel, wallowing in the balmy, scented air of Cafayate. We later met Josh(ua) from Melbourne, who was a great guy, and a rather more annoying group of Argentinian girls (who almost seemed too young to be travelling alone - I guess they were 18 or 19, but acted like they were 12). Oh, and yes, I think they all had long hair!

Jeez... one day down, 13 to go! Aaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrgggghhhhhh....

Thursday 13th January 2011

I'm still amazed at how little Argentinians actually sleep (I have a sneaking suspicion that they all sleep during the day - an 8 hour siesta in the park, perhaps). So, I was roused from my slumber several times before eventually giving in to the call of breakfast and hauling my ass out of bed at 9:30am. It was a good breakfast at the hostel (although Frosties with over-sweetened drinking yoghurt [which I mistakenly thought was milk] was a bit too sweet [maybe even for an Argentinian - it made Dulce de Leche seem like chicory in comparison]). I quite liked the orange juice though (although that too is probably sweetened to render it palatable to Argentinian taste-buds). So, the bread with dulce de leche on top of that was just too much. It tipped me over the edge (not, I didn't vomit, I just mean I realised I'd had enough). I'm sorry Argentina, but I'm sick of Dulce de Leche now. I just want a nice big jar of marmite and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps (the latter not for breakfast, obviously).

I was umming and aahing about what to do. I had various options: La Quebrada de las Conchas (is that rude?) with the French girls, wine tasting by myself or walking to a waterfall with Josh. I plumped for the latter, as I fancied a good trek. I hadn't done much proper exercise for a while and felt the need to work up a good sweat (which wasn't going to be difficult as it was already about 35 degrees by 10am). So, kitted out with the essentials (water and sun cream being the two most important considering how sunny it was), we set off...

It was a very good 5 or 6 hour day out. It was quite a demanding trek in places (scrambling over rocks like a mountain goat - Dad would have loved it, as did I!), but utterly worth it. Oh, yes, I almost forgot, I had a shorts malfunction at one point - I heard a bit of a ripping sound while stepping up onto a rock, but naturally assumed I was just "letting rip" and thought nothing more of it. I later realised, however, while sat at the table back at the hostel, that I was showing my pants to the world (luckily I was wearing some!). Hahaha... 'twas fixed using a bit of needle and thread, and some handy needlework inherited from Mum.

Anyway, back to the hike. It was really beautiful throughout. The landscape was stunning, with rocky mountain sides and giant cacti all around ( for details), and we had the reward of an icy swim under a waterfall at the end of it (where we also had our lunch and a bit of a rest before heading back). There were quite a lot of groups of (mainly) Argentinians, but there weren't enough people to spoil it. Any, anyway, most of them tended to stick together in clumps (it seems to be the Latin mentality of wanting to spend their time in large groups - so the big Waterfall at the end was surrounded by loads of people, while the smaller cascades slightly downstream were deserted [and several people even asked us if we knew the bigger waterfalls were nearby, obviously wondering why we would want to spend our time alone when we could have surrounded ourselves with screaming kids and noise and chaos instead!]).

We were pretty kackered upon our return to the hostel, but still found the energy for one wine-tasting session (10 pesos, so a bit steep, but we did get some cheese included). I bought a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon (from El Tránsito - see, free tastings do work) to share with Josh in the evening and we met a nice Anglo-Dutch couple (no, nothing to do with Shell) at the hostel (Ellie and Rem). After dinner we went out for wine-flavoured ice-cream (more like sorbet), which was a bit gross and sat in the plaza to soak up the atmosphere. It was very busy, but still with a laid back and languid feel... everyone relaxing in the balmy evening air. We said goodbye to Josh (who was leaving early the next morning) and were in bed before 12!

Well, I know I've only managed to update 2 days, but it's almost time for lunch and I at least want to publish something before switching off the computer. So, that's all for now, folks.

Hopefully back later with more fun and frolics...

Take care y'all,
Love J xx

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Last day in Salta (and probably the last update for a while)

Good evening,

I thought I should complete the Salta chronicles, to draw a line under this stage of the trip, because I doubt I'm going to have such good internet access in the coming days (as I travel up into the mountains, and back down again). I'm heading to Cafayate and then Tafí del Valle, before going back down to the lowlands, on a circuitous route back to Buenos Aires (hoping to take in Rosario, Parana, Corrientes [maybe], Iguazu and such like).

So, back to today (which is unusual in itself - it's not often that I write as it happens!):

Tuesday 11th January 2011 (the date is virtually in binary [if you ignore the 2!], as it was yesterday, which I'm sure will appeal to any computer geeks out there)

Another disturbed night. A guy in my dorm last night woke us all up with the most incredible snore I have ever heard. It beats Dad's train impression into a cocked hat! It's hard to describe, but the best description I can come up with is that it was like a cross between a dog barking, a (large) firework exploding, a clap of thunder (directly overhead), a pig having sex and a steam train on a steep incline. All combined! It was utterly INCREDIBLE. I would have thought I was dreaming, but the bloke in the bunk opposite looked at me and just said "WHAT THE F***!". He's Argentinian and hardly speaks any English, so it must have shocked him into speaking the language fluently (either that or he watching too many American films). Anyway, after the initial shock had subsided, it was actually quite funny!

Otherwise, I slept reasonably well and was up at 9am! I decided to make the most of the sunny morning and went out early(ish) to take more photos (currently uploading), buy my bus ticket for tomorrow and visit the Modern Art Museum (reasonably interesting, but nothing particularly special - still, it was free, so mustn't grumble).

It was then back for lunch, a snooze, a chat with Adrian (on t'internet, obviously), a further (last) walk around the city (still new things to discover, I found, even after being here the best part of two weeks), dinner, and now this. I'm writing like mad because someone is waiting to use the computer and I want to get this published before I go to bed.

So I will say goodbye for now and be back with a report of the mountains at some point in the future.

All the very best as always...

Love James x(x[x])*

*number of kisses depending where you come from!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

More waffle from Salta

Buenos noches (I'm still not really comfortable using this as a greeting [feels like more of a salutation to me {actually, are "greeting" and "salutation" one and the same thing? - I think they probably are, which makes this quadri-bracketed parenthesis utterly redundant. However, your observations (especially from the lexicographically-minded amongst you) would be appreciated}],

Anyway, moving on from that lengthy aside (I think that could be a new name for this blog: "Lengthy Asides (from A Sidmouthian Abroad)"... I wonder if already exists? Ooh, I've just checked and it doesn't! Wow. Excitement! Exclamation marks ahoy!!! It's got my name all over it)... Well, get a grip, Wood! I'm not in the market for websites. Back to the task at hand... It's been raining fairly solidly for the last 3 days, so that's given me plenty of time to sit on my backside doing nothing, well, apart from contemplating my navel, learning bits and pieces of Spanish (I've started reading a children's book in Spanish called something like "When the cat met God", or whatever the translation into English should be - obviously I'm reading it for it's Spanish content, rather than it's moral message [I'm relying on Beatris for that - following on from her recent kind offer], cooking, eating, going for little walks and writing this blog (intermittently). Oh, and I haven't touched a drop of wine for the last 2 days!!!!! Yes, that warrants at least 5 exclamation marks, because a) wine here is cheap (and good), b) I'm wine-lover and c) I´ve got a keen eye for a bargain (all of which makes it's flipping hard for me to resist). Well, resist I have (with the help of not setting foot inside the supermarket [actually, I lie, I was even strong enough to go to the supermarket yesterday and not put a bottle of wine in my basket!]). So, with some kind of inner-strength I didn't know I had, I'm going for a hat-trick of wine-free days before hitting the vineyards of Cafayate on Wednesday. I felt I owed it to my liver to give it a little rest mid-holiday (actually, I'm on the homeward stretch now... with less than 6 weeks to go [out of the 13 in total]), so that's what I'm doing. 3 days seems ample, don't you think? Any more and I might forget how to appreciate wine properly. And I'm sure I've got a very quickly-regenerating liver (I hope so, at least).

Right, back to the day-by-day analysis of proceedings (as you can see, the cup of tea [and subsequent dinner of spicy vegetable stew - a counterpoint to all the asados I've been eating] has fully restored my blatherability and I'm back in full grandiloquent, garrulous mood. Here goes Friday:

Friday 7th November 2011

Up with the lark (again) - if larks get up at 8am, that is - and swiftly (do you like the bird references?) back to bed again, realising that I then had the dorm to myself for a couple of hours. Lush! After 10, breakfasted (no, [I thought perhaps I could but] I just can't resist - having swallowed breakfast. Sorry [the spirit of Richard Whiteley still lives on, after all these years]) and sunscreened up, I headed out for one last wander/photograph session in and Around Tilcara, before a last luncheon (of the previous days leftovers) and my departure back to Salta. Ooh, I've just remembered that the previous day they was some kind of local carnival (lots of kiddies dressed up in costume, playing the same song (well, rhythm, actually - to call is a song is stretching it somewhat) over and over again, while walking around the streets of Tilcara - weird, but kinda scenic, I suppose). Anyway, I don't think I saw anything of particular note during my morning excursion. More rocks, more adobe houses (that's nothing to do with Photoshop or Acrobat, btw - they are sundried bricks made from riverine clay: see Picasaweb pics for details), more stray dogs (they don't have quite the "awww, help the poor ickle homeless dog" spirit that we have in animal-loving Britain), and a brilliant bright blue sky. Hooray for the sun (thinking back, it's just as well I had a few days of sun in the mountains because on average Salta has been bloody grey and dreary and today I would once again describe it as cool [low 20s today, I would guess]).

Well, after my reheated pasta (I spurn your Italian scorn: I'm travelling) and another lounge in the hammock (more signs of impending hippydom [a joke, I hope - please {to paraphrase Steve Redgrave*}, if I return wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt, hand-woven baggy trousers, assorted bits of string around my wrists and ankles and a poncho, please, someone shoot me). And, worse still, if I start playing the bongos, well, I allow you to commit me to a more torturous death, which, it has to be said, would be an apt punishment), I headed to the bus station (in a swirl of dirt and dust [the wind tends to pick up in the afternoon, in Tilcara, at least, and fills the air with assorted debris... good for the wild west feel, bad for the eyes and nasal passages]).

The bus was on-time leave (late arriving - bastards!), and the journey was the same scenic epic as on the way up (only on the way down this time - funny that). You'd have thought that would have made it quicker. But, no. Stops in every godforsaken little town between Jujuy and Salta and another lengthy fill-up in the Balut bus depot (one of my favourite spots so far, it must be said - not!) put the mockers on that and made it a bit of a hard-going slog. I was also feeling the effects of my limited sleep and rather-less-limited alcohol intake of the past few days. In other words, I didn't make full use of my window seat (the window was once again covered in crap anyway), but decided to get a bit of shut eye instead (especially once we had left the clear blue skies of the upper valley and descended into the tropical drizzle on the approach to Jujuy). I would have managed more sleep, but the woman behind me kept kicking my seat (she seemed to feel my decision to actually use the recline function was somehow invading her personal space... well, I've got news for you, love: if you weren't so bloody fat, there wouldn't have been a problem. Stop eating all the asados/ empanadas/ milanesas/ facturas/ alfajores/ ice-cream/ lard and let sleeping Brits lie!).

In the end, we made it into Salta (an hour late... making it a near-five hour journey, for a distance of little over 200km. Jeez). I was met at the bus station by the Salteña girlfriend of the German guy from the hostel. This wasn't arranged, but a welcoming kiss is always appreciated! It turns out that she works for a different hostel, trying to get people to stay there. Slightly odd, considering she's shacked up with someone at a totally different hostel. Still, work's work, I suppose.

I walked to the hostel (more taxi-fare-avoiding-thrift), and was hoping to have a quiet evening and an early night! Ha! No such luck! The hostel was much busier than my previous stay earlier in the week and that evening they were having an asado with people from the twin hostel in the centre of town. Well, I was a bit reluctant to join in at first (wine was included in the price, and I didn't know if I could handle it!)... but in the end I bit the bullet and joined in the merriment. And I'm really glad I did. Not only did I meet some more lovely people (including an Australian couple, who were doing very well to endear themselves to me... until they mentioned "the mission", that is!), but the asado was one of the best I have eaten so far (supplemented with grilled vegetables and a lovely salad, for us veggie-loving non-Argentinians, I suppose). All in all it was a very nice evening, and I was self-disciplined enough to limit the wine intake to a few glasses and go to bed at a reasonable hour (2ish) instead of hitting the nite-spots of Salta at pace (like a lot of the others).

*and we all know what didn't, but should've, happened to Steve Redgrave, as soon as he got back in a boat, don't we? (and, well, if you don't, er, I won't go into all the details... all I'll say is that he kindly gave us permission to shoot him, that's all - and instead of taking him up on the offer, he became a national hero instead. Grrr...).

Saturday 8th January 2011

In the morning I was glad for the early night, as I woke up at 11am, feeling the freshest I had for days! Whoop. The smallest pleasures are the best! I proceeded to get into conversation with a handful of the nicest Argentinians I have met so far (and that is saying something!). I had had a brief chat with Cecilia (an English teacher from B.A.) the night before, but had further (extended) chats with her and her friends (Ana and Esteban) for about 4 hours solid during the day on Saturday. It was just a shame they had to leave later in the day (off to Chile and Peru), because we just clicked and it was lovely speaking to them (oh and the weather had been quite good in Salta up until that point - we had been able to sit outside the previous evening and much of the day on Saturday). Still, hopefully I'll be able to meet up with them in Buenos Aires later in my travels.

The rest of Saturday proceeded at a leisurely pace. I went for a wander, culminating in a supermarket shop-up. This was the last day when I gave into temptation (well, I'm sure it won't be THE last) and purchased wine. I went for a 6 peso bottle (the cheapest yet - I've been working my way down from about 20 pesos, just to see how bad it gets), perhaps subconsciously hoping that it would be undrinkable and I'd have to use it for cooking (or tip it down the sink [hmm... that's just a turn of phrase, actually. You know that would never happen in the Wood household {or to a member thereof}]). Well, when I got back to the hostel, Christophe (the German) said it was disgusting and that the last time he drank it, it gave him a terrible headache the next day (who said the Germans were direct?!). Well, what could I do but put the theory to test. I opened her up (it was a girl - simple and a bit cheap), and took a swig (no refined swilling and supping for wine that cost a quid). And what can I say? Well, I've had far, far worse. It didn't have much character (or body), but was perfectly drinkable in an uncomplicated sort of way. Christophe was surprised by my reaction and decided to give it (her) another go. Well, maybe he had had a dodgy bottle before, because he certainly didn't seem to mind it (her) this time (thankfully helping me to avoid drinking the whole bottle). Perhaps it (she) tasted better for him this time because it (she) was free! ;-)

Well, such moderate wine-drinking was followed by a moderately early night (around 1am, I believe), which is just as well, as from around 8pm onwards the heavens opened (or maybe it was just precipitation resulting
from a build-up of cumulus and cumulonimbus clouds) and it absolutely tipped it down, thus soaking anyone who had dared venture from the (relative) dryness of the hostel. And it's barely stopped since. Actually, that's another lie (or Wood exaggeration), but during Saturday night there were some incredible thunderstorms (the whole building shook at times) and it has rained on and off (without seeing a glimmer of sun) ever since. And talk about humidity! Everything feels damp, the salt has caked together into an, er, salt-cake, and my sink-rinsed smalls are taking forever to dry! But at least it's different (and not really cold), so then you don't mind as much, do you.

Sunday 9th January 2011

We're certainly getting closer to being up-to-date now. I'm going to keep going until midnight, in the hope that by then I'll actually be writing this in (close to) real-time.

So, what of Sunday? Well, it rained nearly all morning (and into the afternoon), giving me the chance to do assorted internettery and Skype Ma and Pa. A leisurely lunch followed (everything has been leisurely the last few days! A post-Tilcara stupor, pehaps), and then a leisurely walk out to the Feria Artisanal. I wasn't really interested in the Feria itself (it's just another tat market, basically), but thought the walk itself would be interesting (it's a couple of kilometres from the hostel, on the outskirts(ish) of town). Well, interesting it was, as at about half distance the housing becomes decidedly more shabby (concrete blocks on stilts, anyone?) and the streets possess a decidedly more edgy feel. Okay, so I felt a bit uncomfortable, truth be told, but I think the effect was amplified by the fact that it was during siesta-time on a Sunday afternoon, and the eerie quietness, gave the feeling of someone lurking around the corner, waiting to mug you. To be fair, Salta, as a rule, feels really safe (much more so that B.A., for example [although I guess you generally feel more comfortable once you have been in a place for a while]), with police on every street corner (apart from the 2km I walked on Sunday, that is!), and a generally relaxed, easy-going feel. Oh, but on this particular afternoon I was once again asked the time (las cinco menos cinco - an easy one!), so at least one person thought "who's this strange foreign-looking chap walking in a dodgy area of town on a Sunday afternoon".

Well, it was worth the walk, actually. The Feria is housed in an interesting old colonial building (a former estate complex of some kind), with portico(e)s and internal courtyards and loads of tropical trees and plants all around. It was a shame it was cloudy (and spitting with rain) because the photos would have looked nicer with a blue sky, but there you go, you can't have everything. At least it wasn't Portugal at Christmas! ;-) In fact, my timing was just about perfect, because just as I got back to the hostel (after an extension loop via the centre/north of town and the supermarket [no wine! A Wood first!!!]) the great hosepipe/sprinkler in the sky was once again switched on and Salta was drenched (Christope remarked how poor their drainage is, as the roads tend to flood as soon as a bit of water touches the tarmac).

It was another quiet evening at the hostel. I practiced a bit of French with a couple of lesbians, ate the most enormous rice salad ever constructed (exaggerate, moi?), and went to bed at midnight (I'll be back to normal by Wednesday at this rate!)...

Monday 10th January 2011

...but (or possibly because of the unusually early night) I went on to have the weirdest night ever. Admittedly the hostel was quite noisy (a group of 11 Porteño friends had arrived at the hostel earlier in the evening), but I kept waking up, had a couple of nightmares (including one where I lashed out with my arm as a result and knocked an empty plastic bottle off the bedside table and onto the floor) and generally felt most unsettled. I was wearing earplugs and could sort of hear some noise through them (but the muffled quality led to an air of mystery: is that someone knocking on the door? In fact, it was; is that someone climbing into the bunk above me? Actually, it wasn't; that kind of thing). Luckily things had quietened down by morning and I got a good solid four hours from 6 to 10am, so I haven't felt too bad today.
However, I haven't exactly exerted myself. Indeed, I've devoted most of the day to blog writing (as you can probably tell from the extensive missives popping up like virtual mushrooms). The weather has once again been shit (and COLD - I've needed jeans and a jumper) and so I felt more inclined to stay indoors and catch up with stuff like this (as well as a bit of Spanish revision, hostel booking in Cafayate and the usual cooking-eating-washing triumvirate of necessities). Oh, and thinking of necessities, you'll be pleased to hear that my bowels are in perfect working order (touch wood), and have been as regular as (Swiss) clockwork (I'm thinking of you, Adrian, as I write this!).

Well, it is fast approaching midnight and I don't wish to turn into a pumpkin. I do wish, however, that the noisy Porteños would quieten down a bit and let me have an uniterrupted night's sleep. This is rather unlikely however, as unlike my previous 6 nights in the hostel (prior to going to Tilcara), I now have a full dorm of 4 people, which will doubtless lead to a certain number of interruptions. Well, I've got no pressing engagments tomorrow (I'd like to go to the Modern Art Gallery and need to get a bus ticket for Cafayate, but that's about it), so if needs be, I can sleep well into the day (and/or take a protracted siesta), and with that relaxing thought in mind I am going to sign off now and head off to bed.

I'm up-to-date. Yippee. Three cheers for me. Hip hip...

Good night, sleep tight, and don't even mention bed bugs, because I'm staying in a hostel.

Best wishes,
Love J xx

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Tilcara Chronicles, Continued...

Hello again,

As promised, I'm back for more bloggery-pokery. It's taken me a while to get on a computer (a group of 11 Argentinian youngsters have taken over the hostel)... So let's just cut the crap and start up where I left off yesterday:

Wednesday  5th January 2011

I don't know how they do it, but Argentinians seem able to survive on 4 hours sleep a night. At least, they do when they are on holiday. So, despite going to bed sometime after 4, there was movement in the dorm from 8am onwards! Grrr... Still, I managed to resist the call to the toilet until nearly 10am, which was a victory of sorts. Me and my bladder! ;-) And, well, getting up wasn't made any easier by the persistant drizzle that was falling immediately outside the dorm (which opened directly onto the courtyard). And bejeezus, it was freezing (again, not literally, but I swear it must have dropped below 10 degrees, which for summer near the tropics, is rather nippy). So, anyway, I manage to cross the courtyard to the kitchen, where I find coffee waiting for me, which was much needed, as my tongue was a little bit furry and my head a little bit muzzy. I wonder why that should be? Could it be the drying effects of the mountain air? The lack of sleep? The Fernet consumption? I'm plumping for a combination of all 3...

Well, with said coffee in hand, I sit down at the breakfast table (among the crumbs and the flies - cleanliness is not one of the hostel's strong points), and start chatting to the guy (from Buenos Aires) who was already sitting there (why am I mixing the present and past continuous I wonder? Hmm - it must be a subconscious narrative device, in order to recreate the slight feeling of disorientation that comes with a hangover!!!). Anyway, there I was chatting away in Spanish, without self-conciousness, without too many pauses (that usually come whenever I'm hopelessly searching for the right word), and without misunderstanding the majority of what was said to me. I must have still been a little bit "under the influence" (after all, we all know that alcohol is a wonderful social lubricant, especially when dealing with a foreign language). Well, whatever it was, it felt good to be able to converse in Spanish, and I was thus motivated to spend the rest of the day thus, drinking tea and coffee and chatting away with all and sundry about the joys of the weather (maximum 12 degrees, rain on and off all day... could well be Sidmouth in the middle of winter!), the joys the United Kingdom (which seem easier to identify so far from home!), and the joys of travelling (which principally revolve around meeting such lovely people). What a hippy I've become! All positivity and light! The next thing you know I'll start enjoying the Folk Festival!!! [maybe it's just that Spanish is a more joyful language than English?]

The funniest thing (and most frequent topic of debate), was that everyone from Buenos Aires was convinced that the north-west would be boiling hot in summer (not taking into account the altitude and fact that it's the wet season). Therefore, they had all brought flimsy clothes, flip-flops and a soupcon of naivety with them to the mountains. Most of them were forced to wear their entire wardrobe (me included, actually - although I was unable to put on all 5 pairs of shoes!), or, in the case of one couple, get the bus to Bolivia in order to buy some cheap winter clothes there (actually, they found that they couldn't even wait that long... first they were forced to head to the local market in order to buy hats and gloves, in order to stave off hypothermia and survive the bus trip across the border!). I have to confess that even I (meteorology nerd and general know-it-all) didn't think that it would be quite that cold!

It was mid-afternoon before I left the hostel, and that was a fairly brief affair (in between showers), to purchase accompanying foodstuffs and wine for the evening's barbecued pig (well, part thereof - it was one hind quarter to be precise) extravaganza. It seemed like a good idea to join in the fun (everyone had been so sociable so far it would have seemed churlish to organise my own grub). But what a mistake that turned out to be!

We opened the wine at around 10pm, figuring that the pig had been cooking for over 2 hours and that a little aperitif would be nice before dinner. And it was, for the first hour or so...

... but 11pm came and went and still the pig wasn't cooked. The hands on my watch ticked on and on (they say a watched pot never boils... well, maybe watching a pig on a barbecue has a similar effect!). We waited and waited... getting hungrier and hungrier... the acid building in the stomach (red wine has that effect on me when it's not accompanied by food)... the irritability building all around. Come 2am (I joke you not) I started to become desperate. I had already eaten 4 bread rolls and half a packet of greasy crisps to stave off the hunger pangs. But it was just no good. I was going to have to take action. So, fork in hand, I jumped up from my seat, and headed over to the action. Thrusting the fork forward, I stabbed it into the potato salad and started eating it straight from the salad bowl. There was no other option left available to me. If I hadn't loaded forkful upon forkful of (crunchy) potato (even they weren't flippin' cooked), egg (thankfully they were cooked) and mayonnaise (from a large, squeezy plastic sachet thing, as is the norm here) into my mouth, I swear I would have either a) passed out or b) committed some kind of porcine attrocity. Thanks to the potato salad, the pig survived and my irritability diminished...

... feeling partially sated, I decided to give it a further 30 minutes, just in case some kind of "pigs-might-fly/pigs-might-be-cooked"-style miracle came about, but what with God being a muslim and all (according to, er, well, I'm not sure who actually, and please don't send me hate-mail as a result of this little joke, I don't wish to get myself into the same pickle as the now infamous Danish newspaper, so let's just forget I said anything about it, shall we?) - perhaps it just wasn't meant to be! The bloody pig (literally - it was still raw in the middle, after all) was never going to be cooked, and sometime after 2:30am I gave up waiting and went to bed...

Thursday 6th January 2011

... for a while, at any rate! It was another early start (do people have so much to do on holiday that they need to get up at 8am?)... and all we wanted to know was: did anyone survive until pork was on their plates (ooh, that has the ring of a nice new idiom, don't you think)? Well, (I can almost sense how much your breath is baited), the answer is: YES! At some time just after 3am, with people hallucinating from hunger, banging their cutlery on the table and chanting like they were part of some bizarre food-deprived cult (maybe this was just in my food-starved dreams!) the edges of the pig were carved and served to the famished, leaving a bloody middle for the vultures and the dogs (i..e anyone who decided to raid the fridge in the middle of the night)! It only turns out that they tried to cook the pig from frozen. Qué boludos!!! Cami - even you know that you can't cook a pig from frozen (don't you?) ;-)

Well, despite the lack of sleep, the combination of a lack of food and a reduced intake of alcohol had somehow put a spring in my step (it could be a new diet in the making... perhaps I should contact the Daily Mail). Anyway, I was bouncing around like a veritable space-hopper (well, I'm exaggerating a touch, perhaps [exaggeration-proneness is a genetic condition, after all], but at least I didn't feel totally knackered like the day before), so I decided to put the energy to good use and head out to take some photos. It was a glorious sunny morning (a bit too bright, actually). Tilcara looked lovely, in a dusty, weather-beaten kind of way. The rocks all around heaved skyward in various different poses (and hues), and all was rather lovely, actually.

As the heat of the day increased, I retired to the fly-filled sanctuary of the hostel, to cook some lunch (pasta alla mosca, anyone? Unfortunately there was no oven, otherwise I would have been tempted to cook Garibaldi biscuits! No need for any raisins!!!) and fortify myself for the afternoon's planned trek. A quick post-prandial snooze in the hammock followed (much more comfortable than the structureless foam-matress bunks), and I was all set. Suncream? Check. Two litres of water? Check. Wetwipes? Check. First aid kit? Check. Waterproof? Check. Fleece? Check. Spanish dictionary? Check. Mobile phone? Check. Nail clippers? Check. Dental floss? Check. I was ready for anything!

And what a lovely walk it was. Reasonably strenuous (on the way up at least) as the altitude must have ranged from two and half to three and a bit thousand metres. I took in the Garganta del Diabolo waterfalls, a lot of rocks and cacti and a remote farmstead/village, in a valley, high up in the mountains. Gorge(ous)! Once I got past the waterfalls there wasn't another tourist in sight. Just a woman and her goats (she looked approximately 206, but was probably only in her 30s - I guess that's what happens under intense mountain sunshine, although I'm not sure that explains the broken teeth) and another woman and her donkeys. She was bow-legged and laden with a fuschia-pink carry-sack (for want of a better description) and thus very photogenic. Indeed, it was all very picturesque/awesome (the original sense of the word, that is - I don't just mean fine/okayish in an American-stylee). I know, I could have used awe-inspiring instead, but I just want "awesome" to return to it's previous meaning. Please! C'mon dude, that would be just awesome, dontchathink?

Oh, forgot to say. At one point the sky turned black and thunder cracked all around. It was quite exciting in an apocalyptic-kind-of-way. Heavy drops of rain started to fall, and I thought: "shit, why did I decide to sramble down this ravine to take photos of a trickle of water?". Hmm... that'll be the Ashford genes, that will! ;-) Anyway, the rain didn't come to anything (phew) and the scramble back up was actually easier than the scramble down (luckily the Yvonne genes are equally strong and equip me with a sense of anxiety that prevent me from doing anything too gung-ho/kamikaze). So, in the words of the now infamous Lanzarote-returnees: I survived!

Nonetheless, I was rather tired when I got back (hence the haggard-looking photos), but still, I gallantly got into the social swing of things back at the hostel. This evening was all about redemption. After the big pig debacle of the night before, it was the turn of calzone (big knickers [i.e. a cross between a pizza and a pasty for those not in the know]) to make or break the hostel's culinary reputation. And well, whilst there won't be any Michelin stars flying around Tilcara anytime in the near future, it was a definite improvement on the night before. I actually had something warm to eat, for a start (!), and I have to say, despite a slight lack of salt, it wasn't a bad effort. It was washed down, as ever, with a nice drop of red, and, all told, the evening was a thoroughly pleasant one (although it ended somewhat prematurely [approx 1:30am] on my part, when I decided that at the age of 33 I was just too old to have a third successive 4-hour night's sleep, and thus called it quits while the others headed out to dance the night away).

Well, once again I have waffled on and on and on (and on [and on]), so I've exhausted myself prematurely. I therefore can't bring myself to write about Friday just yet. That will have to wait for a return of the energy and inspiration that preceeded this e-mail (and quickly petered out)... I need a cup of tea (yes, sadly, the inferior continental muck that we have to make do with outside of our blessed isles... but, you know, what can you do?)!

Until then, I will bid you farewell. By the way, thank you to those (few) of you who have updated me with your news. It is very much appreciated! :-) And to those of you that haven't, well... [insert disappointed silence for the length of time you feel is appropriate {quite long in some cases, I would imagine}]... I hope you feel suitably chastened and thus will be spurred into action. Come on you lazy buggers, if you're sufficiently un-busy to read this, then you're sufficiently un-busy to write me a quick e-mail. I thank you (in anticipation).

Take care dear friends (and people I don't even know, perhaps [looking at the stats, there must be some strangers reading this as I don't even have that many friends... well, unless you count Facebook, that is, which as we all know, doesn't really count in the friend-counting department].

Bye bye, adios, cheerio...
James xx

Tilcara, the Quebrada de Humahuaca and lots of brackets

Good evening peeps,

I've been attempting to write this for the last couple of days, but without much success so far (distractions have included photographic uploads:, catching up with internet fripperies (such as the news and banking), (many) friendly people to chat to, food to cook and eat, wine to drink and thumbs to twiddle. I'm going to attempt at least a couple of days tonight before heading off to bed, so here goes:

Tuesday 4th January 2011

It was up early(ish) and out of the hostel to get the bus. It was a stinking hot morning in Salta and so the trudge to the bus station was a particularly sweaty one (naturally I could have got a taxi, but thrift prevailed! What's a bit of a sweaty t-shirt between fellow passengers?!). The bus (Balut) was rather older and dirtier than the ones I had previously been used to, and I didn't get a window seat, so was thwarted in that respect (I was a little bit miffed, but probably didn't feel quite as hard-done-by as Dad does when failing to get a front seat on the way into Exeter [or on the X53] - and I had to actually pay for my ticket!!!). The start of the journey was a bit hard-going: not that much to see (especially from the aisle seat), slightly uncomfortable seats and a crowded bus (am I reaching the point of exhaustion with long-distance travel? I guess it's not quite as exciting as it was in the beginning...). I was also surrounded by a group of Argentinian hippies, two of whom insisted on groping each other right next to me. My delicate British sensibilities in that regard were well and truly offended!!!

Still, things improved once we got past Jujuy (and a 20 minute petrol refill in the very third-world-feeling Balut Bus Depot). The landscape started off as nobbly green hills (lush and jungly), but as we ascended into the mountains, the landscape dried out and the colours started going from brown to red to purple and back again, and every combination in between. I also got a window seat once we were past Pumamarca (stunning 7 colour mountain, btw), so was able to get some good shots of colourful rocks from the window. Unfortunately, the window was so dirty, the photos look soft-focus (vaseline smeared on the lens for that romantic effect!). But you can get the gist from the countless photos here:

We arrived in Tilcara on time (the distance isn't actually that far from Salta, but the mountain roads are damn slow... and I thought we were going to be late because we were held up for ages in a town that was obviously on the route of the Dakar rally [note to Dad - I keep forgetting to mention this, but I'm sure you'll be interested - if you happen to see any highlights, look out in particular for the stage between San Miguel de Tucumán and San Salvador de Jujuy, because that was the section I crossed in the bus], so there were a lot of support vehicles and spectators holding things up!), and, anyway it seemed a nice, small, dusty little town... which, handily, also serves as a description of the hostel. Burrito hostel was easy to find (a five minute walk up the main street from the bus station), and certainly had character (i.e. pokiness, grubbiness and and loads of flies). It was a bit basic (and not that cheap at 50 pesos) but seemed friendly enough. I dumped my stuff and headed out to explore. I had decided to make the most of the sunny afternoon because the forecast for the following days was duff, to say the least. It was amazing actually, because there were clouds encircling Tilcara (up the valley and down, on the mountains, all around...) but none directly overhead. Yay for that.

Anyway, I stumbled across the Pucara (pre-inca fortress thingy), more or less by accident (although I had a rough idea that was the direction I was heading in). It was dazzlingly bright in the thin mountain air (Tilcara is nearly 2500 metres above sea level) and quite hot too (at least in the sun). It cost 10 pesos to go in the Pucara, but was well worth it! There was also a Botanical Garden attached, which was mainly devoted to Cacti (including the amazing giant "cardóns", that look like they were designed for the set of a western and are absolutely everywhere here). However, there were also a few "exotics", such as borage (!) and other European herbs!!!

After the Botanical Garden it was on to the Pucara itself, which is much bigger than I expected and in part has been painstakingly restored by archaeologists from the University of Buenos Aires. It's certainly an impressive site/sight and the views all around were stunning. The reconstructed "houses" were interesting... and revealed that there must once have been a sizeable community living there at one time (hundreds/thousands of years ago - you know I'm not all that up on my history). There is also a slightly unfortunate modern "pyramid" at the very top of the site, dedicated to the archaeologist who carried out a lot of the original work on the site. Which is weird, as it doesn't really fit with the rest of the site. Actually, there seems to be a bit of a tendency to concrete over things here in Argentina. I guess that is the curse of the New World. But still, it's a beautiful place, and the number of photos I took is testament to that. I've already mentioned picasa twice this update, so I won't bore you with the details yet again. If you're interested you know where to look.

Upon my return to the hostel, the number of people had increased dramatically (from just me [when I arrived] to a good dozen or so). (Argentinian) Spanish voices abounded and at first I felt a bit out of place and wasn't sure where to put myself (it's [usually] easy enough to strike up conversation if you've got something to "do", like cooking or arranging stuff in the dorm or offering wine, etc., but rather more difficult if people are just sitting down, already talking to each other [especially when it's in another language]). I decided to make myself a cup of tea (how very British), and just sit down among the people sat in the courtyard and see what happened. At first I felt a bit ridiculous... just evesdropping on Spanish conversations that I couldn't really understand, while supping from my cup. But I was soon offered mate and things progressed from there... (and no, that does not mean romantically... it just means that I was accepted into the group, as if I wasn't the stranger that I am). That's the great thing about Argentina... the people are so friendly that incredibly soon after meeting they are all chatting away, as if they have been friends for years. At first I thought eveyone knew each other, but I later realised the larger group was made up of several disperate smaller groups. And soon I was a part of that.

There was also a fellow non-Argentinian among the crowd. Kieran from Ireland was a thoroughly nice chap, and a welcome break from the intensive Spanish course that was underway! Of particular note were a really nice couple from Buenos Aires, about my age, and with very good English to boot (again very welcome when I was struggling to find the right words in Spanish). Anyway, the evening progressed fluidly from there. We ended up all going out together...

The first port of call was La Peña del Norte, which (like all Peñas) is a folk-music-venue-come-bar-come-restaurant. We ate and drank wine (a very nice 2005 Malbec from Cafayate - pushing the boat out at 40 pesos a bottle). I had a tamale (meaty thing steamed in sweetcorn husk) followed by a llama stew, which was interesting, if a little tough. The company was great (a table of 17: me, Kieran and a selection of people from all over Argentina, including a Korean chap from Cordóba) and the conversation and drink flowed... so much so that I didn't take too much encouragement to get up and dance (and after the initial embarrassment, I really enjoyed it!).

We progressed to a second Peña, down by the river, on the edge of the village - through a couple of fields, over a couple of brooks (in the dark) and thus very atmospherically located (under a sky of scintillating stars). It was lovely. And was able to put my usual aversion to panpipes to one side and enjoy the local folk music whole-heartedly (I didn't even mind that after a while every song started to sound the same - obviously spirits were high!). Talking of spirits, we moved from wine onto Fernet and coke, and more dancing ensued. It was a lot of fun... although I think I perhaps drank a little bit too much Fernet (it's just too easy to drink! Yup, let's blame the drink, rather than my lack of self-control!). Anyway, I managed not to embarrass myself too much (apart from ludicrous dancing - but at least I wasn't the only one!), although I did manage to step in one of the brooks on the way back and got a shoe covered in mud! ;-) Still, it was a great evening, and a fitting ending to a memorable first day in the mountains.

Well, it's taken me much longer to write about the first day in the Quebrada than I thought it would and there are people waiting to use the computer. So, I had better leave it there for now and return tomorrow with news of the rain and hangover that were to follow...

Hope you are all well.

Lots of love,
James xx