Friday, December 31, 2010

After the rain...

Good evening,

Welcome to the last blog post of 2010. For some of you it will already be next year, for others it will still be this year and you will just be gearing up for the celebrations to begin in earnest (a special shout out to Mum and Dad at this point, who I know will be partying in raucous fashion)!

I have just got up after a siesta and feel a bit dimwitted as a result ("and how is that different from usual?" I can hear some of you ask... well, imagine a 20W lightbulb on it's last legs, flickering in a very dark room - that's how switched on I feel at the moment. Middle of the day sleeps always have that effect on me... So, after writing this I will require a strong coffee and a shower, and that should hopefully then keep me going until 2011). I also still feel very self-indulgent having siestas - it must be the protestant work-ethic hard-wired into the system. How wasteful to spend part of the day sleeping! ;-). Well, as will shortly become apparent, I had quite a busy morning, so deserved a bit of a post-prandial snooze.

Right, I left you last time as I was waiting for the bus in Tucuman, so let's restart there:

Wednesday 29th December 2010

After finishing blog-writing duties I set off for the bus station. It was stinking hot (again), the sun was blazing directly overhead and I was unable to turn my head (as a result of the stiff neck). But, for some reasons (we all know why: I am tight), I decided to walk the 10 or so blocks to the bus station instead of getting a taxi. I was dripping on arrival (soaked with sweat, I mean. I hadn't miraculously turned into an old-fashioned beef-fat-and-jelly spread - that would have been weird!). Luckily there was an air-conditioned shopping centre at the bus station, so I was able to rest a while there, in order to retain my composure. And just as I sat down, I noticed the 5 Argentinian girls from the hostel, sitting about 10 metres, away, assembling a picnic from the usual components (i.e. processed cheese and ham)... BUT there was a novel twist [those crazy cosmopolitan young things]: the bread was brown and had a rounded end. OMG. I went over to say hello... and then goodbye (one kiss each, as is the custom here)... and I was off to wait for my bus... and wait... and wait... and wait a little while longer...

The bus eventually arrived about an hour late, giving me amble time for people watching (and over-cautious bag guarding!). I was stood next to a statue of the Virgin Mary (not for any religious reasons, I don't think. It was a co-incidence. Or was it? Maybe, in the back of my mind, I did think that I would somehow be less likely to be the victim of theft if I stood there, with my back to the virgin and my bag between my knees. Does that make me a Catholic?). Anyway, it was amazing how many people came over to touch the glass box she was standing in (I imagine they would have got their grubby little mits on the virgin herself if the glass hadn't got in the way). Some of them held their hands there for quite a long time before crossing themselves in the style of an Ethiopian athlete before a race. It was quite interesting from a socialogical perspective, and the first real insight into the peity of the nation. People here are still quite Catholic, or so it would seem from 60 minutes in Tucuman bus station.

Well, the sky had clouded over by the time I got on the bus, so the start of the journey was a bit dull (more fields of sugar cane, horses tied to poles (no, not Polish people) at the side of the road, old bangers, distant mountains - God, I'm becoming blasé about seeing such interesting things!). Luckily, there was the excitement of a complimentary processed ham and cheese role (I went totally crazy and added some cream cheese that I had left over from the night before! Just call me Heston Blumenthal [sp?]- I'll be presenting an experimental cookery show on Argentinian TV before you know it), an alfajor and 2 jammy-dodgers (well, an inferior approximation of said British classic biscuit). I didn't do anything with the biscuits (other than eat them), but I did break with tradition in a most revolutionary way by consuming some fruit (an orange) after the "meal" and spraying juice everyhwere in the process. Thank God for the tea-tree-oil wet-wipes, that's all I can say. They have been a godsend (wow, what is it with all the references to God today?... did the V.M. "touch" me while I was standing there in the bus station?). I must also say that wet-wipes were indispensible in the (almost very embarrassing) "yoghurt on the shorts incident", on the way to wine-tasting in Mendoza. Tip to any would-be travellers: wet-wipes, all the way, baby!

Well, the bus ride got more and more interesting as Salta approached (or as we approached Salta, more precisely speaking). Lush green mountains, undulating terrain, roads with bends (most of the roads in Argentina are totally flat and straight). It was nice, and despite the weather (showers, patches of mist and drizzle), boded well for things to come in Salta province.

On arrival at the bus station, I was met by a tout, trying to get me into his hostel. I told him I had already booked at another one, and on saying the name, another tout said "oh, that's where I'm from"(all in Spanish, natch) and promptly took me to find a taxi, gave me a voucher for the ride and explained the location to the driver. How nice was that! The taxi driver was also really friendly, asking me where I was from and telling me nuggets of information about Salta (in Spanish, of course, to which I falteringly tried to respond in kind: "los árboles son hermosas en esta época del año" [Michelle and Abi, that one's for you!], that kind of thing!).

So, I get to the hostel, and lo and behold, it's flipping empty! Just one other (German) guest! Jeez... and I was hoping for a mixed and interesting (but not too noisy) international crowd. Oh well, must keep positive... and try to make the best of any situation that I find myself in! So, I dumped my bags (at least I've got a room to myself!) and headed to the supermarket (taking in the centre of the city in the process). It seems like a nice place (with a much more indigenous flavour than any previous city), and the hostel has a good atmosphere, despite being devoid of people. The staff are really friendly and because they don't speak English, at least my Spanish will get a bit of an airing.

Indeed, I spent most of the evening talking to the guy who runs the place (the language barrier resulted in a slightly stilted conversation, but at least I felt comfortable and relaxed in his presence). As a result of which, I slept for almost 10 hours (only occasionally interrupted by stabbing pains in my neck!).

Thursday 30th December 2010

The pains had subsided somewhat upon rising, and there were nice medialunas and coffee for breakfast. Shame the weather was still dull (and cold!), but never mind, a change is as good as a rest (as the hackneyed old cliché goes) and to be frank , I was getting bored of clear blue skies and soaring temperatures (well, no, I wasn't, but like I said earlier, I'm trying to be positive and not regret leaving La Rioja too much!). So yes, as I almost fogot to say... in comparison to La Rioja and Tucuman, it is bloody freezing here! Obvsiouly, it's a matter of perspective, and for those of you back in Europe (and/or any scientific-minded pedants out there [I know quite a few of my friends who fit that description... but I don't know if they can be bothered to read this drivel] you won't consider mid-twenties freezing exactly. But, it must be said, I felt decidedly chilly, and required long sleeves (and legs) for the first time since I left the UK. I've become even softer that I was before (if that's actually possible).

Given the weather I decided to stay in during the morning and hope it would brighten up later. Oh, the irony! So, after chats on Skype with Mum and Dad and Adrian (not all together... he might have gone "home", but it's his home and not my home [to kind of paraphare Morrissey, Smiths fans {you can comment at this point if you want to be applauded for your superior musical taste}]) (oooh... multiple brackets - classy!), lunch, a bit of a lie-down and a cup of tea, I decided to head out into the gloom. And, oh yes, as soon as I set foot outside it starts to drizzle. Lovely. It could be England (the only difference being that I didn't bring an umbrella with me - which I would never be without in the UK [that's for you Beatris]!). Well, obviously I'm only talking about the weather - that's pretty much where the similarities end! So, it was still interesting to walk around, slowing down under the porticoes and awnings, speeding up in the wet bits and trying to avoid walking too close to the puddles in the road (we think our potholes are bad!). In the end I tired somewhat of feeling damp, so headed to the supermarket instead (along with every other Salta resident, it would seem). It was a bit like being at a rock-concert, as you sort of had to sidle past people where you could, but generally just go with the flow, so as not to get crushed. Anyway, it was worth it for my 1 pound 50 steak and 3 bottles of wine for the price of two (that's 1 pound 50 a bottle, fact fans!). And, very oddly, given the crush, there was no queue for the checkout. Perhaps people were just pretending to shop, in order to keep out of the rain!

The rain continued all evening (if anything getting heavier and heavier), so I was content to stay in the hostel, eating my steak (yum - I managed to get it just right [seared on the outside, bloody in the middle], despite the limited cooking arrangements - accompanied with pan-fried potatoes and green peppers and a tomato salad), drinking wine (syrah from Mendoza) and later on reading a new book that I've just picked up. I always seem more inclined to read when it's raining, so I could get a fair bit done while I'm here in Salta (it is the wet season, after all). A few more guests arrived (all Argentinian), but they didn't seem particularly chatty, and I wasn't feeling very confident with my Spanish, so greetings and nods were about as far as we got. I was in bed by 1am (slowly returning to my natural rhythm, perhaps)...

Friday 31st December 2010 (aka New Year's Eve)

Another good night's sleep (the hostel is on a pedestrian street, slightly outside of the centre and as a result is blissfully quiet - of course, not having any room-mates also helps!). Breakfast was even better now that I've discovered the fridge! Milk, cereal, Dulce de Leche (for the first time in well over a week - still pretty sickly, but heck it's what you've got to do in Argentina), in addition to the coffee and medialunas of the day before (oh, and fruit, which I forot to mention yesterday). And, guess what? The rain had stopped and the sun was threatening to break through! YES!

So, without delay (it was already 11am, not waking up until after 10), I hit Salta at pace. My aim was to walk up Cerro San Bernado (the hill which overlooks Salta), and be back in time for a late lunch. To which I can now report: mission accomplished!

For reasons of thrift (yeah yeah, I know...) I eschewed the cable car, and worked up a healthy sweat as a result. It's about 500 metres above the city (which itself stands at over 1000m), and counts over 1000 steps (there was a sign which told you the number, but I could have done with Dad here to do a proper count [he likes counting steps almost as much as he likes reading number plates and is the reason that I'm not totally useless at sciency/technological things! ;-)] and verify the exact number... something like 1050, I believe).

At least there were some trees to offer shade on the way up (the sun had come out fully by this point... and it was about 10 degrees warmer than the day before as a result), and it was totally worth it for the views. It was stunning! I shall post the pictures on Picasaweb when I get the chance. The top of the hill/little mountain has been landscaped (reasonably tastefully, it must be said [think tropical botanical garden crossed with a few tons of concrete and an over-ambitious pond/water-feature designer]). There were also some interesting birds (of the avian variety), instects and flowers to gawp at too. All in all a lovely little outing, and the reason I deserved my siesta this afternoon.

All of which basically brings this blog bang up-to-date. I have just been asked (by the hostel manager blokey) if I want to partake in empanadas to see in the New Year. I was happy to take him up on the offer (although I would have preferred asado - lazy bastard), as the bottle of wine/dinner for one option wasn't exactly my preferred plan! Hopefully a glass or two of wine will improve my Spanish skills sufficiently to take part in at least some of the conversation, and I will enter 2011 feeling contented (and merry). I hope the same applies to you all... may 2011 be a good year for everyone.

See you next year... until then, take care (especially when drunk: please don't drive or operate heavy machinery)...


Love J xx

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Waiting for my bus to Salta

Good morning!

It's not often you're treated to a morning post, but today is an exception. I had to be up (relatively) earlier in order to check out of the hostel (well, out of the room, at least), but now have to wait until 13:30 for my bus to take me to Salta. Unfortunately, my decrepit body is once again proving a (literal) pain in the neck, because I woke up at the crack of dawn with a very stiff (and sore) neck/shoulder. I'm not sure whether I can place the blame on the bed, the slightly stressful day I had yesterday, or just the fact that I'm getting old. Whatever the cause it's rather annoying (especially being, as it is, hot on the heels of my back). Oh well, I'm sure I'll survive...

Anyway, I've only got one day to report (the updates have been as regular as my bowels of late), so I had better let you know what I got up to yesterday:

Tuesday 28th December 2010

After taking an age to get to sleep (it was flippin' hot and sticky in the dorm) and observing the strange antics of my dorm-mate who got up and left in the middle of the night (after only arriving at about 10pm), in the end I had quite a good night's sleep. The period from about 4-10am is definitely the coolest, and with ear-plugs in to guard against early morning birdsong, traffic and kitchen clatter, it's the ideal time to get some solid sleep (no such luck this morning with my neck as sore as it was).

Breakfast was a disappointing affair. The orange juice was nice (with bits even!) and the bread and coffee were okay, but everything was rationed in very small portions, so there was no mammoth gorging like in other hostels! ;-) I then decided to plan my next move, so set about searching for hostels in Tafi del Valle and Cafayate, which were my next intended destinations. And this is where the day started to go downhill. First of all, the main hostel in Tafi sounded decidedly hippified and grungy, so I thought I would head straight to Cafayate. But there was virturally no availability for the entire period up to and including New Year. Bummer. I wasn't sure I wanted to take the risk of turning up on spec, so I looked into alternative options instead. There was availability in a few hostels in Salta, so with the different options in mind, I went out to explore Tucuman and see what kind of decision I made in the process.

Tucuman is, in layout and buildings and people, much like any other Argentinian city. There are a handful of colonial buildings, dotted among a random assortment of other architectural styles (including one very random newly-built, Georgian-style townhouse I noticed!). The streets follow the now familiar grid pattern. There are squares dotted here and there. There are battered old cars. There are men with moustaches. The pavements are uniformly uneven. But what is different is the atmosphere, both literally and metaphorically. The humidity lends an air of tropical decay. Things are lusher and greener here. Bryophytes cling to the trees. Familiar varieties of tropical fruit can be spotted in peoples gardens: mangoes, avocados, loquats. Assorted herbage sprouts from neglected plots. Trees are enlivened with splashes of floral colour (frangipani, hibiscus, unknown species). People's skin feels damp to the touch and glistens with sweat (I am basing this on my own skin, rather than from going around touching people!). This is very different from the dusty, wild-west feel of cities further south. And I rather like it.

However, I did feel a bit folorn, wandering around, not really knowing where to go next. I felt a bit of a stranger in this strange tropical city. This feeling of being a bit "lost" wasn't helped by my search for a cash machine. I hadn't had a problem before, but had heard many fellow travellers complain about the lack of availability and massive queues whenever you did manage to find one. Well, typically (as I was down to my last 2 pesos [about 30p] in cash), today was the day that I struggled to get out money. In the city centre the queues were about 40 people deep, so I decided to head back to the hostel (via the supermarket) and hope to find a cashpoint en route. I thought my luck was in when I found 2 cash points without anyone waiting. But, alas, no, they were both without cash (waiting until you had gone trough the whole process before telling you this, mind, and thus causing some momentary anxiety about whether or not your account would be charged as a result [which I don't think it has]). I then spent a good half hour on a fruitless wander around some rather less salubrious areas of Tucuman, looking (increasingly desperately) for another cash point (at least I didn't have any money to steal). Finally, success! The queue was only 3 deep (although the bloke in front spent about 20 minutes doing something...), and once inside the little cubicle, I extracted my 900 pesos and skipped off the supermarket...

After lunch, and motivated as much as anything by a desire to be with other international travellers (fear not Argentinian readers - it's not that I don't love you, it's just that sometimes I feel the need to be with other "strangers"... especially solo travellers, who are, naturally, easier to talk to!), I decided to head to Salta for New Year, and see if I could meet some more people from overseas! Thus, I made the rash move of actually booking a hostel (using hostelbookers for the first time - let's hope it actually works!). I'll let you know in due course how it works out.

A bit of a siesta was required after all the umming and aahing of the morning, after which I headed back out into the city to make further explorations and head over to the bus station to get my ticket for tomorrow. Nothing particularly exciting to report. Similar feelings to the morning: tropical feeling, slightly rough around the edges, some nice buildings, lots of attractive people (as everywhere in Argentina). The weather was cloudy for the first time in ages (oh, it had rained the night before but it had been sunny in the morning) and was noticeably cooler in the afternoon as a result. Oh, and I aborted one supermarket visit after noticing queues that were about 20 people long!

After a second (successful supermarket trip - some cheap fennel purchased!), I came back to the hostel and showered. As I set about making pasta with fennel and blue cheese, I started speaking to a group of 5 Argentinian girls who had arrived earlier in the day. They were really nice and invited me to eat with them. After faltering attempts at Spanish (on which they [unbelievably] complimented me), they revealed that they all spoke English (one of them almost perfectly) and we spent the evening chatting, playing Pictionary and generally having a fun time. All of which goes to show how important it is to remain positive while travelling: those moments when you feel a bit lonely and dejected can soon be brought round by meeting some nice people and finding that you have connections with (almost) everyone - it's just a matter of somehow breaking the ice and finding a way to initiate the conversation.

Well, I really need a pee, so I will leave it there for now (people must wonder why I am rocking in my chair!).

I hope all is well back at home (or in your respective corners of the world)!

All the best,
Love J xx

Oh yes, I was once again asked the time by a person sitting in a doorway. This has happened quite regularly and Adrian's theory is that people recognise that you (assume Devon accent) "baint be from around these parts" are curious to find out if you can speak Spanish. At least now I can tell the time in Spanish (rather than offering them my watch face for them to tell their own time).

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Hi Guys,

I've recently arrived in Tucuman, to a virtually empty, but lovely, hostel, so I thought I'd make the most of the free computer to post a quick update. It also seems quite fast, which is a major bonus after some of the connections that I've experienced in various hostels around Argentina. So, I'll begin with Boxing Day, which is where I left you last time:

Sunday 26th December 2010 (Boxing Day)

Well, today was dominated by Adrian's departure. I think Oscar and Andres did a good job of covering up their sadness, but I'm sure everyone felt rather upset about their fun few months coming to an end (and friendships being put on hold). Oscar cooked a farewell feast for lunch: 3 different Chinese dishes, eaten with noodles. He's such a perfectionist (maybe that's why we get on so well), he was most perturbed by the lack of soy sauce. But he needn't have worried, once again it was delicious. We then played a few last games of cards before the inevitable time came around... and it was time to get a taxi to the bus station.

We waved an emotional goodbye to Adrian (after a quick goodbye beer) and then Oscar, Andres and Manolo took me on a tour of the University. It was totally deserted (Christmas holidays), but at least I got a feel for the place. We also met up with an older Chinese couple (whose exact role I'm not sure of, but I imagine they do something to co-ordinate the presence of Chinese students in La Rioja).

After a quick trip to the supermarket (Chango Mas has become my home-away-from-home during my stay in La Rioja... well, that and Super Vea [both supermarkets handily placed so as not to work up too much of a sweat]), I cooked pasta with aubergine, pepper and tomato (and a lot of chili) and the troops seemed to enjoy it (I think the chili helped!). I wish I could have cooked more typical fare, but most British dishes require more than one ring (i.e. an oven is quite useful)! Hopefully they will be able to visit the UK at some point in the future (although I fear they might find classic UK dishes a bit bland... well, I'm sure a bit of chili and garlic would work wonders!). We played more cards and felt totally at ease in each other's company, despite Adrian's departure (sad though we were that he had gone). It's so nice when you just click with people and can enjoy their company, even when there is a (major) language barrier to overcome.Oh, yes, and more raw eggs were consumed as forfeits for losing (luckily not by me... although I can't say I'd have been that worried... I eat most things, after all!). The looks on Oscar and Manolo's faces as they consumed said eggs were priceless, though, and will long stay in my memory...

Well, my time in La Rioja was also running out, so I packed my bags in readiness for tomorrow's departure and tried to get an earlyish night (which was rather difficult with the combination of heat, previous late nights and the fact that it was a Sunday!).

Monday 27th December 2010

In the end I managed quite a good night's sleep, but it meant getting up later than anticipated. Oscar had said he had wanted to get up early to cook me a farewell meal (which sums up his kindness nicely). Well, instead of cooking, he insisted on going and buying empanadas for lunch, which I happily devoured before getting a taxi to the bus station (La Rioja is the only place so far where the bus station is right on the edge of town). The watermelon was aborted, however, on discovery that it was rotten (once it had released it's putrid juice all over the kitchen... which reminds me: in my increasing catalogue of breaking things, I managed to drop a watermelon earlier in the week! Well, to be precise the handles of the carrier bag broke and it cracked in half! Luckily, the carrier bag captured the wreckage, so there wasn't much that went to waste! Phew).

It was really sad to say goodbye to Oscar and Andres... and so the bus journey was the most melancholy so far on my trip (sensitive soul that I am!). Luckily the scenery was there to boost my spirits. The pass over the mountains between Catamarca and Tucuman was particularly impressive and highlighted a major climatic difference: Tucuman is much more wet and humid than La Rioja. So, instead of deserty scrub and occasional olive groves/vineyards, there were fields upon fields of sugarcane and other lush green tropical greenery. The contrast was amazing considering that it was only a 6 hour bus ride ("only" 6 hours! See how Argentina affects you!). You could also see it in the weather (great big storm clouds, with patches of blue and occasional showers... including a heavy downpour on my way to the supermarket this evening [which you don't really mind when the temperature is still in the 30s at 9pm!]).

Well, I arrived in Tucuman a few hours ago and my first impressions are good. The city is much bigger/busier than La Rioja, and as I say, it is much more humid (despite the temperature itself probably being a few degrees cooler). The hostel (Tucuman Hostel) is really nice... in a great old colonial building, with a small swimming pool out the back (and lovely internal/external courtyards - if you know what I mean). Sadly, it is almost deserted, but at least that means I should get a good night's sleep! And luckily, the owner/manager is really friendly (we had a good chat while I ate my dinner) so the atmosphere is totally different to San Luis (where it was similarly quiet). So, basically, that's brought things up-to-date. I will explore the city tomorrow and can give you more detailed impressions then! Now it's time to make the most of the quiet dorm, so I will be bid you goodnight!

I hope all is well with you and that you have finished digesting any Christmas overindulgence...

Take care,
Love J xx

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Boxing Day

Hello, and happy Boxing Day!

Oscar is cooking and the air-conditioning is off, so I am sweating profusely as I type this. It’s still (insert expletive) hot in La Rioja, oh yes (and the sun has shined just about continuously since I’ve been here [not that I’ve seen that much of it, hiding indoors as we have been]).

I’ve just uploaded my photos, not that there are that many – La Rioja doesn’t have many “sights” as such, it’s more about the feel of the place, and that is difficult to capture on camera (sleepiness and incredible heat are qualities difficult to pictorialise). But, a couple of observations came to mind whilst looking back at my photos on Picasa: a) the second chair-breaking incident was particularly memorable because in falling I managed to knock a glass off the table, which miraculously I somehow reached out and caught during my fall. Talk about reactions! J b) the can of peanut drink was absolutely disgusting, but it was a very kind gesture because Adrian, Oscar and Andres bought it for me from the Chinese supermarket as a Christmas present, stemming from a joke which started in Cordoba, relating to the pronunciation of peanuts!

Friday 24th December 2010

Anyway, back to Christmas Eve, which is where I left you yesterday. Our group of four had been expanded to five with the arrival of Manolo (another Chinese guy studying here in La Rioja). We started the day doing our Christmas shop at Super Vea… people must have thought us strange with all the vegetables in our trolley! We then went to the DIY superstore so that I could buy replacement chairs as Christmas presents for Oscar and Andres. It was in the heat of the day, but perhaps fractionally cooler than previous days, so we managed to survive the experience. After a light salady lunch, I continued with blog-related antics, while Oscar set about preparing the Chinese feast for the evening. And what a feast it was! We started with a cool beer or two to refresh the palate… and then started with the first dish, which was a kind of chicken and mushroom stew (but quite dry and obviously with oriental flavours), with the chicken cooked on the bone, and a variety of vegetables added to the mix. Deslish! Considering they only have one ring in the kitchen, it’s amazing what Oscar can do with a couple of woks and endless imagination (and some internet research too, I believe). This was washed down with a lovely Syrah from Cafayate. The second dish was a kind of fondue, similar to the one we had on a previous evening, again with a selection of meat and vegetables cooked in a spiced broth. The Santa Julia wines were a bit disappointing, but nothing compared to the Cabernet Sauvignon from La Rioja (disappointing considering it cost over 3 pounds), which was virtually undrinkable. We decided to mix it with coke later on, which rendered it just about palatable! The now inevitable Fernet and coke followed, with dancing, singing and much festive merriment. It was a fun evening all round and certainly the most “different” Christmas I have ever spent.

Saturday 25th December 2010

A quiet day was required after all the eating and drinking of the day before, so apart from a lovely chat with Mum and Dad (hope your toothache gets better soon, Mum), we didn’t do much apart from play cards and decide where to eat in the evening. Oh, and eat lots of watermelon and oranges! 

The original plan for the evening was to have an asado (Adrian's last one!), but the 2 asado restaturants were closed, so we had to adopt a plan b instead. We ended up in a rather fancy restaurant, which I guess was apt for Adrian’s last night. The food was a bit pricer than usual for Argentina, but still about half what you would expect to pay in the UK. The filet mignon was lovely and the Tannat (red wine) from La Rioja was the best local red wine so far. Oscar thought his pasta was too creamy (the Chinese palate is totally different from the western one… cheese and cream aren’t really appreciated – which would make for an interesting experiene for a Chinese person in the West Country!) and Andres’ tuna and blue cheese was a rather odd combination, but they were the only complaints, so it was another good evening all round.

I can only say good things about the hospitality I have received. Oscar loves to cook and I love to eat, so we have definitely bonded over food (I think that's why he and Adrian get on so well too... well, that and the fact that they are both thoroughly lovely blokes). And not to forget Andres, who is the quieter of the two, but still warm and funny and kind and welcoming. It's the people that make a place and for that reason I will long remember my Christmas in La Rioja...

Well, I will leave it there for today. Adrian is leaving in a few hours and when I'm at the bus station I'll see what options are available for onward travel myself. I think I'll probably head towards Tucuman tomorrow. The blog updates might become rather more sporadic again from then on, as I struggle with slow hostel computers and internet-hogging guests and such like. But I will try my best to keep you informed.

I hope you are all enjoying yourselves this holiday season and it would be nice to hear your news if you get the chance.

Best wishes,
James xx

Merry Christmas from Argentina!

Happy Christmas! It’s time to send season’s greetings to all those of you who celebrate today. Hope you are having/had a good one! You probably won’t be reading this now (well you are reading it NOW, obviously, but I mean that it’s probably already Boxing Day or 2011, or never, as while I type this you’ll all be fast asleep in front of the telly. After all that is the true spirit of Christmas!

Having been in La Rioja for a week, it’s now time to bring this bad boy bang up-to-date. So, a week’s worth in one go. Deep breath, here goes:

Saturday 18th December 2010

I had the dormitory to myself for my last night in Mendoza, which was rather strange as the hostel had actually been over-occupied for the previous few nights, with people sleeping on mattresses on the floor in some of the dorms. It just happened that there was a big exodus the previous evening and no one arriving to replace them. So, after a good night’s sleep (my back was gradually getting better by this stage), it was up reasonably early to check out and make my way to the bus station.

After another good breakfast I shared a taxi to the bus station with Signe and Malthe (the lovely Danish couple I had spend quite a bit of time with the previous couple of days, who were on their way to the airport for a flight to Montevideo). They generously insisted on paying (I must give the impression of being a proper travelling scrubber!). The bus was 45 minutes late leaving, but once underway it was another scenic ride through desert and scrub, surrounded by mountains and with condors soaring above. Luckily, given that it was a 9 hour journey, my back was feeling better and I have to say the bus rides through endless nothingness are one of the highlights for me. Just the occasional dusty little town dotted between state capitals. It really gives you a feeling for just how big Argentina is and how the geography influences the way of life over here (people think nothing of a 6 hour drive, which is generally anathema for us Brits).

The food onboard (included in the price, just like a scheduled flight) also gives an insight into Argentinian culture. Lunch was an anaemic ham and cheese roll and tea was an alfajor (biscuitty thing with the ubiquitous dulce de leche filling) and a cup of tea (of which the bag broke, but I was rather thirsty so drank it nonetheless). Continuing thoughts on Argentinian food: I want fruit and veg!

I’d like to say that Adrian was waiting for me at the bus station (a rather nice contemporary affair on the edge of La Rioja), but he was late. Clearly his months in Argentina have washed any Swiss punctuality clean out of his system, and he has returned to his native Spanish habits! I’ve thought before how much he reminds me of Mario and once again the similarities have been emphasized. ;-)

Anyway, better late than never… we got a taxi back to his house (an interesting conflagration of flats and bedsits, clustered around the owners home and central courtyard/garden). Nicely rustic finishing on the buildings and generally a bit of a third world feel!

We went to the nearby supermarket to get food, and Adrian cooked chicken curry, washed down with beer. It was getting quite late by this time and so we didn’t even manage the 1am meeting time at the venue for Adrian’s leaving party. We were there by 2am, though, so not that late! It was a really nice venue. A kind of mainly outside pub/bar, reminiscent of a beer garden, but much, much hotter. I have to say that La Rioja is absolutely baking! However, 2am until 7am is the perfect time… a balmy 25 degrees or so, without the sun scorching the earth. Here it is totally understandably why people live a mainly nocturnal existence.

The party continued back at Oscar and Andres’ flat, with morning-dancing. Not something that I can imagine happening in Sidmouth. I think bed was a record 9:30am! It was actually a really good night, just the right number of people to chat too, practising a bit more Spanish and allowing some of the locals to practise their English too.

Sunday 19th December 2010

Naturally, Sunday was a bit late starting! And given the heat, that was probably a good thing. Even the slightest movement outside of the air-conditioned flat during the day brings on a major sweating episode. I know I like it hot, but I have decided that 40 degrees is perhaps a bit too hot, even for me!

So, the day continued slowly, eating cherries and watermelon, until the evening, when we ventured into La Rioja for an Asado in a nice restaurant in the centre. Jeez, talk about meat! We went for the whole hog (excuse the mixed-meat metaphor), which included various different cuts and bits of offal. It was really delicious and more than enough to fill 4 greedy blokes, of decidedly mixed origin (bits of China, the Middle East [Oscar has a quarter Arab in him], Spain, Switzerland and Devon all represented). This was followed by more watermelon back at home (dirt cheap here at this time of year and much sweeter and juicier than anything you can ever find in the UK) and a relatively early night (which means about 3am here).

Monday 20th December 2010

Adrian was keen to get moving on Monday morning (feeling guilty for sleeping most of the previous day!), but foolishly gave me the choice of a lie-in which I gratefully accepted. I don’t think my body will ever fully adjust to all these late nights, so I am happy to get sleep when I can. It’s certainly made me more relaxed about the whole idea of routines. I suppose being on holiday makes it a lot easier, but I do feel more easy-going than when I am back in the UK. Perhaps it’s the heat, which generally makes you feel more lethargic and less prone to over-analysis!

Anyway, I was actually up in the morning (for a change), so was able to do my washing and internet-stuff before lunch. I’m just trying to remember what lunch consisted of, because, as most of you are aware, food is definitely the most important element of the day for me. Here, in La Rioja, it is especially so because Oscar is treating me to an array of different Chinese dishes, which is a nice vegetable-filled counterpart to the more substantial Argentinian MEAT-based cuisine. I seem to recall it was washed down with beer, whatever it was, and I’m sure it was delicious. But, instead of wracking my brains to remember what it was I am just going to let it go. It's good practice for me to try to be slightly less anally-retentive and I know you’re not that interested in the contents of my stomach!

Even more deliciousness was to come in the evening, though, so let’s concentrate on that instead. Oscar cooked a special kind of Chinese fondue, where you cook various pieces of meat and vegetables in a savoury soup/stock in the middle of the table (further condimented with a kind of dipping sauce). It was superb, and I was able to dust off my chopstick skills, which went down very well with the Chinese fraternity (shocked that a Westerner could be so adept – heck, I was shocked that I could be so adept!). Anyway, it was lovely to sit all together, eating slowly (we must have been eating for a couple of hours, at least), drinking wine and chatting (in a mixture of English and Spanish). In a symbol of Argentinian-Chinese friendship, a guy we had seen earlier in the Internet shop (internet is state-owned here in La Rioja), came to join us for dinner. He kind of knew Oscar and Andres from before, as he had installed their broadband, but it was a fairly spontaneous move all round. I think part of the motivation was that he spoke English and wanted to practice with a native speaker. As always (paid or not) I was happy to oblige.

Before dinner, in the glorious amber light of evening we went for a wander around the town. It’s a gloriously languorous kind of place (you can’t imagine anything happening very fast here... or even anything happening, full stop) and was nice to sit in the main square, eating ice-cream and watching the world go by. Once again I have been made to feel very much at home (albeit a very different kind of home [away from home]) and am really enjoying not doing very much, just soaking up the feeling of the place and trying to understand what it must be like to be a foreign student studying in La Rioja.

After dinner, we stayed up drinking homemade Pimms (I think I was the only one who really liked it – doubly so given that the total cost of the ingredients was less than a cheap bottle of wine at home) and chatting, which was punctuated by me falling through the chair, in utterly comic fashion. It was a plastic patio chair and the centre simply gave way so that I was sandwiched in the middle. Much mirth and merriment ensued. Another good (late) night, concluded on the balcony, talking to Oscar and Andres (whose English, like everyone, improves dramatically after a drink or two), while Adrian went progressive shades of white and left us in order to be sick! Maybe the Pimms was a tad too potent.

Tuesday 21st December 2010

Another sleep-filled morning (I no longer feel like I’m wasting the day, because, frankly, it’s just too bloody hot here! The books were right, La Rioja is one of the hottest places in the world). Chinese noodle soup for lunch, under the cool draft of the air-conditioner. Yum. An afternoon spent doing mundane tasks like clipping fingernails, flossing teeth, internet banking (no, that’s not a euphemism), that kind of thing. There’s no rush, the rat-race doesn’t exist here.

Then, once the sun was close to setting it was safe to venture outside. We had Lomito for dinner, in a lomiteria (not sure if that’s what it’s called, but it should be), which is a kind of giant sandwich, filled with steak, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise and a fried egg. A tad too salty, but quite tasty in a dirty, fast-food kind of way. Adrian had a slightly different version, topped with oceans of melted cheese. Count the calories in that! It’s no wonder so many Argentinians are getting fat! It was this time washed down with Quilmes Stout, a cerveza negra, somewhat reminiscent of Old Peculiar in it’s sweet fruitiness, if not it’s strength. It’s a mere 4.8%.

After dinner we went to play pool. Good fun and good people watching too. The mullet is alive and well in Argentina, albeit with a distinctive South American twist. I’ll have to try and get some photographic evidence as it’s too hard to accurately describe in words. There were also quite a lot of piercings in evidence, with the eyebrow being a particularly popular location. In the end, we were all pretty knackered (and it was only 2am), so an early night was required.

Wednesday 22nd December 2010

Had a jolly good night’s sleep, so feeling half shot-away today (which is when I started writing this… although I’m not sure I’ll get round to posting it just yet… I think I’m going to drip feed you over the next week so that you don’t get blog fatigue). I think, if indeed it’s possible, it’s hotter than ever today. Anyway, I’m now up-to-date with my washing, so have set about the task of updating the blog. It’s hard going with such a massive backlog, but I shall preserve and won’t leave La Rioja until it’s back on track. I might have to stay here for the rest of my time in Argentina, in that case!

In food-related news, it was stir-fried green beans (hot and spicy, Chinese-style), sweetcorn and empanadas for lunch, followed by a siesta (for Adrian at least), or a few hours out of the heat, listening to music and taking it easy (if typing like a dervish counts as taking it easy). This was followed by an early evening stroll in the centre (by early evening I mean between 7 and 10pm – it doesn’t get dark here until 9pm), eating Adrian’s ice-cream (I originally didn’t fancy one [not being the world’s biggest ice-cream fan] but I changed my mind once I saw him eating his!), people watching and trying to find a jewellery shop so that Adrian could compare prices for his mother back in Switzerland. It’s always interesting just wandering around, trying to get a feel for the place, especially so when you have to walk at a crawl so as not to break out in a massive sweat. Even the locals appear to suffer from the heat…. It does seem kind of all-consuming at this time of year. One other interesting observation is how the heat and Argentina changes your concept of time. I was looking in restaurant windows, seeing the waiters idly standing round, waiting for customers and I thought, “well, of course it’s empty, it’s far too early to eat”. I looked at my watch and it was 9:15pm!
Other observations on La Rioja: people think nothing of taking the whole family on a scooter (and I mean the whole family... I have seen several groups of four people (all without helmets, naturally), all occupying the same small scooter. It makes Italy seem safety-mad! I often look at them and think it would be rather nice if they went around in the style of a stunt-riding display team (you know, with a kid hanging off each side, maybe doing a handstand occasionally, that kind of think). Oh, yes, and there is "Titi" everywhere you look here. And, no I'm not commenting on the female form (would I be that crude?). No, apparently it is the name of a local politician, who must have lots of supporters (or own a paint shop) because his name is daubed on walls everywhere!
After visiting the wine shop (I found an interesting bottle of Sangiovese from Mendoza [not very common here] along with a La Riojan Cabernet Sauvignon and a Syrah from Cafayate) we went to the supermarket. It was such a strange experience. Heaving with people, at almost 11 o’clock at night, the queues for the check-out were about 10 people deep. Therefore we didn’t get back and start cooking until after 11pm! In order to stave off the hunger pangs we assembled a picada of cheese and salami and cracked open the Sangiovese (not bad, but not quite up to the heights achieved from the grape in Italy… still what can you expect for 4 pounds [yes, rather extravagant for me, I know!]). Oscar was treating us to more Chinese fare. This time it was a kind of Chinese stew. Lots of different vegetables, with mushrooms and beef. The dish is finished off by piling chili (lots of) and garlic on top of the meat, on top of the stew and then pouring very hot oil over the whole lot. It makes for excellent theatre and tasted divine! We drank a fruity young Temparanillo will the meal, which worked quite well, despite the heat (I munched through a whole chili at one point, and it reminded me of the Chili’s that Michelle once bought us from the Chinese Supermarket in Poole).

You will probably not believe it, but I managed to break a second chair. The La Riojan heat must make the plastic brittle, that’s all I can say. Either that, or the many asados and piles of Chinese food have started to take their toll (I don’t think I feel visibly fatter, but could probably be harbouring an extra couple of kilos somewhere on my body). Anyway, it’s providing good entertainment and has given me a good idea about what to get Oscar and Andres for Christmas!

After dinner we played cards until the early hours, entertaining ourselves handsomely with food-related forfeits (the loser had to eat, respectively: a bread roll, three runner beans, and (the piece of resistance) a raw egg). Adrian had the honour of that one, and did a sterling job of keeping it down (helped, no dobut, by the fact that we had limited our alcohol intake to two bottles of wine between 4).

Thursday 23rd December 2010

I think Adrian is starting to get into that limbo phase when you are about to leave one place for another. I understand totally how that can wreak havoc on the emotions. It’s quite a big upheaval at the best of times, but when you’ve formed strong emotional bonds with different people (on the other side of the world, especially) it must be really tough. He’s having trouble sleeping, bless him, but at least he made the most of that restlessness to go to the supermarket (braving 43 degree heat get there!) to buy us facturas for breakfast.. What a sweetheart!

Well, breakfast was once again lunch and lunch was at tea-time and today was so hot that it was almost impossible to know if you were coming or going, or what time it was or what you were supposed to be doing just to try and keep cool. The latter involved staying resolutely indoors, directly positioned under the air-conditioning unit, with additional fan-related support, spraying yourself with a mister, not moving too much, wearing as little as possible, that kind of thing. An interesting challenge, interspersed with cries of “que calor, papa!” (apologies for lack of accents, this keyboard doesn't have any) and nods of agreement from anyone and everyone. I’m not sure any conversation extended beyond talk of how hot it was, which was fine for an Englishman who’s obsessed with the weather. I’m in meteorological heaven (or should it be hell [?], given our representation of hell as an inferno of La Riojan proportions!).

Thankfully the heat was tempered slightly by a spot or two of rain during the evening, and by about midnight it was safe to venture outside. Adrian, Oscar and me went for a couple of beers and some pizza (funny that it should be so much like an American deep-pan affair, what with all that Italian heritage… hmm… that's cultural imperialism for you). Still, it was nice to be outside in the fresh air (and yes, you could almost even describe it as fresh!). An early night for once – in bed by 4:30am!

Friday 24th December 2010 (aka Christmas Eve)

So, the big day had arrived (well, here in Argentina, at least, where the major celebrations occur on Christmas Eve… or actually on Christmas Day if you consider that things don’t really get moving until after midnight). But that's going to have to wait until tomorrow because we are off out for dinner shortly.

Once again, Season's greetings to you all.

Lots of love,
James xx

Friday, December 24, 2010

Blogger is messing me about!

Bloody blogger. It won't let me edit posts once they're posted. Something weird is going on there. Once again there are some horrible typos/mistakes and I forgot to mention New Zealand in the Mah Jong playing group. Sorry.

I also wanted to give some extra kudos to Hostel Lagares, in case anyone is reading this and might head there as a result. To summarise: great place, cheap, clean, fantastic atmosphere, friendly staff, lovely guests (I know you can't account for that, but maybe it just rubs off... people seem to want to share food and drink, cook together, spend time together, get to know each other). And did I mention that it's cheap! That's what travelling should be about, IMHO.


Chistmas Eve under a (slightly cooler but still) blazing hot sun...

Hello people (et bonjour aux lecteurs francophones)!

Happy Christmas to those continental types who celebrate today (while us Brits are still working hard!!!). I'm not sure I'll be able to write much today, as the Chinese feast will require some preparation (and some eating too)! So I'll just give you a quick couple of entries from my time in Mendoza, just to give you something to read on those cold winter evenings in Europe (or those long afternoon siestas in Argentina), or just when you're really bored if you live anywhere else.

So, once again (for the third day on the trot), here goes:

Wednesday 15th December 2010

Today was a rather quiet day, after the fun times of the day before. I have to admit I was feeling a bit rough! Still, I managed the 10am deadline for breakfast (just!) and was grateful for the intake of sugar that came from my daily dose of dulce de leche (and the caffeine from the 3 cups of  not-too-bad coffee). I then proceeded to spend the rest of the morning sitting in the hostel kitchen talking to my lovely fellow guests, drinking mate and slowly feeling normal once again! ;-)

Lunch was left-over Spanish Omelette and salad (a godsend, as I didn't really feel like trudging to the supermarket in the heat of the day) and in the afternoon I went to the park with various others (Australian, Swedish, Irish, Canadian, American - have I missed anyone?) to play Mah Jong. It was fun (sitting under some trees in a relatively refreshing breeze [low 30s, perhaps]), but the rules are a bit complicated, so I'm not sure I took everything in during my first sitting. Still, at least if I play again I'll have some idea of who it works!

I spent the evening chatting with the 3 Swedes, which was delightful. Oh yes, and the American girls in the hostel were just loving my cute English accent! ;-) Which is funny, as I've always hated my voice, but there you go, I was happy to go along with it (and probably even played up to it... just a little bit!). I was teaching the Swedes the names of kitchen utensils (once a teacher...), and the Americans were laughing at my quaint pronunciation (and some of the words, which clearly don't existing the US).

I have to say that Hostel Lagares is the best hostel so far. And at 30 pesos a night (including a [good] free breakfast and a free cycle tour of the wineries if you stay for 3 nights), I'm not sure how they can manage to make a profit. Their margins must be miniscule! But thanks to them (and my fellow guests) I had a wonderful time in Mendoza... and it was about to get better...

Thursday 16th December 2010

...because today was the cycle tour of the wineries. Our bikes were courtesy of Mr. Hugo in Maipu (not your poo, or his poo, or her poo, or its poo, or our poo or their poo...) and we got the bus there, arriving at about 11am (a civilised time to start, don't you think?). There were 8 of us in total (US, Ireland, Denmark and The UK all represented) and we made a good group (some great senses of humour always helps). Which is just as well, because the bodegas themselves were a little bit disappointing. Maybe we chose the wrong ones, but they all seemed a bit commercial (even the so-called Boutique Wineries) and sales-pitchy too (especially compared to Australia and New Zealand). You have to pay to visit all of them (3 to 4 pounds) and they don't give you all that much to taste either (boo!). And what was most disappointing for me was that there was no choice regarding which wines you taste. Given that I'm not a huge fan of Malbec, I would have preferred the chance to vary the mix of grapes a bit... I got a bit Malbeced out by the end of day! Anyway, we visited 3 in total, and had lunch in one of them (which was really nice [and with a very large glass of wine included :-)], but not all that cheap). Still it was a thoroughly enjoyable day and Mr. Hugo was a star. Upon returning the bikes, he plied us with free water (much needed!) and wine (plonk... but when it's free, who cares). Oh yes, and we also spent an hour or so in the Maipu Beer Garden prior to that, sampling some slightly-odd artisanal ale and playing cards (it was boiling hot, so it was nice to sit in the shade for a bit).

We decided to continue the tastings in the evening (we had procured a few nice bottles of different varieties en route). It was nice to cook (home-made burgers and various different salads) and wine-taste together. In total I think I tasted Malbec (naturally), Cabernet Sauvignon (of course), Temperanillo (slightly more leftfield - my choice), Pinot Noir (even more leftfield here - obviously my choice), Torrentes, Chardonnay... of which an oak-aged Cab Sauv was probably the best, although I'm a total sucker for Pinot Noir, so that was good too. Generally speaking a big thumbs up for Argentinian wine!

Friday 17th December 2010

The last full day in Mendoza and I wake up in agony, with a bad back (it had sort of been playing up sporadically since San Rafael, but today it had hit with a vengence). Typical! I was walking around like an old man (which was doubly ironic, as a) I had mentioned to one of the Swedes about how comfortable the bed was and b) the Irish girls had taken to calling me Grandad [as I was the oldest member of the group]!). Well, you've got to laugh...

So, as a result it was a rather relaxing day. E-mail, cards with the Irish girls (thanks for the Ibuprofen, by the way, that really did the trick, it must be said), a spot of light shopping (also with the girls - one of them needed a new memory card), a couple of gentle walks around town taking in the sights for the last time (and including the purchase of my onward bus ticket). The only problem was that with the uneven paving (which abounds here), I kept jarring my back and looking like someone who was having a small fit every few metres! ;-)

It was also a day of goodbyes, as a lot of people were leaving the hostel. But as you say goodbye to some, others arrive. Just not that many arriving in this case. The hostel had gone from being overbooked to being half-empty, but there was still good company to be had. The lovely Danish couple were still there, and Sally, a psychologist from London arrived at the hostel, and it was interesting to get a spot of psycho-analysis over a glass or two of wine! In fact, it was a lovely evening, the four of us chatting and eating and supping! I was going to be sorry to say goodbye to this hostel...

Well, that's all for now, folks. I need to have a shower before dinner. I said it was cooler today, but now I'm not so sure. I'm a typing this a bit too far away from the air-conditioning unit and therefore the sweat is dripping off me (nice!).

So, it just remains to reiterate the seasons greetings and send you a big virtual hug from La Rioja. Eat, drink and get merry (that's exactly what I intend to do!).

James xx

Odd Blogger antics

Hmm... I just tried to edit that last post to put in an ending and a PS, but it doesn't appear when you look at the blog itself. Weird. Anyway, I just wanted to say that I started proof-reading, but exhausted myself after two paragraphs and hope that there aren't too many mistakes as a result. I also hope that the experience isn't quite as tedious for you. I rather imagine it's just the effects of the heat and a long day in front of the computer. But ye gads it's a long and arduous read! ;-)

Well, I'll leave you there for now. I hope you're all surviving your respective climatic challenges and enjoying the seasonal fare on offer wherever you might be (there you go, my twin passions of weather and food, summarised in one handy sentence). I'm preparing for a hot and meat-filled Christmas, albeit with a Chinese twist. And plenty of wine, no doubt. I don't think I'll be indulging in Christmas pud this year (although I've tasted some nice dessert wines which would go very well with it), as I'm not sure it would really go down all that well in the furnace that is La Rioja. I'll just stick to the dessert wine instead!

TTFN and take care...

Lot of love,
James xx

43 degrees. Count 'em: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21,22,23,24,25,26,27,28,29,30,31,32,33,34,35,36,37,38,39,40,41,42,43!

Hello there,

“Back again? So soon?”, I hear you ask. Well, yes. Once again here in La Rioja it’s too hot to leave the air-conditioned comfort of the apartment, so I am making the most of the opportunity to get the blog back to where it should be.

As the subject and introduction may indeed suggest, it's VERY HOT INDEED here in La Rioja today, so I haven't been able to stay outside for more than 5 minutes. I am now sat under the air-conditioning unit, with an additional fan blowing directly at me, and typing is still causing a trickle of sweat to dribble down the small of my back. Washing my shoes and placing them outside to dry (which took approximately 5 minutes), is about the extent of my exertions. Well, that and washing the dishes, which brought me out in a sweat so profusive that it would make a malaria sufferer proud (fear not, it is just the heat - otherwise I feel absolutely fine)! Anyway, as a result of all this, I have been able to spend most of the day sat in a darkened, air-conditioned room, writing up my blog, the results of which will shortly follow.
So, without further ado, let’s move on from Cordoba (about bloody time) and head off on the next leg of my adventures (which will take you from Cordoba, through Mina Clavero, San Luis and San Rafael, to the start of my fun times in Mendoza). Just a few days to go after that and I'll be jolly well up-to-date! I hope you're sitting comfortably, because (even by my standards) this is a flippin' long one:

Wednesday 8th December 2010/12/23

I pottered around the hostel prior to getting the bus, checking the internet to make sure I knew the accommodation options in Mino Clavero (drawing myself a handy-little street map, so I wouldn’t get lost) and generally getting myself into a bit of a last minute panic due to the fact that I had decided not to pre-book! I am clearly not very good at being spontaneous!

The bus journey through the mountains to Mina Clavero was absolutely beautiful (see photos in picasaweb for evidence). I saw a couple of condors (and a condor exhibition in the high-level restaurant where we stopped for a toilet break and accompanying panoramic views) and a lot of interesting granite formations. It was a little bit hazy (I can hear Dad groaning at the thought… especially after days of clear blue skies! At least I had a window seat!), but generally rather lovely. My arrival in Mina Clavero was somewhat ghost-town-like. To call it sleepy is somewhat of an understatement (but, I did arrive during siesta time, so I was expecting it to pick up a bit, which it did [a bit] – apparently, in high summer (January and February) it is absolutely heaving with people [which was rather hard to imagine, given that it was only about 3 weeks away]).

I arrived at the hostel to find the owner (I guessed) outside, painting. He seemed quite friendly and showed me inside, handing me over to his (heavily pregnant) wife, to do the checking-in. She spoke to me in Spanish, with me trying to make appropriate noises in reply, and I think I managed to understand just about everything. The understanding isn't the problem, it's the trying to utter a coherent response without breaking into Italian and/or making myself seem like a total idiot that's the problem (foreign language students of the world: I feel your pain!).

The hostel (Andamundos) seemed really sweet (if at little bit too quiet [no need to worry about it being fully booked] and hippified – just a big change from Cordoba, I suppose). There was also direct access to the river, so that was a major bonus given the increasing heat! Despite being at 900m in altitude it was still in the mid 30s, and bright sunshine.

I dumped my stuff (in the half-empty dorm), grabbed my swimmers and headed up the road to find a place to swim. Well, it wasn’t exactly a swim – more of a lounge in a foot deep stretch of river, but it was nice where the water rushed over the rocks and it was really refreshing (but not at all cold) and the evening sun was just perfect.

Later in the evening I met the other hostel residents (well, guests, they were all there on holiday, like me): 3 Argentinian girls (all travelling separately) and one Argentinian couple. So it was Spanish practice ahoy! After dinner we went out for a drink with the guy who works at the hostel (not the owner who I had met earlier, a different person). He was a bit of a hippy dude, but very friendly and he didn’t speak much English, so that forced me to practice my Spanish a bit more. When we went into the bar Fillmere Jive by Pavement was playing (which is one of my favourite songs ever, so that was a good omen), and it turned out to be a lovely little place (quiet but charming). It wasn’t the early night I had planned (‘twas gone 3am by the time we returned [via some nocturnal sights – nothing dodgy, just the town and river by night, including a rickety iron bridge and some stepping stones across the river] so quite early by Argentinian standards, I suppose).

Thursday 9th December 2010

Breakfast at the hostel was nice (bread, dulce de leche, coffee) and was included in the 6 pound 50 a night cost, which seems to be about the going rate (although prices here in Mina Clavero go up a bit during the peak holiday season).

There was a bit of a mix-up in the morning (not helped by the fact that I can’t understand everything with my still-limited Spanish). Basically, the guy at the hostel had said the night before that he would take us in his car to a stretch of river where it is perfect for swimming and diving into the water (I was wondering if I would be able to get my nose to look exactly like Dad’s!). In the end, he was late getting up and so there wasn’t really time, because he had to start his shift at the hostel at 1pm. So me and the girls decided to walk up the river from the hostel to find a suitable beach for swimming/lounging purposes. Walking up the river was fun in itself (some quite deep stretches where trunks were definitely required) and we managed to find a lovely spot, where the water was deep enough for proper swimming and where, later on, so local lads came along to dive from a rock into the river (it wasn’t that deep, I didn’t think!). We ended up spending most of the day swimming or just lounging in the water. The temperature of which was absolutely perfect (especially as it was still in the mid 30s outside).

In the late afternoon I went exploring around the town and it was absolutely gorgeous (more Picasa evidence, filed under Mina Clavero). The skies were crystal clear and the evening sun cast a lovely warm glow on everything it touched (the weather has been absolutely fantastic so far).

In the evening, as pre-arranged, I had an asado with the other people from the hostel (including a Belgian guy, who had arrived during the day). The meat was great, as was the company. The only disappointment was the wine, which you had to buy from the hostel (at a reasonable price, it must be said), and which was rather, let’s say, “sharp”. We played cards for a while (including a game along the lines of snap, but with a twist. If you have the same card as an opponent you have to make the animal noise which they had pre-selected. They found some of the English noises a touch difficult to master. Cock-a-doodle-doo was an obvious favourite, although some of the more random animals were equally hilarious. Despite all the hilarity and merriment, I think we were all in bed soon after 1am, which must be just about the earliest night yet (and I was quite thankful as all the Spanish-speaking had rather taken it out of me)!

Friday 10th December 2010

Another nice breakfast started the day (before 10am, as that was last orders at the breakfast bar). I could easily have stayed an extra couple of days, but wanted to move on in order to get to La Rioja before Adrian leaves for Switzerland. It was another scorching hot day, once again under cloudless skies. The bus ride to San Luis was comfortable and scenic. More mountain scenery, but getting drier as we headed south and west.

San Luis seemed very sleepy for a provincial capital, but again, I had arrived during siesta time, so first impressions could be wrong (they weren’t – San Luis is an utterly sleepy kind of place, and quite charming as a result).

My arrival at the hostel (again, easily located due to my pre-sketched map of the city!) was something of a shock. Not because it was heaving with people… not at all… it seemed totally empty, but because I was “greeted” by perhaps the frostiest woman I have ever met (and believe me, I have met a few frosty women in my time!). Jeez, I was made to feel that the fact that I had disturbed here television-watching was the most inconsiderate things a person could possibly do. And to add insult to injury, I had pre-booked at the previous hostel, thus securing a 50% discount on one of the nights. Shock! Horror! How could a person do such a thing?! She would have to check with the manager as that just didn’t seem right at all…

No wonder the hostel seemed empty. I noticed 3 German girls arrive shortly after me (who I had seen on the same bus earlier in the day), but they were promptly scared away so that the lazy bitch wouldn’t have to do any work, like actually check people in or talk to them, or lift her lazy ass off the sofa in front of the TV. It seems that pre-booking is the only possible way that anyone would actually stay there (either that, or desperation) and I was rapidly wishing that I hadn’t pre-booked (and pre-paid) and would therefore have also been able to vote with my feet.

Anyway, despite what some of you might think, I always at least try to remain positive in the face of adversity. And let’s focus on the hostel’s good points for a while. There was lots of space (I could choose any bed I wanted in the 18 bed dorm), it was relatively clean and there was nice large back garden, with a swimming pool (small and dirty, but a swimming pool nonetheless)!

Unfortunately, the attempts at positivity remained somewhat short-lived. After a pleasant couple of hours strolling around the city (perhaps “town” would be a more apt description: Buenos Aires this is not) and procuring provisions from Super Vea, I returned to the hostel to cook. As I sat down, I was beginning to despair. There were now at total of 4 people in the hostel. The charming young receptionist (aka The Ice Queen) was still glued to the telly, but had been joined by a couple of older telly-addicts. I knew they were both Argentinian, but I couldn’t work out the relationship. Were they her parents? They certainly seemed sufficiently miserable for that to be possible. Were they part of some fun new TV appreciation society (at one point I swear I almost heard one of them actually chuckle)Could be, I suppose. They were all absolutely fixated on the goggle-box. Or were they just fellow guests, trying to fit into the spirit of the hostel by not talking and not making any attempt to acknowledge the presence of another person in the room? Yup, that must be it. They did a wonderful job of allowing me to eat my dinner in private, without even turning their head once to investigate this strangely animated presence in the corner of the room. Hell, I might have even offered them a glass of wine if they could have been bothered to say “buen provecho”, of grunt, or something.

All of which made my pasta taste slightly bitter (at least I had a decent bottle of Temperanillo for company, but even that was somewhat soured by the atmosphere). I was just beginning to think of possible horror-film scenarios (Psycho, Misery, oh, okay, I’ll admit, I haven’t actually seen many horror films, but I could probably write a few based on the thoughts going through my head), with the 3 stooges silently plotting some kind of gruesome murder, until, that was, a couple of travellers (of approximately my age) walked into the room. As they told me later, my eyes lit up when I saw them! I guess it’s moments like this when people believe there actually is a God!

Anyway, almost immediately after they arrived I heard the smashing of glass. Or was it the breaking of ice? No, definitely glass. The couple had plonked a bottle (of plonk?) down on the side in the kitchen and it had smashed to smithereens. What a waste. I was there like a flash to lick up what remained. I’m just joking (I’m not that much of a lush), but I did go to investigate and offer the remains of my bottle (more out of desperation to speak to some normal people, rather than any deep-seated altruism on my part). Well, it worked, and we were soon comparing notes about misery guts and her fellow square-eyes. Rob and Melanie were an Anglo-Catalan couple (Lancashire and Barcelona respectively, but both living in London for the past 10 years). Anyway, we spent a lovely evening together, sitting outside in the balmy evening air (after a very hot day), chatting about this and that. They were attempting to visit all the National Parks in Argentina, with their tent and a camping stove (so were somewhat more adventurous than me, that’s for sure!). I can’t remember what time we went to bed. It wasn’t that late, and anyway, I figured I should be up in time for breakfast (and room cleaning) so as not to incur the wrath of the milk-curdler.

Saturday 11th December 2010

After a good night’s sleep I woke up to discover half-a-dozen mosquito bites around my ankle, one on my elbow and one behind me ear. So, she had unleashed her secret weapon during the night. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if she kept a jar of mosquitoes just for that very purpose. Guests come along, haven’t paid the full price, so she sets the mosquitoes on you! Be warned people: she’s dangerous as well as miserable!

Thus far on my trip I had managed to avoid the curse of the mosquito, and so I had been blithely wandering around unprotected. No longer! Henceforward I has be liberally slathering myself in repellent from head to toe (when I remember, at least).

Breakfast was adequate, but ice-knickers turned the milk sour nonetheless. I didn’t dare ask for any more coffee so made do with the one cup, and vacated the table as quickly as possible. I noticed after breakfast that the icicle was pretending to clean. This amounted to walking around with a broom for 5 minutes, before sitting down in front of the TV once again, to catch up with the latest news from the world of Argentinian soaps.

I decided it was best to clear out of the hostel while cleaning took place! I went for a wander round the town, but found it rather less pleasant in the heat of the day than it was in the balmy golden light of the previous evening. Still, at least I saw all the sights (!), and was back in time for a hearty lunch!

During lunch, I met a friendly Argentinian dude (thankfully it seems that Jill Frost is the exception that proves the rule: Argentinian people really are exceptionally friendly). He’s a teacher working in Buenos Aires as a teacher of Spanish for Chinese students (in town for some kind of exam board meeting), so we compared notes for a while, before he headed out to explore. I had a lounge be the pool after lunch (the closest I got to a swim was a foot-dangle, as the water looked a touch mucky, to say the least). It was much cooler (i.e. about 27, in comparison to the mid 30s that I had been experiencing), with a refreshing breeze/gale-force wind (depending on where you were sitting!). I got myself slightly toasted (I blame the wind, but an insufficiently high factor was probably the real reason!).

Went for further wanderings in the evening (the lack of photos under San Luis corresponds to the lack of sights!) and booked my bus ticket for San Rafael. Came back, drank mate, showered and wrote diary prior to cooking. I was quite surprised to see the Anglo-Catalan couple return (I thought they had left for the nearby National Park in the morning). It was funny because I had joked the previous evening that I would pay for them to stay, just so that I had someone to talk to! Well, I didn’t need to because they had discovered the only suitable buses left around 8am and they had missed them all, so would now have to wait until tomorrow.

Anyway, I was glad that they hadn’t gone because we were able to spend the evening together, chatting, drinking wine and neat Fernet (a handy amar[g]o/digestif in the absence of coke). It was actually quite chilly outside (for a change) so there was no al fresco dining on this particular evening (but luckily there was no chill wind inside the building: ice-pants didn’t work the night shift, thank God).

Sunday 12th December 2010

The Anglo-Catalan couple did manage to get away early, so I didn’t see them in the morning (we had said our goodbyes the previous evening). Luckily, it seemed it was the Ice Queen’s day off, so breakfast was an altogether more enjoyable affair, with the manager offering multiple refills and generally being more accommodating (still, he continued to question my half-price night, until I was forced to put on my sad face, at which point he said that it wasn’t a problem and we could forget about it. Quite right too.).

Apart from trying to squeeze more money out of me, the managed seemed quite a pleasant fellow. Over the course of the next hour or so we (me and the Argentinian guy – who had just returned from his night out in a nearby town, having had to wait from 5am until 8am for the first bus of the day) got his full life story. I think Argentinians are quite into the concept of therapy (and he was seemingly using us as his therapists!). Anyway, it was all quite interesting and good Spanish practice for me. It also gave me a feeling for the people of San Luis (quite slow and lazy, with lots of cumbersome bureaucracy, apparently).

Talking of people, I must just mention the nutty woman who was staying at the hostel while I was there. She was one of the ones watching TV on the first evening, but became a bit chattier as the weekend progressed. So, here are some case notes on the patient:
l  Had lived in London for 10 years (“Just off The King’s Road” as she repeated told us. I’m not sure if it’s THE King’s Road, or a slightly less salubrious version somewhere in Essex, which would somehow be much more fitting).
l  She had Italian parents (one from Calabria [!], one from the North of Italy somewhere)
l  She was looking for work in San Luis because she couldn’t find a suitable job where she comes from (Buenos Aires!). I think she wanted to be a translator because she could speak various different languages, but didn’t have any certificates to back up her abilities. Actually, her English and Italian did seem quite good.
l  She apparently hated Argentina and it’s people and was desperate to return to the UK, where things were just so much better. The green green grass of home clearly has it’s charms (thanks Tom!)
l  She spend the day sunbathing on Saturday and came out in some kind of facial eruption, which she proceeded to slather in sudocreme (or some kind of white ointment). You know when you shouldn’t look at something, but can’t help being inexorably drawn to it… well, it still makes me chuckle to think of the acres of white cream covering much of her face!
l  Her favourite story (which she told at least once to everyone in the hostel) was how San Luis  was just so hot (and at such an altitude – which it’s not!) that she collapsed in the street. In fact, she was always complaining about just about everything (one of those!).
l  She just sat in the hostel all day every day, watching TV mainly. She kept saying that she was going back to Buenos Aires as soon as possible because she just could stand San Luis any longer, despite also saying that she couldn’t stand B.A. because she has been mugged 5 times.

What a strange lady!

Anyway, back to more mundane matters. I had an easy day, lounging around, waiting for my bus to San Rafael. More gin-clear skies today, and less of a breeze so the temperature was starting to climb again (but the air was still noticeably cooler than it had been earlier in the week).

The bus journey was once again a scenic ride through mile upon mile of nothingness. Things did get a little be more “developed” closer to San Rafael, where the irrigation channels from the Andes [visible in the distance and quite majestic], allowed the cultivation of various fruit and vegetables, with the first signs of the vineyards, which were one of the main reasons for heading this way. There was a variety of birdlife to observe (more condors) and a trolley service for the first time (tea and alfajors – sickly dulce de leche filled biscuity things).

I found the hostel without any problems, despite arriving just after dark (about 9:30pm). As I mentioned earlier, I have been drawing my own little maps in my notebook, like a primitive iphone or GPS! In a nod to spontaneity I had decided not to pre-book the hostel. As it turned out there wasn’t much need. Only a handful of people in the hostel and a dormitory to myself, which was bliss, apart from the saggy foam mattress, which gave me backache. I didn’t do much during the evening apart from shower, cook and eat, and observe my fellow guests (a couple of yankee rafters, a group of French lads and a couple of Argentinians). I didn’t engage in much social discourse as I was rather tired and wanted to benefit from my own private room for a change!

Monday 13th December 2010

Breakfast was rather disappointing (and still with a 10am cut off – it would seem that only the hostel in Cordoba offers an all day affair). The crillojitos were rather stale and the off milk didn’t help the insipid coffee either. Yum. Also disappointing was my first attempt at wine tasting. Despite copious internet research (the day before in San Luis) I ended up at the headquarters, rather than the bodega itself. Hence, no wine tasting in the morning. I consoled myself with the purchase of a bus ticket to Mendoza (4 pounds for a 3 hour journey) and some bits for lunch. That in itself proved a bit of a challenge. I was wandering around for about an hour, in the increasing heat of the day, trying to find a supermarket. In that time I passed about 4 paint shops, but no food outlet at all. In the end I found a corner shop, just about to close for the siesta, but was rewarded with some very cheap apricots and a selection of other goodies.

Then, in the afternoon I proceded with stage two of the wine tasting. The first place was fine (3 nice wines to taste: Malbec, Malbec Rose and Tokaji [a delicious white from a rare Italian grape], but the second one was already closed at 5:10pm, despite saying on the website that they were open until 7:30pm. Bummer! Oh well, never mind... I wasn't able to taste all that well anyway (or communicate all that effectively what with my lack of Spanish and the bloke's lack of English! I could understand almost all that he said but I had to resort to French at times to make myself understood [the owner is French-Swiss, so I imagine that's why the staff also speak French]). Re being unable to taste, either my cold had come back or I've developed an allergy to something because my nose had been playing me up the last couple of days. Bit strange because otherwise I feel fine. Hopefully it will clear up in the next few days... (it did, you'll be pleased to hear!).

In the evening, the hostel was still pretty quiet. The Americans were quite pleasant (the chap had had a wasted journey to Mendoza during the day – a 7 hour round trip to collect a package, only to find that collecting international parcels was only possible in the morning – ah the joys of the Argentinian postal service!). There was also a chap from Argentina (B.A. province) who travelled around Argentina inspecting petrol stations. He was really friendly (but spoke no English, so my Spanish got a further work out!) and offered me some of his meat (even for an Argentinian he had bought far too much!!!).

I had a second night to myself in the dorm, which was nice, but by this stage I was kind of hoping for a few more (interesting) people in the next hostel (and a bed which doesn’t give me back ache)…

Tuesday 14th December 2010

Breakfast was better (at least the milk wasn’t rancid today) and the bus ride to Mendoza was absolutely stunning. There were clear views throughout to the high peaks of the Andes and yet more cloudless skies.

It was rather hot on arrival (at about 3pm – peak siestia time), but there were still some people about: Mendoza already seemed rather more lively than the sleepy towns that had preceded it! I hadn’t bothered to pre-book my hostel, given how empty the other ones were, but after a sweaty 25 minute walk, I arrived to discover that it was almost full. I was asked to wait while the chap looked to see if there were any free beds, and thankfully there was just one left. My luck was in, and just as well, as the other hostel I had considered was on the opposite side of town!

There was a lovely atmosphere in the hostel, and I immediately started chatting to a couple of girls in the kitchen (Libby from Wellington, New Zealand (not Somerset) and Kayla from Kansas).
After partaking in some mate and grabbing a bite to eat, I headed off to explore the city.

I walked around for about 3 hours, taking in the main sights of the centre (five lovely leafy squares, and beautiful tree-lined streets [beautiful avenues of Plane trees]). There are water channels everywhere, funneling water down from the Andes to provide irrigation in what otherwise would be a virtual desert landscape. I also headed over to Parque San Martin, which was huge and also very green. It was certainly a very good first impression and I was particularly taken with the water channels and plane trees (that’s the landscape architect coming out, I suppose). The city has quite an affluent feel (especially the western parts, out towards the part) and it was lovely to just amble around, getting a feel for the place.

I returned to the hostel via the supermarket (strangely empty at 7:30pm – are people boycotting France for any reason? – it was a Carrefour). Dinner was Spanish Omelette (a challenge in a hostel kitchen – but luckily it turned out quite well, with a bit of careful plate-work and a bit of luck!) and salad, with the inevitable bottle of wine (this time a Tannat from Cafayate). There were lots of lovely people at the hostel. 3 Irish girls (Annie, Margaret and Tracey [alphabetical order so as not to indicate a preference!], 3 Swedes (not the root vegetable, a couple and a friend from just south of Stockholm) and all sorts of other nationalities. A really great mix and everyone very friendly. Some hostels just seem to attract a good crowd and have a wonderful atmosphere as a result. That is certainly the case with Hostel Lagares in Mendoza. As a result, I had a late night drinking and chatting on the terrace (I was trying to convert the masses to the wonders of Fernet and Coke, but with limited success… so probably consumed rather more myself than I should have! Oh well, shit happens!!!). J