Friday, December 24, 2010

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

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