Friday, 29 June 2007

As much Art Deco as you can eat

I've just been to Uruguay, the hosts and winners of the very first world cup.Not that they go on about it much, with the commemorative t-shirts, replica trophies and other assorted merchandise on sale on every street corner. While there I had a depressing vision of what England will be like in 2066, if we still haven't won anything else by then.

It's a relaxed and charming place, though, with a predominantly 1930's theme to the decor - and since that's when prosperity last paid the Uruguayans an extended visit, I wasn't sure whether it represents retro-chic or that was just the last time they could afford to decorate.

I'm now back in Buenos Aires, and am almost embarassed to admit how much I'm enjoying being in Argentina. I'd strongly recommend it for a visit, though there's one particular sports shop in the centre of town which is covered in four foot high photographs of Maradona's Goal of the Century against England in 1986 ( There's photos of him strolling past Peter Beardsley and Peter Reid, past someone that is apparently Terry Fenwick (forgive my slack memory), beating the lunges of Ray Wilkins and Terry Butcher, and then finally rounding Shilton and shooting. As a true born Englishman I'm not sure whether to applaud his skill or set fire to the city, but I can't help wishing he'd scored that goal (and the other one - you know the one I mean) against Germany so I could appreciate it's magnificence without grinding my teeth.

They love Maradona here, warts and c0caine ravaged nose and all. I'm told most Argentinians own DVDs of his 200 greatest ever goals, and several restaurants have signed Maradona shirts on the wall. I bet he never had to pay for a meal here in his life.

I'm also appreciating the little things, like the fact that the male toilets here are labelled "caballeros". There's something so swashbuckling about that word that I find myself swaggering a little as I enter every men's room. Obviously the wine is good and cheap (I might have mentioned that before, forgive my slack memory), and I've been to see River Plate to add to my Boca Jrs veteran-hood (and like a true football fan wh0re I have both shirts and wear them alternately, akin to wearing both Man Utd and Man City shirts in Manchester). I even watched a tango show in which some people danced, some of them wearing suits, and some red dresses. It was great. I think the ones in suits were men and the dresses women, but the lights were dimmed and I've heard stories.

I've also hooked up with the Aussies again, and am enjoying such weighty intellectual conversation as "If you were a cannibal, which part of the body would be your favourite cut?" and "If you had a death ray, which nation would you enslave and why?". Take away a few inches of waistline and add a few inches of hair and I could almost be back at college.

Other than that no real news from me, but I'll be heading up to the Iguazu Falls as soon as I get myself together to organise the trip.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

"Aconcagua is the highest peak in the world outside Asia"

"... and offers breathtaking trekking experiences for everyone from beginners to advanced climbers."

blah blah

"Equipment: During the winter season (June - August) you should bring a tent capable of withstanding one hundred mile per hour winds, and clothing and sleeping gear suitable to temperatures below minus forty degrees centigrade."

Ooh look, here's a leaflet for a wine tour.

Personally I love trekking (it's what you call walking when backpackers do it), but when the promotional literature uses phrases such as "100mph winds" and "below -40 degrees C", at fifty dollars US a day, the words that come to my mind are "f*ck" and "that". These are the times that us hardened international travelers like to feel the fear and go straight back to bed. Fortunately Mendoza is also the wine growing capital of Argentina, so there's plenty for me to do. Not that I've taken the soft option, either - some of those Semillon Chardonnays can be positively treacherous for the inexperienced.

Yes, as you've probably realised, I've left the Land of God and entered the Land of the Hand of God (never forgive, never forget). From Rio to Buenos Aires, then a four day jaunt to Mendoza (bottles of wine consumed: 6; treks completed: 0; treks attempted: 0; treks even seriously considered after reading the brochure: 0) and now I'm back in BA.

It's been a real culture shock - not just because all Argentinians are dirty cheats (never forgive, never forget), and not just because in Buenos Aires they know what winter really means, whereas a winter's day in Rio means almost uninterrupted sunshine and a thermometer in the high twenties. We could do with more summers like that, quite frankly.

It's because Buenos Aires is so incredibly familiar - to look at the architecture, the cafes, shops and bars, even the people, this city could be anywhere in Northern Europe, the mediterranean, or even some of the more civilised parts of the US.

They do integrate some of the traditional aspects of Latin American culture, such as the fact that a large supply of small coins is a vital requirement for everyday life, and yet change is incredibly difficult to get hold of and near impossible to keep. A shopkeeper will vehemently deny that they are able to change any note of greater value than about one pound fifty, but after fifteen or twenty minutes of alternate pleading, cajoling and threatening you get them to grudgingly accept that they might be able to give you correct change after all, and they open a drawer that looks like a vault of Fort Knox, stuffed full of gleaming coins. I'm sure the woman at the bus station had gold sovereigns, doubloons and pieces of eight in her change drawer that she'd jealously hoarded since the Spanish invasion - and I may be wrong, but I thought I saw the profile of a distinctly roman nose on one of the little silver ones.

There are also some things that are just strange. For instance, in most places when you ask for the bill, they'll tell you how much your meal cost. Fifty nine fifty, they'll say. Okay, you reply, show me some documentary evidence that the price of what I consumed amounts to that sum and maybe I'll believe you. I'll tell you what, why not write down a list of the things I ordered and the corresponding values in a column on one side? Why not add a total to the bottom? That way I can be sure the money I give you is correct. In my country, we call this a bill.

A lot of menus in Brazil were strange, but I forgot to tell you about it. In the northeast in particular, what was written on the menu bore little or no relationship to the food that was actually available. Once I was given a hand-written piece of paper, scanned it quickly, and asked for the only option that appealed to me. "We don't have that", came the reply. I looked again, and selected something that I didn't really want but was willing to accept. "We don't have that either" was the response. "What do you have?" I enquired, politely as I could. "Chicken" the waitress said. I looked down. Chicken wasn't on the menu. "Why have you given me this piece of paper?" I asked. "Que?", she said.

Probably my favourite example was in Manaus, in one of those classy establishments where they have the menu nailed to the wall. Above the lengthy list of options, written across three pieces of blackboard, was a single piece of paper, upon which was written "we have soup" in a childish scrawl. Initially I assumed that this was a proud but last minute addition to the restaurant's repertoire, but a short conversation was enough to establish that the menu was simply a guide to what the chef would serve in an ideal world, no more. What they actually had was soup. No flavour in particular, just soup.

I'm currently in a hostel with a gas heater that can't be switched off. I'm free to choose either of the two settings, 'Oven' or 'Furnace', but I can't stop the thing throwing out heat. Even in this cold weather, in order to make the room even vaguely habitable I have to put the air conditioning on full blast, all the time, and open the windows. So look no further for the cause of the hole in the ozone layer, it's me, right here in BA.

All the best from your eco-friendly chum

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Friday night clubbing in Ipanema

I did that. It was me, that was. Clubbing. In Ipanema. In Rio.

It didn't look too promising initially, since I'd only arrived that morning and hadn't slept at all the night before. I also couldn't check into the hostel for about five hours and had to hang around in my sweaty clothes when all I wanted to do was sleep, and by the evening I was exhausted and was about to go to bed. However, I was convinced that it was a sin to miss out on a Friday night out in Rio, so I dragged my carcass out of the hostel.

The evening was spent listening to loud music in a hot and sweaty room and paying far too much for drinks - so totally unlike anything I've ever experienced, except for the last five hundred times I've been out anywhere in the world.

Okay, maybe the dancing was of a marginally superior standard to the average Hoxton hangout (in the same way that winning the lottery would be marginally more welcome than losing a limb), and there's certainly no minimum clothing rule for the Brazilian women, but it was still not the near-religious experience I was led to believe.

To be honest, I got a little bit bored. Fortunately one of the rooms downstairs was showing the Botafogo game live, so the evening wasn't a total right-off.

Still, that's me - wouldn't know a good time if it samba'd right past me. And of course I will be starting every story I tell from now on with the words "Yeah, that reminds me of the time I was clubbing in Ipanema ..."

By far the best parties in Rio, as far as I'm concerned, are held in the Maracana stadium, where a game of football is merely an excuse for a party. The sun rising in the morning is an excuse for a party in Brazil, and when it sets in the evening that's merely a cue to pick up the pace, but a football match is a big deal.

I went to see Fluminense beat Sport 3-0, ninety minutes of good attacking football from both sides, and the atmosphere was like nothing else I've seen. It was a standard league game, but you'd have thought it was the world cup final from the way the crowd behaved. They have drumming bands in the crowd and chants you can actually dance to, so I shook my hips more at the game than I did in the club the other night.

Of course I'm now a huge Flu fan, but it was just luck of the draw - if any of the other teams had been playing at home this weekend I would now be wearing their strip and raving about their fluent attacking play, I'm sure. Unless it was Flamengo scum, us hardcore Fluminense supporters hate them.

Other than that I've been to Copacabana, the statue of Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf mountain, and spent a lot of time hanging out on the beach in Ipanema.

Yeah, I know, it's dreadful being me. :-)

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Salvador - it's the energy centre of the new paradigm

According to an incredibly loud American I overheard in an internet cafe. I have no idea what that means, but fortunately I don't think he does either.

He was also doing some telephone banking that day - his Bank of America account number is 52017941 and his mother's maiden name is Rogers*.

* these details have been changed to protect the f*ckwitted, but some people seriously deserve to be robbed.

Anyway, even in low season Salvador seems a vibrant and friendly city, with random dancers and drummers in the streets every evening, along with the legions of beggars, trinket sellers, drug dealers and prostitutes. They're pleasant enough, but persistent. Despite their strong and unwavering convictions, I find that I really don't want to buy a bead necklace or a cowboy hat with the Brazilian flag on the front, and I'm pretty confident I shall never develop an interest in peacock feather earrings. Sometimes no really does mean no, in English or Portuguese, and the guy that offered us coc@ine seven times in one day ("What, you *still* don't want any!? You guys are loco!") should come to terms with that.

We're staying in the old quarter of town, which is all cobbled streets, colonial buildings and steep hills, and stands in stark contrast to the new town of skyscrapers and flat concrete down at the harbour. The other night we ended up at an evening mass for a few minutes, and I was able to admire the interior of one of the grand and stately churches for the first time. It was very nice if you like that sort of thing, a series of obscenely large walls with gold on.

I didn't understand much of what was said in the service, but the gist seemed to be that we were all thanking God for his tireless work in the past and very much wishing him well for the future, which gave the whole thing something of the tone of a retirement presentation. I was expecting any minute for someone to appear with a gold watch in a presentation case, but fortunately we left the church before my heathen thoughts brought down His pipe and slippered wrath on our heads.

At some ungodly hour in the early morning / middle of the night we fly to Rio. Gulp. I'm told that today is a public holiday and everything kicks off, so we'll probably leave Salvador just as the party starts and touch down in Rio, exhausted and bedraggled, as it really gets going.

I think it could be much, much worse.

Monday, 4 June 2007

The rain gods have caught up with me at last

After a blistering start to my time in Brazil, the deluge has begun. Everybody's stunned, they don't know what's going on, they've never seen weather like it at this time of year, blah, blah, blah, yeah, yeah, yeah, heard it all before. Pretty much everywhere I've ever been, in fact.

Still, it's not raining all day, and as long as you avoid the faintly disgusting and thoroughly dodgy cities, the east coast of Brazil appears to be one long series of stunning and beautiful beaches. Even in the tropical rain it's a pretty cool place to be, especially if you're drinking as many caipirinhas as I am.

Since I'd never heard of it myself until a few weeks ago, I'll just tell you that a caipirinha is a drink made with cachasa (a local cane spirit), fresh lime, loads of ice and enough sugar to make a dentist reach for his favourite drill. It's cool, refreshing, incredibly strong and sweet enough to set your teeth on edge, then come round and smash them with a hammer.

My only real other news is that the other day I swam with a bottlenose dolphin. Not the tame, fed from a boat kind, but a real dolphin that swam in from the ocean, took a couple of turns up and down the beach, and then came to check me out. He swam about three metres away for a while, then seemed to give a little dolphin wave and headed back out to sea. It was awesome.

This evening I'll be flying to Salvador, cheaper than the bus and much, much faster.

More bulletins as events warrant.