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

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