Sunday, 22 July 2007

So cold even my thermometer's stopped working

It seems that the Chilean government want to get more US dollars into the economy, because there is a new law that says if you pay for anything with dollars you don't have to pay the purchase tax.
Eating here is expensive by Latin American standards (I just paid a fiver for a sandwich and a couple of cups of coffee, and you could eat for a week on that in Bolivia) but most other things are pretty cheap, and once you knock off that 19% tax you can get some real bargains.

With my customary powers of foresight, though, I changed all my dollars for pesos on arrival, getting a laughably bad rate of exchange in the process, because I didn't want to arrive in the capital with no spending money. I still haven't been properly robbed yet, but that double whammy really felt like it.

However, I also haven't been sick yet, either, so I have a lot to cram in to my last few weeks.
I've made it over the Andes once again, braving the snowstorms in my nice air conditioned bus ride to Santiago, and am now in Puerto Varas in Chilean Patagonia. Although the road was impassable for trucks due to the heavy snow, my bus had barely a slip or a slide through the narrow passes. From what I hear the weather's been worse back home than it is here, though, so I hope everyone's well and hasn't suffered too much from the flooding.

Meanwhile I'm making a daring raid on deepest, coldest Patagonia, in the hope that the weather gods are distracted by concentrating on ruining a perfectly good English summer. As long as no-one does anything stupid to alert them, like emailing a whole load of people telling them of the sneaky plan, all should be fine. Uh-oh ...

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

I've been told that this is the coldest year in Latin America since records began

I think records began five minutes before I arrived, though, with meteorologists saying "One of the Lawrence clan is on his way over, get the hurricane shelters ready".

One day I'm going to go somewhere and be told that it's the hottest, dryest weather they've ever had. It'll be a desert, let's face it, or I'll have gone there to go kayaking in the now dried up rivers, but it's going to happen.

On the plus side I have made it as far south as Bariloche in Patagonia, and it's gorgeous. Really, truly stunning, even in the snow. I have modest hopes of making it further south in the time remaining, so I'll be making regular sacrifices to the Latin weather gods from here on in. Where's that bl00dy goat gone?

On Sunday I watched the Copa America final in a bar in town. I'd eschewed the offer of watching it in the living room of the guy who runs the hostel, with the crate of beer he'd prepared especially, in order to soak up a bit of the atmosphere for such a big game. I got there nice and early and secured a great spot, and all was looking good until a crowd of Brazilian girls arrived five minutes after kick-off, stood right in front of me and promptly started comparing earrings. They weren't very tall, but they were all wearing three inch heels, and they didn't look particularly interested in the game - though from their animated gestures and exaggerated movements I got the impression that their jewellery was fascinating. Before too long a crowd of body builders snaked up and stood around them. They didn't look like they had the mental capacity to look rugged and follow the match at the same time, but from the backs of their shoulders they seemed quite interested in the girls' accessories.

Unable to see too much, I spent most of the second half mentally inventing a scanner that rates a person's interest in the match as they walk into a bar, with 100 being a genuine fan of one of the teams involved, and 0 being 'ooh, is there a game on?'. Anyone scoring less than 10 (willing to push past to go the toilet at the exact moment a free kick is being taken) would be refused admittance, and anyone scoring under 5 ('I thought it would be a good place to pick up') would be immediately electrocuted, dissolved into their component atoms and recycled as Man United shirts.

I think it'll catch on.

Anyway, from what I could see it was a thoroughly one sided drubbing as Brazil beat Argentina 3-0. It takes a lot to make me feel sorry for an Argentinian football fan (must ... stop ... mentioning the hand of God - oh no, I did it again!) but I very nearly managed it as their local rivals were lording it over them in huge style. Imagine, only ever having won two world cups, the very shame. As well, in all the games I've seen Argentina have looked every inch the part, whereas Brazil spluttered and stuttered their way through and were lucky to make the final at all, so to see them outclass the opposition was something of a surprise. Poor old Argentina.

I'll soon be off to Chile, the last country I'll be visiting this trip, so I'll send you my usual balanced and fact-based reportage when I get there.

All the best


Some of you may remember that a few months ago I sent an email complaining thus:
"The other day I got caught in the Cusco rain (I'm here during the rainy season, the clue's in the title), slipped over on a wet cobblestone and hurt my back."

I recently raised this little mishap in a conversation about silly and embarrassing accidents and a Canadian medical student I'd just met took a keen interest in the case. After I'd explained my symptoms (difficulty sitting down and standing up, sheer agony every time I laughed, coughed or sneezed, and the inability to get out of bed without rolling sideways and crawling on all fours) plus the duration they lasted (I was still feeling twinges a couple of months later) he was adamant that I must have fractured a rib, without actually breaking it.

Now I want you to forget for a moment that I did this falling on my backside in a public street, during the early afternoon, and concentrate instead on the fact that I mountain biked down the Death Road, went whitewater rafting, did the Inca Trail and even used The Clash lyrics* to teach English to the future tour guides of Latin America, all with a fractured rib. Probably.

* 'Should I Stay Or Should I Go?', demonstrating 'should' and 'if ... then ...' conditional statements.

All's healed up nicely now, and I know it's not exactly Bertie Trautmann finishing the FA Cup Final with a broken neck, or Suart 'Psycho' Pearce trying to run off a factured leg, but believe me, if I'd known this at the time I would have complained a lot more loudly, and considerably more often, than I actually did. Which was, to be honest, quite a bit.

Sorry about the last mail, which prompted a couple of "I was eating at the time ..." complaints, and was rejected by quite a few Questionable content filters. All clean, wholesome and above board from now on.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

I think I've just made the world's fastest trip to Paraguay

More for the stamp in the passport than anything else. Most people skip it, and according to the Foreign Office the whole country only receives about a hundred and fifty visitors from the UK every year. Having now been there myself, I'm quite surprised it's that many - the place sucks @rse like a five dollar wh0re. The statistics don't record how many people wish they hadn't bothered, but it shares one border with Brazil and another with Argentina, and on first impressions I found myself thinking that if these two countries decided to start a war to seize territory and wipe Paraguay off the face of the map, I would probably chip in a tenner for the war effort.

Obviously on mature consideration I reconsidered such rash and hasty thinking, and decided fifty quid would be more appropriate.

I'm willing to be contradicted by anyone that's spent time there and really gotten to know the place, especially by anyone that visited the North (where I couldn't summon the life force to go), but really I felt that that I'd rather get to know Josef Mengeler.

So my passport records that I entered on the ninth and left on the tenth, and in between spent a considerable amount of my valuable leisure time staring out of a bus window at the dull and uninspiring landscape, trying hard to ignore the fact that the girl next to me was being repeatedly, violently and above all copiously sick.

Yet who would have thought the young girl to have had so much barf in her?

If the human body really is over sixty percent water as the scientists tell us, then I reckon this seƱorita was at least another twenty percent nausea.

After a couple of hours of this, during which time I gave a few sympathy retches myself, the conductor came to remonstrate with her and sent her to the toilet at the back of the bus. She didn't return for the rest of the journey. Then he placed a tea-towel sized cloth over the heap, sprayed some disinfectant on it and warned me to be careful where I put my feet. Such advice was hardly necessary as I already had my bag on my lap and my feet up against the seat in front, uneasily and constantly aware of the spreading, sliding, growing mound of ooze below.

Later, when a frail and delicate old lady went to sit down in the empty seat I panicked and tried to alert her to the situation. I guessed the word 'vomito' correctly, which was lucky since this particular piece of vocabulary hasn't featured in any of my rudimentary Spanish efforts thus far, but instead of 'cuidado' meaning 'careful', I blurted out 'ciudad', which means 'city'. So my attempted 'mind the vomit' warning ('cuidado del vomito') could probably best be translated as 'city of the vomit'.

Which, to be fair, wasn't too bad a description of what lurked beneath her sandled feet.

Mind you, by the time the poor, confused old dear had trodden in it, slipped a bit and spread it around the floor while attempting to regain her balance, it was far more a suburban sprawl of sick, a Milton Keynes of regurtitation, if you will.

When it finally came time to leave the bus, only an hour later than scheduled, the stepover I did to avoid it would have made Ronaldo proud.

I'm now back in Argentina, a country I'm almost ashamed to like as much as I do. I'm currently in a pretty little city called Rosario.

It does mean that once again the Falklands are raised in every conversation I ever have with the locals, who seem to feel the loss surprisingly keenly since as far as I'm aware they're just some rocks with sheep on. They don't do themselves any favours mind, since they include them on all maps of the country and spray 'The Falklands are ours' slogans on walls - full marks for patriotism there, but minus ten for accurate grasp of reality. Whenever an Argentine brings it up, I refer them to Maradona's hand of God goal. In terms of the scale of global injustice, invasion and nearly two hundred years of occupation by the British set against one blatant World Cup hand-ball, I think we're just about even.

I have however brought with me the coldest weather the place has seen for nigh on ninety years (, and the snow looks to have put paid to my plans to visit Patagonia. This is probably for the best, since I'm a complete big girl's bottom when it comes to the cold ... and rain ... and strong winds ... in fact, even a light mist is enough to seriously discombobulate me, so the logic of visiting one of the coldest inhabited regions on Earth during their winter was always questionable at best. If I'd had a well thought out plan - let's face it, if I'd had any sort of plan at all - I would have started off there.

Still, it gives me the excuse to come back one day and discuss the ownership of the Falklands some more.

All the best

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

The Buenos Aires blues

I'm bored of Buenos Aires now, and desperate to head off, so this afternoon I'm on a bus to the Iguazu Falls, which are supposed to be amazing.

However, I saw my favourite typo ever in a hostel the other day, a sign in the dorm saying "Please do not turd on the lights while the others people are sleeping".

Speaking as an others person myself, I'd really rather you didn't turd on the lights while I was awake either. Just if it's all the same to you, old boy.

Anyway, being as I'm such an others person, I just made some new friends in my hostel. An English couple asked me over breakfast what I was planning to do that morning, and I made the mistake of telling them I was heading up to a famous street in La Boca.

"That's a good idea", the girl said, "We'll join you".

"Are you ready to go?" I asked.

"Yes, I just need to go and get changed".

This was, of course, that particular interpretation of the word 'ready' that some people have that means 'not ready at all'.

A few minutes later, when she toddled back, she told me her boyfriend was in the shower. I looked at my watch pointedly and she ambled off. Shortly afterwards she returned with a Brazilian guy, who she said wanted to join us.

"Good idea", I said, "let's make it a party".

After only a bit more pointless waiting around everyone was finally ready (according to my definition of the term) and I got my city map out.

"No need", said the girl. "I know where we're going, I asked for directions".

It took less time to get lost than I'd spent waiting in the hostel reception.

The problem hinged on the fact that we were supposed to take a turning after a local landmark called "The Yellow House". We were definitely on the right road, and we thought we were roughly in the right place, but where the yellow house should have been was a rather non-descript looking block of flats.

On the other side of the road, however, was a large, prominent building set on about an acre of land, painted (and this was the clincher for me) a bright and luminous yellow.

When I mentioned for about the third time that I believed this to be the place, I was firmly shot down.

"But Nathan", the girl said, "It's on the wrong side of the road"

"Yes, Emily", I replied with as much equanimity as I could muster, "Maybe the guy was wrong. Maybe you heard wrong. Or maybe you happened to ask some useless f*ckwit who doesn't know their left from their right".

I filled the silence that followed by saying "Well, I'm going this way" and strode across the road, but to my chagrin the others followed.

After we'd found the street, which was of course behind the yellow house, and took a few photos, we decided to take a spot of lunch in a charming little place called the Palace of the Fried Potato ("El Palacio de la Pata Frita").

I ordered a beer with mine, and when it came to the Brazilian guy's turn to order the waiter asked him what he wanted to drink.

"I'll share the beer" he answered.

This was news to me, and while I was trying to formulate an appropriately polite response in Spanish, something along the lines of 'if you so much as look at my beer in a funny way I shall rip off your testicles and beat you to death with your own scrotum' ('si usted tan mucho como ...'), English John chimed in with "Let's get two to share".

"No", I said, "I'll get a beer and you can get your own".

There was a brief moment, then the other guys decided to split a beer. Later, when John mentioned that he was out of beer, and then said a few seconds later that he was still thirsty, I suggested they order another one. This option wasn't even discussed.

When the Brazilian asked me flat out if he could have some of my beer, a lesser man might have weakened ('what is this, dinner at the tight-@rse cafe?'), but I stuck to my guns.

"No", I simply said.

Then conversation turned to our plans for the afternoon, but this time I was ready. First I asked everyone else what they were thinking of doing, then said I was going to do something else. On the other side of town. In a different space-time continuum.

I also think I made some friends in the street the other night. I was walking along, it was dark but not too late, and a couple of local lads were right behind me. There was something about them I didn't like, so I stopped, crossed the road and studied the goods on dislay in the nearest shop window.

They carried on walking, and just as I was starting to think I'd imagined it (besides, none of those dresses would have suited me), they stopped on the corner of the street to admire the elegant contours and sleek lines of a parked volvo.

I looked at them long enough that I'd remember their faces if I saw them again, then headed off back in the direction I'd just come. They were both tall but skinny, so I wasn't sure how much of a problem I'd be in if they followed me, but I felt I'd rather not chance it.

Thankfully they didn't turn after me, they continued down the road away from me, and everything was all right after all.


I've just come back from a visit to the stadium of Arsenal de Sarandi, a team from the province of Buenos Aires, but just outside the city itself. I'm trying to cure myself of my addiction to buying football shirts (honestly, I can handle it), but I had to get this one.

All the best