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Chicos Malos

And so the longest bus ride of the trip so far begins… 18 hours Iguazu to Buenos Aires, 16 hours BA to Mendoza, 9 hours Mendoza to Santiago. Painful yet necessary after the expensive return bus to Iguazu, the next two buses total £60, so it’s a cheap way to cover some serious milage. Plus for every overnight bus you save on an overnight stay. Bargain travel strikes again. There is a six hour wait in Buenos Aires so we store our bags for around £3.50 each and head to the nearest Macdonals to freshen up. Macdonalds, love it or hate it is the perfect lay over lounge for the budget traveller. Wifi, chargers, toilets and the staff couldn’t care less if you purchased some McNuggets or not.

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On the next bus and the next hero is born. A large Argentinean fella wheezes onto the bus. He sits directly in front of us and his personal hygiene status isn’t exactly what you would want for the confinement of a 16 hour bus. However when the mid journey film starts (Bad Boys entirely in Spanish) and he sings along “Chicos malos, chicos malos” and with an infections thigh slapping giggle, he has the whole bus in sitches. Somewhere along the line I fall asleep and wake up in Mendoza with the big giggle monster replaced by a young Argentinean woman. We groggily stumble from the bus.

While waiting for our final leg, we get chatting to two young British girls. They have been travelling for three months and their trip is coming to an end. Their previous stomping ground had been South East Asia and Australia, and so they note how difficult travel had been for them though Latin American, as neither spoke a word of Spanish. This was to become a recurring theme of our trip, we would meet many people cramming expensive two week Spanish courses to aquire the basics. Suddenly the painful choice by a 16-year old me to study A-level Spanish over the more socially rewarding drama was paying dividends.

The girls head off and a tattooed man in a snap-back sits next to me. Naturally there is a mix up with the buses (just because you ticket says one bus name doesn’t mean that’s your bus – always check at the agency) and it appears he is on the same bus as us. I feebly start to converse with him in Spanish to inform him of the change, before quickly establishing that he is American. A chef from Miami, he moved to Santiago eight years ago to open the Hard-Rock Cafe, met his now Argentinan wife and now lives in Argentina with has a daughter. He was heading to Santiago to settle up his apartment and see his English-bulldog. He is hilarious, a natural conversationalist, and he stays with us for the final stretch.

The bus leaves and its up onto the mountain road through the Andes. Our American friend describes how the border crossing can take up to 9-hours depending on traffic volume and so we thank the travel gods when we sail through in only an hour. Another quick note, Chile have a strict policy when it comes to bringing any organic produce across the border and your bags will be searched. A little Russian girl took across a small machete, however her nuts and raisins were confiscated. You will also receive a 90 day visa on a little receipt as well as your normal passport stamp. Keep this safe as apparently losing this can make for a long and expensive exit from the country.

The scenery is as to be expected, breath-takingly beautiful. We arrive in Santiago, grab some cash from the bus station – the bus station is in a poorer part of the city and so it is wise to grab some cash here as it is packed with armed security guards. Following the American we head down to the metro and buy our Bip! card (Chile’s answer to SUBE). He sets us on route to get to Bella Artes, the stop nearest our Couch-surfing hosts place, and we are off on our way.

We arrive at Leonardo’s apartment. The area has a Shoreditch hipster vibe and we greet the receptionist of his building, our home for the next 5 nights. We head up to his floor and meet the wonderful Leonardo and his crazy little white and ginger cat.

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That evening Leonardo takes us to his favourite local restaurant and treats us to some Pisco sours (pisco, lemon juice and egg white) and traditional Chilean food. Pisco, made from grapes, is the national spirit of Chile, and so it would seem Peru. There is a long standing rivalry between the two counties about the originator, and Leonardo wastes no time in informing us that of course Chilean pisco is superior.

After a crazy long bus ride, surving on snacks, two pisco sours are weighing heavy on the eyes and I leave Ste and Leonardo chatting. The next day – of course – we head out to the afternoon walking tour. Meeting at 3pm in the Plaza de Armas we arrive a little early and so wander up a bustling street to hunt down cheep sunglasses (I have somehow broken two pairs already). As we are waking a big splat lands on the top of my head. A little dazed I look at Ste, this doesn’t feel like the standard but also gross air conditioning drips, this feels like bird poop. Suddenly a Chilean woman in a neon pink top is in front of us, her face screwed up yelling ‘Dirty! Dirty! I help!’. She takes out tissues and a water bottle and grabs my arm pulling me to the side. I note this green slime is everywhere; in my hair, on my bag, on my jeans. I’m in a daze as she pours water over my hair and grabs at my bag ‘Dirty!’. Ste is stood beside me in a complete trance. He has a small dot of the stuff on his shoulder and looks at it. Suddenly as the woman is trying to take my the bag off my shoulder, Marten’s (our Argentinean walking tour guide) advise about new pick-pocket techniques pops into my head. ‘They cover you with fake bird poo and help you clean it whilst stealing you bags’. Shit. I demand at Ste to grab my bag and don’t let it go. He snaps out of his trance and grabs the bag inspecting it. It’s mustard. The woman tries again to grab the bag and when it’s clear Ste isn’t having any of it she storms off in a rage. We look and each other, me completely covered in mustard, and Ste stood with my rucksack victorious in his game of tug of war. Another couple near us are cleaning themselves too. How lucky we are to have met Marten!

Back at the plaza we meet Felipe, our tour guide. We tell him the mustard-bomb story and he’s seriously pissed off. He tells us that there are only two types of people in Chile, God’s or Demons. We shake off the last half an hour and start the tour.

Pint-sized Felipe is part-time tour-guide and part-time actor and he has a flamboyant and expressive manner of telling stories. He takes us on another wonderful city tour, ending in Bellavista – the party central. After the tour we are all about to head back to our respective accommodations when Felipe decides we should instead head to his second favourite bar (the first is being refurbished).

We spend 3 hours in the afternoon sun drinking with the entire tour, Felipe and some of his friends. We get chatting to an Australian couple Sophie and Julian, who like me and Ste, quit their jobs, their houses, their cars, their everything and headed to South America for a year. We pin them down as drinking buddies and once back at Leonardo’s I realise Sophie studied in Brisbane with one of my best friends… Something about a small world.

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The next few days are filled with free museums, street art, climbing to city view points and delicious Chilean wine and food with Leonardo. Then on Saturday Leonardo has a trip planned for us. We bundle into the car and head to the coast. It’s off to Valparaíso and Viña del Mar.

Falling for Iguazu

After 18 hours cosied up on the bus (including a random midnight feast of breaded chicken and rice) we arrive in Puerto Iguazu. The tiny town exists solely to serve the waterfalls and as we step off the bus the humidity is intense. Ste, who has yet to experience even sub-tropical heat, is in shock of the significant lack of air. We walk the two minute stroll to the Nomad Hostel and check in (£15 each for two nights).

Our overnight bus means it is only 11am when we arrive. The guy at reception explains that the Brazilian side only takes a couple of hours so we check in, grab a shower and head to catch the bus to Brazil.

Back at the bus station and for 80 pesos each (£4) we catch the the 45 minute border hopping bus to the Brazilian size of the falls. We arrive and everything is Americanized and streamlined. We buy our ticket – 65 Brazilian Real for to (£17 each) which has a boarding time of 14:30 (boarding of the double decker bus that drives us from the entrance to the start of the falls). It’s currently 14:10 and so we browse the gift shop, picking up the obligatory fridge magnet for the mother and treating myself to a pair of mock haviana flipflops. Anyone that knows me, well you know the shoe situation and I jumped at the opportunity of a gift shop that stocked flipflops of the same design for sizes that fit a 4-year-old, to sizes that fit a burly six foot tall 40-year-old.

Brief shopping spree over (flip-flops £14), we board our bus. There are several stops, each dependant on which excursion you are taking – for an extra charge there is the option to do jungle treks, wrafting or jet boating into the falls. For some reason I decide to follow a dreadlocked couples exit and Ste and I leave the bus – or at least Ste does before the doors shut in my face. Mr Dreadlock and Ste yell to the driver and pry the automatic doors open before I’m whisked off to the next stop. Turns out my impulsive move was wasteful – we have arrived at a drop off point for the tours and seeing as the cheapest is over 70 pounds sterling, we turn back and catch the oncoming bus to the next stop.

Off-loaded at the correct stop, we note the warning signs for Coati – a racoon cross aardvark creature, apparently very bold, very rabid and not in the slightest bit concerened with the presence of humans, especially when it comes to food. Taken aback by the views of the falls, we pause slightly too long, only to find a Coati nose deep in my bag.

We walk the 15 minute trail, stopping to admire both the falls, and the panic of some Asian tourists who have lost a mobile phone over the side of the cliff. Finally we reach a gangway out across the river, and ignoring the pac-a-mac salesman, we boldly stride out to stand amongst the full flow of the bottom of the falls. Let’s just say Iguazu is a champion of the wet T-shirt contest.

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After brief afternoon in Brazil we head back and catch an early night ready for the full day ahead. The following day we head to the Argentine side, this time it’s 130 pesos for the longer bus (£6.50 each) and 330 (£16.50 each) for entry. On arrival its clear this is more of the national park experience we expected. The park has several walking routes and a little toy train that takes you from the main area out to ‘La Garganta del Diablo – The Devils Throat’. We hop out of the train and walk along the kilometre-long the raised walkway out across the rivers to the final platform over the top of the biggest fall. The thunderous roar hits first, followed by the spray. We approach the edge of the platform and the raw force of the water stops your thoughts. The river below is hidden below a cloudy mist of the falling water. That maniac of inner animalistic curiosity comes out in full force and I fight the urge to throw all my possessions, myself and Ste, over the edge just to see what happens…

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After fighting with the selfie stick brigade and attempting to capture just some of the awe within a photograph, it’s back along the walkway, back on the train and we head along both of the two other walking routes. Strolling along in the intense humidity, we scale another 4 kilometres up and down the cliffside jungle paths, crossing the top of the falls and soaking ourselves at the bottom. On comparison the Brazilian side felt like a small animal zoo compared to this giant interactive safari. And to extend out of the metaphor the fleeting glimpses of the wildlife added to the magic. From catching butterflies in our hands to watching close-up the dexterity of capuchin monkeys pulling the apart fruity snacks. After a full day we leave soaked in a mixture of waterfall and perspiration, catching the bus back to the town.

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We spend an evening drinking beer, chatting with Germans and counting mosquito bites (new record for me – 33). Then it’s onwards and back southwards as we prepare for our three day bus ride from Puerto Iguazu, northern Argentina to Santiago, Chile…

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Aubergines and Tango

Docked back in Buenos Aires we lug our bags into a radio cab and head to the main Retiro train terminal (cost £6 for both of us). We top up the SUBE card and wrestle through the rush hour to the furthest end of the platform – when carrying giant bags in Argentine rush hour its best to put the leg work in to get a slightly less dense carriage.

Following our detailed map sent by our Couchsurfing Host Clara, we arrive in leafy suburb of Victoria (only 30 minutes from the city centre and for the bank busting sum of around 30p) and navigate the 5 minute stroll to her apartment.

Clara and her apartment are beyond amazing. Instantly feeling at home, she welcomes us with some delicious homemade food (aubergines vs eggplant – the battle continues) and shares stories of her round the world travels. It’s clear we are in the presence of a pro and take mental notes of all her trips and tricks. We head to the roof of her building, catching the end of the sunset and share a litre glass bottle of beer we had stowed in our bags from Uruguay.

IMG-20170202-WA0002The next day we head to La Boca. We had heard that this area was pretty famous for its artistic flare and showing the roots of the Argentine immigration and of the Tango. Following the success of the free walking tour we decided to attend the paid walking tour (200 pesos/£10 each. We arrive slightly late, luckily Clara detailed exactly which buses we needed to get, and we head to the small group huddled on the quay. To our surprise the tour is led by an American who informs us we pay at the end. We start the tour and instantly regret. The guide, in full monotone, stumbles his words, makes awkward jokes and contradicts himself – nothing like the emotive and poetic flow of our previous walking tour guide Marten. As we walk we note the streets are full of pensioner Europeans with gold and silver wristbands (from the all-inclusive cruises) and the locals are over-dressed for Tango, grasping at our attention to charge for photographs and shows. In short we have found ourselves in a make-believe tourist trap. A painful 15 minutes into the tour, the guide rounds the corner and Ste shoves me sideways into a touristic tat shop. He browses the leather belts stalling for time before looking back out. The tour stays within four short blocks so we hurriedly make our exit out of La Boca, to prevent the inevitable awkward situation of being classically British and us apologising for how rubbish the tour was and paying anyway. We are on a budget after all. Instead we head a bakery, spend 50 pesos on two giant empanadas and catch the colectivo back across town.

Stumped for ideas, we steal some wifi and contact Clara, relaying our disastrous morning and lucky escape. She suggests heading to the Bosques de Palermo, Rosedal. Following her advice we find ourselves spending a free afternoon laying in the shade of a tree in a stunning floral garden, watching rowing boats on the lake. Inner-city bliss.

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Back to Clara’s, a quick change and we bundle into her car heading into town to our Tango lesson. We enter a large darkened room with a huge softly lit dance floor, surrounded by small tables and a bar glowing at the back. It’s 100 pesos each (£5) for our lesson. We tentively take the floor. Step one: close your eyes and twirl around to the music why your partner guides you. It’s an exercise about feeling both music and body, but sadly watching Ste prance around with his eyes closed leaves me in fits of giggles. We swap partners.

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After two wonderful nights with Clara, we pack our turtle shells once again. We spend the morning on a quick drive by tour of Clara’s childhood neighbourhood San Isidro. Stopping off at her mum’s, dad’s, the river, the park and finally into town to a local favourite hotdog restaurant, before heading back onto the train into the city centre. We say goodbye to the beautiful soul of Clara and thank her making our second visit to one of South America’s busiest cities feel like coming home.

We hop the short walk to the Omnibus Retiro (convienetly next to the train station) with ample time to spare. And of course our bus to Puerto Iguazu is an hour late. Finally we are on board and nestle into our saloon style chairs, settling in for our 18 hour bus ride north.

Salsa King

All aboard the Colonia Express, our boat to Uruguay. Once of course we had found the ferry terminal; third port and a taxi ride later (only £3 between us for the taxi, but a necessity after the slight goose chase I had led us on). It’s an hours sail from Buenos Aires to Colonia, Uruguay, followed by a bus ride to Montevideo. The buses in Uruguay were our first taste of this ideologically eutopic country. Sat in conditioned arm chairs with on board free WiFi, we raced across the countryside. Arriving in Montevideo we headed for the Hostel Tibet, our chosen accommodation for the evening. I had decided to select a slightly more expensive option – around £25 each for two nights – but seeing as this was only our second paid accommodation in three weeks I figured we could stretch a little. We paced for half an hour in the heat, arriving at tall and very closed iron gate. After 15 minutes of head scratching, failed attempts of the doorbell and an aggressively loud call of ‘Hola’ up the stairs we alerted the resident hound of our arrival and we were let inside.

Hostel Tibet was like a family home come hostel. One large living room, one dorm and a large roof terrace up an iron ladder housed the outdoor kitchen. We were shown to our beds in beautifully Nepalese decor, the top bunk of a three tier stack – not the most practical after a beer – and we headed to the terrace. Another guest was busy on his phone, his complection and red hair told us immediately he was a fellow Brit. Mark, a freshly graduated career abandoner, had arrived in Uruguay two days ago. Beers, cards and a dinner of Stephens crushed Jordans cereal followed, before attempting not to fall straight through the human sized open window at the bottom of the iron ladder, and subsequently attempting to not fall out of the 5 metre high bunks.

The following day after a cute communal breakfast with our fellow hostel mates, we headed to the walking tour with Mark. Our ambitious 15 minutes to attempt a 30 minute power walk across town meant a spontaneous colectivo and arriving 15 minutes late. Fortunately walking tours are unanimously characteristic of a large ethnically diverse group with at least half the population carrying arrogantly unnecessary photographic equipment (myself included). We spotted them immediately.

Today’s guide – Marco – led us on a hilariously inspirational tour of the capital city of this small ideological democratic nation. Mate flask under one arm (Mate – Latin American tea, popular with pretty much everyone, five times stronger than coffee, impossible to walk 10 meters without someone holding a thermos) he told us about the amazing culture of acceptance that is Uruguay. As an atheist country, all religions, faiths genders, races, sexualitys are accepted – just someone help you if you are vegetarian. He explained that unlike the rest of the world, Uruguay are trying to increase their small 3 million population and that for six dollars and your birth certificate you could become a Uruguayan citizen. The next 30 minutes was subsequently filled with Stephen discussing with himself how he could get his birth certificates sent and that if he then married me would he get dual nationality. I switched off. Marco ended the tour in a parrilla paradise (parrilla: Spanish for grill). Meat sizzling in all directions you could walk around until you stomach became origami, sampling the free white wine each restaurant offers to entice you in. Half an hour later and slightly lighter in the head, we caught a colectivo back across town.

After a tourist stop at the Montevideo sign, Mark made tracks for the Hostel and Stephen and I headed towards the British Cemetery for a spot of who do you think you are. The whole purpose of our trip to Montevideo was to uncover the Bowen family mystery of what happened to Uncle Albert. Uncle Albert was the Captain of a Merchant Ship that was sailing in the Rio Plata when Albert tragically had appendicitis and died. Stephen had a photograph of the letter sent to his family in 1907 from the Cemetery in Montevideo saying he had died. So over one hundred years later his great great nephew and his girlfriend went from grave stone to grave stone hunting the illusive Albert Bowen in the scorching Uruguayan sun. Ste fathomed that one particular corner was dedicated to international sailors and after a painstaking hunt we eventually give up. As we left I spotted an administration office and headed over. The room again was empty and it took another ‘Hola’ before a woman appeared. Somehow in my very best Spanish I managed to get her to search the system for any mention of Albert Bowen. And there it was the record of Captain Albert Bowen, of The Arctic Stream, died 1902 and buried in sailors corner. No gravestone but a least a concrete record. Our Scooby Doo mystery solved.

Back at the hostel, it’s a game of beer and ‘shithead’ with Mark. After a while though, I’m struggling to focus on what is going on. Probably a combination of too much sun, cereal meals and a litre of beer but I interrupt. ‘Is it just me or can you guys hear drums?’ We sit in silence for a moment listening to the dull rumble growing closer and closer. I can no longer focus and begin twitching like some desperate addict before manically stopping the game and declaring that we should all go drum chasing.

Road beers in hand we head off in the direction of the drums. Drunkly pausing at each intersection and cupping our ears like some interpid game hunter, we weave from street to street as the roar grows louder. Suddenly we turn the corner and are faced with a bellowing sea of flags, Latino ladies in full flow salsa, followed by around thirty men and boys, each with a huge samba drum. The noise was reverberating in my skull. It’s Carnival!

We follow the crowd from street to street, myself dancing in full drunken Gringo style alongside them on the pavement. There is a very muscular man directly in front of the drummers, all dressed in black with a flamboyant amount of shaved tanned chest protruding from his tight shirt. He has long blonde dreadlocks pinned up and is showing all the ladies how a salsa should be done. He is the salsa king and he was my next hero.

Eventually the small parade comes to an end at a large junction. There is a huge parrilla cooking meat for the party, and we sit on the pavement watching the smallest boy playing with the largest flag, before heading back to the hostel.

The next day after another communal breakfast we grab our things and head for the bus terminal. A rain soaked bus ride back across to Colonia and we sail back to Buenos Aires, jump on a train and head out to the suburb of Victoria to meet with our first couch surf host.

La Sortija

After a stubborn haggle with the hostel owner (Hostelworld says one price, he says another) we manage to lock in a price of £7.50 each per night. It’s already over thirty degrees and the back-pack shuffle across town begins. A wiser start this time, sneaking below ground to the air-conditioned SUBTE. The SUBTE also uses the SUBE card we purchased for the colectivo and each trip costs around 30p. Our trip back across the city is painless and we enjoy the sounds of an on-board busker, rasping the perils of love to his Spanish guitar. Under the instruction of our workaway host, we take colectivo 57 to the town of Pilar. The first bus is of a standard found in any small UK village – faded old seats with chaotic designs and trampolines for rear suspension. The second – the 350 to Los Cardales – is a little more of the white knuckle ride I had anticipated. With single seats filled along both sides, we waddle our packs to the long seat across the back. Today the bus was quiet and as we helter alongside the highway our vulnerability quickly becomes apparent. With no standers filling the large central aisle, any sharp braking would launch us and our bags in a perfect trajectory down the bus and at best, straight through the windscreen. Sorry Mum.

Colectivos survived, (total cost £3 each) I use my best possible Spanish to obtain a Remis (taxi) to ‘La Sortija’, our home for the next two weeks. La Sortija or ‘Hotel de Campo’ is a polo-pony farm come hotel run by a 29-year-old Brit, Anabel. Anabel was heading off to India for two weeks to play Polo for England on Shetland ponies (one can only imagine), and so we had been recruited to help her mother run the hotel in her absence. Bumping along dirt tracks we arrive at the gates to a quaint little farmstead, with beautifully landscaped grounds. Out of the taxi we are greeted by a pack of beautiful hounds and the trill of a perfect West London accent. Jennifer Rutland.

Jennifer – 70 years old, tall, slim, fit as a fiddle and with eyes glinting of eccentricity – greets in a mild state of pandemonium. Its lunch time, the hotel is full, Anabel is due at the airport in two hours and we aren’t supposed to be there yet. She sends us off to look around place while she finishes her kitchen acrobatics. After a brief interaction with Anabel, who is curiously enigmatic, we are given our official tour, introduced to the staff, guests and menagerie.

First up is Valentine – the groom. He is a bit of a pocket sized maverick, with a pure soul, who speaks no English except What’s uppppppp! He is furiously passionate, emotive and unpredictably rouge. Next is Tito – the handyman. He’s a real grafter, reliable and honest with that rare gem of practical intelligence. Tito’s daughter Miriam works as the maid or ‘chica’ and his two sons are employed to garden, but mostly to keep Valentine sane. Finally there is Gomez, a spiritedly sixty-nine year old who’s sole role is to clear up detritus and horse droppings. Gomez is also a pyromaniac, having at least two mucky bonfires on the go at all times.

Along side 22 mares, a stallion and the scraggliest fluffball cat, there were six of the most pampered excuses for guard dogs. The striking and intelligent boxer Lula, leader of the pack, suffering no fools, we quickly learnt the scope of her intellect as no closed door could promise the safety of any unattended food. Lula’s two daughters Squeaker and Titcher didn’t share this intelligence. Squeaks was single handedly the happiest canine I have ever met, apparently born without a brain or any sense of spatial awareness, she spent most of her day chasing butterflies. No guesses as to who was my favourite. Finally there was Jesus, the iguana, living in the gaulpon. I never met Jesus in the flesh, but what was to unfold over the next two weeks had me convinced Jesus had some sort of voodoo powers over the whole establishment.

Whilst Stephen managed the kitchen, I was introduced to booking.com and the whirlwind that is managing a hotel. Juggling guests, staff and enquires, all in Spanish, along with the daily pilgrimage into town, time flew as we danced from task to task. And if the three of us weren’t stretched enough, fate decided to come at us from all angles. Simple mornings quickly became a day of endless puzzles. Guests double booked, broken toilets, broken locks, sick dogs, pregnant dogs, attacked dogs, escaped stallions, run-away grooms, mice in the house, toads in the house, birds in the house; the list goes on. There were endless -palms slapped on the side of the face, what the bloody hell is going on- moments. When we could snatch an evening of wine with Jennifer, it became clear this woman is the eye of the storm. She has lived a colourful life and is in her opinion a magnet for nutters. Calm amongst the absolute chaos. In just two weeks I could definitely corroborate this.

A frantic fortnight of laugher, madness, good food, eccentric characters and waking up to a dog on your head, our time at La Sortija was over. Jennifer almost convinced us to take Squeaker with us and she seemed to agree as she climbed into the taxi. However, next adventure was waiting – it was onwards to Uruguay.

Travel-turtles

So finally, at long last we had arrived on terra firma Argentina. Not before of course I had the opportunity to embarrass myself, displaying my significant lack of cultural exposure. I had no idea about mid-air Jewish prayer traditions, though I certainly wasn’t the only one meerkating over the seats pondering what on Earth was going on, as a gentleman taped up his arm in plastic. But thank you Alitalia stewards, I have been educated.

So Buenos Aires major international airport is a good 40 minute drive from the city center. No problem, we had a plan. Stephen had somehow deduced that we needed to get the local number 8 bus; sounds simple enough. Outside arrivals was the usual airport mayhem. The scattering of people in all directions, forgetting that they had bulky luggage items temporarily attached to them, taking out shins and shoulders simulatenously with their tunnel vision to get in or out of the country. We wandered through,  excusing the multitude of distinctly South American hombres swarming upon us and forcefully enquiring Taxi? Taxi? Taxi? Understable – the pale completion and blonde hair screamed ‘WE ARE TOURISTS AND WE DON’T HAVE A BLOODY CLUE! But we don’t want to be robbed just yet.

Despite the somewhat rustic style of the buses or’ colectivos’ as they are locally known, Argentina is quite sophisticated in the payment for public transport. Following a broken conversation with the tourist information, Stephen returns to explain that we require some sort of card (we later work out its a SUBE – Argentina’s answer to Oyster), but we can just throw pesos at the driver and they should let us on. So pesos it is, off to the cash machine. Another novel fact about Argentina is that most cash machines are usually empty, particularly on the weekends. Machine number three finally spat out some cash (withdraw in big wads people – the Argentine banks themselves charge a fiver for each withdraw so those without a Halifax Clarity Mastercard you will get royally stung!).

Quick interlude for the frequent traveler. Get a Halifax Clarity Mastercard. No I solemnly swear I am not on commission – though if you are listening Mr Halifax… This is the only credit card I know of that lets you spend over-seas, in pretty much any country, with no transaction or international charge fees. Not only this you can withdraw cash from ATMs with no fees (other than any fee the banks in the country you are in charge and so far that has only been Argentina). So long, of course that you pay it off at the end of the month. Dream budget financing for travel.

Back to buses. So we now have pesos. Fantastic. Now where to get the local buses from. At this point its around 10am,  the sun is giving us a fully charged southern hemisphere welcome and us gringos with our heavy bags and little sleep, are desperately resisting the taxi temptation. We eventually give up on elusive number 8 and follow the crowds to a coach service to the center of BA. Total cost £10 each.

Just under an hour later we are dropped at the central bus station and begin wandering south towards Hostel Fiesta. Like two travel-turtles we begin negotiating the bustling side streets, with their spontaneous road works and continuous air-conditioning drips, we hop-scotch to and from the shade of the tallest buildings. As we stop for a brief and necessary respite on some shadowed steps, a man in his fourties approaches and immediately speaks in English “Do you need help?” Are we that obvious?? Thanks to his precise directions we are home and dry within ten minutes.

Hostel Fiesta is our kind of hostel. The address takes you to a tall Parisian style door with no bell or intercom – turns out there is a CCTV monitor in reception and if they decide you look lost enough they let you in. We enter and meet Rodrigo, a guy that looks like he was born in the stone circle of Glasto, who swaps our bags for beers and leads up to the roof terrace. In this small Eden of orange, with eclectic murals on all walls – my particular favourite, the parrot covered in herbal leaves – we catch our breath and relax in the wonderfully scotching sunshine.

Day one – the walking tour. I love walking tours. Unashamedly a walking tour super fan. They are almost always free, just a tip of which you decide the amount.  In my opinion, they are a perfect way to get a feel for the cultural and historical heart of a city. I have only successfully lasted two out of the many I have attended, mostly because I am pathetic and get too cold. So with the temperature a balmy thirty degrees celcius, its two barrels loaded in the fun-gun of excitement and I drag Stephen to the 11am meeting point. Marten our guide leads us on a educated and emotive tour of the Argentine capital. We learn of the rich European historical influence, the shady politics, and the indescribable frustrations of our South American counterparts,  that have seen a 45% inflation in the last year alone. Argentina is not a cheap country – London prices and then some.

Three hours of glorious sunshine and rich tales later, we part with our vibrant guide in the Cemeterio de la Recoleta. A brief peek of the grave of Eva Peron, we leave this small paradise for the dead – seriously, there are graves housing burial monuments worth more than a south-facing semi in a good catchment area- and head back to the hostel.

It’s a evening of more beer, broken Spanish and narrowly avoided temptation to head to an all night electro festival in Palmero. How boring of us, but at 3am as the Uber pulled up,  our maturity got the better of us. The following day we had to finally face the colectivos. We were off to our very first work-away position on the outskirts of Los Caradales. Los Cardales is a small village around two hours north of BA, in the Provencia of Buenos Aries. It turns out this was to be a very wise decision…

When in Roma

 We had all but 24 hours on the credit card of Alitalia to explore one of the most historically significant capital cities in the world. But first; sleep. Once the surprise had subsided it quickly became apparent we needed speak to someone, somewhere, about the fact we were now stuck in an airport. At this point it is about 10.30pm. The shops are closed, the lights are dimmed, and any remaining staff have a solid attitude of ‘not on the clock, not my problem’. The graveyard shift were tied up important game of table football. Fighting off jet-induced delirium, we eventually found ourselves at the necessary ticket desk (in departures-of course). Replacement tickets for the following day in hand, an address for a hotel scribbled on a boots receipt and finally a big slice of hope; excitement had now ignited. I was in finally in Italy after all!

On the bus we overheard one of our delayed comrades bound for Rio De Janeiro on the phone ‘It could be worse we could be in Afghanistan… or locked in a cage with gorillas on acid.’ We immediately initiated conversation. His name was Thomas and his story is worth sharing. Thomas, a tall  guy, with short dark hair, a proper baby face and after a quick game of guess my age discovered he was a 35 year old nomad from London. Thomas nattered away, joining our high school style buffet dinner in the back conference room of flight delay shame at the Hilton. He informed us he had Asperger Syndrome and that despite the fact his mum was a frantic worrier, at the age of 23 he had given up his job as KP at Buckingham Palace and had started travelling the world. He told us stories of the manic streets of Phuket, the hideous sun of Australia and the surprising smells of India. He told us his entire itinerary, his budget, why he wants to go to each place and lots about his mum ‘the worrier’. He said how lucky we were to travel together and how he wants to have a girlfriend and travel with her. He described how his Aspergers makes it hard to get a girlfriend, but until he finds ‘her’  he will carry on his adventure. If anything just to give his mum something to worry about. Thomas is my first hero.

Following dinner, it’s almost midnight, the reception took our passports in exchange for no keys and at this point tiredness is beinging make me a bit pathetic. Thomas and Ste bounce off to reception and I ponder Thomas’s stories for a bit, still not quite getting my head around Buckingham Palace. Eventually I notice the guy I was sat next to on the plane walk in. His connection was to Athens and he was almost arrogant about the fact he would make it. Apparently not. Wanting to save him from any awkward acceptance of his misfortune I skirt out the room back to reception.

Reception has by now descended into anarchy. A hundred people are swarming the desk, buzzing with exhausted rage. So naturally, I find a chair and settle down to watch the show – sorry Ste – he will never read this anyway. I can just about see Ste’s head in the crowd, courtesy of Thomas’s more identifiable stature. It would appear the reception have devised a moronic system where by your passport gets called and you get a room. I can hear Thomas beautifully stating loud and clear to a timid looking Italian man that his system is “An absolute load of bullshit”. Ste by some miracle comes back 5 minutes later with a room key. Relieved, exhausted and sadly without a proper goodbye to Thomas,  we escape.

Now what people don’t tell you about having a missed connection flight is that you baggage gets to have its own little vaycay in no-mans land. That’s right people as the brownies say always be prepared! Luckily as a graduate of the brown and yellow sash, my hand luggage contained spares of the essentials and a toothbrush (Steve on the other hand…). What I hadn’t thought through however, was my attire. Thinking I was to be confined to an airplane for the next 17 hours I had chosen maximum comfort over even the mildest suggestion of coordination or style. Vouge doesn’t count at 30,000 feet, so I had gone for a look that was not what one would describe as mile high-chique. More like a rainbow kaleidoscope explosion. And with no coat in the balmy 7 degrees of Rome, I had to wrap my psychedelic scarf around my head to keep the teeth still. Against the back drop of muted Parker coats, leather gloves and woolly hats, it was unsurprising that I could see pick-pocketers targeting from all angles. No no guys, I am not as stupid as I dress – I hope?! Didn’t a mental high-five when I saw a guy by the Coliseum in shorts and flipflops. He looked me in the eye. We knew.

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Rome. Is beyond what you can ever imagine it to be. We paid nothing except our return transport to and from the airport (30 euros for some crazy Italian bundling us into the back of a mini bus – would not recommend) and 5 euros for two thorough-bred coffees. We ambled past all the major attractions, taking hipster shots, getting lost in the beautiful side-streets, watching circus buskers stopping the traffic and marvelling at the irony of a beautiful blonde harpist playing ‘don’t cry for me Argentina’ by the river. 7 hours we had in total which was enough but to skim the surface of this historical playground.  For now I had to be satisfied with my little bite. It was back to the skies and onwards to Argentina.

Catch me if you can

So after a crazy few days full of emotional goodbyes to all my British beaus, it was last-minute shopping, quick-fire packing and Uber Dad dash to the airport. Packing for an 8-month excursion would appear to be a skill in which I am certainly no artisan. As a perpetual hoarder, with only googled weather forecasts to hand and a British skepticism, there was some prolonged head-scratching whilst buried under a mountain of ‘stuff’. Eventually my potentially excessive 15 kilos was on it’s way.

Now the fun could start. Arriving promptly at the airport courtesy of my militantly organised father, I the novice traveller extraordinaire, was able to display some of Google search skills. As our flight was one-way, the airline will require proof that you are leaving the country; without this they will not let you on the flight. We had booked a bus crossing from Mendoza in Argentina to Santiago in Chile, for a date around three weeks after our arrival in Buenos Aires. The total cost of this bus was only £20 and though we had chosen a date which we hoped we would be able to use, £20 to allow an open-ended trip is a small cost if we change our plans.

So bags are checked, it’s through security and onwards to enjoy some of Heathrow’s finest beers. As a nervous flyer I like to sink a least two or three pints of the bravery juice before hitting the skies. Our flight itinery was a short two-hour hop to Rome, an hour and a half lay over, followed by a 13 hour long haul to Buenos Aires. Though slightly long-winded, this allowed us to travel to BA one-way with Alitalia for only £510 each. Thank you Skyscanner for doing the leg-work, by far the best flight-search website when hunting down a bargain. The running joke between Ste and I had been that for years I had asked to travel to Italy. Each time we went to book flights, pesky Skyscannner had morphed our Italian trip into a bargain excusion to Copenhagen, Dublin, Cologne etc etc. So now my dream had come true. For an hour and a half at least.

So while squeezing in some final conversations with our favourites, it quickly became apparent that things were about to get interesting. Hello delayed flight. With our short lay-over time decreasing by the second, our gate was finally called. Arriving at the gate, we were met by a sea of anxious faces. Overhearing the air-hostess chatting to a panicked Albanian couple, it was clear that for the majority of the passengers this flight was a connection. Temporary sigh if relief; safety in numbers. Eventually we took off an hour and half late and the real game had begun. Touching down in Rome at exactly 21:45 (poetically the departure time of our next flight) it was holdalls at dawn as everyone scrambled over each other to bolt to their connection. If ever there was a time to deploy the emergency slides it was now.

Screeching shoes came skidding across the polished floors, people yelling directions at their newly found allies and crushing their rivals (Where are you going? Santiago? When’s your departure? 21:50? Screw you’ve got 5 minutes on me!). We weaved our way through the warren that is Leonardo da Vinci International airport transfers, including another security check (for what reason I have no idea – unless some maverick airline has a deal on duty free fireworks?!). Through the maze we collided smack bang with that falsely apathetic smile plastered on the stewardess’s face. Airport disappointment sponsored by MAC make-up. The crazy movie scene of adrenaline-filled fanatics had reached a less than blockbuster climax. The doors were shut. The plane was off. And we were staying in Rome. Be careful what you wish for.

On a shoestring.

A couple of months ago I read an article about travel. As click bait goes I was suitably hooked and its message had a far greater impact on me than its author probably anticipated. To summarise,the article described how travel was something available only to those of ‘privileged’ backgrounds. The Gap Yah don’t you know darling. Now this shouldn’t have riled me up quite so much as it did, and to be honest I could see some slight truth in it. Yes a few university friends and acquaintances, that perhaps had a more comfortable economic background, had been and seen and conquered lands that for me at the time were as reachable as Never-Neverland. But as the age-old saying goes, your only limitations are yourself. And in turn your patience. I had the same goals, the same ambitions. To run free, to explore, to be the first (though at this stage of the game it would appear the only originality left is extra-terrestrial) and to take on this beautiful planet one country at a time, collecting national flags like brownie badges. Yet despite my financial restrictions, I fully intended to break this stereotype; this was always as achievable for me as it was for them. Travel is for everyone.  So I went. I educated myself, I worked, I played, I laughed, I raged and ultimately I waited. And saved. Hard. Until now. 26 spins of the sun later, I have set myself up to take on my first big adventure. South America… And some idiot decided he wanted to come with me…