Sunday, 28 September 2008

Week 5: When My Baby Smiles at Me I Go to...Oxford

No, I haven't suspended my campaign (bit of political humour there for you..GEDDIT??!!!) to bore you all useless with my burblings. This entry is probably a bit baguer than usual, though...I'm at the point now where I can't believe I was ever actually in South America, so quickly does a new environment feel like forever to me. I'm easy like Sunday morning when it comes to new locales.

Since my last post, I've spent several days in Rio de Janiero and Buenos Aires. On Monday, I flew into London, then caught the coach straight down to Oxford, where I've been staying with my friend Shelley, who is genius enough to be completing her PHD here.

Things I've Loved
The Terrible Weather in Rio - I ended up having about two and a half days in Rio, which is notorious for its beauty and hot climate. I waxed things in anticipation of beachy days, people. WAXED.

Of course, the weather was absolute crap. Rainy, foggy, cloudy and even a little bit stormy. The beach was deserted. No renting beach chairs, no fresh fruit or cocktail vendors wandering between sunbathers, just a charlatan offering crappy umbrellas to the drenched tourists for $US30 a pop.

What this meant, however, is that I was forced to look at the rest of Rio. And I've some to the highly sophisticated decision that if Rio was a celebrity couple, it'd be Posh & Becks...everything looks perfect and a bit bland, almost, until it opens its mouth and you hear just how rough it really is.

Rio contains REALLY POSH beach towns like Copacabana and Impanema (my hostel in Impanema charges about $US500 a week for a dorm bed during Carnivale... and its nice, but its still a hostel. I mean, you wouldn't risk showering without your thongs on), the notorious favela slum areas and a massive, interesting and important City Centre. And you couldn't even say its divided into these different areas...they all mix into each other and its confusing but fascinating. Its the only place where people recognized that my handbag was Dior (yes, I am cheerfully stupid enough to take Dior backpacking), and also the only place I really felt intimidated by thieves and muggers and stuff.

Also (and I'm a native Sydneysider, so I like to think I know about cities built in spunky locations...) Rio was quite easily the most naturally beautiful place I visited in South America (and yep, I'm including Iguazu in that calculation). It all culminates in the Sugarloaf (and yes, I rode the cable car, and its was just like a James Bond movie!), from where I stared across at Christ the Redeemer, and saw Him (should I use a capital when referring to a statue of Jesus? Can someone more up on theologic grammar help a lapsed Anglican out?) emerging from the fog. It was pretty amazing, all told.

Buenos Aires - Yeah, everyone raves about BA (sorry, it'll be Jo'burg next, I know ), but, bloody hell, it is fabulous. Like Europe, only fun.

If Rio is where Nature made things beautiful, then BA is where Humanity has done some of its best work. I gave up on taking photos of the beautiful buildings because I don't have enough space on my memory card to do the architecture justice. There's grand palace-like structures, but also gorgeous, small-scale neighbourhoods with tree-lined avenues and a bar on every corner.

I kind of feel like a fraud writing about BA. I didn't even start to get a handle on the place. It's too complex and too closed off (only place in South America where no one approaches you to get in their cab... if you want to get into their cab, then you will ask politely and maybe, just maybe, they'll take you where you want to go...all terribly Parisian). I do know that I want to try and get a handle on it though, and am determined to go back with better (OK, some) Spanish in the next 12 months.

Being Employed - I start work in the British office of my old Sydney work on Monday. Feels very good to be contributing to the global economy again... just when it all slides into the toilet. I swear it wasn't my fault.

Things I Haven't Loved
Foreign Queens - I had the chance to see drag shows (you can take the hag out of Sydney...) in Rio and Buenos Aires on consecutive nights, and they just don't live up to Sydney standards. I had high hopes for Rio, too, with the whole Carnivale influence, but, nope. Just some dude dressed in a white cap and midriff top miming along to what I suspect was a Whitney Houston album track. Very Pre-Priscilla

Leaving a Club at 3.30am, Arriving Back at the Hostel At 4am, Catching a Taxi to the Airport for an International Flight at 4.30am, and Getting on the Place at 7am, all Whilst Drunk - Yeah, won't be doing that again. Arrived in BA and was, um, not in the right mood for appreciating its beauty, I think we can safely say.

And I'm going to leave this entry here, because I don't have it in me to sum up South America right now, but don't dare leave the blog un-updated another day. I'm in a position now where I can start uploading photos and stuff, so I'll do a summing up entry in the next few days.

Although trying to a summing up entry on South America is a bit like going to an RSL Smorgasboard and putting roast beef, spring rolls, coleslaw and eggplant parmigiana on the same plate, and thinking you have international cuisine covered.

Mmmm, coleslaw.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Interlude - Well, Hello, Old Friend

Just arrived in Buenos Aires, and I am staying in a fancy schmancy hotel that a much loved family member is paying for. Among the hotel´s many fine features is A MAC as the guest computer. Wanna know how excited I was to be using my platform of choice?


By golly, I am quite the geek, aren´t I?

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Week 4: Quality Time with Papa Giuseppe

Sorry, big gaps between posts, I know, but I've been a busy little tourist-y bee.

Since I last left you all panting for my next utterance, I've left Cordoba and coached it north to the Argentinean side of Iguazu Falls, then bussed it across the border to the Brazilian side of the Falls, then coached it up to Sao Paulo, where Joe, who used to feed me lots of Tim Tams in exchange for very little work at ADI Sydney, is now running ADI Brasil, and agreed to have me as his houseguest.

Things I've Loved
My Nephew Toby Coming Through His Surgery OK - Yep, Tobes (minus his tonsils) is already back to living the Freudian dream, trying to figure out how to climb back into his mother's womb and submitting to bullying by his not-quite-one-year-old brother.

Family members, does anyone think that Tobes looks just like Mum in this photo?

Iguazu Falls - You know, I never really got National Geographic or Animal Planet (or McLeod's Daughters, for that matter, but that's another rant for another time...) or nature, generally, but I totally got these waterfalls. They're just so big and powerful and uncontrollable and this is beginning to sound a little bit like bad erotic fiction, but you get my drift.

Crossing from Argentina into Brasil in a 50c Public Bus - It still blows my little island-nation-bred mind that people can live across the road from each other AND YET THEY LIVE IN DIFFERENT COUNTRIES, pay different tax rates, vote in different elections, and in this case, speak different languages.

Its as if Kellyville was a different country to Castle Hill. Which, hey, might be something worth looking into, especially if we can make sure they realise its an EXILE situation...

Joe - What follows is a list of unbelievably nice things Joe did for me during the three days I stayed with him:
  • Picked me up from the bus station (usually, I am greeted only by the stench of drying urnine).

  • Gave up his bed for me, and slept on the couch for three nights.

  • Fed me. Constantly. The highlights included two different "pay by the kilo" restaurants (like Sizzler, except they weigh your plate once you've filled it... a bit like a Weight Watcher's Meeting in reverse) and a ChurraSomethingRia, where waiters bring around big slabs of meat and you point out the bits you want them to cut off. The meat, not the waiters.

  • Watered me. Constantly.

  • Took me around and showed me his new town, Sao Paulo, which is lovely and MASSIVE and has an amazing museum and park and both awesome and hideous ugly buildings and very cool shops and is serious yet fun and yeah. I liked it.

  • Introduced me to ADI Brasil, who are all lovely and welcoming and helpful and amazingly patient with this little non-Portuguese speaker. Jason, in particular, saved me about $40 by finding out the right bus to get me to the hostel from the bus station.

  • Made it possible for me to speak to my sister and my Nerise, both of whom I miss mightily.

  • Made me fresh fruit salad two mornings in a row. Mum, basically, you're on notice.

It was just so lovely to see him, the being treated like a princess was an unexpected bonus.

Melissa Shoes - Joe left me alone for half an hour, and I somehow managed to buy two pairs. A love of shoes can surmount any language barrier.

Things I Haven't Loved
The Bus Between Iguazu Falls and Sao Paulo - Frequented by black market smugglers from Paraguay, apparently, so they make you unpack all your hand luggage before getting on the bus.

This, I could cope with (what do I have to hide past a sack of dirty underwear and an unhealthy obsession with chewing gum?), but, in the absence of onboard entertainment, my seat mate decided to listen to Bon Jovi's Always over and over and over again through her mobile phone. Without using headphones. She started about 10 hours into the 16 hour trip. Then someone behind her started to sing along, but couldn't actually speak English, so was just kind of emitting a close approximation to the actual syllables. Which may not be so removed from Jon Bon Jovi's actual vocal stylings, but. Still.

Can you see the crazy deranged look on my face when I got off the bus? CAN YOU???

The Date
- Today's Tuesday, and I leave Buenos Aires for Heathrow on Sunday morning.

Five weeks on my own, on a continent where I don't speak the language, sounded like such a long time before I actually got here. And now (and you can hear Bon Jovi warming up in the background, can't you?) I can only wish for more time. Or more, accurately, more money to buy more time. Those of you pointing out that I could make this happen by buying fewer shoes will be roundly ignored, mmkay?

Anyhoo, I'm now the Girl in Impanema, where I'm staying until Thursday morning, when I catch a plane down to Buenos Aires. No more planning or comparing bus routes or prices or anything left to do.

Except, like, get a job. Hmmm.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Week 3.5 - Eating the Floor in Argentina

Well. Interesting times. I´m over half way through my South American adventure, and I think I hit a bit of a wall this week... a little bit exhausted and sick of my own company (seriously, 90% of my thoughts are about shoes. Exactly how did I get so superficial? I blame the parents!). Plus, I had one total disaster, which I´ll detail below.

At the same time, though, it was a fantastic week for seeing how quickly my mood and the situation can improve by just walking around a corner. Over the past few days, I´ve visited the islands of Lake Titicaca, then travelled from Peru to Cordoba, Argentina. Geographically, they´re fairly close, but they´re VERY different places: Lake Titicaca and its surrounds are obsessed with recreating (and marketing) the way indigenous groups have lived in the area since before Christ, whilst Cordoba is, ahem, the cultural capital of South America in a very European, modern sense of the word.

Overall, I think I had a much better week than Morris Iemma.

Things I Have Loved
The Plazas of South American Cities and Towns - OK, be prepared to be shocked. Outside of Sydney, people actually leave their houses on the weekends. And not just to go to the shops. They gather in classically beautiful plazas near their houses and picnic and watch performances and even protest.

Walking back to my hostel this evening, I kept coming upon gatherings of people in the central spaces. It was just...heartwarming. People were chatting and drinking coffee and watching their kids play and just hanging out. Its not like the weather was great (very similar to Sydney right now). I got the feeling it could have been a Sunday evening in the dead of Winter and just as many groups would have been out and about.

In one case, there were heaps of people gathered around watching a free acrobatic show. It had none of that urgent Sydney Festival, "don´t look might miss some CULTURE" vibe to it. What I was probably most impressed with was the fact that nobody was drinking, or if they were, they weren´t wandering the streets looking for a convenient rubbish bin to undigest the 2 bottles of sav blanc they´d polished off in an hour and a half into.

Erm, not that I´ve ever done anything like that.

Cordoba - OK, I think a title like, "cultural capital of South America" is as ridiculously wanky as the next person, but I can kind of see how they got it. They have FANTASTIC museums (saw an amazing Picasso exhibition FOR FREE yesterday) and have done the most amazing job of blending colonial and contemporary architecture. Its not a really photogenic city, but it has a confidence and a style that´s quite enthralling.

Che Guevera - Yes, 3 weeks in Cuba, or as I like to call it, Che!Land, did not quench my thirst for all things hunky-revolutionary. Today I went to a town called Alta Grazia, about 35 kms from Cordoba, where Che lived for a few years growing up.

After getting hopelessly lost for about an hour (would have bought a map, except I don´t know the Spanish for the following words: Could. I. Please. Buy. A. Map. Of. The. Town.) I finally stumbled upon the Museo de Che, which has been curated in a house his family lived in for approximately three years (a leeeedle bit of a tenuous link, I would have thought, but anyhoo...).

They had this hilarious statue out the front of LittleBoy!Che sitting on the front porch railing. Even better, inside, there were pictures of Fidel Castro visiting the museum, and somehow, someone had talked him into sitting next to the sculpture with his arm around LittleBoy!Che.

I mean, it was Fidel Castro, one of the world´s most feared and enigmatic political leaders, hamming it up for the cameras with the world´s least poignant Che!Reproduction.

Of course, the ridiculous is always tempered with the sublime, and they also had massive blow up potraits of Che, and, oh my, I´m still struck by how unbelievably good looking and charismatic he was. They also had photos of him with both his wives, and these poor women, both fascinating, revolutionary thinkers in their own right, they just both look so nervous, like they spent every hour of every day looking over their shoulders at the hoards of people who wanted and got a piece of their husband.

The moral of the story, then, is to only marry ugly people.

Things I Haven´t Loved
Lake Titicaca - Eh, it was OK. It was... a lake. With boats. And islanders who live as they have for thousands of years. Except, presumedly, there was less, like, electricity and tourism and fewer Chinese restaurants and American Express Accepted signs in 1000AD.

Richard Gere in I´m Not There - I was at a bit of a loose end after the museums closed and before the restaurants opened on Friday night, and saw that one of the little arthouse cinemas was showing this (in Engliah, with Spanish subtitles). It´s not a great movie, but it is really interesting to look at. Plus, the cinema reminded me a lot of the Roxy in Parramatta, before it turned into R&B!Mega!Nite!Club! (sponsored by Jaegermeister).

But, really, how does Richard Gere have a film career? I mean, he seems like a lovely person in that credit card ad with the birds being released, and I´ve seen Pretty Woman as many times as the next woman, but he really. Cannot. Act.

My Big Disaster - After the movie, I decided to eat at Argentina´s largest all-you-can-eat restaurant, simply because I´m just not strong enough to walk away from a tagline like Argentina´s Largest All-You-Can-Eat Restaurant. It was... exactly what you´d expect, really. Like Sizzler with more people speaking Spanish (and no cheese bread).

I hadn´t eaten all day, so I absolutely pigged out. There was potato bake and eggplant parmagiana and caramel tart and lemon meringue pie and chocolate mousse and white chocolate mousse and chocolate and white chocolate mousse swirled together in my custom tribute to Cadbury´s fine Marble chocolate bars and pastries and fried fish (went back to savoury after desserts) and I was just a pig at the trough, basically.

I also hadn´t slept the night before, having been in airport hell (see below), and had drunk maybe one Coke Zero and a glass of water.

Anyway, I got up to leave, and immediately felt light-headed. I was fiddling with my bag and wallet, so when I stumbled, my hands got caught in the straps, and I couldn´t use them to break my fall.

I hit the tiled floor chin first. I heard a crack, and tasted blood, and my first though was, "Oh no! I´m going to be a new addition to The Big Book of British Smiles!"

The entire restaurant went deathly silent (and, remember, this is a MASSIVE restaurant... capacity of maybe 700 people, and it was full), and the every waitperson in the place came rushing over. When I opened my mouth to speak, firstly, I remembered that I don´t speak Spanish, and secondly, blood came pouring out.

The goods news is that I didn´t lose or chip any of my teeth (defintely heard a crack though, which worries me... is there such thing as Delayed Onset Tooth Breakage?). I did, however, put my teeth through my bottom lip, with is now very Jolie-like in its swelling.

More than anything, I humilated and upset myself. Luckily, there was a Peace Corps group at a nearby table who spoke both English and Spanish and get me in a taxi back to the hostel.

The upside is that I´m now very popular at the hostel, as people from every land on Earth (well, Germany and the UK) ask me to pull down my bottom lip so they can see the holes. Which you´d think would be at least kind of sexy, but, yeah, no.

Air Travel - Rather than blame the above incident on my own inability to listen and respond to my body, I´m choosing to blame it on the RIDICULOUS air travel I was subjected to the night before. Over 20 hours and four different flights to travel around 1500 kms.

Specific things I hate about air travel include: customs; the smell of reheated food in a confined space; having to squeeze my toothpaste, moisturiser and lip balm into a tiny clear plastic bag; airport taxes; transfers; waiting for baggage (like waiting for exam results) and last, but certainly not least, OTHER PASSENGERS. Just as a hint, Australian man making me shirk from my own nationality: shouting, "Speak English" at the prerecorded safety message is unlikely to provide you with the desired reult, mmmkay?

Tomorrow, I begin my ascent towards Joe in Sao Paulo, with a 22 hour bus ride to Iguazu Falls on the Argentina/Brasil/Paraguay boarder. By golly, I hope there´s bingo.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Week 3 (kind of) -Trekking and Macchu Pichu

Oooh, we´ve hit tourist country now. Peru is crawling with them; Lonely Planet clutched in hand, ethnic scarf artistically tied around neck, expression of permanent frustration plastered across face.

As a side note, it always puzzles me when people ask if I mind traveling alone. I mean, do they look at the couples who are obviously traveling together? One of them (usually, I regret to say, the female half) is always mid- or post-tantrum, and the other half is always desperately trying to make amends for a real or perceived slight, suggesting, "sitting down for a cool drink or something to eat.." It´s like The Amazing Race: The Live Extravaganza!.

I´ve spent the last five days or so on this trek. Basically, we drove for one day to a first town of ancient Inka ruins, then walked for three days to a second town of ancient nInka ruins, which we visited on the fifth day. The general theme was, "Inka", with a strong secondary theme of, "outdoor toilet".

Things I Loved:
The Shower At The End - A strange place to begin, I know, but, oh my, it was awesome. There was hot water and dissolving dirt and Pantene and happiness.

Walking Along Railway Tracks - We followed the train line into Aguas Caliente, the town closest to Machu Picchu (absolute hole, for those wondering). It was such a cinematic landscape, and such a cinematic activity. I spent the whole time humming Stand By Me to myself.

The Horsepeople - We had three horses and a token mule that carried around our food and tents. The horses were accompanied by two handlers.

Firsty, the lady horseperson was the boss (South America has still got some serious patriachy going on), and secondly, her name was Lucretia. Like something out of a romance novel. Hers was the only support team member name I could remember, embarassingly enough.

Thirdly, our horsepeople, and rural Peruvians in general, are fit. We´d start walking at least an hour before them, and within the second hour, they´d be overtaking us, not a puff to be heard, offering to carry our teensy tiny backpacks for us, as they lead a stubborn horse (or token mule) up and down mountains by a rope.

The trail is actually still used by local farmers to travel from village to village (and, more importantly, market to market). At one point, a lady passed us with a child about Toby´s side tied across her back, leading a mule packed full of produce. I will never feel sorry for any yummy mummy struggling to get her pram out off the back of her 4 wheel drive in the Castle Towers carpark ever again (not that I ever did feel sorry for that particular part of the species, but you get my point).

I´ve been feeling pretty smug about my own level of fitness since the City 2 Surf. No more. I am not fit to wear the same brand of heart rate monitor as these people. Respekt.

Thing I Didn´t Love
The Worts Covering the Assistant Cook´s Hands As He Served My Food - Mmmm, Herpes. Yummy!

And yes, there was a cook, and the food was faultless. Two courses at every meal and we were woken each morning with hot Milo thrust through the door of our tents. It was like having a group of young male Peruvian mummies.

The Whole Toilet Situation - There comes a point in every girl´s life where she must decide if she´s willing to let another human being carry around in a plastic bag.

I´m most ashamed of what my decision was. Let´s never speak of it again.

Machu Picchu
I spent yesterday at Machu Picchu. It was... big. And old. Full of ruins. Dusty. Hot.

I´m very glad I went. Its not the sort of place you´d ever regret visiting, but I know I didn´t get as much out of it as other people do. It just feels so removed from people and events and actual stuff. I tried to walk around and imagine what it would have been like to live in that place when there were roofs and bustling Inkas and gold statuettes and pottery everywhere, but I just can´t get into it.

What I did love was watching the tourists. Oh, how I love tourists (and yes, I include myself in that patronising affection).

Machu Picchu seems to attract an international parade of Type A personalities. The kind of people who like to make a list and meet objectives. The Machu Picchu objective list would seem to be:
A. Be first in line to see ruins.
B. If not first in line to see ruins, then constantly walk to the front of the line, firstly to ascertain who these people who beat them to the front of the line were and assess their weaknesses for future lines (and there will be many Machu Picchu lines) and secondly to see if they can,"sort out what the hold-up is". Even when there is no hold-up. Especially if they don´t speak Spanish.
C. Wear clothes that tell you they´ve visited other Essential Global Destinations. Essential Global Destinations include Antartica, the Great Barrier Reef and Giza.
D. Take photos of Important Machu Picchu Vistas.
E. Ensure no other tourists can be seen in these Important Machu Picchu Vista Photos, so it will appear to friends and families back home that the Peruvian authorities decided to open the ancient ruins for a private visit. Shout (often in German), pout and scowl at other tourists until this objective is achieved.
F. Pay US$5 for a bottle of water.
G. Complain loudly about paying US$5 for a bottle of water, even though every guidebook on Earth says, "Bring your own water to Machu Picchu to avoid paying US$5 for a bottle of water", and you have one of these guidebooks clutched in your hand, and several more probably stuffed into your The North Face/TimberLand backpack.

How I Became Notorious at Machu Picchu
Being a bit of a Type A personality myself, I knew I wanted to climb the big mountain adjacent to the ruins. Its about an hour up a windy, dusty staircase, and the closer you get to the top, the more ridiculously perilous the whole thing gets; at one point I was scrambling through a tiny cave tunnel, pushing the backpack of the nice British doctor in front of me, and trusting that the man behind me was pushing my backpack through, whilst not staring at my only legging clad bum (shut up, I´d been in the jungle for four days, I´m allowed a fug every now and then).

Problem was, I´d completely wrecked my sneakers on the last day of trekking (an incident involving my terrible sense of balance and horse poo), and the only other pair of shoes I had with me were my thongs.

I asked our Trekking Guide, Marco, if I could climb the mountain in thongs. He said no. Always anxious to upset the Peruvian patriachy, I decided I was going to climb the mountain in thongs.

And, I kind of did it. I got to the peak, saw the view (AMAZING) and made my way down (with the help of the nice British Doctor, who luckily suffered from vertigo, so was as slow as I was), and covered my feet and leggings and shirt and ethnic scarf in dirt. I was quite a sight at the end.

I didn´t realise how much of a sight till that night, however, when we were on the backpacker (translation: scum) train to Cusco. I was chatting to the young Spanish volunteer seated next to me (Thank you, oh kind and generous Peru Rail seating assignment system), when he suddenly looked at my feet, looked at my face, and gasped, "You're that girl! The girl who climbed the mountain in sandals! I took a photo of your feet!".

He then proceeded to take out his digital camera, and show me that he had indeed taken a photo of my feet at the summit, without me realizing. I would have felt quite flattered if he wouldn´t have followed up with, "My girlfriend and me, we couldn't believe anyone would be that stupid!".

Anyhoo, I´m now in Puno, and will be visiting Lake Titicaca tomorrow. And tomorrow night, I WILL ANSWER EMAILS AND RESPONDS TO COMMENTS. Yes, yes I will. Sorry!