Saturday, 18 July 2009

Coming home

Bueno. Bien. I´m in Lima, killing time in the cheapest, fastest internet cafe I have found in all of my 6 months away. I fly in 8 hours, back to the Ashes, Anglo-Saxons, warmish weather, the almost certain prospect of contracting swine flu by the end of the year, and trying to find some kind of job.

I have been doing more living than travelling here in South America. It´s easier to live a daily routine tired than it is to travel tired, and somewhere over the South Pacific I became tired from being on the road (and in the air) for months. This "living" business, in a comfortable place with a stable group of friends and something forcing you to get up early (i.e. Spanish school), when compared to the naive enthusiasm, energy and wonder of earlier days spent travelling, feels remarkably like the zombie state you get in when you work too hard at home. It´s been a reminder of what it was like before my boss called me into a meeting room in October and gave me my marching orders. A reminder, and a warning never to forget the time you laughed yourself silly when you foolishly turned over your mattress in your hostel to see if the other side wouldn´t look like someone had died on it. (The other side is never cleaner, ever. Why would it be?) Or the first time you got in a cab in Buenos Aires and realised the driver was actually wearing his seat belt and you gave thanks that you had skipped breakfast. Or when you look through your photos of friends back home and realise how much we all look like Vikings. The difference is there every occasion you step out of your hostel and look up and around you, marvelling at the otherness of the place, rather than down at your feet, scanning for dog shit and blocking out as much as possible of your surroundings while trying to be as inconspicous as possible.

I know a rude awakening awaits me in the UK, but coming back is part of the reason for going away. I will fly into London tomorrow evening, hopefully routed in a loop over Docklands, the City and the West End towards the familiar shambles of Heathrow. In the next few days I will reacquaint myself with my family and friends, my language and my country, and the face prospect of an exciting new start doing.... something.

It´s been emotional. I have a long list of places I want to go next if any of you fancy joining me on the next one.


Friday, 26 June 2009

Hopefully not Spanglish

Aprender otro idioma cuando tenes treinta y un años es una cosa más dificil de hacer cuando eras un niño. No quedan nuevas palabras en tu cabeza, y el miedo de equivocarte en conversación es más fuerte. Además, el paso de mis estudioas aqui (veinte horas por semana) es más intenso que algún curso en mis escuelas in Inglaterra. Eso me cansa a veces, y tambien me frustra. Los Argentinos en la calle hablan muy rápido, frecuentamente no saben cómo hablar más despacio para los extranjeros.

Pero, como con algunas cosas dificiles, vale la pena, y aun más porque, cuando sos adulto, el proceso del saber es más transparente. Entonces, cada día, cuando estas caminando en la calle, sientes un emoción pequeña. Al principio es porque entiendes unas palabras, después las formas de oracións, y finalmente (sólo a veces para mí), puedes participar en conversacións rápidas alredador de la mesa en tu hostel.

Y cuando soñas en español, o empiezas a usar formas en español cuando escribes en Inglés, o entiendes un canción por la radio, sentés una destreza nueva formando en tu cerebro. Por supuesto, yo miro a la punta de un iceberg, pero de todas maneras eso me gusta. (Y, claro, mi profesora me ayudó con esto texto!)

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Dog days and dodging decisions

One of the joys of travelling is that generally you don´t have to take decisions if you don´t want to. The last 3 weeks, mas o menos, have been thus - a period of procrastination over basic choices. In Mendoza, I took 2 weeks to decide where to go next and, having decided to come here to Bariloche, I spent another week deciding how long to stay. Constant ruminations over these life and death issues have resulted in my most idle and frustrating period of this trip. But the snow arrived a week ago, skiing is planned for next week and I have enrolled for another couple of weeks in a new, improved Spanish school.

To fill in the time since my last blog, recently I have mostly:

  • been on my first long bus ride (18hrs) across the pancake-flat wilderness of the Pampa between Mendoza and Bariloche;

  • seen an evening of locals exhuberantly dancing the Argentine samba in the public square opposite my hostel;

  • been attacked by a Doberman while its owner stood by doing nada; (and while we are on that theme, I have also taken the hostel´s dog for a walk during which it got into a fight with a street dog - a fight that splattered blood on the pavement and windows of a restaurant);

  • shared two travellers´first sight of snow (and first snowball fight);

  • grown a beard;

  • and said goodbye to several good friends made in Mendoza, including my lovely "mother" in the hostel there.

My home here now is another small, quiet hostel. It´s out of the way a little, a few blocks above the main streets of Bariloche. Most of the inhabitants, including myself, are young long-stayers: Kate, the ever-procrastinating Sydneysider; Jotape (JP, Juan Pablo), a Cordobeso looking for work in the tourist industry here; Camilo, the wise Columbian who has cycled here from Buenos Aires and who will be returning to Bogota by bike to introduce his new American girlfriend to his mother who he hasn´t seen in 6 years; and Chris, a Texan ex-military guy with a penchant for all things spiritual. It feels like a cross between a student house and a halfway home for intransigent youths, but it is a very happy place, and even the temporary interlopers settle in quickly to the rhythm of the place - usually Columbian cumbia at 4 in the morning.

At the end of this week I will have been at school for 6 weeks, so I think my next blog will have to be in Spanish. Sorry in advance!

Thursday, 4 June 2009

You know when you´ve been Tangoed

I fell in love with Argentina last night. Call me a tart (and I have been this week), but I fell for the gentleness of the people of Lao within days. New Zealand took longer before the solitude and frontier-like nature of the South Island found its way under my skin. But if NZ is still developing its identity, Argentina´s intoxicity (!?) stems from a surfeit of cultural and social influences crammed into one nation.

Last night I took my first tentative steps of the tango, a bewildering contradiction of control and passion. After learning a few basic moves, I exited the dance floor and, their toes now safe, Mendocinos from 20 to 70 strutted their stuff. Apart from the 1... 2... 3... 1, 2, 3... rhythm, the defining features of the Tango are, it seems, graceful improvisation without limit, and couples´gravity-defying leans towards each other as they twirl around the room. Every pair had a distinctive style, easy to differentiate but difficult to define, each being a mix of various holds and flourishes and different levels of theatricality. I sat for 2 hours sipping Fernet and Pepsi (a bitter, black drink which puts every other in the shade of bland incipidness), enchanted.

The highlight of the evening was an Argentina samba, much slower than its Brazilian namesake. Superficially a cross between a Morris and a Line dance, dancers tote handkerchiefs that somehow, to eyes admittedly tainted by the local brew, become expressions of their honour, pride and love.

The cliche goes that Argentines are arrogant, but that they have quite a bit to be arrogant about. It´s hard to disagree.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Looking up, down and around

Mendoza is unfurling itself to me, as is Argentina. Slowly, but steadily every day something small becomes clear, such as why the city´s 1.4 million trees were planted in the deep, wide gutters that run along the edge of every street. (They aren´t traditional gutters for rainwater run-off as there isn´t any precipitation here. Instead they are part of an elaborate irrigation system that keeps this city high in the desert green). Or the rhythm of the city, which sees the streets deserted at 3pm and 11pm, but crazy busy around 1pm as the inhabitants hot foot it home for lunch, and also after midnight when people finish their dinner.

Some people engage with a new city on its own terms straight away. They arrive, adjust, absorb and dissolve into the place within days. For others, perhaps most, it´s different. While on the road they develop a protective force field which shelters them from difficult or dangerous situations and gives them a sense of homely security. However, it also creates a certain emotional and cultural distance between them and their locality, stifling the traveller´s interaction with locals. It won´t be hard to guess which type I am, but I have only just worked it out! Language can be part of the barrier, as here, but you can notice things even when travelling in an English-speaking country like New Zealand; like a hesitation before you enter a shop (what system for shoe sizes do they use here?), or the decision to choose inconvenience over awkwardness by walking for an hour to avoid a possible embarrassment on a bus over small change or a confused destination.

This behaviour is deep-rooted and, it is comforting to learn to accept, it is not necessarily a bad thing. What´s more, with time, or a dose of Dutch courage, or just a hearty "Fuck it, you only live once", you can summon up enough blood to buy something unusual from a store or walk a different route to school. Eventually both the heart and mind will open a little wider and the people and place will rush in and find a place in each.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009


I´m desperately trying to get into the way of the siesta, more through necessity than cultural exchange. Like the princess in the fairy tale, I seem to be able to detect every lump in the woodwork beneath my mattress, and together with daily half-7 starts and the thousands of multi-syllabled words flying around my brain, and I am a just touch sleep-deprived. But siestas are less easy done than said, it seems.

But, at the edge of the dark cloud that is a streaming cold (courtesy of one of my classmates, a Team GB Olympic equestrian), I espied a silver lining. A couple of Ibuprofen and a big lunch and I´ll be out for a good 2 hours, I thought. But no, el gordo American who left the hostel a couple of days ago has returned unexpectedly this afternoon, and this time he is billeted in my dorm. Que mal! Now, I know there isn´t a huge amount you can do about snoring, and people who do usually wish they didn´t, but if this guy makes the same noise for the next two nights as he did before he left, I´m going to end up doing time. My solution for this evening is prayer to a non-existent deity and Malbec, both in large quantities.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Settling in to student life

I have signed up for more immersion. More trying to understand the school cook´s gabbled explanation of why he grills meat with newspaper laid on the top. More wrist-slapping from the teachers when I try to ask anything in English, even during our fun afternoon excursions to the hot springs or tours of the town. But I need it. After a week´s lessons and staring imploringly at hundreds of pairs of dark, frowning, confused eyebrows, I have decided I have to stay a little longer and try to get to grips with Spanish. My many years of studying Latin at school are helping with my comprehension, but this is streaking ahead of my speaking which, attuned to French, is to be frank, shit. My otherwise amiable roommate in the hostel, another Federico no less, left me in no doubt that I need to work hard at my pronunciation, comparing my speaking very unfavourably with the Spanish of an exceedly broad-accented rural Irish guy also staying here.

There are much worse places to be put through this torture. This pleasant desert city, flattened in 1861 by an earthquake and helpfully rebuilt on an exact north-south grid, will be my home for a few weeks I think. The town, which gently slopes up towards the Andes to the west, is clearly the place where knackered Peugeots, Fiats and Fords go to die. Mark I Sierras, Escorts and Falcons abound, all belching smoke and growling like dogs, their owners riding their clutches at red lights, wary that the next stall could be the car´s last and giving the whole town a baritone´s hum late into every night. It reminds me, obscurely, of a documentary on the history of motorway service stations...