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Chapter 2

Drifting

Sun, 23 Mar 2003

Dear Friend of Rob,

I’m sure you’ve been awaiting the second chapter of the travels of Rob with bated breath: "What has happened to that poor misguided seeker after... whatever it is... now?" you ask yourself, "At least it makes me feel better about the general lack of direction in and apparent mundanity of my own life! I could be, like him, drifting rudderless across a sea of half-experienced events and ignored opportunities. I’m going to the pub!", you decide.

My last missive was, if you recall, from Paratay. I left off with the Japanese tourist sliding to his doom at those waterfalls. Things got kind of slow after that for a few days as I slipped into my normal approach to travel - getting up late, reading and writing probably too much and the main focus being on where and what to eat.

Well I had a nice Thai meal in Paratay surrounded by about 40 loud and demanding German tourists about whom I later sympathised about with the German owner of the restaurant. Next door to Paddy’s girlfriend’s agency was a great Pasteo place. Kind of like a large deep fried light-crusted pasty, normally filled with meat, cheese or pizza topping. Cheap as you like... and so good for you! As predicted by Guy & Bibi (friends in London) South America is not a place to lose weight.

Anyway, I left Paratay carried along by the general drift of tourism towards Iguazzu - giant waterfalls near the triple frontier between Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. Luckily, along the way I met the energetic James & Manjula who, in rather typically better informed fashion, had booked a leito (bed) seat for the overnight journey in contrast to my normal coach seat. So I managed to upgrade my ticket in Sao Paulo for consequently the best overnight coach journey of my life and without any pharmaceutical aid (I was rather surprised to discover that Valium is controlled in Brazil!) actually managed to sleep for an all time overnight bus journey record of 6 hours!

Next morning found us in the town of Foz d’Iguacu, the rather affluent town on the Brazilian side of the border which had the relaxing but rather vacuous feel of American suburbia to it. I checked into the Posada de Laura down one of the tree-lined streets. The eponymous Laura being a faded but proud and multilingual ex-socialite who sang snippets of New York, New York as she showed me around. Quite an extensive record collection featuring plenty of jazz singers, The Platters and lots of Elvis. I ended up in the room next to hers in her house. My stay felt like a few days with an eccentric aunt.

James & Manju continued to ensure that I had the best possible time, maximising the potential of the 3 days we spent in Foz. I felt like one of those check-list Australian tourists but in a way, one always feels a begrudging admiration for those get-up-and-go Aussies as one lounges in one’s hammock, caught up in dreams of some other, fictional place. And dammit, as it is the beginning of my trip I should still be in that frame of mind! Plenty of time for lethargy on the beach later... I hope.

The time was very rewarding in fact and, kindly inviting me along, J, M & I went to both sides of these spectacular waterfalls the power of which is overwhelming. We took an interesting tour including an edifying nature tour rewarded by a subsequent very wet trip to the very base of the falls in an high-powered boat. Perhaps the climax of the trip was a visit to the "Devil’s Throat" above the Argentinean side of the main cataract. Incidentally, why are all these places called things like "The Devil’s Throat", "The Horns of Lucifer" or "The Great Stones of Hades"? Why not "God’s Throat" or dignify the much-maligned creature with "The Goat Horns" or "The Balls of Dionysus"? As I tried to get a mental grip on the chaotic waves of flow, I again regretted my lack of psycho-active substances with which to fully experience the phenomenon.

The next day, James & Manju were on the move and invited me to come with them via the Missiones region to Buenos Aires. I equivocated and ended up a couple of hours later in a travel agent considering a trip to Florianopolis in southern Brazil to get some surf in before Argentina. Luckily the bus journey was difficult - and there was a two day wait for a bus to Buenos Aires so I made a rather extravagent decision - to get on a flight to Buenos Aires that afternoon. At least it was a decision of some kind, I reassured myself!

It was on that flight that I found myself caught up in a sequence of events which would lead me, somewhat blindly, to be dancing at a rave on the banks of the Rio del Plata at 7am the next morning.

I spotted someone checking in who, like me, had a guitar in a soft case (which is OK most of the time but not recommended for travel to Guernsey). As chance would have it we were seated next to each other (leading me to wonder whether the airline check-in staff play a sort of gin-rummy with the passengers..) and it turned out to be a personable young geyser from London called Justin. And it was thus that arriving at BA Aeroparque became somewhat reminiscent of a brit-pop invasion...

"No, musieur, no speako bleedin daygo... where's that bloody tour manager... what do we pay the bastard for? Doncha know oo I am? Get me bags searched every f***ing where I go! And I bet you can't get no bleeding normal food in this country, eiver!"

Well, the brit-pop night continued with Justin ably leading the way via a steak restaurant, a Brit-pub with the (in my view rather inflamatory) name of "The Gibraltar" (why not just go ahead and call it "The Falklands"), another trendy chrome & stripped pine type bar called "Full" run by a runaway Londoner and on to the strangely-named "Family Dance", the last of a series of summer raves held on the banks of the river. The night was complete when, after an episode involving Justin having a couple of hours kip after getting involved with a wrap of suspicious blue(!!!) powder (any ideas anyone? Looked to me like the stuff they mix up with your Persil to give your whites that bluey whiteness you'll like!) I experienced my first sunrise in Argentina at 6.45am. Luckily the hostel in which we were staying was not run along strict YHA guidelines, so there was no 9.30pm curfew.

The next day was rather bleary. Try as I might, my hangover was not going to roll over and give up easily like some mangy underdog. This one was top-dog: well-built, beligerent attitude to foe and friends alike and equiped with teeth to match. I tried to feed it a Burger King double bacon cheese burger and coke for breakfast - which just made it angry. I managed some momentary respite by anaesthetising it with half an hour's escape in the video arcade; surrounded by crazy kids playing some new dancing game (like "Parrapa The Rapper" for real!) we slaughtered the dinosaur inhabitants of Jurrasic Park. But it wasn't impressed for long. Litres of water later it was still snarling at me so it was down to The Gibraltar again for the hair of the... err... dog! But one vodka, lime and lemonade and one Bloody Mary later, my arsenal was finally exhausted; I succumbed to the power of the booze hound and had to admit defeat and buggered off to sleep it off in the... dog house! :-) God, I was getting a bit tired of that analogy there...

Somehow, turning up in a city like Buenos Aires where one feels immediately at home is not so good for the tourist experience, for communications with home or for ones raison de voyage but it´s great for food, wine and watching the beautiful people go by. In my few days there I checked out the bars, arranged an apartment for a few weeks stay (planning to learn Spanish and the basics of how to Tango), got my hair cut and had a few good meals, though I can claim to have seen most of the landmarks of BA... from the windows of several taxis.

It seems you can fly anywhere you want in the world with international airlines which understand the delicacy of a guitar in a soft case. The same cannot be said for FlyBe. Try persuading the officious middle aged woman at gate 65 in Gatwick airport! "Our policy is... blah, blah..." My guitar has been all over the world in overhead lockers but of course gets smashed up on the way to Guernsey. So my top priority as soon I got to Buenos Aires was to get it fixed. A linguistically challenged hour with the phone and the Yellow Pages yielded "Guitarras" - a shop selling everything guitar. So I turned up an hour later with the afflicted instrument. The proprietor, was one Leonardo Lezzano (not a made-up name!) hippy surgeon to damaged guitars, a mellow but crazy-looking hippy guy about mid-late forties with natural dreads half way down his back. I found him in his lair on the 13th floor of a builing north of the centre. I placed my guitar on his consulting table and sat down on the other side like a concerned doctor. He picked it up gently like a surgeon - and was interested rather than derisive (as many people are) when I told him I had bought it in India. I was impressed. I left it in his capable hands to be collected in a few days...

One thing I do have trouble with is understanding global economics – what causes and what is the effect of the devaluation of the peso? Why didn´t they just leave it pegged to the dollar? Surely if one makes a decision like that, is it not better just to stick to it? What would have happened?

Argentina does not seem like a country in the throes of a massive economic crisis. People seem to be busy, apart from a strong sheet-metal reinforcement around their vulerable ground floors, the banks are operating normally (at least to those with a Visa card) and life appears to be going on as normal. What you do notice is that people are very careful with their cash and one feels a tad arrogant when, grateful to be in a wine-drinking country, one forks out 30 pesos ($10) for a bottle of wine to accompany a 15 peso meal, or making up a 15 minute taxi fare to 5 pesos from 3.5 to a seemingly excessively grateful taxi driver (thuogh I have since been told that tipping is not normal!). In trying to understand the crisis, two things have struck home, one is that the country owes $250 billion - which has got to be a lot to a country in which the average monthly wage is $100. The other is that from the perspective of the common people, prices have risen by 100-200% over the last 14 months whilst wages have stayed the same.

One obvious effect of the economic crisis is that Argentinian have stopped travelling abroad (much to the obvious amusement of the Brazilians who are gloatingly glad to see them brought down a peg or two) and an invasion of foreigners with wads of their previously precious pesos. One place that has clearly suffered is La Boca in south Buenos Aires – a poor but colourful and previously up-and-coming neighbourhood. Justin & I ventured down there one evening, ignoring several warnings about the dangers of being robbed - a little walk on the wild side. We didn´t feel threatened although we did prop up our confidence with a can of beer each! We eventually made it to one part of the neighbourhood which was clearly safe, being well stocked with bars and restaurants, but we were some of the few people there, the only others being a gang of 20 or so Americans travelling en-posse. The recovery is definitely faltering for La Boca.

I was keen to talk to the locals on the way to La Boca and decided to pop into a local barber´s shop for a much-needed haircut. I suppose you could see my haircut as a physical manifestation of my ability to communicate in Spanish/mime. Well a short back and sides and much wielding of the cut-throat razor later... results were... disappointing. I think it´s safe to say that my Castellano (that´s Argentinian for Spanish) probably needs some polishing!

The next day was spent organising an apartment to live in whilst studying Spanish (sadly abandoning my previous bohemian haunt of San Telmo for the up-market Recolet) and picking up my now recuperating guitar from Leonardo before heading to the airport to catch a flight for Ushuaia.

I have been asking myself over the last couple of weeks, what the hell am I doing here anyway? The plan was to learn Spanish and travel from the south of Argentina to Venezuela in a Michael Palin sort of way. The trouble with long periods of travel is that one tends to get a bit blase about historical monument, museums and other things which one feels one should be interested in. Instead one tends to stop in nice places one finds for longer and longer periods undertaking nothing much more strenuous than sitting in hammocks for extended periods reading, strumming the old guitar and waiting for people to pass by.

It´s all educational of course, almost by osmosis, and one comes back home with a new perspective and an interest in the people and news of the countries one has visited. I have found, though, that unstructured travel works for a while, especially if you meet people with a plan, like James & Manju, who can help impose a purpose on one´s days, but I, at least find myself being drawn more towards more active participation. I end up wanting to go surfing, climbing, or snowboarding, or studying Spanish, learning to Tango or trying to start some kind of shady (import/export?) business.

Another alternative is the mission travel, such as cycling from London to Zanzibar or pogo-ing the length of the Pan-American highway... which, come to think of it, starts in the far south of Argentina- in Patagonia, near a town called Ushuaia...

Love from

Rob