Archive for April, 2009

The world turned upside down.

2009/04/26

This was written in November 2008, shortly after our arrival

They said we were mad.

They didn’t, in fact. They said we were brave, that it was a fabulous idea and that they wished time and circumstances allowed them to do the same. If it appeared that they made sure we never got between them and the door, this I am sure was my over-active imagination.

I am joking of course, family and friends have been wonderfully supportive of our decision to throw up a perfectly good job and use the proceeds of our SSIAs in travelling halfway round the world, setting up in Argentina for nine months before taking the long way home. My father, a great fan of fiscal rectitude, has expressed concern about the state of my pension but recognises that in the current climate I am likely to do it less damage than the Bank of Ireland is already.

So it is that barely a week after leaving Clonakilty I am sitting typing this in an apartment overlooking the Botanical Gardens in Buenos Aires, where the jacaranda trees are in full bloom, the blossoms falling around them like a purple snow, their beauty perfectly illustrating the contrasts to be found in this mad, busy metropolis as we at first took their slightly acrid smell to be associated with the vast numbers of scraggy semi-feral cats that live in the gardens and are fed by well-meaning locals. Somehow the smell seems much more acceptable now we’ve accurately identified the source. The children are settling into new schools, though only a few days remain before they will start their second summer vacation of the year, and life in general is beginning to acquire a certain level of routine, though we will do our best to make sure that every day will bring something new.

The jacarandas in bloom in the Jardín Botánico

The jacarandas in bloom in the Jardín Botánico

It is tempting to say that there could be no greater contrast than that between living in West Cork and Buenos Aires, and while that is clearly not true – Bolivia, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh all spring to mind as potentially more different – it does provide plentiful contrast in language, culture and lifestyle without being somewhere that we would feel uncomfortable bringing the children. This is a city, indeed a country, full of contradictions: lush green spaces mixed in to a chaotic urban sprawl, luxury apartments cheek by jowl with shanty towns where migrants from the campo or other Latin American countries eke out a precarious existence on the margins of Porteño life and tiny local shops doing a thriving business alongside the new shopping centres full of overpriced brand names. It is a city full of life – although, as the author Terry Pratchett might say, so is a rubbish tip – with its broad tree-lined avenues full of people, cars and the ever-present roar of the colectivos, the fleet of buses that between their hundreds of routes and thousands of vehicles transport 3.8 million passengers each day (equivalent to almost the entire population of the Republic). Meanwhile the subte – the metro – adds the population of Northern Ireland and the overground trains a bonus Dublin – and all that before I even mention the two million cars.

The waking city: the trace of a colectivo (bus) passing our local subte station.

The waking city: the trace of a colectivo (bus) passing our local subte station.

In amongst the cacophony of horns, diesel engines and teenagers playing hide-and-seek outside the window at 4 am, there is a logical organisation to the place that almost, but not quite, manages to keep pace with the chaos. The logical block numbering system makes it easy to find your way around, while most streets are one-way and parallel streets alternate direction, improving traffic flow no end. The logic is overwhelmed by sheer numbers though, and it all grinds to a bad-tempered halt several times a day. For the pedestrian this at least means an extension to the generous three seconds the green man usually gives us to cross a 14 lane road before being targeted by drivers full of more anger than is really good for them. It’s mad, frenetic, wild, smelly and above all crowded; cracked pavements with their strategically placed piles of steaming dog shit make every trip a lottery of minor dangers for the unwary and in short it combines almost everything I ever disliked about big cities but on a bigger scale. I think I’m going to like it here.

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Rawhide

2009/04/24
Síle, riding Petizo, waits impatiently to move out

Síle, riding Petizo, waits impatiently to move out

Twelve hours of pure terror, interspersed with moments for which language just completely fails.  Two days that really challenged my comfort zone, my coccyx and my adrenaline glands as well as other parts of my anatomy.

If I wait to start this blog from the beginning – our arrival in Buenos Aires three months ago – it will never happen, so I may as well begin with Síle and myself riding through the forests on the banks of the Rio Manso.

The Rio Manso’s clear, fresh blue waters flow from the glaciers that feed it through the forests of the Parque Nahuel Huapi and on across the border into Chile and towards its final destination in the Pacific. Its relatively easy access from Bariloche and its lively rapids offer something of a mecca for rafters, but its deep wooded valley our interest was more terrestrial in nature: two days horse-riding in the woods.

I am one of the world’s natural horsemen in much the same way that a shark is a natural skier, and it would not be true to say that I viewed the prospect entirely with equanimity, but Sile loves horses and even I can see that trekking on horseback could offer by far the best way of exploring the remoter parts of the Andes. And after a two hour trek in Calafate in which I sat on – rather than rode, which suggests some level of control – a horse that plodded along a mountainside behind its fellows, some complete madness told me I was ready for a two-day trek. At least I negotiated Síle down from a full week!

The scenery was fabulous: a long winding path took us through small chacras (smallholdings) and through larch forests at the very edge of the national park. On a small clearing, near a dried up river bed, we stopped for lunch at a little refuge where the only sign of human habitation, apart from the building itself, was the bridge over the gorge. Steep, thickly forested, mountainsides surrounded us: the place can’t have looked very different a thousand years ago.

Except that, until the severe droughts that have affected the region recently the river was full and flowing all year round: it used to be the nighttime stop for the tour, but without water they had to move.

After years of drought, some streams are dry for most of the year

After years of drought, some streams are dry for most of the year

El Chino, the local guide, and Kata, the Flemish tourist guide from the tour company, cooked up a mountain of empanadas which we duly demolished, with a  great appetite (and a couple of glasses of wine) – despite the fact that the horse had done all the work and we’d expended no energy at all. Our French companion, Yves, lived up to his stereotype by kicking off his shoes and snoozing for half an hour while Síle kept running back to rub her horse and I pottered around taking photos, before we were back in the saddle.

The afternoon brought us to the Rio Manso itself, wide and comparatively shallow at the point where we were to cross: though neither Síle’s nor my horse were impressed with this idea. Still, with El Chino’s encouragement and legs raised to stay out of the water, we duly made it across. Síle, growing in confidence, accepted a stick to encourage Petizo to trot: my horse would then try to follow so at least I learned how to rein her in. Getting into the rhythm of the trot and moving up and down with the horse seems to be vital but it only takes a second or two for me to lose synchronisation and the horse and I meet, painfully, in the middle.

The afternoon section took as deeper into the forest, along tracks and through farms only accessible on horseback, with occasional glimpses of the fast flowing, pure turquoise waters of the Manso, until we reached our campsite – tents all already set up. By now it was raining heavily, and the local farmer who was preparing our evening asado – barbeque – invited us to eat inside in their small bungalow. A cousin of El Chino, who lives there year round with his family and a bewildering variety of small animals – dogs, pigs, chickens, sheep you name it – that mostly seemed to be looked after by their very competent nine year old son. His wife told me that to get to a shop they need to walk or ride two kilometres to a footbridge that brings them to the end of the road, where they keep their car, and then drive 40 km. You wouldn’t want to forget anything and have to go back.

Despite the excellent food, wine and company the rain did out a bit of a damper on things – I don’t think any of us who were camping slept much – and the morning brought a great deal less enthusiasm: especially when poor Síle’s horse decided that he’d had enough and no matter who was on his back, he was heading home. Once El Chino had got them back we headed for the rafting centre where there was a café, to wait out the drizzle and let Síle recover from the fright. By lunchtime she was fine and as we headed off was trotting again.

The end of the expedition: El Chino, Síle, Kata and Yves

The end of the expedition: El Chino, Síle, Kata and Yves

It was an experience: worth doing even if I could have easily out-walked the horses. If nothing else, it taught me how far I am from being able to blithely saddle up a horse and gallop off into uncharted mountains: I can’t even trot for more than a minute (what am I saying, a minute would be an eternity) and a canter seems an impossible dream. Still and all, the girls love it and so, so long as they promise to wait for me as I plod along behind them, I suppose I’d better learn.

Bass Tyrrell

2009/04/24

Welcome to Bass Tyrrell’s blog on the madness that led him to head off for a year, with family in tow, to live in South America for a year.