Archive for the ‘Argentina’ Category

The rail less travelled by

2011/02/16

Bike-less (its waiting for me to pick up the trail in Manchester again) and with time to spare, I decided to take a route less travelled by, at least by me. There is a little train that trundles – that is definitely the right word – across the middle of England from Birmingham to Stansted Airport. I became familiar with it while doing some work in Cambridge and used it to travel between there and the airport but the collection of smaller towns after that and their sheer variety evoked an interesting picture: the route links the brash coarseness of Stansted with its budget airlines to, well, the brash coarseness of Birmingham, but on the way takes in the ancient and modern centre of learning and high-tech that is Cambridge, the city of Ely with its equally ancient and magnificent cathedral and the quintessential English rural market town of Melton Mowbray, home of Stilton cheese and the pork pie.

I had cycled through some of this area a couple of days previously, and was also interested to see whether I got the same perspective: I had moved from a kind of reasonably well-off suburbia, through villages with a real rural feel – though to be truthful always with a sense that there were too many people, and far too much money, for it to be genuinely supported by a local economy – and slowly back into the dormitory towns of the industrial midlands.

The train was pretty full for most of the journey, though few of us seemed to travel the whole way – not surprising, as it is in fact quicker to travel from Birmingham to Cambridge via London. .For the first hour of so the train winds through dormitory towns, row upon row of terraced or semi-detached 1930s housing, with the occasional patch of farmland, as we pass Nuneaton and head for Leicester. After Leicester there are more clustered villages, open land with the occasional steeple on the horizon and far fewer housing estates – at least until Melton Mowbray, which to my slight surprise looked, from the train, bigger and more urbanised than I had expected.

By Ely, sadly, the watery winter sun had given up the unequal struggle and gone down: I couldn’t see the famous cathedral. One more sight left for next time. All in all a pleasant journey through a varied and fascinating part of England.

Lazing on a Tuesday afternoon.

2010/02/10
Vista al lago / View of the lake

Wind from the Andes brings clouds and waves

I have no notes for the 10th February and all the indications are that we had a great day doing absolutely nothing. The photos tell me that it was a windy day, and I remember we jumped – oh, ok, tiptoed – into the lake for a swim but the wind was pushing a current that made it quite difficult, especially for the smaller ones.

So we chilled, and pottered among the rocks.

Vista a Bariloche desde el lago / View of Bariloche from the lake

Waves on the lake.

The Fogarty-Collises were still with us – I’m trying not to feel jealous that as I write they are actually off to India, but then they weren’t away all last year.

David on the rocks

David on the rocks

Ailsa, Julie and Síle with the wind in their hair

Ailsa, Julie and Síle with the wind in their hair

Swinging through the trees.

2010/02/09

There must be something quite primaeval about swinging through the forest, calling to us from the distant origins of our evolution. Or possibly its just the effects of Disney and the Jungle Book: we all see ourselves as Mowgli even while heading for the size and shape of Baloo.

So it was that we decided to spend a hot summer’s afternoon on what was advertised at the time as the world’s (or possibly South America’s) longest canopy adventure, a 2 1/2 excursion involving a drive up the side of a mountain – it was hardly even a track let alone a dirt road – in a well-worn jeep followed by a series of 10 James Bond-esque swoops down cables, covering a total distance of 2.5 km.

Síle gets ready for the canopy

Maybe it wasn’t quite Daniel Craig, who would presumably have eschewed the helmet, safety harness and all those hooks and pulleys, sliding down on his wolfish grin while fending off all manner of strange assailants whose bullets could never quite penetrate the sang-froid of a British secret service agent, but it was fun nonetheless and we were, as promised, treated to some breathtaking if fleeting view through the trees and over the Lago Nahuel Huapi and on to the mountains beyond.

View of snow capped Andes behind the Lago Nahuel Huapi

It was great fun, if not excessively challenging. After sliding down ten different wires I was feeling that, while each was certainly different, there was a certain generic similarity and I could have done with some variety. I remember doing a series of tree-top courses in France that included the wire descents as part of a much more complex (and difficult) tour and felt that this facility could have done with branching out a bit, if you’ll excuse the pun.

Ailsa disappears from sight.

Tired but happy, we headed back to our lakeside apartments to watch the moon rise over the mountains after another glorious day

The moon over Lago Nahuel Huapi

Homeward bound.

2009/11/12

It’s been a bit of a wrench, but having clung on for as long as was practically possible I’m writing this on my way home. Watching the moving map trace our route from the cities of China, over the frozen Siberian tundra, to the familiar cities of eastern, then central Europe and now Dusseldorf, Amsterdam and London are the key reference points. For the first time in a year, no-one will want to stamp my passport and I won’t to fill out immigration or customs’ forms: three cheers for the EU! The night has chased us all the way, never quite catching us though as we skirted the far north it made a valiant effort.

Homeward bound

Homeward bound

What a year. There is a real world waiting for us of course – the others are all immersed already – but whatever problems that brings it has been worth it. We won’t be the same again, and we will do it again! Not necessarily a year of the same sort as this one, well, that would be a bit pointless, wouldn’t it. But even taking the van – or the bike – around Ireland, Britain or Eastern Europe will be different now. And Asia, such a vast place that we have barely scratched the surface of is just crying out for another visit.

But then so is South America, and there are so many places– Africa, Australasia, India –we didn’t even get to.

We’ve seen the world through different eyes, learned a different outlook. Hopefully learned to put ourselves in others’ shoes.

Not a bad lesson.

Lotus Cave – China – by Síle Tyrrell

2009/10/30


Lotus Cave – China – by Síle Tyrrell, originalmente cargada por Bass Tyrrell.

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Lotus Cave 22/10/2009
                        Lotus cave is a cave and
it was really amazing so I’m going to tell the story first.

We all rented bikes but Ailsa’s bike wasn’t the best so, when we headed
off for our cycle we went miles to far. And Ailsa’s arms started to ache
so mom went back with ailsa and dad and I carried on.
we asked for directions twice and went through little town with water
Buffaloes with huge horn running around FREE. And im the one who is scared
of all cow tipe things. So I rushed past them and wet around dad so if they
did want to charge their target would have been dad………….
hahahahahahaha. But after got into the cave it was amazing the colorful
lights were amazing and all the bats flying around you was amazing. It was
a good hours walk through the cave but worth dodging the Buffaloes.
On the way back I asked dad "would there be more buffaloes?" and his
respond was "probobly" but there wasn’t.

By the way Chingping is a really nice town.

sile tyrrell

Lotus Cave – China – by Síle Tyrrell

2009/10/30


Lotus Cave – China – by Síle Tyrrell, originalmente cargada por Bass Tyrrell.

*
*
*
*

Lotus Cave 22/10/2009
                        Lotus cave is a cave and
it was really amazing so I’m going to tell the story first.

We all rented bikes but Ailsa’s bike wasn’t the best so, when we headed
off for our cycle we went miles to far. And Ailsa’s arms started to ache
so mom went back with ailsa and dad and I carried on.
we asked for directions twice and went through little town with water
Buffaloes with huge horn running around FREE. And im the one who is scared
of all cow tipe things. So I rushed past them and wet around dad so if they
did want to charge their target would have been dad………….
hahahahahahaha. But after got into the cave it was amazing the colorful
lights were amazing and all the bats flying around you was amazing. It was
a good hours walk through the cave but worth dodging the Buffaloes.
On the way back I asked dad "would there be more buffaloes?" and his
respond was "probobly" but there wasn’t.

By the way Chingping is a really nice town.

sile tyrrell

Off and on the rails.

2009/06/08

To travel hopefully, it is said, is better than to arrive. When it comes to rail travel in Argentina – a country whose vast expanses are criss-crossed with tens of thousands of kilometres of track, mostly unused since privatisation in the early 1990s – the hopefulness can evaporate before the travelling has even begun: my determination to travel entirely by surface transport during our stay having already been sorely tested by the suspension of services on the Tren Patágonico from December 2008 to March 2009 (though happily this is back in service), news and travellers’ blog reports about the terrible state of the track and well-publicised delays and cancellations.

Arriving at Retiro station in Buenos Aires for our trip to Tucumán and the north-western provinces, all appeared well as we settled down for a coffee in the smart café, redolent of old-style railway stations before some bright spark decided there weren’t enough shopping centres in the world and decided to turn stations into retail opportunities, all bright lights and fast food.

Waiting for the train at the Café Retiro

Waiting for the train at the Café Retiro

Appearances turned out to be deceptive however, and five hours later the view was of a spot only a few short kilometres down the track:

Waiting for the 'plane

Waiting for the 'plane

The train, it turned out, was not running today. There would, instead, be a replacement bus service. Not that this information was being made readily available: it took persistent questioning (along the lines of so where is the actual train then) to get Ferrocentral to admit that, actually, there wasn’t one and even more to tell us that the bus service was to be exclusively in the “semi-cama” (half-bed) class: while that mightn”t sound too bad Argentina is not immune to the kind of name inflation that sees first and second class replaced by premier and standard (the train has four classes of travel of which “first” class is the second-lowest) and semi-cama is just a fancy name for a seat that reclines slightly and is a long way from the wide, comfortable, flat beds offered by some bus companies on long distance routes. We declined the offer of 24 hours in a sitting position, unable to read or work, and regretfully headed for the airport. Refusing to let experience triumph over hope I did book my return trip from Tucumán: they must run sometimes!

So it was that some five days later I once again travelled hopefully to the railway station, this time  in Tucumán. Rather more austere than its counterpart in Buenos Aires, this station has no smart café, nor did it have left luggage lockers (though happily I found a hotel on the other side of the square that minded my rucksack for a couple of hours so I could wander round the town) but it did, almost unbelievably, have a train. A very popular one too, with the queues snaking out and round the block, while street vendors made sure everyone was well provided for with water, choripan (sausage in a bun) and other travel essentials.

Passengers converge on the station in Tucumán as the departure time nears

Passengers converge on the station in Tucumán as the departure time nears

It’s one of the ironies of the crumbling rail network that the few trains that do run are hugely popular, and significantly cheaper than the buses despite a 30% fare increase (on this route anyway) at the beginning of May. Hopefully the extra funds will be used to improve the track, and possibly expand the service.

The train turned out to be modern and comfortable. My sleeping compartment was narrow but pleasant enough, with a sink which, with the lid closed, doubled as a small table and – joy of joys – a power point for my laptop. Laptop, camera, various books, my mate – the tea-like drink everybody carries around with them – and the scenery sliding slowly past outside: what more could one ask for?

The train’s comfort was in sharp contrast to the urban Argentina unrolling outside the window as we left Tucumán: railways rarely travel through the best suburbs and here I was seeing a part of Argentina that for the most part remains hidden most of the time.

Children come out to greet the train

Children come out to greet the train

The track is lined with children coming out, as children do everywhere, to wave the train on its way as it passes very nearly through their living space – “house” would be altogether too grand a word. A wide variety of makeshift structures are visible, from the small but immaculately maintained to some that are only recognisable as a place where someone lives because of the washing-line outside.

Scraping by on the outskirts of Tucumán

Scraping by on the outskirts of Tucumán

Horses, dogs and even pigs wander through the settlements, some of which also seem to double as municipal tips. These are the people that service the cities, recycle the cardboard and plastic bottles and sell small items on the streets largely ignored by the wealthier parts of the population and indeed the entire political system.

Leaving the city though, the outlook improved steadily. The sun sank below the cordillera de los Andes, lighting the western sky with a spectacular orange glow, as if there was a huge ball of fire behind the mountains – which, of course, there was.

The sun sets behind the Andes

The sun sets behind the Andes

Meanwhile, urban slum gave way to small, rural, chacras or smallholdings that, while sometimes build from much the same selection of available materials were much neater, better maintained and generally with an air of greater prosperity.

// photo to come.

As darkness fell, I headed for the restaurant car. If I were Paul Theroux or Eric Newby, I would have fascinating tales to tell of my fellow travellers who would have been queueing up to tell me their life-stories. Even Bill Bryson would have had the odd anecdote about a child picking their nose as he ate his soup. Sadly though, the restaurant car was empty apart from me and one young man with his nose buried in a book: clearly this wasn’t going to be one of those moments around which an entire book could be woven. The food though was good, if heavy on the red meat – the vegetarian option is “bring sandwiches”.

The morning brought an altogether different type of scenery: the flat plains and farmland of the province of Santa Fé. The restaurant car was livelier, though the breakfast seemed designed to make sure you’d be really starving by lunch and no-one seemed that inclined to strike up a conversation with the dishevelled looking bearded old man in the corner.

A family group breakfasts in the dining car

A family group breakfasts in the dining car

The little family group – a dad and his daughters who may or may not have been twins – shows the benefit of the train: the ability to move around and to sit and chat at a table, rather than trying to eat your breakfast while staring at the back of your neighbour’s seat and trying to keep your elbows out of the way of the person next to you.

And so the day continued, passing through vast plains, some small towns and the city of Rosario on the way back finally to Buenos Aires where the train disgorged us into an unseasonal heatwave. There’s no question in my mind: if it runs, the route is even open and the timetable permits – three big ifs – the train is the way to go.

Distance is relative.

It is difficult for Europeans to appreciate the distances involved in travel in South America: wikipedia has this nice map superimposing the old railway network on a map of Europe.

Argentine rail network superimposed on Europe

Argentine rail network superimposed on Europe

My trip, Tucumán to Buenos Aires, translates roughly as the equivalent distance between Carlisle and Berne – a journey which even with our high-speed rail networks takes (according to bahn.de) a minimum of about 18 hours, so maybe Argentines shouldn’t beat themselves up too much over the 25 hour journey time.

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.

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.