Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Lonesome no more …

2012/07/03

Its is probable that no extinction event in history has been as well flagged or indeed so well-defined. Lonesome George, the last Pinta giant tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni ) was found dead in his pen on the 24th June 2012. The species has been functionally extinct for decades: one member is by definition the last of his kind.

Our trip to the Galapagos, three years ago it shames me to say, has remained unblogged not because I didn’t have anything to say but because I couldn’t think of what to leave out. It was an extraordinary week of tortoises and turtles, seals, snorkelling, a submarine environment that seemed to have been taken straight out of the Pixar archives, slave traders, volcanoes, forest, beaches, iguanas, excitement, adventure and really wild things. Maybe even more importantly the people of the Galapagos seem to have huge pride in the unique place in which they live and its scientific importance and this really came through to me as a visitor: I felt privileged just to be there.

Even in the midst of all of that the Darwin Research Centre is an extraordinary place, with breeding programmes in place to preserve the many species and subspecies of tortoise and allowing us to see all stages of the process, and this was a highlight of our second-last day.

The star of the show, George, wasn’t in a co-operative mood and my memory of him is of a back view as he disappeared into a thicket. It wasn’t me apparently, he just didn’t like people very much. Or other tortoises, and he probably wasn’t a great fan of most other life forms either for that matter – as a fellow grump I sympathised.

Compañera(?) del Jorge Solitario

One of his companions, females of a different but closely related species, did deign to have her photo taken. Although a clutch of eggs was found in 2008 they all turned out to be infertile.

Many factors contributed to the collapse of these unique populations of tortoises, many thankfully brought back from the brink of extinction. They were seen as walking larders by the sailors exploring the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: they could survive for a year with no food or water making them ideal fodder for a long sail voyage where it was quite uncertain when you would next spy land, let alone find a supermarket. It was this ability, ironically, that helped them get to the Galapagos in the first place, adrift on rafts of vegetation washed out to sea millions of years ago. After millions of years as the only large species on the islands they were unprepared for the arrival of rats (which eat the eggs) and goats (which tear the vegetation up by the roots). And of course it takes a long time to grow a giant tortoise, so the populations never had time to recover.

Another subspecies, the Hood Island tortoise, provides a more cheerful story.

Diego = Hood Island tortoise

In the early 1970s there were only 13 of these tortoises known, and only two males, which didn’t augur well for the gene pool. A cry for help went round to the world’s zoos and San Diego zoo replied that yes, they did have a Latino male in custody. Diego, as he was inevitably christened, was duly deported back to the Centro Darwin where he has for forty years led a pampered existence. He is rather less shy than poor old Jorge, and quite happy to pose.

Diego in profile

Later in the day we headed up to the mountains of Santa Cruz where we drank local coffee and came across the local Santa Cruz tortoise – which likes to use the roads to get about but then sits down in the middle of them as soon as it hears a car coming.

Éanna and Ailsa with Santa Cruz tortoise

George may be gone, but the effort to understand and preserve the fantastic laboratory, the unparalleled window on evolution, that is the Galapagos continues.

Las Torres: majestic towers and raging floods.

2010/01/22

21st January 2009:  Éanna and I spent the day climbing in the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, in Chilean Patagonia. Windswept, desolate and utterly majestic the Torres themselves dominate the landscape but the attraction doesn’t end there. Glacial lakes, rivers that can turn from gentle streams to roaring torrents in the space of a few hours and peaks that remain snow-capped even in midsummer.

There are those who like to climb to see the sunrise on the Torres, we were not in their number. Teenagers are generally allergic to early mornings and in the refuge – chock full – even a few minutes extra sleep leaves you at the back of the queue for the bathroom and indeed for breakfast, so by the time Éanna had roused and I’d had the obligatory second cup of coffee we could tell ourselves that it was cloudy anyway, so getting up earlier would have been pointless.

The path continued along by the river whose waters had created a thin green corridor quite distinct from the desolate rock of the mountain-sides.

It was an hour or so’s walk to the next camp, a very basic site used by the real hard trekkers that consists of a few small tents, one basic latrine and a bored park warden who informed us that the longer route we’d planned was closed, and that even if it wasn’t we’d have needed a permit, which we didn’t have. Nor did we have climbing equipment, knowledge or ability so the closure on the whole probably saved us a good deal of embarrassment.

Not that the next stage of the path was particularly easy as it took a sharp turn up the mountain, at first following a small mountain stream but then emerging on to a wide, steep scree.

This seemed to go on forever, and the cheery greetings of our fellow hikers on the way down telling us we were nearly there and that it was all worth it was no help.  Eventually they were right, and it really was worth it.

Lunch, maté, and photos and some quiet chats with other hikers but unlike being on the trail itself, no-one was very communicative. There was a communal sense almost of awe, people sat and lunched and enjoyed the serene beauty of the place in a companionable silence.

All good things must, eventually, come to an end. The descent was much quicker and easier of course (at least, once off the scree) and we felt we would have time to drive to one or two other lookout points before heading back to join the others. But Patagonia had other plans.

The road – the only road – from the trailhead back to the park entrance crossed, near the entrance, three separate channels of the same river via two rickety bridges and one ford. No longer 3 separate channels, the unseasonal snows of the previous week had melted in the equally unseasonal heat of the last few days and the resulting flood had turned the mild mannered river of the previous day into a raging torrent. The road was completely submerged, much of it under fast flowing water.

The hotel, itself cut off, began ferrying its guests to and from the tour buses by boat.  As the evening wore on and some slight ebbing of the water became apparent a truck driver decided to try it out and made it across, though with water well above the axles. With our low-slung hire car this was clearly not an option, but with a place booked on a ferry the next day and the car needing to be returned to the hire company in another country and 3000 km away nor really was waiting it out.

Still there was nothing to be done that night, so we headed to a refugio to try and get more information and ponder the possibilities. There was little enough of the former, but we did discover that the nearby hotel’s transport department could probably organise a transporter to get us out. For a price.

With this comforting yet worrying thought, we retired to bed.

A tale of two restaurants.

2009/10/10

Arriving in Hoi An late in the afternoon heat Ailsa and I let Julie and Síle explore the city a little while we explored the hotel pool, or at least that part of it not threatened by loose tiles on the roof, after which we had little energy for anything other than heading 100m down the road to Café 43, a very pleasant, good value small restaurant on the same quiet street as our hotel.

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A quiet Hoi An street.

We went to Café 43 because it was recommended by a number of guidebooks, and it is a recommendation that I can heartily endorse: for the most part the food was excellent – the exception being the girls’ pizzas that I strongly suspected of being ordered in – the service good and the ambience extremely pleasant. It is also excellent value in a country where eating out is generally cheap but the quality varies widely.

But such listings, especially when as in this case there seems to be a chain of guides that follow each other in recommending a particular restaurant, do not always represent good news for the neighbours . Café 43 was busy: not overflowing but with a constant stream of both drinkers and diners that kept them occupied. In the meantime, several other restaurants in the same street, offering similar menus at similar prices, languished empty, suffocated in effect by the same reviews that breathe life into Café 43.

So the following night we decided to take our custom across the road, to the Sun Shine restaurant.

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The Sun Shine restaurant.

We sat at the table nearest the entrance in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to encourage others to follow our example. There was a small family crisis when the menu came out, there was no spaghetti bolognaise (only spaghetti with beef and tomato sauce :(  ) and this was just too important an omission for one child to overlook, but a promise from Hoi (owner, chef and waitress) to provide a cooking demonstration and the discovery of pizza bolognaise (definitely ordered in this time: it was served by a girl wearing a scooter helmet who then disappeared as quickly as she’d arrived) eventually calmed the situation and we ordered.

Very nice food it was too, washed down with a few glasses of the local beer at 3000 dong a glass (that is about 12 cent). Hoi cooks the Vietnamese meals from scratch on a two ring stove using all fresh ingredients, many of the vegetables grown by her husband on his plot. Even the chips were proper chips, cut from a potato and fried on the spot. If the presentation lacked a little compared to their neighbours – who again had a nearly full house while we were Hoi’s only customers – then that may have as much to do with the fact that they can afford the extra staff as anything else. Hoi and her husband were charming and welcoming hosts, happy to invite us into their kitchen and show us how to prepare the food – we left not only well fed but also with a daughter promising to cook chicken with chilli and lemongrass at the first opportunity she gets, which seems an excellent investment.

Hoi is probably typical of many Vietnamese struggling to make a living on the edge of the tourist boom. Honest, hard-working and kind, she is putting two children through university in the hope that they will have a better future. It is difficult to make ends meet, and she is hopes daily for that lucky break that will see her too mentioned in one of these books and the steady trickle of tourists might turn their heads to her side of the road. She deserves it.

Settling in to Saigon

2009/10/04

Saigon (still the correct term for the area of what is officially Ho Chi Minh City we stayed in) is an absolute madhouse: like nothing we have seen so far even in Latin America. There are apparently 3 million scooters in the city, and they all seem to converge on any road we are trying to cross: it is a bit like swimming through a shoal of fish with the added spice that if they hit you it’s going to hurt. They’ve heard of traffic lights but seem to regard them as a general guideline rather than a rule as such – they hoot the horn more often and for longer when they go through a red light.

Each block behind the main streets is a rabbit warren of tiny alleyways (scooters head down here too) where people live, eat work and sometimes even sleep in the street (I don’t mean the homeless: some people just put a bed outside their door). Walking through the streets is to be accosted by a constant stream of street sellers offering anything from food to tours to books to occasionally themselves – I’m the one who needs a protection after dark! None of it is aggressive, but the sheer persistence gets annoying. (“Why not?” I was asked by a young woman whose offer to go “you me one hour hotel boom boom” I had politely declined. Does that actually need a reason? Well, actually, charming though you appear to be I am not quite ready on the basis of our 15s acquaintance to take the relationship forward quite that fast and anyway since I am carrying two pizzas do you not think maybe the other one might be for someone?) Julie bought a couple of books off a girl in a restaurant and two minutes later another woman – who we’d earlier refused to buy from because we were in the middle of our dinner – came back in to berate us for not having bought from her.

The real pity maybe is that this all distracts from the many Vietnamese who genuinely want to talk: to practise their English, help out – open a map on a Vietnamese street and within a minute someone will ask where you want to go, tell you how to get there (so far about 2 out of 3 get it right) – or simply find out a bit about you without taking the opportunity to try and sell you marijuana. The Vietnamese seem to love to talk: those tour guides that we’ve met certainly prefer it to listening. There is a cheeky sense of humour and willingness to be familiar as well – in one museum the guide greeted us by congratulating me on being “the most handsome man in [my] family” as I waited with Julie and the girls.

Saigon alley

A Saigon alley.

The city itself is generally quite clean and well-maintained: there are people sweeping the streets, trucks washing them down and gardeners weeding the flower beds on the roundabouts

Municipal gardener

A municipal gardener

Uncle Ho’s lop-sided beard does peer down from a few billboards, but apparently nothing like as many as in Hanoi. His statue, with his arm around a small girl carrying what appears to be a machine gun, gazes down a broad boulevard in front of the city council building: it’s probably good that his gaze is fixed because I am not sure that in life he would have approved of having a stock market ticker display just to his left, or a huge new gleaming HSBC office block on his left shoulder for that matter. Reminders of the war are all around and generally rather less thoughtful than that in Hiroshima: there is a good deal of “look at all the ingenious ways we had for killing Americans”. The Cu-chi tunnels, while providing an interesting insight into why the US was more or less doomed from the start, was a bit full of this kind of stuff (some peculiarly unpleasant man-traps on display with some almost pornographic commentary about exactly how long and how painful the resulting death and dismemberment was likely to be) and I declined the option of shooting 10 rounds from an M-16 in part because that all seems to validate this Boy’s Own view of war.

Cu Chi tunnels

In the Cu Chi tunnels. There are over 240 km of old tunnels in the area, including one that led into a US base.

Man-trap at Cu-Chi

Ingenious ways of killing intruders – often quite painfully

The girls have, naturally enough, been a bit nervous though they seem to be relaxing a little after a few days. They’re happier with the food than they were in Japan anyway: the lingering French influence means you can get good bread and coffee, both of which have been lacking since we left Argentina, and the centre of Saigon has a huge variety of restaurants so we’ve filled them up with pizza and spaghetti knowing that further north they might have to learn to love Vietnamese food. Next stop, Hué: ancient imperial capital and just hit by Typhoon Ketsana. No idea what we will find when we get there.

Ho Chi Minh City – first impressions.

2009/10/02

It was always going to be a bit of a culture shock landing in Vietnam after Japan, though you wouldn’t necessarily think it from the sleek, modern and air-conditioned airport terminal which could be anywhere. Our visa-on-arrival scheme, ordered online from www.vietnam-visa.com, turned out to be simple and mostly painless, though at first we missed the distant window down the far end of the hall and stood in the wrong queue.

When we eventually got out we were met by the promised driver from the hotel, who took us on a white-knuckle ride through the city passing through shoals of moped-drivers like a shark through fish: hooting wildly seems to be the local alternative to mirror-signal-manœuvre, or at least the mirror signal part.

In the dark, it was difficult to get much of an impression beyond the busy traffic, a good deal of lively night-life that seems popular with the foreigners and here and there a glimpse of some grandiose colonial buildings.

Not for the first time on this trip, we arrived at our hostel though to find they had given away our room though they had arranged alternative accommodation for the first night just round the corner. I have promised not to blog on this subject until I have cooled down a little …

Narita

2009/10/01

Narita has been known to me for the last 20 years or so only as Tokyo’s new (ish) airport though, at up to an hour and a half’s travel by train from Tokyo itself it wouldn’t have been at all surprising that only Ryanair called it that.

So despite picking a hotel in Narita city so that we wouldn’t have to move bags and baggage on the last day, we fully expected a dreary airport town with little to recommend it, a sort of Crawley with Japanese food. Certainly our guide book not only didn’t recommend it it didn’t even mention the place.

On first inspection though, once away from the station and its attendant convenience stores and that ubiquitous fast food establishment (they are not restaurants, whatever they may like to pretend) whose name begins with an “M” and ends with an “cDonald” it turned out to be a pleasant enough place with a nice main street with attractive shop fronts, traditional and more international bars and restaurants and was, in short, not a bad place to wander around.

On second inspection, we found the temple.

Now, this is Japan. Of course we have visited several temples (the Buddhists) and shrines (Shinto) on our travels around the country: not to do so would be like visiting the Vatican without ever going in to a church. But, beautiful though some of them are and although each is unique in its own way they do have a certain generic similarity and so, philistines that we are, we weren’t actually dying to see more. This seemed quite modern, modest in size and generally unpromising apart from a spectacular pagoda. But it was there, it was free, and I wandered in through the elegant, and apparently quite recent, gates to discover that this was the Nakitasan Shinshoji Temple and is one of the oldest, possibly one of the largest and certainly one of the most impressive temples in the whole country.

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The three-story pagoda, 25 metres high and dating from 1712.

External appearances are quite deceptive: what the site lacks in width at the street entrance it makes up for in depth. You get drawn in: at every step there is another building or path lying behind draws you in to see more. This temple continues building – the current main hall is an enormous, cavernous building built in 1968 but at least two of its predecessors, from 1858 and 1701, are still there. The site has been in use since 940, and they are not in a hurry to throw anything away.

Perhaps the most unexpected feature of all – because from the street all you can see is a few trees on the top of a small hill – is the park: 16.5 hectares of garden with ponds, streams and waterfalls (what Japanese garden would be complete without them) in a small valley completely hidden from the main street.

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The hidden forest – invisible from the road.

Now we have a tendency in the west I think to romanticise Buddhism: a religion of peace, we say. No, scarcely even a religion, more a system of philosophy. Barefoot smiley monks in orange robes, who eat lentils and won’t step on a cockroach in case it is their dead aunt reincarnated. That sort of thing,

But of course humans have an uncanny ability to make their gods in their own image, and Shingon Buddhism is no exception. The temple’s main deity, Fudomyo-o, is a cranky looking character altogether and carries a sword in one hand (to “cut away hindrances of passion and false knowledge“, apparently) and a rope in the other (“to draw in beings to the enlightenment“). Enough to send shivers down the spine.

But despite this rather belligerent aspect, Fudomyoo today presides over the peace pagoda that is the single most impressive building on the site:

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The peace pagoda

It contains, apparently, a time capsule with wishes for peace from world leaders, though the leaflet is strangely silent on the question of whether they were cut from those leaders with the sword and then drawn in with the rope …

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Cleaning duty

All in all, this was a fascinating stop. The temple has a steady stream of visitors, but nothing like the hordes we found in Kyoto or even Miwajima. And it’s even free.

Just watch out for the sword …

Kyoto

2009/09/23

Of all the pieces of advice we never received about Japan, probably the one we missed most was IF YOU ARE THINKING OF GOING IN THE THIRD WEEK OF SEPTEMBER, DON’T‼‼ This year the juxtaposition of the autumn equinox and another holiday on 19th September, together with an official bridge day to make it all a five day weekend, left this as possibly the worst time to head off on our rail passes: no spaces in the hotels, everywhere thronged with tourists and even some difficulties making reservations on the trains we wanted have made the trip run somewhat less smoothly than we would like. In particular, the hours spent on the internet and phone finding all the accommodation booked solid have made us seriously reconsider our policy of being spontaneous and going with the flow.

So from now on instead of being a spontaneous ad booking at the last minute we will revert to being completely disorganised and booking at the last minute. Ah well.

A second piece of useful advice might have been “if you must travel then, avoid Kyoto at all costs!” Hiroshima was crowded, but manageable. Kyoto was mobbed and is less easy to walk around. The buses were packed, with long queues, and the very nice people at the “foreigners'” Tourist Information (not to be confused with the normal Tourist Information Centre, which has little information not in Japanese) advised us to get a local train to a spot about an hour’s walk from the Golden Pavilion rather than wait what promised to be the same amount of time for space on a bus. The information centre, incidentally, is a bit of an oasis. On the ninth floor of the station building (in a department store so busy that the lifts down were full and skipped the 9th floor altogether) it is quiet, light, roomy, equipped with free internet and a variety of newspapers and magazines (in several European languages) and space to sit and read them.

It was a good choice, although I had to be deliberately vague about the length of the walk in order to avoid a mutiny. It was a hot afternoon – the morning having been stolen by accommodation searches, breakfast and the strangely magnetic attraction the shopping centre under the station seemed to exert – and small legs did not appreciate the exercise as much as they might. Still, we wandered not quite randomly through quiet residential districts and streets lined with small local shops and restaurants, all a far remove from the manic bustle of the centre. Stopping at one of the ubiquitous vending machines looking for water, the owners of the property rushed out, eager to help. But there was no water in the machine so, in a very Japanese way – courtesy being extremely important – they rushed off to get four glasses of water for us, the whole exchange being managed with many bows, lots of “arigatoo”s and not a few “onegai shimasu”s.

Finally we emerged on to the main road at the Ryoanji Temple (Temple of the Peaceful Dragon), another popular destination in the series of Kyoto’s endless series of huge and impressive temples and shrines (and a UNESCO world heritage site), but, philistines that we are, gave it barely a passing glance before continuing up the road to join the throng queuing for Kinkaku-ji Temple, best known for the Golden Pavilion.

The pavilion itself is stunning, no question, especially when seen from the far side of Kyo-kochi (the “mirror pond”), with its reflection in the calm waters. A place of peaceful reflection and contemplation, at least in another universe or at another time when there aren’t 10000 people fighting to get a photo of their friends or family in front of the classic image, we couldn’t linger if only because the movement of the crowd was bringing a new meaning to going with the flow and we duly ooh-ed and ahh-ed our way around the grounds before being spat out the far end.

The Golden Pavilion reflected in the mirror pond

The Golden Pavilion reflected in the mirror pond

By this time hunger, as well as tired legs, was taking its toll. The restaurant we selected (using the criterion of the first open place we saw) gave us another new experience. Rather than going to all the trouble of telling the staff what we wanted, we put our money into a vending machine and selected the appropriate button for our meal. Then – wonders of technology – an electronic voice told the staff what we had ordered. So much simpler than us just telling the servers ourselves. All cynicism aside (not an easy task for me) the result is good value: tasty, reasonably priced and as it seems with most Japanese fast food served on reusable crockery rather than stuffed into polystyrene boxes whose useful life is destined to be about 30s before they are abandoned to lie in landfill for a couple of million years.

An hour back on the bus gave us some idea of the size of the place, and took us past more huge temples and the Imperial Palace, but by then we were more than happy to head back to our Japanese-style room – futons on the tatami mat floor, or as Julie dubbed it “very expensive camping”. A good day in the end, if not quite the one we had planned.

On the Inca trail over Salkantay – day 1

2009/09/22

I’ve decided: the official “camino de los Inca” (Inca Trail) is clearly a tourist trap designed for over-organised under-achievers: who, seriously, knows what they are doing six months ahead of time?

I was feeling quite virtuous and well-organised when, two weeks before we were due to arrive, I contacted a travel agency (Incapoint) only to find that the official trail was booked out for several months: there are though a number of alternative trails set up since numbers were restricted in 2002: you can mountain-bike parts, take a series of ancient Inca paths at the other end of the valley or, and for some reason this caught our eye, get up at four in the morning to start the four day climb over the Abra Salkantay (Salkantay Pass) that the more adventurous Inca used to reach Macchu Picchu. You need to be young, adventurous and in good physical condition to attempt this trek, and ticking none of those boxes I decided to do it anyway. Seriously, it is described as challenging and although the distances sound quite modest for hiking over flat ground 17km is a long way when you are chasing one of the few available oxygen molecules at 4600m above sea level.

So it was that Éanna (17), Síle (11) and I found ourselves on a bus that was slowly filling up with other passengers while porters and guides outside threw luggage – we hoped ours, but it seemed quite random – up onto the roof. A long bus journey later we were dropped in the village of Mollepata, where we were to breakfast in one of a series of restaurants that, miraculously, seemed prepared with very similar and similarly priced menus. This breakfast is not included in the package (causing our party the first of a number of rows with the tour companies: it had been made clear to us but not to everyone) and was twice the price we had been told by the agent. Still, we ate gratefully and quickly, keen to move on.

The outskirts of Mollepata

The outskirts of Mollepata

Leaving Mollepata and starting to climb.

Mollepata is at 2900m, a height where in Europe we are used to finding glaciers or at least pockets of left-over snow but here in the tropical Andes it is a different story and the town nestles in a fertile green valley, not exactly rich farming country maybe – it is arid, sandy and many of the fields are perched vertiginously on the edge of a cliff – but you can see how it is possible to live and even make a profit from the land.

Setting out

Setting out

Setting out.

Starting out, we introduced ourselves with names and ages, my admission of being a lad of 48 summers provoking a sharp and rather unnecessary intake of breath. Most of the rest of our multinational group – 2 Poles, 2 Belgians, 3 Australians and one New Yorker completed the team – were in their twenties and thirties and appeared to regard such an ancient as a liability rather than a source of wisdom and knowledge.

The first days walk was mostly on a rough dirt road, with occasional shortcuts as Edwin our guide termed them: steep, winding paths that cut off a few bends in the road while also robbing us of breath. It was uphill, not usually steep while following the road but hot, dusty and relentless. Still, slowly but surely the mountain tops that had surrounded us in Mollepata were shrinking to the point where we were looking down on them from a considerable height, though the ones in front of us didn’t appear to be getting any smaller at all.

Mirando atras

Looking back.

Enterprising locals had set up a number of stalls on the route to sell water, fizzy drinks and snacks at reasonable prices (especially considering the effort involved in getting the supplies up there): much welcomed but the accompanying rubbish was a real disappointment. A continuous trail of plastic bottles, wrappers and other detritus lines the route. Mostly, according to the guide, this is not the fault of the hikers but of the support teams: the cooks, the porters and the local traders. I don’t know if the hikers can be absolved quite so easily but it is certainly true that the campsites and lunch stops were not well-maintained and it was depressing to arrive at a stop and leave the rubbish we’d collect on the route in a bin, only to find an open tip on the slopes as we left the stopping point.

Agua

One of many stalls servicing the hikers.

As day turned to evening, we continued the relentless climb, the temperature began to plummet and we finally caught sight of the peak of Salkantay and, nestling beneath the glacier, the campgrounds for the various tours.

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The snow-capped summit of Salkantay finally appears behind the valley walls.

By the time we reached the camp, at some 3600m above sea level, it was close to freezing if not already below. Any expectation anyone might have had of a session round the camp fire was quickly dispelled: we had neither fire nor energy: we drank tea, ate wearing gloves and collapsed into the tents to try to sleep on the hard stony ground, though not before we managed to gaze in wonder at the stars: the Milky Way lit up the night sky in a spectacular display that far outshone the best I have ever seen it achieve in the north. Little wonder the Incas knew a thing or two about astronomy.

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.