Saturday, March 29, 2008

the size of a cow ...

Remember when the e-commerce revolution promised us the convenience and service of on-line shopping?

It's a shame no-one told the ferry company that runs between Buenos Aires and Uruguay.

After an hour of trying to order the tickets on-line I resorted to the call centre - quite possibly the single most frustrating experience of my life.

The next 18 hours involved regular phone calls during which I would correct the previous operators spelling mistakes, before returning to my vigil at the internet cafe as I waited for the e-tickets to arrive in my inbox.

Forty minutes before we were due to sail they finally decided to let me collect them at the port and I discovered the most recent translation of my surname. Fretweoo.

After I had painstakingly provided examples for each letter (e.g. "L is for Limbo") I can't understand how there can be any ambiguity left, but in the interests of my sanity I've decided to let it go.

Suprisingly the e-tickets still haven't arrived.

Our first stop in Uruguay was the old Portuguese smuggling port of Colonia del Sacramento (above) where we spent th afternoon exploring the cobbled streets and plazas of the old town to the sound of parrots squawking loudly from the orange trees.

It was impossible not to relax in a surroundings like this and the frustrations of the morning were soon forgotten.

In the evening we set to work at one of the pavement cafes, sampling the local beers and wines, accompanied by nibbles in the form of a Picada - basically a wooden platter with a shovel-sized heap of crips, nuts, olives, ham, cheese and salami.

After a while we noticed the music in the bar was strangely familiar - familiar, yet somehow not quite right. On closer attention we discovered the female vocalist was singing the back catalogue of Guns and Roses to the sound of a casio keyboard and panpipes. If you can imagine The Cardigans covering Metallica's greatest hits you've probably got the general idea. It was so rubbish you couldn't help laughing.

The next morning we hopped on a bus for the drive around the coastline to Montevideo. The buildings in the capital seemed to either be superb colonial era buildings (albeit in varying states of disrepair) or the kind of 1960's concrete buildings that make Coventry such an appealing tourist destination. Throw in the odd horse and cart moving through the city centre traffic and you complete the picture of a eclectic city - modern on the surface but with it's rural roots showing through.

Beef is big business in Uruguay and we couldn't pass up the opportunity to visit one of the cities biggest tourist attractions, Mercado del Puerto - an enormous glass roofed building where just about every stall is home to it's own woodfired parilla, or barbeque. Just pull up a stool at the counter and choose from the extensive chalkboard menu of cow parts.

I think my steak deserved to be reclassified as a Sunday roast.

In a small concession to healthy eating I decided to avoid the chips and go for one of the foil wrapped potatoes I could see cooking in the embers of the fire.

Not having yet learnt the word in Spanish for jacket I started scanning the menu and was suprised to find them described as Papas a la Plomo or in other words, Potatoes in Lead.

Mmm, how tempting.

Perhaps this is what the staff at Buquebus have been eating?

Uruguay offered us 3 new beers for the league - the best being Patricia Rubio at 81%. It will also be the last brand new country we visit on our travels, so the league is now somewhere near approaching a completed work.

I was especially pleased to hear that one of my readers has been putting the league to good effect, trying out a bottle of the highly rated MAC Spring Tide on a trip to New Zealand. Best of luck working through the rest of the NZ list Paul ...

Monday, March 24, 2008

back to winning ways ...

Puerto Madero
Originally uploaded by leedstolaosandbeyond
This weekend your Buenos Aires football correspondent was back at the Bombonera for Boca Juniors vs. Colon.

Boca dominated from the off, scoring twice in the first half (thankfully in the right net this time) and from there the victory never looked in doubt. Despite the consolation of grabbing a goal in the last minute of extra time Colon were, somewhat ironically, crap.

It just goes to show that perseverance pays off.

Seems that also goes for following the Leeds United results, also back to winning ways this weekend with a vital 2-0 win over Walsall. About time too. Perhaps my hopes of attending the play-off final in May aren't such a distant dream after all.

Those of you (or should I say both of you?) whose interest in difficult-to-use Argentinian publications has been ignited by my previous post on the Guia-T should head over to Mel's blog where the current subjects of discussion are Easter eggs and the local TV guide.

In other sporting news the holiday weekend closure of our gym has forced my new exercise regime outdoors for a run around the docklands of Puerto Madero (above).

Other than very sore legs I managed to acquire a spot of sunburn.

Which proves conclusively that I'm not yet running faster than the speed of light ...

Thursday, March 20, 2008

on the buses ...

It can be tricky to get a true sense of orientation in Buenos Aires.

The microcentre of chain stores with the docklands of Puerto Madero lying to the east is easy enough, but it's once you start moving outwards that the problems begin.

With a few notable exceptions, the cities architecture varies little as you move between different barrios (neighbourhoods) and distances can be substantial as you traverse the gigantic grid system that accomadates 13 million inhabitants.

Taxi's are pretty good value here and the fare may only have just reached the dizzying heights of a five pounds as you reach your destination, yet you suddenly realise that you've just spent yet another 40 minutes gazing out of the window as the cab twists and turns through the maze of one-way streets. It can be a pretty disorientating experience.

It was becoming clear that if we wanted to really get to know the city in our month here we would need to start working a bit harder. It was time to take to the buses, and so we went in search of information.

Enter the Guia T - the bible of bus travel in Buenos Aires.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

Sitting down to study our new purchase I was still utterly confused after half an hour had passed. None of the 30+ street maps in the booklet had routes marked on them, and there were no timetables to be seen anywhere.

Sure enough, the directory of bus routes in the rear of guide would allow you to trace the route of any given bus from map to map, but this didn't seem much use without some way of knowing whether it's the correct bus to start with. With over 250 bus routes to plot it was going to take me a couple of days just to find the right bus. I was completely stuck.

In other latin american cities collectivo's are hail-and-ride minibuses that operate fixed routes and we'd used them on several ocassions previously. Armed with that piece of knowledge I had disregarded as irrelevant the grid of collectivo numbers on the left hand side of each map page.

As Mel cleverly pointed out, the missing piece of the puzzle is that buses are called collectivos here, and all of a sudden things started making sense.

Well almost.

It is still possibly the most confusing bus timetable on the planet.

Here's my easy-to-use, step-by-step guide to using the Guia T.

Step 1

Look up the street of your destination in the index (fig. 1) to find the map number and grid reference. This may span several maps.

Step 2

Find the correct cuadre (block) using the building number (e.g 360 Avendia Sante Fe).

The street number is marked periodically on the map pages (fig. 2), and most blocks cover exactly 100 (e.g. 500-600). You may have to track a long street over a number of pages to find the right block but you should easily locate your destination.

Step 3

Finding which bus routes pass nearby is now fairly straightforward. Your block will lie within a grid reference on the map (e.g. A3) and by looking at the corresponding grid on the left hand side of the map page (fig. 2) you can identify all the buses which pass through each gird reference.

Bear in mind that buses in adjacent grid references (which are several cuadres wide) may pass much closer to your actual destination, particularly if your destination is close to the perimeter.

Considering a 3-square block of 9 grid references is therefore good practice and should generate you a list of 10-50 potential buses serving your destination.

Step 4

Repeat steps 1-3 for your current location and compare results.

This should leave you with a short list of buses which travel from approximately your location, to your destination.

If there are no "matches" then you could consider changing buses.

A more effective strategy would be to catch a cab if you don't have time for the week of planning this would surely involve.

Step 5

In order to know where to get on and off the bus (essential information I feel) you now need to plot the route, using the street-by-street route in the bus index at the rear of the guide (fig. 3).

You don't need to do this in it's entirety, just for a few streets around your location and destination so you can (a) find the bus stop, and (b) have an idea of how you'll arrive at your desintation.

If you have more than one bus on your short list then repeat this exercise for each one - it could help avoid an unnecesary long walk at either end.

Beware the law of diminishing returns. Once you have located a bus within a short walk (say 5 cuadres) of either end you are unlikely to find a bus which saves more time than the effort required to locate it.

Advanced planners will select routes using major avenues as much faster routes for covering the same distance.

Step 6

Go catch your bus!

Walk to the street nearest your current location and walk along it in the direction of the bus route to find the bus stop with the corresponding number on it. The Guia T doesn't provide any times, but we've never had to wait for longer than 3-4 minutes for one to turn up.

You will need to tell your destination (using a cross street or a plaza) to the driver who will assign a price (usually 0.90 or 1.00 Peso) and you then drop coins of the same or higher value into the ticket machine behind him. Most will give change, but its important to know that you cannot travel without having coins.

Also most bus drivers seem to only speak and comprehend local slang and the Porteño pronunciations of Spanish, so take the Guia T and revert to pointing out your destination in the event your language skills fail you.

To alight just ring the bell a caudre or two before your intended intersection and you should end up somewhere close by.

If you think this all sounds a bit complex, you'd be right. It is. But after a short while you end up getting to know the routes that pass close to your lodgings well enough to know which to catch for other parts of the city. It does start getting easier. Not easy, just easier.

I'm convinced from a publishing viewpoint they could develop a much easier format, and of course we still laugh about having to start planning our evening out straight after breakfast. Mel joked the other afternoon that "It's probably written by taxi drivers" with the implication that it helps them drum up trade.

And just for a moment I almost beleived it.

Monday, March 17, 2008

the draw specialist ...

We arrived back in Buenos Aires just over a week ago to begin the gradual process of rehabilitating ourselves back to something approaching normal life, by taking up a months rental on the apartment we stayed at during early January.

Porteño's (as the locals are called) like their evenings late. Mostly people don't sit down to eat until 10 or 11pm, and the cities nightclubs don't even open until 2am - much less get busy.

How do they do it you might well ask? Well, we've been wondering too and after asking around the answer seems to lie in extended lunch breaks akin to the Spanish siesta and taking "disco naps" in between finishing work and heading out for the evening.

Accordingly our days here have taken on a similar pattern (or at least without the work) of late nights enjoying world class steaks and wines at seriously bargain prices, the occasional cultural activity in the afternoon, but generally focusing our attention on enjoying the excellent nearby cafes (above) and the relative novelty of domesticity.

Other than joining the local gym to help counteract the adverse effects of this lifestyle (most notably the rapid onset of Argie Belly) we seem to have fallen into a remarkably similar pattern to our first week here, with one exception.

This time the football season is in full swing.

First Sunday in town and I joined a football tour for the local derby match between Boca Juniors and Independiente at the legendary Bombonera Stadium (above), along with 65,000 passionate supporters who provided every bit as much entertainment as the on-pitch action.

It was my third game of the trip and after the games in Japan and Vietnam both ended in draws I might reasonably hoped for more of a result from this game. Despite Boca scoring twice without reply, the fact that first was in their own net after a failed clearance meant I had to settle for the usual result after what was otherwise a highly entertaining high tempo game.

With football tours costing 150-250 Pesos for a 20-30 Peso ticket with return transport, I was keen to try going to a game without all the tourist "packaging". The following Sunday, armed with nothing more than a copy of the local bus timetable, a smattering of basic spanish and a chap called Brian from Chicago I headed for yet another local derby, this time between River Plate and Racing.

With Brian and I both effectively falling into the category of "big lads" we were trying not to be too nervous about the fact that River is the current home of football hooliganism in Buenos Aires. Strength in numbers and all that.

It all started off fairly smoothly. Within minutes of stepping off the bus we managed to score some black market tickets for the populares (terraces) for a fraction of the cost of a tour and proceeded towards the stadium with the rest of the fans. It wasn't until then that I started spotting some notable differences to the Boca game.

Just getting into the ground we had to pass through four separate security check points, receiving a gentle pat down at each. Along the way we saw some of the locals being dragged off for rather more vigorous searches, some even being required to blow into a breathalyser to domonstrate their sobriety. Once inside the stadium and climbing the staircase to the upper stadium tier we found the concourse lined with about 200 police in full riot gear with shields.

We quickly found somewhere to sit, a nice shady spot right under the video screen behind the goal mouth with a great arial view of the pitch.

It wasn't until a couple of minutes before kick off as we stood wedged shoulder-to-shoulder with local supporters that the banners started unfurling and we realised we were right at the back of the "Borrachos" or translated to English "Drunkards" - River's ultra hardcore supporters.

It was a little like being in the front few rows of a rock concert, and almost immediately I started to regret my choice of footwear. Flip flops. With no easy way of getting to a calmer area we just did our best to join in as they sang an endless repetoire of songs about taking marjuana, cocaine and famous fights with the police and supporters of other clubs.

It was a pretty unique experience that you definitely don't get on a tour, but in all honesty it wasn't too easy to keep our attention on the game so at half time we moved to an area of equally passionate, but slightly less physical support to watch out the second half.

The final score?

A seemingly innevitable 0-0 draw.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

taking it all with a pinch of salt ...

Is it just me, or does anyone else think Mel seems to have shrunk whilst we've been travelling?

Our final destination in Bolivia was the high altitude (3700m) "Salaar de Uyuni" salt flats, where we hooked up with our pal Kate and a few others for a 3 day trip.

The huge unspoilt scenery reminded a little of our trip around Mongolia, but with toilets. Over three days our trip took in everything from steaming fumeroles and geysers, to lakes packed with flamingoes, red lagoons, green lagoons and active volcanoes.

The best day by far though was the first as we headed out onto the salt flat itself. All 1000 square km of it. Trying to take photos, the reflected light was so blinding you almost couldn't see the resulting image on the LCD screen of your digital camera, but it was worth the effort as the unique perspectives allowed for some interesting photographs (see above).

At this time of year the rains cause large areas of Salaar de Uyuni to flood. So I wasn't really expecting it when our driver drove straight our Land Cruiser straight into the foot-deep brine as we progressed to the central area of the flats.

Not that I didn't think the vehicle could cope, just that with salt being a catalyst for rust it's hardly going to do much for the resale value of a piece of machinery that most likely costs more than the average house in Bolivia.

Our next stop was the incredibly unlikely sight of Incahausi Island. A huge rock formation jutting out of endless miles of salt and covered with giant cactus plants.

Despite being well aware of where I was, something about the endless white background was causing my brain to scream "an island of cacti..? in the snow..? you must be kidding!".

After climbing to the top the vistas became even more surreal as we enjoyed unninterupted 360 degree views for tens of kilometers to the mountains surrounding the flats, which, because of the intense light looked as though they were floating on mirages.

Returning to our vehicle we sat down to lunch at picnic benches and table crafted out of pure rock salt. It was all of about a minute into our meal before the obvious joke made it's first appearance of many - "has anyone seen the salt?" I enquired.

And who says my jokes are bad?

After leaving the salt flat we drove to a small village where we had the pleasure of staying in a small guesthouse constructed almost entirely of salt (we were noticing a theme developing). It was a real novelty staying here, but I don't really think it will catch on for comfort purposes.

Quite apart from anything else, I just can't imagine hoovering a floor like this.

You meet some real characters while travelling. Often eccentric and frequently seeking a little direction in life, but in our experience almost universally pleasant people to share a conversation and a beer with.

Not on this trip though.

We started to get the idea that one of our companions was a little odd over dinner that evening as he explained at length that since leaving the US military and spending the last four years travelling, he makes it a rule never to eat with tourists - preferring instead to eat in "places where no one else wants to". The undertone being that food poisoning is for wimps, not tough army guys like him.

Clearly we were not sufficiently impressed by this, so for his next trick he went fishing around in the communal soup pot for the chicken foot we had discovered a few minutes earlier (presumably added for flavouring) and started gnawing at it like a wild animal.

Here was a man who knows how to attract the ladies I thought - and in fact he did attract a few sideways glances from our Bolivian ladies doing the cooking for us.

I think most people would have given up at this point. Yet half an hour later when a selection of tea bags, mugs and a thermos of hot water arrived at our table he decided finish with one final act.

Taking one herbal and one ordinary tea bag he ripped them open and emptied the contents in his mug before adding hot water.

This did attract our attention.

He went on to explain that he had discovered he preferred it this way one time when he "got a bit too agressive" stirring his tea and the bag split, and he seemed utterly convinced that he was "getting more of the goodness this way".

There is a word for people like this, but it's not one I'll be using on my blog.

The following morning provided one of the high points of the trip. As we sat down to breakfast his girlfriend (who rather ironically is deaf) informed us he wouldn't be joining us, due to having spent most of the night making visits to the toilet.

We tried really hard not to laugh.

I'll let you decide how succesful we were.

Monday, March 10, 2008

world's most dangerous ...

With Mel over the border in Peru for a few days I decided to make my own little excursion into the rainforested lowlands of the Yungas region to see a very different side to Bolivia.

This was one trip where it would be every bit as much about the journey as the destination. My chosen mode of transport for the 64km to Coroico? By mountain bike down the worlds most dangerous road of course. You can read more about the terrifying Yungas road here.

After enjoying two rather sleepless nights in anticipation of the day I'd resorted to an extended session at the English Pub in La Paz on the pretense of "ensuring sleep". As a coping strategy it was rubbish.

I awoke at 4am in a cold sweat convinced of two things, firstly that adrenaline is a far more powerful drug than alcohol, and secondly that a high altitude hangover is terrible preparation for riding a bike within inches of the edge of 600m+ high cliffs.

We started by taking a minibus to the top of the snowy mountain pass high above La Paz at almost 5000m where we would start our ride, and spent the next half hour getting to know our bikes and kitting ourselves out with all weather gear.

Despite the fact that we were in Bolivia where people drive on the right hand side of the road, our safety briefing revealed a shocking piece of information. We would in fact be required to ride on the "scenic" left hand side of the road. Otherwise known as the side next to the huge drop.

It seems that where steep, unpaved, single track roads with precipitous drops are concerned the road rules are conveniently reversed. Logic being that left hand drive vehicles are safer driving close to the edge as the driver can look out the window to see how close his wheels are to the edge.

Whilst I couldn't dispute the logic, the fact that the road has consistently claimed 2-300 lives per annum didn't really fill me with confidence either. I could at least take a little comfort from the fact that I wasn't a bus, the mode of transport reputedly responsible for the majority of deaths.

In actual fact biking death road is quite a bit safer these days, since most of the traffic uses the quicker and considerably safer new road which opened in 2006 at a cost of $5m per km. That is unless it's blocked by landslides. Which being wet season it had been the previous day.

Today's outlook? Rain. A lot of rain.

In the end the torrential downpour that accompanied our descent turned out to be a blessing as far as my fear of heights was concerned. Not only did the cloud obscure the full extent of the exposure, but the new road remained open, leaving us to enjoy a very wet, but largely traffic free day as we hurtled down the 64km of downhill through landslides, waterfalls, streams and several hundred litres of mud, most of which seemed to have made it into my shoes by the time we reached the bottom.

Here's a short video one of us riding through a waterfall as we approach the most photogenic corner on the route. Just for the record I'm in 7th place, wearing a silver helmet - but as you'll see, it could be anyone.

Rather than return to La Paz with the group in the afternoon I'd arranged to stay in Coroico at the incredible La Senda Verde wildlife rescue centre. When the resident monkey population weren't unexpectedly jumping on my head from the treetops, they were engaged in a rather amusing running battle with the catering staff in their attempts to steal food.

The main protagonist always seemed to be Sambito the Spider Monkey (below) who had acquired an almost Che Guevara-like reputation around camp for his daring guerilla-style attacks on the kitchen.

Of course it wasn't just the staff who suffered at his hands.

On my first evening he jumped from behind onto my shoulder as I drank from a beer glass, with the inevitable consequence that I spilled the contents on the floor. He then proceeded to greedily lick up the evidence.

I'm convinced he planned it.

Then, as I sat waiting for my taxi to the bus station for the trip back to La Paz he struck again. As he jumped onto my lap I mistook his actions for genuine affection, that is until I felt the telltale warming sensation seeping through my jeans.

Through their barely stifled laughter the staff informed me he has a little difficulty controlling his emotions.

Lucky for him I have better control of mine ...

Friday, March 07, 2008

Homer erotic ...

I'm not awarding any prizes for most amusing use of Simpsons imagery on this trip.

But if I was, Belissimas "nightclub" in La Paz would have a strong claim on first place.

For the first time in what seems like weeks I've finally reached a decent internet connection (i.e. one which doesn't take an hour to load up 3 photo's), so next week I'll be able to bring you up to date on the rest of our exploits in Bolivia.

For now I've updated the beer league - best in Bolivia by a mile is Paceña's Pico de Oro, which translates to Little Piece of Gold - in a very respectable 13th place. It lives up to it's name in price as well as taste at 10 Bolivianos (or 65p) a 330ml bottle in the local bar - the same price as a pint of anything else here.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

seeing things in La Paz ...

After just an evening here in the world's highest capital city of La Paz, Mel has headed off to Peru for a few days.

I've decided to use the time to just hang out here for a few days while I plan my own little excursion to see a bit more of Bolivia. More on that later.

In between watching football and researching new beers in the bar, I've found some fairly unique sights in Laz Paz - from the slightly gruesome dried Llama Feoti (above) readily available from any number of stores to a surprising number of people urinating in the street in broad daylight.

Mostly they don't even bother finding a wall and just do it in the gutter facing the pedestrians walking along the street. Bolivia is a fairly poor country so I guess a significant number of people just can't justify spending the 50 centavos (3p) required to use a public loo. I can't really blame them, I just wish they were a little less open about it.

Perhaps one of the most memorable sights though are the two Zebra's (below) who can be seen directing traffic every afternoon at one of the city's busiest road junctions. Initially I presumed it was some form of advertising stunt, but there isn't a trace of branding to be seen.

I can only guess that someone at the council got the wrong end of the stick when they decided a Zebra Crossing was needed ...