Misrata, 12.30am, 22/08/11


Things are finally coming to a head here in Libya; the end is nigh for the Colonel and his regime. I’m sat watching Al Jazeera’s rolling coverage of events, showing images of people celebrating in Freedom Square on the waterfront in Benghazi juxtaposed with the news that the revolutionaries have taken control of swathes of Tripoli, having even reached Gaddafi’s beloved Green Square.

This was the way it had to end, armed uprising in the capital, the residents liberating themselves, spilling their own blood for the revolution, rather than having to suffer the indignity of waiting to be liberated by their countrymen. Developments have been swift in the last few days; swift and decisively one-sided. Ten days ago talk was of military stalemate, the rebels unable to advance either in the east, or in the Western Mountains, or here in the Misrata enclave. The only solution was a political one; dialogue with the Gaddafi regime. How times have changed.

As I write this Mustafa Abdel Jalil, Head of the National Transitional Council, has just announced the capture of Seif El Islam, Gaddafi’s eldest son and heir apparent. The regime is more than just crumbling, it is about to be swept away.

The turning point came about ten days ago: in the Nafusa Mountains the rebels came down from the mountains, their sights set on the coastal city of Az Zawiya 85km away, which had tasted freedom for two brief weeks at the start of the revolution, the uprising there brutally crushed by Khamees, Gaddafi’s most militarily astute and bloodthirsty son. If they reached the city the war would surely change – not only would they receive support from the population, but also, significantly, they would then be a mere 50km from Tripoli. Gaddafi’s generals knew this, and would surely do everything within their power to prevent the revolutionaries reaching the city.

I assumed that it would take them days, weeks, to advance. Instead it seemed to take no more than hours; the first footage coming out of Az Zawiya showed hundreds of fighters, far more than there had previously been in the Nafusa Mountains. The NTC had obviously been busy over the past two weeks, flying and ferrying combatants from the east into Tunisia and then on into the mountains.

In Misrata too the pendulum had swung in the revolution’s favour. Boats unloading munitions, tanks and weaponry had been docking regularly at the port, for so long the only means of access to the city. The city’s airport, out of action since mid March due to its proximity to the front lines and subsequent risk of rocket attack, had seen massive military planes starting to land on its runway, the word QATAR spelt out in huge letters on their underbellies so nobody was in any doubt as to their origin. They would spend no more than 10 minutes on the runway, enough time to rapidly unload supplies and armaments before taking off once more.

Things were building.

On Thursday 11th August a massive coordinated offensive was launched towards the town of Tawergha, to the south of Misrata. For months Tawergha had been the launching pad for all the Grad rockets fired into Misrata on a daily basis, and for months the rebels had been unable to take it. Yet on the 11th, just ten days ago, it fell within hours. And since then momentum has been building inexorably, exponentially.

Here in the Misrata enclave the town of Zlitan had proved a huge stumbling, block in the rebels’ quest to march on Tripoli, the population unwilling to see their city become a pile of ruins, a new version of Misrata. The fighters had reached Zlitan’s outskirts weeks ago, but had been forced to wait as negotiations took place with town elders on whether they would join the rebels in their fight. Once Tawergha fell, however, it was only a matter of time.

Sure enough on the night of Thursday 18th, just three days ago, the offensive began, continuing through Friday. Almost 40 fighters were killed, many of them friends or relatives of guys in the office. Mohamed, knew two of those killed, one of whom had been an English student of his and was just 19. These aren’t soldiers after all; they’re civilians fighting to rid their country of its hated dicator. Yet Zlitan was liberated.

The rolling news is still playing in front of me; Al Jazeera has announced the capture of Sa’adi, Gaddafi’s son who paid millions of Euros to play for Italian Serie A side Perugia, and who dissolved Benghazi’s Al Ahly football club and destroyed its stadium for allowing a donkey onto the pitch, in reference to his somewhat leaden footed footballing skills. Sa’adi couldn’t take a joke; tonight the joke’s on him.

The end has come so fast; faster than anyone could have hoped for. Gaddafi’s regime, after holding out for so long against the odd couple of armed civilians and NATO jets, has imploded. It’s being reported that hundreds of Misrata’s fighters, with naval support from NATO, were last night shipped to Tripoli using launches to get them into Tajoura, one of the capital’s districts opposed to Gaddafi from the start.

It’s going to be fascinating hearing the stories that come out of Tripoli in the coming days and weeks, as we find out to just what lengths the dear Colonel went to stifle opposition and paint for the world a green-tinted picture of doting devotion to the Brother Leader.

I’ve just been up on the roof, fireworks going off all around the city. They’re interspersed with celebratory gunfire, red tracer bullets blazing crimson trails up into the night sky. They’re beautiful you know, and silent. I think they’d be a welcome addition to Guy Fawkes Night; might petition the government on that one when I get back to the UK.

Tripoli has risen up. The end is hours away. Libya, you’re free.

Advertisements

Cluster bomb


Misrata, 17/08/11

Quick update on life in the Misrata enclave

I’ve been here three weeks now, and the sound of shelling coming from the front lines and gunfire from within the city has become part of daily life. It’s amazing how quickly you adapt to your surroundings. Misrata is starting to feel more and more like home. In Benghazi it was difficult to believe that the country was in a civil war; life had virtually returned to normal. Here in Misrata the vast majority of shops and businesses are still closed, their owners often fighting on the front lines, while signs of war are everywhere.

In case I needed any reminding that I wasn’t exactly in North Oxford any more, it came yesterday. Eamon, an Irish guy spending some time working out here, was fixing something on our roof when he noticed that our next door neighbours had a cluster bomb on their garage roof, just the other side of our garden wall. One of the guys from a demining NGO working here in Misrata agreed to dispose of it for our neighbours. When he climbed up a ladder, however, he found it wasn’t there anymore; somebody had picked it up and moved it. Not particularly clever. What didn’t help was that the owner wasn’t home and nobody had any idea where it had ended up. Unable to locate it, let alone defuse it, the demining team went home and I went next door to our house to have some lunch.

When I walked out of our front door an hour later someone I’d never met before called my name from across the road. I went over and he introduced himself as Ibrahim, originally from Sudan. Ibrahim wanted to let me know that the bomb had been found and called me into a yard across the road from our neighbour’s house. There, in all its olive green, ochre yellow lethal glory, was the cluster bomb, sitting innocently on a plastic chair. Because I’d been with the demining team an hour earlier Ibrahim assumed that I knew what to do with it, so he picked it up and tried to give it to me.

These things have a 6 metre kill radius, are banned under international law and are motion sensitive. It wasn’t something I particularly wanted to be holding in my hand, thank you very much. The look on my face must have been priceless, because Ibrahim burst out laughing; I told him he was doing a great job of looking after it, but that maybe, just maybe, it would be best if he put it down.

Like I’ve said before, this is an office job with a bit of a twist. Still yet to go to the front line though…

Misrata, 2nd August 2011


So I’ve been here in Libya for a month and a half now; time, most definitely, to share with people a little bit of what the hell I’m actually doing here, in both senses.

I’ll keep this brief, and go along filling in the gaps when I find both the time and the energy to write.

Quick catch up: after training in Paris I flew to Cairo, where I was marooned for a week due to some pesky little sat phones (that apparently don’t even work here in Libya. Good to know). Cairo to Benghazi, where I was based for approximately a month, and where I had to actually start doing some work. 6/7 day weeks, 12 hour working days, downtime spent downing grappa with Médécins Sans Frontières folk or on the beach. There was also a fantastic day spent with one of the drivers Maree, two of his little kiddies and Valentina, a vivacious Italian ACTED partner in crime, up in the Green Mountains visiting ancient Greek/Roman ruins.

I’m currently in Misrata, the rebel-held enclave in the west of Libya; 200km to Tripoli, considerably more to the de facto capital of Free Libya, Benghazi. The city is still accessible only by sea; to the east, south and west lie the front lines, some 35km, roughly, from the city centre. This is a place very much still at war, unlike the relatively peaceful east of the country. Shelling of the front lines can be heard from the city, as can rocket impacts when they land within the city limits. The damage, too, is comprehensive in some areas, particularly downtown along Tripoli St, the road the tanks rumbled in on when Gaddafi attempted to retake the city. Everyone here has been affected by it; all have lost someone close to them. I’ve only been here a week and in that time, in the office alone, one of the guys has lost a best friend. Today one of the drivers lost his cousin. This is no metropolis – 400,000 people tops – and it is losing on average six young men a day on the front lines. No celebratory wedding gunfire here; the bullets are for those on the front lines only.

 

So, just what am I doing in a Libyan enclave, caught up in the middle of a civil war? Good question. As to why, I guess I fancied a new challenge, something that would push me. It’s doing that, that much is for sure. And what physically am I doing? I’m in charge of Reporting, which entails writing progress updates on projects we’re doing here; helping draft proposals and concept notes for projects we’d like to implement; writing assessments about all and sundry; drafting legal contracts; revising documents. All thrilling stuff you understand. In most organisations that would be it for six months; ACTED, thankfully, likes to throw people in at the deep end, so I’ve also been proposing projects to UN staff worth $150.000 about which I know nothing; attending meetings with the head honchos of all the NGOs out here; carrying a backpack’s worth of cash from Benghazi to Misrata; developing projects of my own volition and supervising moving offices, from choosing the property right down to moving furniture etc.

 

It’s been good so far. I won’t say it hasn’t been dull at times, because it has – this is, when all’s said and done, an office job, just with more gunfire and shelling than your average one. And the stress is high; people who know me even a little bit soon realise that I’m not what you might call a workaholic, and the 12 hour days and 6 day weeks are taking their toll. But as soon as we begin implementing major projects, and as soon as I’m able to see those projects having a positive impact on people’s lives will be fantastically rewarding, in a way that securing a major new deal for a hedge fund manager or consultant could never hope to be.

All the best, more soon I promise

Paris Training


The flight touched down at Charles de Gaulle with it already past 11pm. The airport was virtually empty as I half ran, half stumbled my way to the bus stop, cursing my inability, despite numerous trips round the world, to pack sensibly. Did I really need my hiking boots? A tape recorder?? What the hell was I thinking – that CDs, let alone MP3s, hadn’t yet reached Libya’s shores? I arrived panting, sweating, in time to catch the last bus into Paris city centre. Conveniently, its final destination was Place de l’Opéra, just a few minutes stumble from both the ACTED offices and the hotel that they’d booked me into for my time there.

Next morning I had time to grab coffee and a croissant in a café in the Place de la Madeleine, a stone’s throw from the hotel, and marvel at my good fortune. Having spent a mere 24 hours in Paris in my first 25 years of existence, this was the second time in two months. And I’d lucked out with the location – no off the beaten track bolthole at the foot of Montmartre hill this time; I was slap bang in the heart of classy downtown Paris, as evidenced by the vast neo-Classical église in front of me – more house of gods than House of God – and the steady stream of busy, beautiful Parisians.

At half nine I was stood inside ACTED’s surprisingly small offices, awaiting further instruction alongside four other fresh faces – Pierre, off to manage a hygiene project in the world’s newest country, South Sudan; Julien and Barbara, both French and both about to do internships out in the sweaty, sultry eastern lands of the Democratic Republic of Congo; Laura, a madrileña who’d seemingly drawn the short straw in terms of excitement – working in the Paris office itself. And me, off to Libya.

The next three days were informative and hectic, in equal measure. ACTED’s history, principles, aims and practice had to be distilled into hour-long sessions; so too, did the methodology behind undertaking a project, from idea and donor proposal through to implementation, assessment and completion. It was whistle-stop, and all conducted in French, which was good practice having not used the language for far too long; pell-mell, but great fun. The other guys on the training were good people, while I had time at the end of day one to sink a few bières with Kouroush, Olly’s mate from his TEFL course who we’d met up with two months previously. And Paris is, well, Paris. An aesthete’s dream of a city, all pleasing squares, grand boulevards, gabled houses and Eiffel’s iconic monument poking its peak above the skyline, the indolent Seine coursing its way twixt the elegant banks.

Before long though it was over, done, fini. With training on the third day completed it was time to gather belongings, stow away some laptops and satellite phones HQ had entrusted me with, bound for the Libyan mission, and get myself back to the airport. Thinking it was probably best to not do the Tom usual and cut it too fine, I gave myself two and a half hours to get across the city and aboard the flight. Plenty. Unfortunately, there were a rather large number of other motorists who seemed to want to leave Paris at 6pm, so what had been half an hour on the way in turned into one and a half on the way out. I had 45 minutes before my flight left, which was faintly embarrassing. Embarking on this new, ‘time to grow up and get a serious job’ challenge, I was going to fall at the first hurdle.

I prayed for a delay, my only chance; and lo and behold, verily I say unto thee, someone listened. Delayed by an hour. I had time, even, to desperately restack my bags, so carefully and painstakingly packed the night before, in order to limbo the weight allowance. Bloody sat phones. Little did I know….

We touched down at Heathrow, and as people began to grab items from the overhead lockers I heard my name over the tannoy – “would Mr Thomas Lloyd-Jones please report to cabin crew, thankyou.” I felt like a naughty school kid. What had I done? Was I in trouble? Not only that, I had to find out who it was that had called me Thomas; someone was in line for a slapping…. I reported to the front of the plane and was directed to an official-looking lady, decked in Air France regalia, who informed me that the delay that I’d thought had saved my bacon had in fact made my connecting flight from London to Cairo unobtainable, impossible, Tantalus’ grapes. I was in Heathrow, I had over an hour before the flight left and my bags were already on their way to the new plane. Yet the answer was no.

On the plus side, I got a free night in the five-star Terminal 5 Sofitel, breakfast included. On the down side, I was in England; the ACTED HQ was in Paris and as far as anyone knew I was still due to arrive in Cairo at 4.15am, where a driver would pick me up. Oh dear. A few hours into the job and it was already time to sort things out myself, no organisational safety net now. Thankfully I got through to Ibrahim, the driver, and told him about the change of plans and change in arrival time. Step one complete. Yet the issue of my bags nagged at me. It was in exactly this kind of situation that luggage disappeared into the bowels of an airport and, disoriented, failed to resurface in the intended place. It didn’t help that I’d lost my baggage ticket stub.

Up at 6am the next morning, having only arrived the previous night at 11pm; not enough time even to make the most of the Health Spa. Time enough, though, for a big helping of breakfast – free food, possibly my favourite fricative pairing of words in our blessed language – and then back into the purgatory of Heathrow. From Terminal 5 to Terminal 2, then on Terminal 1; having flown into Terminal 3 the night before I was well and truly doing the circuit, stuck on the Heathrow carousel much like my bags. Arriving at the BMI desk I was informed by a smiling member of staff that at that moment in time I had neither a valid ticket nor any means of tracing my luggage. Fantastic.

Things improved; after a quick coffee I went back to the desk, to be greeted by better news. My ticket had been validated, ensuring me a seat on the flight to Cairo. Furthermore, it appeared that my suitcases had been tracked down and instructions relayed to have them loaded onto that same plane.  It was all going to be ok, I thought, as we took off a few hours later; I was leaving my shrouded island behind, destined for altogether hotter climes.

Final days before Libya


So this was it then, another new adventure just around the corner.  Libya this time, a country in the midst of what some referred to as a revolution, others a civil war. Either way, things were probably going to be interesting.

I was going to be doing a 6 month internship for l’Agence d’Aide à la Coopération Technique et au Développement  – let’s call them ACTED from now on – in a role mainly consisting of writing reports, donor proposals, situation assessments etc. Plenty of office time in their base in Benghazi, but also inevitably the chance to visit ongoing and planned projects in other parts of the country under rebel control, notably Ajdabiya and Misrata. A slightly surreal thought that these place names, unknown before the war but now familiar to all those who had been following events in Libya, were going to metamorphose into real, tangible cities. And that I was going to be getting to know them very well over the coming months.

From the first phone interview with ACTED to the job offer had taken 4 days; they’d given me another 10 days between finding out about the job offer and having to be in Paris for the start of three day’s training. Probably best not to let us wee little interns have too much time to think about what exactly is in store for us. Ten days in which to buy everything needed, get vaccinations, choose what to take and get the Arabic-speaking part of my brain, rusty after having lain dormant for nigh on three years, oiled up and working again. Far more important than all that though, just ten days in which to say goodbye to Oxford and all the people in that bespired city who mean so much to me and who I was going to miss badly over the coming months.

And what a send-off.  A lazy, hilarious, booze-fuelled sunny afternoon’s punting down the Cherwell with JP, Wolffy, Enoma, Megan, and Paddy. Venice can keep its dazzling waterways, Amsterdam can keep its canals; neither can compete with an afternoon of friends, food and wine aboard a punt. I fell in, getting my judgement of speed and manoeuvrability all wrong as we approached a bridge; we did a spot of bank-to-bank pinball with Enoma at the helm; with Megan punting we spent large amounts of time enjoying one particular stretch of the river, seemingly glued to the spot;  Wolffy, her throat sore, her voice lost and her memory of lyrics all askew, was doing her level best to murder a number of classic songs on the way back; JP was busy lobbing mud any which way and fending off spider’s webs lurking in the low hanging branches of trees that came our way as we neared the banks. Blissful indolence; life, in my book, as it should be lived.

There was more though; the final Friday before catching the flight a troop of us wended our merry way to Thorpe Park for a day’s unadulterated enjoyment. It was fantastic, the sheer excitement of it all bringing out everyone’s inner child; a reminder as to why nobody should ever fully grow up. And the rides weren’t bad either – Thorpe Park had obviously upped its game in recent years. Colossus, proud holder of the title for most loops on a rollercoaster, as evidenced by the guy a few seats in front whose mobile decided to make a dash for freedom as we roared along upside down. Saw, based on the film, was so good we had to do it twice. Thrills and spills accompanied by Jigsaw, he of the over-applied rouge, kindly informing us that it was “game over” and “time to die” – a charming chap. Nemesis Inferno, for which we queued for front row seats and got treated to two minutes of uninterrupted face-first adrenaline. There were others too, with drops and spins and loop de loops; the biggie however was Stealth, the one we were building up to and saving til towards the end. We timed it between a pair of sudden downpours and saved ourselves half an hour’s queueing. Onboard then, strapped in and awaiting the green light. Apparently it goes from 0 – 80km/hr in 1.9 seconds, numbers that don’t mean an awful lot until you experience them.

It went quite fast, shall we say, the G force contorting our faces like those halls of mirrors you get at the fair. A rushing blur along the straight, vertically up a 40 metre stretch, down the other side and then grinding to a shuddering halt. It was all over in less than 20 seconds. And……? We bounded out of our seats, down the ramp away from the ride and immediately, unquestioningly, in unison, without a word spoken all rushed straight back to the end of the queue to do it all over again. Addictive? You could say that.

Saturday evening rolled around; the time left before my flight was being reduced to hours, not days. The rentals were out of town, the house was free, there was only one thing for it – discozeit!  70’s music – check. Outlandishly colourful outfits – check. Discoball – hell yeah baby! The party was rockin’, virtually everyone I wanted to say goodbye to putting in an appearance. Lads from rugby, the Wine Café crowd, Natalie and her friends, Marky Bizzle with Françoise and Kerr. Garish outfits, flowing booze and floating tunes. Andy Brennan, making a one-night-only star appearance, went for the usual ‘go hard or go home’ tactic and was happily snoring upstairs by 1am. Harry Sutton, the elusive Gosford no 10, flitted in and was back out of the front door within five minutes. I think. He might have been a figment of my psychedelised imagination.

Natalie was looking absolutely breathtaking, the most beautiful girl in the party by a disco mile. Flowing blonde hair, short, figure hugging multihued dress and knee-length cowgirl boots – she was getting a lot of admiring looks. Chatting with Jez and Briggo from rugby in the hallway, they asked me why exactly I’d ended things; and looking at her standing in the kitchen, chatting to people, beaming her huge, genuine, lovely smile, I found myself unable to answer them. Yet there was Libya, just a few days away, and I knew she deserved better, deserves better, someone who’s not just going to up and leave like I have a tendency to do. I know I shouldn’t have. I know we shouldn’t have. I’d hurt her already, and was going to hurt her by walking away from Oxford, from her and what might have been. But we did. We kissed, for the first time since breaking up. And there was so much tenderness, so much genuine emotion in that shared moment that I can feel its echo even now, the memory of what was.

Final Destination


This was it then –  one week left before flying home, one more week of summertime in which to make the most of BA, pop across to Uruguay and generally ready myself for la gran vuelta to wintry little England.

cropped-banner-pic.jpg

First day I took myself off for a city centre wander, strolling the streets of the 18th century San Telmo district before striking the Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires’ plaza principal and its beating heart, roads leading away arterially towards the Obelisk, Retiro and innumerable other porteño landmarks. The Casa Rosada, Argentinian presidential palace, bordered the plaza on one side; on another lay the neo-classical in which I sought shelter as a charged summer thunderstorm unleashed torrents of rain from the heavens. When things finally dried out I carried on, past the famous Obelisk and across Avenida 9 de Julio, proudly proclaimed as the world’s widest street: an in-your-face fact as you sprint across its 18 lanes, trying not to get atropellado. Buenos Aires’ streets seem purposely designed tests of courage, huge expanses of baking, exposed tarmac willing you to make a mistake as you cross them.

On then past the fantastic Teatro Colon, where I hoped to see some opera later on in the week and thus glimpse the fantastic gilded opulence of the interior; across yet another beautiful square and out into the Plaza de Congreso, dominated by the imposing government headquarters, modelled on Washington’s Capitol. Back to the hostel then, before heading out for drinks with Lucy La’s, an awesome Kiwi girl Marcus and I had met in Huaraz up in Peru almost 5 months previously. We laughed, we chatted about llamas, Margaret Thatcher and anything else under the sun, and generally got tanked in The Gibraltar, a surprisingly convincing ‘English’ pub in San Telmo.

Next day was a bit of a struggle. We’d spent the night in an airless, fanless sweatbox of a room and were both feeling decidedly ropey. Nothing for it then but to embark on a day of culture…We headed for La Recoleta, the city’s aristocratic enclave and home to what must surely be the world’s most OTT cemetery, a vast necropolis of multistorey mausolea where the city’s wealthy can rest eternally, away from the hoi polloi. Evita’s in there; so too is Sarmiento. We spent a surreal hour wandering the lanes of this city of the dead.

Back out in the land of the living we nosed around a couple of churches before heading into the Museo de Bellas Artes, which housed a collection of works by Old Masters and more modern Argentinian artists. The MALBA, Buenos Aires’ modern art museum and a definite star attraction in the city, was up next. The building is fantastic, an enhancement to the quality of the work on show, whilst the art itself was funky. Lucy and I necked a couple of double espressos and whizzed our way round, up and down the three floors, bouncing off the walls as we did and pausing for just enough time to jump around, bouncy castle style, in one of the exhibits – a cube made entirely of roped-together mattresses Fun!

Back to Recoleta for the final step of our whirlwind cultural tour, La Fuerza Bruta, which was fantastic…and almost impossible to describe. Part dance, part performing art, it involved: a guy running on an enormous treadmill, having to avoid garden furniture that came hurtling his way and occasionally being shot, poor chappie; a couple of girls half dancing, half running their way sideways across the vast room’s walls; there were also four or five señoritas sliding and jumping around in a shallow transparent pool suspended above our heads. Very random. Any very very cool. It ended with a DJ whipping up the crowd, blaring a massive klaxon as we were all sprayed with water.

There you go, told you it was indescribable!

Next day I hopped on a train and headed to Tigre, a town just beyond BA’s northern limits, set amongst the innumerable rivers, streams and marshes that make up the delta of the Rio Plata, the world’s largest. It was pouring with rain when I arrived, seemingly not quite the right day on which to leave the city and enjoy the great outdoors. Fortunately within the hour things had dried up, the clouds had broken and another baking hot summer’s day was mine to enjoy. I bought myself a ferry ticket to Uruguay for later in the day and set off along the riverside promenade in search of Tigre’s art museum. The air was fresh, clean and riverine, a refreshing change after the oppressive muggy heat of Buenos Aires, so I happily ambled my way along, making the most of the rays, before popping my head into the National Naval Museum, which housed a pleasingly stuffy collection of model ships, oil paintings – of ships, naturally – and some rather odder exhibits, including a midget submarine, pickled baby whales in jars and a display on the Falklands War. Needless to say, where in the UK it means very little to people these days, over in Argentina they’re still a little miffed.

Back out in the sunshine I wandered on, coming eventually to the art museum, housed in Tigre’s former casino and exclusive member’s club, a beautiful turn-of-the-century mansion set on the riverbank. A quick spin round the rooms and then back to the harbour in time for the boat. Country number 10, the last on the list to tick off, was only a couple of hours sail away. After the hundreds of buses I’d travelled on over the previous eight months, boat voyaging was going to be novel.

The scenery that unfolded as we sped along the waterways in the catamaran was blissfully fluvial, tree and reed-lined riverbanks eventually giving way to the wide slate-grey expanse of the mouth of the Plata river. And then there it was: little old Uruguay. It was at this point that my lack of planning finally caught up with me; I’d arrived in Carmelo, and needed to get to Colonia del Sacramento, a 90 minute bus ride away. It was already gone 8pm. I tried two companies: no more buses that day. Beginning to despair a little – I was only going to be in Uruguay for one night after all – I was finally in luck with the third and last bus company. It wouldn’t be leaving until 10.30pm, getting me into Colonia past midnight, but it’d have to do.

Having made it I was up the next morning bright and early; a light breakfast and then out to wander Colonia’s cobbled streets. I’d planned on giving myself a couple of hours to fully explore the centro historico, but it turned out to be so delightfully lilliputian that after an hour I’d seen all there was to see and thereafter took myself along the seafront, making my way through thick subtropical vegetation before coming out onto an almost deserted beach. Lying there, basking happily, without a care in the world, it was almost impossible to get my head round the fact that I was going to be in bleak midwinter England in under five days. Time came to head back to Carmelo and from there back to Tigre. It had been the briefest of brief visits to Uruguay, less than 24 hours all told, but still time enough to get a taste of its underrated, understated tranquilo charms.

Back in the concrete jungle of BA I dropped my kit off back at the hostel, smartened up as best I could and headed out to the theatre, to hopefully catch that opera performance. The theatre staff, however, had other plans – they were on strike. NO option then but to head to Palermo (the city district, not the Sicilian mafioso hotspot), meet up with Lucy and sample the bonaerense nightlife. Also just checked into Lucy’s hostel was Sanna, an impossibly blonde, and equally cute, Swedish girl. Drinks, tequila shots and some blurry memories of a random Buenos Aires superclub.

Next day I hoiked my stuff across town, checked into the Palermo hostel and Lucy and I then lazily meandered our way through the acres of parks in the area, stumbling upon countless joggers and exercise fanatics, a group of hippies kumbaya-ing in a circle, and some bemasked Mexican-style wrestlers shooting an awful low-budget film – BA is just one of those cities.

At the hostel a party was in full swing, so in we dived, not resurfacing until gone 9am, with the sun glaring mercilessly down upon a poor tired Englishman. The plan was to go see Boca play that night, so recharging batteries was going to have to be next on the agenda.

Well the plan happened, me leading a merry band of five Aussie lads and Lucy off in the direction of La Bonbonera, despite us all feeling like death warmed up. Hopefully it was going to be plain sailing. Hmmm.

Having safely negotiated the metro – step one complete –  we caught a taxi to the stadium, which helpfully dropped us all in the midst of the away fans. A good start. Time now to get tickets off touts, and since I was the only one who spoke Spanish I was going to have to do all the talking, a role I wasn’t exactly looking forward to with relish. Anyway, we sorted 4 tickets; that left another 5 to get, now that a couple of English guys in the same boat had joined our merry band. Time to play follow the tout for us five, as he led us past security and towards the turnstiles. Almost there. Until, with 20 metres to go, a hairy-knuckled hand grabbed the tout by the shoulder: “policia.”

Fiddlesticks. The tout and I were taken to one side, details taken down, the policeman smiling nonchalantly as he told us we wouldn’t be seeing the game. We were so close – we could see the stands, see the fans, hear the noise, feel the atmosphere…and this copper looked like the type who wasn’t down with a bit of money changing hands.

I was wrong. Having resigned ourselves to the long unsatisfied walk back, we were suddenly given the green light. God bless corrupt South America and its chronically underpaid security forces! On to the turnstiles then, and through I went, ushered through by the tout as he wafted his club card back and forth across the scanner. Through came one of the Aussies, and then another, though this was taking far longer than expected. And then it happened – lightning struck for a second time. With two of the guys still on the wrong side of the turnstiles the tout did a runner. With the cash. The fellas on the gate,  no matter how much we pleaded, weren’t going to let the others through. There we were, three on one side, two on the other, stuck in footballing no an’s land as the match kicked off. Rowlocks.

One of the English lads, after a quarter of an hour’s wait, was let through. Sweet. That left just Paul, the cricket-loving Aussie, on the other side, surrounded by a motley crew of dodgy customers. Let it just be said that Boca is no Recoleta: it’s working class, poor and downright dangerous at night. We couldn’t exactly leave him to trudge home, so two of the guys headed up the stairs so as to at least get a taste of the action before we all hit the road. Another time…

Instead, as we were turning to leave, they let him in. Awopdopadoowopawopbamboo! Game on! Once in the atmosphere was electric; the quality of the football not quite so. We were behind one of the goals in the ‘zona popular’ with all the proper fabs who didn’t seem to even draw breath between chants. Amazing fun. And Boca won 1-0, so everyone, Quilmes fans aside, went home happy.

Monday, my penultimate 24 hours in South America, and time to but final presents, have a last wander round Downtown and then head back to Palermo to meet up with Euge from Mendoza, who was in town for a wedding. It was my last night in Buenos Aires, last night in Argentina, last night in South America – I needed a gorgeous latina to see me off 🙂

Tuesday then: flight day. I spent it lazing, reading, stocking up and spending my last few hours with Euge. Time came, eventually, to leave. Metro to Retiro, bus to the airport and on back to Europe. I was leaving summer behind and heading to a good old-fashioned English winter, with my one jumper to keep me warm.

Buenos Aires to Madrid; Madrid to Heathrow; and there they were, my two beloved parentals waiting for me. It was over.

It had been fantastic and fantastical. It had been incredible, almost indescribably so….i’ll try my best:

I’d gone north to south, east to west, from the Caribbean to Patagonia, from the Pacific to the Atlantic. I’d set foot, Guianas aside, in every South American nation. I’d been high – 6088m – I’d been low. I’d been soaked by tropical rain in Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil; I’d been scorched in the Atacama Desert, driest place on Earth. I’d ventured deep into the Amazon rainforest, high into the Andes, been to both the highest capital (La Paz) and the highest city (Potosi) in the world, both in Bolivia. I’d tried llama, eaten guinea pig (and probably tried a whole host of other poor unfortunate critters in stews and the like), drunk Andean homebrew and danced the salsa, badly. I’d burned myself innumerable times, almost frozen solid up in the mountains and summited Ecuadorian Cotopaxi, one of the world’s highest active volcanoes. I’d seen ancient ruins, swum in Caribbean and Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, wandered round timeless colonial villages and been engulfed in latin metropolises. I’d travelled with one of my best mates; I’d travelled solo. I’d laughed; I’d cried. I’d had euphoric highs; I’d had catatonic lows. It had been, in short, the trip of a lifetime – the best 8 and a bit months of my life.

Yet it had been so so much more than a mere reeling off of lists, of places to tick off. South America is a continent that gets under your skin, into your dreams. An itch you can’t stop scratching. It’s frustrating, corrupt, unequal and yet more alive, more exuberantly, defiantly vivo than anywhere else. Music drives the rhythm, the rhythm drives the fiesta, and life is one long  fiesta. So relax, unwind, dive in and let la magia latina into your life, into your soul – the best decision you will ever make.

Que Dios te bendiga Sudamérica, continente de sueños, de ilusiones irreales y realidades increibles. ¡Hasta la próxima!

Mendoza – wine, sunshine and all things fine


There are more than 30.000 acres of wineyards ...

Image via Wikipedia

Mendoza. If their tourist office offered me a job I’d jump at it, seeing as I quite happily sing the city’s praises for free. Me and Mendoza clicked, the way some places just do; it felt right, very much my kind of town. 350 days of sunshine a year for a start; throw in fantastic food and wine – this is Argentina’s vineyard after all – wide, leafy avenues, gorgeous women, an unhurried pace of life, the Andes right on your doorstep and you have la ciudad perfecta. My planned four days quickly – perhaps slowly would be more apt – became seven.

A definite bonus was the fact that a friend of mine lived here; Nacho and I spent a fortnight working together on a Riojan winery, happily mocking each other’s respective homelands, and picked up where we’d left off this time round. Also in town was Dani, a Mexican girl I’d had a bizarre friendship-cum-relationship with out in Rioja and who was now working, randomly, for an architects firm in Mendoza. On my first night in town I met her for a drink, wondering if this time it would be any less awkward between us. No was the answer; despite having not seen each other for over a year conversation had all but dried up within about ten minutes. I went for a beso as we said goodbye and instead got offered the cheek. Plus ça change…

Dani hadn’t changed. Circumstances, however, had. I was in a city of stunning mendocinas and not in a small Spanish town bereft of options, a point amply demonstrated on meeting Nacho for his girlfriend Nati’s birthday drinks. Tatiana, Nati’s sister, was gorgeous, as was Nati’s friend Euge. Game on! Everyone eventually drifted home, save Nacho and Nati, Euge and I. I suggested we go on to another bar; old-timer Nacho was flagging and needed some sleep, so Euge and I headed on. She was 31, curvy and feisty: a fun night.

The days drifted lazily by. I saw the sights; a museum on the site of the former cabildo, or town hall, explained the city’s colonial past and the devastating consequences of a mid 19th century earthquake that slammed the city, killing half Mendoza’s inhabitants and giving rise to the modern city that grew out of the rubble. I also took myself round the Aquarium and Serpentarium, feeling like a 10 year old as I gawped at huge pythons – in distinctly unhuge tanks – venomous vipers and George the lonesome turtle. All good, until hordes of screaming over excited schoolchildren engulfed me, leading to a hasty retreat. Another afternoon I rented a bike and set off for the city’s main park, Parque General San Martin, a vast swathe of greenness intersected, somewhat to my surprise, by busy highways. The Oxford Uni Parks this wasn’t – not even any bikes allowed in there, let alone 18 wheeler supercamiones.

I struggled, sweated and cursed my way in the direction of Cerro la Gloria, a monument-topped hill with views out over the city and across to the Andes, stopping 4 or 5 times en route to check the bike. Why was cycling proving to be such an effort? The lack of gears on the bike wasn’t helping, admittedly, but I hadn’t had that much to drink the night before had I?

After clambering to the top and admiring the sunsoaked panoramas, I descended to the foot of the hill once more, regained the saddle and, after five or ten seconds pedalling, let gravity do the rest – the whole park sloped gently upwards, in the direction of the Andes. This would explain the difficulty of my expletive-laden efforts of earlier; I should perhaps have grasped this concept of mountains having to climb in height a little beforehand. Anyway, the next five minutes were sheer unadulterated joy, freewheeling a kilometre all the way across the park to a massive boating lake near the gates. The sun was shining down and Mendoza was helping me relive forgotten childhood joys: aquariums, biking on hot sunny days, and sultry latinas; a staple ingredient of any good Oxford upbringing 🙂

It was the wines that had brought me to Mendoza though, so on day 4 in Paradise I headed out with Belinda, an Aussie girl from the hostel, and after a few bus-related mishaps made it to Lujan, one of the main Mendozan winegrowing regions and just 15km south of the city itself. We hopped on bikes and set off in search of some bodegas. Some people might disagree, but for me life was meant for days like this – the sun blazing gloriously down, the perfumed scent of early summer in the air, and us off to go hunt down the perfect vintage.

First up, after a delightfully tranquil meander along tree-shaded highways and byways, was Bodegas Bonfanti, a small family run outfit where our guide was in fact the owner’s wife. It was obvious the wine, from vine to glass, received plenty of cariño – the end results were delicious. Mendoza has the perfect viticultural climate, as if blessed by Bacchus himself: hot sunny days, cool-ish nights, poor dry soil and little rainfall. The world-renowned Malbec varietal seems particularly suited to this Promised Land.

Post lunch we biked our way, after a couple of punctures, to the gates of Bodegas Norton, an international winery in stark contrast to small-scale Bonfanti. Here production, weighing in at a whopping 15 million litres of wine a year, was fully mechanized and wholly depersonalized – I like my wineries small and perfectly formed. Norton, however, was undeniably impressive; driven to the start of the tour in a stretch golf buggy, with champagne on arrival. Also interesting was the chance to taste the same grape (Malbec), same vintage (2008) at three different stages of the process – from the vat, straight from the barrel and finally from a cellar plucked bottle, the evolution of the wine clearly evident.

Bodegas 3 and 4 were small timers much like Bonfanti; the first a 4th generation family owned operation where the speciality, bizarrely, was communion wine. Not so nice. Number 4, however, was fantastic,  the perfect way to end the day. After being given a brief tour by the amiable owner he sat us down at a tree-shaded table next to a small plot of vines, brought us Chardonnay and Cabernet to quaff and amicably waxed lyrical on all things winey – hail, late frosts, pruning and the extreme love and care that each little grapelet needs. A good day.

Next afternoon Nacho and Nati gave me a tour of the countryside surrounding the city. We drove through Maipu, another of Mendoza’s wine growing regions, past Lujan and on into the lower reaches of the Andes before arriving at Potrerillos, where one dammed reservoir provides all of the city’s water. Mendoza is in the Andean rain shadow –  outside the city is all desert – and survives solely on snowmelt channeled down form the mountains. This year very little snow had fallen, and the reservoir level had dropped by a whopping 10 metres. I get the feeling Mendoza is unfortunately going to suffer this summer.

Back in town I met up with Euge and headed out to meet a couple of her friends at a restaurant in the city’s buzzing nightowl district. I’d already eaten – it was already well past midnight – yet the girls thought nothing of ordering. Neither, it seemed, did the rest of the city: where English streets would at this time of night be lined with drunken, possibly vomiting revellers, here it was the restaurants that were doing a far better trade than the bars. On we headed after food, the sun well up by the time we’d staggered home.

My last couple of days in time – rather like all of them now I come to think of it – were lazy ones. Sunday didn’t get started until 4pm, while Monday was all about soaking up summer rays on the hostel roof and asking myself exactly why I was leaving Mendoza; the place had worked its unassuming laid back magic on me. Buenos Aires was going to have to blow my socks off in order to compete with Mendoza for my affections.

Bariloche


Bariloche, Argentina

Image via Wikipedia

Tickets were scarce for San Carlos de Bariloche, so I was kicked off the bus in Esquel, still some six hours south of my destination. No matter, another bus was soon headed and had space aboard. It also meant that I was awake for the drive, which was absolutely stunning, the bus passing through  lush green valleys, overlooked by snow-capped mountains – the first I’d seen since Bolivia – alongside glittering azure rivers and lakes and through heavenscented meadows. This was the Lake District, no mistake, and yet no Beatrix Potter in sight. It all felt decidedly Alpine: wooden chalets, forested mountainsides, there was even a hotel in town called Edelweiss. I was waiting for the yodelling to start.

Bariloche itself, once we’d arrived, didn’t disappoint. Nestled on the shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi, and virtually surrounded by imposing mountains, it seemed a good spot to while away a few days and make the most of the fantastic surrounding countryside. The weather, however, had other ideas, since my first full day in town dawned grey and gloomy, with an icy wind whipping the lake’s surface – perfect for a day’s hiking!

I set off for Cerro Otto, a peak just outside of town. After a half hour I’d left Bariloche behind and began to follow the road as it wound its way up the thickly wooded hillside. Higher and higher it climbed; colder and colder got the wind. Wearing shorts had turned out to not be the wisest decision; luckily, dapper fashionista that I am, I’d brought with me my longjohns, aka schwerpseing trousers, and in true Scandinavian style wore them underneath my shorts for the rest of the day. The hike itself was a cracker; the higher the path wound the better the views of the lake below and the snow-capped peaks around. The trail alternated between bare mountainside, with the accompanying jaw dropping views and bone chilling winds, and thick pine forest, the evergreens laden widen cones and dripping with moss and straggly old man’s beard. In amongst the trees, sheltered from the worst of the weather, I listened to the wind rage impotently in the treetops. Patches of glistening snow still carpeted the ground, while birds chirped up in branches. It was, in short, perfect.

After an hour’s happy tramping through the forest I came to the rocky outcrop known as the Piedra de Habsburgo, a spot with 270 degree panoramic views. Off to my left a broad flat valley led back to Bariloche; to my right rose the sheer white flanks of Cerro Catedral, its ski slopes clearly visible below the snow line; directly in front, 600 metres below, stretched the fjordlike aquamarine waters of Lago Gutierrez. Quite the spectacle.

The wind wouldn’t abate even for a second though, and brought with it swirling squalling rainspells – time to get back under the cover of the canopy and start ot head back inot town. The hostel, unfortunately Israeli-dominated, was celebrating its first birthday with an asado and general kneesup. The rain that evening continued to fall, not that it dampened spirits. There was meat aplenty, choripan, wine and beer. And Carla, a pretty blonde from Buenos Aires.

Next day was a toughie; after getting a telling-off from the owner’s sister for getting up to stuff in a dorm that I probably shouldn’t have, I stumbled out of the hostel feeling the worse for wear and more than a little sheepish. Maybe a lakeside walk would help? On any other day perhaps, but it was 10°C, raining and the wind was coming straight off the lake. Not nice. Nothing to do but ride out the hangover.

Later that afternoon Carla came round the hostel and initiated me in the rites of mate, the better herb concoction that Argentinians drink as much of as we English down mugs of milky tea. Asados, mate, having my bag snatched in a bus terminal – I was getting first-hand experience of genuine Argentinian culture  🙂

Sunday and, finally, the clouds broke and sunshine filled the sky. Time to saddle up and bike the Circuito Chico, a 30km loop of road just outside Bariloche that encompassed lakes, mountains, forest and view after spectacular view. Carla was keen too, so we hopped on the bus and off we set. On getting out at the bike rental agency I was accosted by a pretty blonde girl – nothing out of the ordinary there then! It was Katie, a friend of my brother Olly’s from his time in Uganda. Very random….Time to get pedalling though, so off we set along with Rupert and Damian, a pair of Germans who we thought were perhaps a couple. Turned out they were brothers.

The ride was fantastic, the only drawback the numerous uphill slogs; even then though there was always the uninhibited pleasure of freewheeling down the other side. It finally felt like springtime. The air was sweet, scented with peach-like aromas from the golden flowers that lined the road, and as we rode through pine forest their resiny aromas filled the air. At some points we rode by the lakeside, its glinting surface reflecting the profile of the chocolate-box peaks around. At others, having sweated – or more usually pushed our bikes – to the top of an ascent, we were treated to the scenery in all its panoramic beauty: the lake itself, punctuated close to the shore by narrow inlets and wooded islands, while around us rose glittering mountains, grassy expanses and thick woodland. And not a single wispy cloud in the untarnished cerulean vastness of the Patagonian sky.

A perfect day, and a perfect way to end my stay in Bariloche. TIme though was slipping away – England was looming – and Mendoza, with its fantastic wines, sunshine and beautiful women, was next.

Watching whales in Patagonian Wales


From source: Two mammal-eating "transient...

Image via Wikipedia

I arrived in Puerto Madryn still zonked, both from the 20 hour bus ride and the after-effects of Creamfields. I was over 1000km south of Buenos Aires, on the same latitude as New Zealand´s South Island, and the incessant breeze was ´fresh´shall we say. Having lost my down jacket, and with my thick jumper in the rucksack that was now somewhere in a Buenos Aires ghetto, I was down to one thin, exuberantly stripey jumper. Good.

By midmorning though the sun was working its magic and, chill wind aside, all was well with the world. It was good to be back by the ocean, though the waters lapping the coast here were undoubtedly somewhat nippier than those off Rio. I wandered along the waterfront, enjoying the rays and the sea breeze, before ducking into the town´s museum, housed in a quirky 3 storey turreted house. Inside was a collection of weird and wonderful finds from the ocean, including a vast giant squid pickled in formaldehyde.

Next day I picked up a few essentials, including a Chinese-made wind on manual camera that clicked satisfyingly after every snap – funny just how recently all cameras were like that – and at midday hopped on a bus to Trelew, an hour´s drive away: I was going in search of all things Welsh.

The place names are a bit of a giveaway – Puerto Madryn, Trelew, Dolavon, Trevelin – to the fact that this was a little corner of Cymru tucked away in bleak, windswept Patagonia. They’d come here, 165 families with about four surnames between them, to escape the Victorian-era Anglicization of the valleys, and as I had a look round Trelew’s Museo del Pueblo Lewis I came across photos from Eisteddfods, Welsh-language newspapers and household items from the original settlers. Good old Boyos! Round the corner was the St David’s or Dewi Sant Cultural Centre, with the Welsh flag flying outside and notices pinned to the door in Cymraeg. Surreal to think just how far I was from the Welsh hills. I felt for those hardy soul who’d crossed the Atlantic to set up a new life in this unforgiving environment. I may be only a quarter Welsh, but a ruddy proud quarter it is and that boyo!

Another bus got me in to Gaiman, a Welsh-settled village up the Chubut river valley from Trelew. After the bleak depressing terrain of the Patagonian steppe the small town seemed, like some male voice choir, to positively sing with vitality. Trees – weeping willows – where outside of the valley none could be found; here they lined the riverside, the air sweet with the scent of roses and other well-maintained flora, testament to man’s triumph in the face of Nature’s adversity. There was even a little ysgol teaching teenie-weenies to speak the Old Language.  To top it off there was a homemade ice-cream parlour where I got the chance to try a scoop of figs in cognac and one of welshcake flavour. Bloody delicious it was too.

The village had a fascinating museum on the settlers of Gaiman, including a photo book documenting the lives of the original inhabitants. Turns out a Reverend David Lloyd-Jones was the town’s first pastor. The curator chatted to me about the history of the place and the efforts being made to ensure that Welsh didn’t die out as a language in Patagonia. All in all a fascinating little day.

Day 3 was the big one though, what I’d made the trip down to Puerto Madryn for: whale watching. It was an early start since we supposedly had to drive more than 100km to Puerto Piramides on the Valdes Peninsula to be able to catch any sight of these colossal cetaceans, yet as we drove along the Puerto Madryn waterfront there, some few hundred metres off the coast, gambolled at least a half-dozen.

There’s a point in Saint-Exupery’s Le Petit Prince where he describes an island that “looks like a hat, or like a boa having swallowed an elephant”; as we drove the narrow isthmus into the peninsula proper we saw, off to our right, the Isla de los Pajaros on which the description had been based. I could see what he meant. On to Piramides and before long we were herded, cattlelike, onto boats for an hour’s whale watching. It was full-on tourist day: driven around in a minibus, being shepherded out at the exact same time and spot as all the other gringomobiles. Here too with the boat. It was fairly evident the importance lay more with getting more people, and thus more dollars onboard, rather than laying on the experience of a lifetime.

Gripes aside, seeing 20m-long mother whales with their ‘baby’ 6m long calves from only a few metres away was still pretty incredible. As we motored away from the shore and into the centre of the bay we got to within about 50 metres of a mother with her calf that was as white as snow – Moby Dick himself! We spent the hour cruising the icy waters, witnessing mothers and calves in tandem, at times spurting air out of their blowholes, at others hoisting their tail out of the water, as if waving, a sure sign that these living breathing submarines were about to dive deep below the surface. Sadly, however, we never got right alongside. Southern Right whales are amongst the world’s most endangered, primarily due to their innately inquisitive nature: they love to investigate boats, leading whalers back in the day to dub them the easiest or ‘right’ animals to harpoon since they’d quite happily come within range all of their own accord. These ones just didn’t want to play today.

Back on dry land we headed along the coast to go see Pingu and pals. Funny little animals, penguins. We watched as one heaved himself up a little slope, savaged some poor unsuspecting grass on the top, pulling clumps of it out with his beak, and then, satisfied he’d got enough, waddled back to the edge of the wee 30cm drop, balancing himself for a few seconds – you could almost hear him counting 1-2-3 -and then flopping into the sand. Hilarious. I hear they’re a bit more graceful in water than on land. Can’t be hard.

On then to a massive elephant seal colony, where hundreds of the flabby things were basking on the shingle. All the males were out at sea, hunting, leaving just the females and their newborn pups. It was all very reminiscent of human behaviour at the beach: mums soaking up the rays, trying to ignore the kids who gambolled around in the shallows. One of the adults would occasionally shuffle around to find a better lounging position, or would bark something at nearby pups, but otherwise a somniferous peace prevailed. A pair of dorsal fins spotted out to sea, knifing through the water beyond the breakers, soon shattered the illusion of blissful tranquility. Killer Whales! Two orcas were cruising along, parallel to the shore, disappearing below the surface at regular intervals only to re-emerge 20-30 metres further along. Absolutely breathtaking, and apparently very rare to spot. Our misfortune with the whales had now turned full circle.

As we wandered along the bluff above the beach, forbidden from descending to the beach and disturbing the animals, we gazed spellbound at the seals arrayed on the rocky shore. Then, 20 minutes after having last seen them, back came the orcas, this time cruising in the opposite direction. There was no doubt about it, they were patrolling the coast. You just had to hope one of the pups didn’t fancy going out of its depth. Stop number three was another elephant seal colony, this one equipped with a high-powered telescope. Looking through it you were able to see that the mottled colour one could see with the naked eye was actually a result of the seals moulting; it looked painful. Flaps of skin hung off them: no wonder they didn’t move around more.

Inland too, the wildlife was amazing: technicoloured; lizards and geckos: ñandues, South American ostriches: mara, a type of Patagonian hare: guanacos, a bigger, lankier version of llamas -score! – and hundreds of wheeling, soaring seabirds. Oh yes, and a huge palm-sized spider, which came waltzing its way down the path and I only spotted when it was just a few feet in front of me.

That was that. It had been expensive and touristy, but had felt at times like being in a David Attenborough documentary. Good stuff. Now time to cross Patagonia and hit the Andes once more.

Ups and Downs


Fatboy Slim in 2004

Image via Wikipedia

After getting into Buenos Aires on Friday morning I headed to Palermo, a leafy district of the city, and spent the afternoon picking up my tickets for Creamfields the next day. Saturday dawned hot and bright so I took myself to Palermo´s Botanical Gardens and spent a happy lazy hour wandering the paths, past fish-filled fountains, Belle Époque greenhouses and marble monuments. Midday I caught up with Simon and Dave, the fellas from Iguazú a few days previously and along with another couple of people from their hostel we headed off to have lunch in a restaurant overlooking Palermo´s busy main square, the kind of trendy place I could only have dreamed of eating in back in Brazil.

7pm rolled round and time to head festivalwards. I´d spent 7 long months dreaming of a proper night out- this was probably going to do the trick. The venue was huge, Buenos Aires´ autodrome, and had 5 stages. Let´s just say it didn´t disappoint: Paul Kalkbrenner to kick things off, a slightly blurry middle section (was that David Guetta? Ritchie Hawtin?) followed by Fatboy Slim rounding things off. And I got to see Hernán Cattaneo playing in his home town. Score!

Sunday morning and after being unceremoniously booted out of my hostel I decided it would be better to ride out the comedown on a bus headed south. I made it across BA to the bus station only to find that the next one down to Puerto Madryn, in Patagonia, didn´t leave for another 3 hours. Having not slept I was now going to have to try to keep myself awake so as not to miss the book. I got stuck into my book; all good, until a bleached-blonde middle-aged woman sat herself down two seats away from me and asked me, bizarrely, what street lay outside the bus terminal. I told her, half asleep, that I didn´t know and turned back to my book.

It wasn´t until five minutes later that I realised, to my horror, that my small rucksack was gone, and with it my passport, credit card, Ipod, camera and, worst of all, 8 month´s worth of photos. I´d been so out of it, so dead tired, that I´d failed to notice blondie snatching my bag from under my feet. I told the family sat behind me as to what had happened and the dad and I ran off, in opposite directions, to try to hunt her down. Sh*t. No sign of her. Double sh*t. I felt like a stupid, half asleep idiot. Time to tell the police. The passport was obviously the biggest loss, but what hurt more was that my money belt was in the bag and contained the three memory cards for my camera, all filled with photos from since Ecuador.

I phoned Santander, cancelled the card, and then phoned home. By the time I got back to the Police Station they told me to hang on for five minutes. They knew the spot where thieves generally discarded the items they´d robbed and had no need for, in a favela-type ghetto literally across the road from the bus station, and maybe, just maybe, they´d found my passport.

They had, thank the sweet lord! Somebody up there was looking out for me. No Ipod and no camera, obviously, but the thief had also ditched my credit card and had, very thoughtfully, left me my onwards bus ticket to Pto Madryn. A small mercy, but good on you love! Hope you enjoy the 59strong Britney Spears collection, and Trintje Oosterhuis´ timeless classic De Zee. I know you will.