Tuesday, 29 March 2011


What am I doing in Argentina? It's a good question; one I get asked several times a week and one I ask myself several times a day.
Well I appear to be living here as I am paying monthly rent but I am not paying any bills so that disqualifies me from getting a bank account which in turn disqualifies me from getting a job. But wait, I have a job. It just so happens to be unpaid but does that lessen the fact that I am working?

The term 'gap year' makes me cringe and 'career break' even more so. My initial plan (which has fallen to the wayside a little) was to embark on some anthropological fieldwork in readiness for a Masters on my return to London but so far it is still in the theoretical stages so I can hardly claim this is a 'research trip'. And anyway how do I say that without sounding hopelessly pretentious?

But people want an answer, the locals I meet, the other gringos and especially Jonathan from Metrobank who is refusing to send me a new debit card after I have mislaid my original one on the grounds that they don't expect their customers to take 'extended trips abroad'. Apparently the fact that I don't have a return flight to the U.K is too ambiguous. Apparently my status is too limbo-esque (if that is not a word it should be). And apparently I will be closing my Metro bank account on my return to the U.K (ha that will learn 'em). 

But for now the ambiguity suits me and I try not to think about it too much as I sit in my (rented) flat or do my (unpaid) job and stay put in BA a while longer.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Going solo in Uruguay

A goodbye hug and kiss to madre and then I am off on my lone travels for a week until we reunite in BA. It has been a few years since I traveled on my own. Where it used to fill me with nervous excitement, anticipation, and an intense feeling of freedom, now it makes me feel more of the nervous and less of the excitement. And yes, lonely too (much as I am loathe to admit it).

Eating in restaurants alone is no fun. I check my emails far too often and am unreasonably disappointed when there is nothing new in my inbox. I drink too much (bad) coffee and eat too much to distract myself. And I walk aimlessly, exploring the ciudad vieja of Montevideo. Anonymous yet not anonymous as surely I stand out, the only pale-skinned, red-haired, blue-eyed soul and this city is not so big that you can lose yourself in it.

At the hostel I am the odd one out, the only gringo. Low season being upon us, it has been solidly booked by a group of twenty or so Uruguayan university students. It’s like I took a wrong turning and found myself in a student halls of residence. The staff make an endearing effort to make me feel welcome sharing a beer with me in the lounge. Playing my namesake song especially for me is a sweet touch… ‘Suzanne takes your hand, and she leads you to the river...’, Leonard Cohen’s deep luscious voice resonates from the speaker behind me as I sit finishing my lunch just before having to leave to catch my bus north. It’s a fleeting moment of contentedness. I pack up my things and leave.

On arrival in Punta del Diablo, after finding my way through the sandy darkness from where the bus drops me off, I am met by the welcoming faces of a hostel-full of travellers. The night turns into a pizza de la parilla fest (pizza cooked on the barbeque) washed down with free-flowing home-made wine poured from a vat-sized communal bottle. I wake up the next day with a headache to match but am gently eased by the sound of the waves seeping through my bedroom window with the promise of some contented and calm days ahead.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Patagonian dreaming

Buenos Aires is addictive but a wee break to the South of Argentina comes as a welcome relief. Things I don’t like about Buenos Aires: you can drink the tap water but it tastes like bleach; it is situated right by the sea but you can’t swim in it (such a torture!); and then all the unoriginal city gripes: the traffic, the pollution, the poverty, the dangers (see previous blog entry about that). A relatively small list for such an overwhelmingly large city.

So, a holiday within a holiday with madre and madre’s other half.
Two days in El Calafate (trekking on the Perito Moreno glacier is stunning), two days in El Chalten for some lightweight trekking (for which I have put aside vanity and bought my first ever trekking shoes) and then two days on a bus heading north to Bariloche on Ruta 40. The name sounds grand, but the road most certainly is not. Mostly gravel, it means the drivers can go at the average speed of a milk float, slowing further at one point to allow an armadillo to bravely cross the road in front of us.

As we lurch up the highway on day one I wonder when the next food and toilet stop will be, the only respite from the relentlessly grinding open road. We eventually pull into the aptly named ‘Siberia’ cafe and toilet stop around lunchtime. Hunger draws us into the restaurant area where we are met with a groaning pile of fried meat empanadas, ham and cheese wedge-like sandwiches and cubes of cake. Fruit and vegetables have clearly not reached this remote back of beyond place. Ok, ham and cheese sandwiches all round then. Madre lifts the top slice of bread looking inside hopefully, willing there to be lettuce, tomato, mayo, butter, something. Nope this is minimalism incarnate, albeit with food.

We arrive in Bariloche late on day two (narrowly escaping scurvy) and drive around the lakes for the next two days. Sadly the sky is crowded with clouds and drizzle falls from the sky on both days. Well this is the Lake District and so it fittingly resembles my childhood memories of the Lake District in England. Just bigger: the roads, the mountains, the towns, the cars, the clouds, all magnified.

Now alone in a new city, a new country: Montevideo, Uruguay. Keeping my fingers crossed the sun will shine enough for me to enjoy the beaches further north.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Los ladrones

'Does this train stop at Tribunales?' a young local asks me in Spanish as I mind my own business on the station platform. At first I don't understand what he has said through a combination of my mediocre spanish ability and my mind being elsewhere. I tell him yes, then we squeeze onto the commuter-full train while he runs through the usual script: where am I from, what am I doing here, how long am I staying. Two stops later I force my way through the crowded train to exit on the other side. The stop is Callao and I am here on a mission to find the magical Citibank cash machine my classmate has told me about that allows you to withdraw 2500 pesos a go, much more than the usual 1000 peso limit, thus saving on withdrawal fees. I need to pay my rent the following day and my school fees in a few days so the rumour is worth verifying.

Reach into my handbag for my purse to swipe the door with my bank card and am met with a gaping emptiness. Nothing. I suddenly notice how light my bag feels. Wallet is gone. Must. Think.
The subte was crowded. The guy asking me questions. Can it be a coincidence? But he seemed so nice. Seemed normal. Was there an accomplice reaching his dishonest hand into my bag as I read the gringo script to the guy.

Then a mixture of feelings: anger, shame (how could I be so naive, stupid, careless?). Then trying to think of the positives: at least it happened before I withdrew £500 worth of pesos. At least they did not take my camera, my phone which were nestled cosily next to my wallet. At least there was no violence or attack; a shamefully silent, unguessable moment.

'Rule one ..... dont panic. Rule two ..... have a drink'. The advice of a comiserating friend from home when I tell him the news. Well, if you say so... I take his good advice.

Two months later and with the help of kind friends here who help me out with money (you know who you are!) all is okay and all is (almost) forgotten. I am walking in San Telmo with my new, more vigilant, grasp of my handbag and in search of a cafe for my daily dose of caffeine (although I know that the coffee is generally appalling here I still enjoy the ritual of sipping from a cup of bitterness while people-watching or writing emails. As with so many things, the idea overshadows the reality but I still cling to the idea as if I am living life through a film).

Suddenly, white foam on my bag, on the back of my dress, and a tiny woman as if from nowhere brandishing a tissue, wiping the mess one minute, pointing into the sky the next attempting to communicate to me what has happened. 'Gracias, gracias' I say, a little dazed. Then another small woman appears, also waving a wad of tissues and pointing at my handbag, at my hair which I realise has also been hit by the foam. I feel like a giant amid these two petit women and their onslaught of espanol and tissues. Suddenly it dawns on me. This could be a premeditated plot. I've heard about these kinds of gringo attacks and it seems a little odd that these two midgets appeared at my side so promptly. I take a firmer hold of my handbag, shake off the two women with one last dismissive 'gracias' and walk off decisively without turning back. 

Paranoia or carefulness? It's a fine line we gringos walk...