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Published: January 13th 2009
My goal of doing a complete circuit of South America had failed, but only to the tune of roughly half the continent. Distances had again proved to be my downfall. It takes less than a day to traverse England, a yardstick wholly inadequate for applying to most other non-European countries, let alone continents. Brazil was the stand-out omission (I'm not counting my couple of hours at Iguazu), with a a size meriting a multi-month trip all on its own, but that was just one of a whole raft of experiences that would have to wait for the future, including communing with capybara in Venezuela, meeting the epitome of mate culture in Uruguay, and exposing my pasty buttocks and thong to the denizens of Ipanema beach. I think I have an available time slot for these in about 2076.
And with my Iguazu visit (blogged separately) having dumped 4 unexpected stamps in my passport, I'd had to shelve my plans for any further side-trips due to otherwise having insufficient passport space to get home at the end of 2008. Thus I was condemned to a fortnight in Buenos Aires as the conclusion to my 9 month South American jaunt, a fate
which did not leave me begging for mercy.
This time I chose Palermo as my base of operations, a barrio I'd previously only visited fleetingly. Whenever I return to the city in the future, this is where I'll stay. It's extremely potterable hence, with me an Olympic-standard potterer, right up my callejuela
. The density of bars and restaurants in its leafy streets is high enough to survive months of eating and drinking out without covering the same ground. I should perhaps also have paid some attention to its many clothing boutiques, but no-one turned me away on account of my slovenly appearance so I stuck it out in my battered Craghoppers. Their fate would lie in a rubbish bin in the UK. I can strongly recommend the club Podesta for anyone interested in 80s music blasted out in a friendly atmosphere.
Bonuses were the presence of a ticklable cat in my hostel, punningly named Gateau by the extremely hospitable owners, and the existence of an empanada store approximately 13 yards away. Gateau soon came to associate me with tummy rubs, and I could only marvel at the good fortune that had seen me encounter resident cats in 3
Chacarita cemetery, Chacarita
of my last 4 hostels. Even better, he showed zero interest in the daily bagful of empanadas that I brought back to my room, which began to make sense when I saw that lettuce was an integral part of his own evening meal.
Most of the supermarkets in Palermo were run by Chinese people, which I don't remember being the case in other parts of the city, and one of the corner stores where I regularly picked up an afternoon packet of Rocklets was alarmingly cavalier in giving me one peso coins in my change - an occurrence not normally repeated anywhere in Buenos Aires (or, frankly, anywhere in the country), where such coins are hoarded by all. It was common on the subway to have to buy multiple tickets because the teller had insufficient change for the purchase of just one.
The onset of the southern hemisphere summer brought warm sunny days, occasionally bordering on uncomfortably stifling, coupled with the odd punishing downpour. The latitude left the sun exceedingly reluctant to leave the sky, and the appearance of real darkness only at 10PM meant I could use this as a sign that it was time to venture
Galileo Galilei planetarium, Palermo
out to join the night owl diners of Buenos Aires. Taken all together, the weather made the Christmas decorations around the city seem incongruous, a feeling I'd last experienced in Sydney at about the same time of year in 2006.
Apart from its eating/drinking/shopping options, Palermo isn't short of sightseeing opportunities either, with some pleasant Japanese Gardens providing enough stone lanterns and gaping koi carp to calm a frazzled mind. The nearby Botanical Gardens sport a selection of ugly cats and snogging couples.
Just to the west of Palermo can be found the ultimate in resting places - Chacarita cemetery. Though practically unknown due to the celebrity of its near neighbour in Recoleta, it is more than ten times the size of Recoleta but with many fewer cats. Chacarita is where the famous tango composer/singer Carlos Gardel is buried, his tomb covered in plaques and dedications from devotees, his grinning statue posing with hand in pocket. It's also the final home of Thomas Bridges, one of the founders of Ushuaia. The cemetery is not quite as ostentatious as Recoleta, and I saw hardly a soul as I wandered down its avenues.
With this period in Buenos Aires
The essentials of Argentinian life
Just the mate gourd and thermos flask
being the last part of my South American trip, I had time to reflect on what I had seen and learned during the year. Though many of those musings can wait for another time to be put in print, it seems appropriate to have a small wrap-up now. South America is the continent most recently inhabited by humans - a scant 10,000 years or so ago - though the predations of colonialism in the last few centuries have shaped its countries in ways familiar to anyone who has visited Asia or Australia (or, I'm guessing, Africa). I travelled through Southeast Asia speaking no language other than English, so it seemed strange to me that my wanderings through South America, where there were many more people that looked like me and where I didn't constantly stick out as a foreigner, necessitated the use of Spanish. However the Europeanisation of South America seemed significantly greater than I'd seen in Southeast Asia, with the homogeneity of the common language of Spanish being a large factor in that. Only occasionally did I feel the excitement of coming across something truly exotic. As such, I often found myself looking back on the novelty value of
Japanese Gardens, Palermo
Asia and regretting its absence.
Having said that, South America had one thing in common with my previous destinations and that was that I had a large number of experiences, good and bad, which further justified (to me, at least) my continued sabbatical from "real life". As mentioned before, I'll leave my in-depth thoughts for another time and simply give a high level summary. My favourite countries were ones that, for differing reasons, have reputations rather different to the reality - Argentina and Colombia. Argentina does not do a great job of marketing itself abroad as a visitable destination. It has many more attractions than the ones that everyone has heard of (i.e. Iguazu and Buenos Aires), and the amount of time I ended up dallying in Argentina was a major reason why I didn't complete my circuit of South America. It's also one of the very few countries in the world where I would actually look forward to a 17 hour bus ride.
Colombia, on the other hand, has a generally negative reputation, built on facts that are years out of date and where dangers in certain parts of the country have been extrapolated to the whole.
The eyes of a hunter ...
Gateau the cat, Hostel Venite a Casa, Palermo
My weeks there, spent on the "gringo trail" (though it was by no means swamped with tourists), were in fact marked by the astounding level of friendliness shown by the local people. As I've remarked upon before, Colombia was several orders of magnitude friendlier than any other country I've ever visited.
I had 2 main disappointments. One was Peru, which just seemed overhyped, overgringoed, and overgreedy in its treatment of tourists (foreign and domestic). Arequipa, Colca Canyon, and the mountains near Huaraz are my main positive memories (albeit painful in the case of Colca Canyon), but Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, and the Nazca Lines merely took hours out of my life with little in return.
The other disappointment was a personal one, namely my failure to progress as far as I'd hoped in pursuit of some semblance of fluency in Spanish. I started in March as terrible and ended in December as merely bad, but the enormous improvement in my vocabulary, grammar, and ability to construct sentences and questions off the top of my head was not matched by an improvement in understanding what anyone else was saying, i.e. the most important aspect of a language. This was
... and the tummy of a big softy
Gateau the cat, Hostel Venite a Casa, Palermo
really brought home to me on my regular visits to the empanada shop near my hostel in Palermo, where I either couldn't even parse what the till woman was saying, or else I clearly misunderstood her words as my subsequent replies put a bemused look on her face.
On the subject of empanadas, trial and error led me to the conclusion that the pollo
ones in the store were the best, and coincidentally "chicken" was the only English word that the woman seemed to know, so when I appeared at the counter she would always greet me with "chicken" and a smile. I assumed this was her guess at what my order was going to be, but I think it actually became my nickname as one evening I passed her in the neighbourhood and she said "Chicken, buenas noches" to me.
The days of wine and empanadas could only continue for so long, and as Christmas loomed ever closer I had to pack my rucksack, say adios
to Gateau and his owners, and leave South American soil for the colder climes of New York and a brief meet-up with LA Woman.
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