Sunday, February 27, 2005


I've spent quite a bit of time here in Melbourne, mainly because I have quite a few acquaintances over here (some of which I have not seen in several years) and so have had the good fortune to be able to stay with them. In fact I seem to know so many people here in Melbourne that I have been unable to visit them all, which makes me a little sad because if I had known I would probably have planned to stay here longer. Anyway, I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here in Melbourne, which to me seems more friendly and lively than Sydney (though that may be due to the fact that I have friends here who have been able to show me around). The city itself doesn't have any attractions that really blow you away, although there is a fair smattering of interesting galleries around Federation Square, but the overall vibe is lively and friendly.

One of the friends I stayed with, Rachel (and Jamie), took me on a two-day trip to the southern Victorian coast, along what is known as the Great Ocean Road. It is a very pretty coastline with high sandstone cliffs interspersed with secluded beaches. There are many beautiful coastal cliff formations around there, such as stacks, arches and grottoes, making the short stretch of coast very varied and surprising. I've been told that it resembles the Cornish coastline, but I couldn't say as I've never been there. That area is also known as the Shipwreck Coast due to the over 150 ships that sank there in less than 100 years (there are still some remains, such as anchors, on some of the beaches). It was a very relaxing trip and I am very grateful to both Jamie and Rachel for taking the time to show the area to me, which would have been very difficult for me to access otherwise without a car.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Solvent Once Again

I finally got my emergency cash and this morning my replacement credit card. It's when you don't have money that you really realise that money really does make the world go around, although I'm quite chuffed that I managed to survive in Sydney for 5 days with only $3 spent on food (a box of porridge). I must say I wasn't particularly impressed with Sydney, especially Bondi beach which wasn't a patch on Copacabana or Ipanema though I did see something that put a grin on my face. This old bearded guy had come up with a novel way of begging: he called himself an ego-tripper and would hurl compliments at passers by, "hey, looking good!" and "I like that dress!" However the most fun I had in Sydney was on Sunday afternoon when I headed over to speakers corner in The Domain. Here random demagogues get up onto soap boxes and start spewing forth their views at anyone who will listen, and of course people have the opportunity (or duty) to heckle back.

From Sydney I travelled to Canberra (even though all my Australian acquaintances told me not to bother and that it's not worth visiting) where I stayed with my mate Brad who I got to know on my tour of South America. From a touristic point of view there is probably just as much, if not more, to see in Canberra than Sydney, as it is chock full of interesting museums and the intriguing new parliament building. Canberra is also interesting because it is a completely planned city, and I must say that if I were to design a city it wouldn't look anything like Canberra. In fact it's difficult to call Canberra a city, it's more like a big park with randomly interspersed buildings, which makes it a nightmare for pedestrians because the distances between places are so large and the public transport system is virtually nonexistent. So it's very difficult to see or do anything without a car. But still, it was definitely worth a detour. Now I'm off to Melbourne to see some friends that I haven't seen in quite some time, so I'm looking forward to that.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Disaster, Phantom Days And A City Named After Some Bloke

I've now had my first big setback of the trip and it is proving to be a right pain in the ass, although I must admit that I'm completely to blame. I was waiting in line at Santiago airport to check in and reached for my wallet to get out my air miles reward card, when all of a sudden my wallet wasn't there. Being the dopey prat I am I had left it in the bus and when it got back to the bus station the wallet was no longer there. This, naturally, was rather distressing as, apart from my air miles card, my wallet contained both my credit and debit cards (and my lucky quarter that I've had with me ever since my trip to America in 2001), though luckily very little money. This led to a fair amount of worry on the flight to Sydney, which would otherwise have been quite relaxing, although I was lucky enough to have a friendly Colombian neighbour with whom I spent some time chatting away (it was probably my last conversation in Spanish for quite some time, so I hope I don't forget much). The flight was interesting in one other aspect. I left Santiago on the 14th of February, and arrived in Sydney on the 16th. So even though I wasn't there to experience it, I hope the 15th was a good day for you all.

The whole process of cancelling my cards and ordering new ones sent out here to Australia has been a rather trying experience with my calls being bounced around from one call-centre operator to another, with interminable waits as I'm kept on hold (the one silver lining being that I now know the tunes to Beethoven's 9th and Vivaldi's 4 Seasons off by heart!). Hopefully all that has been resolved and I should be getting some money wired to me this evening. It may also mean that I can finally have a decent meal as in the past four days I have spent only $2 on food (a box of porridge) and have been forced to raid the "left food" shelf at the hostel at regular intervals. So whilst walking about town I have been uncontrollably salivating at people dining at al fresco restaurants and wailing in despair as half-eaten meals are left to be discarded. Because of this I have been unable to enjoy Sydney to the full, being confined solely to activities that can be done for free, such as strolling around town. The area in which I'm staying is called Kings Cross and seems to share the same reputation and character as its London namesake; the centre is bland yet pleasant; and the opera house and nearby botanical gardens are suitably lovely. However the place is just packed with backpackers (mostly English) and I can't wait to get to the west coast which hopefully won't be as overtouristified.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Latin American Lowdown

Five months have passed by very quickly and I am now leaving Latin America behind. I have enjoyed my time here immensely: I've seen and learned many new things, experienced new sensations, tried new foods (grasshoppers probably being the highlight) and made many new friends whom I hope to stay in touch with. My overall impression of Latin America is probably that is more developed than I had expected though I'm not really sure what I did expect). I see a lot of hope for the future of these countries as they have suffered disproportionately throughout the second half of the last century under repressive far-right dictatorships supported by the West ostensibly to stop the spread of communism ("we don't care what you do to the country and the people, as long as you're not Commies"), but luckily now there's some semblance of democracy throughout the region.

At the end of the tour a favourite topic of conversation was to choose our "top 3 excursions/sights" or favourite countries, so here is my personal,and completely subjective, ranking. My favourite activity would have to be, without a doubt, the ice trekking on the Perito Moreno glacier. The immensity and majesty of the glacier, as well as the beauty of the ice formations are just unforgettable. My favourite excursion was visiting the mines in Potosi, which give an inkling of what it must have been like hundreds of years ago (and let's not forget that we got to blow stuff up with dynamite as well!). My favourite park/area is the Torres del Paine national park in southern Chile; the hiking there was breathtaking yet peaceful at the same time. And my favourite city is La Paz, for some strange reason (because a lot of people detested it), probably because it's such a frenetic place that's full of life. I'd also like to give a little resumé of each of the countries so far.

Although it has no one thing that perhaps stands out amongst all the others,Mexico is definitely my favourite country in Latin America because it has everything you could possibly want: its own distinctive culture, great food, pre-Colombian remains, a very varied landscape, many different and eclectic cities (large metropolis, colonial gems, university towns) and kind and generous people. So you could easily spend a great deal of time there and not get bored, unlike some other Latin American countries.

It is impossible to argue against Machu Picchu, Cusco or even the Nazca lines. They are all first rate toursit attractions and worth seeing, and the Peruvians know it. Which is my major quibble with Peru. So many people are geared towards the tourist market that it is impossible to recognise the genuine article any more. Women in traditional Quechua dress come up to you and demand money for a photo, whereas the same people in Bolivia don't care about that and just want to sell you their vegetables. Lima was fun however.

Just behind Mexico in my affections. An odd choice, some may say, as it is quite underdeveloped (the roads are without a doubt the worst in South America) and its tourist attractions don't have the obvious cachet of Machu Picchu or the Moreno glacier. But I like it in spite of that because it is the genuine article: it's noisy, it's bustling, it's honest; just don't expect to get anywhere fast.

The oddest-shaped country in the world has only one thing to offer the traveller: its outstanding countryside and natural beauty, from the Atacama in the north, to Torres in the south. The people know this and get on with their lives without putting on any airs, which is refreshingly genuine. Though I definitely wouldn't go there for the cuisine.

A bit of a disappointment for me, mainly because of the fact that, in terms of culture and mores, it is so much like Europe and therefore doesn't contain as much mystery as some other countries. But it is definitely a very pleasant country, and the scenery of Patagonia and the Andes are splendid, and the food is, though not exotic, very good (you haven't had a steak until you've had one in Argentina). I'm definitely glad I visited, but I won't be hurrying back.

I think it would be disingenuous for me to give a verdict on Brazil as it is such a vast country and I only spent a couple of weeks there, plus it was during the silly-season that is Carnaval. One thing I can say is that the 2 weeks have whetted my appetite and I'll need to go back at some later date to fully investigate.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Hasta La Victoria Siempre

I've made it to Mendoza, which is an Argentine city just the other side of the Andes from Santiago, located in the shadow of Aconcagua, the highest mountain outside of Asia. The journey from Rio has been surprisingly easy and relaxing, Argentina's long-distance buses surpassing even Mexico's for comfort and luxury, and so sleeping in them is no problem, though this is probably helped in part by the country's geography (see previous post). What they do need to sort out, however, is the booking system: first of all they have even more bus companies than in Mexico, and then when you go to buy a ticket, the person at the counter has to call a centralised switchboard to see if there's availability and to book the seat. Things would be so much easier if they were done by computer.

Rosario proved to be a boring, yet relaxing stopover. It's famed for its many statues dotted around the town, but most of them are insignificant and easily overlooked. But is was so hot anyway that I spent most of the day lazing in the central plaza reading my book. My next stop was Cordoba, Argentina's second city. I had been wanting to visit Cordoba for some time because for most of his childhood it was home to Ernesto "Che" Guevara de La Serna. In a town on the outskirts of Cordoba there's a museum to El Che in one of his former homes. The thing about Che Guevara is that he is such an icon (that picture of him adorning countless posters, T-shirts, mugs and many more) but most people seem to know very little about him. The museum helped put a background and context to the legend and was very informative. The centre of Cordoba is easily accessible and exudes a laid-back atmosphere, which isn't surprising for the country's main university town.

And finally Mendoza, the centre for viticulture in Argentina. Boy was I glad to get here and check into a hostel this morning as I had been wearing the same clothes since Rio and was beginning to be pungent. There probably isn't enough time for me to climb the almost 7000m of Aconcagua, so instead I think I might visit a winery or two before leaving Argentina for good, something for which I am glad because I'm itching for a different country stamp in my passport (with all the to-ing and fro-ing in Tierra del Fuego I'll have no less than 10 Argentine stamps in my passport).

Thursday, February 10, 2005

aBus-ive Tactics

I'm almost done here in South America and my next major stop is Australia, which I am looking forward to greatly. However the only flights to Oz from South America leave from Santiago and so I have to make my way there for the 14th of Feb (6 days after Carnaval). And since I'm on a tight budget (and Scottish) no way was I going to pay $400 to fly there, oh no. I'm going to get there by bus, all 3000km, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and this way I also get to see more along the way. So far I've reached Resistencia, a town in northern Argentina close to the Paraguayan border in the chaco. Argentina has 4 main geographical areas: the cordillera (the mountains to the west), Patagonia (the flat, cold plains to the south), the pampas (the flat, mild plains in the middle) and the chaco (the flat, hot plains in the north). As you can see, Argentina is quite a boring country, flat and quite unchanging as far as the eye can see. Though that does make bus journeys all the more comfortable as the roads are sealed and straight, making sleeping very easy.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Carnaval. Epilogue

Before I start talking about Carnaval there are a couple of things I'd like to say about Rio that I should have put in my previous post but was too rushed to. One is about beauty in Brazil. Many people say that Brazilian women are the most beautiful in the world. Now even though this is a matter of taste, I believe these people are mistaken (don't get me wrong, I'm not saying they're all pig-ugly, but that they're nothing special) and I think I know why. You see most people visit Brazil/Rio for Carnaval and consequently get rather inebriated and thereby acquire major beer-goggles and so their impression of the local talent gets consequently affected. However that wasn't what I really wanted to say. For me, what was far more interesting was the fact that it is the only country I have visited in Latin America where the white ideal of beauty isn't the only one. Therefore it's possible to see black and métisse women on magazine covers and billboards. This multiethnicity is also spread throughout the whole population, which I find heartening, especially after countries such as Peru where the whites look down on the mestizos, the mestizos look down on the indigenous, and the indigenous look down upon themselves. The other thing I want to quickly mention is the public transport system in Rio. It absolutely peerless. Not because it's technologically advanced, but because the buses are incredibly frequent and the bus drivers are absolute maniacs, driving like bats out of hell and getting you from A to B much faster than our local "let-the-granny-cross-the-road" drivers. So a big thumbs up to Rio's bus drivers.

Right. Finally. Onto Carnaval. There are 3 main "levels" of celebration: small street parties with live music, stalls and the like; large, organised street parades with sound systems mounted on trucks, winding their way through the streets, surrounded by throngs of people; and finally the gigantic parades of the samba schools in the Sambadrome, a specially constructed street with tribunes on either side.

The latter are undoubtedly the most famous and are the image many people have of Carnaval in Rio. They are definitely impressive, with each samba school comprising of up to 4000 paraders, each outfitted in the most extravagant and gaudy costumes, and up to 10 floats, each one trying to outbid the previous one for flashiness and intricacy, and the whole procession can take 90 minutes to make its way the roughly 750m down the Sambadrome. The tourist brochures declare that these parades are "Rio's street opera" because each school has a theme (from the monumental "The Balance Between Man And Nature", "Fire" to the odd, like "Chinese Influence On Brazilian Culture" (most notably rice)) and a song that is continually looped. I must agree that in some respects it is very much like opera because even when you know the theme it is very difficult to see the relationship between it and the floats and dresses of the people prancing about before you. Furthermore the music, because it keeps repeating itself, just melds into a formless, background grumbling, which isn't helped by the fact that the majority of the paraders are not dancing in time with the beat (if they are dancing at all). Hmmm, it doesn't sound like I enjoyed myself much, does it? But in actual fact I did find it entertaining, though mostly due to my wonderment at the amount of work and effort that must have gone into building the floats and making the costumes (far more than went into the dance moves, that's for sure), especially for something as ephemeral as a samba parade (on the way back to the hotel the streets were littered with discarded hats, shoulder pads and other glittering apparel). No, it was definitely worth it and I'm glad I witnessed such an incredible spectacle.

The other 2 levels of festivities are far more visceral and are where the true spirit of Carnaval resides; in fact many cariocas (for that's what people from Rio call themselves) have never been to the Sambadrome. The street parades are something to be experienced because when you're in the thick of it dancing is the last thing you're able to do and just standing up is the aim of the game. But the people all around you never cease to be friendly and good-humoured so you never feel at risk or anything. If you want to boogie on down it's probably best to stay on the fringes of the throng. The street parties are more chilled-out, with people spilling out of bars and multitudes of street vendors and a little bit of impromptu dancing flaring up here and there every now and again.

But Carnaval is over now and the group that I have been travelling with for the past 3 months has finally split up, each of us going our separate ways. So here's one final maack maack maaa! for you guys. Special thanks must also be given to Martin who, though the grandaddy of the group at 35 is still young (and cynical) at heart, allowed me to "borrow" many photos from his own trip website (there's also a permanent link to it in my links section). Thank you Martin. Oh, and also thanks to Catherine who is lugging a whole lot of stuff back to London for me, cheers you freaky Austrian girl!

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Carnaval. Prologue

I am now in Rio and the Carnaval is getting in full swing, with street parties and the like, however I will write about that in my next post as this one will be dedicated to Rio the city.

A little bit of history first of all. Rio (and therefore Brazil) is unique in that it is the only city outside of Europe to have been the seat of governance of a European country, when in the early 19th century the Portuguese monarchy fled Napoleon. It later also became the first post-colonial kingdom in 1822 when Independence from Portugal was declared. It is therefore possible to see a fair number of colonial, architectural gems, although for the most part they have been replaced by modern constructions, such as the horror that is the metropolitan cathedral. For any visitor to Rio a must-see is of course the statue of Christ The Redeemer, an 80m concrete behemoth that dominates the whole city from its lofty perch. This being Carnaval, not only is the statue teeming with tourists, but the taxis have become disgustingly exploitative (I was even quoted a price of 20 pounds per person to be driven to the statue and back down!). Anyway, after an interesting ride up (3 cars abreast on a narrow, sinuous road) we finally got to JC. It definitely is an impressive statue, though I couldn't help but be reminded alternately of a diver about to plunge into the water below and King Kong due to the profusion of helicopters carrying the rich tourists around the statue's head.

Other touristy highlights have included catching a local derby (Flamengo v. Fluminense) at the legendary Maracana stadium, which has the world's biggest capacity (150,000). Funnily enough it didn't look that big from the inside, and the game was no great shakes either (from what I understood it was more of an exhibition match for tourists, even though there were a good few locals present as well). Then there are the world-famous beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon, where all the beautiful people hang out and show off their latest cosmetic surgery. And then, but certainly no means least, is the famous Paõ de Azucar, or Sugarloaf Mountain, site of James Bond's cablecar duel with Jaws in Moonraker, which I hope to ascend this evening to see the lights go on in Rio.

Thursday, February 03, 2005


Paraty was a little relaxing break before the hectic revelries (I hope) that will be Carnaval in Rio. Paraty itself is a pretty little town that is nestled in a tropical bay, surrounded by lush, jungle-covered, hills. The town itself has retained many of its colonial buildings, all quaintly whitewashed and surrounded by cobbled streets. The only drawback of the place is that although the bay has many beaches, the best ones all need either a bus or a boat trip to be reached, and seeing as I was in lazy mode I went to none of them. We did, however, hire a schooner one day for a trip into the bay to visit some of the islands and more remote beaches, getting suitably stuffed and drunk in the process (a bit of indulgence is required every now and then!). One thing did make me apprehensive for Rio though, and that was the fact that it rained every day, and sometimes quite heavily as well. I wonder how resilient the street parades and samba parties will be to wash-outs.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Portuguese Poem

Brazil, so far, is a lovely country, but I'm having far more problems with the language than with Spanish. First off it is not as phonetically straightforward and so I'm still unsure as to how to pronounce many words, and furthermore the language just sounds odd to me; very much like a Russian trying to speak Spanish. Then there are phrases that just make it difficult for me to concentrate, such as ta bom (meaning "it's OK") because it just makes me think of Paul McCartney's Frog Chorus (bom bom bom, parara; bom bom bom, parara...). It's just quite annoying that after spending a fair amount of time getting to grips with one language they decide to change the rules. That said, there are a couple of easy bits to Portugese, such as the days of the week: Sabado and Domingo (Saturday and Sunday) are the same as in Spanish, and then Monday to Friday are Segundo, Tercero, Cuarto and Quinto (effectively Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth). Obviously they must have been feeling particularly lazy when making those up!

And now on a completely different, and altogether more lighthearted, note below I have put down a little poem written by our tour leader (Mark) about the trip, seeing as it is coming to an end in a few days time. I hope you like it and note my cameo appearance.

The Overland Adventure

The big tour leader would say where to go
With the tall blond rasta, his name was Bo.

From Australia, New Zealand, Wales and Korea
On the big yellow truck without any fear.

Quito to Rio, 4 months would pass,
More often than not they would sleep on the grass.

Sun, wind and rain, you never could tell,
In the tents it was clear they would all start to smell.

Camp food was great, and portions were fair
But one man from Scotland got more than his share.

From place to place there were things to see,
All this was done with so much glee.

The scenery was great, not really a bore
And all they would do, was sit there and snore.

But the time would come around that bend
When the overland adventure would come to its end.

Sad as it sounds, it could never last,
Gone as quick as you can say: "where's my breakfast!!"