Sunday, 1 November 2009

Finding Macondo

Many days later, as she faced the airport departure lounge, she was to remember that distant afternoon when her friend took her to discover Macondo.

Which began with a bus ride to an unknown destination, through checkpoints and past the endless banana plantations. The banana plantations that held so many brutalities amongst their leaves, and under the rickety shacks which still shelter the hanging fruits by the roadside. And stepping down to strange looks by the bicycle rickshaws, and over the train line which did or didn't carry the bodies from the scene, towards the house where it all began.

The quiet streets seem more tired now, with paint peeling from the porches where rocking chairs sit, abandoned in the midday heat. Silver-haired men drift in and out of the billiard hall, leaving an air of exclusivity in their wake, while neatly painted adverts sell everything you could never need. Yet modernity still tries to wake the town from its slumber, setting up speakers along the main street which blare a soundtrack too fast for this place.

And so we go in search of the house of a hundred years, which everyones knows yet we cannot find. Until a padlocked gate appears, and a girl shouts to a man who comes with a key, and there we are. Standing under the tree with more roots than Aurelianos, which seem to go deeper than the seven generations of Macondo. We do not sit for fear of madness, and are taken instead to listen to an inexplicable tale, by the white-washed walls and freshly painted shutters. One that has inspired some to cross the heavily guarded borders of their reality, and embark on a journey which has left in its wake this clutter of accidental anecdotes, In Search of Macondo.

Monday, 26 October 2009

The Painter's Playground

The taxi slinks into Bogotá as a murky sky protests the dawn. Crawling through La Candelaria, a Turner sea emerges from the walls, leaking subtle hues through the darkness.

Hours later and the pastel shades of early morning have been transformed by daylight; buildings compete with colour now, splashing lines of red and yellow and blue across bare bricks. Banksy has been pushed aside in this city, it would seem, which favours instead the playfulness of Picasso with a Miro palette.

But Cosmopolitanism is imposing itself on this streetside gallery, seducing space with slogans and light-up skyscrapers. The bricks split under the weight of new traffic, caught up along the strangling ringroad, layed heavy with tar.

Leaving the painters to abandon their brushes and head north to the 'Street of Dreams', in a town where inspiration belongs to the toddlers, who supervise the painting of ships and doves and lambs on walls made for a fairytale. The siesta comes to clear the streets, but the painting never stops; as people climb up stepladders and lean out of windows to add the final touches.

Colour spills down from this winding street, finding it's way through Guatapé and across the Colombian Departments, lightening the shadow cast by it's disapproving neighbours.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Roles of the Road

It is easy to forget yourself on the road. Playing so many different roles in as many months, it becomes difficult to define who you were beforehand, and what of that person will remain on returning home. There has been the student, the farmer, the backpacker; and within the latter, so many more: the hiker, the playful market haggler, the guided-tour-ist, the assertive "don't rip me off mister" one, the plain old beach-bum, and many more inbetween.

And so it should come as no surprise that one remained in waiting; that of the victim. To be played out unexpectedly, with no prior rehearsal or script, in a picturesque seaside town in Colombia.

There was nothing of significance in the night (but of course, it was night-time); another new place, a stroll to explore, the usual precautions. Yet two men chose to interrupt the standard scene, pulling power from their pockets with a knife and a silver gun. And suddenly the cast changed; the two Colombians off out on the town became bandits, and like the unassuming understudy, the two gringas were transplanted to the stage. To stop in a second, to be pat down without a word, to be left standing while the two foes ran towards the wings.

And they played with perfection. But it seemed that despite entering perhaps their sixth season as The Thieves, the actors lost them their applause. Jittery hands betrayed the anxiety that clutched the weapons, which could not be dispelled by calming words from The Victim. Light feet fell out of step with the quick tune, and although the performance started with precision, it ended with a prickly exchange between the pair.

The Victims returned home with lighter loads; empty pockets waiting now for new roles, whatever & wherever they choose that to be. Whilst others sit with their spoils, weighed heavily down with tools of aggression, and wish for the life they could not steal.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Caught up in the Caribbean

With sandy feet we crept into our hammocks in the darkness, strung high between wooden beams and under a roof thatched thick with leaves. There were no walls, yet no breeze came, halted instead by a heavy air, thick with the days' heat. The slow waves struggled against the shore just meters away, and somewhere amongst the stillness, sleep came.

Hours passed in distant dreams, until the breeze arrived and the muffled sound of raindrops on sand stirred us from our slumber. In the distance the sea was illuminated by camera flashes from the sky, which in return exhaled groans of annoyance at the midnight interruption. The rain began to fall with more force now, shedding it's hot burden on the sand. Yet suddenly an angry wind swept in from another continent, to pick up the sky and rain and sea, and wreak havoc upon the shore.

The sky in turn let out a Biblical crack, which shook us in our frames, and silenced the night into shock. But Poseidon was roused by the racket, and cast waves full of frustration at the beach. The wind persisted, and plucked seasalt and raindrops to coat our sorry skin.

We cocooned ourselves in tightly-spun sheets, yet the wind still shook us through the restless night. It caught up the mosquito nets like sails, and rocked us violently, like the children of Hades in our broken cribs.

With drooping eyes and dampened skin, we felt the night pass with the hours, as the wind swept the electric sky over our heads. Poseiden drifted to sleep, finished with his futile tantrum, and we were left with the raindrops, falling lightly on the sunrise.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

"There is a tremendous humanitarian crisis in Ecuador due to the influx of Colombian refugees."

Far away from the bars of Mariscal and the beaches of Montañita, lies a side not often seen by travellers to Ecuador, who rarely stop for more than a stamp on the Colombian border. Yet despite being the second-smallest country on the continent, Ecuador also has the largest refugee population of all the South American nations, with "20,000 registered refugees and some 37,000 asylum seekers" (UNHRC), before even beginning to count the thousands unregistered. Most of these come from neighbouring Colombia, where the ongoing internal conflict creates a vicious climate from which the thousands flee.

But thankfully, organizations such as Asylum Access, and people such as Ryan Lozar, exist to offer assistance where it is desperately needed. Asylum Access is a San Fransisco-based nonprofit organization,"dedicated to making refugee rights a reality in Africa, Asia and Latin America ." They place well-qualified law students and volunteer lawyers in the places they are needed the most. Ryan Lozar is one of those clever people, who gave up life with a big city law firm in New York to travel to Quito. We met in a farmhouse not far from there, and my immediate fascination in his work inevitably led to my typing away with his words.

1. Could you speak a little about the organization you work for; Asylum Access?

Asylum Access’s general aim is to provide legal representation to people who have fled their home countries as they seek to secure a formal refugee status designation in a second country. In order to meet the legal definition of a refugee, these individuals must prove to their host country that they have a well-founded fear of persecution were they to return to their home country due to their race, religion, national origin, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Some also have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home countries due to generalized violence that exists there, as is the case in certain regions of Colombia. Once an individual is designated as a refugee, Asylum Access also strives to aid him or her as they attempt to integrate in the host country’s society.

2. What is your role; what do you do day-to-day?

Asylum Access Ecuador has an office in Quito which operates as a free legal services clinic. We are located across the street from Ecuador ’s Department of Refugee Affairs and so we have a constant stream of walk-in asylum applicants seeking legal advice. These clients seek advice on what to expect during their asylum interviews and how to file an appeal if their initial asylum application is denied. During office consultations, I conduct asylum interview prep sessions during which I explain what is the technical legal definition of a refugee, and help them to identify key moments of their life stories that reflect the definitional elements.

These clients also face a range of social integration problems, i.e. their children are improperly denied the right to enroll in school, their employers refuse to pay them the full range of benefits due them under Ecuadorian labor law, or banks improperly refuse to allow them to open bank accounts. All of these actions violate the Ecuadorian Constitution, which prohibits discrimination against a person based on their migratory condition. With respect to clients facing social integration problems such as these, I intervene directly with the discriminatory actors, explaining their constitutional and legal obligations to treat refugees like any other Ecuadorian. If a courteous conversation does not convince them to comport with the law, I help the affected client to secure government intervention by filing complaints with the appropriate enforcement agency.

Another important aspect of our services relates to our clients’ physical security. Many Colombian refugees continue to receive threats to their physical safety even in Ecuador, as Colombian armed groups have a presence here, too. At times local prosecutors and police refuse to get involved, and I intervene on behalf of a client by going to the police station and pressing the matter.

3. What is the main reason for Colombians to seek asylum in Ecuador?

The principal reason Colombians seek asylum in Ecuador is the well-founded fear for their physical safety they suffer as a result of the ongoing armed conflict in their home country. At times a Colombian citizen is fearful because an armed group has made a specific threat against him or his family. Other times a Colombian citizen is fearful because she lives in a “red zone,” meaning that the area where he lives is marked by generalized violence.

4. How are refugees and asylum seekers dealt with once they cross the border?

Generally speaking, this depends on the actions that the asylum seeker himself takes upon crossing the border. As a member of the Andean Community with an Andean Card, Colombians have the right to enter Ecuador freely for 90 days, and do not have to declare their intentions at the border. Once inside Ecuador, Colombian refugees take a variety of actions. Some make their asylum applications immediately, and they receive a card establishing their legal status in Ecuador during the pendency of their application. Others – and this is the case for the vast majority of Colombian refugees – do not apply for asylum upon entry, instead living for years in an undocumented and insecure state.

With respect to refugees who do not avail themselves of the asylum application process, they live in an extremely vulnerable condition. After the initial 90 days of legal status that they enjoy due to the Andean Card, they are susceptible to deportation by the migration police if they are discovered. A panicked asylum application at the moment of arrest might save them from deportation, but this is a dicey proposition.

5. Does the international community provide assistance in improving the situation, or is it the sole responsibility of the Ecuadorian government? Should they be helping more?

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has a strong presence in Ecuador. In addition to its independent operations, it partially funds the work of Ecuador ’s Department of Refugee Affairs, which is very important given the heavy work load and resource needs of that government agency.

Money from the UNHCR also funds social services for refugees through independent organizations like the Red Cross and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. These social services include the provision of rent subsidies, food rations, educational programs, medical aid, and psychological services. Aid like this is key for recently-arrived refugees’ health as they try to establish a successful, integrated, self-sustaining existence in Ecuador.

UNHCR’s aid only goes so far, however. As you observed, there is a tremendous humanitarian crisis in Ecuador due to the influx of Colombian refugees, and there is certainly a need for additional resources.

6. Is the Ecuadorian legal system sufficient for dealing with such a huge number of refugees and asylum seekers? Is it fair?

The Ecuadorian legal system offers due process mechanisms to asylum applicants that makes the system technically fair. Some of the due process mechanisms include a person's right to tell their story in a personal interview as they pass through the asylum application process, and also that they have the right to appeal if they are denied.

In addition, Ecuador has distinguished itself in the world of refugee affairs in a very important way: It has implemented a novel program to aid the huge number of refugees through what is called the Amplified Registry. The Amplified Registry is a government-sponsored mobile brigade that travels the Ecuadorian side of the Ecuador-Colombia border registering the thousands of undocumented Colombian refugees living there. Due to lack of education or lack of resources, many of these Colombian refugees have lived in the border region for many years without ever formally applying for asylum. Through the Amplified Registry, the Ecuador government made a proactive effort to help these people by creating a mobile Department of Refugee Affairs unit to process their asylum applications in their own communities.

7. Tell me about the most memorable case you have worked on.

It’s difficult to say what has been the most memorable case I have worked on, as every case has something that draws your attention, whether it be an interesting legal or factual issue, or simply the openness and vulnerability of a particular client. But there is one refugee family that does stick out in my mind. They are a husband and wife with six children, and I have worked with the family on all sorts of issues, from education discrimination, workplace discrimination, lost documents, security problems, petitions for resettlement to a third country and more.

Given all of the issues swirling around in their lives, it is almost as if this particular family represents the full microcosm of the Colombian refugee experience. Having spent so much time with this family on so many different problems, they have humanized the Colombian refugee experience for me the most and are the most memorable.

8. Do you think the recent announcement of a new US military contract with Colombia will have any affect on the number of people seeking asylum in Ecuador?

The new US military contract with Colombia will probably have an effect on the number of people seeking asylum in Ecuador insofar as it will strengthen fumigation operations on Colombia’s coca fields. These fumigation operations have many side effects that increase the number of refugees fleeing Colombia. For one, when armed groups’ coca crops are damaged, it is likely that citizens living in those areas are going to suffer increased extorsion to make up for the lost narcotrafficking profits.

Also, it is important to note that the fumigations don’t just kill coca crops, they kill adjacent legal crops as well, which destroys the livelihoods of campesinos and creates economic migrations. There is a lot to say about the effects of Plan Colombia and additional U.S. military bases on Colombian migration patterns, but these are just two observations.

9. In your experience, have asylum seekers from Colombia been the victims of prejudice here in Ecuador?

Yes. Anyone who spends any amount of time in Ecuador will inevitably hear laments about how Colombian migrants are criminals and are ruining Ecuador ’s peaceful culture. This prejudice is further reflected in the number of Colombian refugees we receive in our office who are victims of discrimination in housing, education, and work.

10. It seems that although you, and a variety of organisations are working hard to improve the situation, there is still a lot of work to be done. Is there any way visitors to Ecuador or Colombia can help?

Asylum Access Ecuador is just one of many non-profit organizations working on refugee issues in Ecuador and Colombia. Many of these organizations accept volunteer workers for short and long-term periods. In addition, donations are always very welcome and make a palpable difference, especially for organizations that provide direct aid to recently-arrived refugees in Ecuador.

Many refugees arrive in Ecuador with little more than the clothes on their backs, having abandoned all their wordly possessions in their sudden flight from their home countries. They are frequently in dire need of rent, food, education, and medical subsidies as they try to find work and build their lives anew.

For more information, or to make a donation, visit:

Asylum Access

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Notes on a Night Bus

The jittery bus finally trundles into San Augustín, just two hours late, having been tortured by the road, which cruelly dug rocks between tyres and near shook it into ruin. And somewhere along that dusty road, the 500th hour of bus travel appeared, caught between a couple of grazing cows and a hygienically-questionable roadside restaurant.

Despite the grateful absence of any midnight robberies, or the forever-feared crash, the journey across deserted plains, mountain ranges and along two coasts, has been far from quiet.

It began haphazardly, with tickets in hand yet a bus with no space, and we were promptly left on the platform as smug locals drove away in our seats. Soon a second chance, sitting by another bus as the stench of stale urine swirled around us, and minutes ticked quickly past the departure time. A few enquiries at the ticket office brought a blunt response: the bus would not go anywhere; there are road blocks, don't you know, and it's dangerous. No, we didn't know, and nor did you it seemed when you sold us those tickets an hour ago.

And like Vladimir and Estragon, the waiting continues. During which a knife swiftly slashes at a bag, and the would-be thief disappears unnoticed, with nothing in hand but greed.

Finally, a bus. We scramble for seats, then pause to wonder at the smell; the scent of decades of discomfort oozing out of cheap seats. Yet the engine starts with enthusiasm, and on we speed towards the border. Or, rather,
through the border, immediately after which hasty pleas are shouted to the driver, who must reverse precariously to save us from becoming illegal immigrants.

Onwards once more, and the appearance of a forgettable film, directed by a gun fetish and dubbed by a disaster. A minor distraction, at least, from the infant cockroaches running across our bare feet. But as the dreary sun sets, it is the cold we begin to fear all the more, which seeps in relentlessy under the tassled windows. It is no use; we are enveloped by night and a cold which until this moment existed only in northern Russia. It is left to the kindness of strangers to save us from what we now believe (with only the slightest sense of melodrama) is death by frostbite; who pass us a heavy grey blanket without a word, and watch us disappear beneath it with childlike thanks.

At some point sleep appears, from which we are thrown periodically by internal alarms, which demand recognition of new peril: narrowly to the left - a cliff face; to the right - vast nothingness; and at the front, a driver who has become lost in a Formula One fantasy. There is nothing to be done.

And it is some time later that we are shaken from our slumber, and told to get off the bus. Confusion reigns; it is 2am and we are still hours from our destination, in an unknown place which brings to mind nothing more than the setting of the aforementioned film. And so move we do not, but bargain and wait until a passing bus is flagged down that agrees to take us sleepy souls.

Safer now, we disappear for a few hours, until woken by a Latino pop soundtrack better suited to a '90s discotheque. Realising it has got our attention, the bus seems to swerve all the more precariously in a bid to keep us entertained. Yet instead this induces only vomit, from a man a few feet away, who looses himself in a plastic bag.

With fumes of bile filling the isle, the driver refuses to slow down, and it is left to windows wide open to transport us from the scene. Yet soon enough the breaks squeek, as traffic has appeared on this sparse mountain road. The tragic reason is hinted at only by a pair of rescue trucks, and a metal cable dangling over the edge, to search for what remains.

Thus the morning passes in anxiety, until an overenthusiastic gentleman strides to the front of the bus, and announces there is just one hour to go. An hour he intends to utilise in full, by firstly questioning passengers on their bodily functions, before having a rant about the state of food exports, and concluding that all can be overcome (and World Peace prevail) if we only buy his magic powder.

Cure all but punctured tyres, that is. And so just moments from our destination, we find ourselves waiting at the roadside once more, waiting for the journey to never end.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

A Glutton´s Journey

It has been many months now since the tin of Heinz baked beans sat proudly on the table, hand delivered from London to the southernmost tip of Argentina. And what delight it brought to those who sat down to dinner that night, indulging in a taste of home.

Yet since that day, rather than increasing with time, cravings for the culinary delights of the British Isles has rapidly diminished. Set aside at each border to instead mourn the loss of the delicious discoveries, inevitably made and then quickly lost with each new place. To be remembered, craved, and ultimately, shared, in a gluttonous day which is no less than perfect, although perhaps a little far from possible...

A platter of fresh fruit drenched in yogurt and a sprinkling of granola greets the day in Sucre market, surrounded by the bustle of potato sales in the heart of Bolivia. Wash it down with a juice from Kensho restaurant in a barrio of Buenos Aires, as the chef shares secrets of fresh ginger. Or a mango juice from the streets of Rio-de-Janeiro, to calm the baking sun.

Late morning, stroll down Calle Chocolate in Bariloche for a melting taste of Belgium amongst the Patagonian pines. Or head back already to Buenos Aires, where a white bench waits by Parque Lezama, to soak up drips stolen from the customers of the Heladería.

A few blocks away lies a lunch of deep-pan Spanish omelette, delicious enough to endure the grumpiest chef in all of South America, who will barely endure your smiles. Cram in with the locals for a soup in Cochabamba market; knowing nothing of the ingredients, but being sure the recipe is bound to Bolivia. Try one last taste of Argentina before heading to the equator, and drizzle chimichurri all over a steaming choripan, down a side street of San Telmo.

The long journey north brings with it an appetite, and afternoon tea is served in Ecuador. With cacao fresh from the jungle oozing from Killari cafe's brownies, it may be impossible to leave Quito. But you must, to become out of place in Otavalo, eating an apple pie surely stolen from the Dutch, and disguised with a dollop of icecream. And as the afternoon light fades, warm up with a mate cocido in Filadelphia, Paraguay, where soft spice wakens warn milk. Or sip hot chocolate in Cacao y Canela cafe in Cuenca, infused with a little too much liquor.

Wait not for main courses at dinnertime; start with a piping hot pumpkin empanada, appearing out of a woven basket only on Sundays, as the crowds gather on the streets of San Telmo. Perhaps a humita in Quito's Old Town, dipped dangerously deep in aji.

After an age of waiting a main course will come; garlic prawns served on plastic tables along Copacabana beach; a banana pizza sprinkled with cinnamon to confuse the cheese, on Isla Grande, Brazil. If the night is cold, take your knife and fork to Asunción, for a shredded beef risotto, to challenge the palette of Paraguay's steak-obsessed neighbour. Order a side of roast potatoes, littered with fresh herbs and baked in the fire of a farm near Malchingui, Ecuador.

Drink nothing but Malbec throughout, sipped upon a vineyard roof terrace in Mendoza, Argentina. Dessert will come on wheels, in a glass trolley across the beach of Ilha Grande to tempt you into excess. End with an aperitif of hot canelazo, served from a steaming spiced cauldron on La Ronda, Quito. And perhaps a fig pisco on ice, please, from the vineyards of Ica, Peru.

And if Christ the Redeemer has not yet struck us all down from his Brazilian hilltop, to the bar it must be. Adding a sugary zest to the night with
a cachaça-filled caipirinha overlooking the islands of Florianópolis. And an impossibly cold pisco sours at Fallen Angel, Cuzco. As exhaustion calls you to bed, stand only for a toast - to the day of delights - and drink down your shot of snake juice in Vilcabamba, Ecuador.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Perpetually Penniless

"Here is your dinner money," she said, handing over a carefully counted pocketful of change. And they fell about laughing, at the absurdity of the situation, sitting on a wall by the roadside in temporary poverty, somewhere betwixt the Ecuadorian jungle and their city home. For no matter how carefully plans are made; how many hours are spent doing sums, or stashing money in secret places, it seems that penniless times cannot help but creep up on the unsuspecting traveller.

It could happen deep in the Chaco of Paraguay, after a bitter old woman has robbed you of every penny you have, in exchange for a ticket across the border. It may be just across that border in Bolivia, stuck in a roadblocked town where banks do not yet know of Visa. Or it might be here in Ecuador, on realising that the bus back to your belongings is not coming, and you face a night in the great outdoors of this unnamed place until a way home appears.

But witnessing true poverty across each border has brought a taste of understanding to the bowl of plain rice which sustains the pair that night. For to those who huddle in the dark corners of each new bus station, these foreigners emanate wealth that only dreams are made of. And to those back home drawing their steady income, this laughing duo have become heroines of their dreams of wanderlust, who have learnt to escape so much more that the cold roadside that night.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

The Family Water

Bright lights glare across the driveway and dazzle the waiting. Inside, an eclectic array of greetings; handshakes, hugs, one kiss, two kisses, a wave. The room fills quickly with excitement and anticipation, carried through the house by three dozen, who slip shoes off and settle down on soft cushions.

The full moon settles too, lying on a blanket of stars to wait and watch the evening unfold. And so the night begins, with multilingual hopes shared amongst strangers. Tobacco passes with each voice; dark smoke wrapped tightly in leaves, to lift the thoughts and leave a bitter taste on the tongue. A black cat walks amongst them, entwining himself with the chubby ankles of the Shaman's wife, who jingles across the room with bells at her feet.

Uncounted hours pass, the space filled by scented smoke rising from hot coals. Through the light mist the medicine is passed; a cloudy concotion drunk down in one, inducing a playful nausea to tickle the mind.

Bodies slump into blankets & each other, whilst some allow the cold night air to seep up from the floorboards and into bare skin. Voices emerge once more from the darkness, in a collective melody which carries the last star through the twilight. Until the sky's palette lightens too much, causing sunrise to interrupt the night, and bring the faces out from the darkness.

Faces lined with tears cannot help but catch the laughter which emerges unexpectedly from the earth. And with this laughter they pluck the sun from the horizon, throwing it high up above them to bring the new day.

Together they fill their bodies with the clarity of water, surrounded by their equinox. And knowing that it was all worth it for her smile towards the sunrise, and that warm embrace against the moon.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

New Neighbours

The hourly bus pulls into Malchingui, a musical carriage complete with blue lights, red tassled curtains and a sackful of chickens in the boot. A couple of gringas clamber down at Cuatras Izquinas, and amble over to the line of locals waiting by white trucks. The drivers need not ask where they are going, as they toss bags in the back and head off across the plains. Past young boys herding cows, they are chased by stray dogs towards the distant casa in the clouds.

Isolated in an internationals' haven, days pass without word or sign of any neighbour. Until the donkey feels wanderlust in the wind, and charges off towards a braying friend. With handfuls of corn people follow; apologetic smiles greeted with good humour in the neighbours' paddock - fellow farmers forever amused by the group of gringas, trying to coax their wayward animal home.

As days become weeks, a routine of dog walking, donkey fetching and egg collecting emerges; and whilst the former strains relations with a barrage of barks, the latter brings nothing but delight.

Down the dusty road they go, across a yard full of hens clucking at their feet, and tap on the open door of the little breezeblock house. The unexpected visitors are greeted more warmly than the prodigal son, insisted upon to sit while dutiful daughters run off to count eggs. Conversation flows, with gentle chatter from farm life to Ecuadorian journeys and the distant United States. The pair leave with armfuls of eggs, but will remember so much more the old man's crinkled face, smiling in the doorway. They walk home across the barren landscape, but surrounded now by familiar faces, far from the anonymous path of the tourist map.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Living by Candlelight

Slithers of mist roll across the fields and fall effortlessly into the valley. These clusters of cloud turn candyfloss-pink as the sun drifts behind them, and shadows begin to stretch their tired legs across the farm.

Feet start to shuffle cautiously in the half light, guided by familiarity towards ivory-coloured candles. With wicks alight, flames flicker on their journey through the house, adorning tablecloths and armrests and windowsills. A figure balances precariously atop a creaky chair, spinning a black chandelier and shedding pools of hot wax onto the floor. An intimate light envelopes the few, illuminating cards dealt in the darkness and words working across yellowed pages.

Through a different door, blue rings shed an eerie light upon knives upon garden greens, whilst bubbly waters glistens in the sink. Bread bakes above hot coals, causing a cool draft to clash with rising smoke.

Slowly candles burn to base, and people move towards bedrooms caught up in moonlight. Quito lights glitter in the distance, only to happily disappear when the morning sun wakes.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

'Right, you're all on shit'

It is a well-known fact that open discussion of backpackers' bowel movements fills the fresh air of South America. Travellers who back home would not dare allow another hear them pee, publically rejoice at having had a solid shit. Bus drivers plead with their passengers to do nothing more than urinate during the 20-hour journey; they plead back for road-side stops, where nature absorbs the rest. Yet whilst tummy troubles continue to pain those on the road, faeces on the farm means something quite different.

A crowd of willing workers gather just north of the equator, to be told 'You're all on shit'. But they hold none of the nervousness which plagues the Imodium-carrying tourist. For here, the hundreds of trees which litter the landscape are fuelled by their own bodies. Sawdust and shit surround deep roots, whilst bucketfulls of pee has leaves glowing green with nitrogen.

(Thankfully) upwind, the morning shift begins with sacks of chicken shit, dragged across deep beds. The chickens themselves shuffle a few meters away, chuckling as dry dung flies into the eyes of their keepers.

Next comes donkey waste, pilled high into wheelbarrows until the source dwindles. Thereafter begins the Search For More Shit - teams sent towards the horizon, to return with bucketfuls of cowpats; generous donations from the neighbours. Light as air, the new fuel is playfully tossed in the air, before being crumbled between dirty hands and fed to the earth.

As the hours pass, the workers resign themselves to the inevitable, allowing excretement dust to billow around them, and cling to sweaty skin. Casting shoes aside, people step into the beds, turning the potent mixture until arms are exausted. Finally the water flows, streaking down stained skin and deep into the soil, to ripen the recipe.

Weeks later they will return to this woven patch of poo, plant vegetables and watch them grow. Many more months will pass before they sit to eat the feast of their labour, their weary bodies replenished by a burst of fresh flavours. Meanwhile, across the valley a lone backpacker sits in a cheap Quito restaurant, stomach strained, and thinks of nothing but shit.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Life Stories for Sale

London Waterloo, moments before the 10.15pm Portsmouth Harbour train departs. Weary workers rush down the platform; others sit on red seats and stare with regret at the bleeping Blackberry. Families crowd around fancy programmes, delighting over theatrical hours spent along the South Bank. The train fills quickly during these last moments, as late-night shoppers bundle bags aplenty into overhead compartments, copies of The Evening Standard are unfurled, and the inevitable stench of McDonald's fills the carriages. And then a voice; 'Ladies and Gentlemen, can I please have your attention for a minute.'

Inquisitive eyes poke out above newspapers, glance up from electronics, and spy the scruffy stranger in jeans and worn khaki. He smiles, reveals a yellowed clutter of teeth, and begins his plea. An akward silence hangs between the passengers; quick glances of contempt are exchanged as money is mentioned, for a bed for the night, or a bottle of booze they like to believe. Every attempt is made to avoid his eye, or the rough hand which passes by in hope. A silver coin drops into the palm, the kind soul thanked profusely as the whistle marks an imminent departure. Ten pence richer, the stranger steps off the train, accompanied by a collective sigh of relief to mark a journey soon forgotten.

Avenida Arequipa, Lima, an undefined afternoon hour. Minibus drivers speed along the urban racetrack, accompanied by overenthusiastic youths hanging out of sliding doors. They scream out destinations, in a general assault against the ears of passers by. Potential passengers huddle at the roadside, hoping a bus will slow down enough for them to clamber onboard. An athletic thirtysomething takes the leap of faith, grabs hold of the open door and pulls himself inside. Where people perch on torn plastic seats, pile papers and bags onto laps, and exhale.

Outside, the traffic builds and a haze of exhaust fumes rises to meet the grey city sky. Horns blaze relentlessly. Inside, the new passenger stands at the front, eyes his audience carefully, and begins. '¡Señoras y señores!' he exclaims with cheer, taking a small cardboard box from under his arm. Eyes are raised, turned from the unappealing window scene towards a man with a story to tell. He speaks with eloquence of his childhood, of misguided years spent stealing from those who sit before him now. His eyes portray a painful past, described with a theatrical flare to turn yet more heads.

Gazing upwards, he rejoices over the moment he found God, renounced his sinful ways and found a fresh path. He pauses, perhaps for dramatic affect, but all the more to allow a gaggle of girls to squeze past. Continuing his tale, he declares himself an honest streeet seller, asking for no more than a few centavos to continue with his trade. In return, a promise of sweet indulgement, plucking shiny wrappers from the cardboard chest of treasures. His audience are captivated. There is no need for shallow smiles or sheltered eyes. And no need to know what delicate delights he clutches in his palm. For his Chaucer-esque performance prompts hands into pockets; kind thanks for a journey remembered and a story to be retold.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Super Mercado

Ten clicks, and the chore is done. A lunchbreak minute, and a website whisks one down the electronic isles; to pick out fruits perfected by science, meats scrubbed clean of their origin, and exotic imports to impress the office.

Some hours earlier, as dawn breaks, shoes shuffle down the streets of Otavalo, with animals under arms, squirming in sacks, and dragged along by leads. Moving between the crates of chickens, someone picks up a reluctant piece of poultry, stretches out pitiful wings and wraps firm hands around dinner. Seeing such distraction, a feathered friend makes a desperate attempt at escape; past the cardboard boxes of chirping chicks and guinea pigs squeeking for victory. Yet within seconds, the hopeful one is swinging by the feet across town, where a small boy chops scrawny legs into an unwhite bucket.

There can be no cellophane wrapping here, no new moulds to disguise pigs trotters, piled high under the bodies they once met. Nor will the cluster of prawns lie on fresh ice, nor the scales of fish be softly decorated by slices of lemon. Underneath the already dead, a clutter of crabs continue a futile battle, pincers snapping at the rope which ties their tastless fate.

Across the way, colourful accompanyments vie for attention, with sackfuls of spices waiting impatiently amongst the grain. And with no silver trolley or teenage bagpacker in sight, shoppers load sacks onto backs, dancing over bunches of bananas which spill out across the street. They move towards steaming pots and sweet rewards, for a morning which cannot be packaged.

Friday, 24 July 2009

The Fickle Frauster

A tired black suit steps onto the sidewalk under a moody sky. Thousands of miles south, a woman wakes to sunlight streaming through bamboo walls. He sighs, shuffles to the corner and slips a shiny new card into the ATM. She smiles, heads to the balcony to watch the early morning waves. Pocketing his prize, he heads two blocks east, through a tall glass door, and joins the queue for caffine. Picking up a battered beach bag, she heads ten metres to settle in the sand.

With cardboard cup in hand, he rushes through the bustling streets of New York. With hands turning pages, she rushes through a distant continent. Battling through the crowds, a shoulder is clipped too close and coffee streaks down the black suit. Lost in a far away land, she fails to notice the newcomers who settle beside her, nor the sand which coats suncreamed skin.

With scalded flesh, the black suit finds another ATM, and cups crisp notes in his palm. Brushing sand from soft skin, the woman tests the water with her toes. Two doors down, his eyes widen at ice-white electronics, and a greedy grin picks a new toy. Two steps in, and she dives into warm waters, eyes stinging under the playful waves.

Feverently flicking through an abundance of instructions, he becomes baffled. Rolled over by another wave, she retires to her towel. Frustrated now, he tosses the precious paper aside and pockets his piece of silver. Restless, she gets up and builds a castle in the sand. Walking once again, he finds his final slot in the wall, and drains the final dollar from her account. With castle complete, she sits back content, and watches the final rays of sunshine fall below the horizon.

One week later, the balance floats back; dark raindrops fall on the black suit, whilst she settles on a new shore.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Stones on the Roads

The snow-capped peaks of Peru watch over as rocks are rolled into the streets. Huaraz appears under seige, as protesters block the precious paths to the Cordillera Blanca & natures' playground.

With hiking boots and crampons hung up, the happy hikers begin a feverent search for town-bound distractions. But unknown to these restless souls, preparations have already been made for such cloudless rainy days.

Behind unclosed doors, along creeky wooden floorboards or up a rickety staircase, lie the libraries of Huaraz. Nestled between coffee cups and bunkbeds, book exchanges boast a plethora of paperbacks, where one can while away an afternoon wondering who dared publish such tat.

But the libraries, with their wallet-denting lending fees and crisp covers, reveal literary treasures to transport one far beyond the blockades. Shakespeare and Ibsen vie for space against Homer and Johnson, yet all remain overshadowed by García Márquez, who clutters the shelves with his Nobel crown. More modern excellence appears in abundance, with Safran Foer taking travellers across Europe, only to be driven East by Hosseini or swept South by Coetzee.

And so as the roads are swept clean, it is with some regret that the tireless trekkers are brought back from distant lands, left only with the hope that their own tale is about the begin.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Return from Machu Picchu

Worry not who truly unearthed Machu Picchu, but know that capitalism came to the mountain top with Hiram Bingham, guided by a local lad who knew little of where his agile steps would lead.

And nearly a hundred years later, crisp dollars fuel the tourist train, which carries the masses effortlessly to an oasis of souvenir shops and identical eateries. Just a few more precious dollars will keep you and your Canon comfortable all the way to the entrance fee office, and the perfect postcard picture.

Taking the well-oiled conveyor belt to Machu Picchu suits well the two-week holiday maker, but with ones' bank balance swiftly sinking below zero, it was necessary to seek an alternative route back to Cuzco.

Thus we bypassed the bus stop, and followed wooden arrows for an hour down steep steps between the undergrowth, finding ourselves briefly back in Machu Picchu pueblo. We sought slumber in a cheap hotel, where a pile of blankets hoped to compensate for cold showers, and continued our journey in the morning.

Following the familiar train line, we turned our backs on the tourist trail and began. For a couple of hours we danced down the tracks, in fear of a train which never came. Accompanied by the sound of the river, we walked in the shade of banana trees, past people weighed down like mules, and chicks chasing each other through the bushes.

Electricity pylons signalled our arrival at the first destination, and we sat by the side of road comparing mosquito bites. Soon we were joined by the French delegation, and bundled unceremoniously into a taxi for part two. Six people crammed in and waited, until a middle-aged woman clambered into the boot and we were off.

Trundling along dirt tracks, hot dust billowed through the open windows, and lay a rough film over our eyeballs. With engine noises becoming more straigned, a hand reached out of the window to aide the antenna, and fill the valley with music.

Destination number two; a clutter of tin roofs and inquisitive eyes. A brief break for a squat over a filthy hole, and a wash in questionably fresh water. Subsistence was bought for a sol (seventeen bananas, no less), and after more trilingual transport negotiatoions with our European friends, we departed.

Darkness brought with it thick cloud, hiding tight corners and deadly drops. But the still-distant city beemed welcoming lights through the mist, and make it to the valley floor we did. Dropped off on the city outskirts, we slunk back to the centre and dusted ourselves off, just in time to join the masses in a toast to Mr Bingham.

Monday, 22 June 2009

The palm-reading masseuse

And so it was, that after 200 bus hours it was finally deemed necessary for some spinal relief. Such a decision happily coincided with a trip to Coroico, a quiet town nestled between green hills and just a whisper away from La Paz.

Asking amongst the locals, Juan's name came up as the man who can. Said masseuse appeared promptly at our breakfast table the next morning, and the date was set.

The appointed hour arrived, and we found ourselves a world away from the insence-infused and pillow-filled palace of our collective imagination. Instead, an old matress filled a hot room, where whitewash walls screamed for a second coat. Casting all expectations aside, therefore, we began.

Hands were soon cast aside in favour for leathery soles, and oily feet worked their way across my back. I remaining in silent surprise whilst a foot pushed inquisitively against my hip, a move only previously utilised to check whether a street-dog really was dead.

The hip-prodding promptly progressed into foot-slapping, and was accompanied by the first of Juan's 'readings'. He sensed trouble in my mind, and delved further through my tense muscles to a previously unknown childhood trauma (I still wonder). Digging fingers into my wrists he beamed with the gleeful delight of a masochist as I whinced in sudden pain; this was inevitably deemed a clear sign of my aforementioned trauma, and Juan produced a knowing smile.

Thus an hour passed in the anonymous room, during which my mental state was transformed into a haze of haphazard predictions. Yet my muscles protested of their neglect, and were soon yearning for the soft seat of another night bus.

Monday, 15 June 2009

The Waiting Room

A rusty taxi speeds down cobbled streets and empties it's contents under a street lamp. Two tourists are bundled through the glass door in painful panic, and white robes usher the newcomers into the waiting room.

A familiar smell of cleanliness and chemicals fills the air, and patients settle down dazed and distant. Friends and relatives tap their feet and exchange worried glances, whilst in the corner, a little girl plays with her favourite toy, oblivious to her sterile surroundings.

Playful posters instruct on everything from tissue disposal to hand washing, and the wall clock ticks another slow second.

Unpronounceable names are called, and a theatrical performance begins, whereby mime translates days of sleepness nights and experiments with backpackers' pills. Kind smiles and patience brings a diagnosis and a drip, and promise for morning health. Bodily fluids are placed in universal plastic pots, and the waiting begins once more.

Dawn brings anxious butterflies to the hospital, until another white coat brings a piece of white paper. Ushered back to the consultation room, the doctor translates a foreign medical langauge into a second foreign language. Grappling for understanding, it soon transpires that the words they waited for were the same.

Clutching scribbles of advice and a handful of prescriptions, they head to the pharmacy, for orange potions and white powders to cure the indefineable illness. And soon stepping back out of the medical world, they head back to Bolivia.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Foreigners in Filadelphia

With the smoke still rising from the ashes of Europe, fearful families sailed for South America. Following whispers from distant Paraguay, they found their safe haven amongst fellow Mennonites, who had already fled Soviet persecution.

They built sleepy streets under a baking sun, and sixty years later still continue to greet each other in low German. But whilst the vastness of the Chaco has kept save a threatened communty, such self-imposed isolation has bred a hostile suspicion towards The Other.

Here lies a cruel irony, as the mennonites prospered amongst thousands of welcoming indigenous people, who now clean their houses and cook their dinners. Despite relying on this interdependent relationship for decades, the indigenous population are still deemed entirely untrustworthy; some groups are in fact too lazy to be employed at all.

Such knowledge taints a stroll down the dusty streets of Filadelphia, which soon begins to bear an uncanny resemblance to Harper Lee's Maycomb. Blues eyes and pale skin disguised our identity for a moment, although inquisitive gazes soon turned to frowns on realising that we were not infact visitors from the German homeland.

Rejected entirely, we sought our escape, and failed; the elderly ticket seller merely mumbling of her dislike of foreigners. Third time lucky, and we clutched our golden tickets which would take us across the border, and towards post-1945 tolerance.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

In Defence of Asunción

Slipping across the border, Paraguay appears to be everything those on the outside say it is; chaos infused with an abundance of cheap electronic and corruption. Nestled between the continent's richest and poorest nations, it achieves neither the grandeur of Argentina, nor the romantic charm of Bolivia. Yet away from the cluttered hawkers stalls and makeshift tents which line the road out of Cuidad del Este, and unwatched from the outside world, city dwellers delight in Asunción.

A soft tap stirs my first morning in the capital, whilst a kind whisper invites me to breakfast. Slipping out of soft sheets, I follow the scent of freshly brewed coffee. An hour later I am being guided around the city's sights by my host's company driver, who proudly points to the continent's oldest this 'n' that. Soon the high-fliers are heading home for lunch, leaving London's lawyers to inhale processed sandwiches at their desks.

The sun retires early this winter's eve, leaving brave locals to battle mild temperatures for a poolside barbeque. Inside, friends gather on worn leather sofas over bottles of Chilean wine, passing plates piled with local treats.

Thousands of miles away, a computer screen clock marks the start of a new day. Unnoticed, the city worker types another minute closer to the dawn deadline, and thinks nothing of his calmer counterparts.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The City of God?

Standing in a hostel reception, a pale girl shakes uncontrollaby. She has seen the statue of Christ, and thrown herself infront of speeding cars to be with God. A few hours later in the same building, a teenager will drink one too many vodkas and spray vomit across his sheets.

For this is Rio, where Christ and vice battle beneath a cloudless sky.

Such extremes form the sandy spine of the city, where rows of religious statues cast their watchful eyes over the sex shop next door. Just streets away, an ageing church demands confession from the glowing red motel beside it.

Across town, Paradise exists at Ipanema beach, where the fallen wrap their barely-there bikinis in ´Redeemer´sarongs. For the faithless, Christ has been enveloped in affordable kitsch, glowing green, blue and yellow all the way home.

And so riding the `Redeemer´ bus the morning after, one cannot help but feel that in this city of God and the Godless, there is at least a sunbed for everyone.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Ten Hours in Chuy

Born and bred on an island nation, my concept of border crossing generally involves check in, fly, immigration, go. Even on the mainland, driving through Europe involves nothing more than a stampless wave to the border guards. Try getting from Uruguay to Brazil, however, and you will find yourself exploring the strange anomoly that is Chuy.

Having jumped off the bus on the edge of town, we were unceremoniously stamped out of Uruguay and into no mans land. A brisk walk down shady streets led to the Brazilian bus station, where bored staff wait behind a rusty wire mesh. The dusty timetable is for display purposes only; there is no bus for the next 10 hours. And so we pay in Uruguan pesos for our Brazilian bus, and head back towards the main street.

Here lies the true border, lined with ´Duty Free´ shops piled high with panini presses and home entertainment sets. One side of the road hosts a broken ATM, which gives Uruguan pesos and US dollars. The latter are rejected on either side, whilst Brazilian reais free flowly from nowhere.

Attempting to flee the confusion, a fellow purgatory resident directs us to a pensión on the Uruguan side (the Brazilian side of the road is more expensive, of course). Greeted with strange looks by our bearded host, he nonetheless guides us up creaky wooden steps and through a hole-in-the-wall sliding door. We are left to contemplate our new abode, where a bunkbed reaches the ceiling, the dusty 70´s TV sits unplugged in the corner, and a lone mosquito drifts through a rusty window. With nine hours to go, I begin to read the list of ´house rules´hanging on the wall, and take note that we must ´keep the room clean´. Eight hours left, and I slip into faded sheets and wait for dawn.

Shuffling to the bus stop at first light, we are accompanied by nothing more than a limping dog and brooding clouds. Without hesitation we jump on the bus, hoping to be driven far away from this uncertain place. A few miles out of town, we speedily reverse; the Brazilians forgot to stamp our passports.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

A Coca-Cola Country

Forever bus bored, as a last resort I turn to my drink carton for an informal Spanish lesson in all things juice-related. However, I am regrettably informed (in English) that my Latin American sugar rush is in fact owned by the mighty Coca-Cola Company. Sigh. This infamous logo brings with it images of slaughtered union workers in Colombia, drained farms in India, and a host of other sticky situations said company would prefer to hush up. And so I hastily blacklisted one more ´Argentine´ beverage, before entering Uruguay in the hope that this little nation had escaped such a partnership.

But rather than allowing Coca-Cola to subtly infiltrate its national drinks market, Uruguay has gone one step further, and stamped the garish logo all over it´s sandy soil.

Quiet beaches are presided over not by a trusty lifeguard or signs warning of terrible tides, but by Coca-Cola flags ten feet tall. The classic emerald green kioskos of Colonia have been painted over in the recogniseable red, whilst rusty brand memorabilia has infiltrated the charming clutter of antique stalls. Even the local rositerias have been united countrywide by one advertising board, detailing the delicious fresh pastries on sale, which must be washed down with a fizzy splash of e-numbers.

Uruguay is often regarded as living in the shadow of its giant southern neighbour. But in reality, is it not the imposing Coca-Cola umbrellas which are casting a darker shadow on the streets of Montevideo?

Monday, 27 April 2009

The Importance of Wilderness

Bleary eyes open as a sleepy bus grinds to a halt. Peering between the cheap red curtains, a dark expanse of nothingness is revealed; dusty shrubs illuminated by a few hundred stars. Yet the door slides open, luggage is dropped onto tarmac, and a cheerful passenger trundles off into the distance. With no buildings in sight, eyes dart backwards and still spy nothing more than an empty road. Leaving the remaining passengers perlexed, she continues her steady walk. The bus pulls away, and a dozen hours later a Patagonian town will appear out of this unforgiving landscape.

And after a hundred hours of bus journeys, I sit at the end of the earth and contemplate the wilderness which lies in every direction. Here the power of an impatient car horn is lost against a new soundtrack - chunks of ice plummeting from a glacier wall, woodpeckers incessantly drilling in the trees, sea-lions smacking their weight against the shore.

A nice stroll in the park is replaced by a battle against the unforgiving winds, which playfully toss tourists to the ground. Those who press on face stinging snowfall and a labyrinth of tree roots clinging to the boggy ground. Some inevitably pack up their tents and head back up north, having finally realised the embarrassing fragility of the human self.

But for those who remain, a sense of awe is awakened in the visitors´mind. Against our human failings, nature thrives. Vivid red leaves paint the mountain side, preying birds soar, and we are left stumbling home to the fireside.

Watching us from between the clouds, the jagged peaks of Fitz Roy provide a faint menace, reminding us that no matter how many buses and guidebooks we bring to Patagonia, this is one place which has already been conquered.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

The Second Cities

Long gone are the days when European footprints marked out the city plans of South America. Today, the city imprints itself on the soles of ones feet, leaving an indestinguishable mark of a journey well trod.

In Buenos Aires this translates as an immovable black stain, as one fails to skip over the dusty holes and steaming dog shits which litter the city´s pavements. As the days go by, soles turn tar-black, absorbing a thick history which the blue skies and balconies escape.

Armed with a nail brush and foot file, for weeks I embarked on a daily battle against this phenomenon. But my feet resisted, and Buenos Aires stuck.

A few short hours from the capital, however, pink flesh began to reveal itself once again. I had found the second cities of Argentina. Whilst they cannot boast the infinite number of cultural centres and ageing cafes, my feet testified of kinder and slower-paced alternatives. Where feet darken and crack in the capital, do not forget that hard skin softens in the sands of Rosario and on the cobbles of Cordoba.

Monday, 13 April 2009

The Rainbow Colours of Blood

Blue birds dance across a childhood mural. Painted flowers creep up from the shiny wooden floorboards. A clutter of books lie waiting for chubby hands and inquisitive minds. But this is not a nursery, nor a bedroom, nor a bookshop. This is The Provincial Memory Commission and Archive, former Provincial Police Intelligence Department and torture centre.

The books sitting on the shelves are those banned during the Dirty War, for fear that children would develop an imagination and thoughts against the dictatorship. Today, a red beanbag invites escapism and fantasy galore.

A few meters away stand the scratched walls of dark cells, signed with desperation by the disappeared. Above wait interrogation cells, where barred windows halted last hopes.

Such a contrast between playful and pain seems cruel, in a world where the traces of genocide are displayed as a shocking reminder of Never Again. But whilst a tower of skulls in Cambodia and a mountain of plaits in Poland will scar the visitors’ memory, the horrors remain so inhuman as to stay dislocated from today’s reality.

And so behind the cobbled streets of Cordoba, a transformation in collective memory is taking place, where victims´ lives are brought within the walls where they were broken. Only then, it seems, can visitors face the cell walls with the understanding necessary to prevent repetition.

One room in ´D2´ detention centre is a picture of 70´s youth; stripy jackets hang from green curtains, a Vespa is parked carefully next to an acoustic guitar. But with each item comes a black and white photo, and stories from the smiling owners whose possessions could never be passed on.

Onwards, and through the dusty corridor seeps the smell of fresh paint; a white-washed room with Ikea-inspired chairs and a flatscreen TV hanging on the wall. And in this room of clean lines and familiar modernity the survivors speak of unspeakable sins. Thirty years on, atrocities once more creep into a familiar setting, and it is only this identification which truly means Never Again.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009


On the outskirts of Buenos Aires, the airport departure lounge is filled with a cloud of melancholy, surrounding those whose time is regrettably up. A few miles away stand their counterparts, lacking such a self-induldgent time for reflection as they battle their way through Retiro station.

The grand old buildings which house the gateway to South America now cower in the shadows of thousands of suited porteños and tatty travellers. The English Tower still gazes a watchful eye over Retiro, but is now separated by a haphazard renovation barrier, leaving its ally to suffocate in the unbearable pollution.

Battling through the smog, the crowds are confronted with an endless supply of throwaway consumer items, with sunglasses desperately thrust under umbrellas. Only the insects pause for thought; flies dancing over empanadas piled on plastic crates, mosquitos searching for distracted victims.

But relief is not to be found inside, as the capital´s infamous queue for change transforms the train station into an inpenetrable maze. Acutely aware of the flow of precious coins, a beggar sits her sleepy child by the ticket office, clutching a polystyrene cup in misguided hope. Tensions rise below the earth, and police are forced to open the Subte barrier, freeing the masses.

A few meters away, the bus station hints at past prosperity, as moving walkways carry weary bodies inside. But still there are no empty seats for relief and reflection. They are already filled with the waiting, driven mad by inaudible annoucements and unavoidable dirt.

And so a sense of relief accompanies a Retiro departure from Buenos Aires. One which will prove invaluable, as it masks the memories of the capital with a lungful of smoke and a headful of hassle.

Retiro may be a blot on the city-scape, but without it, no-one would leave.

Monday, 30 March 2009

San Telmo Sundays

An eerie silence blankets Avenida de Mayo on a Sunday morning. Gone are the restless protestors and screeching buses, replaced by just a handful of perplexed tourists and falling autumn leaves. The city sleeps, or so it seems.

A few blocks away, vans trundle down cobbled streets and traders start unpacking. Within minutes throngs of tourists flood Plaza Dorrego, and the Ferria de Antigüedades San Telmo can begin.

Even after a dozen weeks, it seems impossible to tire of a Sunday afternoon in San Telmo. Without a permanent home to decorate, the gramophones and silver cutlery stands invite a desire for domesticity which the backpack fails to satisfy. Others hark back to the elegance of Evita, with graceful jewels nestled between fur coats and silk gloves. With the purse-strings tightly pinched, however, watching waiters rush around the ageing corner café is enough to transplant one decades.

Back on Defensa, modernity blends with it’s past as a troupe of twenty-somethings wheel a piano past tango dancers and begin to play. Other street performers abandon their static poses to chat for a while; the white-painted man and his multicoloured co-worker seem inseparable. And although supermarkets close their doors on the day of rest, there will always be baskets of piping hot empanadas and fresh orange juice to cure the effects of a Saturday night in Buenos Aires.

And so for just one afternoon a week, the broken pavements and pollution of San Telmo are forgotten, replaced by affection for a neighbourhood that has become home. But familiarity inevitably invites surprises, and I abandoned expectation the day a llama took a stroll down Defensa on a Sunday afternoon.

Friday, 20 March 2009

¿En serio?

¿En serio? I asked, as a friend explained how a moment of mistranslation had led to her unassuming self being invited to an orgy. It appears that smiling and nodding along whilst trying to understand does not always succeed. Sí, en serio.

It is inevitable that crawling through an adult world with the linguistic ability of a toddler will lead to some interesting situations. But somehow as the study hours add up, and linguistic confusion diminishes, the ¿en serio? moments still plague daily conversation.

It seems that whilst one can adapt to cultural differences with time, there are elements of Buenos Aires which remain beyond my reach of logic. Under the burden of such peculiarities, I am amazed the city functions at all. Here are the top five (explanations welcome).

¿En serio? the city is littered with shops proclaiming they are ‘Open 25 Hours’.

Now I can appreciate that China and Ethiopia maintain vastly different calendars to each other and the rest of the world, but I was sure that nations were in general agreement that one day held 24 hours. Not only is this supported by the solar system, but a very thrilling television programme has succeeded largely on the premise that one man can save the world in exactly this time period.

¿En serio? milk and yoghurt are sold in plastic bags.

Another clear sign that the science ship sank before reaching the shores of Buenos Aires. Once opened, a plastic bag containing a liquid will spill. Unless of course you follow local advice and buy a plastic carton to put said bag in, thus turning the bag into a milk or yoghurt carton. Coming from a nation where the milkman still reigns, I must insist on the superiority of purchasing milk in a solid container.

¿En serio? you can book flights online with the national airline, but not pay for them online.

Aerolineas Argentinas offer a hassle-free booking process online. Your confirmation e-mail will inform you that you still have to pay for your flights, but provide no details as to how to do this. On phoning the airline’s office, you will be told that all lines are busy, before the line goes dead. On visiting the office, you will be given a number and join the queue behind dozens of other potential passengers. Your flight will be confirmed by a smiling assistant, who will give you an invoice, but you cannot pay her for your flight. You will now have to join the queue for the cashier. On trying to use your Visa or Maestro debit card, you will be instructed to go to the bank and return with a wadge of notes. You will not receive a hard copy of your ticket, it is an e-ticket, after all.

¿En serio? you cannot buy Boca tickets until the day of the game.

This leads to a queue of a few hundred rowdy and hungover football fans congregating around the stadium on a Sunday morning. Having reaching the front of the sun-blazed queue, you will be informed that men and women have to buy their tickets from separate places, and at different prices. If you arrive as two women buying tickets for men and women, you will be sent to the men’s booth and charged the same price for all. Such a frustrating system may or may not be the cause of subsequent rioting, which last weekend resulting in an elderly woman being shot.

¿En serio? there is a national coin shortage.

‘Welcome to Argentina’ was the response I received when originally questioning this bizarre phenomenon. Shop windows fiercely proclaim that they do not have change, nor will accept notes for small purchases. The supermarket asks if you would like to ‘donate’ your change to (an imaginary?) charity rather than have the cashier part with the precious metal. The black market consists not of stolen cameras and crack cocaine, but coins. To be able to get the coin-only buses you must become a compulsive liar in all of the above situations. To hand over your change may lead to an incomparable display of gratitude, but you will be walking home alone.

¿En serio? Sí.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Painted Protests

They love a good protest, the Argentines. So much so that one has even become a tourist attraction.

For decades now the Madres de Plaza de Mayo have gathered in Buenos Aires to demand justice for their children, lost in the Dirty War. And now dozens of camera-wielding tourists join them, snapping away at one of the few remaining symbols of a far away ferocity. But this is not a Remembrance Day for friends fallen in battle, but a mark for 30 000, whose tortured bodies lie in watery graves on the banks of Buenos Aires. This remains a protest in the present, where each new government brings hope that Justice is waiting in the courtroom.

But politicians’ failures keep the Madres marching, accompanied by the drum beat of other city protests. This week’s grievances include a drought-ridden export tax for farmers, and the Saturday market in Plaza Serrano. Next week may bring new banners, but one thing remains unchanged; Argentines are acutely aware that fragile democracy can and will collapse under silence.

Despite this, it cannot be denied that the children of this 25 year democracy are largely absent from public demonstrations. However, far from being evidence of indifference, they are in fact busy elsewhere, painting silent protests across the capital.

Buenos Aires has been adopted as the studio for artistic resistance, where layers of spray-paint have transformed concrete canvases into politically-fuelled masterpieces. Simple stencils will teach you more about the harrowing state of prostitution than the daily newspapers, whilst nearby a wave from Fidel Castro promotes communism in the wake of a capitalist crisis. But these are not merely images for the intellectual to admire; the painted protests have and will continue to provoke reaction and change.

In 2001 Pocho Lepratti was shot dead by police in Rosario, as he attempted to stop them shooting at a school. In response to the subsequent police cover-up, street artists across Argentina scrawled ‘Pocho Vive!’, and painted Lepratti’s now-motionless bicycle resting against empty walls. In 2004, the gun-wielding policeman was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 14 years in prison.

If it were not for this unstoppable collective voice, it would be easy to forget about Argentina, seated at the end of the earth. But the sound of drums and the spraying of paint will carry their voice over the oceans. And we will remember the murals of the Middle East and the demands for ‘Nunca mas en Iraq’, and know that they have not forgotten about us either.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Cultura para Respirar

A rapturous applause and a standing ovation greets the close of a summer festival. This is no Glastonbury or Last Night of the Proms; there are no tuxedos or wellies and certainly no hefty entry prices. Just a few metres away fumes and heat collide; here porteños sip mate with a knowing smile. For rather than join the annual exodus from the capital, they have stayed to enjoy seven weeks of free events, culminating in tonight’s Grand Moment.

For nearly two months my trusty guidebook has gathered dust, replaced by the Cultura para Respirar programme. Following millongas and music around the city has created a new walking tour, one which traces quiet streets through plazas and parks. And amongst the trees a stage would emerge, or a huge screen, or a tightrope waiting to be walked.

Fridays would bring tango to the city’s plazas, where professional performances were overshadowed by the effortless style of the ageing Argentines. Week on week the festival crowds grew, and the well prepared arrived with fold out chairs and rugs. But even for the unprepared, lying on the warm tarmac by the Rosedal is not a bad place to watch a film. And for those lacking a picnic, the ‘Ceeeeeerveza-gaseosas-agua!’ man would always be on hand with a refreshment or two, followed by baskets of warm empanadas weaving through the crowds.

Linguistic differences fell away beneath whistles and claps and shouts of ‘Bravo!’ - It seems that language is an unnecessary accompaniment to a circus troupe flipping their way down a traffic-less Avenida de Mayo. And squinting down the Avenue in amazement, I could just make out the knowing smile of those who stayed for the summer.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Slow Gluttony

Red Wine. Steak. Dulce de Leche. All signs of unforgivable gluttony, and all staples on the classic Argentine menu.

Yet the narrow pavements of Buenos Aires are not heaving under the weight of podgy porteños. In two months living in Buenos Aires, I have not once been confronted with the shocking sight of obesity, one which appeared in abundance within two hours of transiting in New York.

The conclusion can thus be drawn that the ‘typical’ Argentine diet is merely a stereotype; I certainly do not eat a fry-up for breakfast, fish & chips for lunch and a few pints of lager for dinner. Statistically, however, your average Argentine consumes 70kg of beef annually, generously seasoned with a hail-storm of salt. Furthermore, the bakeries of Buenos Aires are unrivalled not in terms of wholemeal breads, but the variety of sweet treats that would make even Bruce Bogtrotter gasp.

The admirable porteño physique does not therefore come down to a careful observation of the ‘five-a-day’ rule, but an attitude towards food which seems wholly lacking in North America. Fast-food simply does not exist here. McDonald’s has of course made its commercial mark, yet has transformed its North American neighbour into the ‘McCafe’. Customers do not grab a burger and go; they recline with their papas fritas and enjoy the air-conditioned atmosphere.

In contrast, my first Starbucks sighting occurred just last week. Occasionally someone can be seen rushing down the street with a cup of coffee and a croissant; it will be a waiter delivering a shopkeeper’s lunch on a silver tray.

The Slow Food movement may have been founded in Italy, but it is here in Argentina that it has been perfected. Dinner cannot possibly begin before 10pm, but rather than a quick ready-meal before bedtime, extends into the early hours with friends and family. The menu may not be Atkins-aware, but shows an appreciation for the excellence of local produce, which in the Northern Hemisphere has been replaced by polystyrene cups and high blood pressure. An apple a day may go a long way, but a steak knife and a slowly poured glass of Malbec will go that bit further.