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.