The Bus To The Clouds

Have you heard cumbia ?
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Those who have, know the pain that we have gone through but, for the uninitiated,Cumbia is a rhythmic dance music beloved in Andean Argentina.

 For me, it’s an ubiquitous weed that has spread wild and unwanted in my life for the last month, torturing me.

In a nutshell, all songs are the same with a loping, rolling rhythm like riding a horse.  There is always some clown playing it nearby and shouting out the four words that are in every song.

Cumbia!/ Cumbia! Cumbia! / Cumbia!/

Today, after 6 months, my second last day in Argentina,I am proud to say that I have made my peace with the weed.

My epiphany happened yesterday, on the bus to the clouds, during our trip from Salta to Cachi, a small village high up in the Calchaquies Valley.
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At 7am, our bus driver, cheeks stuffed with leaves, pulled out of the station,immediately blaring out Cumbia.

It was going to be a long five-hour climb on a twisty, steep mountain road; none of us were feeling well, already suffering stomach bugs.

On my right, Darragh sat green-faced,clutching a plastic bag, Nan next to him was pretty pasty-looking too. It was anyone’s guess as to who would vomit first.

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Sat beside me was a little old lady from Salta. She was a sprightly, eighty-year old who was going to visit her little farm house with her husband and eldest granddaughter.

She was lovely, offering me goats cheese and pears,and was really enthusiastic about the beautiful road ahead. Especially excited for me since it was my first time.

The first stretch out of the city was nothing special, except that after an hour I noticed something new. ..my foot was tapping to the cumbian beat,it had somehow got into my head.

The chuggy chuggy motion of the old bus and the clip-clop beat seemed to merge and make sense.

I was smiling and enjoying the music. I looked around to see if others were too and saw that everyone was asleep, their heads nodding to the beat. I looked at my friend, the granny and she too, eyes closed, nodded musically.

Darragh was the first to vomit, the plastic bag did its job perfectly and he soon fell back asleep.

Granny woke next and told me all about the road and the region.

´This is the good part’, she said ‘Mira! Mira’ as the bus huffed and puffed its way, over and back up the hairpin bends of Cuesta del Obispo,the Bishop’s Climb.
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Soon, there was nothing to see, as the bus was completely engulfed in clouds.

‘Now is Piedro De Molino, 3400 metres.’ My thrill-seeking granny informed me.

The bus blindly chugged through the clouds to the Cumbian beat, hooting regularly . I hoped our driver was warning oncoming cars, not accompanying the 4/4 rhythm on the horn.

Granny was smiling, loving the trip and my reaction.

‘You’ll have to come back in winter for the snow!’ , she said.

Soon the climb was over and we were in open plains, surrounded by candelabra cactuses.

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‘This is Los Cordones National Park,’ she said ‘this road was built by the Incas a long time ago.’

It was beautiful, one long straight road stretching through red-rock canyons and cactus.

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As we sat rolling along; our journey,the movement of the bus and the Afro- Latino Cumbian rhythm reminded me of Paul Simon’s Graceland.

I looked over at my twelve-year travelling companion and was glad to see him awake and recovered, taking in the huge vista of cacti, his head nodding and his feet tapping to the sound of cumbia.

I couldn’t stop myself from mouthing over

Cumbia!/ Cumbia! Cumbia! / Cumbia!/

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Cooking in Córdoba

Córdoba was an oven;at noon the bus station thermometer was already tipping 33 degrees.

A pot-bellied Maradona look-a-like, emerged from the taxi rank shade.
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His faded yellow taxi was a creaking crock; sweat tricked down his face as he bashed open the boot and stuffed our bags into a clutter of plastic bottles, buckets,wires, dish cloths and a huge fuel cylinder.

As we crawled out of the station, he was very friendly but near-impossible to understand. But then I was somewhat dizzy and distracted by the strong burning smell and unbearable heat.

‘Are we on fire?’ Nan and Darragh screamed from a smokey back seat .

With cars behind beeping,Maradona jumped out , opened the boot and dragged our bags clear.
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Thankfully, the bags were fine,they had hit loose light cables causing them to smoke.

Maradona chatted all the way, telling us how Córdoba was so much better than Buenos Aires.

We baked that afternoon as we braved the crazy temperatures to explore Córdoba’s colonial charms from Manzana Jesuita to Museo de Belles Artes.

No one else on the streets except sleeping dogs and gangs of orange-bibbed parkers, loitering with intent at street corners. Pay them to mind your car or risk their wrath.

We sheltered from 38 degree heat in a cafe. Cecilia, our motherly waitress was apologetic.
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‘January. Hot, hot, hot! Everyone’s gone!’

She served up delicious tostadas and tea with cold milk to make us feel at home.

We enjoyed her homely hospitality till the power failed; airconditioning across the city was straining the network.

The grill’s flaming coals were too close for comfort so, dripping in sweat, we headed to our apartment and waited for sunset to explore .

On our final afternoon, we struggled in blazing sunshine to hail a taxi.

A stranger’s head popped out of an approaching car.

‘ Where are you going ?’a friendly girl shouted.

‘To the bus station.’

‘I bring you, I bring you’ she enthused,sweeping onto the kerb.

‘I was a muchillera ten years ago in Patagonia. I know what it’s like. And in this heat.!!’

Anna Julia bubbly told us her life story during the ten minute trip. Her job as a tennis instructor, her dreams of emigrating to Australia, her trip across Europe with her ex boyfriend.

We kissed and hugged at the station and she warned us to be careful who we spoke to.

Córdoba’s friendly people and searing heat are burnt into our memories for ever.

CALAFATE CUT

‘You first, Eat the frog!’ I teased Darragh, perched timidly on the hair salon’s wobbly waiting chair on Av. Perito Moreno, El Calafate.

‘I’m not going first, I’ll watch you’, he insisted.

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Our’s was not one of Patagonia’s poshest parlours, I told Darragh that a back-street barber would provide a more authentic cut and a better story to tell his friends.

Braving a haircut abroad is one of those roll-a-dice, rollercoaster travel experiences, a great source of stories.

For years, I’ve entertained and frightened Darragh and his cousins with my hairdressing escapades.

Like the Bangkok Barber who zero-bladed my head and the twitchy Turk who scorched my ears with flaming paper.

Their favourite is my Hondurian haircut, when I was swivelled about in a dentist’s chair, spouting Spanish instructions as if my life depended on it.

‘Si! Si! Si! ‘ The barber nodded, before dispensing his usual haircut. The same for every client.

Nan fell about laughing at my new duck-like-look, with one big curl left in the middle of my forehead.

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Today Darragh was a really reluctant participant.

In front of us, a white-coated lady with penciled brows and huge hands and feet chopped busily; a younger assistant finished off a head to our left.

‘She’s just like Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber!’ I joked. ‘Watch out, that looks like a trap-door under her chair!’

‘Can’t it wait till I go back to Mary Joe?,’ he suggested.

His regular spot, Mary Joe’s in An Cheathru Rua is a very pleasant experience, good chat as Gaeilge, and of course a great haircut.

‘Eat the frog Darragh , get it over with!’ I encouraged .

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Mark Twain said that if every morning, first thing, you eat a live frog, then the rest of your day can only be better.

Eat it early! Tackle unpleasant chores fast, don’t sit worrying.

Darragh, who was very nervous about the cut, had a different take on Twain.

‘You eat your frog. I’ll watch!’

I stepped up to the vacant chair, noticing that the young hairdresser was even more terrified than Darragh. 

Mine must have been her first foreign head.

The trim took an age, she sought reassurance before each painstaking snip.

By the end I was exhausted and covered in hair; she had forgotten to cover my clothes.

Darragh dodged Sweeney Todd too and the young apprentice was more relaxed with him, chatting to him about school in Buenos Aires.

Darragh, pleased with his trim, laughed at my patchy head and hairy clothes.

‘Nice hair cut, Froggy!! he teased.

Maybe, it’s better to go second.

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3gonorth

After Argentina, nothing will be far away again. It’s so big, you get used to massive bus journeys.

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Hours waiting at stations and streets; days and nights bouncing along aboard.

Those long trips started in BA, 18 hours each way to Puerto Madryn and 20 hours between BA and Iguazu.

From Ushuaia, only Antarctica was further south, we were tempted till we copped the crazy cost.

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So 3gosouth became 3gonorth,as we headed up famous Ruta 40 with a 13hr bus trip to Puerto Natales, 6hrs to El Calafate, 3hrs to El Chalten and a mammoth 24 hours to Bariloche.

All those bus-hours here to Latitude 41 09, where we’re still further south than Sydney or Auckland.

Today we’re aboard again, on Bariloche’s busy BUS 20, winding along Lago Nahuel Haupi.

A short trip, standing room only, my left hand grips an overhead safety rail as right hand thumbs out words on screen.This is how I write our blog,  on a bus, on a phone.

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But this is a Bariloche, not a bus, Blog.

Beautiful,busy Bariloche, the city in the Lake District national park; there’s so much to do.

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The Switzerland of Argentina.

Mountains and forests,
Chocolates and cherries
Craft beers.

Backpackers, Buskers.
Ski lodges and lakes
St. Bernards

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After our hostel experience, we tried ‘airbnb’ and were delighted to be collected by a lovely couple at the bus station.

We chose a cutesy city-centre apartment, rather than a timber, toblerone lodge and were delighted with our home comforts.

We’ve a stunning lake view and the adventure playground is on our doorstep, thanks to BUS 20.

Bariloche is so comfortable, it’s hard to leave. Especially since we bumped into Flor and family, our friends from Newman.

But tomorrow we’re off again, up the road to Cordoba.

Just a 22 hr bus trip, not far at all!

HOSTEL

My preference was camping in Glacier National Park but my wife politely pointed out that this was never going to happen. Patagonia or not!

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I suggested a hostel, to which she eventually, reluctantly agreed.
Only four-bed dorms remained, but how bad could it be, I argued, we would only have one extra person with us.

I was immediately impressed with the hostel, a modern, mountainy lodge with  laidback ambience.

Darragh loved the bean-bags, groovy couches and bustling restaurant.

‘Wait till we see the room! ‘ Nan whispered threateningly.

It was clean,fresh and airy, the only draw back was the railing-less top bunk; a fall onto the hard, clean tiles would do serious damage.

‘Boxy! There’s nothing in here and someone will break his neck off that top bunk!’  Nan snarled.

‘You love it,  I knew you would!’ I answered.

Who’s in that bed?

Our unpacked guest turned out to be a charm. A young Buenos Aires doctor camping alone in the mountains.

He chatted a while, was great company but soon left to buy nine days of food to lug across the Andes.

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‘A doctor! We’re sorted if I fall off the top’ I laughed, as we enjoyed a lovely meal downstairs.

Our visitor returned late, rose early and set off without incident.

We trekked paths all day, spotting condors, Magellanic woodpeckers and Patagonian foxes while enjoying stunning views of Mt. Fitz Roy in incredible light.

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The vacant bed remained a source of speculation and we were relieved to find it still empty on our return.

Throughout the evening, we watched, from our restaurant table, as tired trekkers turned up, including a motley British tour group who mutinied against their enthusiastic guide.

Nan and Darragh tired and went upstairs but I was enjoying the tour’s theatrics too much, so stayed.

I spent a while watching the carry-on when suddenly, Darragh appeared excitedly from the downstairs communal bathroom, toothpaste still around his mouth.

‘There’s a new guy in the room’, he gushed breathlessly.

‘He’s from Japan and speaks no English or Spanish. All we can figure out is that he’s been on the mountain for 5 days.

He’s washed his clothes, and his underpants and socks are hanging from your bed.’

You gotta see it!’

‘Ok, ok but finish brushing your teeth first’ I told him.

After a few minutes, Darragh ran to me again.

‘He’s here. He’s here!’ Look!’

He pointed out a wild looking man with a moustache limping barefoot up the stairs; huge hair stood up high on his head.

He had thick glasses and was dressed in a tracksuit; one pants leg pulled high up above his knee, while the other trailed the ground.

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I told Darragh to stop staring and to sit down and give the man some space.

We waited a while and then went up to find hilarious, bizarre goings-on in our corridor.

Our Japanese companion, both hands on door handle,was trying enthusiastically but awkwardly to get into the room.

Nan, locked inside, in her pyjamas, offered advice.

‘You got your key? You got your key?’ she screeched.

‘The door is locked, you locked me in.’

He didn’t have a clue what she was saying,laughed nervously and continued to push, twist and force in frustration.

Darragh and I intervened to help.  Nan explained she had been locked in for ten minutes.

He had left earlier and locked her in.

He failed clumsily with the key, until I took over and opened it.

He was embarrassed but relieved to finally get in.

The smell inside from drying laundry was shocking. His smalls hung from my matress over his bed.

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He disappeared quickly with passport and coat and we didn’t see him again  till he returned, after we were asleep, at 2 am.

In the dark, he bumped his way, bottles in hand to the bunk and adjusted the laundry hanging over his head.

Sitting on his bed, he rummaged through lots of little bags,stiffling a cough, while removing two oversized alarm clocks.

He then got up, locked the door and fell immediately asleep.

We were locked in.

Bus Patagonia. An té a bhíonn siúlach, bíonn sé scéalach.

The Patagonian bus to the Chilean border is packed with young travellers from many lands. I look around, wondering where they’re from, why they’re here.

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The couple opposite carry a bag with a logo: IIHF Junior World Championship,  Toronto, 2015.

Ice Hockey?  Canadian imaginations captured  by this vague, vast territory spread across two countries?

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Everyone is eating.

Chilean border police strictly forbid fruit, meat and dairy products; enforcing the ban with sniffer dogs and fines.

We must lose our contraband ham-and-cheese toasties,  prepared by our bubbly Ushuaian landlady.

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Fellow passengers share bananas, yoghurts and travel tales. Nice to note because often there’s a dog eat dog scramble among these travellers. ‘Chuile dhuine ag tochailt ar a cheirtlín fhéin ‘

The Dutch girl next to me shares art tips with Darragh; shows him how to draw portraits, teaching about dimensions and shade.
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While they discuss art, I eavesdrop on the conversations around me.

‘The water is so pure in the rivers, you can drink it, no need to bring your own’,  enthuses a young Central European girl.

‘Perito Moreno Glacier is incredible, magical. You hear noise like thunder as bright blue ice breaks off and crashes into the lake.’Definitely a North American twang.

‘Make sure to trek in El Chalten,stay in rancho Grande’ says an American but not native accent.

I’m intrigued by the languages and accents and try to guess nationalities. I can make out English. Spanish, German and Hebrew. The couple across switch seamlessly from French to English. Definitely Canadian, I decide.

No doubt they’re guessing our nationality too.

Since leaving Buenos Aires, we’ve spoken only Irish. It’s Nan and Darragh’s first language but not mine.

Usually ,I’m the weak link, the first to slip into English. But recently I’ve been better, now that I’m only speaking Gaeilge or Spanish.

Many travellers don’t even know there is an Irish language, thinking Gaeilge is just English with an Irish accent. They tell us they’ve met many Irish and nobody spoke Gaelic.

There are a large group of young Israelis travelling on the bus and all speak Hebrew and English fluently.  It’s interesting to see how strong Hebrew is now, considering the language was nearly dead as a spoken tongue.

Nearly everyone on the bus speaks more than one language and can switch easily depending on the audience.

On this bus it is unusual to have just one language.

The bus conductor moves down the aisle dispensing coke in plastic cups and Chilean immigration forms.

‘De donde son? ‘ where are you from? he chirps and pours.

Good man I think, you’re getting the answers for me.

I  strain my ears as they answer

Poland, Canada, Argentina, Israel……..

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One Heck Of A Trek by D.Illustrator

I wake up at dawn on New Year’s Day to the sound of the previously set, annoyingly catchy alarm by my dad.

Not knowing it was 2016, I reluctantly got dressed and went downstairs to meet my parents, who were already up,  filled with energy and rearing to go, I on the other hand was exhausted because of the rapid border crossing and city changing all in half a week!

Then I suddenly remembered why I was woken up so early and why my parents had warm clothes, bags and trekking boots on.Today, the first of January 2016 we were going to do an eighteen kilometer trek in Parque Nacional Torres Del Paine.

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So after a ‘filling’ breakfast of a cereal bar, we set off for the middle of nowhere.

Anyway, it took us around two and a half hours to get to Torres and another half an hour because we were stopping to look at guanacos (or ginger llamas as I call them) and ñandus (ostrich like birds) and the occasional hare.

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When we finally paid the entrance fee and got to the start of the trail we commenced our almost vertical ascent.

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After about half a kilometer up, we were already exhausted,but we came across a tree that had abrazamé or hug me on a sign next to it, so I did what I was told.

I suppose it was meant to give energy for the rest of the trek but it didn’t really help.

A little bit further up the line we came across a bush with some berries on it, Victor, the guide,  said that they were edible so I gave them a try.They were nice enough,then Victor said that it’s a calafate berry and rumour has it that if you eat one,it guarantees your return to Patagonia.

That means that I will be writing my own blog in twenty years or so.

So while we were going up the mountain  everything was going fine, a few hard bits here and there but generally it was ok.

We then took a short-ish break at the campamento Chileno and then we continued our trek.

After that rest stop I got a good bit of my energy back and I was leading by a lot all the way up to the last forty five minutes of the hike. That’s when it got hard.

We had to climb and step over boulders in our way. For me that would be still hard on a level surface but when you’re going up a big mountain at the same time it’s extremely hard to keep on going.

I begged Dad to stop for a break so that’s what we did but then a really nice lady from the United States told us “The view point is just after that big rock, we can make it to a big rock” and that’s just what we did.

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We were immensely rewarded by the stunning view of the Torres Del Paine and the almost blinding, brilliant turquoise colour of it’s lake.

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After a twenty minute stay, we started our descent,Victor told us that this was going to be hard on the knees.

I was very slow coming down and Mom kindly stayed with me, helping me down the mountain.

After a while we caught up with Dad and Victor and I was leading for the rest of the trek,well almost,near the end I fell back a bit because my legs couldn’t take any more.

But, I was still the first person to the car. I stayed almost motionless for the rest of the tour except when we got out to look at an amazing waterfall with rainbows and everything.

After that Victor brought us back to our cabin apartment thing and I fell into my bed asleep in ten seconds flat.

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