La Doña Anita And The Snake Road.

La Doña Anita opened the door in a pink, silk dressing gown and beckoned us in with her cigarette.

She looked older but just as glamorous as her website profile as she shuffled along the fifth-floor corridor in white slippers.

 

‘How long are you staying in Tarija ?’ she asked in a throaty, husky voice; her accent was strange, very unBolivian.

‘We leave tomorrow for Cochabamba on the bus’

‘OH NO! Not the bus,’ she rasped, dramatically placing her unvarnished left hand over her mouth while waving her perfectly manicured, red-nailed cigarette-hand in the air.

`That road is a snake, a narrow snake! Dangerous so dangerous!
image

She looked me gravely in the eye; I couldn’t help wondering about her bloodshot eyes.

´It must be a night bus. you see, they drive by night so they can see the lights of oncoming cars. That mountain road is not wide enough for two cars. ! And tomorrow there is another storm, a red alert.

She paused to let her words sink in, then inhaled deeply on her cigarette, puffing plumes into the smoke-filled apartment.

´Be careful, Bolivian roads are terrible. I am Brasilian, not Bolivian’ she proudly declared.

Our bedroom was unique; a cornucopia of clutter, home to collections of old watches, model aircraft, spectacles, belts and worringly, wall-mounted rifles and samarui swords.

image

Nan rolled into a ball on the bed and cried about the bus journey, Darragh and I felt sick.

We had arrived very early that morning in the midst of a rainy season thunderstorm.

Both the weather and the noisy, crowded bus station were a culture shock.

Thronged with picnicking families ,trinket-selling children and hatted  Bolivian ladies dressed in reds and pinks.
image

Station criers screeched ‘Bermejo , Bermejo!! ‘ advertising the next departure.

Our first job was to buy bus tickets for a sixteen hour trip to Cochabamba to visit the Christian Brothers in Centro Hermano Manolo.

The first grubby ticket desk was fronted by a lady, with her head on her arms, snoozing.

We moved to the second and interrogated a reluctant sales lady about her bus.

Does it have a toilet?
No.
Air conditioning?
No.
Do you have a photo of the bus?

She proudly pulled out a beautiful, glossy bus brochure.

Three of us looked suspiciously at each other and her; we had no other option and bought the tickets.

We had our choice of seats; we were the only three passengers booked aboard so far.

La Doña Anita had only confirmed our suspicions.Our spirits were already low after the night bus, the 3am border crossing, the lashing rain and the zika virus threat.

‘My travelling days are over ‘ Nan announced in our ashtray bedroom.

‘Not for a while’, I moaned, looking at the rifles on the wall, ‘we first have to get out of here!’

Advertisements

The Bus To The Clouds

Have you heard cumbia ?
image

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.
image

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.

image

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.
image

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.

image

‘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.

image

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!/

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.

image

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?

image

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.

image

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.
image

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……..

image

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.

image

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.

image

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

image

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.

image

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

image

image

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.

image

Oops!

Ok, we saw many,many penguins on Martillo Island in the Beagle Channel.Three varieties, Magellanic, Gentu and King, sunbathed ,waddled and danced for our cameras.

image

We had chosen a tour that pulls ashore beside birds, without disembarking. Darragh, a former Ballygarvan NS Green Schools Committee Member,loves nature and didn’t want to upset the habitat.

It didn’t affect our view or enjoyment and Darragh felt like a better citizen.

Nan made gurgling, cooing sounds and clicked, clicked and clicked.

I’ve always been more interested in the chocolate variety than the animal kind, but I admit they were cute especially the King Penguins.

Enroute, we marvelled at cormorants and sea lions and even I was mightily impressed by the beach master, a leader male seal who theatrically scared off his smaller companions.

I enjoyed the boat trip down the channel dividing Argentina and Chile. Between Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse and Port Williams on the Chilean side, Darragh and I stood on the blustery bow,  doing Titanic ‘I’m the King of the World’ impressions.

image

We had borrowed Nan’s prized camera with wide angled lens to record our performance.

Blustery bows,with salty sprays, and expensive lenses is not a match made in heaven.

image

Nan came, saw and snatched the wet lens, wiping it dry.

Later,reviewing her prized penguin photography, she spotted a blurry smudge centre stage.

She checked the camera, immediately identifying a scratch or stain.

Oops!

image

Waiting For Penguins

Standing on a ship’s bow engages the senses. Staring at open seas,wind in your hair, a salty spray on your face and lips. It jogs the memory,  stirring up forgotten moments while whetting the appetite for future trips.

 image

Forgive the diversion but on today’s jaunt out the Beagle Channel, I tried to draw up ‘A Best Ever List’. As one does when New Year is nigh.

Tripping around the Galapagos would have to be on it.  We luckily caught a last minute deal from Quito,  sharing the deck with rich retired Germans.Like stowaways,we were second class citizens, picking up scraps from the guide’s German explanations.

A stunning steam boat trip through the Stockholm Archipelago would be on my list. As would a Gulet cruise up the Turkish Turquoise Coast to Fetyah.

A summer trip from Ros a Mhíl, out Cuan Casla to the Aran Islands would make anyone’s list. Argentinian readers take note, this is a ‘must do’ when you eventually visit Ireland.

Our Argentine friends long for the Emerald Isle, especially after Star Wars. In Buenos Aires, there was a gasp in the cinema when Skellig Mhicil appeared on screen.  A trip aboard a Kerry fishing boat to Skellig would make any Best Of List too.

By the way, we had our Christmas dinner with the Christian Brothers in Buenos Aires. A proper Irish Christmas lunch,with all the trappings in 32 degree heat. A Christmas to remember especially when Br. Sean told me about his maiden sea voyage.

image

He sailed from Ireland to Buenos Aires in 1958. It took him three weeks. Stopping in Vigo, Lisbon, Las Palmas, Sao Paulo and Rio. His description of the ship’s arrival in Rio was so vivid,I nearly think I was aboard myself.

He described spotting flying fish as they approached the Harbor de Rio De Janeiro, then the marvellous sight of Christ The Redeemer engulfed in clouds high above them. He continued on to Montevideo and Buenos Aires and has stayed since. 57 years!

None of these boat trips had penguins though,  and today was all about penguin spotting. So Nan told me.

I really hope there will be penguins today,  we’ll be so disappointed if there aren’t!

image

El fin del mundo

We’re at the end of the world, as far south as possible in South America. In Ushuaia , 55 South 68 West, further south than Australia or New Zealand.

DSC_2046

 Nestled at the foot of the snow topped-Andes with views stretching out the Beagle Channel,Ushuaia is blessed by geography.
A stunningly beautiful but remote location, the world’s southernmost town is hard to reach and difficult to leave. Buses in and out are infrequent and fill up fast. No sooner had the three of us stepped off our plane, we were planning our departure.
Ushuaia began as an Anglican mission amongst Yaghan Indians who were later wiped out by epidemics brought by the Argentine navy.
Naval presence remains and there is strong evidence of the country’s war with the UK over the Malvinas.
DSC_2035
It’s  an issue that often came up in Buenos Aires where students sought my opinion, while their parents spoke of many friends lost during the war.

Based on the strong emotions I encountered,  I understand why Jeremy Clarkson’s illjudged Top Gear adventure to Ushuaia was so controversial.

The Ushuaia settlement graduated from Naval base to convict station, now a wonderful museum. While the setting is glorious, the town divides opinion. It’s a mix of gritty port town and tourist chic, full of single-story, corrugated iron houses.

 

A last-century escape from this remote prison would have been an impressive, dramatic feat.

Today Nan has planned our escape, a morning excursion by catamaran in search of penguins.
They had evaded us on our September trip to Puerto Madryn so Nan was determined to capture the critters at first light. With her camera of course!
First light came fast. It was bright up to 11 pm and got bright really early. The birds were singing by 5.

Nan marches us with a steely resolve in her eyes to the port at 8am where we board the boat and head out the Beagle Channel, out over the rim of the world.

The boat is full of well equipped travellers; designer labels must be making a packet with this new navy of eager travellers dressed in multi-zipped and pocketed trousers, expensive hiking boots, buffs, gloves, hats, scarves and sunglasses.

This bottom of the world has always captured the imagination. Here you will find the Patagonian origin of Coldridge’s Ancient Mariner and Darwin’s theory of evolution.
It’s no wonder that this boat load of wanderers seeks the spark that inspired works by Shakespeare, Swift and Verne
.
Our companions and I jostle for prime positions to snap the beauty and wild life around us.
We adventurers are armed with all the latest cameras, phones and selfie sticks.
 The gadgetry is ready, I just hope the penguins turn up!
Space - 3