Friday, 2 April 2010

Northland, NZ; Argentina and Uruguay

Chrissy briefly mentioned the extra week that we spent north of Auckland as a result of the earthquake in Chile and now – three weeks overdue and two countries later – I’ll try to fill in the details. We spent a night feeling guilty about the Chilean airline putting us up in the luxury of Auckland’s Holiday Inn and, as we gorged ourselves on free buffets, we tried to remember the people for whom the earthquake didn’t work out quite so well.

At first, Northland seemed disappointingly crowded (all concepts of crowding in New Zealand being relative). We spent a night across from the undeniably picturesque Bay of Islands in Russell and visited touristy Paihia the next day, but it was only when we went further north that the landscape became as jaw-droppingly beautiful as we had experienced in so many places in the Coromandel and the South Island.

Whangaroa Harbour and the string of beautiful, sandy beaches to its south was the highlight and this was where we first discovered the pleasures of “fishing” for pipis (something that looks like a big cockle and tastes like a meatier mussel). It started when we saw the only other people on Matauri beach (close to the final resting place of the Rainbow Warrior) – two Maori women – standing waist deep in the sea filling carrier bags with shells. With a little instruction, we were soon experts at finding the shells buried just below the surface, pulling them up and filling our own makeshift fishing net. That night, a bit of garlic and onion and the self-righteous pleasure of foraging for free food overcame the gritty half kilo of sand that we consumed along with the fleshy pipis. The next night, in Ahipara at the southernmost tip of Ninety Mile Beach (which, as you may have guessed, is a long stretch of sand), we were taught that the key to removing the sand is to let them soak overnight so we went out and caught us our lunch for the following day.

Part of the pleasure of these last few days in New Zealand derived from the lovely places that we stayed in. Brent’s tent had been returned to him, our Wicked days in a camper van were behind us and so we had the luxury of staying in beds under roofs. Even though we were still sticking to a tight budget, “backpacker” accommodation is so good in New Zealand that in our last three days we encountered hammocks, hot tubs and a “tree house” in a forest near Kohukohu planted by Mr and Mrs Evans, a pair of Aussie environmentalists, whose love of trees and birds was infectious.

As may be obvious, I love New Zealand. It’s the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen with the friendliest, most laid-back inhabitants in the (English-speaking) world (in my, admittedly, limited experience). I could go on about Kiwis (the people) for pages but I love the way that so many of them love their environment as well as their nation and I’ll leave it at that. As for the original kiwis, we went on a night “trek” in a group of about twelve on our last night and we heard their eerie calls several times in the dark forest. Unluckily (for us) we were at the back of our little platoon of kiwi hunters and those at the front saw one about ten metres away but by the time we knew what their excited whispers meant, the timid bundle of fluff had scuttled off.

Kia ora (which now means more to me than just a sugary drink from the eighties).

Buenos Aires & Uruguay

The heat and hustle that met us as we left Buenos Aires couldn’t have been more of a contrast to the “sweet as” welcome that we got when we touched down three months earlier in New Zealand, but at least it helped to prepare us for what was to come. Having learnt the extent of how literally taxi drivers in Vietnam interpret the phrase “time is money”, I wasn’t as shocked as Chrissy by the speed or disregard for human life of the guy who drove us to our hostel, but it would be dishonest of me to claim that I wasn’t relieved to find in my rucksack some clean underwear when we arrived.

It’s hard to describe Buenos Aires in a paragraph. It would be like trying to cram a sleeping bag into a matchbox. But here goes. It’s big. It’s dirty. It seems to have more restaurants in a square mile than there are in the whole of Wales. The underground trains are crowded, sweaty but cheap as chips (and steak). Wherever you get off the subte (underground) or bus at whatever time of day or night, crowds of people seem to be rushing somewhere. It makes London seem quiet.

So how come, if it’s so horrible, did we ended up staying a fortnight? Well, after the initial shock, it’s actually great fun. Even though we took no photos, here are a few personal highlights. Hearing my favourite tango tune (“Libertango”) played on a bandoneon by a busker on a train. Paying about 4 quid for one of the nicest bottles of wine I’ve ever tasted in one of the nicest restaurants I’ve been to. Here I will allow Chrissy to describe the flavour of Argentine (and Uruguyan steaks).... texture, first. You could cut them with a spoon, they’re so soft. Then it’s all juice and succulence (describing a steak this way is actually sounding a bit pervy, so I’ll hand back to Mei)...

Oooh, matron! Anyway..more highlights: many of them musical: La Bomba de Tiempo, a stunning improvised percussion group that turn Konex (an arty gig venue) into a heaving festival every Monday night with their intricate, danceable rhythms enhanced with thumb-piano, trumpet and bass guitar. A neo-tango band, Orquestra Tipica Fernandez Fierro, who turn bandoneons (those big accordions) into something cooler and sexier than a Fender Stratocaster. Oh and we had tango lessons at a milonga where I became a graceful dancer (until my dance partner slapped me and I woke up).

A walking tour of the city with a couple of local students helped us to understand some of the political history of this place. After the tour we saw the “madres” of the political dissidents who were “disappeared” by the military fascists of the seventies march around Plaza de Mayo and, although it feels voyeuristic to be a tourist watching this display of public grief and defiance, it was incredibly powerful to hear the names of the dead read out in a roll-call and to hear the crowd shout “Presente”.

So, yeah, the city worked its charm on us and we stayed an extra week to attend intensive Spanish classes which have enabled us, at least, to say “Mas despacio” (“more slowly”) when people speak to us. I should point out here that our stay in Buenos Aires wouldn’t have been half as much fun if we hadn’t enjoyed the hospitality and advice of Clemmy and Ed (as well as Emma). Cheers.

After two weeks we went by train to the Tigre delta where we spent a night with two other guests in the biggest emptiest hostel in the world (like the setting for a low-budget version of “The Shining”). Then across the Rio Plata to Uruguay. I’m writing this six days later on the boat back and I can’t say that I got much of a sense of what makes Uruguay distinct. We spent two nights each in Colonia del Sacramente, a historically significant town which bore the brunt of struggles between Brasil and Argentina, the local big boys. We bumped into Nicole, a lovely Spanish student from our classes in Bs As, and her friend, Alyona, there so we spent the day disturbing the town’s peace by riding around in a hired golf buggy and a go-kart. That night we had a meal in a restaurant where the free entertainment was a couple of local guys playing “flamenco-fusion” on their Spanish guitars. Sounds cheesy but they were brilliant.

Then, we headed east to the Atlantic coast to Punte del Diablo, a kind of surfers shanty-resort where we let our hair grow for a couple of nights and hugged some ombue trees unique to the area before heading back to Montevideo. Montevideo seems to be a lively city in the daytime during the working week. We, however, visited on the weekend. We met some really nice people there though, and Uruguyans seem as friendly as Argentines and maybe a bit more chilled.

Our return to Argentina took us on an overnight bus from Buenos Aires to Cordoba, a city full of bookshops, bars and universities. The first things we had heard about travelling in Argentina invariably referred to the quality of the buses. We had been told of seats that folded back to become beds, TVs, free wine, meals and even whisky. In my mind (always a bit susceptible to fanciful exaggeration), Argentine coaches had become palaces of the highway, mobile Hiltons complete with a bottle of Bollinger on departure. Sadly, reality rarely lives up to expectations and I was disappointed that the stewardess didn’t even offer a footrub, let alone the full body massage I was anticipating.

Cordoba was pretty but it was hot and we realised that what we were missing was countryside, so we came here to a tiny pretty town of Mina Clavero in the Traslasierras region south of the city. Here, we’ve been forced to improve our pidgin Spanish and relax in the sun by a river. Tonight, we’re on the night bus to Mendoza, wine country.

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