Curtain Call: a grand finale in Buenos Aires

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Here we are folks – the final act. The curtains are twitching above the great stage that has been my journey; they will soon hit the boards, and the many actors whom have trodden upon them will have taken their final bow and drifted away into the backstage of my memory. Before that happens (and before I get too dramatically metaphorical), however, there are a few final scenes and characters that deserve an airing.

I spent a wonderful final week volunteering at La Manzana, in which I mostly exchanged my spade for my laptop and got stuck into tweaking and translating the project website (take a look at the fruits of my labour here!). Every evening was filled with more of Sol’s sensational cooking, many many bottles of good, laughably cheap Argentinian wine and general shits and giggles around the campfire with the other volunteers. Anja and I said an emotional goodbye on Wednesday, and headed back to central BA, where she was to board a boat to Uruguay, and I was bound for Palermo – an end of town about which people had raved but which I had not yet investigated.

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Palermo. It’s hard not to love Palermo, with its twee little eateries and vintage boutiques set into a network of leafy cobbled avenues. It reminded me a lot of Portland – plenty of money flying around this neighbourhood, that’s for sure.

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The bank of memorable hostel characters has been well topped up by my Palermo digs this week. Particularly worthy of note was Ozgar, a Turkish bloke who approached me in the hostel bar one night, brandishing a bottle of wine in my face and telling me he hoped I appreciated a good Malbec. I didn’t go for the wine, but we did get talking about Japan; I had expressed an interest in going, and he told me that coincidentally he had “made his fortune” over there and that he could definitely sort me out with a good job if I was interested. It soon transpired that he had made said fortune by assuming ownership of a chain of strip clubs in Tokyo, and the kind of employment he had in mind for me was… rather beyond my area of expertise, shall we say! I clarified that I had my sights set on a different line of work (subtext: I am not remotely interested in using my feminine wiles – such as they are – to make men like you into millionaires, you massive sleazebag). He was gone the following morning.

Right at the other end of the sexuality spectrum, we have Pato – a long-term hostel-stayer and Buenos Aires native more camp than Alan Carr waving a giant rainbow flag from a glittering float at Brighton Pride while wearing a tutu. By the time I’d had time to identify my bed and throw my backpack down, Pato had given me a detailed biography of his hunky Brazilian boyfriend, along with a cutting breakdown of each of our fellow roommates (“…two French girls in Beds Three and Four – one snores, the other’s fat. German guy in Bed Seven – chain-smoker. Ugly. American in Bed Two is always on her phone, doesn’t speak Spanish. Plus stinky feet UGH.”) To Pato’s great excitement, two days ago a strapping young Swiss bloke moved into Bed Six. Batting his eyelids profusely and barely preventing a trail of drool from streaking down his chin, Pato asked the newcomer where he was from and for how long he was staying, while I listened from my bunk. No sooner had the Swiss dish shut the door on his way out to the shower, Pato swung his head conspiratorially in my direction and announced, “DEFINITELY gay. Did you SEE the way he was looking at me??” I giggled non-committally in response. Sometimes, stereotypes are hilariously accurate.

Chin-wags. My last few days have provided an excellent opportunity for catch-ups, and also for shooting the breeze with new acquaintances. It was great to be able to reconnect with Emma from university, who relocated to BA two years ago. We chatted a lot about our Cambridge memories, good and bad, and then hopped on a bus over to Belgrano, where she showed me China Town and we did some more quality wandering and chatting.

I was also over the moon to be able to check in with Paula and Monica, the awesome Argentinian duo with whom I did the salt flats expedition back in Bolivia. We spend a beautiful afternoon lunching, picking our way around the Saturday markets and reminiscing about the Bolivian adventure. So much love for those girls, total sweethearts.

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Later that evening, I found myself out in one of Palermo’s buzzing plazas, caught up in a heated debate with four lads from Rosario. It is quite a fascinating time to be here in Buenos Aires, in the wake of a divisive presidential election which has delivered conservative Macri into the Casa Rosada (the Americans have the White House; the Argentinians have the Pink House). Macri is expected to properly open the country up to international trade for the first time since the crash of 2001, which some welcome and others fear will make Argentina into one big cash cow for the United States… Debates such as the one in which I found myself in the Plaza Serrano that night are what make me thoroughly grateful to my younger self for deciding to learn Spanish – nothing beats hearing the passion and reactions of Argentinians on the ground first hand (hint: languages are COOL, have a go!!).

Fuerza Bruta. After helping Pato choose his outfit for the night back at the hostel, new travel chums Swiss Ornella, German Petra, Argentinian Lucas and I headed over to Recoleta for this artistic sensation which I had heard about a few years back. Fuerza Bruta is a veritable feast for the senses; it includes a lot of rousing, anarchic drumming and throwing of water and confetti, with performers on harnesses flying fearlessly around the auditorium while strobes distort your sight and unearthly beats pound your eardrums. The highlight was most definitely the water dancers; we craned our necks as mermaidesque figures writhed on a transparent, water-soaked platform above the audience’s heads. The effect is ethereal, unnerving and deeply beautiful. We all emerged an hour or so later, wide-eyed and slightly shell-shocked, in the best way possible. Incredible, visceral viewing.

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I have spent the rest of my last few days wandering around Buenos Aires’ many green spaces (el Rosedal is especially gorgeous), getting lost in the dilapidated charm of the San Telmo neighbourhood (and its humungous antiques market) and attempting to grasp the surreal fact that I will soon be feasting my eyes on the rolling hills of England… I am off to the airport shortly, so I will reserve my reflections of the whole crazy adventure for a final post when back on the sofa with a cuppa in hand, Tang on my lap and the Great British Bake-off playing in the background. See you on the other side!

X x x x x

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Mud, conspiracy theories, mud, gauchos, mud

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Hellooooo one and all!

After a day or two of sampling the first-world delights of Buenos Aires, I find myself being hurled back in time to an existence much more akin to that experienced in Bolivia and Peru: non-flushing toilets, dirt roads and legions of stray dogs. I am at La Manzana, a permaculture site on the very outskirts of BA. Time is also reversing in other ways: my inner child has been squealing with glee as I romp happily about through several inches of squelchy mud, digging beds in which I then plant rows upon rows of lettuces, tomatoes, corn, sunflowers, and beetroot with my fellow volunteers (American Sophie, Scottish Kenny and German Anja). When I’m not doing my best mud-loving hippo impression, I’m helping out with the cooking (yes you read right – COOKING, and no – nobody has died yet), working on La Manzana’s website and social media, and have even been taught a bit of kick boxing. It’s been a varied week!

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The Sod It Moment. I have been struck by how my standards of cleanliness have dropped dramatically over the past few days; already lowered somewhat by the realities (and inconveniences) of life on the road, my dirt tolerance now seems to know no bounds. Anja and I had what we have come to describe as The Sod It Moment the other day: realising that there was no way that we’d maintain even a vague level of cleanliness during the digging process, we kicked our shoes off and waded straight into the mire of mud around us, emerging some hours later looking like creatures from the Black Lagoon. I don’t think I have been that muddy since my mud pie-making days a couple of decades ago. Glorious indeed.

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Mark and Sol. Leading the charge at La Manzana is Mark, originally from Derbyshire, who has well and truly secured himself a spot on the Bonkers Hall of Fame for my journey. He is a devoted conspiracy theorist, individualist, anarchist and climate change denier, all of which have made for some interesting conversations/heated debates, as you can imagine! Some of his arguments are thought-provoking; some are downright absurd, and sometimes (usually after several glasses of wine and a fat joint), he simply lapses into slurred lists which usually include the Iluminati, the New World Order, the Iron Mountain Report and Agenda 21. Despite his obsession with the impending end of the world brought about by the hidden elite/aliens/feminists/the Tellytubbies, Mark has used his agro-forestry knowledge to create something very beautiful here on the edge of Buenos Aires, which makes me suspect that he hasn’t quite lost faith in a positive future just yet….

Running the show behind the scenes is Mark’s long-suffering Colombian wife Sol, every bit the Marge to his Homer. She is practical, no-nonsense and has perfected the Withering Look, which she frequently directs at Mark whenever he kicks off on a new rant about chem-trails or the State of Israel. There is a permanent mixture of exasperation, admiration and humour behind her eyes, which made me warm to her instantly. Her cooking also happens to be world-class: it is delicious on a level as yet indescribable in either Spanish or English. I have been learning a thing or two from her when it’s my turn to help in the kitchen – so watch out for some immense dishes courtesy of yours truly upon my return!

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Mark and Sol (this photo absolutely sums them up)

Twelve Tribes. My very first night here was marked by a visit to the Twelve Tribes, an international religious community that originated in Tennessee back in the 1970s. They are an incredibly gentle and welcoming group of people, and they resemble the Amish in that they dress in old-fashioned clothes, the men are unshaven and everybody wears a headscarf and headband (shepherds in Nativity play-styley). Rooted in Judeo-Christian faith, the community values unity and love above pretty much everything, and undertakes to offer dinner to others in the wider community for Shabbat every Friday. Mark, Sol, the other volunteers and I were therefore treated to a delicious supper of fresh grilled fish, home-made bread and sticky chocolate pudding, followed by some very energetic circle dancing (impressive footwork!). We’re going again tonight I think. Roll on dinner time…

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Bit of a crap picture but gives you an idea (was trying to get a sneaky shot as I think technology is frowned upon…)

Gaucho Festival. What better way to kick off a sojourn in the Argentinian countryside than by meeting some of Argentina’s famed horse masters? We headed out to the edge of town on Saturday night, where we watched one fearless bloke after another mount a wild, blind-folded steed and attempt to stay clinging onto its back for as long as possible. Pretty intense viewing I can tell you. There was also much beer, dancing and more MEAT than I have ever seen in one place in all my life! Jorge, who is one of La Manzana’s investors and who brought us to the festival, also managed to blag us all horse rides (on broken-in horses, not wild ones!) once the main show was finished. The real spectacle of the night came in the form of Mark, who was so drunk by this time that he attempted to mount his allocated horse and fell straight off the other side (cue Withering Look from Sol). He bruised his arm a bit (which he made sure to regularly draw attention to for the following few days with pointed gasps and winces – cue more Withering Looks), but was otherwise unscathed.

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MEAT

That more or less brings you up to date! Back to work now – the sun has finally come out again after a deluge yesterday, so we’re off out to plant some more corn. Upcoming plans include some sort of cake and wine night for my birthday on Sunday, a few more days here at the ranch and then the return to Buenos Aires before my homeward flight 🙂

A muddy-fingered wave to you all, love you very much!

K x x x

P.S. Quick plug: if you’re free and in Wokingham on 10th December, please do drop in on my travel talk at the library at 6.30pm. All donations for attendance are going towards my Nicaragua project in January – really hope to see you there! Or if you can’t make it but would like to donate then you can do so via my JustGiving page: https://www.justgiving.com/Katrina-Barnes1/ OR by texting KATR49 £5 (or whatever amount you can spare) to 70070.

THANK YOU!!!

Cordoba, Rosario and Buenos Aires: love, love and LOVE

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It’s official boy and girls: I have arrived at my final destination on what has been a long, beautiful and incredibly diverse journey! The fun’s not over yet of course – still a couple of weeks left to play with – but Buenos Aires has already shown me an excellent time since I rocked up yesterday afternoon. I’m the first to admit that I have barely even extended the finger with which to scratch the surface of this mind-bogglingly extensive metropolis, so I’ll save my BA round-up for a later post. For now, I am taking two slightly smaller cities as my subjects, cities which I feel deserve full and undivided attention, such was the brilliance of my experiences there.

Cordoba. I felt instantly good about arriving in this fab spot. Although admittedly this could be partly put down to relief at being back in civilisation after the Yannis fiasco (see last week’s post here), there is no denying that Cordoba needs little assistance in the charm department. The city does colonial grandeur very well, but is also a student hub where the hipster movement has found a natural groove. From its edgy antique markets sprawling along the Paseo de las Artes through to the university area with its protest graffiti and student buskers, it has a decidedly alternative vibe which has served to transform what I imagine was a collection of rather run-down buildings into an avant-garde paradise full of pop-up boutiques and artfully shabby bars, announced by twinkling fairy lights and house beats. All very tasteful.

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Cola hunting, choral singing and Borscht. My Cordoba experience was made, as is so often the case, by the people I met there. Ukrainian Elena and I had stayed in touch since Cafayate, and arranged a meet-up in Cordoba along with her couchsurfing host, Cecilia, and Cecilia’s sister Flor. We spent a wonderful afternoon chatting away over a merienda of maté (traditional Argentinian herbal tea) and bread with dulce de leche (caramel-like spread), and were then joined by a few of Cecilia’s friends, with whom we scurried excitedly around the Paseo de las Artes in search of limited edition Coca Cola bottles which were being given away as part of a promotion. A visit to a free choral concert in the stunning Libertador General San Martín theatre followed, after which we settled down in a peña to round the night off with a few empanadas and pizza.

Elena and I slurping maté

Elena and I slurping maté

Late-night empanadas at the peña

Late-night empanadas at the peña

We all enjoyed the evening so much that we all decided to meet up again the following night – this time at Cecilia’s place, where Elena offered to make us all borscht (Ukrainian beetroot and potato soup) and pancakes for dinner. We were also joined by the lovely Nadia (another of Cecilia’s friends), and Anita, Cecilia’s adorably dopey and affectionate pug. We chatted and chortled through hours of veg peeling and general culinary farting about, and it is a testament to the quality of the company that I wasn’t bothered by the fact that we didn’t eat until gone 11pm (and those of you who know me well will also know the inner rage I would usually experience in such a situation). The food was magnificent, and the company even better. I left Cordoba feeling immeasurably warm and squishy, and sincerely hoping that Ceci and Flor will make their way over to Europe very soon 🙂

Lovely ladies about to tuck in to the feast

Lovely ladies about to tuck in to the feast

Rosario. After a few gorgeous days in Cordoba, new-found travel buds Austrian Eve (with whom I had escaped Yannis’ gaff) and Canadian Emma hopped on a bus bound for Rosario. My good friend Marina hails from Rosario, and had sent me a comprehensive check-list for me to work my way through, so I was eager to crack on and see what Argentina’s ‘second city’ was all about. We were in no way disappointed. Not long after our arrival, we found ourselves wandering down stately avenues overhung with delicate purple blossoms, craning our necks to take in grand villas announced by white columns and Hellenic façades. The whisper of wealth that I had begun to catch in Cordoba was raised to a distinct murmur here in Rosario; I was struck by how European it all felt, reminding me very much of Seville, Bilbao and Barcelona. Before long, we had sniffed out Rosario’s modern art gallery, which contains work by an impressive selection of worthies such as Renoir, Pizarro and Boudain, along with local talent Guillermo Tottis. The gallery visit was followed by much moseying and window-shopping in cute independent stores (not a Topshop or H&M in sight – not that European yet!) and dining out on river fish when all the wandering had worked up an appetite. Not a bad way to spend the day all in all!

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Translator banter. Marina had put me in touch with her friend Cecilia (another one!), whom I headed out to meet the following afternoon at a bijoux café called Amélie. We were joined by Cecilia’s friend Agostina, and the three of us passed a delightful afternoon of chatter and dissection of the tricky nuances and translation challenges existing between our native languages (it transpired that we are all translators, and said discussion was a true classic). I wandered contentedly back to my hostel some hours later, full of cake (for which Ceci and Agos refused to let me pay) and gratitude to Marina for having introduced me to such sweet-natured, interesting people with whom to connect 🙂

Argentina’s bid for Best Country of the Journey Award is a bloody good one, all in all. The factor that may tip the balance fully in its favour, more than the magnificence of its architecture or the quality of its artworks, is the national character as I have so far experienced it; the warmth and good nature that radiates from these wonderful humans has quite bowled me over. Men kiss each other in greeting for one thing, which I find just wonderful. Everybody smiles so readily and genuinely that I imagine forming a frown must equate to a fairly intensive facial muscle work-out. In a particularly heart-warming moment earlier today as I was strolling through central BA, a scruffy urchin of a man, whom I assumed was about to deliver some lecherous comment about my appearance (I had unfortunately come to expect this in other places I have visited), simply told me to make sure I wrap up warm as it was expected to rain and get windy later on in the afternoon. He beamed widely and wished me a pleasant day, and I swiftly admonished myself for having made such a snap judgement. What smashing folk! I am of course generalising somewhat in these observations; even Argentinians have off days no doubt. But this overall impression of goodwill seems to hang snuggly around me as I make my way through this fantastic country. Long may it continue.

Coming up: my final volunteering stint (starting tomorrow – fingers crossed for an improvement on the last one!) and a return to BA, with the possibility of popping over to Uruguay! Time is slipping away, so I intend to enjoy these last couple of weeks for all they’re worth. On which note, I’m off to hunt down a tango show for tonight….

Sending loads of Argentine warmth your way 🙂 Katrina x x x x x

Soggy Salta to classy Cordoba, via a night in a hovel

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Oh HI there faithful readers!

It’s 10 a.m., the sun is sliding gentle morning rays through the window shutters of my room here in Cordoba, and I am feeling especially perky and productive – it seems the opportune moment in which to get cracking with the first Argentinian update. 

I believe I left you last in sleepy San Pedro de Atacama, following the descriptor-defying Salt Flats… Since then, I have crossed a border, lost a phone, gained several kilos from mass carb consumption, discovered wine ice cream, slept in a shed, had my boots stolen by dogs, watched someone’s knee being healed by smoke and, best of all, found myself in excellent company throughout. I shall elaborate, but first I shall back-track slightly:

San Pedro to Salta. I spent a very pleasant few days recharging the proverbial batteries in the unabashedly touristy but nevertheless agreeable little town of San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile. It also provided a very handy rendezvous point at which to meet up with British Katie and Canadian Mark, with whom I had originally hit it off back on Lake Titicaca (we had been narrowly missing each other in various locations ever since, and so it was a triumphant and hard-earned reunion!). I also managed to reconnect with Californians Ian and Nicole from the Bolivian ashram, and very nice it was too. Pleased to have been able to have a few catch-up drinks with both couples, I repacked my increasingly shabby-looking backpack for the millionth time, stocked up on a load of dollars in anticipation of their value and scarcity over in Argentina, and joined Katie and Mark on a cross-border bus to Salta.

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San Pedro central street

Salta. The three of us arrived in north-western Argentina and, having dozed on-and-off throughout the 12-hour ride, were simultaneously very tired and very wired. A few beers and some live music at one of the town’s peñas seemed the best course of action, so we dumped our stuff at the hostel and headed out into the night. For reasons that we can no longer quite grasp, a few innocuous bed-time beers were transformed into caipirinhas, mojitos and some awful champagne/Red Bull-based concoction, the memory of which I don’t care to re-summon. We ended the night/began the following day in the Argentinian equivalent of a greasy spoon, in which I chomped on deep-fried goodness and mourned the loss of my phone, which I had put down in one of the bars and mysteriously failed to pick up again. Oopsy…

The following few days saw us wandering unhurriedly through the sodden streets of Salta (it rains fairly solidy at this time of year apparently), remaining outside for long enough to admire the colourful cathedral and surrounding buildings before ducking into cheap food joints for shelter and empanadas.

Salta cathedral in the rain

Salta cathedral in the rain

After Katie and Mark had bid me farewell and headed off eastwards, I paid a visit to the city’s archaeological museum and had a look at some fascinating and perfectly-preserved Incan child sacrifices; by bizarre coincidence, we had met a bloke in the bus station back in San Pedro who it turned out had discovered these mummies, so I was pleased to be able to clap eyes on the fruits of his labour!

Photo courtesy of livescience.com (no photos allowed in the museum!). Amazingly and eerily well-preserved

Photo courtesy of livescience.com (no photos allowed in the museum!). Amazingly and eerily well-preserved

Cafayate. With a day to play with before pressing on towards Cordoba, I headed out of the city and into the surrounding countryside, which afforded me an interesting glimpse into the region’s geology and economy. The rain cleared almost as soon as we left the valley, as the orderly tobacco fields on the city’s outskirts gave way to plunging gorges and multi-coloured rock formations. These were followed by a series of sprawling but orderly vineyards, one of which we stopped at to sample a couple of the local varieties. Our final stop was the town of Cafayate itself, where we were serenaded over lunch by a gaucho with a guitar and a winning smile. New-found pal Elena from the Ukraine and I also sourced the afore-mentioned wine ice cream – quite a strange but satisfying sensory experience! A very fine day out all in all.

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Casa Grande a.k.a. Bonkersville. I was conveyed to Cordoba by means of a 14-hour night bus from Salta, which was followed by another 2-hour local one out into the countryside. I was due to take on another volunteer project in the village of Casa Grande, and arrived a bit travel-weary but eager to get stuck into a week of gardening, veg planting any generally making use of myself. The region is verdant and bucolic, and reminded me a little of England in springtime. The discovery that my host, a Frenchman named Yannis, lived in a run-down shack in a forgotten dell on the edge of the village and seemed vaguely surprised to find both myself and himself there did not deter me; the weather was mild and the view was beautiful, so on arrival I sat down at a makeshift table in the garden and got chatting to my host, along with German Anton and Austrian Evelyn, who were also volunteering for the week. 

Casa Grande: rural idyll

Casa Grande: rural idyll

It soon became apparent that Yannis’ world-view was heavily esoteric; he spent the following few hours soliloquising about various government conspiracies, the perils of modern vaccines and the singular healing properties of sodium chloride. I had also been under the impression that I would be living with his family, but it turned out that his partner had recently upped sticks and taken the kids with her – an event which, judging by his heavy sighing and rolling of yet another cigarette every time it was mentioned, was clearly still causing him some degree of anguish.

Yannis' shack

Yannis’ shack

I enquired as to the kind of work we’d be doing; he surveyed me with Yoda-like superiority, informing me that we would only work “when the universe is ready for us to work”, and that I should simply allow myself to “be with and work on myself” in the meantime. Right. The conversation then moved on to the various benefits of tobacco, which is apparently wholly undeserving of the bad press it receives. As if to prove the point, he beckoned to Anton, who had been complaining of pain in his knee following a trek in Patagonia, and proceeded to ‘heal’ it by spending several minutes blowing smoke all over it from various angles. Surreal is one word for it. Hilarious and bonkers are two others.

Yannis and Anton pre- smoke healing

Yannis and Anton pre- smoke healing

My sleeping quarters, it turned out, were what was essentially a dog kennel next to the main shack, and it was on discovering this that the novelty of finding myself in such a bizarre situation began to wear off. The temperature dropped rapidly with the setting sun, and I shivered sleeplessly through the night, emerging in the morning aching and tired to find that Yannis’ three hounds had naffed off with my walking books and deposited them some yards down the hill, covered in slobber and (if possible) stinkier than ever before. I experienced something of a sense of humour failure at this point. I went to thank Yannis for his kind hospitality (and he is very kind and has a good heart, truly) and to inform him that, regrettably, I had decided to move on. I said goodbye to Anton, who seemed to have taken on the experience as some kind of personal endurance test, and made a swift exit with Evelyn back to the bus stop, where we jumped on the next bus back to Cordoba. I’ve slept in some pretty basic conditions so far on this trip, but at this point I am not above opting for comfort over ‘authenticity’. I sincerely wish Yannis the very best, the mad old codger.

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The shed

I’m going to bring this post to a close, as I’ve banged on for a while now. I’ll save Cordoba itself for the next one, in which I’ll also be giving you the low-down on Rosario, where I’m headed tomorrow 🙂 

Peace out for now friends. Thinking of you. Lots and lots of love x x x x x

Salar de Uyuni: beauty beyond measure

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Chilean greetings beloved blog-readers!

As far as writing environments go, my current location is holding its own fairly well – I am sitting on the veranda of a higgledy-piggledy hostel on the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacama, looking out onto the magnificent cordillera peaks that separate Chile from Bolivia. I’ve also just been fed large amounts of pasta by the guy who runs this place and his Brazilian, bongo-playing sidekick, so if my writing takes on a slightly dazed quality then it’s because all my brain power has been directed towards my digestive system, eased along by the lazy drum beat in the background. It’s a hard life eh.

But before I am lulled into full-on slumber, let’s crack on to the intended subject of this entry: the Salar de Uyuni, a.k.a. Bolivia’s trump card to end all trump cards. There are few places that have stunned me with such raw beauty – doing the three-day trip descriptive justice is going to be quite a challenge! The tour consisted of an exploration of the salt flats themselves, a glittering mosaic of hexagonal plates which are locked together like Arctic pack-ice and which stretch for as far as the eye can see. This was followed by two days of taking in blood-red, crystalline green and opalescent blue lagoons, sweeping desert-scapes speckled with islands of cacti, mountains slashed with multi-coloured rings and an array of enchanting native fauna including flamingos, vicuña (like llamas but smaller and more dainty), viscacha (like rabbits but larger and with long tails) and a friendly desert fox! The first night was spent in a hotel made almost entirely of salt from the flats, and the second saw us shivering away in slightly more basic accommodation – it was bloody freezing!! After wrapping myself up in about ten layers, however, I was able to drop off for a few hours.

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My fellow explorers included Stuart from Scotland, Elena from Switzerland and her partner Fernando from Italy, Argentinian gems Paula and Monica, and our Bolivian guide Placido, who had us roaring through the flats in his jeep to his hilariously eclectic music collection (Red Hot Chili Peppers to traditional Bolivian pipe music by way of Ke$ha). Placido also took great pleasure in ensuring that our cameras were loaded up with as many classic cheesy touristy perspective photos as possible (see below), and took every opportunity to have us jumping in the air for motion shots (“Katriiiina! Vamos chica – JUMPY JUMPY!”):

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Me being me, the linguistic diversity of the group was a source of great excitement and amusement; the conversation bounced about in hybrid combinations of English, Spanish, Italian and Swiss-German, which all hung together perfectly somehow. Some of the most uplifting moments of my journey so far have emerged from situations like these, in which I can code-switch to my heart’s content and play about between different languages, laughing off and bonding over errors, making random additions to my vocab bank… Sharing languages is a truly heart-warming, barrier-breaking experience. Highly recommended regardless of level – swallow your fear and pride and get stuck in I say!

The tour ended at the Chilean border, where we were all duly searched and charged a few bolivianos before being dropped off in sleepy San Pedro. I still haven’t fully digested the salt flats experience (or the hostel pasta for that matter), but writing this has definitely helped somewhat! I hope it gives you at least some kind of impression as to the magnificence of this part of the world.

Next stop: Salta, Argentina! It’s been a flying visit to Chile, but I’m sure that I’ll find my way back before too long 😉

Love love love love love x x x

P.s. I’d just like to make it known HOW LONG it’s taken me to upload above photos on the current snail-like internet connection, so please have a good long look to make it worth the while!

Planeta de Luz: Shamanic Eden

Well hello there fellow humans!

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This post comes to you from a shamanic ashram called Planeta de Luz, tucked away on the outskirts of Quillacollo near Cochabamba, central Bolivia. I’m typing away from beneath a canopy of artfully intertwining branches, looking out onto a splendid view of sun-drenched grass verges, cascading, kaleidoscopic vines and squat, thatched huts. My nostrils are treated to a medley of exquisite scents from flowers that I wish I could name, while birdsong and the buzz of bees fill the air with energy and endeavour. A hummingbird appears sporadically in a rush of vibrating wings, methodically burrowing its beak into each flower that it encounters. A comical duo of llamas wanders lazily through the grounds, their expressions permanently registering mild, dozy intrigue in their surroundings, while several semi-feral cats skulk around the flowerbeds in search of rich pickings. Oh and there’s a dog somewhere. And a pair of parrots.

Thatching in progress

Thatching in progress

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I feel that my descriptive writing skills are failing me somewhat this morning… but if you remember that bit near the end of The Secret Garden (when Colin’s uncle discovers the garden brought back to life) then you should get a mental image comparable to my current view (minus the llamas and parrots). Hoping the photos do it some justice too.

The ashram feels as though it is contained inside a paperweight, a bubble of tranquillity sealed off from the world of hooting vehicles and bustling market places down the road, which I am pretty relieved to have left behind for a while! That said, Planeta de Luz has masterfully managed to blend modernity with times gone by; we wash our clothes by hand and help to re-thatch the hut roofs before the rainy season begins, but are also hooked up to an impressively fast internet connection and wash in solar-powered outdoor showers. Hoorah for renewables!

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Planeta de Luz was built a decade or so ago by a shaman named Chamalú, whose latest musings I am currently translating into English in exchange for eating and sleeping here. Volunteers come from all four corners of the globe, and contribute either by translating the shaman’s works into their own languages, or by working out in the grounds on whatever needs doing. Everyone works from 8am until 1pm, leaving the rest of the day free to read, draw, chat, meditate or generally lounge about contemplating the beautiful surroundings.

Tunari. A group of us decided to venture out of our paradisical bubble the other day and take on one of the local peaks. The crew consisted of myself, Bolivian Álvaro, Californian couple Ian and Nicole and Italian buds Florian and Stefano. Stefano, incidentally, is perhaps the most outrageously Italian guy I have ever met. Verbatim quote from him yesterday (complete with theatrical arm-flailing): “Katriiiina I confess I have aaaaall of the vices – I cannot help it – for me life is about good food, good wine and making love to beautiful women!!!” And this followed by much cheek-stroking and general exuberance. But I digress.

We were up at the crack of dawn in order to start the hike in good time. Tunari peak stands at a whopping 5030m (16,500ft) above sea level, and the high altitude meant that progress at some points was slow; despite previous high-altitude climbs, I found myself gasping for air every few paces. We reached the summit after about 4 hours of picking our way up the rocky mountainside, and were rewarded with a staggering view over the wild Bolivian landscape. Bloody windy up there too, to which the pictures attest!

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Meeting the shaman. Chamalú paid his first visit to the ashram since my arrival here yesterday afternoon. We all gathered in the meeting hut, wedging ourselves together around the circular walls and murmuring in anticipation. When he appeared in the doorway, my initial thought was that he would best be described as Dumbledore meets Scar out of The Lion King (I realise that Dumbledore has featured as a figure of comparison more than once in this blog – he is just such a universal go-to!). He also had shades of Rasputin about him – a long sheet of dark hair, silver beard and twinkly blue-grey eyes which I imagine could succeed in bewitching you should they choose to lock onto yours for too long…

His meditation was on the ancient and sacred power of women, whom he declared to be superior to men in all but brute strength, and then stated that female leadership was the only way through the current global mess that has resulted from male-centred conflict and greed. Tick tick tick, much nodding in approval. I must say that I have found his writings somewhat lacking in intellectual rigour during my hours of translation this week (rambling declarations about the status quo that lack qualification, big conceptual nouns like “love”, “happiness” and “truth” which are never properly defined, references to “ancestral knowledge” without explaining what this might be…). HOWEVER, I find his concern for the natural world and social responsibility uplifting and refreshing, and I do think that the indigenous voices that he represents have gone unheard for far too long. To my mind, as long as he can help people to lead harmonious lives and to respect the natural world as a priority, then the benevolent Rasputin of Bolivia he shall remain!

That’s all for now, folks. Next moves: Sucre, Uyuni and the Salt Flats, then onwards across the Chilean border! Truly never a dull moment.

Love, light and laughter homies x x x

Photo update: Titicaca, La Paz and Condoriri