Posts Tagged ‘South America’

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on…Cusco and cash cows

Posted: 22/03/2011 in Travel
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I arrived in Cusco early, about 5.30 am, after a dream journey on a dream bus company.  This particular company had a small waiting room, good food, a Denzel Washington Movie (he is one of my favourite actors), vacuum packed blankets and a beauty queen of a stewardess…actually the first female ‘trolley dolly’ in all my travels on buses. The romance of backpacking means that you somehow feel obliged to suffer a little, to use your bag as a bench, to eat snacky food whilst squatting over a foreign timetable. The greatest thing in South America is the quality of the higher class bus companies. I reckon most of the higher end firms to be more luxurious than air travel, actually they have an advantage over air travel as the check in procedure is so short and painless. I have only travelled ‘semi-cama’ which roughly speaking denotes a large chair which converts into a half bed. It has become fairly easy to sleep on these type of buses. My favourite memories are usually waking up in a new place and getting the free extra sweet coffee from the front of the bus. I feel no guilt or shame whatsoever in travelling in comfort, especially after some of the flea ridden hostels I have been staying in.

I chose a hostel from a website and balanced cost with a high review percentage. Such reviews are almost useless as people are uncritical after having a great time in a particular place. One can easily overlook all manner of inconvenience and discomfort if provided with good company and cheap, or in many cases, free alcohol. I was intercepted in the middle of a Barrio near to my hostel by a random Security guy from the San Blas Barrio. He was wearing a luminous vest as you would in football practice and he seemed bored so he escorted me to my hostel. Once inside check in was super casual, there was a black guy sporting an Andean hat, he just left me to fill in a form then wandered off. Usually you have to wait till people check out but I just crashed out. The hostel was very hippy-like with san Pedro cactus medicine (it’s not a drug it’s not a drug). I spoke to a guy in New Zealand who drank some Cactus juice, he said he hallucinated and lost control of his legs. The woman who ran the hostel had family photos around the place. She has really STAMPED her identity all over the place, but I believe the place would be improved if her identity were STAMPED out altogether. Hostels and hotels should retain a bit of neutrality to make a higher percentage of people feel at home. I guess if your target market is the unwashed lentil eaters then it may be ok, but most people seem to be your run of the mill backpacker.  I have never been a big  endorser of having loads of personal family photos at a workplace, especially a hostel. Homestays or Pensiones, as they are called here, are fine, but keep your professional life separate please. The other attractive decorations were gold paint and giant dream catchers, they made me queasy. On the plus side the shower was hot and they had cable TV, I also met a chap from Switzerland who claimed to live only on fruit – he looked very healthy.

Cusco or Qosqo, as it should be spelt, is a fantastic place. This city is dream backpacker country and is best appreciated after slumming it round some of the shadier and shabbier places in South America. The whole centre is built on top of Inca foundations and topped with colonial Spanish architecture. You can see on most buildings the frankly unbelievable skill that Inca Masons had in getting any shape or size of stone to fit into other stones with almost no gaps and no need for mortar. This process must have required each stone to be cut on site; I’m guessing that if an earthquake hit there would be no lateral movement because they don’t have continuous lines like European buildings. I recall a young Inca looking boy showing El Che round in the movie ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’. He referred to the earlier masonry as Inca and the later Spanish masonry as coming from the INCApabales. There are several squares and countless churches and museums built in the Spanish Colonial style. Qosqo is unmistakable, with the sharp mountains and steep Andean streets you couldn’t be anywhere else.  The solid buildings are all enclosed by towering green hills on every side, and even the shanty dwellings that hug the hills look picturesque as they are made from the adobe bricks and terracotta tiles that echo the natural colours of the Andean valleys. This contrasts to countless other South American cities where hillside dwellings tend to grow from corrugated metal and second-hand building materials. A key feature of this city, and I suppose several other high altitude places, is the red-cheeked locals. The native population could have been placed there to embarrass young athletic men. After almost superhuman feats of walking almost every day with a fully laden backpack, I am at my leanest and fittest I have been in living memory. Despite my good physical shape, a short walk up a street at over 3,400m altitude is something of a struggle. I never once felt any signs of altitude sickness, a common problem here, but after scaling some meagre steps and stairs I could feel my heart pounding like a jack hammer. Whilst I paused for breath on more than few occasions, I was often over taken by tiny old natives with copper coloured skin, rosy red cheeks and usually a basket or two of potatoes on their heads. The people of these mountains are striking in appearance, never have I seen a people so well suited to their own environment. They must have extraordinary lung capacities. Being a backpacking Mecca there are countless ways for the gringos to part with money: charity men, shoe shine boys, women with little kids wrapped in brightly coloured blankets and of course the tours to Inca sites. Luckily the city is big enough to have a bustling local population, so if you dare to stray from the main streets you can see life unfolding the way it has for centuries, people beating donkeys, kids asleep in a wheelbarrow full of onions, men carrying huge baskets on their heads, stray dogs sniffing in the rubbish and old women hacking pieces of rancid meat with cleavers. I got lost in the accidentally on purpose way and went to a cheap eatery where I had some Alpaca steak. It was rich and dark, much nicer and leaner than beef with a taste not quite as gamey as Venison.

After all this Qosco excitement I went to where every trip seems to lead, Machu Piccu. Machu Piccu captures the imagination like no other place, it’s the lost city of the Inca and a wonder of masonry, astronomy and urban design. I don’t think there is anything like it anywhere else in the World. What you don’t realise before you go is the number of other houses and buildings on other rocks and cliffs. Most photographs don’t convey the full extent of what was a thriving ancient (or at least very old) city. Unfortunately the process of buying a ticket for admission, then the train, then the bus, then the toilet, then the café, then the souvenir……………..To cut a long story short, it’s the biggest rip off I have ever seen with the most complex procedure of actually entering the place. The mystery and reward of foreign travel is hard to appreciate after what can only be described as a confusing gauntlet of red tape, passes and highly complex travel plans. They give some crap story on the back of the bus ticket about money going to the poor villagers, as with most other South American countries, people are poor because the government is greedy. In the context of most of South America it is very easy to lose any cynicism about the intentions of Che Guevara and other revolutionaries. These places have been plundered since the Conquistadors arrived, they were probably plundered way before too. From the millions of dollars I parted with to get to Machu Piccu, most went to the ministry of culture and the rail network, this is why I have spent zero money buying ponchos and trinkets off the villagers. The villagers should be benefitting from the tourist boom. After all, this is a permanent long-term attraction, not a flash in the pan holiday fashion hot-spot. I asked the price of internet up the main street, and the lady replied 4 soles. That’s not a lot of money but in Cusco (a tourist city itself) it costs 1 sole. The feeling of being ripped off in the inflation defying village really leaves a bitter taste. I feel sorry for the poor and needy, but when she told me that price I literally laughed in her face. This kind of confrontation must happen all the time and generally leads to locals hating tourists and vice versa. If there were more village people with more pride than money then maybe prices would be in line with other areas. The sad fact is that if you have come this far then you HAVE TO go to Machu Piccu. I was so resentful from the cost of everything, from the complexity and the uncertainty, that despite using the cheapest method, I failed to appreciate what must be one of the wonders of the world. It took me a lot of wandering and wondering just to realise how lucky I was to see this place, and that I shouldn’t complain and find the negatives. However, I paid in US dollars which I earned picking apples in NZ and as value goes (cost v views and photos etc) this place was a waste of money. The site is without compare as a window into another way of life and civilization, but the time, energy and money is too much. I would recommend to people not to go, in fact I feel so strongly that I would pay someone not to go and put money into the bottomless pockets of the dreary men in the office of culture (aka … money grabbing swine). Due to the cost of this excursion I had to re plan a lot and miss lots of other things I had wanted to see. Unfortunately if you get to Qosco….you HAVE TO DO IT!!

In all honesty it may actually be easier to just get a package tour where you don’t have to deal with any offices or wake up at 5 in the morning to maybe get a ticket. Due to the lack of available tickets on the return leg I had to sit in first class and after an uneasy start I realised that I had limitless coca tea. The journey passed in a trouble-free, altitude sickness free kind of coca flavoured dream.

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Hypothesis: Locations with stray dogs are inherently more interesting, spontaneous and fun.

I was followed back from the El Bariloche bus station today by a couple of stray dogs, they must have followed me for a good  4 km. They weren’t threatened by me, they weren’t threatening towards me; I had no food. So why did they follow me? I think they were just slightly bored or curious, or a combination of both. This is by means a rare event, I was also followed by a stray in Mendoza for most of an evening; he even sat beside me at a restaurant table. The Mendoza stray looked fairly well fed and content, and like my new stray friends he didn’t seem to have any motive for his pursuit. I made friends with a stray in the bus station of Rio Gallegos, a place where I spent the night so I didn’t miss the bus to Tierra del Fuego. I think the longest stray pursuit was walking back from a national park near Pucon. I reckon on that occasion I was tailed for about 10km. My favourite stray was a dog I christened Pascal in El Calafate bus station. This was a long and boring experience so I was glad of the company. Pascal didn’t care much for my egalitarian viewpoint on not petting; he was very frisky and enjoyed jumping up and biting my backpack.

I have developed a great fondness for stray dogs, they are in our World but because they have a life without being constantly petted and fed chum every 3 minutes they kind of go about their business with a great sense of indifference. They are not dependent on humans so they live a kind of parallel life without interfering in the affairs of humanity. They have a streetwise world-weariness that I find appealing. In Santiago I noticed that they wait for the lights to change before they cross, and when two strays meet each other they don´t go nuts like two dogs in the park. Woof woof woof …my collar is better than yours,…my coat is shinier than yours…I have a higher protein content in my diet than you….my stools show that my diet is far superior. Yes, that’s the conversation of pet dogs in the park. On the contrary, the strays just sniff each other  then head off in the opposite direction. It’s a sniff of recognition not one of competition. I have so much respect for the strays that I don´t stroke them like you would a pet, just like you wouldn’t stroke an unknown human. It’s socially acceptable to dote on, pet and patronize lesser forms. Babies and toddlers rarely get a firm handshake; they get pointless questions and repetitive banter. I feel like I cannot condescend to this level with the noble strays I have met. For fear of losing their respect I do not pet them, I also fear rabies and fleas. I told a Chilean that you never get stray dogs in England…he said why? I responded that people care more about dogs than their fellow-man. The RSPCA was formed before the NSPCC. This got me wondering about the correlation between the number of stray dogs and society itself. I think a stray dog rating system can tell you how exciting and spontaneous a country is.

It seems that in the “developing” world there are a lot of stray dogs. I used the old “…..” because Italy also has a lot of stray dogs and that´s a G8 country that has a higher standard of living than the UK, actually 21 countries in the World have a higher standard of living than the UK. I wonder why we have such a massive economy (7th largest in the World) but we have such a low standard of living? This brings me back to my first point; we have almost no stray dogs. This may sound strange but a country that doesn’t give money or spend money on pounds, RSPCA, Puppy passports, dog coats, diamond collars, Feng Shui books for pets and goodness knows whatever other bollocks people waste their money on…should have more disposable income to raise the standard of living. Stray dogs is only the tip of the iceberg, we also spend on personal and private security, Insurance premiums and let’s not even mention Lawyers, especially divorce and family lawyers. Divorce is still illegal in Chile but they seem to have found a way round it…they don´t get married. I think one of the biggest ways in which we waz away our nation’s millions is on Health and Safety not to mention Environmental Health. Something which was intended to safeguard people has turned into a pseudo-religion. Everyone is second guessing everything and every weird court cases get blown out of all proportion before making their way into Urban Mythology.

I have worked in enough places to know that if there were inspections all the time almost every eatery would be forever closed. If there were an eatery that respected all the rules set down by environmental health freaks they wouldn’t have time to actually cook anything. The best food I have ever tasted in my life has been from places that would have failed on so many counts, luckily these meals were in countries that didn’t care about such trivial crap. I am aware that it´s there for our protection, and there are certain places… like ******** in **************, that deserve to be closed down. Despite the case of something other than mayonnaise in the mayonnaise I think the whole thing wastes a lot of time and money. The number of hurdles you have to jump through to even get near to opening a food vending establishment is insane, I think this is why in any town centre in England it´s so hard to find anywhere to sit (or stand) and have a snack or drink. The countries and cities with the stray dogs wandering about tend to have the highest proportion of good cheap eats.

People think that the main reason for travelling is to see the World’s sites. I believed this to an extent before I set off. However, now I think the main reason is to experience other cultures and ways of life, to have perspective. I don´t mean playing panpipes with Bolivians or painting my ass with white paint and dancing with Aborigines. This is seeing the other, the exotic through our own eyes.  What I really mean is seeing things from a totally different viewpoint. I like to see how other people do things, even simple things like having a cup of tea or crossing a road. In Singapore you wait for the green man before you cross a road, in Napoli you ignore the lights (if they actually work) and you cross in a slow and predictable manner so that drivers can slow down for you, or in rare cases actually stop. There is no correct way to cross the road as people and places are different. I think it´s healthy to learn from other people and use this outside perspective to change your own ways a little.

To think that you do things better or see the World more clearly is complete ignorance. In this respect I have been amazed at the spontaneity and dynamics of eating establishments in various places in the world. I resent the cost and complexity of going out for a meal in my country. I’m from a country where the kitchens are clean and the employees all have certificates, but the food is cloned and the experience is franchised, soulless and a constant disappointment. Are you enjoying your meal? The underpaid ‘servers’ will ask. In this question the server doesn’t care and even if they did we would never be honest enough to give an exact appraisal. We say “Yes it is fine thanks.” Then we cringe into our crinkle cut chips and add more salt to tepid plate full of mediocrity. I love the elemental nature of street stalls and market food in places like Bangkok and Hong Kong. Eating seems so central to life and there are so many restaurants and eateries spilling on to the streets.

Anyway, getting back to the original point I believe my country with no stray dogs, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, will be pretty much screwed for the coming years if we continue down the path of…..

Champagne Socialistic, nanny state, handholding, form-filling politically correct, box ticking race riot fearing, community caring, committee holding, show of hand showing, democratically crippled bollocks that chokes life and prevents spontaneous freedom. So until I return I´m going to enjoy drinking in unlicensed premises till 8 in the morning, eating from a shack that didn´t pass any tests and drinking moonshine from unlabeled bottles. I´ll probably get a little gut rot from time to time but I´d rather rot my guts temporarily than rot my soul for eternity.

Conclusion: Places with no strays have sterile, whitewashed super hygienic places to eat. Like eating in a dental surgery.

Places with stray dogs have exciting steamy, smelly food. They have authentic non bourgeois eateries for every man and his dog.


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La Santisima Trinidad de Paraná is a Jesuit ‘reduccione’ or mission in Paraguay. A reduction is like a small city-state used for missionary work, usually ‘helping’ the indigenous people convert to Christianity. The Jesuits allowed the local populations to continue their native lifestyle but under the watchful eyes of the Mother Church. Many of the local tribes would be able to recite hymns in Latin and they often received a classical education. The Society of Jesus was extremely powerful in the 18th Century and the Spanish Empire was laissez-faire in their attitude. Paraguay was as near as you could get to having an almost Jesuit Republic. However, their influence eventually waned and the reducciones fell into disrepair.



La Santisima Trinidad de Paraná is  accessible from the city of Encarnacion, I took a short bus trip there and simply wandered around the spectacular ruins. Trinidad was built in 1706, there is a central piazza, church, meetinghouse, school, various workshops, a museum and housing for the locals. It must have been overwhelming moving from the simple native dwellings into the large-scale European buildings of the reductions. The architecture is austere in places but beautiful in its pious simplicity. The huge walls still tower over the nearby rickety houses and the modern world beyond the fences seems completely at odds with this open air museum. I found peace and tranquillity in this place, especially after coming from the tattered chaos and clutter of the nearby Encarnacion and Posadas in Argentina. Trinidad is totally deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage status.