Montevideo: Yerba Mate Man

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Your typical mate calabash gourd

Without using violent facial expressions, it’s difficult to describe mate. To those who have never hit up this part of the world, that’s not me being overly-familiar; yerba mate – or just ‘mate’ (pronounced mat-ay) – is the name of an unusual hot beverage that Argentinians drink like it’s going out of fashion, and that Uruguayans drink like their lives depend on it. It’s a bit like a sort of strange grassy tea, but if my memory serves me correctly (I’m currently on a bus, on which the advertised wi-fi is predictably broken), it’s not actually tea. I’m glad I could be of such help. In fact, until I look it up, it’s stuck in a state of quantum superposition – it’s Schrödinger’s Mate, who sounds like a pretty cool guy.

Basically, to explain it like an idiot, you get a little pot thing and cram it full of mate, then pour hot water over it and drink it from the bottom up using a metal straw that has a built-in filter (you do not want that stuff getting in your mouth). You get a couple of mouthfuls per helping, then refill and repeat until you’ve had enough, or until the copious amount of caffeine involved gives you a heart attack. Walking around Montevideo, every street corner, every doorway, every park bench and every bus stop will have someone sat with a bunch of mate and a thermos flask, all day every day – it’s like a strange liquid religion over here. So I thought, when in Rome, do as the Uruguayans do, and get in on the action. However, I was warned beforehand that it is ‘a little bitter’. This is what I would classify as an understatement. It has absolutely no natural sweetness, and really tastes like… well, a plant. I’m not a connoisseur on the palatable properties of hay, but I imagine if you took some, ground it up and mixed it with a couple of paracetemol tablets, you’d get a flavour not dissimilar to mate. However, after a couple of rounds of forcing myself to drink it (for fear of looking like a social outcast), I now wake up in the morning craving its unrestrained chlorophyll, spend most of my waking hours combing the barrios of Montevideo looking for my next fix, and go to sleep wishing its bitter embrace would carry me to the land of dreams. I am now a yerba mate man. Or once I get to Chile in two days maybe I’ll forget it ever existed.

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A pleasant boat ride

Heading back to Buenos Aires today, which is something I’m dreading less than I expected I would. Uruguay is an awesome little country, and I’ve enjoyed my five days in Montevideo more than the previous 15 in Buenos Aires, but I’m willing to admit there must be more to BA that I’m missing. So I’m heading back – just for 48 hours – to see what more I can make of it, so I guess it may get a little messy.

Notable moments of the last couple of days in Uruguay include eating a late-night dinner and drinking Tannat on a rooftop overlooking the city, being recruited to film some fellow travellers busking on a cross-town bus, attempting to swim in the River Plate and ending up covered in various unbecoming substances, and going to see some live music with a couple of friends and spending large portions of the evening engaging in futile battle with an insurmountable army of mosquitoes and buying plastic cups of beer from a man who’d crafted a makeshift bar out of a wooden crate. Highlight of the night – other than Julian and Katrina’s excellent set (hi guys if you’re reading) – is a friend and fellow audience member suddenly slapping themselves in the face mid-song in a misjudged attempt to kill a mosquito. A moment I won’t forget in a hurry (also hi if you’re reading, you know who you are).

Onwards (or backwards) to Buenos Aires. Let’s give it one more go.

Gabe

(P.S. no photos this time as I am using the world’s worst internet connection. Sorry.)

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Montevideo: McDontevideo’s

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Whoops, empty menu

Here’s something we can all agree on; one thing all humans love to do (and there’s a very high chance this isn’t true at all) is to – while travelling abroad – compare products, shops and restaurants that we also have at home. It can lead to some subtly surreal moments and entertaining little finds. I once found cherry blossom Nestea in Riga, Latvia; a Burger King that sold beer in Gijón, Spain; a supermarket that sold almost nothing but Coca Cola in Reykjavik, Iceland, and, most mind-blowingly; a McDonald’s that does a genuinely fantastic burger here in Montevideo, Uruguay. And I’m not talking some off-menu, gourmet choice here. Seeing as every shop in Montevideo closes at 10pm and I needed to save money on food, I hit the road in the hopes that I’d find some greasy empanada-serving kiosk or street food stall, but instead I slunk under the giant yellow M with a feeling of great shame, and ordered a Cuarto Combo (Quarter Pounder Combo), expecting the boring, dry, heartless burger I’ve known too well from drunken walks home through Kings Cross.

On a side note; are McDonald’s employees told to be a pain in the ass? Is it part of the job description? I’m not standing at the back of the restaurant looking up at the menu because I’m trying to waste your time, I’m doing it because you’d be more annoyed if I succumbed to your endless beckoning ‘hola’s without actually knowing what I want to eat, you obnoxious fools.

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Why this name. Why.

Either way, this burger had it all. Quality cheese, juicy beef, genuinely fresh vegetables. I don’t want to know how much money the UK restaurants are skimping on in regards to ingredients but this was a legitimately solid burger. I sat down (smashing my head against a low-hanging light) and stared out of the window onto the square below, eating this masterpiece with tears of joy forming in my eyes.

So what else happened? Me and Ines – a friend from back in Buenos Aires – reconvened in Montevideo and cycled a 25 mile round-trip (40 km for you metric heathens) to Don Ceriani – a tiny little beach/restaurant combo out on the eastern edge of the city – and had some of the best seafood of my life, straight out of the Atlantic onto my plate. Bit of calamari, bit of cod, bit of lemon, bit of mayo, bit of cerveza and boom. Happy lunch. Cycled back and got hideously burned after my sunscreen got lost in an impromptu swim in the ocean, then fell asleep at 6pm like a badass.

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Rainbow cloud

Today I woke up feeling truly awful so just… did nothing. Went for a bit of food, then sat and attempted to write this blog post, which has taken me almost 24 hours to compose. OH also I saw a rainbow cloud. And I was woken up this morning by the hostel kitten smacking me round the face.

Gabe

Montevideo: Bife de Araña

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A real Argentine steak

You read that right; it’s country #2 time. Like the daring, syphilitic Spanish colonialists all those centuries ago, I have crossed the River Plate from Argentina to Uruguay. However, I personally managed to avoid emotionally or physically abusing any aboriginals during my transit; in fact, in a sad little tugboat-ferry hybrid pumping out thick black smoke as it wobbled uneasily across the estuary, it felt more like I was on a school trip to the Isle of Wight in 2005 rather than on my way to gut the Incas of their precious metals. But either way, here I am in Montevideo.

Uruguay. The home of Edinson Cavani, of Diego Forlan, of Diego Godín – indeed of Luis Suárez himself. I have set foot in a country of footballing royalty and over-achievement; three million people, two Olympic gold medals, two World Cups, fifteen Copa Americas. All Latin American people will tell you that their country is the most football-crazy on Earth, and from an outsider’s perspective I was always inclined to lean toward gifting Argentina that title. Yet, bizarrely, I only found one native in Argentina who admitted to even liking football, let alone being crazy for it. And shortly after I swung the conversation toward Messi, Maradona and my beloved Tevez, he swung it off in a different direction. He wanted to talk about some islands off the coast of Argentina that have been the cause of a few disputes in their time. You might have heard of them. After such a weak demonstration of football fandom from Argentina, as soon as I got to Montevideo, I got in a taxi and started chatting football, eager to see if Uruguay would take the crown.

  • “So do you follow football?”
  • “Ah sí, football!”
  • “Great! Who do you support?”
  • “Oh support no-one.”
  • “Oh really? Not even Barcelona? Because of Luis Suárez?”
  • “I do not know this Luis Suárez.”
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You know shit is bad if Julián Speroni is comforting you

The conversation quickly drifted into incredulous, disappointed silence as I sunk back in my chair, put my chin in my hand, and looked up. At that exact moment, we had stopped at a traffic light next to a gigantic billboard of Suárez himself looking down on us, his little rat-faced stare towering over the avenue like an infallible hero of the nation. If you only knew, Luis. If you only knew.

To those of you who don’t like football; I digress. I guess there hasn’t been a blog update in a few days so there’s more to write than normal. There have been few highlights in the past few days, with copious amounts of booking and other organisation having taken up valuable time, along with day-long hangovers borne of atrocious South American alcohol. The main culprit being a 9pm-9am night of clubs across the Palermo district of Buenos Aires, fueled by an ungodly number of espresso martinis supplied by my trusty enabler Dan, a fellow traveler.

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La Bombonera

The next day I took a walk down to La Boca to check out La Bombonera, the iconic home of Boca Juniors – one of Buenos Aires’ major football teams and one half of the infamous SuperClásico derby match. The neighbourhood directly surrounding the staidum is a little sketchy; about six people – with a combined total of around two teeth – approached me to ask random questions in slurred Spanish, even once I tell them I can’t understand the most basic sentences in received-pronunciation Spanish, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from a couple of close calls (and a few hostelmates being less fortunate) it’s do not let people stop you on the street in Buenos Aires. Somewhere in the city is a giant pile of wallets, cameras and mobile phones of the poor souls who made the ultimate sacrifice, and stopped dead in their their tracks at the sight of a dirt-encrusted man with a low-riding baseball cap waving around a pair of socks.

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The actually-quite-impressive Constitución Train Station

In fact, La Boca took the ‘dodgy neighbourhood’ vibe to an extent at which it became surreal. Walking through Parque Lezama, I witnessed a homeless man and what I can only hope was his son pelting a tree with stones. I was stood on the other side of the tree, so assumed they were either playing a game or maybe attempting the world’s slowest quest for timber, but when I walked round to the other side, and they paused for a moment, I saw a rat clinging to the side of the tree. Not moving, but very much still alive. Then – boom! This kid slung a rock as hard as he could and – I’m not exaggerating – it hit the rat flush in the face, knocking it off the tree. Then the dad tried again and he too got a direct hit. And a third, and a fourth. Their marksmanship was genuinely staggering, as was the rat’s inability to realise that it should RUN. After I subsequently realised I was about to witness a brutal murder (yeah, they were almost certainly going to eat this diseased little city park rat for sustenance), I turned away, only to look back at just the wrong moment as the dad slammed a boulder down on top of the little bastard. What a city.

Although, a rival for strangest moment so far would actually have to come from my brief time in Montevideo. Arriving at the bus terminal at 6pm, I realised I hadn’t eaten anything all day, so took a seat in a burger restaurant with quite comfortably the worst customer service I’ve experienced outside of England (and France). The waiter – who spoke English – had no idea what I wanted, as if asking for food in a restaurant was some sort of strange performance art I was attempting, and kept wandering off before I could finish my sentences. So when my truly bizarre ‘Hamburguesa Canadiense’ arrived, complete with whole hard-boiled egg, olives and mustard, and a spider jumped out of it and threw itself off the table just before I could take my first bite, I had experienced enough inexplicable bullshit in this place already that it didn’t phase me.

And yes, after convincing myself that my hunger may have been causing me to hallucinate, I ate the burger anyway.

Gabe

Buenos Aires: Mafia Children

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Better put anti-theft devices on this rare artisan beer. And charge £7 a bottle for it too!

Another day, another mini-heatwave. Yet again, another day walking around Buenos Aires was thwarted by this 38°C weather. Yes it’s not quite Kuwait and yes I know many of you in the Northern Hemisphere are probably headbutting your screens with jealousy, but it’s difficult. Travelling halfway round the world to attempt to explore a city that does its best to chew you up and spit you out is, in all honesty, disheartening. I never expect any city to bow down to my every whim, but Buenos Aires is a hostile customer. Before I go any further, I am not willing to sit here and list everything I don’t like about this city, but I will admit that Buenos Aires is not an easy ride.

I was on the Subte earlier (the Buenos Aires subway), falling asleep in my chair after a failed rendezvous with a friend, and a small kid got on. I’m not talking a kid in the colloquial, anyone-younger-than-me sense, no; I’m talking like… a 5-year old. Just… on the tube. On his own. Hopped up onto the seat next to all the commuters like a midget sitting at a bar, then proceeded to stand up, walk across the carriage, and take my subway ticket out of my hand. For the record; you don’t need a ticket to exit the system, only to get in, so I let him walk away with it, because what do I care? He stood at the doors waiting for the next stop, staring into the ticket’s soul with a smirk on his face like he couldn’t believe his luck. Like a man who’d struck gold in Alaska in the 19th Century. I don’t understand what he was going to do. Sell it? Use it? Give all his friends paper cuts?

Later that day, I had to return to the sweatbox depths of the Subte for another cross-town trip. I approached the ticket machine, put in my 5 pesos for a journey (which is literally about 20p), and the ticket that came out of the machine, somehow, had been ripped in half and sellotaped back together. A strange theme that runs across money, tickets and other paper-based pursuits in this country, the sellotape immediately peeled off (maybe the humidity/heat melted the adhesive?) and I found myself with two half-tickets for the price of one. The story goes nowhere from here as I simply got it replaced with a full ticket, but that Subte journey was plagued by doubts as to how that ticket ended up in the machine. Nobody wants a re-used ticket.

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El Congreso de la Nación Argentina

My Subte of thought was then interrupted by another small child entering the train. I was at the end of the carriage and he entered by the door right next to me. He stopped in front of me and extended his hand. Not palm-up like he wanted money, just kind of… lingering like a half-assed Nazi salute. I said ‘no gracias’ mostly because I had absolutely no idea what was going on and the day the proletariat manhandles me is the day I sell my antique rifle collection. He moved onto the next person, who immediately went for the gangster, five-part handshake this kid had been expecting from me. The next person was the same. And the next, and the next, and the next. This kid went all the way down the carriage fist-bumping, hi-fiving and practically thumb-wrestling every commuter on the train, like he was some sort of infant mafia drug lord who’d make their bloodline disappear if they didn’t oblige. I thought up this scenario simply because everyone was doing this handshake with him, but when he got to the far end of the train, he took it up a notch.

He turned round and slowly headed back toward me, arms open like Jesus on the cross, head tilted slightly to the left, palms facing upwards, and every person on the train handed him money. This wasn’t just begging; this was cult-of-personality shit, like little Gaucho over here was a faith healer who’d just made a blind man pretend to see again. He got to me, stuffed the wads of 10 peso notes into his pockets, turned, opened his hand, this time for money rather than a handshake, and I repeated, ‘no gracias’. Sorry kid, even those sorts of heroics can’t save you from my frugality.

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One of the original versions of Rodin’s The Thinker

Last night I got a pay packet from my work that had been sitting around in London for a month, so we went to a famous steak restaurant – La Brigada in Palermo – to get… well, steak. I mean, there’s not much more to say other than it was a damn good steak, and about the size of my head. Combine that with a £3 bottle of Malbec and you are laughing. Would totally recommend.

Also noteworthy was a free tour of the Argentine Congress building (Congreso de la Nación Argentina) which we were looking forward to until the tour started and we realised there would be no English spoken at all. They only did Spanish-language tours, so I had absolutely no idea what was going on or what I was looking at, but hey, who doesn’t love a free tour of a random building?

Gabe

Buenos Aires: Basterds Sin Gloria

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Some of that classic Argentine humour we’ve all come to know and love

I thought I had traveled before. I haven’t. It may seem fairly obvious to most people once the concepts are fully defined, but there is a vast difference between ‘traveling’ and ‘holidaying’. I assumed I had done both in my time, with endless poolside, villa-based, middle class Italian getaways juxtaposed with hostel-centric city breaks involving Australians pretending to throw me off the side of a bridge in Belgrade. Then I came here.

Without meaning to sound somewhat naive, there are two factors that make this feel different. The first is distance. City-jumping in Europe is easy – not only is almost every city on the continent a short hop from my home in London, but almost all of said cities are within a stone’s throw from each other. I once took a nine-hour train journey from Hungary to Serbia and it felt like the world was ending. Here in Argentina, you get travelling top trumps, where everyone feels the need to one-up each other about how far they’ve come, how long it took, and how many jousting matches against feudal lords they had to win to get here.

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A peaceful protest! Quick, get the water cannon!

The second – and much more noticeable – differing factor is time. If you stop in a city for a couple of days, you wake up early, you go to bed late, and you crush as much exhausting nonsense as you can into every waking moment. And you drink. A lot. However, knowing that not only do I have months and months left, but that those months will be spread across 15+ countries, it means I have to learn to pace myself. There are and will be days where you mustn’t drink, where you have to buy supermarket value gnocchi and attempt to cook it using a propane camping stove in a kitchen that looks like an unused set from Se7en.

As an example, in the past few days I’ve done very little other than avoiding going outside because of the heat, going outside and complaining about the heat, and drinking to stop feeling hot because of the heat. For instance, right now I’m sat under a giant aircon unit watching Archer (or rather I’m sat with people who are watching it as I cannot stand its painful, pretentious brand of ‘comedy’) rather than plumbing the depths of this gigantic city. I just cannot be bothered today. On a side note – a man screaming through a blaring megaphone outside our hostel has just startled everyone sat here. In keeping with the bustling political activity of this city, we assumed a protest had begun outside, but when we rushed to the hostel balcony we looked down to see it was just a guy selling melons.

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Aww thanks for the awesome $10 change with two strips of sellotape keeping it from turning to dust.

Anyway, the laziness of my trip doesn’t just stop here; last night we attempted to have a chilled night in, but instead inadvertently tested all our respective brain capacities by watching Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (hilariously called Basterds sin Gloria – ‘Basterds Without Glory’) on Argentinian Netflix, meaning we had a film mostly in German and French with English subtitles and Spanish subtitles at the same time. By the time Cristoph Waltz was having a swastika carved into his face I felt like I’d run a marathon.

I will admit, however, that I don’t know what tonight holds. That admission is made more prescient by the fact that I just went out and bought a £1 bottle of Malbec.

Gabe

Buenos Aires: Mi Nombre Es OK

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Eva Perón singing or Shakespeare eating a sausage roll?

Buenos Aires is not a normal city. Or at least it isn’t by any European standard of sanity. In the 72 hours I’ve been here, I’ve lost my luggage, seen a mass political protest, made a jailbreak from my hostel, almost been mugged, accidentally went to a waterpark, been elbowed in the face while moshing to improvised drumming, danced an Argentinian tango with a German stranger, attended a pingpong tournament, and of couse, gotten lost. More than once.

Where do I even start? I just got back from La Catedral, a tango club in the west of the city centre. Somehow – despite having barely ever even bobbed my head gently to a solid beat – I was persuaded to attend an Argentinian tango lesson with two people from my hostel. I was fairly convinced I would spend most of the time with my face on the floor, but instead it actually… went OK. I mean granted it was literally the simplest of simple routines, but trust me, when you’re paired up with a total stranger and you’re scared of crushing every metatarsal in their feet to dust with every faux-elegant lurch forward into dancefloor darkness, the famously gracious tango becomes more like trying to defuse a bomb with your hands tied behind your back. Also try climbing into your microwave and hitting the full baked potato reheat button and you’re still only about half as hot as it was in there.

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Bomba del Tiempo

OK so I should probably jump back to the beginning now. God it feels like a long time ago now, but my luggage was lost by the utterly incompetent fools at LAN – comfortably the worst airline I have ever flown on. Judging by the fact that they took 3 hours complete the seemingly very simple task of successfully getting people onto a plane at Santiago, I just knew some bullshit was afoot. I knew something was going to happen to my luggage. Lo and behold, 4 hours later I found myself standing at the baggage carousel like an evangelist waits for the Second Coming, eyeing up the slack-jawed bellend in the LAN uniform across the room that I knew I’d have to speak to in about 30 seconds to ask whether they’d predictably left my luggage in Santiago. Oh what a surprise; they had done.

So what next? I was forced to go to the hostel wearing the same clothes I had been for the previous eternity, and I arrived to a few surprises. First off, I had turned up at this hostel to work. And so had every other person in the hostel. This may seem like an exaggeration but I literally don’t think there was a single guest there. It was difficult to tell. Either way, I won’t go into too much detail but after one night I had pretty much comprehensively decided that this hostel was not for me. The next day, my baggage miraculously showed up, so I gathered my things, pretended I was changing rooms, and I bolted, never to return.One night in a hilarious padded-cell-style, bedsheetless one-star hotel later and I found myself at BA Stop Hostel, which is nothing short of excellent. The staff, atmosphere, guests and general feel of the place is fantastic – despite a fellow traveler going to get me Mexican food and failing because the restaurant was closed. I mean what do these people take me for?

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Not one of those bullshit cafés.

Getting around in Buenos Aires is an ordeal. It doesn’t matter how you do it, you will be diving in at the deep end. Take yesterday for example; with my gigantic suitcase I was stopped in the street by a man with an M&M inexplicably glued to the side of his face. He said something in Spanish, at which point I attempted to respond, but instead he got out a pair of socks. I assumed he was trying to sell them to me, but instead placed them next to my head and measured the difference. A few confused words were exchanged in our respective languages:

 

  • “What are you doing?”
  • “Nada. Where you from?”
  • “England.”
  • “AH your name is?”
  • “My name?”
  • “Si, in Spanish is ‘mi nombre es'”
  • “Ah, OK”
  • “Your name is OK?”
  • “No no my name is-“
  • “Nice to meet you OK.”

Shortly after this, Pedro (I asked his name after I gave up trying to convince him my name wasn’t a term of understanding) and another one of his little homeless friends tried to sell me some more socks, at which point I walked away, with Pedro’s little mate in close tow. And I’m talking literally less than an inch. He was brushing up against me as I walked up. Either he was looking for some action or he was attempting to get in my pockets. Or both. Luckily Pedro’s little mate was no match for my buttoned-up pockets. Pedro’s little mate goes home empty-handed this time.

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This man span around on his head later on.

That night I went to Bomba del Tiempo, a strange improvised drumming concert that apparently happens every Monday, but seemingly the whole city came out for it. After a few beers, a few more Fernets (look that disgusting shit up) and a mosh pit, I ended up in an afterparty. The drumming ensemble reconvened in a room about the size of a small bathroom and continued to play. Loud is not the word. Then in the adjacent room, a ping pong tournament was taking place, and I’ll say no more other than Argentinians take 2am drunk drumming-afterparty ping pong tournaments very, very seriously.

Onwards and upwards. More to follow soon.

Gabe

Santiago: Layover of Death

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That’ll stop those fare-dodgers.

Stepping onto my 14-hour flight to Santiago from Madrid yesterday (God time is a total blur right now), I got hemmed into just about the smallest space available on a passenger plane; in the very middle, bookended by two rather large German men who both promptly fell asleep and slumped into my personal space a little more with each clinical, efficient snore. Bearing in mind, we hadn’t even taken off by this point.

Strangely, I have seen both sides of LAN (Chile’s national airline) today. Madrid-Santiago, while a little squashed and filled with crying babies, was highly acceptable. However, the Santiago-Buenos Aires flight (which I’m actually currently on), is not so hot.

Cruising to Santiago, I hit up the wine, the whiskey, the gnocchi, the beer, the coffee, and the films. On an un-travel-related note, I don’t know if any of you have seen The Martian but I’d never gotten round to it until the flight, and I really have to ask; what’s the big deal? Rave reviews and massive box office for a pretty run-of-the-mill sci-fi film that mostly consists of a bearded Matt Damon listening to disco music and eating potatoes while simultaneously managing to entertain himself with the sound of his own voice for over a year. Also, I’m one for buying into the concepts laid out, even in particularly farfetched films, but there are vast fragments of The Martian were obviously compiled with little foresight. Two big questions hit me more prominently than most though:

  1. Why was Chiwetel Ejiofor, of British-Nigerian origin, cast as a Hindu man with the surname ‘Kapoor’? I mean there might be some unspoken explanation but to me it was just distracting.
  2. Matt Damon gets left behind after a big old storm on Mars and everyone’s like ‘oh shit there’s a storm’ like it happens all the time. How was there a storm of that strength on Mars. Even the most powerful Mars dust storms are barely a breeze.

Yes I know what you’re thinking but blah blah blah suspension of disbeblah can only go so far. Rant over.

So flight two is underway. Who would’ve known LAN still uses planes from the 19th century on their services? I feel like a Montgolfier Brother clinging to the side of a pink balloon. Or like I’ve been put in a cucumber that somebody has thrown across the Andes. I don’t think I need to say more really. In the end I guess it’s just a flight. In all honesty I’m distracted from the drawbacks by the fact that there’s a totally blind man sat next to me, and he’s spent the whole flight staring out the window.

On to Buenos Aires.

Gabe