Easter Island: Bitchhiking

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Such enthusiasm

Sitting on the jagged black rocks that the islanders have kidded themselves into calling a beach, can of shitty Escudo lager in hand, getting through a five-pack of raw hot dogs and staring out at the sunset wondering what the hell I’m doing with my life in both a positive and negative way, it all clicked into place in the most unlikely of circumstances. I rose from my spiky makeshift seat and headed down the moss-covered steps just as a crab flew flailing past my field of vision having been tossed from the crest of a wave like a one-way boomerang, and, with the crumbs of indecipherable donkey components still falling from my lips, I sprinted across the main dirt road into the town’s only internet cafe. It is there I now sit, a mere three hours before my flight leaves (don’t worry, the airport is literally a five-minute walk), writing this post to tell you that the full 180 is complete. And I haven’t simply gone from Easter-Island-based disdain to mere fondness, no. I have a full-blown confession to make; I love this island more than anywhere else on Earth.

Last night I crawled into my sauna-like tent at 10pm in the hope of rising early enough to hitchhike to Tongariki on the northeast extreme of the island. The beach at Tongariki, supposedly, is one of the greatest sunrise-watching spots on the planet, so at 5:15am, which was way too early in hindsight, my alarm sounded and I woke up to not tranquil morning silence, but another brutal rainstorm hammering against all sides of my tent. Even after travelling 10,000 miles to one of the most extremely remote point on Earth, there is no way in hell you’re getting me out of bed to stand in a rainstorm in total darkness waiting for a lift from a stranger. Back to sleep. I can always see a sunrise in Tahiti, right?

Such enthusiasm
I woke again at 9:30am, feeling like I’d slept for about 30 years, and headed up to the ‘main road’ in an attempt to hitchhike to Tongariki in a less inconvenient fashion. Sunrises aside, Tongariki is supposedly highly impressive anyway, and it – along with Rano Raraku – were the only parts of the island I had yet to see. At the point where the main airport road diverts off into the countryside, and adorned in a t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms (literally what the Christ was I thinking?), I stuck my thumb out and lo, the very first car stopped. A squat little islander rolled down his window and told me that he couldn’t pick me up, then drove off. I mean, it was generous of him to stop but that wasn’t exactly the most useful information he could have imparted in that particular moment. So, just as the North Koreans had experienced in 1994 when Kim Il-Sung bit the dust, I began my Arduous March, though mine was in a somewhat more literal fashion than their, and a few million fewer people perished.

Heading slowly yet steadily up the road to nowhere, constantly looking back through the fringe of my now overly-long hair and sticking my thumb out at every moving object, I met the eyes of maybe 50 different drivers, most of whom were white tourists, and all of whom either looked at me with intense confusion as if they had never seen a human being before, or with pity as they performed a wildly exaggerated shrug to make sure I understood their aggressive apathy before rip-roaring over the horizon at 15mph. As I bent down and put my hands on my knees to shield my face from the rapidly rising heat, one passing driver even laughed at me and made a walking symbol with his hands. I hope he loses his hands in a tragic walking accident, then we’ll see who’s making the unpleasant gestures, friend.

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Finally, a large van filled with propane tanks stopped. The guy shouted a bunch of Spanish at me, and I said ‘Tongariki?’, to which he responded ‘Tongariki! Ooooooh!’, and swung the passenger door open invitingly. We trundled up the road, my fingers digging into the dashboard as the van felt like it may either collapse or its contents explode at the merest fender bender, until we hit the turn off for the start of the road to Tongariki. He pulled into a driveway, told me his grandfather was an Englishman called Henry, then said ‘I live here’ and pointed at a shed. I guess that was the end of that leg of the trip. I was now stuck on a small through road between the two main paved roads, and still only about 1/5th of the way to my final destination. I stuck my thumb out at the first passing car and boom, he stopped.

I opened the door to what can only be described as the scent of dead animal. A man with a strange sunhat and pitch-black tinted sunglasses looked across at me and again spoke to me in Spanish, this time with an unusual mumble. I asked him ‘Tongariki?’, to which he said nothing, looked forward, and started driving. I too looked forward to reveal the strangest dashboard configuration I’d ever seen; it had a ledge sticking out at the top, where an airbag would normally be. I’m pretty convinced that whoever is in the passenger seat the day Captain Grumbles goes crashing into a giant head statue will be turned to dust before they can say ‘what’s with all the used latex gloves on your dashboard?’

We drove for about seven minutes along the coast road up the east of the island, at a snail’s pace as always, until we reached a turning up into the farmland in the interior of the island. He said some form of ‘Here, finish.’ at which point I got ready to get out of the car, when the guy asked for some money. I said ‘Money? Why?’. He said nothing, but pointed at the rev counter. What, you want me to pay for the time you wasted by not actually using second gear? Assuming he meant petrol, I went for my coins pocket, pulling out about 1,000 pesos – the equivalent of around £1. He snorted and said ‘No. Mas.’ I added another 1,000 peso note. So that’s £2. Again he told me he wanted more. Rather than play this stupid guessing game, I sighed and asked him how much he wanted. He said 10,000 pesos.

Knowing he spoke no English whatsoever, I said ‘Ten thousands pesos?! That’s ten quid man, why the f*ck would I give you that much for a seven-minute ride?’. I don’t really know what my aim was here; I just needed to vent my incredulousness. It didn’t work. He just stared at me, having clearly not understood. I said ‘No 10,000.’ I know it was a risky tactic but I wasn’t having this floppy-hatted gimp con me out of petrol money when he was already heading in that direction, and not even taking me where I wanted to go. He sighed, and with a frustrated tone said ‘OK, 5,000’. I said ‘How about tres mil?’, showing him my haul of three thousand-peso notes. He said ‘No five?’ at which point I nonchalantly said ‘Nope’ at the exact moment a 5,000 peso note jumped out of my wallet and drifted down onto his feet. I blurted ‘Adios!’ and scrambled out of his car. I was now £5 down, in the middle of nowhere, only about halfway to Tongariki. This had not panned out as planned.

Cue the next passing car and in it driver #3; a smiley little man from mainland Chile who picked me up with great enthusiasm, and in incredibly broken English attempted to chat to me all the way to Tongariki. He wasn’t even going to Tongariki – he was going to Rano Raraku – but he drove the extra mile or so just to drop me off. Now this is the kind of ride you want. Friendly, happy and not acting like he’ll turn me into another one of his latex-glove-based dismembering experiments if I forget to sling him over a couple of pesos.

So two hours later I arrived at Tongariki. On an island that takes 15 minutes to drive across. Only something special was going to snap me out of the tired, sunburnt, agitated stupor I had sunk into, and that’s exactly what the 15 giant Ahu statues of Tongariki did. I can report first-hand that the famous ‘Easter Island Heads’ are not merely famous due to their mysticism or peculiarity – they are truly imposing and intimidating structures of monumental proportions considering their age, and the resources available during their construction. In photos, the Ahu often appear alone, with little reference of scale, but stood among them, you appreciate their sheer magnitude as they tower over you, some as tall as 30ft. I arrived at the site to find a strange turnstile, and a slender little middle-aged woman selling freshly-squeezed pineapple juice in water bottles approached me and asked for my ticket. ‘What ticket?’ I replied, to which she said ‘for the national park’. I told her I didn’t know I needed one. She told me I did. I told her I understood, and asked where I could buy one. After silently noting the fact that I was short of breath, sunburnt and dripping with sweat, she paused for a moment before visibly wincing and hesitantly saying ‘… at the airport.’

‘The airport?! That’s in Hanga Roa! I just hitchhiked all the way here!’. She told me she was sorry and there was nothing she could do. Suddenly, I felt a slap on my back. I turned round to see a lanky man in sports shades and a national park polo shirt nod at me and say ’Don’t worry about it’. I almost exploded with relief. I thanked them both, bought a pineapple juice as a gesture of goodwill (genuinely the tastiest juice I’ve ever had) and went and explored the site. Unashamedly took a few selfies, then a few regular photos, then mulled over how the hell they precariously perched these gigantic things on the little stone plates underneath them, then made haste as there was a grand total of zero shaded spots anywhere in about a mile radius. Luckily, within walking distance (though not really) was Rano Raraku, the site of the quasi-quarry where the basalt stone used to make the statues was mined. I walked for another twenty minutes, singing loudly to myself to distract from feeling like I may be about to melt, until I finally hit the entrance to the site. I strolled in and headed up toward the quarry, when I heard something that made me almost burst into tears; ‘Hey, have you got your ticket?’. It was another national park.

I was too far gone at this point. I wasn’t playing the risky ‘I hitchhiked here’ card – instead, I went nuclear and started breathing heavily and squinting like in great pain, and turned around to see another man in a national park polo shirt. I told him ‘I just walked here from Hanga Roa’. I like to think this lie wasn’t quite as bad as it seems, simply for the fact that I had done a hell of a lot of walking in blazing sun. I told him I’d do anything, that I’d pay for a ticket when I got back to Hanga Roa, and he took pity on me and allowed me to continue. I would of course get back to Hanga Roa later and totally forget about the ticket in the mess of getting ready for my midnight flight to Tahiti. In a moment of terrible timing, it suddenly popped back into my head as I was about to board the plane, so I quickly looked it up on the sketchy wifi. £10 for each national park. On an island the size of the Isle of Wight. I’d been to Orongo, Anakena, Tongariki and Rano Raraku. That’s £40 gone. As much as I feel guilty for forgetting, I feel I’ve already contributed an absolute fortune to this tiny economy just getting here and generally being here – considering how insanely difficult and costly it is to find your way to Easter Island, I feel like charging an extra £40 for admission to the only tourist attractions on the island is a little cheeky.

However, such was the quality of Rano Raraku, that I may actually be tempted to find a way of retrospectively wiring the local park authorities the money for my entry. It was one of the most remarkable things I’ve seen; a giant wall of rock, surrounded by Ahu, all poking out of the surrounding arid grassland at jaunty angles. In the centre of the cliff face was a mixture of half-completed and semi-destroyed statues, evoking an eerie sense of a past event causing an immediate halt to all construction. I later discovered that, though many of the statues are still in pristine condition around the island, the myriad of statues you see toppled over, lying face down, or in pieces by the sides of roads, were mostly destroyed or defaced by the original islanders themselves, the same people that slaved to create them in the first place. What caused them to undo much of their (seemingly exhausting) work remains a mystery, and while most guides and history leaflets tentatively mark it down to ‘tribal warfare’, they are also keen to point out that this is mere speculation. It is unlikely that we will ever know what happened.

After hitting a point of pointy-island-head-statue saturation, I headed back to the main road to hitch my way back to Hanga Roa. I got back to the road at about 3pm, which is pretty much peak temperature time, and realised I may be in a little bit of trouble. Having spent enough time in South America recently, it suddenly dawned on me that everyone eats lunch around this time in this part of the world, and what a prescient realisation that was; it took 15 minutes of walking under brutal sunshine for the first car to show up. It zoomed straight past me. Great. Another 15 minutes went by until I heard another car approaching. A red pickup truck. I put my thumb out and pulled as desperate a face as possible, until they too drove straight past, making eye contact as they did. In an internal fit of melodrama, I sunk to my knees in despair, and I can only assume they saw me in the rear-view mirror, as they screeched to a halt as soon as my knees touched the dirt. I picked myself up and sprinted up to them, shouting ‘Gracias! Gracias! Gracias!’ as I ran. I asked the two men if they were going to Hanga Roa. They said yes and told me not to get in the front with them, but in the flatbed at the back. This was riding bitch taken to the extreme. I was bitchhiking.

I climbed in, and before I could get settled they went into hyperdrive and accelerated to about 50mph along this tiny, narrow little unmarked road. I had gotten in the car of the only fast drivers on Rapa Nui. Thank Christ. However, five minutes down the road, we pulled into a small layby on the beach and stopped. I clambered out to ask what they were doing. They said ‘Goodbye!’ and just stared at me. I can only assume that was a mistranslation, rather than abrupt rudeness, but I again found myself walking for another half an hour down that goddamn road until I got picked up, hassle free, by a woman who drove me all the way back to Hanga Roa. Thank the Lord God.

Aimlessly wandering around the campsite in a daze of heat exhaustion, I realised I was wasting my last few hours here, so I headed to the nearest supermercado, grabbed that very same can of shitty Escudo lager I mentioned earlier, and hit the beach. Sat there, watching the dramatic colours of the endlessly-entertaining sunset for the fourth night in a row, I realised that this genuinely was paradise. It goes without saying that nobody wants too much of a good thing. It reminded me of Robert Nozick’s ‘Experience Machine’ theory; that no human being would ever trade their own life, with all its imperfections and hardships, for a simulated life of total perfection, day in, day out. Paradise isn’t really about non-stop luxury, it’s about a small moments of luxury mixed in with intrigue, weirdness and the occasional moment where you feel like giving up. Easter Island is the very essence that. You may have to work a bit beforehand, but you’ll be rewarded with the greatest beach you’ve ever seen, and you may have to hitchhike in awkward circumstances, but you’ll be rewarded with the most intriguing, creepy national parks you’ve ever seen.

Perhaps its more of a paradise for travellers rather than the average holidaymaker. People who maybe look for more of a challenge than others; who traverse the globe for no real reason other than to just… see how far they can go. To see where they end up. For instance, sat at the glorious beach at Anakena I was perfectly content, but sat in the back of a pickup truck flying down a narrow coast road at 50mph, then I was excited. That’s what I personally travel for – to see where I can end up without trying. To get into situations so far out of my comfort zone I could never foresee them.

And so, as I finish this particularly lengthy post on the plane leaving Easter Island, I have a real sense of having experienced something truly special. It’s bittersweet, of course, but more sweet than bitter. In a little speck of land in a vast ocean of nothing, I saw things that blew my mind, made me laugh, made me frustrated, made me sad and even made me question life in general. When I set off for the island, I received a message from a friend I met in Argentina saying ‘Have fun on Easter Island… contemplating!’. And genuinely I have never done that more than in the past few days. I thought it would be boring and isolating, being stuck somewhere like that, but it was, against all my predictions, totally exhilarating from beginning to end.

In all honesty I’m having difficulty summing up what it is about this place that is so special. So in the absence of a clearer description, I’ll instead leave you with a poem by Charles Bukowski, titled Nirvana, that I’ve always found very evocative from an outsider’s perspective, but now I’m sat here, on a plane drifting through time zones away from little Easter Island, I find it particularly apt.

Not much chance, completely cut loose from purpose.

He was a young man riding a bus through North Carolina

On the way to somewhere, and it began to snow.

The bus stopped at a little cafe in the hills,

And the passengers entered, and he sat at the counter with others,

And he ordered, and the food arrived.

And the meal was particularly good. And the coffee.

The waitress was unlike the women he’d known,

She was unaffected, and there was a natural humour which came from her.

The fry cook said crazy things and the dishwasher in the back laughed

A good clean, pleasant laugh.

The young man watched the snow through the window,

And he wanted to stay in that cafe forever.

A curious feeling swam through him that everything was beautiful there.

And it would always stay beautiful there.

Then the bus driver told the passengers it was time to board,

And the young man thought ‘I’ll just stay here… I’ll just stay here’.

But then he rose and he followed the others onto the bus,

and he found his seat, and he looked at the cafe through the window.

The bus moved off down the curve, downward, out of the hills,

And the young man looked straight forward,

And he heard the other passengers speaking of other things,

Or they were reading, or trying to sleep,

And they hadn’t noticed the magic.

The young man put his head to one side, closed his eyes

And pretended to sleep.

There was nothing else to do.

Just listen to the sound of the engine,

And the sound of the tires,

In the snow.




Easter Island: The Great Divide

The rarest beer I’ve ever drunk: Mahina Rapa Nui Porter. 6.8%, smokey, excellent.

On Easter Island, there is a small and notably un-vocal independence movement, which is slowly and seemingly incredibly ineffectively fighting for freedom from the reign of terror bestowed upon it by notoriously oppressive Chile. So far, I’ve seen little evidence of it, save for a guy in a national park who lives in a hut with FREE RAPA NUI etched all over it in greyish chalk. In fact, I saw a more vocal movement for changing Easter Island’s lingua franca to French than for independence. Walking by the Rapa Nui Parliament earlier today, I wondered which side of these arguments the officials of the island fall on, and suddenly I realised something that I had been totally oblivious to for the past three days; this is not Isla de Pascua or Easter Island. This is Rapa Nui.

Once you leave Santiago, on the mainland, you will no longer hear the words ‘Isla de Pascua’, and everyone will revert to calling it by its traditional Polynesian name of Rapa Nui. Even Chileans who come here from the mainland call it that. I don’t feel like it’s a hint or even an acknowledgement of an independence movement, but I know for a fact that if I were a born-and-bred Islander, I would be pretty pissed at my parent country making up a new name when we already had one, so I guess it’s understandable. Obviously as an Englishman you may think this an incredibly hypocritical stance to take, but I of course sympathise with the territories whose names we changed as well.

I need a haircut

I traversed the island today, from the south to the northwest, and I have to say, if there’s any call for independence around these parts, it should be for the north separating from the south. Hanga Roa, the ‘capital’ and only real town on the island – where I’m staying – is wedged down in the southwest of the island. Having spent the first two days of my stay here in the south, I was led to believe that the entire island is like the south; undulating hills, rocky beaches, dramatic cliff faces and remarkable humidity. In many ways, it has a beauty of its own, yet it may take a bit of time to get used to. For instance, last night I headed into town to watch some form of native ceremony to do with crowning a queen or… something, and I was halfway there when the most extreme tropical rainstorm came crashing down on us. It was a monsoon on steroids; within thirty seconds it felt like I had been in a bath while fully clothed. I stood and stared out at the sea, with the rain pounding against the faces of a few statues nearby, feeling like, if this is the most dramatic, exotic thing the island can offer me, then I guess I’ll take it. Heading north in a pickup truck today, however, we hit a dense forest on the way, winded around through that for a few minutes and then bang; out the other side.

Rapa Nui’s majestic parliament

So starts the northern half of the island; barren, dry, rugged and astonishingly beautiful. This is the checkpoint from which you can fully start to appreciate this little dot of land in the middle of nowhere. Massive long-extinct volcanoes rise out of the ground, dark grey basalt mountains sit alongside them and slope down to the most pristine white-sand beaches you’ve ever seen. As we drove past bizarre pitch-black volcanic rock formations and wide open meadows sandwiched between the tarmac of the road and the blindingly-blue sky, I realised why this is a tourist destination of such esteem. As I said in my last post, everyone here is Chilean; if they wanted decent beaches or mountains they’d just stay on the mainland. Rapa Nui has something very unique about it. Obviously we all know about the Ahu statues and the general ‘I’ve been there’ vibe you get from such a lonely little island, but this is a landscape the likes of which I’ve never really seen before. As some of you will know, my favourite country on Earth is unquestionably Iceland, and whenever I describe why I love it there so much, I usually start with ‘Well, the landscape makes you feel like you’re on Mars’. This island gives me a very similar feeling, except with brutal heat and humidity. It’s like Bizarro Iceland.

Anakena beach

We ended up at Anakena, a tiny stretch of beach on the northern shore of the island. I stepped out of the car to the what I can only describe as the most perfect ‘island paradise’ beach you could ever imagine. It was straight out of a postcard. White sand, palm trees, little reed-roofed huts selling freshly squeezed pineapple juice, and seawater bluer than the sky. Well I mean it would’ve been the archetypal paradise beach if it weren’t for the creepy Ahu staring us down from the corner. I was hungry so I grabbed a camarón, a sort of deep-fried empanada filled with cheese and prawns (I know right?) and it was genuinely delicious. I sat on the floor and that’s when the two things that maybe made this not the perfect beach hit me. One is the cost. This island is excruciatingly expensive. A bottle of water will set you back £3, a can of beer £5, a burger £15. But I’m on holiday, so who cares. The other is that Rapa Nui is absolutely plagued with some form of red ant that, if you give it the chance, will crawl all over you and into your clothing and bite you to its little jaws’ content.

After alternating between picking melted cheese off my chin and trying to get a hoard of ants out of my swimming costume, I went for a swim, sat in a deckchair, then climbed a big hill adjacent to the beach, where at the top was a small cave with a perfect panoramic vantage point. I sat there for a while, trying to halt the sun’s attempts to turn me into a raisin, and I noticed something else. In my last post I was perhaps a little unfair on the island’s remoteness; I suggested it feels just like any island anywhere, and that the surrounding water looks the same as, say, the Channel.

Sat there, in this potentially millions-of-years-old cave, surrounded by these iconic pagan statues that date back to the 13th Century, I really got the sense that I was somewhere pretty special. Perhaps not just in a holiday-making sense, but in a geographical and historical sense. Although obviously you can just jump on a plane here these days, it hit me how this strange little place once must have seemed like the entire universe to someone. The entirety of their world would start at the beach at Anakena, and end at Orongo on the south coast. That’s all they would have had. At numerous points, people would have set out by boat and, I imagine, come back empty handed. There’s too much of nothing in every direction for that to be a viable option. But while obviously modern technology and the expansion of the travel industry has – in a relative sense – made Easter Island feel like a lonely little speck of dust, back then it must have felt like the centre of the universe – the only place that ever existed and ever will exist.

Some more Ahu

Driving back from the beach, I had a third epiphany; Rapa Nuians cannot drive. I’m not talking like southern-European-style nonchalance, overtaking on blind corners at 70mph on a mountain road with no barriers. I’m talking like it feels like everyone here has only just passed their driving test. Hands always at 10 and 2, never hitting 16mph, getting distracted and drifting out of lane, and perhaps the weirdest one; slowing to an absolute crawl when a car is coming in the opposite direction. There’s one kind of ‘major’ road that cuts through the island from north to south, and on our way back to Hanga Roa, every car heading back to Anakena would slow to an almost stop, and we’d then follow suit, and pass each other with a combined speed of about 4mph. There’s loads of space! I could drive better than this an I don’t drive! Heading back into the forest, we saw our first breakdown – a woman getting a jumpstart from a guy in a van. Five minutes later we saw our second – two vans stopped at the side of the road, bonnets open, one with steam pouring from it. Then about 100m further down the road, around a corner was a broken-down VW Beetle perched on a breakdown rescue truck, which itself had also broken down. So of the two mechanics in the truck, one was up top fixing the VW, the other was lying underneath his own truck, oil spilling past him out into the middle of the road. What a shitshow.

I’m currently sat on the beach back at Hanga Roa, watching the sun go down behind an impromptu fireworks display and drinking a bottle of Mahina Pia Rapa Nui, a porter brewed on the island, and I have to say, after everything I said yesterday, I’m going to have to admit I may have been a little hasty. I wasn’t even that negative, but once I explored more comprehensively, I’ve begun to understand things about this place are perhaps a little difficult to spot immediately. Wandering through the town centre late on a Sunday evening, when the swarm of loud American and Chinese tourists have gone back to their pampered palaces of inauthenticity, you can get a sense of what this island is really about; glorious nothing. It’s a lack of complexity, combined with a barren landscape and an empty horizon that gives this place a feeling of kind of bastardised paradise. It’s not the pretty, perfect tropical island retreat, it’s a little jagged runt that Pangea left behind all those millions of years ago, and I have to admit, I love it.


La Serena: Buy Two Get None Free

Pisco Elqui

There have been a number of moments this week where I perhaps could have sat down to update the blog, but in all honesty, working at a hostel really wipes you out. Well perhaps it’s not the working, but the fact that, when you’re at a hostel as a guest, your usual daily activities alternate between socialising, going out and perhaps spending a couple of hours alone. Add work into that schedule, and you have to choose one of those three original activities to replace with changing pillowcases and mopping hair off the women’s shower floors (literally what the Christ are you doing in there? Scalping each other?). And let’s be honest, no sane person would fly halfway round the goddamn world to toggle between serving breakfasts to hairy Swedish crossdressers and spending time alone. Yes I do have someone specific in mind.

So you have to sacrifice a little down-time. This is the only place on my entire trip where I’m working during my stay, and I leave tomorrow; from now on the blog posts will be more frequent.

So I’ve been in Chile for about 10 days now, and of course I’m going to start this chapter of my blog with a bang – we had an earthquake here last night. I frantically texted pretty much anyone I have ever known in my life shortly afterwards, so I doubt anyone reading this will be unaware of this fact that I’m so desperate to tell people about, but yes; a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck the Coquimbo region at about 9:30 last night, about 45 miles south of us. After for some reason having consumed a two-litre bottle of Coke Zero in the previous 15 minutes, I was flying around the hostel with a broom like a retarded child in a Haribo factory, sweeping up whatever residue the endless flip-flop-clad stream of travelers had left in their wake, when suddenly I felt these weird pulsing vibrations from what I thought were people walking downstairs. I looked up, ready to tell the herd of elephants coming downstairs to tread a little more lightly, only to see an empty staircase, and the American man sat down the hallway from me suddenly bolting out of his chair shouting ‘It’s an earthquake!’. Me, him and another American woman were the only people on the ground floor, and within two seconds they were wedged in the doorframe of their room. I assume they must have been Californian with experienced action-taking like that. As the vibrations got stronger, I stumbled around the hallway, not really knowing what to do.

For those who have never felt a mild earthquake, it’s really not as dramatic as you’d think. Sure, magnitudes 8 and up are probably pretty wild, but this little 6.3-er kind of felt like I had been in the middle of dancing and then suddenly gotten really drunk for a few seconds. The floor feels kind of hollow and flexible, like trying to stand totally still on a trampoline, while a low rumble echoes through everything in the vicinity. That’s the one thing that makes a mild earthquake a little bit more intimidating than its destructive capabilities suggest it should. It was just a bit of vibration and maybe a potted plant or two shuffling across a table, but the sound is extraordinary. Say you hit a banister or stamp on a hollow floor – the vibration will dissipate shortly due to it being ‘grounded’ or connected to a non-resonant object that will absorb the movement. If everything is shaking, including the ground itself, no shock can be absorbed, so the natural sound of everything vibrating happens at once. The walls, the tables, the beds, even the entire building lets out this flat rumbling growl.

Seeing as I have never come close to an earthquake in my life, and had forgotten the frequency with which they happen in Chile, I got caught in about 20 different minds. I ran towards my room, then decided it was too far, so ran back under an arch in the hallway. Realising this wasn’t as structurally sound as I had hoped, I gave up and got down on one knee and put my hands on the floor. Then I remembered the doorway trick, and I sprinted across the hallway to the bathroom door. By this point, however, the earthquake had already been over for a good ten seconds, and I looked up to see my fellow hostel workers staring down at me from the second floor, laughing at the evident panic on my face as my fingers dug into the doorframe. They started going about their business again, so I played it cool, and emerged from my hiding place, only to see the American dude still clinging to his doorway in the next room, his eyes darting around like a tinfoil hat-wearer who had just spotted a UFO. I casually laughed and said ‘Isn’t it over now?’ to which he replied ‘Well THAT one is…’. I lost my composure and darted back to my doorway. In the end, not much happened, though a 5.1 magnitude aftershock happened about 20 minutes later, which I didn’t even notice. If I were to take one lesson away from the experience, it’s that if anyone has ever been killed by an earthquake that registered 6.3 on the Richter scale, they must have been juggling 20 skittles while on a 30ft-high unicycle made of glass.

Best hostel ever

Chile certainly takes the crown for best destination so far. It’s such a strange place – so isolated by the Andes geographically (and to an extent culturally too) – packed full of natural wonders. Huge mountains surround every town, the beaches are long, the waves enormous. It feels much more like Latin America should than Buenos Aires, which is so incredibly colonial that it just feels like a European city. La Serena, the town I have spent the last week in, is an odd one. A seaside town that is actually not on the sea, La Serena is small, dusty, yet incredibly lively. It’s one of the busiest towns I’ve ever visited. Heading out into the centre on a Friday or Saturday was just absolute human gridlock. There are also also an extraordinary 33 churches in this small town, and it seems to be a popular marriage hotspot, so on more than one occasion I found myself wandering into a church only to realise I was now part of a wedding. You can literally just wander in and watch the service.

However, the highlight of not just Chile but of the trip so far (apart from my colleague here attempting to explain a buy-one-get-one-free sale on beer to a customer and accidentally saying ‘Well you buy two, and you get two beers’) was the Elqui Valley. An astonishing feat of tectonic activity, the Elqui Valley is a huge chasm that leads from the coast to the Andes – the entire width of Chile – and is just… desolate. The roads are flanked by enormous dust-and-cacti-covered mountains that stretch way into the sky, while tiny little villages (usually with a church and an empanada stand) are scattered along the route. I took the bus with a friend from the hostel to Pisco Elqui, a small village way into the valley where pisco is made. Pisco is – according to Wikipedia – ‘a colorless or yellowish-to-amber colored brandy produced in winemaking regions of Peru and Chile. Made by distilling grape wine into a high-proof spirit, it was developed by 16th century Spanish settlers as an alternative to orujo, a pomace brandy that was being imported from Spain.’ Yet, despite distilled wine sounding like something only Withnail would drink, it’s actually very sweet and very smooth. I went on a distillery tour of Los Nichos, one of the most famous pisco brands in Chile, and after sitting through the history of the spirit entirely in Spanish, we got what we all wanted – a tasting. Yes.

Trying my hand at hitchhiking in the valley

However, the Elqui Valley has something even more special attached to its name. The main road that winds its way precariously through the mountains of the valley is nicknamed the ‘Ruta de las Estrellas’ – The Route of the Stars – and good Lord did it live up to its name. After stumbling across the most spectacular hostel I’ve ever been to – £10 a night complete with pool, outdoor kitchen, open air rooms and some astonishing scenery – me and a couple of people that had come to the valley from La Serena booked ourselves onto a midnight stargazing tour. Once the sun goes down, stars start to appear pretty quickly. Then more. Then more. Then even more until the whole sky is nothing but stars. And this was when we were sat in the brightly-lit garden of the hostel. Obviously I knew it was going to be special, so we went out and got a two-litre bottle of wine to split between three, necked it and headed out into the desert in a minivan. Almost immediately I realised that this van was surprisingly short of seatbelts, and so hung on to some rusty hooks that were attached to the floor by an elasticated cable. I did not feel safe.

We drove for about 35 minutes, my face a picture of unending terror the entire time, until we got to a small clearing at the base of two mountains. In the middle was a car park and a small observatory dome. I stepped out of the van, already impressed by the starscape, until the final car in the car park switched its headlights off. There is no real way to describe it other than with the two words that subsequently came out of my mouth; holy shit.

From horizon to horizon was the most intensely bright night sky I have ever seen, crammed with stars and planets in literally every direction. Constellations that were usually so easy to spot had become lost in the mess of light. The ambient luminosity was such that you could clearly see the look of awe on the other tourists’ faces. The faded Milky Way was right there, stretching across the entire sky, surrounded by other small gas clouds, nebulas and star clusters, thousands if not millions of light years away. And they were right there, staring you in the face as you stared back. It is of course a cliche to be totally in awe at the scale and majesty of the universe, but that is the first time in my life that I – someone who has stargazed a lot in the past – have been truly blown away by the night sky. When confronted with a naked-eye view like that, comprised of long-dead stars, incomprehensibly massive galaxies and clouds of helium and hydrogen that birth the stars themselves – and deep down knowing that they are distances from us that humankind could never even hope to surmount – I believe that it is truly impossible for an observer not to be moved. On paper it is a vast expanse of nothing, punctuated almost unfathomably infrequently by objects that we will never visit, that has sat idling above our heads every single night for as long as there has been life on this planet – as long as there has been a universe for us to exist in – and yet it is not something that will ever grow old. It will never not be awesome in the truest sense of the word. It is not only the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life, but arguably the most amazing thing that any human being could ever see.


Buenos Aires: Duality

Part I: The Airing of Grievances (A Festivus Miracle)

‘Nah it’s ok guys remember we don’t believe in subtlety’

I failed. I attempted to reconcile my differences with the insanity of Buenos Aires, and I returned from Montevideo to discover that much to my surprise, I’m still yet to be convinced. I have to admit, this is also bad timing as I am currently on a plane to Santiago, Chile, watching Buenos Aires fade into the horizon for probably the last time ever. Last night, walking through the city at midnight while drunk on Fernet again, and realising I was about to leave the city, I confusingly felt both sad and happy at the same time. I’m fully aware this may come across as fairly insulting, so I apologise to any Porteños (Buenos Aires residents) who may be reading, but I’m not going to sugar-coat it; I was happy because I was leaving, and sad because I was happy. This is not how I envisaged the first stop of my trip ending – cutting Buenos Aires short so I can get out, and spending much of the time I had designated for the city taking refuge in a totally different country across the River Plate. Then again, as I’ve made clear before, it’s difficult to equate this sort of experience to the kind you’d get on, say, a five-day city break to Scandinavia. On circumnavigational journeys of this magnitude, I’ve realised that, as much as it may upset you, you have to take a bullet every once in a while, and that not every city is for everyone. You have to chop and change as you go, adding time in some places, removing some elsewhere. It’s an ugly side of travelling, but one that I think, in a way, feels more authentic. You don’t travel to be in permanent, stress-free paradise. You quit your job (or get made redundant, whoops), you give up your room and you say goodbye to your home country because you want something bigger than that. Not some soul-searching, faux-spiritual nonsense, but just… an experience. Something different. If you set out expecting only great moments with great food, great sights and great people, travelling is not for you.

However, on a similar note to my initial one, what arguably frustrates me more than my inability to appreciate Buenos Aires is the number of foreigners who bullshit themselves into believing the city is an unending masterpiece; God’s gift to urbanisation. Obviously I’m not being a total cynic, and I am fully aware that many people truly and genuinely love Buenos Aires, and really find their ‘spiritual home’ for lack of a less wanky term. There are people who wholeheartedly embrace its impressive bohemian arts scene, its gastronomic diversity, its intense energy and its weird hobos who ask you for a sip of your beer on the street. Then there are those infuriatingly naive people who praise literally every single thing about the city, as if it has no poverty, as if it has a perfect infrastructure, that it’s somehow ‘better’ than anywhere in Europe. On that note, I’m not saying it’s worse than anywhere in Europe, as it’s impossible to compare continents like that unless you’re an idiot, and on that subsequent note, I have actually had one person suggest that Buenos Aires is ‘better than anywhere in the Western World’ (what is it if it’s not Western?), and I’ve even heard people bother to rave about the flavour of the goddamn tap water, which is widely regarded as tasting like shit. What is interesting about these people, however, is that as soon as I mention to them that I’m not so sure I’m BA’s biggest fan, they’ll start to question their own love of it.

I’m not being a killjoy on purpose; it’s very easy to spot when someone is bullshitting about this kind of thing, simply for the fact that they gravely overcompensate for any doubts they have by going completely overboard with sycophancy. Even the most hardened, loyal, born-and-raised Buenos Aires residents I met were quick to complain about a myriad of aspects of the city, be they economical, administrative, infrastructural or otherwise. I feel like more travelers than meet the eye objectively know there are many great things about this city, but will not admit that subjectively there are other things that need improvement. No matter who you are or where you’re from, you cannot claim that Buenos Aires is a perfect utopia (if simply for the fact that no city is a perfect utopia), yet people do it anyway. I love London, but there are a million things I also dislike about it.

Which brings me to another point – you cannot compare Buenos Aires to London on a superficial level at all. Whenever I commented on the intensity of Buenos Aires to other travelers, they’d say ‘but you live in London! How can you complain about Buenos Aires?’. London is literally half a world away from Buenos Aires. If, in your eyes, two cities can be considered similar simply because their population is above ten million, you need to re-evaluate the way in which you absorb different cultures. Perhaps in terms of statistics, or in the way the pointless Human Development Index looks at it, the two cities may have more in common than I think, but from a subjective, personal viewpoint – literally the only way it is possible for me to experience both cities – they are totally, totally different. It has literally never been 40°C in London. London does not have choripan, London does not have two-litre bottles of beer for £1, London does not have the SuperClasico, London does not have neighbourhoods where locals have said ‘don’t go there because you will get mugged’, London does not have beautiful Spanish colonial-era architecture. And do you know what else? It might seem pretty damn obvious but London is not a Spanish-speaking city. As an Englishman, me turning up expecting that I could just swoop into their culture like a Tetris piece falling into place would indicate a more insulting level of disrespectful ignorance than suggesting that Buenos Aires is a challenging travel destination in the first place. Going from one big city to another doesn’t mean shit – no two great cities are the same – and it blows my mind that many people seem to think they are.


Part II: Screaming Midget

Now that’s over, I can finally comment on the what’s happened since I wrote the first part of this post. While that was one the plane, I now find myself in Santiago, having waited at the bus stop for two hours, during which my bus was half an hour late. In the complete chaos of San Borja Bus Terminal, it’s easy to get completely freaked out when your bus randomly doesn’t turn up on time. There are no departure boards, no staff to speak to, and – most infuriatingly – about 50 gates for buses to arrive at, and you have absolutely no idea which one yours will appear at. You have to be vigilant, you have to attempt to ask other people what’s going on, and most importantly, you have to be patient. I’ve since discovered that it’s horrible being patient.

We set off on the 7 hour bus journey north to La Serena about 3 minutes ago, but we’re currently stopped at a corner shop about 200 yards from the bus terminal, and all three drivers (three drivers?) have jumped out, and gone and bought beer.

Sitting on the plane earlier, my phone and laptop both died and I had time to reflect on the past couple of days, while a video played overhead of what I can only assume was some sort of Brazilian package holiday advert but involved people manically riding round a city in a golf cart looking like Jack Nicklaus on meth. The end of my time in Uruguay and my subsequent return to Buenos Aires was filled with some rather strange moments, and, of course, strange people. My ferry from Uruguay was delayed by four hours for seemingly no reason, so the crowd of waiting passengers at the ferry terminal in Colonia was getting agitated at both the delay and the lack of information about the delay. After an hour or so, the crowd started whistling, booing and hissing at intermittent intervals, at which point the Colonia Express staff obviously realised they needed to send in the big guns.

With his high-pitched shriek parting the crowd like the Red Sea, a 5ft tall bald man with a shirt, tie and microphone came bursting into the room in some sort of last-ditch attempt at crowd control. Within a few seconds of talking he realised his Madonna-esque head-mounted microphone was broken, and instead of trying to fix it or replace it, just started screaming everything he needed to say. Like an insane, shiny-headed troll in the corner, he (I think) told everyone in an increasingly hoarse voice that there was no more information yet. The crowd closed in on him, shouting in Spanish and waving their tickets, and I pushed to the front to ask if he spoke English. “YES!” he said, so I asked what was going on, and he responded by shouting YEEEES!. I gave up and sat back down until another staff member appeared. Due to the sheer number of boats leaving that afternoon, I started to worry I would miss mine, so I approached this other staff member with my boarding pass, and before I could even ask if she spoke English, she saw it and said something very pointedly (while also pointing at the waiting area) in Spanish. I again asked her if she spoke English, to which she just said a bunch more stuff in Spanish. I then attempted to ask her in Spanish if anyone spoke English, to which she yet again gave me a barrage of Spanish. Finally, I told her in very clear Spanish that didn’t understand – for the fourth time, another aggressive reply I didn’t understand, so I just totally lost my shit and very forcefully said Why are you doing this?! I don’t know what the f*** you’re saying!” at her. The response, predictably, was just more Spanish. I walked away.

A special shoutout for Weird Person of the Week goes to Bruno the taxi driver. After my ferry arrived at a port in Buenos Aires that A) I wasn’t expecting, and B) is under a motorway in a sketchy neighbourhood with no transport links or cash machines, I walked for twenty minutes with all my luggage to the gentrified Puerta del Madero, at which point I promptly collapsed into the first taxi to come my way. Enter Bruno; a large 30-something Porteno wearing a full Argentina kit (including shorts and socks). Usually when you get into a taxi in a foreign country and the driver speaks absolutely no English, your best bet is either to attempt to speak in their language, or to remain silent. Old Bruno here, however, was a man of gumption. He promptly got out his enormous Samsung Galaxy and opened the Google Translate app. He pressed the microphone button and spoke into it, asking me where I was going. I told him the corner of Avenida Rivadavia and Libertad. He said OK, then picked up the phone and said something into it. He handed it back to me, and a little computerised American voice said ‘Do you like football?’. I replied into the phone ‘Yes, I like it very much, and Carlos Tevez is my hero’. After a little robotic Spanish man’s voice translated it back to Bruno, he said ‘OH! Manchester United?!’. I said ‘No, West Ham United!’. He knew his stuff; ‘Ah that was Tevez’s first team in England, he helped save them from relegation’. Obviously at this point he hadn’t suddenly become proficient in English; he was still talking through the translator like we were aliens attempting to communicate in some cheap sci-fi film. I arranged a lift to the airport the next morning with him, as his rates were a lot lower than the airport shuttle companies, and we departed ways at my hostel. The following night, after stumbling home drunk, I got into bed for a reasonably early night, ready for a 7am wake-up call. Then, in the darkness, my phone vibrated. It was Bruno asking me when I wanted to be picked up. I had already told him 8am, so I told him again, at which point there was a long pause. He then accidentally sent me a kissing emoji, then apologised in Spanish and laughed, then I laughed to make it less awkward. I fell asleep, only to feel the buzz of my phone again about an hour later. It was Bruno again. I unlocked my phone to reveal that he had sent me a low-resolution photo of Carlos Tevez playing for West Ham. In the middle of the night.


The next morning I climbed into Bruno’s taxi van, at which point I noticed he had upgraded his Argentina kit and was now wearing football boots too. I pointed at them and said ‘porque?’. He got out the old translator app and translated ‘Oh I’m sorry about these, I was playing football yesterday’. Does he not know how to undress for bed? Did he wear boots to sleep? As the questions compiled in my head, Bruno handed me the phone to start a conversation. I started talking about my travels. If you’ve ever used the audio translate function on Google Translate, then you’ll be familiar with its often erroneous output. We talked about my travels, at which point I inadvertently told him I was going to ‘Easter Island, Bench Polynesia and Jelly Bean Zealand’, and during a conversation about music Bruno accidentally told me that he ‘loves Lenny Kravitz but sometimes he has too many bananas’ at which point I quickly moved the conversation-by-proxy on for fear that perhaps that last statement wasn’t an accident.

Arriving at the hopeless Ezeiza Airport, I told Bruno I had no change, so he let me run inside to the cash machine. First one I come to? Empty. Second? Empty. Third? Same again. There’s an unusual thing that happens in Buenos Aires, and to an extent the rest of Argentina; inflation obviously causes a drop in the value of money, and the Argentinian economy is on its knees at the moment, running at a rate of 40% inflation per year. As a result, more people need more money to buy stuff, and the cash machines are refilled every day except weekends. Thus, Friday evenings see long queues for cash machines all over the city, as people get out enough to last them the weekend. I had arrived at the airport too early for any of the machines to have been refilled. I tried fifteen different machines. All empty. I left Bruno outside like a lemon, and once I finally got my hands on some cash (McDonald’s does cashback?), I ran outside, superfluous McMuffin in hand, for Bruno to tell me that we had overstayed the short-stay parking limit. Which was true; he wasn’t trying to con me, so I paid up, said goodbye to my strange taxi man, went back inside, checked in, and sulked with my McMuffin until my plane took off.

A mixture of fear and shame

And finally, a shoutout to Ines, who was my partner-in-crime as we trawled the city looking for a piano for me to play. Sitting at lunch in a specialist cheese restaurant, drinking some of the worst wine to ever have graced my oesophagus, we decided that I should play piano. I don’t really know why, but as soon as the idea was put forward, I suddenly craved it, and we went on a mission to bars, cafes and tango clubs trying to find a piano they’d allow me to use. We then stumbled into a music shop around the corner from my hostel, at which point the guy hooked up a £5,000 electric piano and just… allowed me to sit there and play it. For a long time too. Obviously afterwards we had to give the spiel about how we’d think about it, like I was only pretending to look like a traveler and was secretly Mr Deeds about to piss £5k into the wind.

I’m currently still on this coach, somewhere north of Santiago and the scenery is very impressive. It’s like central Spain (think Spaghetti Westerns) but on steroids. The mountains are bigger, the landscape harsher and the sun more relentless. I just attempted to use the bathroom and I’m not entirely convinced you wouldn’t die if you stayed in there long enough – the door is almost impossible to open (including from the inside), it’s considerably hotter than a sauna, and is sat right on top of the engine, meaning I opened the door to – and I’m not joking – a thick cloud of exhaust smoke. In order to get as much circulation in so they don’t accidentally kill a passenger each journey, the staff had snapped part of the hinge of the bathroom window off to allow it to open further than originally designed, and wedged a full two-litre bottle of water between the glass and the frame, hanging out over the motorway. If that thing dislodges itself, someone behind us is either going to get a faceful of delicious bathroom water or a terrible brain injury.

They’ve just put on a Chilean dub of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with a broken soundcard. Michelangelo sounds like he’s about to consume the souls of Raphael, Donatello and Leonardo. Only six hours to go now.


Santiago: Layover of Death

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.