After a week of ups and downs, the time has come for us to turn our backs on Odessa, and to head back north to Kiev, Ukraine’s industrious capital city. It would take the obliviousness of a legitimately insane person to suggest that Odessa isn’t by far the ‘nicer’ city of the two we’ve been to, in all its neo-classical glory. Compared to Dnipropetrovsk, it’s more lively, cleaner, prettier and a lot less weird. But I guess that same weirdness is what made Dnipro so stupid and so loveable at the same time. Even through visuals alone, one can tell that Odessa has stood as a vital cultural hub for the Ukraine (and the USSR before it) since its inception – it’s church after church and opera house after opera house. The city is literally the antithesis of Dnipro, which was factory after factory and concrete high-rise after concrete high-rise. And yet, while I’m sure you’re expecting me to finish this meandering paragraph by choosing one over the other, I’m not going to. I like them both equally and for very different reasons. Deal with it.
Although Dnipro is the Ukraine’s main purveyor of that ‘weirdness’ I mentioned earlier, Odessa can – occasionally – still hold a candle to Dnipro. As many of you more seasoned nomads will know, sometimes when you’re travelling, there are days when nothing of interest will happen. Then there are days where you’re kept pretty busy and captivated by whatever your current location has to offer. And then – every once in a while – you hit the jackpot. On Saturday night, Elliot and I found ourselves exploring the city (Jake had excused himself to hang out with some local friends), and as we approached the top of the famous Potemkin Steps, we noticed a vaguely-musical sound coming from below the edge of a 30-40ft drop from a park at the top of the steps.
As we got closer, we realised a gig was going on, so we sat on the wall and had a listen. However, as we discovered, this was no ordinary gig. In a pub garden down below, a large stage was set up, and, in front of an audience of around 20 people – many of whom appeared to be straddling the line between interpretive dance and interpretive seizure – a man was absolutely freaking out to the sound of a bizarrely-remixed version of David Bowie’s Changes. Yet, just as this was clearly no ordinary gig, nor was this an ordinary man. Save for a cardboard box on his head and a printout of Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers covering his manhood, he was completely naked.
And as he switched from extremely camp prancing around, to suddenly dropping to the floor and doing push-ups, the crowd – and two members of the audience in particular – could barely contain their feverish delight, clapping and yelping uncontrollably in what was the icing on the most perfectly surreal cake I have ever seen baked. We sat and watched as the tunes kept coming, the crowd growing more and more animated. The following morning, after a ludicrously difficult few hours of sleuthing, I discovered what we had just witnessed – a two-man band called Хамерман знищує віруси (‘Hammerman Destroys Viruses’). Upon watching further videos, I am none the wiser as to who they are, why they are constantly either naked or in skimpy outfits, what they’re singing about, or why they occasionally perform with a clarinetist with a hat shaped like a giant penis. The mystery goes on.
Yesterday we decided to do as the locals do, and went to a Ukrainian league football match. The mighty Chernomorets Odessa would be taking on FC Oleksandriya. The teams were level on points in mid-table, and after getting suspiciously cheap tickets off a tout, we made our way into the surprisingly nice brand-new stadium, grabbed some beers, and watched some of the most desperately awful football we had ever borne witness to. Both teams were misplacing passes, misjudging crosses, and misfiring shots. Until one decisive moment in the second half; as the ball gently rolled across the six-yard box during one of very few attacks by either team, the Chernomorets left winger sprinted onto the loose ball and smacked it back into the centre, where it proceeded to hit an Oleksandriya defender on the ass, and rolled pitifully into the net for a beautiful own goal. All 2,000 fans in the 35,000-seater stadium went wild, including the small section of ‘ultras’, who took a break from banging their drums to have a 100-man shirtless bundle on the concrete terraces. The game finished 1-0 and everyone went home happy, save for the 50-or-so away fans who had been placed far, far away at the top corner of the stadium like a leper colony.
Of course, Odessa has not been without its resident heroes either. And by resident heroes, I mean one guy in particular who was neither resident nor hero, but instead an inadvertently belligerent older guy from Perth, Australia. There’s a bar in Odessa called Шкаф (pronounced ‘Shkaff’), and it basically became our go-to hangout whenever we needed a drink. Every time we went, something interesting would happen. It could be good, it could be bad, but we knew it would be interesting. However, on our final trip there, we flew a little too close to the sun and ended up talking to this guy from Perth, cos, y’know, he’s an English speaker. And from here on out, the night became a dense whirlwind of clingyness, ignorance, and saying the word faaackin’ ahead of every noun. As we climbed deeper into the evening, PerthMan slowly evolved from talking about why he was in Ukraine – a perfectly acceptable topic – to some of the most bizarrely contradictory nuggets of self-satisfied wisdom that ever floated into any of our ears.
After we and PerthMan had agreed not to join a bunch of bulky Ukrainian programmers to the strip club across the road, he then proceeded to drag us over to it, ‘just to have a faackin’ look, y’know?’. And by this, he meant literally bargaining with the very confused and bored bouncers to let him stand at the entrance and stare longingly into the club. Like a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter, Elliot ended up taking the bullet and ‘having a look’ with him. However, after PerthMan had imparted such age-old wisdom as ‘what man doesn’t faackin’ love tits?’ and ‘a woman is a faackin’ woman, am I right?’, he then immediately changed his tune, and after berating me with a ‘where the faaaaaaack did you go mate?!’ once I had sneaked away from his sordid bullshit, stated ‘if these faackin’ Ukrainian c*nts wanna see some faackin’ naked ladies, they just need to open their faackin’ laptops and have a faackin’ wank, am I right?!’. His statement was met with aggressively British silence.
Luckily, Jake had stayed in Shkaff, meaning Elliot and I could forcefully state to PerthMan that ‘we’re going to get Jake from Shkaff now’, i.e. ‘please no more’. Yet instead of understanding any part of what that statement meant, he then had a go at us, telling Elliot ‘you have to faackin’ say goodbye to the Ukrainians. You can’t just faackin’ leave without telling them where you’re going’. So after alerting the Ukrainians to our imminent departure (even though they weren’t even aware we were still there), we walked back over to Shkaff, only for PerthMan to walk with us, telling us we all needed to go drink somewhere else, cos 30 hryvnias for a beer is way too expensive. For those not familiar with Ukrainian money, 30 hryvnias is 85p. Ukraine to us is cheap, hence we can afford 85p for a beer, and hence why we get taxis everywhere. However, once we told PerthMan this, he proceeded to berate us yet again, saying that we should get trams everywhere instead of taxis because getting taxis is ‘not supporting the faackin’ economy mate’, despite the fact that a taxi journey costs £3-4, while a tram journey costs 14p. As these words fell from his lips, we realised the nonsensical wisdom of our perilous pal would continue to hang over us like a fat fart no matter what we did, save for jumping in the nearest taxi and telling the driver to get us as far away from that man as possible. So that’s exactly what we did.
Part I: The Airing of Grievances (A Festivus Miracle)
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 iswidely 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.
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.