At this point, I have no idea where I’m going to end up next. The last few days have been one theatre after another for confusing, manically-driven impulses, culminating in me not actually being in Auckland as I write this. That city, in the northern reaches of the North Island, is now a distant memory from the quaint-yet-spectacular South Island city of Queenstown, where I am now. Well, I say city, but on paper it’s merely a glorified village; a population of 19,000 sits on the shore of Lake Wakatipi, wedged clumsily between dramatic pine-forested mountains. However, my 48-hour stay in Auckland was pretty eventful, so I thought I should honour the city with its own blog post.
Air Tahiti Nui flight TN101 from Pape’ete to Auckland (the designation of which I only remember because I had to recount it to New Zealand customs officers about twenty times) was an interesting experience to say the least. A large Airbus jet, fit for maybe 300 passengers, took off in glorious sunshine with about 30 people on board, after which I promptly fell asleep across the middle four chairs while watching (or attempting to watch) a French-made documentary about Belgian singer Jacques Brel, which featured no English subtitles. I’m not entirely sure what my aim was here, but at least my inability to understand a single word worked as an effective sleeping aid.
I woke up to the smell of egg in the air. I sat up, seatbelt buckle stuck to the side of my face, and looked to the left to see a small sleeping Chinese lady, mouth open and fork in hand, slumped over a half-eaten omelette. I looked to the right and saw a guy also with a finished food tray (and five empty cans of beer. At 8:30am). NO! I HAD MISSED BREAKFAST.
I stood up and shuffled down the aisle in bare feet to the back of the plane and asked the steward if I could had some breakfast as I had missed it. He laughed with his colleague and handed me a two-inch diameter tuna sandwich triangle. I asked what he was doing. He looked at me like I was a bellend. I said ‘Petit dejeuner?’. He realised what I meant and handed me a tray of food that felt suspiciously light. I went back to my seat and peeled back the foil on the plate to reveal… an empty plate. Had they forgotten to put the omelette in there? Was this some form of Tahitian practical joke? I stood up and went back to the steward and showed him the empty plate. He looked at me and said ‘That was fast’.
Then, New Zealand. We touched down. I had returned to the English-speaking world. I don’t care how bad it sounds, but God damn it felt good. And not only that, but it was New Zealand, a country I have always had a deep desire to visit. The first country to give women the vote. The land of Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Everest. The home of my boy Winston Reid (yet everyone here inexplicably thinks the West Ham 1962-63 away kit I’m so eager to show off is actually an Aston Villa shirt. Get the f*ck outta here).
Arriving in Auckland, I couldn’t help but notice two things. One is how incredibly clean everything was. Auckland is a very clinical, pristine city (or at least in the centre); all buildings are glass fronted, the boringly-named Queens Street is constantly being pored over by street cleaners, and there are bins literally every two metres. How nice.
The second thing I noticed didn’t hit me until I opened my phone. Using the fairly insane level of readily-available free wifi on the street and on buses (yeah have some of that, Tahiti), I opened HostelWorld and HostelBookers to discover that no hostels in the entire city had any free rooms for the entire week. Oh shit. Ok, not to panic, I guess I can just stay in a cheap hotel. But no, no availability there either. So what the hell do I do? I’ll tell you what I did; in a moment of frenzied panic, I booked myself into a King Bed Suite on the top floor of a 5-star hotel overlooking the city. Hell yeah bitches.
After five weeks of tents, hostels and even airports, to finally end up in a luxury hotel felt rewarding to say the least. After using as much of the sauna and steamroom as my body could physically handle, I lazily wobbled my way to the nearest supermarket, grabbed a bottle of local sauvignon blanc and a giant bag of crisps, got into my gown and slippers, revelled for a bit in my small moment of luxury and then brought the tone down horribly by watching Oren Moverman’s 2009 film The Messenger, in which Woody Harrelson plays a Casualty Notifications Unit officer in the US Army. That was grim to say the least.
After waking up and suddenly deciding I need to see the South Island while I’m here, I then booked a flight and a bus tour for the following day, and you know what that means? Cheapest flight = worst time of day = sleeping at the airport again. What a contrast from the night before.
So I headed out to the Britomart Bus Station (the hell is with that name?) at midnight to catch my bus back to Auckland Airport. And you know what I was greeted with? A totally transformed city. It was like the last days of Rome. Like Auckland was about to be ransacked by invading forces. Paramedics attending to passed out girls in the gutter, three-or-four-way makeout sessions on street corners and a ratio of male shirtlessness and lame-as-f*ck macho behaviour of 1:1. On my way to the McDonald’s (I needed overnight sustenance), I was stopped by a group of what looked like club promoters. I could see a table of free drinks in plastic cups behind them. Feeling like I maybe needed to take the edge off the evening, I approached the table to realise that they were all medics handing out free water. Why on Earth they thought a guy walking to the bus station wit h an inordinate amount of luggage was so drunk he needed to rehydrate I don’t know, but I accepted their delicious liquid and entered McDonald’s.
This particular McDonald’s had an interesting quirk; self-service screens with which you could design your own burger (at massively inflated cost). I started to design mine when a little Chinese man tapped me on the shoulder and pointed at his screen. He had designed a burger but for some reason he needed help. I said ‘press here’, pointing at the ‘Complete Order’ button, but he stopped me hurriedly. I said ‘What?’. He replied ‘No like’. Despite my bus coming soon and being surrounded by drunk Aucklanders in at 12:30am, I looked through the contents of his burger; brioche bun, lettuce, tomato, cheese, burger, pickle. Seemed like a fairly standard burger. But before I could say anything he destroyed his creation with gusto by slamming the ‘Reset’ button. I was like ‘Ok then… what do you want?’. Without saying anything, he turned back to the screen to start again. He skipped the bun, then added a burger patty. Ok, pretty minimalist. Then he added an egg. Personally not my choice but whatever floats your boat. Then he added another. I thought personally he’d be all egged out by the end of this faux-burger. Then he added another. And another. And another. Then looked at me.
‘Five eggs? Are you sure that’s right? Seems like a lot of egg to me, man’. He paused, lifted his finger slowly while maintaining eye contact, and slammed the reset button again with no regard for the burger’s feelings. To paraphrase Robert J. Oppenheimer, ‘now he has become death, destroyer of burgers’. He was Robert J. Oppenburger. I sighed, told him I couldn’t wait for his indulgent eggburger fantasies and quickly left to catch my bus.
God almighty I’ve just realised I have so much stuff to write about but don’t have the time right now. Expect another post within 24 hours!
Six days, eight hours and five minutes after arriving at Faa’a Airport in a monumental rainstorm and discovering I’d have to sleep on a bench outside the airport McDonald’s, I am finally leaving Tahiti. As many of you may have read on my last blog post, while I’ve made some excellent friends here and discovered new ways to appreciate time without internet, I have not enjoyed my time on this island. Or perhaps it’s less a lack of enjoyment of my time here, and more a painful frustration at pretty much everything this island has offered me, which rarely went beyond rain, concrete, terrible transport and charging £10 for a beer.
This troubled little island, however, has just given me a parting gift that should make me a little more reflective and perhaps a little more forgiving, but really just comes across as a big middle finger to me; sunshine. I’ve barely seen a single ray of ultraviolet light this week – it’s been buried behind deep layers of cloud and driving rain, yet now I’m back here at the airport, I look up to see lovely clear blue sky out the window. Two hours before my flight leaves. Thanks for that, Tahiti. I could probably just accept that I was unlucky, and that maybe this island can give holidaymakers a perfect tropical paradise experience, but really it just makes me think that Tahiti hates me as much as I hate it.
Having written only three blog posts in the last week, including one that didn’t really recount anything that’s actually happened, you’d think I’d have enough experiences built up for a novel-length entry, but nope. Not much has been going. In fact, I can count four things of any note that have actually happened all week. They are as follows:
The first is that a tropical storm hit us. In my inadvertent round-the-world tour of natural disasters which has so far racked up an earthquake in Chile and a flash-flood on Easter Island, I’ve seen some extreme weather, but none like what hit us yesterday. At my hostel on the west of the island, everyone gets up early, everyone sits together and eats the excellent breakfast provided by the hostel, and everyone does it no matter the weather. Earlier this week, a Category 5 hurricane hit Fiji, west of French Polynesia, and a number of little subsidiary storms have been ambling around the South Pacific. One had been circling close to Tahiti, and at breakfast the day before it was due to either hit or miss us, Fred – the hostel owner and most French man I’ve ever met – disappeared into his house and returned, cigarette hanging from his mouth and a baguette/laptop combo under his arm, to show us a website that tracks tropical weather activity. As the day went on, we all agreed, as did the weather forecasters, that the storm would slip around the south of the island and miss us entirely.
The following morning, I woke up and headed to breakfast to find tablecloths whipping around in the wind, all the other guests sat in the little open-air breakfast hut wearing waterproof clothing zipped up to their noses, and all attempting to stop the mess of peanut butter and marmalade jars from being picked up and carried away on the breeze. ‘Oh so the storm did hit us in the end?’ I asked Fred. ‘No, the forecast said it would miss’. OK. I took my seat, rain digging into my face, and grabbed a piece of damp baguette. Just as I went for the butter with my teaspoon (for some reason the only piece of cutlery available), a huge gust of wind suddenly picked up two of the tables and, complete with jam jars, coffee mugs and butter dishes, slammed them against the back wall and out the side of the hut, out into the driveway. And we all just watched them sail off into the distance. I looked at Fred, Fred shrugged, and we went back to drinking our coffee/rainwater mixed drinks. It seems nothing can stop the French from enjoying a breakfast baguette.
The second thing of note was the story of how I got stranded in Pape’ete. As you will all know, I have described Pape’ete as somewhat of a shithole; a hideous mess of grey buildings and greyer clouds of exhaust smoke. However, on Friday I decided to head up into town as there was nothing else to do on the island. Plus, I wanted to see if I could persuade Air Tahiti Nui to allow me to jump ship and get an earlier flight off the island (£250 for a flight change?!). After resigning myself to another three days in this hellhole, I headed straight for the nearest bar, got on the wifi, wrote that particularly angry blog post about Tahiti, sent it off, grabbed a beer and finished it in about 90 seconds. At which point I looked around and realised it was 6pm. And on Tahiti, that meant it was dark. In a kind of semi-panic, I headed to the ‘bus terminal’ (really just a hut on the side of the road), and sat in darkness for 15 minutes before the lack of other people waiting, combined with a row of SUVs parked in the bus stop itself, made me realise I’d probably be there all night. So what did I do? I started walking. My hostel is 20km from Pape’ete, and in the pouring rain, without many other options, I started walking down the main road that circles the island.
Yes I am fully aware that the word ‘taxi’ is probably ringing around in your head, but you have to remember that I’m a traveller, and budgeting is pretty much a requirement for every part of my trip. Even at their cheapest, taxis are rarely a viable option, and here the words ‘cheap’ and ‘taxi’ would never be uttered in the same sentence. Taxis don’t patrol for rides here; you have to call them. And the callout charge is £9 before you’ve even gone a yard. The fare then is 150 XPF (about £1) per kilometre. So that’s £29. Oh hang on no it isn’t, because the fare goes up once the sun goes down to 240 XPF per kilometre. So overall, from the callout to arrival at the hostel, I’d be charged £42. For a twelve-minute journey. What on Earth is that about?
Soaking wet, I decided to stop at a supermarket about a kilometre from Pape’ete where I had earlier gotten wifi. After the wifi refused to work, I went to the information desk to ask what my options were. After practically laughing out loud at me questioning where all the buses were, she told me the only option was a taxi. So I turned around and said ‘I’ll just walk’, when a little old lady, attempting to return some clothing at the desk and laughing with the staff, said ‘I can drive you’. I said ‘Oh that’s very nice of you but it’s OK’. She insisted I shouldn’t pay for a taxi or walk along the road at night, but obviously a random woman at a supermarket is a less appealing prospect than both of those options. She went back to returning her clothing, when the other information desk lady leaned over and whispered ‘I understand why you’re hesitant but it’s OK, I have been friends with this lady very well for many years, it’s perfectly fine, I have her phone number and address’. The other information desk lady agreed with her and said it really was my only choice as there would probably be no taxis free anyway. The first then leaned over the desk and showed me the old lady’s name and phone number on her mobile.
(N.B. Yes I’m aware I’m making a big deal of this but I am 100% sure my mum, who will currently be reading this, would have a heart attack if I didn’t make it pretty clear that this I was totally convinced this was undeniably a safer situation than either walking home and ending up under the wheels of a passing garbage truck, or hitchhiking. And lo, I was right; I’m not dead.)
So I caved. There’s no way in hell they were all in on some human trafficking con. In my desperation, and after a good 10 minutes of internal debate (and outward debate with the information desk lady), I agreed to a lift, and we stepped outside into the pouring rain to reveal the most extraordinary vehicle I could have imagined for a little old lady. She got her keys out, clicked the unlock button and a beep sounded behind us. I turned around to the sight of a monster/pick-up truck hybrid. The wheels were as tall as my shoulders. I had to literally climb into it using a built-in ladder. After boarding the Starship Enterprise, I asked her some questions to make conversation. To cut a long story short; she was ‘retired’ despite having never had a job, had married a multi-millionaire property owner in the 70s, was particularly worried about the rising drug abuse problems in Tahiti, and then, without any hassle, dropped me back at the hostel. After adamantly refusing any money for her help, she told me that acceptable payment would be to ‘write about her as part of my strange and unpredictable adventures’. So there you have it.
The third thing was that I was standing at a crossroads when a police car ran a red light, and all other cars in the queue proceeded to follow it through the red light and across a line of perpendicular traffic, causing a couple of crashes, lots of car horns and the occasional French swearword.
The fourth was the entirety of my final day. While the Tahiti experience has been pretty shit, the final day was far from it. Camill, my friend from the hostel who I spent pretty much every minute of every day with, had organised something pretty awesome and extremely French. A group of family friends of hers were hosting a lunch at their place up in the hills overlooking Pape’ete, and I’d wrangled an invitation. After weaving through awkwardly steep roads and sharp turns, we arrived at the house. I have to say, after five weeks of slumming it in hostels, this was the most welcome change of pace I’ve had so far; we were treated to a four-course French meal, complete with champagne, about five bottles of red wine (including an absolutely mindblowing 2010 Saint-Emilion), three different meats, a cheese board and finally a decent coffee, something I’ve dearly missed in recent weeks. Oh and they had the tiniest little kitten ever.
So after getting a little drunk and eating enough food to sustain me for hibernation, we headed back to another of Camill’s friend’s place, where I saw the first sunshine of my entire time in Tahiti, accompanied with a few beers and a swim in their pool. So Camill, if you’re reading, thanks again; the entire Tahiti experience will be much more fondly remembered because of it!
I would continue now into a couple of reflective paragraphs about how perhaps Tahiti would be the perfect holiday destination in the right circumstances, or that maybe I just have to appreciate the experiences I had rather than concentrate on the negatives, but I don’t want to. Get me off this f*cking island.
Just a short one today, as I’m currently stealing wifi from a nearby bar. I’m afraid it’s not a particularly upbeat one either. Right now I’m not interested in talking about specific experiences I’ve had. Rather, I have some thoughts I feel I need to air. I’ll do a proper post tomorrow.
Instead of taking the usual steps of coming up with a name relating to my day’s experiences for the blog post, then linking it in later, I’m referring to it straight off the bat this time; I’m getting the knives out for this island. I attempted to take it a little easy last time out for fear of being hasty as I perhaps was about Easter Island, which turned out to be pretty much perfect. After five days, however, I can pretty categorically state that Tahiti is not somewhere I would ever recommend visiting. Sorry all.
Perhaps if you’re a Russian oil baron who doesn’t mind pissing money into the wind from your passing yacht to buy out every supermarket’s unnervingly huge collection of foie-gras, or if you’re a mid-manic-episode-60-year-old who was awarded an abhorrently large cash settlement in your recent divorce hearings, you might like this confused, confusing little rock out in the Pacific Ocean, but I know none of you, reading this, fit into either of those categories (Hi Roman). This is an island of opulence and ostentation; of rich white Americans and French people coming over and acting like it’s their playground.
The only town of any note is Pape’ete, right? Well as I’ve already made clear in my last post, it’s hideous, yet it is a bustling centre of commerce and business, so I guess it has to be there, and people can just ignore it. However, outside of Pape’ete you have fairly poor people, living in huts made of corrugated metal. Their infrastructure is poor and not particularly inviting. So tell me, where do the foreigners go? The goddamn Hotel Intercontinental. How authentic, how truly wonderful a show of attempting to experience other cultures you’re showing by locking yourself away in a gated alcove of fake beaches and driving rented SUVs with tinted windows.
However you know what is really infuriating? Tahitians seem happy to play along with this pretense. When I arrived, I assumed I’d see a bunch of Polynesian culture out and about. Food, drinks, shows etc., but do you know where the only traditional dance I saw was held? At the Hotel Intercontinental! It was absolutely bizarre to see this amazing dance, hundreds and hundreds of years old, being performed by natives to groups of old white French onlookers, glasses of imported vintage Bordeaux in hand, who would throw them a casual semi-appreciative applause every few minutes. I’m not blaming anyone for this particular dynamic, and I’m sure it’s far less harmful than it seemed from my perspective, but it all just seemed so uncomfortably colonial.
And that is crux of what is both positive and negative about modern life on Tahiti; colonialism. The French, like the British and Spanish had also done all over the globe by the time Tahiti was occupied, absolutely gutted this island of any atmosphere it once had. The rest of French Polynesia may be an authentic, exotic land of real Polynesian spirit, but the contempt they showed to this island by bulldozing everything and replacing it with concrete is just so, so sad. The French gave this place an infrastructure, and gave it millions in tourism money, but it has simply become France-sur-mer; a messy, fake enclave of that country, populated by unhappy Parisians, smelling of pollution and importing enough pointless pretentious French bullshit to create enough of a carbon footprint to stamp out the f*cking sun.
Although you know what? This island wouldn’t be such a grave disappointment if it didn’t act like it’s the ultimate holiday destination. This is not a tropical island paradise, as I’ve said a million times, yet the Tahitian tourism board is the greatest conman in the history of vacations. We all think of it as that remote, sunset-walks-in-the-sand, romanticised bullshit, yet when you get here, it just serves up one big disappointment after the other. I know I’m not the only one, either; almost every other traveler I’ve met so far has shared my opinion to some extent, ranging from ‘Yeah it’s not quite what I expected’ to ‘Man I really need to get out of this place’.
There was a moment when this island really would have been paradise. Now it just sits as a disfigured monument to foreign interference.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the world so far, it’s that Easter Island is dry. I complained day after day about the ‘brutal humidity’ of the island every time I had a moment to air my thoughts, but in hindsight it was either because I’m just generally not used to humidity at all, or because I had just come from a particularly dry region of Chile. That place is not humid. Tahiti? Now this is humid. I’ve been here for about 3 days now, and it has been non-stop rain of torrential proportions, combined with 35 degree heat and obscene levels of dampness in the atmosphere. Even now, as I sit on the porch of my hostel, mangos falling off the trees and slamming onto the roof every 10 minutes, I am struggling. It’s just so muggy.
Which brings about some other unusual problems. For instance, you always have to wear shoes; even if it hasn’t been raining, the ground will be saturated with dew. Also problematic is the insane mosquito problem; Tahiti is apparently a hotspot not for the Zika virus itself, but for the mosquito that carries it. So I assume, as soon as it’s introduced to Tahiti, the island will descend into collective apocalyptic panic. Natural order will break down, the government will be airlifted to safety, people will sell off all their gold, and all that will be left is an army of babies with shrunken heads, destined to aimlessly wander the land for all eternity.
Also one thing that appears to defy the laws of science; you can’t dry clothing. It’s very strange, but say you get soaked by this rainfall and want a change of clothes, you’ll put your wet clothes out to dry somewhere – be it in a dry spot or even indoors – you’ll come back an hour later to discover that they’re actually more damp than they were before. I’ve been forced to devise a routine involving ceiling fans and support beams to successfully un-soak my clothing.
So, Tahiti. It’s white sand beaches again, complete with coconut-laden palm trees, cheerful men selling mangos and a laid-back Polynesian atmosphere, right? Without meaning to sound clichéd; if this is your idea of the essence of Tahiti, you could not be more wrong. This little sweatbox of an island, stranded out in the South Pacific, is an intense, heavily industrialised place that offers little in the way of perfect beach relaxation opportunities. The beaches are covered in black volcanic sand and rocky outcrops that leave no space for sunbathing or swimming, the island is encircled by a permanently-busy, fast-moving ring road dominated by heavy-duty transport vehicles, and then there’s Pape’ete, the capital and only real town of any note on the island. Pape’ete is not like Hanga Roa back on Easter Island. It’s not dirt roads and reed-roofed huts. It’s a hideous little city, absolutely devoid of any charm that the region may have had bestowed upon it by the original Polynesian settlers or their French colonisers. It’s a traffic-intensive, roadwork-filled maze of soulless concrete phone shops and cash-for-gold establishments, punctuated by the odd McDonald’s and filled with homeless people. The entire city is dominated by towering shipping cranes and a remarkably suffocating smell of pollution. I thought I was taking a huge risk by booking a hostel 20km away from Pape’ete. And sure, the transport around this part of the island is not as good, but overall I could never have foreseen how good a decision that has turned out to be.
Me and a couple of people from the hostel all chipped in to rent a car yesterday, and took the arduous drive up to Pape’ete, where I had my first casse-croute, a gastronomic staple of the island, and – I assume – one of the main factors behind French Polynesia’s surprisingly lofty ranking on lists of the world’s most obese territories. Every cafe, every food truck and every restaurant will have a variety of casse-croutes to test your vascular capabilities. In the major food market of the city, the ‘main hall’ is a vast space, white picnic tables bookended all the way from one end to the other, with maybe only about four food vendors; two guys selling whole tuna, one selling limes and another sat at an empty table looking like he’d forgotten why he was there. Then, through a small passageway at the back, we found a row of hidden, bustling fast-food stands. What they were doing back here, I don’t know, but I proceeded to order my first casse-croute. I got one with steak hache. Wait, I know I’m taking an age to explain what a casse-croute is, but I’ve got another point to make here – what the hell is steak hache? I couldn’t remember exactly from the last time I was in France, so I asked the server. ‘Well it’s steak. Then you mince it up, then you put it back together and cook it’. Oh yeah! It’s funny you French people call it that, cos it already has a name – it’s a goddamn burger. What on Earth is that about? Scrolling further down the menu, I noticed they also served burgers. I was extremely hesitant to ask, for fear of lapsing into some sort of never-ending cycle in which I’m being told all food is minced-up steak put back together, so instead waited for my food. What arrived was a monster. A casse-croute is a giant baguette, cut lengthways, and stuffed with lettuce, tomato, onion, copious amounts of meat of your choice, and then also filled with chips and covered with BBQ sauce. It’s an entire meal in a piece of bread. After sweating my way through the entire thing, I decided I may avoid them from now on. Although, they are cheap, and here comes my final and most fervent gripe with this island. If you don’t like me bitching about money, click away now.
The personal financial costs of Easter Island’s ‘remote island economy’ was a tiring and mildly frustrating appendix to an amazing trip. Tahiti is dominated by financial woes. Perhaps if it weren’t absolutely pissing it down with rain all day every day I may be able to find ways to distract myself, but as it stands, the only major activity available to me is either drinking the truly dreadful Hinano lager brewed on the island, or lurking around supermarkets, which on Tahiti is actually surprisingly entertaining. It’s actually become quite funny by this point, but my God this place is expensive. And so French.
If you went to the Cook Islands or some similar British-owned South Pacific island group, I guarantee you wouldn’t wander down the street to find such excessively British things as a Tesco, a fish & chip shop, a Twining’s and a bowler hat fitter all lined up next to each other, yet the French clearly took their hedonistic colonial days very seriously. Head into Pape’ete and you’ll see patisseries, boulangeries and boucheries crushed up against one another. You’ll see native Polynesians in part-traditional dress walking down the street holding giant baguettes. You’ll even see beret-clad men leaning against lamposts with cigarettes hanging from their mouths.
Thus, you’ll also see such French staples as Carrefour, a giant supermarket known for having extremely low prices. Hilariously, it is thus also considered the cheapest place to buy food on Tahiti. Trouble is, the French have also decided that supermarkets in Tahiti will not be filled with Tahitian versions of French staples, but of the authentic French staples themselves. Yeah sure, why not fly a tiny piece of reblochon halfway round the world and charge £20 for it? Why not chuck that 1995 Bordeaux on there too and sit it on the shelf at £450? And while you’re at it, stock the plane up with the shittiest, Carrefour own-brand budget versions of all the food, and thus totally negate the fact that they’re budget items. A usually £2 tub of crap, bland own-brand ice cream? That’s now £15.
Interesting, this is totally normal for the islanders, as you would expect, because there’s another funny little aisle in the far corner where every item is marked with a little sticker saying ‘Avion’ over a white silhouette of a plane. These are items they are making a point out of having flown over, and it turns out the things they choose to specify this aspect of amount to an odd collection of stuff. American processed cheese, Delerium Nocturnum Belgian beer, tapas chorizo and nutella are all mixed in there with some sort of unspoken added flight tax, as if the rest of the items in the supermarket hadn’t been flown in. But then; light at the end of the tunnel. As I stumbled through the foie-gras section, my wallet weeping as my vision started to go blurry, I reached the croissants. Expensive but not too bad. Then donuts. Hey they’re kind of cheap. Then, boom. I knew it. You can always rely on the French to charge absolutely nothing for one staple of their diet. I held it in my hands and breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps there is space on this small, tropical speck of land for cheap food. It was my baguette of hope.
So in conclusion, Tahiti is vastly different from anywhere I’ve ever been. I feel like I’m ticking off boxes of countries, climates and cultures at an alarming rate, each one revealing hidden surprises and strange, unexpected flaws. It’s kind of depressing in a way that many of these places that were once so far away and exotic and mysterious are now just… here. And they’re just places. They’re not magical lands made of rainbows and happiness. They’re just cities, towns and countries where people are born, live, work and die, and it’s possible to feel that. Perhaps it is that Tahiti, a place so synonymous with luxurious paradise, is actually a pollutant-ridden centre of commerce, that is making me feeling quite so confused as to what to think. As that drugged-up guy from Keane once said, ‘the map of my world gets smaller as I sit here, pulling at the loose threads now’.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
A well-known aspect of Latin American life is its capacity for delays, lateness and a generally relaxed attitude toward schedules. In Argentina and Uruguay, I often found myself idly sat by as buses refused to turn up, or as meals took 50 minutes to arrive. In Chile they bumped this trait up a gear; someone would arrange to meet you at 6pm, then turn up at 8 or 9 and act like nothing’s wrong. However, today I sat foot on the mystical land of Easter Island. Known for its Polynesian quasi-religious statues (Ahu) and its rugged landscape, it has built a reputation as one of the world’s most remote island resorts, and seemingly, the world’s slowest.
Nothing happens on time on this island. Nothing. My flight was delayed taking off and subsequently delayed landing, which was a pain, but nothing compared to the shenanigans at Matavuri Airport. The dudes who bring the stairs to the plane took 20 minutes, the baggage reclaim took an hour and a half, and the guy giving me a tour of the campsite here (yes camping kill me now) thought I needed to know literally everything about the facilities, including the mechanics of a washing machine and what a bicycle is. So despite being checked into a campsite literally 100 yards from the tiny little airport, it took three and a half hours before I could actually begin to explore, and explore I did.
I’ll be honest, Easter Island is not a tiny speck of land in a vast ocean of nothing. Well I mean from a relative standpoint, it obviously is, but when you’re here it’s not quite like that. First off, it’s not that small. It’s not like some random bit of rock like the Pitcairn Islands; it has enough space for four different volcanoes, three national parks, and a coast road featuring 28 sets of Ahu.
Speaking of which – due to the lack of any English speakers at my campsite – I’m kind of alone here, so I headed off to the beach last night, as I’ve heard great things about the sunset. On the way a convoy of motorbikes passed me, with all riders wearing Nazi helmets. Oh so you can’t import any decent wine but you can import a bunch of goddamn Nazi helmets? The strangest thing about this sight was the direction these eight men were going – north, up into Terevaka, the massive volcano that dominates the skyline here. At 9pm. What the hell were they doing? Is this a conspiracy theory come true? Maybe Hitler never died – maybe he’s hiding out in a volcano lair on Easter Island.
But anyway I got to the beach and witnessed a pretty amazing sunset, and I realised, going back to my earlier point about isolation; you just can’t feel it. Sat at home in England, you might think ‘God wouldn’t it be amazing to escape to somewhere that remote?’. On paper (and more specifically on a map), islands such as these are an inviting if costly prospect. A dot of land surrounded by nothing for literally thousands of miles. But when you’re here? It just feels like any other coastline. It may be obvious, but the horizon curves beyond view after a certain point, so you might as well be sat looking out at the Atlantic, or the Bering Strait, or even the Channel. France could’ve been just over the water for all I cared.
Another expectation that I was also sucked into but turned out to be false is a belief that you’ll be able to get into and understand the isolated island lifestyle through witnessing others and experiencing it yourself. You’ll see that the people here do things differently; they’ll be more relaxed, friendlier, less ‘corrupted’ by outside influence. But I have to report that it’s bullshit. It’s part of Chile, and that is a very obvious fact. Call me naive for having expected it in the first place, but nobody speaks any form of Polynesian language, I’ve only met two true islanders, every single sign is in Spanish, it is absolutely jammed to the point of bursting with Chinese tourists and – most notably – it just is part of Chile. Same food in shops, same beer in bars, same terrible radio, same currency, same everything. The only things that are slightly different are the time zone and the landscape. Also, strangely, none of the restaurants or supermarkets have their own customised signs. Instead they all have these weird pre-made wooden signs featuring a big Coca-Cola logo and an empty space where you can write the name of the restaurant. Now that is depressing.
Speaking of which, I went to a bike rental place earlier today and got myself a little mountain bike for 24 hours for £10. I looked at a map with the rental guy, and he pointed to Orongo, a national park squashed in the southwest corner of the island – the only area south of the monumental airport runway that cuts across literally the entire island. Telling me not to jump the gun and go north, he suggested I take a quick bike over to Orongo. See the ancient houses, see the little islets off the coast, and of course go to the volcano and have a look. I owe this man a slap in the face. This is not cycling terrain. It’s a shitty dirt road stretching almost 10 miles uphill to the top of the volcano. With no shade. In this heat. Why this rental guy thought I had a look of the Bradley Wiggins about me as I managed to drop the bike and subsequently dislodge the gear chain while attempting to simply walk out of the car park baffles me. So I’m back at the campsite now. I have to admit, the cycling back down was awesome. Even when I had to kick a cow that charged me, still fun.
I’ve finally recovered from La Serena. Not in a wild party way, but in a nagging cold that I inexplicably had all the time I was there. I got an interesting moment as a leaving present too – me and Benjamin (a fellow hostel worker) were making beds, when I grabbed a blanket to lay across the top and a gigantic spider jumped out of it. Now I know I’m not exactly Australian, but I’d never seen a spider this big. It stumbled around the room for a bit until the cleaner came in and (in hindsight quite ironically) didn’t hesitate to stamp on it. This wasn’t a small little speck stuck to her shoe – she lifted her foot to reveal a large black stain on the floor, with a couple of legs left behind. She sighed, then continued to make beds. Her nonchalance made my day.
The next day I headed south on a bus, my upgraded semi-cama (‘half-bed’) feeling just as uncomfortable as I had expected when I handed over an extra £2 to book it. Had a beer, had a Taco Bell, and got in an overpriced taxi to the airport. I had a kind of semi-argument with the driver before we got in about the price, saying that last time I’d paid £7, to which he laughed at me. I almost considered not getting in but it was late enough for me not to care at this point. Whatever. Once I’d got in, I realised I had landed another strange driver, like Bruno all those weeks before. He asked where I was from, I said England, and he handed me a small blue book. It was a clearly very hastily-made Spanish-English dictionary, bound together with bits of string. He handed it to me so I could start a conversation, but I was way too distracted by the sheer number of incorrect translations in there. Almost all of it was wrong.
‘What time did you arrive?’ came out as ‘How long did you be?’, ‘How much will the trip cost?’ was ‘How much are this carriage?’ and I also enjoyed ‘I am going to the airport for my flight to ___’ becoming ‘I am gliding from airports in the ___ flight’. Another interesting facet was the English phonetic pronunciations. I didn’t get many photos as my phone camera is atrocious, but you can see some of them in this post. The driver attempted to speak to me but the backwards translation made it difficult to find what I was trying to say in English, so the conversation was frustrating and didn’t last long. I should have just told him I was gliding from airports in the Easter Island flight.
I took a hit and slept overnight in the airport and boom; the LAN staff took pity on me and gave me a reclining seat, with massive legroom, extra food and nobody either side of me.
But as a result I’m here, semi-stranded on the Navel of the World as the natives like to call it (wasn’t that a UK newspaper?) in a tent the size of a shoebox, on my own, in total darkness, wondering what the hell I’ve gotten myself into. Definitely more to follow tomorrow.
P.S. Holy shit I wrote this out earlier but just as I upload it I have to add – I just went out cycling again and had to turn back because of the heat, but on my way out a couple of dogs were by the side of the road looking suspicious. I approached on my bike and saw a black lump in the middle of the road and assumed it was an animal. It was. It was another dog. They had eaten all of it apart from the head and front legs. That is a vision that will haunt my dreams.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(P.S. no photos this time as I am using the world’s worst internet connection. Sorry.)
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.
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.
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.