Saturday, June 14, 2008

Some Pics

Iguazu Falls
Machu Picchu
Roast Rodent
Skull factory in (aztec) Temple Mayo ruins, Mex City.

Bef and I at Iguazu.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

High Society

After a night in a bleak-looking Lima, the final stop for me was Cusco in Peru. This is a true city among the clouds, being almost 4000m high in the Andes. Judging by the breathtaking views on the flight there, virtually the whole of Peru is Andes, with little settlements crouching in valleys among the giant mountains.

Cusco (which was a larger place than expected) is a tourist destination as a stepping stone to Machu Picchu, an abandoned Inca city which is a visual wonder. We had a couple of gentle days in Cusco first to acclimatise to the altitude, which suited fine. Cusco was picturesque itself, a plateau surrounded by hills and mountains, and with a collection of both inca ruins and 15th/16th centuary spanish structures and churches to see.

The place we stayed at was an adapted 400-year-old building, but getting there generated a feeling only of relief rather than wonder - it was up a very steep street and the 3 or 4 minute walk straight up just killed me in the altitude. (Reminded me of the Mount St walk up to Vic Uni, only if you were carrying a sack of concrete). It was just as hard on the last day as the first, and much time was spent gasping at the top next to a smiling local security guard. Seeing other locals jogging up it in tracksuits did little for the self-esteem either!.

I signed up for the local gimmick of roast guinea pig, partly to exorcise memories of their complete lameness as a pet for Bef in her youth. The fun was all in the sight of it spread on the plate, tiny teeth still in sight. I can with some solemnity report that it was a stringy meat that was not worth the effort hacking away for each mouthful.

In the end we only just managed to book the bus/train to Machu Picchu for our last day there, as tourists book up transport there quickly. This created the bonus of the chance to watch the Champions League final on the day before, which I duly did in a small but worthy sports bar on top of a market. And a glorious final it was, two teams at the top of their game, full of drama and skill, and with a euphoric finish (for me anyway).

The trip to Machu Picchu required a 6am departure, which needless to say was four hours earlier than I arose all trip. It was a sacrifice worth making, Machu Picchu is an stunning place - an abandoned city surrounded by cliffs and mountains, just an amazing imposing site for an abandoned city. Our rather fun guide pointed out many signs of the incans' building and astronomical talents, including temples where the sun shone exactly through the window at the equinox, a carved stone facing exactly the compass directions, their use of boulders underneath as earthquake proofing...impressive stuff, and clearly the locals are still proud now.

Sadly I didn't find a map to el dorado, so with no further excuses the time finally came to take my leave of Beth and Chris (who's adventures continued to Cuba) and South America, albeit after an inordinate amount of time in airports and cramped seats. A mighty fine few weeks, though it was busy enough that the return home to rest has been great too.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Quit the Copa and Courting Coati

Did a museum or two in Rio before leaving - which was at least two more than most of our stoner beach-party hostel comrades. Most interesting getting to see in the ex national palace the bullet, gun, and holed shirt from when President Vargas shot himself rather than surrender to a brewing coup. As in Mr Moralos in Mexico, another leader who cared too much about the people rather than big business and paid the price.

Also a bit of lying on the Copacabana. Chris finally surrendered to one of the many thousand touts asking us every 30 seconds if we want to buy [insert overpriced food or tacky souvenir]. Chris had intended to buy 2 rugs for 30 Real, but after some arch haggling he triumphantly got the guy down to 3 for 45.

From my brief Rio experience Brazil is a complicated place. Mexico, despite much European influence, is essentially (trying to be) a united nation proud of its indigenous culture, while Argentina wants to be Spain with a strong Latin American twist. Gross simplicifications of course, but I couldn't even begin to try and sum up Brazil in so pithy a way. The slums, differences between native population, portugeuese and african descendents - the only unifying thing I can point to is futball, and I knew that before I landed.

Next target was Iguassu falls, a wonder of waterfalls on the Brazil Argentina border. We stayed on the Argentine, or pepper steak, side. The waterfalls are truly magnificent, the natural world's answer to the Sistine Chapel or Grace Kelly. There are views from both sides of the many falls, the Devils Throat in particular was one of the more impressive things I´ve seen. There was so much spray from the force of water at its base that you couldn´t see the bottom. We went on a bracing up-close jetboat trip near a couple of the smaller ones, which more than satisfied shower requirements for a couple of days. I gather the falls will feature in upcoming Indy movie, so consider this a plug (though I read this on the net so its not writ in stone).

There was a lot of interesting wildlife in the area also, eagles, lizards and butterflies all fascinated. There are hordes of raccoon-like Coati who are totally fearless hunting for food from park-goers. At one point a couple of them went for the bag Beth was carrying. She is a resourceful kiwi though, not easily fazed by such things, and valiantly threw the bag to the ground before bravely executing a tactical withdrawal while yelling her scream-like warcry. Chris of course was in standard mode, instantly jumping within hugging distance of the critters to take as many photos as possible. Somehow the bag was recovered and the journey continued.

The Brazil side of the falls was less edifying but had an excellent bird and reptile park (cue another thousand photos from Chris and about 3 from me). Some excellent birds to see, including several cool varieties of hummingbird, and a large cage of intimidating and deafening Macaws we entered. I also held a snake for the first time (though to be fair the snake was about 20cm long, but baby steps - I wasn´t going near the several-metre-long anaconda they had on display).

On other matters - I will be most impressed if someone came name a weaker top 5 batting order since 1970 than the one the black caps put out at Lords. Only 2 real batsman, and while I have hope for Taylor, and one of the new guys may come good, the future is even bleaker than it was when we got creamed by the Windies a decade ago in our centennial. Rough times. I don't even blame the selectors, I can't name anyone else who demands a place, but I think we all need ot pray McCullum and Vettori keep their unreal form on the go.

I have too much to say on football to really go into it but
- why did Benetiz have both Torres and Crouch on the bench when Liverpool needed to score at the end of the Champs League game
-Man United's defence is possibly the best the premiership has seen
-I'm confident the Ginger Prince will lead the devils home this week.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Rio (not the Duran Duran version)

After the gentle playing-cards-in-the-evening pace of Tigre, returned for a final run through BA. Went to the Palermo area for a wander. Its renowned as the bohemian zone so joss sticks and El Che posters were bursting from every shop window, and I did watch a rather good student juggler practise his stuff for a bit. Buenos Aires was then closed with the grandest piece of steak I`ve tasted, a mighty meaty fine finale.

We left Jon and Leila to explore Argentina at a more sedate pace, and moved on to Rio de Janeiro. We ended up somehow at the ultimate party hostel, full of young english on the rise-at-midday-and-go-clubbing-till-5 sorta diet. Despite it being a samba town, the last thing that appeals to me on a holiday is going to a nightclub in the early hours (at 50$nz), but nevertheless we`ve fit in ok.

They put on a rather excellent Capoiera show for us - a combo of dancing and martial-arts where the practitioner spends a lot of time in a handstand position. I managed to evade being dragged on the floor by the smiling assassin capoiera master, who was eager to bring biguns like me down to size - anyone who`s seen my athletic prowess knows I would`ve taken out the crowd attempting the cartwheels the demanded. (Beth however charged on the floor to show her stuff).

We`ve explored a bit of Rio, we`re on Copacabana beach so explored that a bit, and neighbouring Ipanema ( I didn`t find her). I did watch a beach football game between a bunch of 17-19ish looking guys, and though their skills were superb - immaculate first touch - it was a brutal rather than beautiful game. If you didn`t get rid of it in 2 touches someone would be scything in with a foot waist high to knock you over. I think they were good enough that it was all or nothing to try and get noticed by someone bigger. Great intense game though, coaches running screaming onto the pitch, and jubilation as about 20 supporters ran on to swamp the guy who scored the winner.

We took a wonderful rickety tram through the cobblestoned St Tereza, with a showman driver who stopped to jaw at all the passers-by and came to a halt half-way up to wander into a restaurant and pick up his lunch.

Also hit the two big city views - the landmark Christ the Redeemer (which is not quite as big as expected up close, but does loom over the city from just about every angle); and the Sugarloaf, a massive rock on the coast that needs two trams to reach, and gives commanding views of all. Both worthwhile, though the prices were definitely touristic rather than local.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Argie Bargey

Sunday is market day in San Telmo, and we wandered the area with wallets clutched tight to avoid pickpockets. There were some fine entertainers, street bands, puppeteers (one portraying an inebriated alcoholic with such skill he must have done some research in the area), a classy jazz guitarist, and some Tangoists. A great lively area, the main street (La Defence) had more than a kilometre of happening things.

We returned to the area that evening to have dinner in the Piazza as a some mass Tangoing occurred. Thirty or forty dancers at times showed their stuff in the Smirk and Slink Forward, the Spin Away Spin Back, and the suave I´m Going to Rub Up And Down Over Your Body And There´s Nothing You can Do About It. Good times.

We went out to a place called Tigre to stay a night or two, in the river delta area. This is a massive area of rivers and canals an hour from the city, and a large population live along the delta with riverboat their only contact with the outside world. A quite unique piece of country.

The place we stayed at had a pool, bbqs, tennis court, and a lot of great outdoors equipment, and had been set up as a Hi-De-Hi mini-holiday camp. Sadly the last time the pool or tennis court had been used would´ve been before man touched down on the moon, it really was verging on ruin - but that itself lent a certain atmosphere to it all.

Reaching the hotel proved a challange though; when we got to Tigre and followed the web's instruction to call them, the only person there spoke only rapid incomprehensible spanish, such that we got the lady at the phone booth to translate for us (she spoke only spanish too, but could at least explain simply what we had to do). All round I think we were the first international backpackers they´ve had through, but it certainly made for an interesting experience. And going for a several hour cruise and seeing the islanders way of life was well worthwhile.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Land of Silver

Following a flight from Mexico wherein I suffered through 27 Dresses and quite enjoyed Enchanted, Buenos Aires led me to encounter Bef, Chris, Jon and Leila. The hostel we were in had security like MI5 headquarters, no labelling of any kind or indication where it is, innocuous door on the street, two different doors to be buzzed open and stairs to be climbed to get in. Luckily the taxi knew the story, and once inside it was fine.

The first day involved a lot of walking around the centre. A LOT of walking. We did see most of the major monuments etc, inluding the Palais Rose at Plaza dde Mayo, the big obelisk (can´t remember what that stands for) and several equine statues.

We also wandered through the Ricolleta (sp?), cemetary wherein Argentinas finest are entombed. We did see Eva Peron (or rather her grave), along with everyone else - the large crowd around her indicated I wasn´t alone in thinking she was the only buried dignatary I´d heard of. (Unless any of their 86 World Cup Squad have met an untimely end...)

But the cemetary as a whole was awesome, easily the best I´ve seen. It was avenues and streets of looming tombs upon looming tombs, all adorned with statuary or mosaics, many quite ornate; and even the stark austere tombs had a mystery and menace to them. Add in the army of cats who patrolled the graveyard, and it was a place layered with atmosphere, great fun to wander through. I don´t know if I´d be game for it at all in the evening though.

Ciao (wrong language I guess but hey).

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Luchadores Pyramides

On Morgues advice I travelled to a night of mexican wrestling, a crazy masked acrobatic spectacle indeed. The local hostel tour was useless (weren´t sure if was on, had to be there hours early) so in the end I just went there myself. It was a chaotic start; ticket office at about knee height, couldnt hear a word, and language difficulties meant my attempt to get the most expensive seat ( still a modest 13$ NZ or so) ended up with me in the cheapies at the top. There still was a great view, and more a part of the local crowd up there.

Its a real parents-and-children event, and the noise throughout was ear-shredding. I may have seen greater passion, but I´ve never seen a crowd show greater enthusiasm for what they were watching, only a step down from Beatlesesque mobbing.

The wrestling was top quality too, they go for the acrobats rather than oversized hulks, and there was some truly dazzling stuff on show. It similar to WWE stuff but crazier (always 6 or 8 people in the ring, midgets, almost all are in masks), and (I´d guess) less steroidal. Even the larger guys threw themselves all over the show with flips, jumping spins where they grab the opponent with their legs around the neck, and leaps from the top rope. I did enjoy it, although I didn´t think new hero "Mistico" stood out from any of the others - like in many things, a good marketing machine will go a long way.

The other main event recently was a visit to Teotihuacan, huge set of ruins (!) crowned by 2 huge pyramids, to the sun and moon. The Temple de Sol is an amazing piece, the base is as big as the Egyptian ones, though it is not as tall. And they did it all without the wheel. Of course as I was clambering up the steps in the pounding heat, I wasn´t singing those ancients' praises. The place does swarm with hawkers, and no matter that I´ve turned down 33 people selling coloured bits of glass, the 34th would still eagerly approach a-waving.

The whole city grew to something like 60-80 000 people betweeen 300-500 AD, quite a size. It then mysteriously imploded and quickly fell into ruin. Surprisingly to me, it was not a Mexica (ie Aztec) or Mayan city, but predated both. Now no-one knows who the inhabitants were, or even its true name -Teotihuacan is the name the Aztecs gave to it.

Well time to leave the many fine enchialladas, tostas, tostados and other uses of the Taco. Also salsa and chillis , which I made an admirable effort at but invariably wasn´t quite up to speed.