Wednesday, 1 December 2010

copacabana beach

So I went down to Copacabana beach yesterday morning. It went a bit like this (see 04.44 - 04.55):

:P Seriously though, it's a very wide beach so it takes a bit of time to get down to the sea and there's little to no shade; I think I burnt my feet. Where are those wet towels when you need 'em??

Monday, 29 November 2010

who throws a rat?

So, a funny thing happened to me the other night.

The birthday BBQ, by the way, was a huge success. The element of surprise was maintained, the caipirinhas and cervejas were free flowing, the meat was cooked to perfection... We had cake, ice cream, presents and a silly birthday cake hat, complete with floppy felt candles. There was even some boogieing out on the decking, despite the noise limitations. And when we were kicked out of our hostel for being too raucous, we made our way over to possibly the only club on the island.

All in all, it was a great night. There we were, partying away on a tropical paradise island, without a care in the world. What could be better? Indeed, what could top it all off?

Well, let me tell you. On my way back to the hostel, I was in a small group of about 5 or 6 people. The 'club' was only a 5 minute walk away. As we turned into our road (Rua das Flores), laughing and stumbling and talking crap in the way you can only do at 2am when everyone's a little tiddly, we suddenly spotted something scurrying around in the undergrowth. It looked like a giant rat. I don't know what it was, but it was about a foot long and had a long, whiplike tail.

Our group undulated towards the giant rat creature to inspect it more closely. 'OOOOOH what's that?!?' we cooed. As if in response, this random man who was walking in front of us turned round to us and started muttering something in Portuguese. We didn't have a clue what he was saying, but we figured he was trying to explain to us what the creature was.

Then, as if a mere verbal explanation was not enough, he came over to the bushes where we were all standing around in a circle, pointed at the giant rat creature and grabbed it by the tail. We looked up at him in with wide eyes, thinking, 'Surely, he wouldn't....he's not going he?'  He said something else in Portuguese, a mad glint in his eyes, and then he flung it into the midst of us, like a shot put.

The giant rat creature went flying through the air; we scattered, screaming, but too late. It smacked into my right leg before hurtling to the ground, stunned, and quite literally not knowing what had hit it.

The crazy local man then lurched forwards as if to do it again but we all shouted our protests, in between hysterical laughter, and made a hasty escape.

I remember walking up the steps to my room thinking, 'Did that just happen?'

Seriously, who throws a rat? I couldn't figure out why. Maybe he just thought it was funny. Or maybe it was his way of saying, 'Get off my island, filthy foreigners!' Or maybe he was just completely mental.

WHO KNOWS. Anyway it was definitely one of the strangest things to have ever happened to me. More than anything, though, I feel really sorry for the giant rat creature. I hope he's ok, wherever he is!

Friday, 26 November 2010

Quick update from Ilha Grande

Oi oi folks! That's how they say 'hi' here. Still makes me laugh whenever I hear it, as it just sounds so rude to my English ears. It's like, I'm walking down the street and suddenly someone hails down a mate with a hearty "OI!" and I turn round, expecting a fight, thinking, "What, what's going on?? ....oh."

Wow, lots has happened since my last entry. I cannot believe that I only have two full days of my tour left, and that I fly back home a week today... Eep!

Well, maybe I should start with where I am now, which is Ilha Grande. Ilha Grande, unsurprisingly, means 'Big Island' and is off the coast of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro state. It's a paradisal island full of rainforests, coves and beaches, and is unlike anywhere else I've been, in that the whole island is basically a protected nature reserve. There are no ATMs here, no banks, and no roads, just a couple of small villages, some sandy dirt tracks and hiking trails. You can also take boats from the main pier, but there are no cars allowed anywhere on the island. The only vehicles you see belong to the local emergency services, and everyone else either rides around on a bicycle or walks.

Eco tourism is encouraged here, but it's small-scale. So it's really refreshing to feel so out the way. No Starbucks, no McDonalds, just sand, sea and lush greenery. In the sun, Ilha Grande looks like this:

Sadly though I haven't seen it at its best, because the weather so far on the Brazilian leg of our tour (the part which is supposed to be all about the beaches) has been a little bit poo. It's still warm, and at times the humidity verges on unbearable, but we've hardly had any sunshine or blue skies; instead it's been very grey, overcast and rainy. But you know what, I shouldn't complain because I've just been on the BBC news website and seen warnings for ice and snow in the UK. Brr!

On the subject of Brazil and weather, when I was in Buenos Aires I went out for dinner with one of my roommates at the hostel. Her name was Iris and she was German, maybe 42 or 43 years old (I can't remember which exactly), and an architect. She was really friendly and lovely, and very open to my suggestion that we go out for dinner to an all you can eat buffet place in Puerto Madero, which is the dockland barrio in BA.

Iris told me that she'd already spent quite a bit of time in Buenos Aires, and that she loved splitting her time between Germany and Argentina. She also told me that she was thinking of buying a flat there, so she was clearly a huge fan of the city. One of the things that came up in our conversation over dinner was Brazil. She herself had already been there a few times, and I was curious to know what she thought, and how she felt it compared to Argentina. She didn't seem too enthused, which I found interesting. She said that she found that in Brazil, everything was a bit more lax, and that the prevailing attitude there is a lot more laissez faire, which, depending on the type of person you are, is either a predominantly positive or negative thing. She mentioned how so many of the buildings that she saw are just left to crumble and decay. No-one bothers to tear them down, improve them, build new ones, they just remain they're as if to say, eh, well, there's always tomorrow, don't worry about it.

In the little that I've seen of Brazil I kind of know what she means, and to be honest, I wouldn't be surprised if the weather has a lot to do with it. It's so fricking hot here, but not hot like it was in BA, where it was more of a dry heat; it's a sticky, humid heat which pervades everything. You always feel slightly damp, and in constant need of a shower. And everywhere I've been I've seen stray dogs and cats sleeping in the street, just lying and basking in the sunshine, chilling. I often wonder how anyone ever gets anything done here. It must be pretty hard to be industrious or care much about anything when your other option is just to laze about, sweating profusely and drinking caipirinhas all day in an ill-advised attempt at rehydration.

Speaking of caipirinhas, they are fookin' lethal here. I had one caipirinha in a restaurant the other night and after about two sips, I was pissed. To say they are liberal with their measures of cachaca is an understatement, but I still love it. Mm, limey!!

Oh shit, I have to go. We're throwing a surprise birthday BBQ party for Akiko and it starts in about 5 minutes. D'oh! Will try and update again soon. Ciao!

Thursday, 18 November 2010


Oh dear. So I got accosted by an Argentinian and a Uruguayan man tonight. Lucky me, no?! The Argentinian man was short and old and spoke very little English but attached himself to me like a burr (while I was trying to dance with the others) and he kept touching my hair so he could move it out the way to speak broken bits of Spanglish into my ear. Shudder. I think he may have even told me he loved me at one point, but I'm not sure if that was what he meant to say or not.

Then there was the Uruguayan. He didn't speak too much English either but we managed to exchange the basics: names and where we were from. He then told me his girlfriend ('er, how you say? my best friend? novia?') was going to London today to visit her grandmother. About twenty minutes later he grabs me for a salsa dance, at which I fail miserably. Twenty minutes after that, as I'm about to leave, he grabs hold of my face and says 'I give you a kiss now'. I firmly reply 'Er, NO,' using my now trademark push tactic. I eventually manage to wriggle my way out by offering him my cheek instead, but he wasn't satisfied until he got to kiss the other cheek too. It wasn't a quick peck either, I think he was hoping for a cheeky angling. So much for the 'girlfriend'. He may have just meant girl friend to be honest, but actually, given what I have already experienced of the South American way in these matters ('she's in London visiting her grandmother! she is very far away! it doesn't matter!'), maybe not. I think I need a new Spanish phrase. I already know 'aqua minerale sin gas, por favor', but how can I order 'dance with my mates without hassle, please'?!?!?

They weren't even fit, in any way, so it was sin consolation too. :P Sigh.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

greetings from uruguay

Hola! I'm still alive, just haven't had much opportunity to access t'internets. I'm writing this from the empty lounge of our hotel in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. The rest of my tour group bar one is currently out on a bicycle tour of the city but I wussed out because I don't want to get run over and/or fall off my bike and embarass myself due to lack of practice. They say it's like swimming and that once you learn you never forget, but still...

Making the switch from travelling purely solo to joining the group was initially a bit difficult, because I'd become spoiled with being able to do or not do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. Luckily though, the way GAP tours are set out is pretty flexible. You're given the opportunity to join in group activities if you wish, but there's no pressure because nothing is compulsory. So if you want to do your own thing, you can.

My group is 15 in total, including me. There are 8 girls and 7 guys, with an age range of about 22 to 38, from England, USA, Canada, Japan, Belgium, Germany, Sweden and Australia. It's also quite interesting that everyone except the two Swedes, who are friends, is travelling solo like me. From what I can tell, it's a nice bunch! No social retardation, or highly-strungness in evidence. And it seems the other girls, though they all look slender and fit, are not afraid to eat, which is awesome.

Disaster struck early on though. On Sunday a bunch of us really wanted to visit La Boca, which is one of the southern barrios, so called because it's located at the mouth of the river. La Boca is known best for the area known as 'El Caminito', which is full of buildings splashed in vibrant primary colours by the immigrant dockworkers who originally settled there, and the La Bombonera football stadium, which is home to the Boca Juniors football team.

El Caminito bustles with cafés, market stalls, street artists and tango and flamenco dancers. However, we'd been warned that the streets surrounding the small tourist centre are not safe, and my guidebook advised that you get a taxi for any onward journeys rather than try to walk.

One of the girls, whose name was Akiko, had ventured out in the morning with one of the German guys to have a gander. However they must've taken a wrong turn somewhere, because we later found out that they had been ambushed by four men and robbed at knifepoint, in broad daylight. Unfortunately it seems that this kind of thing is pretty common. The tourist area of La Boca only takes up three blocks; apparently you only need to stray just one block beyond this and you can be in trouble. The robbers stole Akiko's backpack, which had her phone, cards, money and camera in it, and cut her in two places. Luckily she's ok, but what a horrible way to start this leg of her trip. She told me that she's really scared now of strangers, and has had nightmares about being attacked. So that was not an auspicious start, but the rest of us took heed and proceeded on to La Boca uber-cautiously.

Fear of being mugged aside, I really liked it there. The colours are beautiful and there's a buzzing atmosphere. Lunch was awesome too. We had more empanadas (my favourite this time was chicken), and tried some cake things which had a layer of dulce de leche in the middle, which is milk caramel and a very popular flavour in South America. I don't usually like caramely type things but these cakes were delicious. I must try to find some to bring back home with me.

After La Boca, we headed off to Plaza Dorrego in San Telmo, which is the oldest barrio in Buenos Aires and famous for its antiques market.

Buenos Aires on a Sunday is absolutely market-tastic. I know London has quite a few markets, but I don't think I have ever seen quite so many markets altogether in one place on the same day. And the sheer variety on offer is mind-bending. I must have walked a mile down Defensa street, and even though there were some standard genres (leather, jewellery, knick-knacks, curios, handicrafts), it seemed like every stall had something different. I was also astounded by the creativity and skill on show. I'm generally quite skeptical about markets, particularly when on holiday, because a lot of the time you can smell the 'tourist tat' a mile off, but I was sipping my freshly squeezed orange juice and oohing and aahing all the way down the road.

On Sunday evening the group activity was to go see a tango show, but it was quite expensive and I was leaning more towards spending the money on great steak and a milonga, a la Wednesday evening, as my way of rounding off my time in BA. So, I managed to persuade two of the girls to form a breakaway rebel alliance for a return (for me, anyway) to La Cabrera.

We headed first to Plaza Serrano in Palermo. So much love for this part of town. The vibe is a bit more bohemian, it's a bit more green and leafy than the centre, and cool looking bars and cafés line the square, with people sitting out on the roof terraces chatting and drinking cold beers. There are also little boutiquey type shops showcasing clothing from different local designers, similar to what we have in Brick Lane. Market stalls were out in force here too. Nandie and Anna, the girls I was with, tried a snack from a street vendor which I think was basically figs on a stick, coated in popcorn and held together with sticky caramel. I have no idea what it was called but it was really tasty. Nom nom.

Continuing on the subject of mind-bending and impressive handicrafts, I spent quite a bit of time staring goggle-eyed at one particular stall, where a man was selling coin pendants. Now, adding a little loop to a coin and making it into a necklace is not particularly skilled or even interesting, and if this were the case I would've just walked on by. But this guy drills into the coins and then uses a hand saw to cut around the detail inside the coin to create really unique-looking, delicate pieces of jewellery. His coins were from all round the world. The best ones, the most intricate and visually interesting were from Peru. There were a few from the UK too, including a pound coin, a ten pence and a 2p. I ended up buying the 2p one. It is awesome. I have a photo of it on my camera so hopefully I'll be able to upload it soon, but I'm already regretting not buying more. I haven't seen anything like it before.

We headed to La Cabrera for 7 but only to find out that both branches of the restaurant were fully booked until 10pm. Given the last time I was there, this was not that surprising to me. So we bar hopped and snacked on delicious pizza in the interim.

It was a bit of a wait but I think that Anna and Nandie were not disappointed. They were there solely on my recommendation, but together we felt like we ate our own body weight in pure meat. This time I went for kobe beef, which I'd never had before, Nandie had the sirloin and Anna had the medio lomo. I was a bit disappointed that Anna's steak hadn't really come medium rare as she'd asked, and as I'd had it, but it was still really good, and far superior to the steak we'd had as a group the night before, which was disappointingly mediocre.

We left at about 1am, completely satiated and wondering whether we'd ever be able to eat meat again (answer: ...yes).

Nandie and I finished the night off at Confiteria Ideal, a dance hall which holds midnight milongas every night of the week:

Like on Wednesday, there were only a few couples left, but when we arrived they were getting their groove on to salsa and meringue, which was unexpected! We nestled down at a table and shared a cold Quilmes. Soon the music changed back to the crackling, melancholic notes of the tango. This time, I wisely turned down the offer to dance and remained a spectator.

It was a fantastic, low-key, yet comfortingly local way to end my last night in Buenos Aires.


I need the loo now and have been hogging this computer for ages so I will have to leave Uruguay for another day!

Saturday, 13 November 2010

what a load of rubbish

Aw man. The week's exertions are finally catching up on me methinks. I've been walking shitloads all round town in my flip flops, so now my left ankle is somehow bruised, the insides of my toes feel raw, and my lower back is killing me. Owie.

I don't know if I've already mentioned this, but Buenos Aires is dirty. Like, seriously. After about 8 or 9 o'clock at night, the streets are suddenly strewn with garbage. There's just shit everywhere. It's like Cornmarket Street in Oxford on a Saturday night, or Whitechapel Road in London after the market's been and gone. Smelly and suspiciously damp. But here it's not just confined to one road or one night, it's everywhere in the centre of town. Distressing!

Anyways, I have to check out my hostel in 8 hours. Tomorrow, I join the tour group! Exciting. Hopefully I'll have a bit more luck making friends with that lot than I have here. I went down to the hostel bar last night at about half 1 cos I just wasn't quite ready to go to bed yet and I fancied a lil drinkie. Thing is though, everyone there was already engaged in Conversation; I wasn't feeling confident or pushy enough to barge my way into one of those conversations, and no-one came to talk to me, so after about 10, 15 minutes of hovering around looking like a slightly creepy, friendless weirdo, I turned around and left. I rate that as my second non-finest moment behind passing out on the loo.

But hey, though this travelling malarkey is fun, it can't all be a bed of roses eh! Sometimes, it's a bed of rubbish. Quite literally. But speaking of bed, that is where I must go. Night!

Friday, 12 November 2010

24 hours in buenos aires: part 2

Right, where was I? Oh yeah, Recoleta and Barrio Norte. So, after my little jaunt at the cemetery, I ambled over to...

The Best Bookshop in the World
El Ateneo is a chain of bookshops in Argentina, but the El Ateneo Grand Splendid on Av Santa Fe is like no other bookshop I've ever seen. It's housed in an antique cinema and theater, where the great god of tango, Carlos Gardel once performed, and it looks like this:

Pretty sweet, eh? Behind the curtains in the stage area is a café, so I rested my weary feet, tucked into an empanada and sipped my first glass of Malbec. Mmm.

Back at the hostel, I had a little rest, but the evening was about to get very interesting. In an unexpected but fortuitous turn of events, I gained a steak/tango buddy for the night. Her name is Lewis and she is the younger sister of an ex colleague's girlfriend. Bit random, but basically I found out that she was currently out in Buenos Aires learning Spanish and volunteering, and was keen to meet up.

So, I hopped onto the Subte and took the green Linea D out to Palermo to meet her. This was at about half 9, and I was already pretty hungry by this point. All I'd had to eat all day was a small bowl of cereal, a bread roll, an empanada and a mini tub of Pringles. I was ready for that steak.

Love Me Tenderloin
Lewis wanted to take me to a restaurant called La Cabrera, which is a parilla, a grill place/steakhouse. She said she'd been there once before, and although on first impressions she wasn't sure, as it smacked of being a tourist trap, it turned out to the best steak she's had in all her time here. Well, I was sold.

We got there at about 10 o'clock, but there was a throng of people milling around outside and the restaurant itself was packed. Outside the front enrance stood a pretty, petite woman with a laptop on a mini round table. This was the holy grail of reservation information. Lewis asked if there were any tables available but we were told to give our names and come back in 40 minutes.

Off we went to a neighbouring bar for some cerveza and nibbles. I procured a bowl of fries to help stave off the starvation, and we chatted.

40 minutes passed. It was time. We returned to La Cabrera, but there was still a throng of people, though different ones this time. I could hear English, American English, French and Spanish voices. The sense of anticipation was intense. Those were some eager, hungry people, us included. I've never seen anything like it. It was mad! The restaurant lady would call out names at irregular intervals and as she did so she soberly bestowed a magic piece of paper to the chosen ones, bearing their name. Off they went, to enter the temple of beef, leaving the rest of us behind, consumed with envy. There were two old French women who kept trying to sneak round the table to peek at the laptop, seeing if they could discern when their turn would come. It was quite confusing. Eventually though, Lewis' name was called, and I let out a triumphant YESS and punched the air. 'It's like winning the lottery!' someone said. Oh yes. The best kind of lottery. STEAK LOTTERY!!!

Lewis ordered a chorizo steak (chorizo here is both sausage and a cut of beef), and I ordered a 'medio lomo', a medium tenderloin, which is apparently the best cut.

Was it as big as my head? Nearly. Lewis' steak was HUGE, and mine came in three sizeable juicy portions; it looked like three fillet steaks. The steaks arrived on big wooden platters that took up the length of our table, complete with little pots of side garnishes. The smell that emanated from them was maddeningly divine.

bife de chorizo

My knife sliced through the tenderloin like it was butter. I'd asked for it medium rare, and inside it was pink and oozing juice. I put the first slice in my mouth, and it practically melted. This steak was FIT. Quite possibly, the best steak I've ever had. It was pure meat, cooked simply and to perfection. No sauce, no seasoning, it simply didn't need anything else.

The chorizo steak was completely different in taste and texture. Delicious too, but I felt my tenderloin had the edge.

We accompanied the steak with a bottle of really smooth, tasty Malbec. I could barely finish mine in the end. Including tip, the bill came to about 20 pounds each. Gaucho Grill, eat your heart out. This is where it's at.

Next on the agenda, and another of Lewis's recommendations, was a milonga (tango social dance) at a place called La Catedral, which is one of the more underground milongas. The venue itself is incredibly cool. It's up one floor in a converted garage, with moody lighting, and a high, vaulted ceiling. On one wall, a blown up, pixellated, black and white photo of Carlos Gardel's face watches over the dancefloor.

However, by the time we arrived it was 1am and unfortunately most people had already gone home. Nevertheless there were one or two couples dancing, so Lewis and I sat down with a glass of wine to watch.

At one point, the dancefloor now empty, an elderly gentleman from one of the other tables came up to us and asked me to dance. I was already a bit pissed, and tried to protest that I didn't know how, but he insisted. So, embarassingly, I took to the floor, and felt like I was single-handedly committing heinous tango murder. Bless him for trying, but the last time I had danced any kind of tango was about 3 years ago in Manchester. Throw in wine-related co-ordination deficiency to the mix and you have a poor attempt at what is otherwise a very fluid, sensual dance.

Sensing the party was well and truly over, we decided to head out to Puerto Madero, to a club called Asia de Cuba.

'So this is where the bright young things of Buenos Aires come out to play?' thought I, as we entered into the fray, having haggled down the entry fee from a tenner down to a fiver. Actually no, I wasn't really thinking that, in reality it was much simpler and baser, closer to 'WANT DANCE NOW OMG!"·/%!$·'. My first mistake was to drink a vodka + red bull, followed by flaming sambucca (it seemed a good idea at the time, especially as Lewis had confessed to me that she's never had sambucca before). I'd already been drinking beer, and then red wine. Why, Alaka, why?

But, dancing is what we'd come to do, and dancing is what we did. I've noticed this in other cities too, but the local crowd seemed so tentative and, well, lame. Lewis and I looked around in despair. Where was the oomph? So to help compensate, we wholeheartedly threw ourselves into it. Gave it some welly, as my old P.E. teacher Mrs Ross might say.

Then began what I have now termed as manonslaughter. Man #1 was called Juan, I think, and was from Argentina. It didn't take me long before I whipped out what Tom told me would be my most important phrase whilst out here: tengo novio! (I have a boyfriend). Juan's initial response was: 'I am jealous! Very jealous!' We had a bit of a dance, non-sexual like, and he was trying to sidle up and make a move. 'NO PUEDO!' I shouted over the music (I can't), 'E NO POSIBLE! Tengo novio in Ingleterra!' His response? 'It doesn't matter! He is very far away!' Charming! I quickly set him straight.

Man #2 came out of nowhere like a sexually charged bulldozer. I don't know what his name was but I shall call him Juan Kerr. He was quite forceful and basically launched himself at my face and was a little bit gropetastic. Not great. I found that good old-fashioned shoving worked wonders there.

Man #3 was called Carlos, and was from Brazil. He had a nice smile and was much less offensive. I used my 'tengo novio' line on him and I can't quite remember now what he said but I think it was some variation on Man #1's disappointment, which is nice.

Man troubles aside, Lewis and I had a bloody good boogie to the electronic pop blasting from the speakers, and at about 4.30am decided to call it a night.

By the time I got back to my hostel it was coming upto 5am. I staggered into the loo and sat there, head in my hands, desperately willing the room to stop spinning. I remember thinking, I must stay here and breathe until the urge to vom goes away. Next thing I know, I'm looking at my watch and it's 7am. How the hell did that happen? Did I really pass out on the loo? Not my finest moment.

I fell into bed and spent the rest of the next day (today) with a stinking hangover, feeling sub-human and wanting to die. But it was worth it.

And that was a full on 24 hours in Buenos Aires.