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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Drawing the line

Sorry for the lack of writing. I don't have an excuse, except laziness. But I thought I should write today, in order to draw a line under this blog and this year. When I first had the idea of taking time off work, I didn't really think I'd spend 9 months in South America, I certainly didn't think that I'd learn to call Buenos Aires home, and I didn't expect to complete 120,000 words worth of novel. So, looking back, despite my overly pessimistic and melancholy nature, the year has been a great success. It's been unforgettable, full of amazing sights and incredible sites - hanging out with Shamans in the Amazon Jungle, standing over the edge of the world's most spectacular waterfalls, seeing mountains, sky and clouds reflected on the filmy surface of Bolivia's salt lakes, meeting a multitude of characters from soulmate travellers to bug-eyed Colombian drug dealers, from Argentinians on the end of an email who have enchanted me with their generosity to curious staring locals in Bolivia and Paraguay. Being drenched by the the most violent of thunderstorms, freezing on luxury air-con buses, baking in deserts and on beaches. There has been too much to write about here, and so many rich experiences. My words can hardly do them justice, but I'd love to tell you about them all sometime. Like the mad waitress who chased me down the street a couple of weeks back, in order to declare her love and shove her tongue into my mouth...like the random conversations about Pink Floyd and Radiohead in the most unlikely of places...like gazing at a distant storm out of a pub window the other day, and welling with some kind of poetic poignancy as Like Spinning Plates (live) serenaded us on the stereo.

So, any conclusions? Any final words, any summation of a year's worth of adventures? Not really, I'm afraid. Just questions, more questions. And searching, more searching. But maybe I'm in a better place to ask and to search than I was a year ago.

Thanks for reading...see you on the other side.

Big Love,
Oliver

Sunday, January 01, 2006

New Year's Day

It's all over the streets still, 2005. In a hundred thousand torn up bits of paper, home-made ticker-tape, once love letters, yesterday's headlines and an old utility bill. In dried up misshapen plastic straws, in crushed white cups and shrivelled champagne corks. Behind boarded up shops, graffiti fronts and shadowy silent windows. Piled up in the little squares at the base of trees, or in the blues of the bags and the green of the bottles underneath the kerb, right opposite where I live. In the roads, safe for cartwheels and games of football, and in the sky growling with clouds. In the darkness that creeps out from under the locked up doors. 2005 hasn't gone yet, it hasn't been swept away.

But, I suppose 2006 will get it's chance, it just has to wait and see what history has planned.

But for now, in Buenos Aires, it waits and watches. New Year's Day, the in-between time, when nothing seems real.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Christmas, Argentinian style

Christmas has been and gone, and you can hardly tell that it even happened. People are back at work - the streets are full of drillers, the flyover's full of traffic and the shops are all open as usual. What minimal city decorations there are still remain, but I can't help but think that Christmas is a small blip here - none of the week's of build up, none of the light-turning on rituals, none of the ludicrous Christmas merchandise in the shops in October. Few baubles in sight. What they lack in baubles, however, they more than make up in bangers. At midnight on Christmas Eve, the city exploded with a cacophony of fireworks, the traffic paused and the sky above was illuminated by a thousand different lights. It was spontaneous and fun, though a little dangerous - with little verminous kids scurrying around under parked cars to let of bangers, with sirens wailing as the emergency services rushed from one dismembered hand to another, with street bins melting under the ferocity of strategically placed fireworks. God bless this chaotic place, I love it. I love the fact that it always seems to be on the verge of melting down - protestors filled the streets this morning, the inernational debt is being paid off (yet there's still massive uncertainty about the economic prospects of this place), even Maradona is planning on making a comeback. Yes, being a visitor is great - it's like standing on the edge of a volcano's crater without ever feeling you might fall in. Could I live here forever, I am not sure? I am beginning to miss certain things about back home. I am beginning to feel like I am ready to resume my life in London again. 2 weeks to go...and in 3 weeks, I expect I'll be itching to be back here again. Such is life...

Christmas Day was decidely un Northern-hemisphere like, spent on my roof terrace in the company of a dozen people I didn't know a few months ago, guzzling barbecued steaks and red wine, lounging around and in my swimming pool. Up above, the southern stars came out, different to the ones above the heads of all my friends back in the UK. It was different, but it was great - it just didn't feel like Christmas, or it didn't feel like the other 30 Christmases I have had...And I liked it.

I had a good taste of home though - speaking to my family and to his Royal Clive-ness - the same banter. Some emails with work too. Lots of things have changed - lots haven't. The best thing was the parcel organised by Steve & Laura. A rude postman awakening, a trek across town, a typically frenetic and disorganised South American post office, and then the collection of a whole pile of cards, pressies, decorations and a Christmas pudding to boot. A tiny quarter of my small flat has been handed over to all things festive, a mini-nod at everything going on back home.

2006 looms now. My last week will be spent doing a few day trips, stocking up on shopping (I am going to buy toothpaste, deodorant and footy trainers, as it's all about a million times cheaper) and perhaps a little bit of reflection upon the year that is and nearly was. Yeah, it's been great, but bring on 2006 - my great job, my great friends, and, touchwood, a brand new album by Radiohead and the Premiership for Utd.

Feliz Navidad amigos!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The yearning

I get this feeling sometimes - inexplicable - but it's a deep rooted thing that starts in the pit of my stomach and I can feel it up and down both arms. It's a good thing, because it generally means I am about to enter a short period of being able to write (vomit style) a lot of words. I've been stuck for a few weeks now, tearing my hair out, unable to enjoy writing, instead staring at the computer and then playing Freecell. What a waste of time. But I can feel that it's coming to an end, and I will just need to write for a while. I am excited about the prospect. It's the absolute flipside of darker wobbles that I have. They are just as inexplicable, render me about as useful as Darren Fletcher and they arrive and leave without much warning.

Aside from my current lack of proliference on the writing front, I have little new to report. It's going to be a strange thing having to set an alarm clock again, having to have a daily routine to attend to, having to fit free time around a job and other duties back home. I worked out that in 365 days, I've probably only had to get up for anything about 50 times or so - it's been great, but equally, it will be great to return to some kind of purpose. I could see myself living here, but not as I currently am. I need a structure around me, and I'm looking forward to getting that back in January.

In the meantime, I intend to keep enjoying the freedom here. On Saturday, I am heading to the Delta at Tigre for an overnight festival. On Sunday, I am off to the Boca vs Pumas match (the equivalent of their European Cup Final). And next week will be all about getting ready for Christmas - making sure the swimming pool is full, buying meat for the BBQ. Sure to be a strange experience.

And then, once Christmas and New year has passed, it will be over very quickly. 4 weeks tomorrow, and counting. 4 weeks till the cold, to five quid packs of cigarettes (I am going to try and quit) and to three quid pints of beer (I am going to try and cut down) and, most importantly, 4 weeks to being with my friends again in London.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Back in Bs As

Monday afternoon, a little before five, on a break from whatever it that I do with my days, reflecting on the fact that in exactly five weeks time I will be at my desk at Greenbelt again, with the year as it was a thing of the past. I can feel it in my stomach, an anxious knot of something - not having a house to live in yet, going back (will it be the same, will it be better, will it be worse), re-adjusting to lots of things back home. Yes, I confess. I am nervous. Strangely, I am as nervous about going back as I was about leaving in the first place, 47 weeks or so ago. I wonder what I'll be thinking and feeling in a year's time, as 2006 draws to a close.

Anyway, enough of this introspective rubbish. I had enough of that on the 18 hour bus journey back to Buenos Aires yesterday. Faced with the choice of XXX2 - The Next Level (dubbed in Spanish) or introspective out of window gazing I chose the latter, and felt wonderfully at ease. I wrote it down in my book too. I always seem happiest on journeys between places, listening to music, watching the sky go gold, all those things. Maybe it's because I am powerless, I cannot be self-critical about not doing anything. Maybe it's because I am free, my mind is free to go wherever it wants, whilst my body is trapped in a double decker bus.

A double decker bus, which, incidentally, is as close to heaven as one can experience in a form of transport. I have waxed lyrical about Argentinian buses before, and I shall do so again. I love them! The big seats, the food, the way the seats go back into beds and the fact that I kipped far better on the bus than I did in the hostel in Iguazu.

My few days at Iguazu were good fun. I did get mullered by mosquitoes (a blind person would now be able to read off my left arm), forgot my suncream and got roasted and failed to sleep in an unfeasibly hot and itchy hostel dorm bed. Other than these things, and about 7000 border crossings I had to undertake in a few days (Paraguay-Brazil, Brazil-Argentina, Argentina-Brazil, Brazil-Argentina), well 4, all was splendid. Í'd suggest doing a google search for "Iguazu Falls", as my words probably can't do them justice. They're big, spectacular and spread over the border of Argentina and Brazil, surrounded by a beautiful forest and generating a fearsome noise. Needless to say I was amazed and awestruck, easily the most incredible natural phenomenen I have ever seen other than the size of Nick Cave's forehead.

Prior to Iguazu, I finished up in Asuncion and left without hassle, passing through the biggest Catholic holiday day on route, with thousands of pilgrims gathering for the "dia de la virgen". Leaving the country was more strenuous, and involved waiting around for ages for a bus, helping to unload about 60 boxes of Budweiser on the other side of the border, sitting in a stupendous traffic jam suspended above the no-man's river between Paraguay and Brazil, passing on my warmest regards to Brazil and finally getting into Argentina.

All good, my mini-holiday, but it's good, right now, to be back at my home for the next 4 and a bit weeks.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Buenos Aires - Posadas - Encarnacion - Trinidad - Asuncion

Sunday evening, and as I prepared to leave Buenos Aires for the first time on this particular trip, I started to think about the first time I left Buenos Aires, in January. Then, Retiro bus station had seemed to be a terrifying South American shambolic, scrubby, shifty place and I remember being scared and bemused by the seemingly incomprehensible PA annoucements, the baffling timetables, the scurrying, shouting urchin-like street vendors. I remember clinging onto my backpack. I remember being incredibly nervous about leaving the city behind and venturing forth into South America.

Well, the rest is history, my Spanish has become adequate, and I've seen so much worse in the continent, that my return trip to Retiro on Sunday was a doddle. I arrived just before my bus was due to set off, managed to understand most of the PA announcements, and chilled. How quickly a strange place can feel like home.

Argentina is rightly acclaimed for its steak (fat and juicy), women (), football (Maradona) and cheapness, but its buses should be added to that illustrious list. My seat was big enough for at least two of me, an elephant, or four anorexic people. The wine flowed. The seat reclined all the way back to make a bed. Outside, I watched as we passed the River Plate, a huge estuary that stretches out to meet Uruguay, invisible, on the other side. The sky was on fire, and a distant hot air balloon hung on the horizon. The city stretches on for a long while - there's something so un-British about cities here - I can't put my finger on it - the way that the white tower blocks seem to have dozens of aerials on top of them, each scraping at the sky. The huge advertising billboards. The city left behind, the sun dipped and we were on our way. The only downside - the in-bus film. Meet the Fockers. Again. Ben Stiller and Robert de Niro have been following me all round South America. This must be the seventeenth time I've seen it here, and it wasn't that funny the first time. It was always on in Cusco, and on every other bus journey. I drifted off into half-sleep before, amazingly, arriving a good hour early in Posadas, at 5.30am.

Posadas is in the north east of Argentina, bordering Paraguay. Blurry eyed and blurry tongued, I staggered out and injected myself with caffeine before finding the bus for the border crossing. It was a typical South American border crossing - getting chucked off a bus that clearly has no intention of waiting for you, being pointed in the direction of at least 8 different windows and queues, being waved away by curt border staff. Anyway, after a bit of queueing and passport waving, I got my exit stamp and waited for the bus to take me to the promised land of Paraguay.

The contrast wasn't as severe as I had been expecting. I'd been expecting real poverty - kids begging, pavement-less unpaved roads, ramshackle stalls bordering the side of the streets. Yes, it was different, but not hugely so. There was even a Lloyds TSB in Encaracion. How nice of my favourite corporation to be greeting me in Paraguay. It was 8, and the sweat was already trickling behind my knees...

I took a bus to Trinidad - a UNESCO world heritage site - featuring haunting ruins from the Jesuit missions of a couple of centuries ago. I think by this stage, I was beginning to understand Paraguay a little bit. No signs, no infrastructure, just a red dirt road and there they were, the shells of these ancient churches and monastaries. Beautiful. Things took a turn for the worse at this stage. It began to rain. It began to more than rain. It began to be windy. It began to be more than windy. I was wandering around the ruins (inconveniently there are no roofs on these ruins), when the sky turned black, and the palm trees started doing tiptoes, and the rain came horizontally at me. And, smugly, I had packed light - i.e only one pair of trousers - my jeans, and they don't do so well in the rain. After sheltering with a couple of old dudes in hats and with spades, I made a charge for the entrance, got ridiculously soaked and then sheltered in the office where I made entertaining banter about Radiohead and Pink Floyd with the guy there, who wanted to be an international DJ. The rain continued to come and the sky continued to throw a tantrum, as the guy explained why he didn't like Argentina.

Eventually, shivering and dripping wet, with soggy cigarettes and sticky soggy 50,000 Guarani notes, I made my way to the bus stop, back to Encarnacion (and a terminal full of in your face vendors offering me watches, necklaces, batteries, coca-cola, bus tickets, empanadas) and then finally onto a bus headed for Asuncion, the capital. With massive relief, I took off half my clothes, and got changed and then fell into a shivery sleep, only occasionally glancing out of the window at the curious red earth that we passed through.

And now, I am here, Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, and possibly the most un-capital like capital I have ever been to. Cars and people crawl along under the palm trees, down narrow 2-laned roads. Yellow mercedes taxis pass by the bizarrely contrasting buildings - old school colonial facades that sit underneath stark white jutting communist-esque tv aerial firebomded ugly tower blocks. The river Parana sits at the edge of the city, a protest of around fifty people banging drums takes place alongside a mirrored bank that reflects a number of shanty tents alongside the river bank. Old men lie on park benches, underneath crumbling swimming pool coloured peeling fountains and bizarre green grey statues of dogs and old kings, queens and generals. An old lady with a green, red and yellow headress tries to sell me a little bag, she practically begs me when I refuse. People openly stare at me. There are just no tourists here, just me, and I stand out like a sore thumb. I buy cigarettes for 45 pence, a litre of beer for 60 pence, wander around sleepy and drunk at 3 in the afternoon. The Christmas lights are just going up, and bizarre renditions of Silent Night eminate from an art shop...eminate not into a snowy night, but a 35 degrees heat. It feels like I am back in South America. Not that Buenos Aires isn't South America, it's just that it's sort of like - home. Here has all the halmarks. People staring at me. Internet connections that barely work. An electric shower in my hotel that has 2 heat settings (freezing and boling), which I dip a toe under, then an armpit then run away before going back for another try. Toilets that don't have loo-roll in them. The people are friendly, chatty, curious. Why on earth am I here?

Well, I love it. This sleepy city, where the most happening thing at 11pm is to sit in a bookshop with a generous gin, with it's contrast of ancient and new, corrupt and clean, with armed guards patroling with machine guns, with overhead hum of electricty and insects mingling. I like it a lot, and I am glad I have come.

Well, sorry for the ramble. There's not much to do here, and that's why I like it. You can just sit, sit in the shade, sit under a palm tree and watch the Paraguayian world - slow, smiley, serene - go by.
Tomorrow, am off to Ciudad del Este on the Paraguyian, Brazilian, Argentinian border before spending a couple of days at Iguazu Falls, before returing to my temporary non-South American kind of home.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Confusion

Sunday night, 9.17pm and I've been up about 3 hours after finally hitting the sack around 7.30am. To say my body clock is confused would be an understatement. That said, I am determined to be up early (well by noon) tomorrow to carry on with my novel, to start typing, editing, re-shaping. The heat is stifling, like a bed blanket you can't shake off, it clings to me, stops me breathing and makes me drip with sweat. The promise of December is of more. I expect that disembarking from the plane in January might be a strange experience (35 degrees to minus whatever in a matter of days...). I shall try not to think about that too much now.

I had a 24 hour slump of sadness. It came, like a storm, out of the blue, as it always does, rendering me powerless to do anything but let it consume me. I think, strangely, the George Best thing started it. I never saw him play, but there was something remarkable about the universal sadness, the spontaneous applauding at the matches, that struck me. I dunno. It's not that his life was a waste, it's more like the world has become a little darker, a little duller than it was before. Of course, that got me thinking sad things. That combined with the fact that my friends have left, and the lack of sufficient kip for two weeks, sent me down a bit. My mind drifted, as it usually tends to, to feelings of loss, of nostalgia, of endings, of loneliness, and I let the air conditioning hum away as I watched the TV on mute and smoked too many cigarettes. But, all's not bad, and I find myself tired now, but glowing. Like I've just stepped out of a long, warm bath.

I'm in the process of planning a trip, maybe in a week's time, for 5 days or a week. But the question is - Uruguay or Paraguay or Brazil. I'm attracted to Paraguay - no one goes there. It's the same kind of motivation I have not to read Harry Potter or Dan Brown, because everyone else does. I kind of fancy another slice of real South America, of dusty bumpy roads full of ropey old buses and ancient cadillacs, of kids selling stuff on the streets, of desolate towns full of old sleepy men. We'll see, eh? Another option are the beaches of Uruguay, full of beautiful people, hip bars and flashy hotels. Typically, the Paraguay option seems more enchanting to me. Either way, I'm heading to Iguazu falls, where upon a visit, Hoover (I think) commented "Poor Niagra", because they are so spectacular. That's the great thing about being here in South America. It's so easy just do something really major on whim, just decide one day to go to Paraguay and head off on a bus the same day. Cool, eh? Well, now I'm going to do something else on a whim. I am going to prostrate myself in front of my telly, I'm going to blast the Air con and, for the first time in weeks, I'm hopefully going to get a good and proper night's sleep.