With Dean eventually released from Australia (see previous instalment), we settled into our Quantas 9 hour flight to Bangkok. As it was daytime we would be able to enjoy another smorgasbord of movies. We did just that, landing at 5pm, slightly bleary eyed, having taken a 5 hour leap back and feeling the 11pm Sydney time. That morning we had awoken to the news that the King of Thailand had died. We knew that was momentous for the Thai people, the longest serving monarch in their history was, we had read, deeply loved and revered. On the plane, announcements had been made, and advice from the Australian government issued. As we had travelled into the airport on the Sydney Metro a young Thai woman sat next to me had seen our travel book. She had advised that there would be significant disruption for several days, and had counselled us to sport dark clothing. We tend to be quite a colourfully clad family so, on landing, and with baggage collected, Dean nipped into the bathrooms to change out of his red jeans into something more demure. Sure enough, all around us, Thai’s had rummaged in the back of the wardrobe to find black and white. Over the next few days we would be much amused by the inappropriate nature of some of the tops; “Sexy girls & boys 2012”, Pink Floyd, Toyota Golf Challenge, “Smoke Weed and Chill”. But they were black.
The heat and humidity hit us when we took the escalator down to the Metro, leaving the cool of the air conditioned airport behind. Dean ably negotiated the ticket office and we joined a queue to board the first train. The Thai’s know how to queue; single file and strictly no line jumping. I needed to see the route which was posted above the doors for train entry, thinking I was trying to jump the queue I was chided. They may be used to some of our European neighbour’s poor understanding of the important institution of queuing. Apart from this, we felt nothing but warmth from our new hosts. They readily offer you a smile, and if you get in first, you are rewarded with the biggest of beams.
When we emerged from the last train change we got a hint of what was to come with the Death of the King. Our hostel was located near The Grand Palace, where the Kings body had been taken that day, to lay in state. Thais had congregated at The Grand Palace to pay their respects. We were met with thousands of Thai’s trying to enter the station, returning from their pilgrimage. Whilst we exited swiftly, they would be queuing for many hours. The knock on for us was the total absence of taxis or Tuk Tuk’s, and we had 3.8Km to go in sweltering heat and humidity. Seeing us looking rather dazed, a group of young lads came over to us and offered to help. They lent Dean their phone wifi access to orientate ourselves and download the address. We did find a couple of taxis and Tuk Tuks, but none would take us through the traffic towards the Grand Palace. Just as we were gearing up to attempt the walk, the young lads came over and offered to help again. They flagged a Tuk Tuk and negotiated with him for some time. Eventually he agreed to take us for 150 Bhat (£3).
We were eternally grateful to them as we made our way against the traffic, the streets at a standstill. Fred had been warned by a rather miserable Aussie in Santiago never to take a Tuk Tuk in Bangkok, too dangerous. As Fred is at an age of heightened safety awareness, and low trust in his fellow mans judgement, I was amazed that got in the Tuk Tuk. Even more he beamed and laughed as we picked up some speed, the delightful driver spotted this in his mirror and decided to liven things up a bit. We turned off the main road entering back street alleys, weaving and speeding along. Back on the main road, he decided to put on a slalom display to further spice up the ride. Fred’s growing laugher only served to squeeze more out of him. Fred announced he was having the best experience of his life ever (yes, again!). Now fully awake, we arrived at the wonderful Bangkok Bed & Bike. Renovated by an architect, it is more boutique hotel than backpacker hostel. The small room, we had to climb over our beds to get in, thankfully had air con, which we promptly switched on to sub zero mode. We made our way around the corner to get some street food and a kind New Zealander made space at his table. The delicious food was with us in an instant, and we got some rice and chicken into Fred before he crashed out perched on a stool with his head on Deans lap. We all slept well that night.
A lovely breakfast came with our hostel lodgings, Fred nearly feinted when he saw one of the many jars contained Oreos. Dragon Fruit, Banana, Mango, and Apple for me, all Thai grown and wonderfully sweet. The banana had a citrus hint to it, amazing. The Weekend Market, largest in the world, was our mission today. A bin bag of clothes had been emptied from our rucksacks, too warm and surplus to requirement for Thailand and India. We also needed black. Too far for a Tuk Tuk ride, we hailed a metered cab and revelled in the air con, the heat had got to us in the 5 minutes we had been standing in the street. As you would expect there were rows of stalls selling fake brands of clothing. We opted for the thinnest of cotton stalls, hippy tie dies and wild Asian prints. As we loaded up Fred found the toy section. His siblings had included £10 worth of Thai Bhat in his Birthday present. £5 of it bought a huge selection of fake Pokemon and Lego goods. For £3 each Fred and I had a Thai massage side by side. We loved it. Fred wanted to follow up with another one straight away. The girls were delightful, smitten with Fred, and he with them. I may have a Thai daughter-in-law in the future.
Ready for lunch we found a sit down stall with one table left. For £1 each we had hearty meat and fish soups, filled with al dente veg and noodles. Fred insisted on chop sticks, his ham fisted effort drew nods of appreciation from other diners; lunch was a slow affair. A few more stalls and we called it a day. Thankfully we had avoided the pet section, Fred was horrified in Cordoba to see puppies in shop windows and we wanted to avoid a repeat of the teary 3 days that followed. We also didn’t want to encourage and buy into the commerce. As we walked out of the market, looking for a cab, Fred spotted a tiny fluffy Pomeranian, unable to resist he put his hand out and stroked it and was rewarded with a rapid succession of bites. Asian pet puff balls have little in common with the ‘Wild Dogs of South America’ (see Dean’s blog).
Despite the valiant efforts of our return Taxi Driver, he couldn’t get us back to our Hostel. Key roads had been closed due to the Kings death. We offered to jump out near The Grand Palace which was only 15 minutes walk. How glad we were that we did. The large numbers of black clad Thais milling around soon gave way to the snaking line of people queuing to see the King laying in state. The sun was beating down, some had umbrellas but many didn’t. We were soon being offered food and drinks, we didn’t realise at first but they were gifts, volunteer groups of students, nurses, clubs, teachers had cooked and procured product for free distribution at The Grand Palace. At first we tried to refuse, we had eaten, were not far from home, and those queuing to see the King (only Thai nationals allowed) had more need than us. Eventually we accepted a cup of juice each and a donut which we clung onto to avoid offending others that offered their food. It was touching to see genuine affection for the King and mourning of his death. It was wonderful to see the kind, generous, and gentle response of Bangkok locals to those queuing, and non-Thai visitors. We were surrounded by a warmth we were quickly becoming familiar with.
When we got back Dean and I read and relaxed. Fred got maximum use out of the full sized snooker table. Keith, the Thai hostel Manager, played a few rounds with some gentle coaching. On his recommendation we walked to the Flower Market for dinner at a street food cart. The market was astounding. Deliveries were arriving and a roaring trade was being done. Buyers from all over the country come to this market, and presumably some from abroad. The Kings death had given the traders a quantum leap in business, they would be working 24 hours for the next few days to make the intricate floral displays we were seeing outside most properties, as well as at the pop up shrines around the city. The variety of flowers and colours was beautiful to walk through. We would have taken in more but our tummies were hungry and Sydney time kept intruding, bed was not very far off despite it only being 6pm.
A mix up over ‘spicy’ and ‘no spicy’ resulted in Fred having the spiciest of dishes, and we had already ordered chili laden food. Dean and I wolfed it down and Fred got the road cart kebabs he had been asking for, on the way home. In an attempt to readjust body clock’s we caved in and had a glass of white wine at the hostel, and gave Fred one game of pool. It was our limit and by 8pm we were in bed ready for lights out.
One of the delights of being in a hostel is the people you meet. At Bangkok Bed & Bike it was a succession of young American women in their early 20s. They were clever, adventurous, curious, educated, and fun. Not a bad combination. What I found admirable was they were all travelling solo, a couple of them on open ended trips. We inevitably talked about the upcoming election, we were glad that our politics were aligned. Let’s hope their like prevail in a few weeks time.
After another great breakfast we left for a ferry trip that would take us to China Town. We weren’t having much luck with Tuk Tuk drivers, this time he got hopelessly lost and ended up dropping us 10 minutes walk away having given up. We were asked to leave the Tuk Tuk, but not to pay. We didn’t mind, Fred had got his Tuk Tuk ride in and we had got the exercise we badly needed. We found a route that took us through the fish market, the smell of shrimp knocking us off our feet, and transporting us 5 years back to Tao O where we had stayed for a break on Lantau Island
A complex game of draughts crossed with chess required my engagement with him for a good hour before I capitulated, defeated more by the rules than my opponent. When we did leave, it was to find a restaurant near Democracy Square, there were 2 so if one was closed we could try the other. We love the feel of Bangkok, every street you take has a friendly hustle and bustle. No one bothers you, but everyone makes you feel that they are there to help you. Another lovely combination. Of course in the midst of the karmic charm we had to have a small intrusion, in the form of the legacy left by American GIs on R&R from Vietnam. As we looked for barber shop signs, our intended destination was opposite one, I spotted large plate glass windows on the first floor of a complex. Three mannequins were placed in the window. Then the mannequins moved. Elegantly dressed women, in long slit evening gowns, with demure hair, pressed themselves against the glass waving at the cars passing below. At the ground floor door, two men stood, neon pink love hearts above their heads. Dinner was another interesting chat, and we definitely covered a lot of stuff not on the curriculum, that arguably should be. Fred, already a feminist, came to his own conclusions about the merits of visiting Ping Pong bars and other seedier ‘entertainment’ establishments.
We didn’t find the place we were looking for, but much to Fred’s delight the fusion restaurant we ended up at served a mean spaghetti Bolognese with chicken. I had my first Thai green curry, I’d singularly failed to accurately order anything like it until now. Bleary eyed, having made it to 8:30 pm we left the restaurant. We convinced Dean, against his better judgement, to take a Tuk Tuk. The first driver we walked away from based on price. The second, after reading the map and address in his headlights, taking a worryingly long time to see it, accepted. Dean beat him down from 150 Baht to a more realistic 50 Baht. He immediately took the wrong exit and we ground to a halt on the main boulevard through the city to the Parliament, via Democracy Square. Sat in traffic, that was not going to move for an awfully long time, he beat his hands against his head cursing himself and his stupidity. I felt dreadful for him, and we did our best to comfort him and let him know we didn’t mind. Fred was of course delighted, no early night, and extended time in a Tuk Tuk. After several minutes of being stationery we noticed that there was no traffic on the other side. The route to the Palace and Parliament was lined by police and empty of traffic. Around us hundreds of motorcyclists, mostly young people decked out in black, and with handwritten signs sellotaped to the front of their bikes, turned off their engines. We were in for the long haul. It transpired that the Crown Prince, entire Royal Family, Prime Minister, and government were due to make their way to the Grand Palace. The route had been cleared for them and all other traffic stopped. We had a prime position on the outside lane of the 3 lane highway, it gave us an uninterrupted view of the other side where they would pass. It took a bit of persuading, but eventually Dean embraced the momentous occasion. Camera in hand he was the first to leave our Tuk Tuk and was soon talking to some locals. Not au fait with the protocols, I got a few pictures before one of the many police and soldiers around us gently told me to put it away. We waited nearly an hour, passing the time with those around us, before I saw people on the other side sitting, being told to stand up. Another few minutes and the cavalcade arrived, fronted by police motorcycles . It must have been a mile long with more than a hundred cars. The Crown Prince came first in a large cream vintage Rolls Royce, the King’s widow, the current Queen, brought up the rear. After the procession had passed people on scooters squeezed passed, many offering us water and food concerned that we had been caught out unexpectedly. Our driver got us some extra water and biscuits too. Nearly 2 hours after we had finished dinner, 15 minutes’ walk away, we arrived home. We paid our driver 200 Baht for his lost time and trouble, 50 Baht more than his opening price, and 150 Baht more than the agreed price. We decided he probably had more use of our £4 more than us, if nothing else to get a pair of much needed glasses. Having had an unexpectedly late night, for us, we turned in straight away feeling very lucky to have been part of a historic weekend.
Our last morning in Bangkok was spent getting Fred a haircut, culling more from our wardrobes ready for disposal, and packing up. At the salon Fred’s appearance caused a sensation, and he was surrounded by the salon ladies taking pictures and recording his hair cut. He left with a shaved head, save his long top in a ponytail. Another quick street stall lunch and we were ready to leave. The £20 taxi ride, air conditioned, door to door, bags loaded and unloaded was worth every penny. The sheer size of Bangkok meant it took an hour to clear the city, even on the traffic free highway. Old town gave way to modern apartment blocks, colourful and thoughtfully designed. Further out houses on stilts straddled the waterways, intermingling with the pallet making district that serviced the industrial section. Slowly paddy fields appeared, locals up to their knees in the silty water. Ayutthaya was upon us suddenly, announcing its presence with a Khmer temple at a crossroads. Dean had taken care of our booking, 2 nights for my Birthday, and kept it a surprise. We pulled off the road and a wall of tiny red bricks looked inauspicious, but the subtle signage and security guard hinted that he hadn’t booked it on hostelworld.com. Vast, distressed, teak doors were opened for us and we stepped into an art gallery, masquerading as a lobby. We were led through narrow outdoor corridors and up a set of stairs to our room. When the door opened the sight was breath taking. Glass fronted, our room looked directly across the river to the white moss covered 15th Century temple Wat Phutthai Sawan, in front cows grazed on the lush monsoon grass, and the red tiled and gilt edged 19th Century temple next to it completed the palette. Light and airy, a vast round bath sat in the middle of the room, and a divinely comfortable super king sized bed invited a snooze. Instead I burst into tears. Mr Repper had done very well indeed. Eyes dried and left alone, we went out onto our private balcony and drank in the views. The monks were in prayer and it took us a few minutes to realise that the wild dogs of Ayutthaya were joining in. The river, 80 meters across, was swollen with the rains. Barges passed, laying low in the water, loaded with cargo. Deck hands waved back as we snapped them, and their colourful washing lines, strung outside the cabins.
The heat was sultry and sweaty, nevertheless we resisted the urge to retreat to the cool of our air con room. Thankfully a stylish plunge pool, nestled in a courtyard, gave us some relief as we cooled off before finding an early dinner. We failed to find our first choice and settled for a riverside place that was deserted. The family were delightful when we arrived and Fred thought we should support their enterprise. The host was clearly a Lady Boy, and she soon happily shared this with us. She suggested that Fred was so beautiful that he should become a Lady Boy too. A thick accent and the bewildering conversation left Fred with a confused look. When it was slowly explained, with some subtle adjustments, he sported an emoji face of epic proportions. Beautiful food, great service, and lots of fun made for a great evening. Fred joined the extended family for some Mozzie swatting, taking over the electric ping pong bat sized contraption. Its light attracted swarms, and we heard the gratifying crackle of their electrocution. Fred was enthralled, Santa might just get a rather peculiar Christmas list this year.
We woke on my Birthday to a beautiful hazy sunshine, just enough to turn the river into a fast flowing gossamer of glistening diamonds. As Fred slept on, Dean and I went down to enjoy the early morning, note for Fred stuck to the television. The breakfast terrace, overhanging the river, gives the most beautiful view of the temples, on the opposite bank. Morning prayers were underway and the wild dogs joined in again with their own chorus. Vast barges passed us, chugging their cargo down to Bangkok. Like the mad dogs, it was only us English who resisted the air conditioned glass fronted restaurant, we wanted to soak up the smells and sounds around us. We were rewarded with fine beads of sweat even at 8am, it was going to be a hot one. The breakfast menu was a stylish mix of Thai and English classics. We opted for the Full English and Eggs Benedict but with a Thai atmosphere around us.
We had planned to do a bicycle ride around Ayutthaya but by 10am we knew the heat and humidity would beat us, though we were sat on the cooling river with a large fan beside us, we were wilting. Instead we opted for a swimming, home schooling, and travel planning day. Storms are currently battering Asia as 2 typhoons converge. October is the shoulder season, monsoons ending and the North of Thailand where we’re heading next should be rain free. However, the current forecasts are showing sustained heavy rains and thunder storms for the next 10 days. Looking forward to November, when we should be travelling to the southern Islands, the weather continues to look poor. We decided we would have a creative re-think with no options ruled out. As Fred worked through his assignment of researching population sizes of major cities we’ve visited, and organising them into a bar chart, Dean and I got out our travel books and laptop to come up with a new plan. As the day continued to warm up and the humidity increased we began to envy the Facebook postings from home about fires lit to take the chill off a cold autumn. After much research, and the offer of a 2 week stay in the cool Himalayas from an English friend, we decided to stick to our original plan for now. We will head up to Chiang Mai by train, 14 hours of air conditioning, and have 4 nights in L.onely Planet’s star pick, still only £40 a night. If we can bear the heat and humidity we can move on to Pai and stop at a fishing lake, with swimming and waterfalls. We’ll see how we go….
Birthday dinner was down the road, after a hair raising walk without pavements, to a restaurant with a deck suspended over the river. Packed out, even at 6pm, we were the only westerners there. The extended monsoon and storms has swollen the river and the banks have burst long ago. In the garden of the restaurant the pagoda was submerged, and bizarrely a flock of 30 life sized plastic sheep just about kept their heads above water. Fred, hankering for chicken nuggets and chips (he has done exceptionally well eating all sorts of weird and wonderful concoctions that we had no idea were coming), seized on a picture. Our food was the best we had so far, which is saying something, but Fred’s was a portion of deep fried chicken knuckles and feet. Holding back tears of disappointment he munched through the chips and we ordered a sirloin steak. The bill still only came to £30. With full tummies we braved the walk back, opting for a cooling swim before bed. A group of Aussies in their 30s had arrived and were in the plunge pool. They were making full use of the bar, empty cocktail glasses sat beside them, discarded wine bottles, and plastic bags of Singa cans indicated that at 8pm they were in for a longer night than us, and sorer heads in the morning. Sure enough, the next day, one by one they emerged bleary eyed, sunglasses firmly in place, with a forced animation of those living with the shame of the night before. Sat in a prime spot I naughtily enjoyed their awkwardness, grappling with the remembrance of boundaries breached between them. I’d loved my Perrier water the night before, but I loved it even more now.
Our stay at the wonderful Sala Ayutthaya was at an end. We had another long leisurely breakfast whilst Fred slept on again, then packed up our bags. Dean took a Tuk Tuk to the train station to sort our Chiang Mai tickets, and pharmacy to get more mozzie spray and ointment (we’d been less diligent than we should have been the night before). A hostel next to the train station before our departure the next day, for £13, would feel a bit of a come down after my luxurious Birthday treat but the Sala was happy for us to spend the day by the pool after we had checked out. We’d by now decided that street dogs had it sussed, no point killing ourselves in the heat and humidity, so we’ve leaned into the climate and the slow pace of life. As Dean and I both agree, we’ve had the best view of the most beautiful temples from our balcony, and just how many temples do you need to see.
Ayutthaya’s Tuk Tuk’s are famous for looking like Darth Vader’s helmets and Fred was desperate to ride in one. The hotel ordered us one when it came time to leave and the driver gave us another fabulous ride past the ruins that litter the town. Huge ancient trees, with vine like trunks, formed an avenue. One was bandaged, we later found out that it is the oldest in the town, and the trunks are soft requiring support and regular care. We turned down an alley and arrived at a stunning old teak house. Bed bound grandma overlooked the lobby, walking frame to hand, with a two large bamboo branches across her bedroom to signal a boundary for guests. She cheerfully waved when we came in, and cackled at Fred who bowed to her with his hands together. The homestay was a delight. Small water features decorated the garden that led to the river front bar and restaurant. Upstairs, shoes left at the bottom, we found the entire house was carved hardwood heaven. The landing was open, exposed on both sides of the house, no glass just open shutters. Teak recliners were arranged in a row, visitors able to enjoy the view and the breeze that travelled through the house. Hidden in the carved panelling were the doors to the bedrooms which you had to step into, the doors were a foot off the floor. We loved it. Down the lane we got some dinner and settled in for another early night before our morning train to Chiang Mai.
Less diligent than we should have been, and sleeping naked without sheets, we collected a few mozzie bites in the night. We’ve become pretty immune to them, and they are nothing compared to the effects of Ontario mozzies. With a large bin bag of clothes, coats and shoes to get rid of I set off early to find somewhere. Although only 7am the street outside our homestay was full of local traders and shoppers. As in Rio, they were sat on the floor with a few paltry second hand items for sale. I quickly found a home for my bag and was much thanked. In need of supplies for our journey I found a fruit seller, vibrant pink dragon fruit, tiny ripe bananas, and a bag of apples was £1. The green wilko shopper that our friend Dr Chris had given me was pulled out and the lady erupted with laughter. Others gathered around, chuckling and applauding my bag. I’m presuming they thought I was shopping like a local, whatever it was we all enjoyed the moment. Before leaving we had a lovely breakfast on the terrace overlooking the river, again kindness and warmth from the family.
Thankfully the train station was a 5 minute walk, by 9am we were again sweating buckets. Charming colonial architecture with Thai styling, we sat by a huge fan and waited for the ‘express’ to arrive. A small dog sat on the sill of window number 4, panting in the heat. Other stray dogs wandered around the platform, drinking from the water feature. As we waited, surrounded by black clad Thais, a pair of very smartly dressed elderly ladies approached us. In their funeral best, pearls set off by their well tailored dresses, they asked if they could have a picture with Fred. They were on their way to Bangkok to say goodbye to ‘our King’. Fred, getting used to this, happily obliged. We were then all pulled in for a ‘selfie’. They were delightful, and the whole thing was again very charmingly incongruous.
Only 10 minutes late, the train is notorious for delays, we boarded and found our seats. Wonderfully cool, we were relieved that we were not going to be sweating our way to the North. Watching the scenery, reading, blogging, and the odd snooze meant the journey passed quickly. Fred found friends in a Thai family with 3 children. The baby, about a year old, had an unrelenting bottom of the tummy chuckle when tickled. Fred joined in to the baby’s delight. It was infections and the whole carriage was charmed by the little one. With Fred’s surplus toys gifted to his new friends, Fred got off at Chiang Mai with a lighter bag, and I with a new Facebook friend.
We had flown into Bangkok on one its most historic days, witnessed the Thai people expressing their love and mourning for their King, and experienced the kindness of strangers on countless occasions. Women cooked on every corner producing fresh tastes and scintillating flavours. The charm of the Bangkok people shone through even in a city familiar with foreigners, which is quite a testament to their nature. We had also glimpsed the underbelly, created by Western men. Yes the heat and humidity had hit us, but with beautiful sights that we could sit and pant at, we weren’t going to complain for long. We got off our train at Chiang Mai confident that we would make even more friends on this trip to Thailand, and we very much doubted we would have to go looking for it.
A short hop from South America to Asia (10 days in Australia)
Well the Aussies certainly read the script, learnt their lines, and put on a full costume display (board shorts, flip flops, RM Williams Boots, safari hats) for our Australian 10 day leg. To avoid having to fly back to the UK in order to enter into Asia, we had put in a short break to catch up with family and friends in Australia. My fabulous cousin Suzanne and her family agreed to have us for a week in Sydney, and a special old friend who pricks our ecological conscience was only a few hours down the road in Canberra. From the moment we stepped off the plane and into ‘Border Control’ we were met by the cheery, optimistic good humour that we would become familiar with. The substantial difference between Dean’s passport photo and current bearded appearance gained a joshing from the Immigration desk “You’ve changed a bit mate”, to which Dean replied “I know, I just keep getting younger”, and yes the officer was called Bruce. Leaving Australia proved to be more problematic…..
The 14 hour flight, with a further 14 hour leap forward in time, chewed up our body clocks. Suzanne, who picked us up at the airport, fed us a spaghetti Bolognese and medicinal red wine before we crashed out at 9pm Sydney time, 7am the same day in Santiago. We had a solid sleep until 1am when Fred and I both woke and made a cheese sandwich, 4am was another waking when Fred and I, fully synchronised, had a bowl of cornflakes. Deep sleep must have punctured our wakings, we felt fantastic when we woke. Astoundingly the suburb of Turramurra is full of wildlife and tropical trees. Our dawn chorus was the sounds of the jungle, evensong was the rustling of possums in the trees that we got to see peering at us, all in Suzanne and Phil’s garden. Remarkably free of jet lag we set off for the pool at 8:30am to accompany Will (11) to his swimming lesson. Ollie (15) and Fred swam in the Olympic sized outdoor pool whilst Suzanne and I sat in the wonderful crisp sunshine and caught up on the comings and goings of our extended family across the world.
Suzanne showed us around the coastline on our second day, stunning views from the vantage point of McCarrs Creek, followed by an afternoon of swimming and cricket at the beach. I’ve been amazed at just how beautiful the landscape is here. Lush greenery, golden beaches nestled into compact coves, crystal clear waters, and stunning geology. Surfers took on the substantial waves, whilst we took to the water in the walled pool filled with the bracing Pacific Ocean.
We spent a gorgeous restful few days in great company, wearing fresh clothes, smelling sweetly, and wining and dining in terrific company. Two snuggly cats, two boys to play with, and plentiful Pokemons, was just what Fred needed. In the first 2 days they cleaned up, and the adults were treated to lengthy, excitable accounts of rare Pokemons they had captured. Phil, Suzanne’s husband had been working away, and on his return he took us all swimming in another Olympic sized pool, Sydney is littered with them. He also introduced us to the Aussie institution of the bowling club. Pints and cigarettes in hand, the predominantly male over 50s members, took us all under their wing and coached us on a ‘rink’. It was a highly competitive group of novices, largely good humoured apart from Dean nobbling me with a jovial bowl at my ankle bone which elicited much swearing and near physical violence, despite the presence of children. We celebrated our sporting day with a curry down the road, and it felt just like Saturday night at home, except instead of pigeons flying overhead we had Silver Cockatoos toddling along the road with us. Awesome – as they really do say round here!
Sunday was sightseeing day in central Sydney. Amazingly you can’t spend more than £1.50 on public transport on a Sunday in Sydney, no matter what routes and form of transport you take. Consequently, we explored on train, bus, and ferry. We started off at the outdoor market under the arches of the Harbour Metro station. Colourful, bright, cheery stall holders engaged us in good humoured conversations. Live music and fresh food made for a lovely atmosphere. We walked over the Harbour Bridge, eschewing the opportunity to climb to the top of its arches, instead leisurely enjoying the stunning views. I had no idea that Sydney was so green and beautiful. Largely low rise, with its historic decorative terraced homes protected from re-development, lush greenery cuts through it. The harbour itself is inland, sheltered from the Pacific, with a myriad of waterways working their way into the suburbs. Not only did Fred want to get out the property pages, so did I.
The Opera House was a revelation. Not white, but cream tiled, it glistens in the sunshine, its architecture even more impressive up close. We had a pitstop in Phil’s office on the 38th floor of a new harbour front office block, where we got to appreciate a bird’s eye view in 360 degrees. After a ferry ride across the harbour we arrived in Manly for fish and chips before a walk round the bay. Clever engineering of ketchup packets caught me out, opening it the wrong way, I managed to splatter Fred, myself and a row of 4 Aussie teenagers sat behind us on the seafront steps. Thankfully they took it in good humour, fortunately I was wearing a jumper with a paint splatter effect so no impact for me, Fred on the other hand took the full force and looked like an extra on The Walking Dead.
We washed ourselves down on the promenade and headed round the Manly Beach bay for a bracing walk. Multi million dollar houses lined the way, but you could see why they chose this gorgeous spot. Entertainment came in the form of novice paddle borders battling on choppy waters. Tanned, and with sun bleached hair, surfers on a day off due to messy waves, sat on the rocks in hysterics enjoying the misery and frustration of the holiday makers wanting to complete their Australian dream. The bus back to the car was packed so we all had to split up. Fred found a young female companion and was soon deep in conversation. I earwigged from across the aisle to him marvelling that she had been to Everest base camp. They exchanged travelling stories and, as he talked animatedly to her, I was comforted that he has got so much out of the trip than I realised. She had visited India a number of times, although 5th generation Fijian her family’s heritage was Indian, and allayed some of Fred’s fears about our upcoming India leg. She was on the bus going home having finished a volunteering session at a children’s hospice, she did every other Saturday in addition to working full time. They parted friends and Fred richer for 30 minutes of conversation with an adventurous and compassionate person.
Monday we set off for Canberra to see our old friend Richard in a hire car. Before entering vegan heaven, we sneaked in an Aussie MacDonalds on the motorway, very naughty but pretty good. The highway from Sydney to Canberra took us through rolling hills and lush grassland full of livestock. Small holdings and larger farms sported corrugated tinned roofs, much to my delight. Nothing like vernacular architecture to make me happy. On the recommendation of Phil we stopped at a vineyard that uses Biodynamic growing methods. We left the highway to take a country lane to the Lark Hill Vineyard. Within a few minutes we saw the carcasses of Kangaroos who had not made it across the road, not just a few but dozens. Thankfully Fred didn’t see them, but did shout out his spot of a huge mob (yes that is the collective noun for a group of Kangaroos!) on the edge of some scrubland. We pulled over and turned around to find them again. Pulling onto the verge we were amazed that they just sat and looked at us, windows were wound down and we fumbled for our cameras. We managed to get a few shots before they decided they’d had enough of our staring competition and they bounced off. We were tickled at their springing high speed escape and couldn’t believe our luck at stumbling across them. As those of you who have read our blog will know, we only enjoy animals in the wild or supporting institutions that have rescued animals.
The Lark Hill Vineyard was an absolute treat. A small family business, the owner took us through to the cellar, and educated us in his wines and the Biodynamic process. Dean had drawn the short straw, deciding to economise by only putting himself on the hire car insurance. His loss was my gain. As he professionally sniffed, swilled and spat (as taught by our friend James the wine merchant), I absentmindedly forgot the smaller details of the process. We worked our way through the fizzy Pinot Noir, whites, and reds, eventually settling on a mixed case to take to Canberra. As we left Fred’s parting words were “Thank you, you’ve made my parents very happy today”. How right he was.
Fully laden we arrived into Canberra earlier than expected. No traffic on the highway and an empty capital city caught us out. With time to spare before our host was home we headed up to the Royal Mint, another of Phil’s recommendations. It took us 10 minutes to cross from one side of Canberra to the other, including going past the Canadian Parliament, and taking a wrong turn. No need for congestion charges here. Like most of the museums and galleries in Canberra it was free. We enjoyed an educational video before exploring the exhibits charting the history of money and the Mint. All the operations are visible to the public via a gallery that overlooks the warehouse and operations. Cutting edge automation was on display, Penny and Titan danced for their audience in between performing complex tasks. I was pretty sure Titan was inappropriate on at least one occasion as Penny passed. Fred left happy, having cast his own coin, with a fresh desire to see his Great Grandfathers coin collection. Before we left we had a Mr Bean experience with Dean battling the door and lock of the car, except it wasn’t ours. Uh Oh. As we turned away we explained to another visitor in the car park our error, not that we were doing a spot of breaking and entering in one of the most secure places in the city.
We had a wonderfully warm welcome from Richard, who true to form had prepared a stunning vegan feast for us. The evening was spent catching up and making plans for our 3 days in the city. With a wealth of museum’s and art galleries in Canberra that we wanted to work our way through, we were over the moon to discover that the British Museum’s ‘The History of the World in 100 objects’ was in Canberra on tour for the next 2 months. Richard had been wanting to take it in so we agreed that we would make it our first stop the next morning. It didn’t disappoint. Goodness knows how they were able to decide what to include, but they did a fabulous job. Organised in chronological order, they had also cleverly curated it by theming the periods in time (see link) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_History_of_the_World_in_100_Objects. If you get chance it’s a must see. Of course being Canberra it was virtually deserted, not surprising when your capital city has a population of 400,000 and is a flight away from the most populated parts of the vast country. Much to our amusement one of the few other visitors was the couple who had caught us doing battle with the wrong car at the Mint the day before. We would see them once again in the next 2 days, a very small world. The Exhibition was housed in the National Museum of Australia, so we spent another hour taking in some of the collections before heading across town to view Canberra from the peak of Mount Ainslie. From here you see the architect designed city in its full, organised, glory. On the ground it feels pretty soulless, nothing has spontaneously emerged, and it is eerily empty. Shops are in precincts, houses are on cul de sacs, there is even a petrol station block with 4 gas stations. From above you see the stunning parliament house, bold boulevards leading to it, and a huge city centre man made lake nestles amid all of this. We admired it, but I’d challenge anyone to fall in love with it.
Lunch was at a vegan co-operative for more delicious food. In addition to wolfing down the bowl of red pepper soup, brown rice and sourdough bread, which Fred loved, we got treated to vegan banana muffins and the wonderfully named ‘bliss balls’; coconut and dates if you’re interested. Staffed and frequented by an alternative crowd largely from the university, we loved it here. We left Richard to complete some work on his PHD and headed off to another Olympic sized swimming pool. We were thankful for some exercise when dinner came and we wolfed down more delicious vegan food collectively prepared under Richard’s instructions. It was so good we went for firsts, seconds and then thirds.
Canberra has such a fabulous range of places to visit that it’s hard to narrow things down, even with 3 days in the city. Fred decided on science and technology at Questacon for the morning. For the second time in Canberra Dean got a discount for being retired, and for a modest fee we got to enjoy the terrific exhibitions and interactive spaces. A lecture theatre on site was running 2 sessions; The History of Man in Space, and Natural Disasters. We were treated to both of them, fabulously delivered by the young staff. Home schooling was working out well in Canberra. Time constraints had meant that we had not been able to visit the First Australians building in the Australian National Museum the day before, so we left Questacon to get a better understanding of the Aboriginal heritage of Australia. It was absolutely stunning. At the entrance a film of ‘The Apology’ runs on a continuous loop. On 13 February 2008 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gave a speech on behalf of the current and previous Australian Parliaments for the wrongs committed against the First Australians. I wept as I watched it, moved by the simplicity of the apology and the deep and instant response of those listening. It’s a very short film and I’ve attached the link for those who have not seen it https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=the+apology+kevin+rudd&view=detail&mid=6748EAC6572217E0CE456748EAC6572217E0CE45&FORM=VIRE We moved through the exhibits silently, totally absorbed by the history and personal stories.
If we weren’t emotional enough, I was finished off by visiting the Australian War Memorial where they have a’ Last Post’ ceremony every day at 4:50 with the ‘Last Post’ at 5:00pm. We spent a week around Amiens visiting the Somme and surrounding areas four years ago. The memorial in Canberra echoes the impressive Theipval. We made our way across the gardens, past statues, plaques, and heavy artillery to the memorial building and chapel. A pool of reflection sits at the centre of a balconied courtyard, upon which are written the names of all of the fallen in all of the wars that Australia has been part of. Controversially there is no reference to the Aboriginal War, and the fallen First Australians. We found ourselves a spot at the heart of the building, up some stairs to give us a view of the ceremony. Around us buses of school children, the elderly, veterans, every day Aussies and visitors from abroad filled the space. Military representatives from 20 plus countries stood to attention as the story of an ordinary soldier was told first. Every day they share the history of one soldier who’s name is on the walls. On the day we were there it was of a 47 year old man, originally from Shropshire, who had enlisted at 44, and had been hit by a bullet in the stomach in the IWW. The simplicity of the story, the absence of heroism in his death, the human experience of his family left behind, was so impactful. After 10 minutes the ceremony was over, closing with the haunting ‘Last Post’. Emotionally drained we headed back for a rest and distraction from the failings of the past, and the frustration that our politicians have not been better students of history in their youth.
Great conversation, vegan pizza and more lovely wine restored us on our last night. We set off for Sydney better educated, seriously contemplating becoming vegan, and having had a wonderful time with a great friend. We came a little unstuck when we spotted another MacDonalds on our return journey, guiltily slipping in for a ‘dirty’ burger. We were glad we did when we had the most delightful encounter with a first Australian. Waiting near our table for his order, he started up a gentle and curious conversation. A felt hat decorated with feathers and small badge flags sat on his head. In a suit and tie, he smiled throughout his conversation with us. He shared his experiences of England which he had visited and thanked us for visiting the First Australians museum. Another beautiful memorable moment in the most incongruous of settings. I’ve never left a MacDonalds feeling spiritual before.
Our lovely kind cousins cooked for us and provided more wine, we had drunk the case in Canberra between the three of us, and Fred got his last night with the boys, cats, and wild Pokemon. A final express wash and dry meant we set off for the airport fully laundered. We were chauffeured to the metro station by Suzanne and then Phil took us to our final train change to make sure we made our flight. Their hospitality and effort was amazing as they looked after us, and made sure we got to see the best of Sydney. Their fabulous sons meant that Fred left with a heavy heart, wanting us to buy the house next door so he could see them every day. Suzanne and I felt we knew one another better than we did before we went to stay, it’s the bonus of intimacy that Facebook gives you, but by the time we left Suzanne and I were firm friends, not just family that had met once at a funeral.
Of course we couldn’t leave Australia without a bit of excitement. Jovial Bruce was not on duty at Border Control. Having failed the computerised facial recognition test, Dean was ushered to the supervisor’s desk. Fred and I joshed for a few minutes, as we waited having exited. The few minutes turned into 5 and then 10. I managed to get a view of the proceedings by craning my neck. The Supervisor did not think Dean was Dean, whether he put his glasses on or took them off. The Supervisor’s Supervisor did not think Dean was Dean either. His driver’s licence, credit cards, Fred’s birth certificate etc seemed to have no impact. There was not a smile in sight, but remarkably Dean kept his cool. Eventually, and we have no idea why, after 20 minutes and a whole pack of Border Control senior managers making him take his glasses on or off, they let him out of the country. Maybe they’d taken a liking to him and just didn’t want him to leave…..
I’d been quite sniffy about Australia before we went, not seeing the attraction; a bunch of Brits in a hot country, good at sport, that is a cultural wasteland. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Australians are a cheery, multicultural, optimistic crowd. They smile and say hello, find everything ‘awesome’, look after themselves and others. They have the humility to apologise for the past, even if it was the past of others, and the First Aboriginals have the generosity of spirit to accept. The tiny bit of the landscape we saw was beautiful and left me chomping for more. We will be back, covering the vast distances with plane journeys (apologies Richard), trying to see just a bit of this diverse place. Until we do, we will have to suffice with ‘Dreaming’ of the magical land and people that we got just a tiny glimpse of.
Assured that Route 40 after Cafayete would be a good road, newly paved, we set off on Sunday morning. We refueled in town, and had a delightful exchange with a young petrol pump attendant who wanted to know all about the van and our trip. Across the way a pastry shop provided us with brunch, and then we went in search of a smoothie that had been promised to Fred. In the main square we parked up and Dean bumped into a group of American students in another Wicked campervan. We’d previously encountered them in the gas station at San Pedro de Atacama. He passed 20 minutes with them catching up on their adventure and sharing ours. Fred and I waited across the sunlit, tree filled square for the smoothie shop to open. The owner languidly mopped his floor, unperturbed by waiting customers. This is not a country that you can force a rush, however often I got up, leaned in the door, smiled, and did my ‘we’re in a hurry look’. With an immobile face, that a Botox Dr would be proud of, he mopped over the same floor, which was already gleaming. When the smoothie came Fred assured me it was worth the wait, and beaming smiles with “Muchos Gracias” from Fred was rewarded with a broad grin from the owner.
Dean brought me up to speed on the Americans in the van. A group of 5 girls and 1 boy, they were on a study tour in Valparaiso and had taken a break to explore the north of Chile and Argentina. They needed to get their van back in 3 nights and were under some pressure to cover over 1000km, plus the day long border crossing in that time. A mislaid passport by one had caused a 2 day delay as fresh papers were sorted. Unlike us they had also had their van emptied and all items searched for 4 hours at the other border crossing, which we had been advised not to take. I didn’t envy their experience, or the challenge they had coming up.
The drive proved an easy one, albeit rather monotonous. We’ve had our fill of deserts, just as in Canada we had our fill of huge mountains and acres of trees and lakes, and this drive was 5 hours of perfectly straight roads the disappeared into the dusty horizon. Admittedly the scenery was stunning, but it wasn’t fresh to us. In large flat valleys between the Andes and the internal mountain range the wind battered the van, and a few times we had to get out and put the cover back on the roof tent. After 5 hours we arrived in Belen. It was a rapid and delightful change of geography which this country is full of. We descended from rocky desert into a lush valley, streams appearing from nowhere, willow and cypress trees in abundance. We entered the village via a ford, and emerged outside a general store, which also served as outdoor bar. Needing food and advice on where to camp, we pulled off the road and walked back to the shop. A girl approached offering a tray of homemade cakes, a celebration seemed to be taking place. Outside the shop a couple in their late 20s sat in the back of a car with doors open onto the pavement, smoking, drinking and making out with wild abandon. Being late on a Sunday and looking slightly disheveled, we suspected they’d been at it for some time. On benches outside the shop men and women, late middle aged, sat glasses in hand, clearly well sozzled. Think of a Sunny Sunday in the pub garden about 6pm when the sunburnt are still downing pints after a 1pm start. No one seemed too worried about work the next day. Of course their cheeks were full of the coca leaves that are ubiquitous in this part of the world.
We stepped into the dark unlit shop, unsure if it was open, and found the usual paltry, but wholly adequate choice of goods. Father, daughter and grandson milled around. On one counter stood an array of stationery, including photocopier and fax. Bizarrely a vibrant pink full sized football sat atop a halved 1.5 litre drinks bottle, serving as a stand for the ball. Another hidden counter had fruit and veg, stacked behind it tinned and dry products. I still haven’t got to grips with the fact that you don’t do self service. With a broad smile the 30 year old daughter took the produce I’d collected out of my hands and asked me what else I wanted. Its like stepping back in to the England, so wonderfully captured in ‘Open All Hours’, that I remember as a young child. We got meats, veg, fruits, drinks, and of course the football. Fred’s was dying and this one was only $8. Fred had found a cat lazing on the floor under a table, delighted that someone had found her to stroke, she lay back for him with all four paws in the air. We established that the grandson was also called Fred which immediately bonded us all. Fred and I were ushered out of the back of the shop, urged to follow when we were unsure, and taken through a kitchen, TV blaring the Bocca Juniors game out, to the yard. Across from the heaps of junk in the yard was the purpose of this visit. Proudly, ‘Belen Fred’s’ mum showed us her Llama. We struggled to contain ourselves when we were told that this lovely sweet animal was called Martin, the incongruity tickled us thoroughly. Martin had the most beautiful eyes and luscious lashes. All soft fluffy hair he spoke to us in funny purring squeaks. Fred and I stroked and petted him, ‘Belen Fred’s’ mother beamed. We returned through the kitchen and paused there while Fred stroked the cat that had retreated there from the shop. All around us items were strewn, caked in grease and dust, the telly however was gleaming and centre stage. We paid up and said our goodbyes, with directions given to the Tourist Information office and local municipal campsite. Handshakes from grandad and embraces from Fred’s mum. They had done well out of our trade on a slow Sunday evening, but we had the best of it with another wonderfully warm experience.
A tour through Belen, picking up food supplies and cash, brought us to the Municipal campsite. Argentina has them in nearly every town, they are extremely cheap or free, as was the case in Belen. Fabulous aging sporting facilities sat inside the vast park at the edge of the town. A running track doubled as a velodrome, football pitches nestled inside the track. A grandstand of racetrack proportions was painted white. Nearby an Olympic sized swimming pool was full of leaves, the peeling sky blue paint just visible. You see the recent economic history of Argentina in these places; when newly erected 50 or 60 years ago it would have been a significant investment by one of the worlds richest countries, now the wood shows more than the paint applied decades ago, and the wrought iron playground equipment rusts as Argentina no longer has the money to invest in renovations and upkeep. Nevertheless the population of Belen was out in force, taking full advantage of all the facilities. Lots of plump women admirably put themselves through their paces, sporting tracksuits and carrying water bottles. Cyclists raced in groups, families picnicked at the elaborate BBQs, children filled the swings and roundabouts.
After a long and challenging drive Dean just missed driving into a tree at the centre of the huge car park, sun had blinded him, but it brought rich chuckles from the families sat around the tables. We found spot and set up camp, cooking began straight away and Fred found boys to play football with. We chatted with a few mothers who passed us by, and toasted with Vino Tinto, some ladies who were briskly doing laps. The park emptied quickly at nightfall, the mozzie bites we quickly accumulated told us why. After dinner we retired for an early, and quiet night, sleep. Or not. What we didn’t know, but were to find out several times on this trip, is that Argentinians wake up about 11pm and that is when they start to party. In Municipal campsites. After an hours sleep we were woken by thumping boom boxes, an eclectic mix of rave, rap and Ibiza creating at once a cacophony of sound. We drifted off, and back out of sleep, several times until at 3am everyone had packed up. That was about when the dogs started.
Bleery eyed we set off early, another big drive was planned to San Juan de Jachal. Full of fuel, we picked up homemade sandwiches us from a roadside ‘kiosk’, a window in someone’s house, for breakfast. Our drive was over 6 hours and more wonderful scenery, fortunately the roads were good and not a soul in sight for the majority of our trip. We had intended to get fuel and food in San Juan de Jachal before heading up to a small village, high in the Andes 40km away called Rodeo. Unfortunately, we came mighty unstuck when none of the ATMs would work on any of our cards, and the only fuel station that took credit cards was out of fuel. Marooned, with very limited supplies we found the municipal campsite on the outside of town that was fortunately free. We were down to our last $5 (I’ve had to move to $ rather than pounds as my pound key has given up the ghost on our laptop… apols). Dean had emergency US$ which we would have to come to the bank to change in the morning, we had discovered that at this edge of Argentina not even the national bank ATMs work for international accounts.
Two kiosks sat around the woodland out of town campsite, one alongside the huge swimming pool, empty save rubbish and garden waste. At the nearest kiosk a swarthy toothless man was delighted that we wanted to camp here. His youthful girlfriend, baby in arms, came out to speak to me in English. She was bashful and full of blushes when I told her she spoke good English. He offered to sell me some wine, but I explained that we were fresh out of cash. Not to worry, he plonked down a litre box of white and red wine, $1 each. Dean came back later to get the white, what’s to lose hey? It was fantastic, it washed down our dinner beautifully. Dinner was a mélange of emergency supplies; tinned tuna, tinned asparagus, mayonnaise and spaghetti. We all agreed it was pretty tasty. As I prepared dinner I had the help of 5 year old Loreli and her smaller brothers. They had been playing at one of the tables as their mother nursed a small baby. Loreli was fascinated by our camping stoves and what we were making. She put the salt in my water, opened a tin, and joshed with her younger brother who was wearing our sieve as a hat. She told me about her family, coached me into pronouncing her name correctly (I earnt an enthusiastic handclap and bravo when I finally got it right), taught me Spanish and she learnt English. Sweetly precocious for her age, I ached just a little for a girl like her to complement our family.
Meanwhile the obligatory dogs had turned up. Heartbreakingly we also came across our first puppies. Two fluff balls, no more than 6-8 weeks old were playing and sleeping at a neighboring brick BBQ. Fred was overwhelmed and declared it the best place he’d been to. He set about feeding and watering them, and the plump, full teeted bitch that was with them. Spare flight blankets were pulled from the van and a bed was made for them in their spot. We decided to deal with the flea bites rather than stop the puppies being cuddled and nursed. The bitch stood by as Fred fed the pups and bedded them down. We gave her separate supplies which she wolfed down, clearly hungry. Other dogs stood back from the puppies food, letting the stray youngsters get their fill, we rewarded them with their own bowls. What was remarkable about all this, was the bitch was not their mother. When morning came she was gone but the puppies were still there. Her full teets and belly was her own pregnancy nearing full term. We couldn’t understand why she tended them so well but hadn’t groomed them, they stank and were covered in muck. Fostering them, like the other older dogs on the site, didn’t bring with it maternal cleaning instincts (Nellie still grooms Patch despite him being 3 years old), that may also have stopped her letting us handling the pups. In the morning I enquired at the kiosk about the puppies and was told that they had been dumped at the park about a week before, and no, the bitch was not their mother. We’d been emotional the night before, wondering how many of the pups the bitch had lost, with only 2 left. Now we were heartbroken. Saving grace came in the form of the many workmen on the site clearing the irrigation channels and the stray ‘pack’ that occupied the site. On the BBQ, where we had settled the pups down the night before, under blankets, and with food and water, was an empty plastic sandwich bag. The workmen brought food for the pups too. The big black dog, who had nearly taken the skin off my finger the night before jumping up for food, stood back as we fed the pups in the morning, only growling at them when they cheekily left their full bowl and crossed to give his a try. Stray adults were taking care of the babies that had been added to the abandoned pack. Workmen were bringing in scraps to give the pups a fighting chance. Nevertheless I sobbed my heart out before, and as we were leaving. I wished more than anything that we could take them with us, but we couldn’t. We left the workmen with the bag of dog food and showed them the blankets. They understood and thanked us. Like Smokey and Dusty, the pups will live with us for a long time. We hope they have a long and happy life, free, protected by the pack around them, and helped by the kindness of human strangers.
An antidote to high and deep emotion came when we attempted to get US dollars changed at the bank. We arrived at 9am, the bank opened at 8am, but found that the currency changing hour didn’t start until 10am. Don’t ask. We milled around, rather hungry, but not able to buy anything, with no cash, in this cash economy, we filled up on the ample supplies of water we carry. Eventually 10am came and Dean was already at the front of the queue. It took 30 minutes of Monty Pythonesque procedure for him to emerge with his Argentinian Pesos, acquired at a remarkably favorable exchange rate. Forms had to be filled in triplicate, no one seemed to know what to do with them, passports were photocopied, but no one seemed to understand how to complete the computer process. Just as I was getting worried that we would have to divert entirely, and head inland to a big city, Dean emerged Peso’s in hand. We filled up with fuel, that had been delivered in the night, as we left San Juan de Jachal, and started the 40km uphill to Rodeo. We were much in need of some rural idyll and a restful campsite for a few days. The Municipal one at San Juan had turned into the same rave scene as Belen’s, although I’ve by now mastered sleeping through it, sounds entering and shaping my dreams. Still, clothes were filthy, we’d done too many one night stops without showers and facilities, and we generally wanted to have a bit of a break to recharge.
Windy hairpins, on a less than perfect road, with adverse cambers, inviting a drop off the cliff edge, kept us on our toes and ambivalent about the stunning views. If anything caught our eyes it was the roadside memorials to those who had less luck, or judgement, than we did. They lined the way, pyramid piles of empty water bottles placed by visitors as a glittering memorial. On reaching the top, at 2,500 meters, we were rewarded by the most breathtaking of sights. The vast mountain lake, in the heart of the Andes, was a motionless mirror to the snow covered peaks that surrounded it. Perfect symmetry was before us. We had read in Lonely Planet that from October onwards this is the best windsurfing lake in the world, but it had not mentioned, nor had any other book we had read, the beyond beautiful view. There was not a soul in sight, and we enjoyed it in solitude for 30 minutes. Bull frogs called across the lake from one of the small islands, a massive distance, but we heard them with absolute clarity as they shattered the silence. We moved the van to an outcrop to do a photo shoot for Wicked Campers and ourselves. Stan even seemed to smile. A walk to the waters edge and we found the water fresh, but not icy, despite being fed by the snow melting as Spring came into full swing. Full up on the pure beauty of the views, we followed the road around the lake to Rodeo, of course this brought more magnificent views and sights. Our favorite was a family of 3 Moorhens (or some such), gliding across the still lake, leaving small elegant slipstreams behind them. It was here that we saw the oasis in the high Andes that is Rodeo. Vast Willow and towering cypress trees circled, and filled, the village. Cattle and horses grazed on the lush grass. Although we could have wild camped we had decided that hot showers, after 3 days of unwashed sweating was in order. The tourist info directed us to the only one open and we were rather dubious as we pulled into the ramshackle yard, greeted by ‘Swampy’ 30 years on from the Newbury Bypass protests. Turned out that the campsite was down a lane, through the yard, and as we drove through the avenue of fruit and cypress trees we came out into the most idyllic of dingily dells. In a slight hollow, the wooded haven was circled by a babbling stream, horses grazed, and the snow covered Andes looked down on us. A lovely lolloping chap came and found us, delighted to have a customer out of season. We found a pitch but he urged us to move. He knew his site. He guided us further down and we weaved through the Willows until we were beside the brook, a stone table with seating sat under a pergola with the water running at its edge. BBQ with wrought Iron sinks, shade and speckled warm sun, and perfect views made this his best spot.
Before we set up the tent and camp, we went off to get supplies for the 2 night, 3 day stop. Just up the road a proper corner store beckoned. Smaller than our kitchen, it overflowed with goods of all sorts, yet again everything we needed. Stuffed into this space a butcher oversaw his counter, 2 young men ran around getting goods for customers, and boss sat over his large calculator ready to tally the purchases. A nursing mother also sat in a corner, part of this family business. Per square foot Argentina shops are the best staffed I’ve ever seen. We let the butcher choose our steaks, again we left him wide eyed at how fat we wanted them sliced. Piling up homemade Sausages, half a chicken on the bone, black pudding, and cold cuts made him smile. We let our server choose our wine, his best, $3 a bottle (we took 4). Fully stocked up on veg, olives, dried goods, fruit, and plentiful fine wine all for $60. We let one of the chaps carry our boxes to the van and tipped him for his trouble.
We had lunch at our riverside table, sweet avacaods, fat tomatoes, sharp cheeses, piquant cold meats, and warm fresh bread required a ‘coup’ of vino tinto to wash it down. It was all marvelous and just what we needed. Dean, who had the worst of sleep for 2 nights with the Municipal campsite partying, retired to the cool of the tent for a siesta. Fred had a domestic science lesson; handwashing our entire wardrobe with Mum. He wasn’t bad, enthused by the opportunity to leash hell on an ants nest by the loo block with dirty water. We strung up 2 lines of washing, sun would bleach what we hadn’t been able to scrub out, but at least the dust and sand was gone. Being a school day ipad time was limited so we decided to explore the contents of the river. We soon found it stuffed with freshwater crabs and decided to see whether we could catch any. Fred is obsessed by the idea of joining the scouts and becoming self sufficient when in nature. We found a stick, some of the blue string we use for odds and sods, and sacrificed some of the sausage left over from lunch. The sieve was retrieved as a scoop for any that took the bait. It wasn’t long before we had 2 doing circles in our washing up bowl, full of river water. I left Fred to it, sat on a picnic blanket, looking like ‘Jiminy Cricket’ and sat down to blog.
A perfect afternoon of restful pleasures, satisfied by chores done, was topped off by BBQ preparation. Dean gathered dry wood from around the site, and I got the potatoes ready for Papas Fritas. It was a lovely meal, taken again at our riverside table. We polished off the 2013 we had opened at lunch and decided we needed to see if the 2014 was as good. It was. So good we polished that off too. Satiated all round, sure of no boom boxes appearing on the deserted campsite to disturb our sleep, we made for an early night hopeful that the babbling stream wouldn’t make us want to pee all night. It didn’t.
We passed 2 wonderful nights and nearly 3 days in Rodeo pottering about our site, enjoying its remoteness. Of course dogs had joined us, this time shaggy large wolfhounds. We enjoyed them, relieved that our leaving would not break our hearts again, they were big boys who owned the space around them, and had no need of ‘owners’.
This was to be our final big drive before we crossed The Andes back into Argentina, and we were going to settle for another couple of nights outside Mendoza. It took an uneventful 6 hours to get there. By now we don’t bat an eyelid when a horse and cart, dog following behind, turns onto the motorway…… Dean had found the Termas Cacheuta in Lonely Planet. The largest series of hot baths in Argentina, it had waterslides and waterways that worked through a 5 acre site. The weather had changed as we came into Mendoza, grey and overcast. However up the mountain to the Termas the clouds cleared and the sun shone bright. We found a restaurant opposite the entrance to the Termas who were happy to let us camp. They even had washrooms we could use. It was perfect. Again being low season nothing was open in the evening, however the restaurant had a tiny grocery store attached and the chef butchered us half a chicken. We stewed it in the pot with caramalised onions and carrots. Tinned peas finished it off, and it paired perfectly with buttery mash. We got an early night, ‘Daddy’s Home’ made us howl with laughter in the tent as we snuggled down, in preparation for a full day of water based fun and relaxation.
A cold night, with the whole village of dogs waking for a unified choral rendition in the early hours, was offset by a beautiful crisp morning. An English Breakfast, Argentina style, for Dean and pancakes for Fred set us up for a day of Thermal bathing. Our camp dogs greeted us warmly, even more so when the left over chorizo and pancakes came their way. Keepy uppys kept him occupied until the 10am opening, when we had to make the 50 meter journey across the yard. The Termas was vast, including a mile long river that circled a fountain and wave pool. Indoors we moved between near boiling to freezing pools, joined by all ages. Yet again Fred became a mascot for school kids on a day out. Blonde hair and blue eyes earning a celebrity status, and wherever we went we were greeted with shouts of “Frreeeed”. We lasted 6 hours of water filled fun, by which time I think there was more dead skin than water in the baths….!
A campfire dinner with the dogs set us up for our Mendoza to Santiago trip, thankfully the midnight chorus was less invasive, or we had learnt to tune it out.
We’d already done the journey by bus a month before, but setting off from a different start point brought us past stunning winery’s before we began climbing to the 4,000m border. The road was yet another joyful route for the first hour, taking us past powerful broad rapids that fed into stunning lakes, that we had not seen before. We then joined the final road to the border which we had taken before on our bus crossing. It was a quick and easy journey through The Andes, and we marveled at the engineering that had carved it out. An ancient disused railway accompanied us, a relic of the 1800s, with occasional abandoned train stations in the midst of ghost towns. After 2 hours we hit the tailback of traffic waiting to cross the border. Dean made us sandwiches and we enjoyed the scenery, snow all around us, until after an hour and a half we got to the front of the queue and parked up. We all trooped in, desperate for the bathroom, to do the 5 step crossing process. All our papers stamped eventually we joined the wait for our car to be searched for fruit by sniffer dogs. Relieved of not only fruit, which we had declared, the Chilean food agency also made off with our Salami, Tomatoes and everything we had bought for dinner that night. Our crossing had taken 2 hours, but we were just delighted to be across and set off for the switchback hairpins that would drop us down the other side. Fred acted as a very able co-driver, warning me of upcoming bends using Maps.me, whilst Dean reclined in the back of the van exhausted by the whole experience, chuntering about what Brexit would mean for our European holidays!
We had found a campsite in Los Andes at a restaurant, an hour outside of Santiago, for our final stop. The sun shone brightly as we pulled into ‘El Sauce’. They were delighted to have us, their only camping guests, but warned us that a big party was on for that night in the vast function room. We were invited to join, which was rather tempting, until we discovered that it was 10pm until 6am. We thanked them and declined, knowing full well that by 10pm we would be very ready for bed. We set the van up and then moved to the terrace of the restaurant for a couple of restorative Pisco Sours. They were made by the owner, in his 70s, and were wonderful, topped off with Angustura Bitters which was a first. We are quite the connoisseurs now. The cheery Chef offered to make us dinner at 7pm, a small version of his fare for the party that night. As dinner time neared we were called in to see him preparing an array of meats on his indoor BBQ that would have rivalled that of Henry VIII. Just as it was ready he moved our meats, piled artfully, onto a mini BBQ that would sit on our table. White coals sat beneath the silver serving dish, with the silver top keeping the moisture in. It was a stunning meal; homemade black pudding sausage, belly pork, prime steak ribs, lamb cutlets and large buttered potatoes all cooked on the BBQ. It was accompanied by homemade corn bread rolls, a piquant salsa, salted butter, and a mixed salad of every vegetable you could imagine, including delicious artichoke. By the time we had finished eating the large family of the owner had started to arrive. Martin, an 8 year old grandson, quickly found Fred and they set off to play football on the pitch by our van. We polished off the bottle of local red, chosen by our waiter, until the boys were ready for an ice cream sundae. Full tummies, with Fred worn out by an array of games, meant we were ready for bed before the party started. We drifted off quickly. The traditional Chilean band entered our dreams and we woke in the early hours listening to the fun sounds of 200 people making the most of their Sunday morning. Unlike the thumping boom boxes of rap and rave music, we rather enjoyed the band, drifting in and out of sleep, enjoying the party vicariously without having to leave our bed. Amazingly, when we woke at 8am in the morning, there was not a car left in the car park. Everyone had driven home, and we very much doubted any of the drivers had stuck to Agua con Gas that night. Sunday morning was not a time to be on the road anywhere near Los Andes.
In preparation for dropping off the van the next day, we set about emptying and cleaning it top to bottom. It was a fun day as we pottered through the chores, grateful for the use of the hosepipe provided by El Sauce and the fact that I’d bought a bottle of bleach early in our trip. Martin had come back with his mother and Fred passed another fun day speaking pigeon English and Spanish, granted a pass on helping out. With the van gleaming we rewarded ourselves with a move to the terrace and our final Piscos. By now we were best of friends with the Chef, waiter, and owner, and we were joined by Paula, Martin’s mother. It turned out she was a psychologist working with children in schools and was very excited to learn that Dean was in the same field of work. We managed quite a deep conversation about different schools of therapy, and differing international approaches, using a linguistic mix of English, Spanish and French, helped by the fact that many key words in this field retain their Greek origins. We retired to cook our final camping dinner, with details exchanged so Paula could stay in touch with Dean and connect with international colleagues.
The morning was beautiful and we set off, saying goodbye to the dogs on the site. Fred donated his old trainers to ‘Chico’ who had made them a firm favorite, constantly stealing them from the van. We worked our way through the countryside into Santiago, negotiating the traffic and one way systems, arriving at Wicked Campers with a heavy heart, tears already welling in my eyes at least. With paperwork over Fred and I headed back out to the service yard for a last goodbye. We couldn’t help but lie ourselves against his psychedelic panels and give him a kiss. Over the last month he had taken us through rivers, up gravel mountain passes, bounced over cobbled roads, sweltered through the desert, and snuggled us down. It was because of Stan that my view of Argentina had shifted. Able to get out of the cities into the back lanes and small villages we had found another country. Love for Stan had been instant and justified. With Argentina, it needed a second date and a search for a different side to the big cities. We resolved that we would come back for more and tackle the south, both Chile and Argentina, definitely in a camper, and hopefully re-united with Stan!
Before our mammoth 14 hour overnight flight, also losing 14 hours in time difference, we returned to our hostel favorite, The Princesa Insolente Hostel in Santiago. We got a warm welcome and Fred joined some backpackers in a table football game. Having spent the last few days clearing up left overs and emergency rations, we had the best fast food ever at Fuente Mardoque a stunning retro Chacarero bar (Chacarero’s are the Chilean alternative to burgers); lashings of layered thin steak, smothered in salad, jalapeno’s, mayonnaise, avocado, cheese etc. Washed down with Sprite, it took us an hour to wade our way through. Sensibly we went to sleep alcohol free and with very full bellies.
Our cab picked us up and we had the chattiest of drivers, who spoke no English. Nevertheless, as we have become expert at, we all got to know a lot about each other regardless of language barriers. We had had the most wonderful South American adventure, most of our pleasures coming from unexpected places. The dogs, the wildlife, the landscape, the people, the food, the drink, hot springs, golden beaches, the list goes on and on. I’ve learnt not to judge a place and its people at the first pass, but take a step back and explore a little deeper. We move onto Asia and India knowing that its small towns and villages and not the cities we want to dwell in. The dogs have stolen our hearts in South America above all else. As we embark on our next legs, except the short 10 sojourn in Australia, I have no doubt that hanging onto our hearts will remain a challenge. We loved Brazil and Chile in an instant, Argentina was a slow burn, but I’ll definitely be back for more; next time a bit of southern comfort.
We set off from San Pedro de Atacama, high up in the desert plains, for Argentina with trepidation, at least for me. We had flown into Buenos Aries nearly a month ago and undertaken a three city tour of BA, Cordoba and Mendoza with a short interlude in the picturesque Gaucho town of San Antonio de Arecca. In the cold, gloomy early spring it had failed to capture me. The warmth of Rio and its people gave me an ache, pulling me back. There had been exceptions; a fabulous day at the Estancia in San Antonio where the sun shone bright and we were delighted by the delightful gaucho hosts and other fun filled guests. Our hostel host at San Antonio was wonderfully helpful, but it had felt rather like ‘The Shinning’ in the deserted guest house that was ice cold. Our historic Air BnB in BA was a ‘Colonel Fazackerly Butterworth Toast had an old castle complete with a ghost’ experience. High ceilings, with original French windows, tiled floors, and the original fixtures and fitting may look pretty but with one electric heater and no external vista I was left more than physically cold. Joy in BA came with the aged tango dancer partnering a stunning elfin beauty with timeless elegance, the wonderful waitress in the beautiful restaurant (that served us tourist steaks that did a disservice to all), and the fusion musicians that funked up Tango to our delight. Cordoba and Mendoza brought a richness to us in the shape of fellow traveller; Roberta the Italian beauty who bounced delight and energy into everyone through the sheer force of her personality (Fred might just find an Italian girlfriend after his encounter), and great hostel hosts (Wilhelmina from Brazil, gentle, kind, funny and bringing us all together through a communal meal), and the mixed aged group of men from BA who’s car had broken down in Mendoza on the way back from them watching Argentina play Uruguay and were stranded with us for 3 days. I’ll dwell on them for a bit, with not a word of English we bonded over our steaks that were too much for us to finish off, and the free red wine. Football and Fred brought us together. No doubt in England they would have been Milwall supporters. They travelled to South Africa for the World Cup and went to every Argentina International game, they were planning Russia. A bouncer, mechanic, trade unionist and factory worker we hope that our encounter meant they hated the Brits a little less. We were thankful we had bought Fred a Bojca Junior no 10 Carlitos shirt, it might just have saved us. In contrast to the warmth of some, we found poor service of the careless kind that is just unnecessary, and aloof unfriendliness that raises my hackles. Dean has more empathy, they may be shy, is his response. To my shame I don’t accept this. A smile costs nothing in response to a greeting. A short Spanish looking chap sealed it for me when 3 mornings on the trot he blanked me in our Mendoza hostel. Thinking on it I may go back and write up the 10 days I’ve had little motivation to capture, and search deep in me to find a bit more of Dean inside myself before I do.
To return to the theme, Argentina left me lukewarm (perhaps not quite cold) and as we had travelled through Chile and I was loathe to return. However, the 11 hour desert crossing, which we would have to repeat if we were to stay in Chile, gave me motivation to complete our planned circuit and give Argentina another go. After all this time we would be in a camper and not stranded in cities that had started to merge together. As the Orbital track from the 90’s goes ‘Open your mind’.
Another beautiful journey out of San Pedro to the border crossing across the Andes, 5,000m again, stunned us. We repeated our hilariously bizarre border crossing, moving along 4 glass booths at the border; to check ourselves out of Chile, ourselves into Argentina, to check the car out of Chile, and then into Argentina. Thankfully, despite our van proclaiming the hallucinogenic merits of cacti, we were not required to empty the van and pay a bribe, as is apparently common. The fabulous journey down to Susques was reward enough for our decision to cross again into Argentina. A small town, populated only by the indigenous people, sports original buildings and chapel from the mid 1500s. A hotel, newly established, provided us with lunch, dinner and a place to park up. We bought a bottle of the local red with a late lunch, and being newly abstemious, kept half of it for dinner. Still at 3,500m we were shattered by 8pm and hit the sack not long after. This time we had Chico for company, a bull terrier / Alsatian cross who wore his wind proof jacket over his long fur. Not interested in our manufactured Chilean dry dog food, he nevertheless lay at the foot of our ladder all night.
Midnight loo break showed us the stars were just as bright in Argentina at this height, and we had warmed up to our new country with the lovely care taken of us by the hotel staff. We took the morning slowly when it came, as Fred slumbered on. Dean and I read through the guide books, selecting locations we might linger on the iconic Route 40 that we were taking down to Mendoza, drinking our freshly brewed coffee in the company of Chico. The next few nights were taken care of, Jujy we would skirt, stopping at the thermal baths with free camping, followed by a campsite with waterslides outside of Salta. After that we needed to work our route and timescales to make it back to Santiago in time.
When Fred eventually woke we had a plan in place and set off. We had been anticipating a jaded desert trip for the next few days but the guide books, and annotated maps, had failed to mention that our descent would take us through the ‘Rainbow Valley’. Breathtakingly beautiful it beat the Lunar Valley hands down. I can only think that God got bored one day and picked up a paint brush. The colours defied logic. Sandstone yellow sat next to verdant green, greys, blues, reds and pinks. When we re-read the books the trip is described as the route to Bolivia. Yes, it is, but only part of it. We had turned off route 52 onto route 9 which took us through the heart of this painter’s palette. All the while the sun shone down and the sky was a vibrant blue backdrop. Women sat on the roadside knitting, broad brimmed hats protecting them from the sun, brightly coloured ponchos keeping them warm at the high altitudes. On top of this the cacti were enormous. Dean had been rather disappointed by the ‘Giant Cacti’ promised on the road to the Tatio Geysers, here was delayed gratification. As we dropped down through the ‘Rainbow Valley’ verdant green quickly replaced rocky desert and the route was lined with huge green willow trees. Horses grazed the roadside, untethered. We were right to push on. Lesson learnt.
Horror came in the form of Argentinian driving and highways. We hit a main highway, which had no hard shoulder, and which had huge mounds of surplus tarmac pushed to the edge, but on, the carriage. The first one caught us out, and we flew into the air, crashing down with all our belongings scattered through the van. We modified our expectations, but the drivers around us truly left us in fear of our lives. The Taxi driver who had picked us up in Buenos Aries at night, had driven at 90 mph, in a clapped out car, in driving rain, nose to tail with the car in front. Although it was a hot sunny day, the driving was no different at the opposite end, and side, of the country. Further amazement came when we saw cattle, horses and goats grazing the grass verge along the way. Like the dogs in Chile and Argentina they seem to have more road sense than our car driven children, let alone our captive stock. Occasionally we came across burning grass verges, sometimes a few kilometres in length. No fire engines charging out to tackle it, instead they are left to burn out. So we recalibrated ourselves and tried to relax through the drive.
With only £10 of Argentinian Peso’s we came a bit unstuck as we pulled off the highway and into the village of Villa Jardin en route to the Termas de Reyes, where we were hoping to ‘take the waters’ in an open air pool and free camp. Nearly out of gas (though we carry a full can for emergencies), the gas station didn’t take Credit Cards. Argentina is a nearly wholly cash economy, which accounts for the low income tax collected and the high VAT they levy. Only problem is everyone pays cash to avoid the VAT and as a consequence the majority of transactions must be done with notes and therefore provide no income to the state. We later learnt that flat rate of tax circa 20% regardless of income earnt, has also driven up VAT rates, a penalty on the poor. It’s a country where the low tax burden on the high income groups has resulted in the penalised finding a way around, cash only. We were shocked to learn that some government departments also only transact in cash with their contractors, and sub contractors.
Our need for fuel required us to set off down the road to Jujy, assured by the garage that it was the only place to get cash. Fortunately 2 minutes down the road we spotted an ATM, a quick u-turn and we had avoided an hour long detour. A lady and her parents were selling Empanadas outside the ATM so we bought 6 homemade chicken Empanadas for the grand total of £1.50, giving her £2 and exchanging photos. Back up to the garage for a re-fuel and re-stock in the adjoining corner store. We got a taste of what was to come when shopping in Argentina for the first time here. We picked up some red wine but were told that we really shouldn’t buy that one, and were offered another. A male customer had come into the shop for provisions. He didn’t agree. He went around the counter and brought out another bottle. With us as silent witnesses, they debated which red wine we should be allowed to buy. Once they had settled on a bottle we were presented with it. Fearing we were going to get hit for a £10 bottle, I asked how much it was. Grand total £3.50. We took 2. In need of meat and veg we were directed down the road back towards the ATM. In a fabulously poorly stocked store we found everything we needed. We asked if he had chicken, he came out from a walk in freezer with a huge beast of a chicken, and happily cut it in half and then cleaved it into chunks, still on the bone. Loaded up, and with a full tank, we set up off the hill up to the baths.
It was such a pretty drive up through the valley, and we arrived at the baths hot, dusty, and just a little smelly after 2 sweaty desert days, and a nights free camping. Much to Dean’s delight, and Fred’s, the Termas was an outdoor pool into which hot spring water was pumped. We paid our entry fee of £4 each and joined the families, who had trooped up here after school and work. The bar was open, and the many BBQ pits were in full use, surrounded by ample cuts of beef and bottles of red wine. The water was a wonderful 35 degrees and we were soon soaking ourselves. Fred found a local boy to play football with. His skills were amazing, and at 13 he was more than happy to coach the younger English boy. As Fred passed the next 3 hours between the pool and the homemade football pitch, Dean and I read and lazed, happy to be amongst greenery. Lonely Planet had said you could free camp in the carpark opposite, so I asked at the pool bar. A confusing conversation ensued; no English on the part of anyone, and limited Spanish on mine. I drew a diagram of our bus with rooftop tent to try and clear up our request, but still more confusion. Eventually it turned out the answer was yes, to the original question I had asked in Spanish, which could have been answered with a universal OK. On the other hand I wouldn’t have bonded with the 6 people who gathered to join the novel experience. I left Dean and Fred at the pool and crossed the road to put on a chicken, carrot, celery, onion and parsley pot stew. After an hour of slow cooking it was nearly ready and the boys came back to the van just as the pool was closing up at 7pm. As Dean hunted for the corkscrew a beaten up car pulled up alongside us. A mother, father and son leaned out admiring Stan. It wasn’t long before they were out of the car, Dad with a full cheek of Coca leaves and clearly having had a skin full too, Mum smoking and sporting red bloodshot eyes. As the son, who turned out to be the same age as Fred, got out it was clear that he was suffering foetal alcohol syndrome, or the effects of a bump to the head from the large scar across his forehead. I was embraced by Dad, Mum got into the van where Dean was still rummaging, and the son wandered around in a daze of mental absence. Experienced with drunks, having run a bar for 6 months in a French ski resort, I continuously thanked them for stopping and explained we needed to sit down for ‘La Serena’. Fred who was nervously watching for any light fingered activity, was ushered to the table and I walked Dad to the car. They happily got in and after a few more minutes of salutations they sped off. We tried not to think too hard about an unbelted 10 year old in a car with 2 drunk parents and the driver fresh on Coca leaves. Even more remarkable, he was a geography high school teacher, and would be back in the classroom the next day at 7am on a Tuesday.
Dinner was delicious, as was the wine that the village had selected for us. We settled down early for an undisturbed night, first having moved the campervan behind a row of trees, cautious after encountering the Geography Teacher on a weekday, to guard against fast drunk drivers missing the bend on their way home. Morning brought a glorious day. We had no facilities so headed down to the stream that passed behind our van, masked by bushes and trees. Crystal clear mountain water, and natural pools, invited an icy bath. It was another wonderful travelling experience. Without soap or shampoo I washed head to toe and dried in the sunlight. Refreshed we set off for a campsite near Salta, bracing ourselves for more hairy Argentinian highways and drivers. In San Pedro de Atacama we had met an elderly Dutch couple who had been provided with a campsite guide by their rental company. They had tried the Salta Municipal site but hated it on arrival and headed South to one 15km away. On their advice this is the one we were going to try. We had a lovely encounter with a family from Buenos Aries at the Salta Tourist Info, who after we left came up behind us, overtaking and showing us the road we needed to take. We parted with honking horns and hands waving out of the windows.
We missed the supermarket turn, again, and found ourselves 5km away from the countryside campsite. A small village appeared on our right and we pulled in to see what we could buy. In the carport of her house a woman was running a fruit and veg stand, including, to our amazement, leeks and sprouts. We went in and found a fantastic array of fresh produce. A substantial sale made she directed us around the corner to the butcher. This was our first proper Argentinian butchers experience, for a small village the range was outstanding. Cold meats sat alongside, homemade sausages, and slabs of trip and other offal. One half of his refrigerated counter was dedicated to every cut of beef you could imagine. Dean was determined to do his own ‘Argentinian BBQ’ at the next campsite so we asked him for 3 of his best cuts. An elderly lady, who had also come from the carport fruit and veg shop, was by now sat on the bench in the butchers waiting to be served next. She stood up and discussed with the butcher which of the cuts we should be sold. After some discussion he retreated into a back fridge and returned, smiling, with a huge piece of beef on the bone. The elderly lady nodded in agreement, and he began to take a section off the bone and trim it. He placed his knife to the thickness he proposed, but we urged him to give us a bigger cut each. Eyebrows raised, he did so. We started to dread the cost. No fear was warranted, 3 best cut thick steaks cost a total of £5. We left laden with cold meats, sausages, a half chicken butchered into pieces still on the bone, and half a dozen eggs. He threw in, for free, a large slice of an unidentifiable cold cut, the elderly lady enthusiastically nodding and telling me what to do with it. Not a clue I’m afraid. But later at lunch Dean enjoyed it cold, though I declined it I’m afraid. Our final stop was across the dirt road at the shop that sold dry unperishable goods. We let them choose the wine, £3 a litre, and finished our grocery shopping. Yet again local shopping had provided great goods and wonderful insight into a small village life. The people had warmed us, and my reticence about Argentina was fading fast.
As we took the country lane for the last few kilometres we passed countless horses and a man trotting down the road trailing a couple of small ponies. Pretty, compact, dusty, Estancias lined the lane, dogs lazed in the middle of it, we were clearly meant to go around them. We turned into the campsite and were greeted with the fabulous sight of a waterslide, and then the anxiety provoking sight of coaches and hoards of children. Were we going to be crushed by no availability in this low season? I jumped out of the van, to the sound of boom boxes and a swimming pool full of joyful high school aged kids, and went into the office. The most beautiful and elegant of women greeted me. Long luscious black hair, framed a delicately featured face that was lightly, but perfectly, made up. Of course we were welcome, and she was sorry about the children, they would be gone by 6pm as they were on a day trip out. She showed us where we could park and asked if there was anything we needed, she was going into the city later and would happily get us supplies. A wonderful welcome. Dean found a spot we liked and we set up camp. Stan, yet again, was the source of much amusement and curiosity to the kids. It was the teachers, fag in hand, who approached us to admire him, the children more cautious. Fred changed into his swim gear and we brewed some coffee, ready for a relax in the shade from the sun. Next to us the most enormous of speakers had been placed, as they were around the many enclaves that different groups had set up, and Argentinian dance music blared out full blast. We rather enjoyed the festival atmosphere. The kids had various tasks in their year and subject groups, one of which had been to create a huge canvas art work. The fabric 10m x 10m was stretched between trees, secured at 4 corners. Dean went over to admire and take pictures. A couple of kids picked up the courage to come and talk to us, in Spanish of course. Where were we from? Where had we been? They were amazed at our trip. A group of three beautiful teenage girls giggled with us, and with sweet beguiling voices whispering their admiration. What we were doing was, apparently, beautiful and magical. The Latin based words suited their profound view of our trip. We take for granted what we are doing, and it’s when others, who don’t have this opportunity, and who may never leave their city let alone country, respond to us that we are reminded just how lucky we are.
Chicken and leek casserole, cooked slowly in a white wine stock, simmered for a couple of hours. As I washed the leeks the owner who was in consultation with her plumber at the outdoor sinks, wanted to know what veg it was and what I was cooking. I can recommend a game of vegetable based charades as great fun. Hand gestures to show that they grew above the ground, and the use of ‘blanco’ and ‘vert’ to describe the colours and they finally nodded and agreed that it was indeed leeks. I described what I was cooking and that it was a slow pot dish, and she jokingly asked if she could join us for dinner. The plumber wanted to come too. Meanwhile Dean had got into conversation with one of the Chemistry students. Excellent English on his part meant Dean learnt all about the group and their day out. Lorenzo was clearly the most studious and committed of teenagers. He had the ambition to become and engineer. Dean told him about our ALMA visit, their discovery of proteins containing sugar in space, and the work they were doing on black holes, and he was amazed. He promised to go on their excellent student website. They parted Facebook friends, and with an offer to him that we would host him if he ever got to come to England.
At 6pm the kids started to depart. As they did so more of them got the courage to approach us, after a couple of hours of observing us. The many vast stereo speakers were carried by 4 people each to their buses, and others came over and tested out their English, that was about as good as my Spanish. The surly became sweet, dissolving quickly into giggles as they took it in turn to ask us questions. Fred was made to take off his sunglasses so they could coo at his blue eyes, they beckoned others over to see them, marvelling at his combination of blonde hair and blue eyes. When they had finally gone, chased up by the chain smoking teachers, Fred decided we needed a family swim in the freezing pool. At the pool there was another smaller group of older kids, that turned out to be 6th formers from Buenos Aries on a week long trip to work with under privileged children at a local school. From wealthy families, speaking excellent English, they did not have the shyness of the other group of kids that had just departed. We were quickly surrounded and the English teacher made to come and speak to us. Much to my shame I was mostly obsessed by the fact that I was stood in my bikini sporting a full complement of untamed, natural hair, surrounded by perfectly groomed teenagers talking to a rather dashing fully clothed English master. I beat a retreat, using the casserole as an excuse, feeling I’d done a disservice to English women, forging a reputation for them that German women used to have in the 80s.
After his swim, Fred got his football out. By now tattered by regular climbs to 5,000m, causing over inflation, followed by drops to less extreme altitudes. A dunking in the lake, which fortunately had a breeze that brought it to the south side after 15 minutes, only worsened its state. Satisfied by assurances that Pele would have played with a similarly deflated and split ball, he practiced his keepy uppys. Soon he was joined by a group of the BA teenagers on the football pitch next to our van. We got out the wine and had supper, deciding he could have his later rather than spoil his fun. When they had to go in for a school session they promised another game tomorrow and Fred went to bed a happy boy, 16 and 17 year olds who want to hang out with you are pretty much the coolest thing in Fred’s world. I was also roundly told off for being embarrassing when I had said it was his ‘Beddy Time’. Not cool.
We woke to a warm but overcast day. Cooking, washing and blogging occupied us. Fred had his usual pancakes, for Dean I cooked the huge sausage that was in one piece, with massive tomatoes, and eggs. Two young workmen clearing the site of rubbish from the school trip the day before had a chat as they passed. Now 11am I made them up a plate to share and took it over with cutlery and napkins, explaining that this was a traditional English breakfast. Argentinians, and most South Americans, take coffee and 2 small croissants only to start the day. When they returned the plate, spotlessly clean, they were full of praise. The kids had left on their buses to work at the school and Fred managed a straight 5 hours of football practice, with a bit of reading and spelling to round off his home schooling. Dean got the BBQ lit at 3pm, starting the long and precious process of producing white hot wood ash to cook our steaks over. Everywhere you go, parks, campsites, schools, homes etc have the ubiquitous brick BBQ, many with chimmneys, all with 2 sections for different parts of the cooking process. The potatoes were sliced, salted, parboiled, and soon ready for frying. Timing meant that Fred’s dinner had to be delayed past ours, we didn’t want him to miss his last night of fun with the teenagers on the football pitch, and we enjoyed dinner for 2 over more lovely Argentinian red. The steaks were fabulous as were the chips, fried onions and grilled tomatoes. We felt very pleased with ourselves, and rather full. Washing up at the sinks soon brought out the rest of the teenagers that weren’t on the football pitch with Fred. Dean found himself surrounded by a very earnest group who were intent on talking geopolitics with a psychoanalytical approach. I decided to leave him to it as it looked as though he was in it for the long haul. With the company of a bottle of red I continued my blogging with Pink Floyd on my playlist. A delightful girl wondered over and asked if I was ok with Dean being cornered elsewhere, I thanked her for her kindness and assured her he was a big boy and would extricate himself if he wanted to. I think he rather enjoyed his status guru for the night. Amongst the introvert Argentinians he has found his inner extrovert. We were finishing the night merry just as our beautiful hosts ‘friend’ came over to say hello. Although nearly midnight we had a further hour amicably discussing Argentina, its history, Las Malvinas, tax laws and corruption. Because he had worked as a kitchen porter in England, including for the Royal Navy in Plymouth, language on his part enabled us to explore themes usually beyond us. His parents had ended up in this Northern part of Argentina to escape the military dictatorship in the 70s & 80s. Left wing, they were vulnerable and had been tipped off that they were to join the ‘disappeared’, so they disappeared before they could be ‘disappeared’. As a child his grandmother had scolded him harshly for asking what the word ‘communist’ meant, such was the potential impact of someone hearing him utter it. Unlike someone we had met in Cordoba, he assured us that the numbers that had ‘disappeared’ were 30,000 and more. It was an enlightening conversation and we enjoyed his company, enquiring curiosity, and openness with all the subjects we discussed. It also showed us, yet again, what we miss when we’ve not taken the time to learn the language of the countries we’re travelling in. Best get myself a Thai book in Australia……
We set off in the morning for Route 40, the purpose of our trip through Argentina, having had a lovely break. Hot showers, great company, peaceful location had been restorative. Our beautiful hostess came to take pictures of us and Stan for her website. I later found out I was still covered in cold crème that I’d plastered all over my face in an attempt to get some moisture back into my weather beaten skin – typical. She warmly embraced me as we said our goodbyes. What a lovely person who has made a wonderful refuge full of warmth.
We followed the Maps.me app, which quickly took us onto a gravel track. Fortunately it was just a bridging road, and after passing more small houses and estancias, we emerged onto a main road, albeit deserted. The rest of our journey to Route 40 was free of the crazy driving we had previously experienced. We zig zagged Westwards through small towns and villages finally arriving at the start of Valles Calchaquies. Just like England, narrow lanes split the lush grass, rows of variegated green trees and cowslip. To add to our sense of home, it began to drizzle and the mist came down. 50km before we had been in arid grassland now, as we ascended one of the most beautiful drives, we were in deep fog with rain for company. The winding road turned into tight hairpins that climbed steeply, soon it was a gravel track, then the gravel track became a deeply grooved one over which we bounced, or rather slid. For 20 km we climbed and then descended, all the while with no visibility at all. We took a few pictures of the foggy road for posterity. Once over the other side we burst into bright sunshine and verdant lush valley had become pink sand and giant cacti, all in a matter of a few miles. The dirt track became a perfect highway and we breathed a sigh of relief. Once across the giant cacti desert we emerged at Cachi. A beautiful indigenous town of adobe dwellings that was augmented in the 1500s with colonial architecture. The population is 90% indigenous and we caught on film an old lady sitting in the square singing a tribal song with the wonderfully squeaky voice of a 2 year old girl. We had lunch and went into the church. A dog lay amongst the pews, enjoying the cool of the stone floor ignoring the few visitors. Refreshed we set off on Route 40, which we had finally hit, for Cafayete 290km south. New tarmac had brought us into Cachi, but as we left it we were quickly back on creamy gravel. Stan does not possess bed spring suspension, nor upholstery you would wish to spend the night on. For 290km we shook and rattled along, bums and thighs sweating on the pimpled plastic seating. Not only did we have to contend with the bumpiest of rides, but also this national highway became a single track, Dean artfully slid his way around blind bends that rose and fell in one swoop. Much to our amusement, every now and again, a sign signalled that care should be taken. Every kilometer required care to be taken, with not a crash barrier in sight and vertical drops all round. Dean re-familiarised himself with the horn, which took me back to my childhood and Dad beeping his existence on Cotswold lanes overflowing with thick hedgerows and cowslip. Pleasure came in the form of the untouched communities we passed. This is still the countryside of subsistence farmers that settled on a route forged by traders centuries ago. It was trampled down by donkeys, and the donkeys remain, now wild, scattered and grazing along the road for us to see. It was Sunday late afternoon as we made this drive. All along the route families sat out on the porches and dirt patios under the shades made of cactus wood. Outdoor clay ovens smoked, and the plump colourful chickens that had escaped the pot, for today at least, roamed free. Of course dogs were everywhere, as were horses. Llamas started to appear, and as we made our way further south they became as frequent as the goats, sheep and other animals we had seen. There were few cars, we passed maybe 10 in 290km, instead scooters and horses kept us company. Most scooters were loaded with a family; baby at the front, Dad holding the handlebars, toddler behind, Mum bringing up the rear. Not a crash helmet in sight.
10km outside of Cafayete the dirt track miraculously became a brand new tarmac road. Two lanes, yellow lines in the centre, and curbs. Bliss. A local event must have been going on in another village, gouchos on horses, families loaded up on the back of flatbeds, police on bicycles were making their way home to Cafayete. We also got to see acres of vineyards, as promised by our wine merchant friend James. Absolutely shattered we headed straight for the municipal campsite 1Km out of town. We were pleased to see other vans, one German and one Swiss, and quickly got parked and set up for the night. Of course the obligatory street dogs soon arrived. Our heart was stolen this time by ‘Alberto’ a huge shaggy blonde thing. Long matted hair, not unlike mine at the moment, and a sore on his leg, with the most beautiful amber eyes. He asked for our love without shame and we fell instantly in love with him. We got the dog food out and made a water bowl, and he made his bed in the most inconvenient of places, just outside the sliding van door. That was that, he’d chosen his pitch just as we had chosen ours. Thereafter we had to step around him everytime we needed to get into the van. After a tiring journey we decided not to cook but stretch our legs with a walk into town for dinner. Fabulous local food, and the local wine did the trick. We came back to Alberto still laid beside the van, but soon up, with his paws on Dean’s chest, and a tongue in his mouth. He hasn’t lost his touch with the blondes. Midnight loo breaks found Alberto fixed to his spot. In the night dogs or people must have approached, we were woken by Alberto seeing them off. In the morning when we got up we were all greeted individually by him, Fred lovingly knocked to the floor such was his size.
With wifi on the campsite we decided to have a lazy morning and catch up on social media and contact with family. Martin, with the swiss plated VW Westie, joined us for coffee and cigarettes. With perfect English he told us about his 4 years on the road with his wife. At 45 he gave up working as a senior manager in a Paper company after having to make redundant someone he really liked and respected. They had sold everything to become travellers. We wanted to know about his Central America experiences, they’d travelled safely and cautiously through El Salvador and Honduras which have the highest murder rates in the world. We listened to him for an hour, enthralled at their experiences. He could imagine never going home and being a permanent gypsy, his wife couldn’t. It was a great conversation. I went over later with our contact details and he gave me their card. I was tickled that the German couple they had met up with after a previous encounter, and Swiss couple were enjoying a proper ‘Frustuck’ of cold meats and cheeses, deep in Argentina. I suppose it’s not much different to us keeping up our cooked breakfast tradition on the road.
Before we left we said goodbye to a clutch of dogs, aside from Alberto, a chocolate whippet with a overbite lower jaw, protruding needle teeth, and tiny amber eyes pulled at my heart. Terrified of being touched she hungrily took our food at a safe distance of one foot. The water was lapped up thirstily. I sat, at her comfortable distance, in the dirt with her. It was however Alberto who was our Cafayete dog. Like others we desperately wanted to take him home. If Dogs look like their owners than this was Dean’s.
Argentina has surprised us. Perhaps because in our first encounter the weather, cities, and people were more reticent and drab than those that came before or after. However, in our van, and out of the urban drudge, we’ve come to love a different Argentina. It moves through sprawling desert, jaw dropping geology, verdant greenery, and mountainous peaks more quickly than any place we’ve been before. Argentina needs to up its marketing, it rivals Chile but you just don’t hear about the North East the way you hear about San Pedro de Atacama. The people too have delighted us. Friendly, warm, kind and accommodating. More introvert maybe than the Brazilians and Chileans, but it’s a shyness not an aloofness, I’ve found my inner Dean. So I started with trepidation and a bit of resentment, and I ended up wanting more. And more we have had, but that will have to wait till next time.......
For me this trip is all about having a great adventure with my family. Its taken years for us to finally stop talking about it and do it - simply because it both excites and frightens the life out me! So I'm stepping out of corporate life, where I singularly failed to achieve a work/life balance....to experience different cultures and spend time with those I love xx