Saturday 27 May 2006

Mendoza Province: Rugby at last!

I've finally managed to get some rugby onto the scene. Well, back in early April I saw probably the world's most southerly rugby club ground, in Ushuaia but no action. I met up with my 'uncle' Gustavo, who played in a first tier club in Argentina - obviously, it runs in the blood. He's now coaching his club's first team, Teqüe, in Mendoza.

What an awesome set up they have there! They've just moved their ground... actually, they've just bought a large piece of land outside Mendoza city, where they will have 3 rugby grounds and 1 for hockey (for the girls, women don't play rugby here, really). They have a brand new club house and a large parilla out the back, where they cooked a chivito (goat)... yum. They're going to build 84 houses around this area for the mutual owners of the land.

Well, on to the rugby. I was invited to coach their U13s but Gustavo had forgotten there was a tournament on so the kids would be playing. No problem. I watched them for a bit before tucking into the barbeque along with the directors of the club. I met an ex-Puma player and his brother, who plays for the Pumitas, the U21 national side. Both members of Teqüe. The Pumitas head coach was also there along with a director of the UAR (Union Argentina Rugby). All the players have just resigned over pay and conditions so they're scratching their heads about what to do, with the Welsh coming over for a couple of tests in a few days.

Later, the 1st team was playing. The match was between the two as yet unbeaten sides in the Cuyo (the area containing the Western provinces, just north of Patagonia) league: Teqüe v Marista. Unfortunately, by the end of the day, it was the oppo who remained unbeaten. Too much turnover ball at the breakdown meant that good attacking platforms were lost. I could almost hear Old Street coach Bailey groaning about body positions going into contact. First tackles were also missed, allowing the oppo to get behind and score a couple of tries. The final score: 3-20. I'm looking forward to next season, although I'm still not sure if I'll be in the UK. It depends on what happens with my MBA applications...

Sunday 21 May 2006

Mendoza Province: Malargüe

PayuniaA small town in Southern Mendoza province. Apparently has 22,000 inhabitants. I don't think more than 22 of them are actually resident. There is not a lot happening here. It's the short off-season, when there are just a few summer travellers around before the skiers arrive mid-June. On the second night I have a 4-person dorm room to myself.

I want to do some trekking. Feeling itchy for action. But it's not going to be possible. They've made the interesting bits into Reserves so you can only visit with a 'guide'. I really want to go into Payunia, where there are between 700 and 2000 volcanoes, depending on who's talking. A horse ride would also be cool. The guide books and the excursion agents' windows make reference to 3-day rides but they don't happen in the off-season. So I take the only possible option, a full-day excursion in a 4x4. And that was pretty hard to come by. I decide to move on to San Rafael day after tomorrow.

Payunia turns out to be a very strange landscape. The whole area is covered in a black, or occasionally red, grit, like the old athletics tracks. Occasionally there are large boulders that have been spewed out by the volcanoes. There is next to no vegetation, just some yellowed grass. Apparently in the spring/summer, it's very colourful when the grass is flowering. It's like nothing I've ever seen before, completely different to the Andean mountains and entirely unrelated in their development. I take a lot of pictures and hope that some will turn out well.

Just outside the reserve it's a little different. The area around Malargüe was 4 times a sea. The 200m year old peaks surrounding it have been eroded into smooth lumps. There is a lot of oil here and YPF, the former national petrol company, is pumping out a lot from the area and undertaking further exploration.

I have just one real question for the 'guide'. Why are there so many volcanoes in the area? He couldn't answer it. Apparently no one has asked the question before. The 'guide' in the other land rover gets tetchy. He says that's what people are trying to understand. That's why there are studies going on. I thought there must be some theories but I didn't ask. I could see he didn't really know much about it and was agitated.

In the hostel, I met a French guy, who was travelling around on a moped. He called it a motorbike but I think the engine was barely a 1-stroke, 1cc. A little lawn-mower engine attached to a push bike. Interesting chap. He was working for some socialist organisation in Europe and was writing reports on economic conditions in Argentina. He was a little sketchy on the details.

And that was Malargüe.

Thursday 11 May 2006

Buenos Aires: the first few days

My knees are knackered. I need to take a break. But what I really want to do is go running round the park in Palermo, right by Expedition HQ (parents' flat). The weather is unseasonally beautiful. T-shirt weather. So I take it pretty easy the first couple of days. Just wandering about, catching some sun in the park and taking advantage of the great exchange rate to make some cheap purchases. CDs, especially, are a steal. New releases, almost up to date with UK, are just 30 pesos. That's £6.

My PC is also knackered. Picked up a nasty spyware thing in the UK, which I thought I'd sorted out. Spyquake looks like a legit programme but it installs itself onto your machine and is very hard to remove. I had to do a ton of stuff to stop it blinking up on my screen telling me to pay up and upgrade. Eventually I succeeded. Seems it was hiding something else, though. My PC won't boot now. It doesn't detect the hard drive. Ouch. That's a serious problem, which I'll deal with when I'm back in London. All my contacts are on it. A lot of my work, including CV etc. Fortunately my MBA applications are on a USB stick.

I went round to see my grandmother for the first time in who knows how many years and my aunt, my mum's sister. It's great being able to reconnect finally with this side of the family.

And I also went to the cinema one night, at midnight, of course. Nothing happens early here and I've plugged straight into the way of life here. I'm not sure how Proof was received in the UK but I wasn't too impressed, A Beautiful Mind for chicks, basically.

All the time, I'm planning, planning, planning. First, making arrangements for my interviews with IMD and INSEAD. IMD is now postponed to June 30th. I'll be taking a short trip to Lausanne for a day-long interview. INSEAD gave me two contacts in the UK for the interviews but are now sourcing alumni in BA instead. Anyone who thinks we're not plugged into a global, wired world should look at my experience of applying and setting up these interviews. I've submitted applications in a number of different forms (asp, word, html online entry) from places as far apart as London and Ushuaia. The interviews, meanwhile, I'm coordinating through a mixture of email and phone, making the time difference almost an irrelevance.

Second, the rest of the trip. Well, basically, 3 destinations, I've decided. West: Mendoza; NW: Salta and Jujuy; NE: principally Iguazu Falls.

Did a few touristy bits, like taking a look at the Casa Rosada... think the White House but pink. Puerto Madero, the BA docklands, is great, with appartments apparently fetching US$500,000. And unlike the London Docklands, it's very easy to get to and there are lots of places to eat and drink so it stays alive at night and through the weekend. The cow exhibition that passed through London is now here. But to be honest the tourist attractions don't do all that much for me. I want to get to know the city more like a porteño, someone from BA, not a tourist passing through. And for that I have largely have the benefit of Leo, the friend I made in Ushuaia...

Sunday 7 May 2006

The End of the Patagonian Adventure

Musician at El Jarro, BarilocheMy last day/night in Bariloche and Patagonia. I was determined to make it a good one. I was going to take Nico (F) up on his suggestion of going up to Refugio Frey for the day, enjoy the short trek and have a look around. As it happened, the weather was grey this morning, so I decided to skip it. It cleared up in the afternoon, so I had a bit of a wander around enjoying the sunshine.

I popped down to the internet place to check up on emails and found that while I had been up in the mountains, both IMD and INSEAD invited me to interview. Woohoo! Definite celebrations tonight!

Later, I went back to the hostel and sat down in the common room chatting with some of the guys there. A young lad from Dorset, Brandon, challenged me to a game of Scrabble... he'd lost just yesterday to a Dutch guy, so I didn't think too much of it. Rightly so. He then got beaten by the Dutch guy again.

Getting lateish, Brandon and I went down to the supermarket to get dinner. He was on a tight budget tonight so opted for some crappy food. I went for a prime cut of steak etc and a nice enough bottle of wine, a Norton Roble Malbec. That went down a treat.

We decided to head out for a few drinks later, along with the Dutch guy and one of the two Germans. Given that nothing happens before midnight at the earliest, we sat down to watch Terminator 2.

12.30, we moved out to El Jarro (means something like 'the tankard'). What a great, little place! Almost entirely full of Bariloche locals plus a couple of Italians in the corner and someone claiming to be from Buenos Aires behind us. An old chap was sitting at the front strumming his guitar, singing Argentian folk songs. This isn't Morris dancing pap. And he was very good. Later, he was replaced by a couple of slightly younger guys playing the same kind of music. Well, the night flowed on, so did the Quilmes and when the munchies came on, we starting ordering rounds of delicious meat empanadas.

Brandon revealed possibly the most ridiculous tatoo ever. He claimed it was a joke, the result of some bet: plastered across his belly, in gothic characters was 'Extreme!!'. He turned out to be anything but extreme, flinching at the slightly warm empanadas. By 2am, he was under the table and crawled home.

Around 4am, 3 Argentian guys came in, one wearing a River shirt. Along with Boca, River is one of the two top football clubs here, based in BA. They sat at the table next to us and we were soon chatting and taking the piss out of River, just because he was wearing the shirt and his friends were too. Soon enough we were best of mates. Mr. River was talking away to the German guy, both of them fully aware that he couldn't understand a word of Spanish.

They ended up paying for nearly our entire bar tab plus a whole load more empanadas. The night cost us around 30 pesos between us. At some point after 5am, the music finished and we headed out. On the way back, we decided to drop into a nightclub. I was walking ahead of the Belgian and German, with the 3 locals. When we got to the door, the doorman turned us away. We walked on, then turned and noticed the two other guys walking into the club. So we went back and asked why they'd been let in... apparently locals weren't allowed. I managed to get in after that.

I have no idea what time we got back to the hostel. It was light, so after 7am.Needless to say, I woke up late. About 1.45pm. My flight was 2 hours later. Quick shower, pack, pay and jump into taxi to the airport. Familiar story.

That's it for me and Patagonia on this trip. Sniff. Onto other adventures. Buenos Aires, next.

Thursday 4 May 2006

Nico, Pisco and the other Nico

Nico, Refugio Meiling, Mt TronadorPisco is basically a Chilean (and Peruvian) colourless brandy made from muscat grapes. Mixed with these ingredients...

3 Glasses of pisco
1 ½ Glass of sugar
2 Glasses of lemon juice
White of an egg
Shaken ice
Add drops of Amargo Angostura
(Dash of Cinnamon on top) you a pisco sour, the national drink of Chile, although Peru claims it too.

So why am I writing about Pisco when I'm no longer in Chile? Actually I didn't even try it in Chile. But it does join my very short list of mixed drinks that I will be happy to drink, including
  • Old Fashioned
  • Mojito
  • Caipirinha
  • G&T (obviously)
  • Cosmopolitan
  • Rum and ginger ale
  • B52s
So I've joined an excursion to Pampa Linda to go see the stunning Mt Tronador up close and personal. The bus no longer runs there, this late in the season, so this is my only option. The plan is to head over the Paso de las Nubes and take a close view of the mountain from all sides in Argentina. The 'International' peak itself is right on the border of Argentina and Chile. The guys at Club Andino in Bariloche (CAB) tell me the route is open but I'll need to take a tent. No problem with that.
But when I get there, things aren't quite as planned. First the excursion has dawdled along stopping to take pictures at all the favourite spots so it's much later than planned. Second the people at the Gendarmeria Nacional tell me the way is closed due to water, fallen trees and all sorts of other problems.
Change of plan. I head up the mountain to the Refugio Otto Meiling right between 2 glaciers on the mountain. They tell me the refugio is open. It's stunning up there. The sky is completely blue, making the view fantastic.
When I get there I find the refugiero doing some end of season work to the building to make sure the winter, snow and wind don't destroy it. He looks at me, seeming displeased. I quickly work out I'm the only customer tonight and he's fuming that they haven't told him someone's on their way up. He likes everything just so. The place is immaculate and in far better order than the other refuges I've seen. But he's very unfriendly. So I decide to get my book out, eat some food and wait for dark, then catch an early night.
Later, he puts the kettle on to make mate. Well, he couldn't possibly drink mate by himself when there's only one other person there. So I get the impression he's mellowing out and going to invite me to join him.
I pop out to the loo. When I come back, the kettle is off the boil and he's holding a bottle of what looks like vodka. Actually, it's pisco. And he asks me if I'll have one. He makes an entire cocktail shaker of Pisco Sour. Meanwhile he rants about the state of the APN, which takes care of the National Parks. There was supposed to be a guardaparques at the bottom of the mountain but he'd gone off somewhere. And he is supposed to let the refugiero know that people are on their way up in case anything should happen to them. Back in November, two tourists died. It's not a difficult walk but these things can happen. When I tell him that the Gendarmeria had stopped me going over the Paso de las Nubes, he suggested that it was all lies about the route. Just to stop me going. Too much hassle keeping tabs on a tourist.
A friend of his is due to join him this evening for some wine and a steak. They both happen to be called Nico and run refuges. The other runs the Refugio Frey, on Cerro Catedral, near where I passed on the Nahuel Huapi Traverse. For ease they are Nico M (Meiling, where I am now) and Nico F (Frey). Nico F is running late so Nico M gets the first bottle of wine out of his impressive cellar (half way up a mountain). A great bottle of Escorihuela Gascón Sangiovese from 2001. This is one bodega I'll have to visit when I go to Mendoza, where it's located.
When we've polished off the bottle (that's after we've had the Pisco Sour), Nico F arrives. We've moved on to the 2003 Eschorihuela Gascón Syrah. And when that goes we have the 2004 EG Cabernet Sauvignon and then the 2003 Malbec. It's gone 5am, we're pulling stupid faces and taking stupid photos. Definitely time for bed. I want to get up at dawn to take pictures of the sunrise over the glaciers....
I wake up at 11.30. It's a beautiful, sunny day. I open the curtains and a condor flies past. Well, I guess I missed sunrise. I have some coffee and bread for breakfast, but first get some pictures.
Around 2.30 we have a big spag bol, then Nico F and I head back down the mountain. He's going to give me a lift back into Bariloche. There is no other option, given that my excursion was a day tour and returned the same day. I had intended to get a boat back from the end of the Paso de las Nubes walk.
In the end, I had a stay in the refugio, a huge amount of drink plus lunch the next day thrown in. All free. More important, it turned out to be good fun. I was very impressed by Nico M's entrepreneurialism. Essentially he's a concessionary in the property owned by CAB. It's up to him to make as much money as he can from customers. Well, I guess he didn't make a lot on the night of 4th May but he runs a good ship and invests in areas that will make good returns and keep customers coming back, as many do, judging by the visitors book.

Tuesday 2 May 2006

Chilling in Bariloche

Well, I've found myself the perfect daytime haunt in Bariloche, a café bar on a street corner, aptly named La Esquina. It's a lovely little place serving coffee, lunch, drinks, dinner. Locals meet here and the occasional tourist crashes the party.

I sat having dinner here last night reading the history of the Rugby Club de Bariloche. It is the inspirational story of the the club's stuggle not just to bring itself together and survive but to get a whole league under way in the Lakes district, to keep rugby alive and develop it. I have such a strong urge now to play, coach or just watch a game. Might be one on here before I head back to BA on Sunday. Or I could find a game to watch in BA probably more easily.

Today is Bariloche's birthday with festivities planned throughout the day and the rest of the week. I picked up a copy of El Andino, a local freesheet, which details everything that's going on. Amongst the processions, football matches and musical performances, at 2pm today there will be a hot chocolate in the Town Hall.

As I sit here, I see the name Herbert Read on a book in the café. I knew his grandson at school. I can't remember the relationship to Piers Paul Read, although I know that Piers went to the same school and wrote 'Monk Dawson', apparently about my housemaster (made into a film by another old boy, a few years ago). Piers is also the author of 'Alive: the Story of the Andes Survivors'. It's a book about a plane crash in Patagonia and the survival of the passengers by eating the remains of the dead. The story has twice been made a film, most recently 'Alive!' in 1992, I think. Meanwhile, I picked up a copy of Bruce Chatwin's 'In Patagonia', translated into Spanish, which is very entertaining reading.

The weather is due to continue unseasonally fine for a few days. So tomorrow morning I'm heading out to Pampa Linda to get a closer view of Mt Tronador and do a 3-day trek to Refugio Otto Meiling up by a glacier on the mountain, then the Paso de las Nubes. I think I'll go and watch the procession now, then sit on the lakeside beach.

Monday 1 May 2006

Bariloche: Nahuel Huapi Traverse Day 3

Refugio Lopez, Nahuel Huapi, BarilocheI'm heading all the way back today. There is the option of staying at Refugio Lopez, about 1.5 to 2 hours from the bottom but I don't see the point of breaking the day up like that. There's another option of leaving to Colonia Suiza, a short, direct route along the valley floor but that would be cheating. And anyway, I had decided back in London that I wanted to go the full route via Lopez, seeing as it's my mother's maiden name. Bailey was staying at the refugio on the basis that it would save him a little money, not having to pay for a night's stay in Bariloche.

I brew a nice mug of coffee, eat some biscuits and bread and wish that I'd brought a more substantial breakfast. Today's route, though, is supposed to be easy. Slight climb to go over into the next valley. Long descent. Bit of a climb over the next pass and an easy gentle descent to Lopez.

Actually, the first ascent is a bit treacherous with lots of loose rock. No problems with the descent. Then the climb starts. I have a quick read of the guidebook... a climb up a steep gully with loose rock making it slow going and slightly dangerous. And so it was. Some of the time I thought the rocks sliding beneath my hands and feet were moving faster than I was going up. There are way markings but they don't help here. As the rocks slide, the route changes. So several routes are marked out and conflict with each other. I decide to make my own way up.

I get to the top. A condor glides over to check if I'm still alive. Ahead of me is a view to the vast Lago Nahuel Huapi and Bariloche. Behind me is an amazing view to Tronador and over into Chile. Stunning. The wind's blowing hard and cold but I spend about 15 minutes trying to get a couple of good shots.

It's already 2.30pm. I was expecting to have reached Refugio Lopez by now and be starting my walk to the end. The bus leaves Colonia Suiza at 5.45.

The descent is way tougher than expected. It's a clamber not a saunter. My muscles and joints are aching from the constant pounding of each step down. My feet are sore from treading on to hard rock. I'm running out of water. Dehydrated and tired, I get to the refuge some time after 4.00. I take a quick snap of myself on my phone. I look a wreck. I drink a whole litre of water then try to eat. The salami, cheese and slightly stale bread don't go down easily. The apple's welcome, though.

I get chatting to a guy from Bariloche, who's walked up with his young daughter on his back, since it's such a beautiful day. Today is 1st May, which here is the Day of the Worker, a holiday. He offers me a lift into town, which I accept. First, though, we have to get down to his car. He's carrying a knee injury, I'm carrying a corpse. My own. We walk down fast. I think we're somehow pushing each other on. Or we both just want the pain to stop. Meanwhile his daughter is just enjoying the ride and the view all around.

The hot shower, back at the albergue, is beautiful. I've picked up: a small gash on my forearm from slipping on a wet log bridge; bruises and cuts on knees from bashes against rock; a bruised elbow, don't know what from; a massive bruise on my hip, which I think is from the slip on the bridge; and a bit of a tan on my face and hands. The hair on my thighs has been totally rubbed off. Looks very strange. I promise it isn't shaved: I haven't used a razor in weeks. Quite a beard I`ve grown.

Dinner. Smoked venison. Steak with a delicious mushroom sauce and chips, along with a big tomato salad. A nice big bottle of Quilmes to wash it down.

And so to bed. Lazy day tomorrow. I contemplate my next options. I'd had the idea of doing a 2-day trek by Tronador, with a 1-day extension taking me into Chile. I could then take a boat to the start of another 2-day trek. I've got just about enough time to do it. But does my body want it?

Footnote: I've written out an Australian couple from this story. They're the first people I've met on my travels that I haven't wanted to know.