Local Experiences in Morocco

There is no denying that Morocco is a splendid country, complete with mountains, desert, ancient medinas and pretty, colourful towns. However, I quickly grew tired of the way people always seemed to be after your money and, as a white, blonde female, I seemed to attract a large number of hecklers. It was therefore a pleasant surprise when I met Moroccans who, rather than attempting to take my precious pennies, showed great kindness and generosity, so I decided to write this article as a way of saying thank you to them.

Me in the picturesque town of Chefchaouen

Me in the picturesque town of Chefchaouen

My first positive local encounter was with a group of men who were trekking to the Akchour Waterfalls near Chefchaouen. I too was heading to the falls with my Aussie friend, Michael, and a couple, but the couple seemed intent on powerwalking there and continuing on to God’s Bridge, a rock arch a little further up. Michael and I preferred to take our time and walk in a more laid-back fashion, so we were very pleased when we found this lovely group of Moroccans to accompany us. The group was made up of six guys, four of whom had travelled from Oujda and who’d met the other two separately in Chefchaouen. We ambled along, speaking a mix of English and French (and a very small amount of Arabic) before arriving at the waterfalls, where a few of us braved the icy waters. After that, we sat and drank mint tea at a small wooden table and smoked some hash, before enjoying a delicious vegetable tagine, courtesy of another man who had taken the initiative to bring all the necessary ingredients and utensils to the riverside and make a fire to cook over. We stayed there for about an hour before beginning the trek back down to the base, where we each exchanged contact details and agreed to stay in touch. The two guys who had been on their own before joining the group had the decency to pay for our meal, so we offered to take them out for dinner that night. Despite our best efforts, the most they let us pay for were their drinks, however one did ask if he could have Michael’s boxer shorts, which he certainly wasn’t expecting!

Chilling by the waterfalls

Chilling by the waterfalls

My second encounter was with a guy named Mohammed, who had contacted me via the marvellous Couchsurfing website. He invited me to spend a couple of nights at his family home in Taroudant, where he, his mother, father, aunt, grandmother, three sisters and brother lived, so it was pretty cosy to say the least. This was a true cultural immersion, which enabled me to see how a typical Moroccan family lived, and I found it very interesting. The family practically all slept in the same bedroom, all ate out of the same bowl at mealtimes and used their hands rather than knives and forks, even for cous cous (that’s no mean feat). Their toilet was a squat toilet and their shower was simply a large bucket, which they filled with warm water and a smaller bucket, which they used to pour the water over themselves. They fed me well and told me I could stay for as long as I liked, for which I was very grateful. In return, I made them chicken soup and helped the kids with their English homework. Mohammed did sort of propose to me, and the family seemed keen to marry me off to their son and convert me to Islam, but those were offers I chose not to accept (surprise surprise!) I decided after the second night that it was time to move on to my next destination, the lovely coastal town of Essaouira.

Eating cous cous with no cutlery

Eating cous cous with no cutlery

It was in Essaouira that I had my third encounter, with a guy named Chalek, who owned the hostel I was staying in. He really took me under his wing, showing me around the town, taking me to the beach, informing me of the best place to experience a local Hammam and introducing me to his friends. Over the next couple of days, we cooked, ate and smoked together then, when it was time to leave, Chalek walked me to the bus station and told me to get in touch when I arrived in Marrakech, as he was due to be going there as well. In a busy, chaotic and rather overwhelming place like Marrakech, it was such a relief to be accompanied by a local, who could keep the hecklers at bay and show me what lay beyond the touristy Jamaa el Fna sqaure. Moreover, Chalek was just such a pleasure to be around, with his warm, infectious smile and boundless energy; he was certainly the best Moroccan that I met on my trip.

The wonderful, smiley Chalek

The wonderful, smiley Chalek

When the time came for me to return to the UK, I found myself wishing I could stay a few extra days, as I’d just started to get used to the madness of Moroccan life. However, it’s nice to know that if, or should I say when, I choose to return, I have several friendly people that I can call upon to meet up with – thank you to you all!

Velatropa: A Hidden Eco-Village in Buenos Aires

There were many occasions during my time in Buenos Aires when I just felt the need to get out of the city and spend time with nature, something which wasn’t always easy to do. During a particularly bad period, after losing my first job and being kicked out of the apartment I’d moved in to just ten days earlier (long story), I decided I had to find an escape. A simple Google search for nature reserves lead me to discover Velatropa, an eco-village hidden behind one of the campuses of UBA, where a small community resided.

A sunny day in Velatropa

A sunny day in Velatropa

Velatropa was started by students from the urban design faculty in 2007 and is now dominated by young porteños and travellers, many of whom sleep in tents and treehouses. Members of the community live off what the city throws away and there are several permanent eco-buildings on-site, including a meeting space, library, art studio and kitchen. I was fascinated by this concept and eager to visit the community to find out more, but I’d heard it was rather tricky to locate, so I decided to tell a few friends about my new discovery and hope they’d join me on my mission to find it.

The eco-village's playground

The eco-village’s playground

It wasn’t actually until a few months later that we finally got round to visiting this intriguing place, but we certainly chose the right day for it, for the sun was shining and it was lovely and warm outside. We had printed a map and directions off the internet, but still struggled to find Velatropa after getting off the bus; all that seemed to lie before us was a large wood with a few odd signs and bits of material. Once delving a little deeper, however, we came across something that began to resemble the pictures I’d seen and noticed people wandering between the trees in the distance. It wasn’t long before we caught up with these people, who introduced themselves and welcomed us to Velatropa.

Helping out with the gardening

Helping out with the gardening

Some of the community members had been there only a few days, whilst others had been living at Velatropa for years. They showed us around their eco-village and explained what everything was and why it was there, along with the different ways in which they each contributed towards its development. We sat with them chatting and drinking mate in the sunshine, then spent a short time helping them out with some gardening. They told us they hold a series of workshops, whereby they teach others how to make art from waste and build structures using discarded materials, amongst other things. Towards the end of the day, they asked if we’d like to take part in a ‘sex education’ workshop, which sounded interesting so we thought “why not!” and went along with it.

Chilling at the winter solstice festival

Chilling at the winter solstice festival

The workshop was basically a conversation about sex (in Spanish) that resulted in everyone giving each other massages, which was a bit odd but also quite amusing. Gradually, the sun began to set and the air turned cold, so we headed back to the centre of town, bidding farewell to our new friends. A few weeks later, I discovered that a winter solstice festival was taking place at Velatropa, with food, music, and more workshops (woohoo!) This time, I dragged a different group of friends along and we explored some more, stumbling upon things I had missed the first time round and chatting with new members of the community.

Being silly in the big tree hammock

Being silly in the big tree hammock

At one point, I spotted a giant hammock hanging high between two trees, with a rather sketchy rope ladder leading up to it, and decided it would be fun to go up there with some wine and watch the madness from above. People were dancing and playing drums beneath us, young children ran around freely and wafts of marijuana continually drifted through our nostrils. Then came the vegan dinner – no idea what it was, but it tasted good! After that, we decided to leave Velatropa, this time for the last time; we could have stayed and slept in the trees, but our comfortable beds were beckoning (plus we’d run out of wine). If, like me, you find city life rather suffocating at times, it’s worth taking the time to find places like this- who knows how many Velatropas there are dotted around the world…

Dancing to Balkan Beats in Eastern Europe

After spending a week in Slovenia relaxing on stony beaches along the coast, cycling to salt plains and exploring caves and castles, my friend and travelling partner Jess and I felt we’d got everything out of this country that we possible could. There was one exception, however – we were yet to experience any nightlife. It was our last night in the picturesque town of Piran and we were sitting back, watching the owner of our hostel and his father play music together, chatting to two Dutch girls who were telling us about their time in Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital. We were due to head there next, so I asked if they could give us some advice on where to go out and they told us about this place called Metelkova, an abandoned military base that comprises several bars and live music venues, which put on different events throughout the year. It sounded intriguing so, upon arriving in Ljubljana, we dumped our bags at the hostel, went for a quick meal then decided to check it out for ourselves.

Jess and I in Piran

Jess and me in Piran

I’m not sure why, but we both felt slightly apprehensive as we approached the place, and had agreed that we’d just go for a couple of hours, then head back to the hostel- I had to catch a flight to Vienna at 8am after all. Once we were there, however, that feeling completely disappeared. Metelkova was a playground for adults. Literally. There were swings and slides, people drinking, chatting, singing and playing various different instruments, as music blared out from the surrounding bars. In the queue at one of the bars, a guy turned to me and asked, “Do you speak English?” The next thing I know, I’m sitting at the top of a climbing frame with him, his Kiwi mate, Jess and a group of Slovenians, who were offering their weed around. We sat there and chatted for ages, observing our bizarre surroundings: old, brightly-coloured buildings, whose walls were covered in graffiti and mosaics, trippy sculptures of mutant babies and giant body parts, plants growing in empty oil drums and all sorts of other weird and wonderful things.

One of the many odd art installations at Metelkova

One of the many odd art installations at Metelkova

At one point, I ventured into one of the bars to use the toilet, where I encountered an array of sweaty people dancing to this mad style of music that I’d never heard before (I later learned it was Balkan music). I couldn’t resist joining the madness and it was just minutes before I too was caked in sweat from dancing so frenetically, but it was such fun that I didn’t want to stop! The others eventually joined me and Jess described the scene as ‘a barn dance on acid’- I couldn’t have summed it up better myself. We learned that there’s no particular way to dance to Balkan music, you just go for it and do your best and keep up with the quick tempo (see video below).

After almost two hours of dancing with just the occasional break, we were absolutely exhausted and ready to wave farewell to Metelkova. By this stage, we’d accumulated several locals, who had joined our little group and who tried to convince us to stay on to play a game of poker with them. Seeing as I had to catch my flight, and now didn’t have any time to sleep beforehand (so much for the ‘couple of hours’…), I politely declined and returned to the hostel with Jess. There was a minor drama involving my bus to the airport, but luckily I made it to Vienna and caught a bus straight to Bratislava, where I’d planned to spend the next couple of nights. Upon entering the hostel there, I spotted a poster advertising a Balkan beats night in a club called Dunaj. My eyes lit up. A quick nap, plate of pasta and pint of Kofola later, I was set to do it all over again.

'Barn dance on acid'

‘Barn dance on acid’

Highlight of Slovakia: Zdiar

Located at the base of the High Tatras, the tallest range in the Carpathian Mountains, is the picturesque village of Zdiar, which is the oldest Tatra settlement. With its decorated timber cottages, surrounding cliffs and thick woods, and verdant hiking trails that take you up into the mountains, this has to be one of the most beautiful spots I discovered on my trip to Slovakia. However, my favourite thing about this village, and the reason I came here in the first place, was the wonderful Ginger Monkey Hostel, where I spent four nights. As a solo traveller, it’s essential in a place like this to find likeminded people who make you feel like part of the ‘family’, and the Ginger Monkey certainly has that family feel to it. On my first night, I was shown around the hostel and upon entering the kitchen, an array of smiling faces looked up at me and welcomed me in, before asking if I wanted to share their beer and delicious home cooked food- an offer I could hardly refuse! That night, we sat up till the early hours playing numerous daft drinking games, which had me in stitches (and I wasn’t even drinking).

The view from the hostel

The view from the hostel

Over the course of the next few days, we went on lengthy hikes, swam in lakes, visited the beautiful Slovak Paradise National Park and spent ample time enjoying the sunshine and views of the mountains from the hostel’s terrace. The sunshine vanished altogether on one of our hikes though, when we were just half an hour from the peak of a mountain and the heavens opened, torrential rain drenching us all. Unfortunately, nobody had thought to bring a jacket or a waterproof and, as we’d heard there was no shelter at the top, we resorted to turning around and walking back the way we’d just come, a feat which proved difficult due to the bad visibility and slipperiness of the slope. Everybody just took it in their stride though and, despite the fact we were all totally freezing, we were immediately able to see the funny side.

Before we all got rained on...

Before we all got rained on…

My last day was possibly my favourite; it began with another hike, this time with uninterrupted sunshine, along an exceptionally beautiful trail that led to a place where you could go luging on a rail. For a mere €8, we were able to purchase three goes on this crazy virtual luge, whizzing through the woods faster with each turn – that certainly brought out the kid in me. We then took a (considerably slower) chairlift down the mountain and hopped on the bus to take us back to Zdiar. By that point, I was starving, so I returned to the traditional Slovak restaurant we’d visited the night before and ordered the beast of all meals: roast pork knuckle, Zdiar’s local delicacy. Words can’t even describe how tasty and immensely satisfying that dish is… I can feel my mouth watering just thinking about it.

Luge!

Luge!

The day only continued to get better, with us returning to the first part of our morning hike and walking back up the hill to get a prime view of the town and its surroundings. With snacks and beers in hand, we sat down on the grass and watched the sun set behind the mountains- a truly spectacular sight. Near the foot of the mountain, there was an old, abandoned hotel, which had had us all intrigued since we’d arrived and we thought it might be fun to check it out at night. In an attempt to spook one another, we switched off the lights on our phones and lit a candle, before setting it down on the floor and writing eerie messages in the dust around it. I began telling a ghost story, and was almost at the end when out of nowhere, we heard footsteps and saw a figure appear at the window with a torch (at this point I genuinely was a bit scared!) The figure turned out to be a policeman, who wanted to know what an earth we were all doing in an old building that hadn’t been open to the public in years and demanded that we get out immediately. Once again, we all saw the funny side and luckily, so did the policeman (once we’d assured him we wouldn’t be returning).

Sunset behind the mountains

Sunset behind the mountains

It was back to the hostel after that, for unsurprisingly, there wasn’t exactly much nightlife in Zdiar; the previous night, we had gone for a couple of drinks in the one bar that stayed open past 10pm and had been the only people in there. The barman, who had made continuous hints that he wanted us to leave, was instead forced to watch us get up on the table and start dancing, something I’m fairly sure he’d never before witnessed in his bar! Still, he didn’t object and we all enjoyed ourselves immensely for the short time that we were up there.

Dancing on the table

Dancing on the table

The following morning, I was up early and back on the train to Bratislava, a lovely scenic train ride, during which I reminisced over the fantastic four days I’d spent in Zdiar. If there was one piece of advice I could give to anyone travelling to this part of the world, it would be this – don’t just city hop. So many people visit Eastern Europe and go from one capital city to the next, never branching out or bothering to look at what else each country has to offer, meaning you miss out on all the hidden gems. I’m very glad I found out about Zdiar and the stunning Tatras Mountains and would highly recommend a trip here to anyone. If you stay in the Ginger Monkey, please send them my love and give their gorgeous dog Wally a big pat from me!

High Art

This collection of drawings named ‘high art’, not because of the quality of the artwork, but because everybody that contributed towards it was high at the time, began at the Rainbow Gathering in Mexico. I was absentmindedly doodling after smoking from an earthpipe (you’ll have to read the article to understand what that’s about) and suddenly became aware of myself drawing a dog doing a poo. This made me chuckle and, when asked what I was doing, I explained to those nearby that I was drawing because I felt more creative after smoking weed. Before I knew it, everyone wanted to have a go and, by the end of the day, I had several highly entertaining sketches in my notebook. It was interesting to see where people’s minds travelled in this state, so I began asking people all along my travels to draw something when high. This was the outcome…

My sketch (dog pooing in the corner)

My sketch (dog pooing in the corner)

My drawing is just a mumbo-jumbo of whatever shapes my brain decided to tell my hand to make (in other words, it’s totally meaningless).

 

Sketch number 2

Sketch number 2

The second addition to the notepad was drawn by the guy sitting next to me at the time, who couldn’t explain what it was, but kept insisting that it had to be shown this way up.

 

Naked fairy

Naked fairy

This has to be my favourite, another fellow rainbow gatherer’s picture of a naked fairy sitting on a mushroom and pulling the moon down to earth. Brilliant.

 

DON'T GET TESTED

DON’T GET TESTED

No idea why this particular girl felt so strongly about this…

 

Octopuses y autobuses

Octopuses y autobuses

This came about because I was in a restaurant in Playa del Carmen with a friend singing ‘octopuses y autobuses’ repeatedly. He then decided to draw an octopus on top of an autobus, with Mexico above. The thing in the bottom right-hand corner is the chocolate volcano we had ordered. It’s upside down because we’d been waiting what felt like an eternity for it. It all made sense at the time.

 

Shroom sketch

Shroom sketch

This was in Villa de Leyva, the day after we took mushrooms (the guy was high on weed, not mushrooms). He wanted to inform the world that it was ok to consume these funky fungi, as long as you did so with respect to the pachamama.

 

Legs on a hammock

Legs on a hammock

When relaxing on a hammock in Medellin, I asked my friend Will to contribute to my art collection; he simply drew what he saw in front of him.

 

Life is a book

Life is a book

Couldn’t agree more with this quote. I also like the fact that Nico, a South African I met in Paraty, drew his name in a tiny car at the bottom.

 

Speechless

Speechless

This spiral with eyes was drawn by a guy I met in El Bolson. The funniest part was he spent AGES working on it and, when he finally turned it around, we were presented with… this.

There were many more high sketches, but these are my favourites. Next time I go travelling, I’ll be sure to take a plain pad without squiggly red lines in it along with me.

Why Argentina is Wonderful (and Istanbul is not)

I eventually managed to tear myself away from the magnificent country that is Argentina, where I spent sixteen happy months in the company of some very special people. Although admittedly I was growing tired of Buenos Aires, which made me want to leave the entire country, as soon as I began travelling round the north, I was reminded of why this is such a great place to be. It was my final month and I wanted to make the most of it, so I booked myself on a train to Tucuman, which sits right at the end of the line (a good 30 hours from the capital). On the way I befriended an old lady, who taught me card games and shared her coffee, and we chatted almost non-stop. Then, upon arrival, I hopped straight on a bus to Tafí del Valle, a pretty little town surrounded by mountains, where I stayed for three nights. Over the course of those days, I met a guy from Amaicha, another nearby town, who showed me around on his motorbike, several students from La Plata, with whom I visited the Quilmes Ruins and two brothers, one who owned a restaurant next to my hostel and the other who played there in pen̄as every night alongside a friend of theirs.

Walking over the Quilmes Ruins

Walking over the Quilmes Ruins

Having had such a good start to my trip, I didn’t think it could get any better, but I continued to meet more lovely people, who showed a genuine interest in getting to know me and spending time in my company. Cafayate was next, where I spent a couple of nights with a friendly girl named Flor and Alvaro, one of the brothers from Tafí. We watched the World Cup matches together, explored the town and its surroundings, cooked, sang and danced non-stop in the local bars. One day, we drove through the breathtaking Quebrada de las Conchas and made a stop at Alemanía, once a thriving railway town, where now only approximately ten families reside. It’s quite a spooky place, and the people living there aren’t used to receiving foreigner visitors, yet they too were extremely friendly towards us. Overall, my time in Cafayate was fun-filled and I have many fond memories of this special and unique place.

The residents of Alemanía

The residents of Alemanía

Throughout the trip, I encountered several musicians and began travelling with two of them, Leo and Mariano, along with a Dutch girl named Rose. The four of us walked, talked, laughed and ate delicious meals together, and each night the boys played Blues songs, which Rose and I would sing along to. I was in my element; music, food, stunning natural scenery and the best company I could have asked for. It was perfect. Sadly though, all good things must come to an end and, after a few weeks of hopping from one tiny town to the next, it was time to return to the big city. However, I decided to return to Tafí del Valle, the place where it all began, one last time along the way, accompanied by Leo. On the first evening, Leo and Alvaro played together in the restaurant and wowed the diners, who were clearly more accustomed to hearing Argentine folklore than Blues songs. We then spent the rest of the night jamming and one thing I’ll never forget is hearing the two guys and Guito, the other musician, create an incredible song out of nowhere, which they played for ages while I simply sat and listened in amazement.

The awesome foursome: Leo, Mariano, Rose and me

The awesome foursome: Leo, Mariano, Rose and me

Although I wasn’t particularly looking forward to being in Buenos Aires once again, I was very happy when, on my final night, several of my closest friends in the city came to an asado that I’d organised. As well as sharing a delicious meal and several glasses of wine, we reminisced over what had been a truly wonderful year and I was given some touching gifts, such as a personalised Argentinian flag which they’d all written messages on. Leaving was tough, as I had to say goodbye to a number of people that I really love, but I knew that I was returning to people I love back in the UK too.

My last night in Buenos Aires

My last night in Buenos Aires

Unfortunately, a not-so-enjoyable experience was to follow: flying home. Not only did I have to endure a lengthy stopover in Sao Paulo but, when it came to catching a second flight from Istanbul, I was informed by the airport screens that all flights had been delayed by approximately eight hours due to a storm. Groaning with despair, I rushed over to the helpdesk in an attempt to change my flight, but clearly everyone else had the same idea as the queue was endless. Still, I stuck it out, though the whinging and complaints made by other passengers, the rudeness of the staff and the overall negative vibe made it practically unbearable. Fortunately I was able to change flights, which was just as well, as my original flight was later cancelled. We all had to wait in a stuffy waiting room as the new flight became gradually more and more delayed and, despite being extremely tired, I was determined not to fall asleep for fear of missing the darn thing. Typically though, as I trudged from Gate 301, the original boarding gate, to Gate 225, which was literally at the other end of Atatürk Airport, I managed to drop my passport without even realising, until I’d almost arrived. In a state of panic, I began screaming at the nearest security guard that he HAS to help me find it, as I’ve already waited an eternity for this flight and now, as it’s finally ready for boarding, I have lost the crucial document. He simply tells me to ‘try the information desk’, and so I run there, sobbing helplessly and receiving patronising comments from the people I run past, only to discover another epic queue. This time, I simply barged to the front and, to my utmost relief, saw the passport lying on the desk. With that, I grabbed it and continued running. Despite the odds, I did eventually make it to London where, just to top it all off, I was informed that my luggage has been misplaced… an absolute quilombo, as they say in Argentina. However, two nightmarish days of travelling was all worth it for the two unforgettable years I’d spent abroad.

Back in the UK!

Back in the UK!

So that is why, in my opinion, Argentina is so wonderful and, although I am extremely happy to be back, I know I will miss that country and its people every day until I finally have the chance to return.

Overcoming obstacles to reach the salt flats

The salt flats in Bolivia are one of the world’s most striking natural wonders and the highlight of the country for many of its visitors. As I was already travelling around Argentina’s north, I thought it would be a shame not to hop across the border into Bolivia and see this magnificent spectacle for myself, which my travel buddies, Rose and Leo, were more than willing to join in with. It turned out to be quite an adventure…

The magnificent trio

The magnificent trio

The adventure began in the small town of Yavi, which sits just fifteen minutes away from the Argentinian border town, La Quiaca. The events of our first night there were truly serendipitous; we were hoping for nothing more than some warm food and a good night’s sleep, but shortly after dinner, two men entered the little posada and introduced themselves as Juan and Jorge from La Quiaca and Villazon (the Bolivian border town) respectively. They came bearing guitars and red wine, which they poured into glasses for each of us, before sitting down to play. As the wine flowed, the more passion the two men put into their singing and playing, and we were treated to a truly wonderful song that they’d composed themselves, which they performed twice (upon our request). Leo and our other friend Mariano picked up their guitars too, and the evening soon transformed into one of music and merriment. Juan and Jorge even promised to return the next day to take us to Villazon, so we could continue our journey in Bolivia.

Juan and me in Yavi

Juan and me in Yavi

Unfortunately, Jorge fell ill and Juan advised us he wouldn’t be able to take us across the border after all, but he did take us to a restaurant for a wonderful asado in La Quiaca, followed by a dark, dingy bar, where Leo once again performed for those present. It was a strange place, but I liked it, as it was devoid of tourists and the locals couldn’t have been friendlier towards us. We decided at the end (after yet more wine), that it would be best to begin our journey into Bolivia the following morning instead. It was easy enough getting to Villazon, where Leo almost lost his guitar after leaving it at customs, and from there on to Tupiza, one of the smaller, more peaceful Bolivian towns nearby. However, we had some trouble moving on from there; strikers in Uyuni, where the salt flats are located, were blocking the road, making it impossible for any cars, buses or trains to enter. Needless to say, we found ourselves stuck in Tupiza for a fair few days. Eventually though, we were able to book ourselves onto a 4-day tour with two American girls, as the tour guides had managed to find an alternative route, much to our delight. Our problems did not end there though.

Leo and his guitar

Leo and his guitar

Day 1 went according to plan and we managed to fit in a heck of a lot of driving, passing some spectacular sights, such as rock formations Quebrada de Palala and El Sillar, and llamas and alpacas grazing at the Awana Pampa plain. Despite the fact it was winter, the sun was shining, but it was still extremely cold and windy. However, I discovered a whole new meaning of cold when we arrived at the (extremely basic) accommodation that evening. We were in the middle of nowhere at extremely high altitude and the ‘windows’ were essentially just rectangular holes in the walls. After we’d piled on the layers, we sat huddled around hot cups of tea, which we kept refilling simply to keep our hands warm, before gorging on hot soup. Still, we were far from warm. That night, each one of us struggled to sleep, I even woke up on several occasions because I was struggling to breathe and felt dizzy from the lack of oxygen- my body wasn’t used to this!

Lovely llamas

Lovely llamas

Day 2 was by far the most dramatic and had to be cut short, due to a tremendous sandstorm. As we drove through the mighty Atacama Desert, the sand was coming at us with such force that it chipped the windscreen. At this point, our guide, Jonar, began to grow concerned and put the jeep in reverse, informing us that he was doing so because the rear windscreen was sturdier than the one at the front. We each exchanged worried glances as we reversed into the violent storm, but Jonar remained calm and continued driving slowly until we were out of there. Fortunately, we made it to the accommodation in one piece, but it was just 2pm and there was absolutely nothing to do. Besides, it was freezing cold once again.

The beautiful stone tree

The beautiful stone tree

On the third day, we were able to continue our journey and I was blown away by how drastically the scenery changed time and time again over such a short distance; one minute you’re gazing out at a red lagoon, then you’re passing a lone rock formation in the shape of a tree, then all of a sudden you’re face-to-face with dozens of flamingos. It was quite remarkable. Our final stop was the salt hotel, located just alongside the salt flats themselves, but the salt we saw wasn’t white; it was brown. At this point, we each began to feel rather deflated, for we hadn’t come this far simply to stare at dirty salt. On the plus side, it was a bit warmer here, and we each got given a glass of wine with our dinner that night- every cloud…

iHola!

iHola!

Fortunately, our final day did not disappoint. We got up at the crack of dawn to watch the sun rise over the amazing stretch of salt, which, in the light of day, looked a lot whiter. Admiring its beauty surrounded by tall cacti and just a handful of other tourists (most hadn’t woken up in time), this moment had to be the highlight of the entire tour, and just confirmed that it had been worth making the trip for. We spent the rest of the morning frolicking about on the salt and taking silly perspective photos, before having lunch and laughing about all the obstacles we’d overcome to get to our final destination. Believe it or not, we faced yet another on the journey home, when we had to take an alternative route once again after witnessing several vehicles get stuck in sand! All in all, it was an exciting, albeit at times frightening (and consistently bloody freezing) experience.

Sunrise above the salt flats

Sunrise above the salt flats

An ambitious bike ride

I’m not a city person – far from it in fact – so living in a city the size of Buenos Aires, where the pace is quick, the traffic relentless and the noise and smell at times unbearable, I’d often find myself longing to be somewhere rural and remote; I certainly got what I wished for on this particular occasion. It was August (winter time in Argentina) and I was itching to do something different with my weekend. I began browsing the BsAs weekend getaway section on Couchsurfing and spotted something about a bike trip to a small town in the provinces, where the plan was to camp and enjoy some time out of the city. Without hesitation, I got in touch with the guy organising it all and he said I’d be more than welcome to join. My next step was to try and obtain all the things I didn’t yet have but needed for the trip, such a tent, sleeping bag, roll mat and bike (everything basically). I borrowed a sleeping bag off a friend, a rather dodgy bike with no gears from one of my colleagues and a tent from Julian, the guy at my local sandwich shop, who I bought my lunch off every day. After packing a small bag, stuffing a Tupperware box full of sausage pasta and buying a few other snacks and drinks, I was ready to go.

En route to Lujan

En route to Lujan

It all started well, as the sun was shining and everyone appeared to be in a good mood. I knew nobody, but then quite a few other people were in the same boat, so it didn’t really matter. We first boarded a train with our bikes from Retiro, Buenos Aires’ main station, to Lujan, which is approximately 60 miles away. It was my first time on a train in Argentina and I was amazed at the way they functioned; the doors didn’t close, people would just hop on and off without the train really stopping, and everyone was drinking and lighting up cigarettes and joints- it was awesome!

The bike ride

The bike ride

Upon arrival in Lujan, we all took a few pictures of the town and its impressive cathedral, before hopping on our bikes and beginning the journey to our destination. It was a beautiful bike ride, but on this useless, gearless bike and with all my stuff on the back, I found myself getting rather tired. Hours passed and we’d barely taken a break, but we had to keep going, as it was beginning to get dark and we were worried we wouldn’t make it to the campsite in time. There was another minor issue – we’d lost Lucas, the guy with all the maps and information, as he’d gone back to accompany a friend who was struggling with the pace. Unsurprisingly, we got lost but, by some miracle, we stumbled across another campsite in a town called Capilla del Señor and were told there was enough space for all of us to crash. Once we’d all put up our tents, we lit a big fire, made some mate and laid all the food we’d brought with us out on the table, which got shared and passed around (my sausage pasta went down a treat). There was whisky too, naturally, and plenty of weed to go around. I was beginning to relax and enjoy my surroundings as, even though it was freezing cold by this stage, we were in a peaceful spot beneath a star filled sky, which was about as different from Buenos Aires as I could have hoped.

Dinner at the campsite

Dinner at the campsite

My mood changed for the worse though when I eventually went to bed, for I was exhausted but knew I was going to get no sleep once it occurred to me that I’d brought along a lightweight sleeping bag and forgotten about the mat. I can safely say now that it was the coldest I have EVER been, colder than when I was camping along the Inca Trail, colder than the tiny room with a broken heater beside the Great Wall of China, where the conditions were also fairly frosty. I spent the entire night shivering and checking my watch every five minutes, simply waiting for the sun to rise so I would finally return to a normal temperature. To make matters worse, my muscles were aching like crazy from all the cycling.

The beautiful Capilla del Señor

The beautiful Capilla del Señor

The following day, the majority of the group wanted to continue cycling but Lucas and his friend, who’d finally shown up, said they’d prefer to spend the day relaxing in the sunshine. A guy that I’d been chatting to a fair amount, whose name was Gaby, also decided to stick around, so I thought I’d join them. Besides, it was Sunday so I had to return to the city that night. After much walking, talking, sunbathing and meat eating, we slowly made our way to the train station (if you could even call it that) to catch a train back to Buenos Aires. This is when the picture of an idyllic weekend in the countryside that I had in my mind started to turn sour… we waited and waited, only to be told that all trains departing from the station that day had been cancelled because the conductor simply hadn’t shown up. None of us had the money to pay for another night’s camping, or to buy a proper meal, so we sat at the station eating crackers with cheese and drinking box wine. I began to see the funny side, and suggested we took all our stuff and cycled round the town, thinking it could be quite entertaining in our tipsy states (and it was). We stumbled into a bar at one point, scrimping together the last of our pennies to buy a beer each, then eventually made our way back to the station to set up ‘camp’ at around 2am.

Attempting to stay warm at the train station

Attempting to stay warm at the train station

The next morning was even worse than the previous one; I woke up tired and achy once again, this time with such a bad hangover that I was sick all over the train tracks. With no food, no money and no idea when a train would finally show up, our only option was to remain at the station and hope for the best. Finally, after approximately five hours, Lucas spotted the unmistakeable outline of a train in the distance, slowly making its way towards us, at which we all began rejoicing. We had just boarded and slotted our bikes into place, when the conductor marched up to us and insisted that we get off immediately, as bikes were not permitted on this particular train. I could hardly believe my ears and began protesting in my broken Spanish, but he clearly wasn’t in the mood to argue. At first we refused to move, but the other passengers began to complain, so we reluctantly took our possessions and disembarked the train. In a moment of blind rage, I threw my bottle of water at the conductor and yelled something rude at his back, as the train gradually pulled away. We were screwed.

Waiting for the train...

Waiting for the train…

The only way to get back now, or so we believed, was on our bikes, though it was already getting dark. However, just minutes later, we managed to find a man with a truck and, after a small amount of pleading, he agreed to take all of us, plus our bikes, to Lujan- it appeared our luck had changed. The journey still seemed to take forever, mainly because we were all hungry, thirsty (should never have chucked that water) and desperate for a shower. We made it back to Retiro at long last though and I cycled home through the city on my dodgy bike in the dark, struggling to keep my eyes open. Thankfully, I made it back in one piece and, after a decent meal and shower, I crawled into my bed, with a newfound appreciation of the city.

All aboard the rescue truck!

All aboard the rescue truck!

Pugs Not Drugs: A Surprise Invitation in Colonia

Last November, my mother and stepfather flew out to Argentina to see me which, after almost a year apart, was a very welcome visit. I had composed a three-week itinerary for us which included a weekend in Colonia, Uruguay, as it’s such a charming little town and is just a stone’s throw from Buenos Aires. Our first full day in Colonia consisted of exercises on the beach (the mother’s request) followed by a bike ride along the road adjacent to the beach. Back in the centre, we had the pleasure of stumbling across a small and very homely restaurant owned by a delightful old man, who presented us with an equally delightful menu featuring mouth-watering fish and seafood dishes. As we sat back in our chairs on the cobbled stone streets and chinked glasses of crisp white wine, we all agreed that coming to Colonia had been an excellent choice.

The slogan which caught my attention

The slogan which caught my attention

The day only continued to get better; lunch had left us more than satisfied, though we couldn’t resist the urge to buy a cheeky ice-cream, just to top it off. We browsed the town some more before returning to the beach, where we sat and drank mate, enjoying the slightly cooler temperature of the late afternoon. There was a bar, situated right beside the beach, which we decided to stop at as the sun was setting. It was there that I spotted a young man with a t-shirt that read ‘Pugs Not Drugs’, which instantly made me burst out laughing. I approached him and asked if I could take his photo, explaining that it was because I enjoyed his t-shirt’s slogan, not because I was some sort of creepy tourist. The man, whose name was Sebastian, willingly obliged and then we began chatting, together with my mum and stepdad and Sebastian’s wife, Andrea. After a while, they informed us they had to return home, but left us a piece of paper with their addess, along with a casual invitation to join them for a glass of wine later on.

Enjoying a few drinks beside the beach

Enjoying a few drinks beside the beach

That evening, we made our way to the historic centre of Colonia and followed the directions to Sebastian and Andrea’s house. Upon arrival we literally gawped- the place was huge. As they welcomed us inside and began to show us around, our mouths only grew wider, for this was one magnificent old building. We then followed them out on to the patio, where a small, beautifully presented table, which not only consisted of wine, but a wide array of Argentinean tapas, awaited us. My eyes eagerly passed from a bowl of olives to bread, ham, sardines, roasted vegetables and a plate of mini milaneses. Everything looked and smelled delicious. Sebastian poured the wine into four large glasses and we each took seats before toasting to the lovely couple and thanking them for their hospitality. Hours passed as we talked, ate and drank into the night, not what I was expecting after Sebastian had simply said “Drop in, if you feel like it” earlier that day; thank goodness we did ‘drop in’, or all that lovely food and the time taken to prepare it would have gone to waste! Eventually we decided to make our way back to the hotel, smiling all the way and discussing what a wonderful evening it had been. It’s people like Sebastian and Andrea that really make travelling on this continent such a pleasure.

A terrible photo of the beautiful table

A terrible photo of the beautiful table

How One Article Led to Two Magnificent Weeks Away

Last year, I visited the ghost town of Villa Epecuén for the weekend with a couple of friends. We had the pleasure of meeting the town’s last remaining resident, Pablo Novak, who fled along with everyone else when the town was flooded back in 1985, but chose to return once the flood waters had receded. Pablo had proudly shown us articles based on Epecuén’s story, and demonstrated his collection of photos of the town, past and present. His loyalty to Epecuén touched me, and inspired me to write an article based on our experience there, which I wanted to send him. However, Pablo lives without electricity and I don’t even think the post reaches his small house in the woods, so before I left I asked him how I’d be able to show him what I’d written. He then told me to contact his grandson, whose name was Christian, before scribbling his email address down on a scrap piece of paper for me.

Pablo Novak: Villa Epecuén's only resident

Pablo Novak: Villa Epecuén’s only resident

A week or so later, I wrote my article and sent it Christian’s way, along with a note explaining who I was and why I’d chosen to write about Epecuén. To my delight, Christian was really excited to receive my message and thanked me profoundly for my words and photos. We continued to talk over Facebook and at one point he offered to host me, should I wish to return to Carhué, Epecuén’s neighbouring city- I decided to take him up on this offer. Christian picked me up from Buenos Aires on Tuesday March 18th and drove me to back to Carhué, along with his father and, throughout the journey, both quizzed me on my opinion on, well, pretty much everything! I was asked what I thought about Margaret Thatcher, Rolls Royce, French perfume, the Argentine president, mate, Benny Hill, Rover, some Italian motorcycle brand I’d never heard of, the Falklands War… by the end of all the questioning, I was exhausted and passed out in the back of the car.

A bright, sunny morning at Christian's house

A bright, sunny morning at Christian’s house

As I awoke, we were just pulling into Carhué. Christian showed me into his house and insisted that I took his bed, while he slept on the sofa. Part of me was reluctant to do so, for I felt it was a bit unfair that I should have his nice comfortable bed after he’d done all the driving, but the other part was very grateful for such luxury. We both enjoyed a cup of tea at his kitchen table before saying goodnight to one another and heading bedwards. I felt like my head had barely hit the pillow when I awoke to the sound of karma karma karma karma karma chame-le-on blaring out of the speakers.  It was morning, my first morning in Carhue, Christian was making breakfast with 80’s songs playing in the background, the sun was shining and I felt very content.

Sunset on the beach

Sunset on the beach

Over the course of the next two weeks, I met all of Christian’s friends, went on lengthy walks, joined a tennis class, swam in the salty lagoon, played cards, ate copious amounts of meat and drank copious amounts of mate. Two backpackers, who had previously visited Carhué as part of their trip, returned and they too were welcomed into Christian’s house. The four of us enjoyed many meals cooked by the other residents of the city, sunsets on the beach, music at all hours of day and night and soaking up the relaxing atmosphere that came with this beautiful, special place. One day, we were invited to an amazing house in the countryside, where we ate asado in the sunshine, trotted around on horse-back and explored the seemingly infinite grounds.

Enjoying some peace in the countryside

Enjoying some peace in the countryside

My last two days, however, were perhaps the most special; I had met a Bolivian woman the previous week when asking for directions and we had begun chatting, then she introduced me to her two children and we spent some time together, before I told her I had to move on. After she urged me to return, I made sure I did so, taking the remains of an apple crumble I’d made the day before with me. Seeing the joy on this woman’s face when I went back to see her was really touching; I hadn’t expected my visit to mean so much to her! She welcomed me into her house, where she served fresh fruit and wonderful home-made bread, and we chatted some more, while the children ran about the kitchen excitedly. I stayed for a while, helped the elder of the two girls with her maths homework (though I think she was more capable of multiplying fractions than I was) and then bid farewell to the family once again. On my last night, I cooked a spaghetti bolognese for Christian and his friends, and we ate, drank red wine and reminisced about the past days spent together, all of which had been very happy… and it was all thanks to that one article! And Christian’s good, kind nature of course. To all the people from Carhué who read this, gracias por todo y espero verlos pronto! Besos, chau for now!

Florentina, my Bolivian friend, and one of her daughters

Florentina, my Bolivian friend, and one of her daughters