At a Glacial Pace

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Three miles wide at the snout, nineteen miles long, filling the expanse between the mountains like builders’ foam; the powder blue ice, its hollows and crevices appearing backlit by the water within, juxtaposed with the deep green coniferous trees and the stark grey-black of the mountains, lightly dusted with snow and engulfed in low cloud at the margins; a wall of ice, striped with seams of deeper blue and black, rising an average of 240 foot above the surface of Largo Argentino, carved by nature into tens of thousands of tightly-packed columns ranking into the distance like an ancient army massed for battle.

The Perito Moreno glacier in the far South-West of Argentina feeds from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field which straddles the border with Chile and is the last redoubt of an Ice Age which ended 11,000 years ago. It sprawls over an area more than four times bigger than Manhattan or about two and a half times the size of Barcelona.

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Boardwalks on multiple levels connected by stairs take visitors within a few hundred feet of the snout. Pops and cracks echo from around the glacier as if hunters were out on its surface shooting birds. Calved ice litters the waters around it.

Hours could easily be spent just gazing in awe at the glacier and listening to its cracks and creaks and bangs.  But I was not just there to look.

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Three years earlier in New Zealand, I arrived in Franz Josef too late to be able to hike on the glacier, as I had hoped, and had to make do with seeing it from the foot of the mountain on my way to the bus the next morning. Now, on a different continent but back in the Southern Hemisphere, the chance had come round again.

I took a boat across the lake to the shelter on the shore by the South Wall, where I was herded into a group of about 15 and had crampons attached to my boots. Two groups were out on the ice already, one about a third of the way up, the other about a third from the summit.

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In the middle of the briefing, there was a boom as if of a cannon and then a rumbling, shuttering sound like an office block succumbing to the wrecking ball. I turned and watched as a section of ice thirty, forty, fifty feet high detached from the glacier and slid vertically into the lake, rose again as pulverised fragments and caused a tumult in the water.

We started our ascent.  The crampons, impossible on land, were intuitive on the ice. We moved slowly, in file, behind the guide.  The route weaved between cracks and ponds and glacier mills, where surface meltwater spirals into a shaft in the ice. The ice glistened in the sun. We drank the coolest, freshest water straight from the glacier.

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Then, at the summit, the first of the guides produced whisky and glasses; the other harvested ice from the glacier with an axe. ¡Salud! We drank the whisky tempered with chunks of Perito Moreno, packed up and made our way back to the shelter.

© Richard Senior 2019

 

What a Paine: Trekking in Patagonia

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The shuttle bus came at first light. The passengers who boarded at the stops up the hill were layered up in outdoor gear. Some carried tents and stoves. They mumbled buen’ dia’s and hellos on their way to their seats. At the terminal on the outskirts, where I had arrived from Argentina two days before, the bigger buses were taking on passengers for the Torres del Paine National Park.

It was a two-and-a-half hour journey, familiar from the minibus tour I had taken on the first day to try to get a feel for the park: mountains, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, icebergs, sun, wind and rain in succession, condors and guanacos, the lesser known of the South American camelids.

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My plan was to hike the first leg of the W Circuit, the iconic five-day trek through the park. The owner of my hostel, who also did a brisk trade in hiring out camping gear, assured me it would be a long day’s trek. It did not really look it on the map. The round trip to Mirador Torres del Paine and back was a little under 15 miles, and I often walked that sort of distance then and it might take me a morning but not a full day. There was a shorter hike I could tag on at the end if I had time to spare.

The peaks soared up in the distance, dusted with snow, obscured by cloud. A desultory stream trickled over rocks at the side of the track. There were scrubby grasslands and hardy trees. To the right was the refugio where the W-trekkers spend their first night. A gaucho galloped a bay horse towards it.

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It was warm, now, in the morning sun and I peeled off two layers and stuffed them into my rucksack. About half an hour in, the path turned towards the mountains, became sinuous and steepened. I snarled up behind a tour group then managed to pass. There were conifers bent at an angle from the wind and pretty red alpine flowers.

In the first hour, according to my stats, I climbed from 400ft above sea to over 1000. By two hours, I was at 1500, by three at 2,300. There was a clatter of hooves behind me. I pressed myself to the side of the track as more gauchos passed with supplies for the refugios along the trail. I looked back at a lake far below and the snowy mountains beyond it.

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The trail cut diagonally along one side of a valley. The opposing peaks appeared coal black, except where they were streaked with snow. The snow lay thickly on more distant mountains and the winds swirled it round their peaks. The river bubbled over rocks at the foot of the valley.  The Patagonian wind howled all at once. The temperature plummeted. I wrestled first a softshell then a puffa jacket from my rucksack and they flapped like a sail ripped from the mast in a storm.

Up and over the ridge and the wind disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived and I pulled down zips, pushed up sleeves and tore off layers again. The trail led into the forest and I walked under coniferous trees. I crossed and re-crossed and walked along the river. The water was turquoise and clear and frothed as it eddied round rocks. The boulders beside it were bleached by the sun. The bridges were wooden and rickety. One crossing was just a broken ladder and a few planks of wood slung into the shallows.  I tramped through the grounds of a refugio with tents wherever there was space and travellers lounging on the benches outside the dorms.

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It was somewhere around lunchtime when I reached the Torres camp site and I stopped to eat the empanadas de pino from the supermarket in Puerto Natales. What I took to be a wolf emerged from the trees and trotted passed me and I jumped up in alarm and knocked over the bottle I had placed on the floor. The water dribbled over the dust as the animal loped through the campsite. No one else seemed to mind it and I think it was actually a grey fox, not a wolf. I picked up the bottle and salvaged what I could of the water and my pride.

The trail became markedly steeper from there and progress was slow as hikers in front picked their way over rocks, between boulders, relying increasingly on walking poles. There were repeated bottlenecks. Until then, my average pace had fluctuated between about 20 and 30 minutes a mile but now fell to almost 60. The frustration, though, fell away, at a little under 3000 ft above sea as I stood at the edge of the turquoise lake staring up at the three great shards of granite for which the park is named. Las Torres del Paine, ‘the Blue Towers’ in a mixture of Spanish and Tehuelche, the extinct native language of that part of Chilean Patagonia.

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It had taken four hours in all to reach the top and it would take another three and a half to get back to the refugio where I had seen the gaucho that morning. I had been naïve to imagine that I might have time to fit in more hiking that day. All that remained was to recline in the sun with a book and wait for the shuttle to Laguna Amarga, then pick up the bus back to Puerto Natales.

© Richard Senior 2019

Through the Inca Heartlands of Peru

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The minibus struggled up into the mountains overlooking Cuzco.

We passed the ruins of the Incan fortress of Sacsaywaman, whose stones the conquistadors looted to build the colonial town below, crashed over epic potholes and burst out into beautiful countryside. Horses, sheep and llamas grazed at the side of the road, tended by Quechua ladies in felt hats and voluminous skirts.

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A few switchback bends down the mountain road, we stopped to gaze over the Urubamba Valley, popularly known as El Valle Sagrado, or Sacred Valley, once the heartland of the Incan Empire. I said no gracias a few dozen times to the hawkers who held up alpaca jumpers and chullo hats, and water and sun cream, and CD’s of Andean music.

We stopped again at one of the weaving villages dotted about the mountains, and an embarrassed young woman demonstrated how to clean and dye alpaca wool, and older ladies worked a handloom. Their llamas and alpacas let me stroke their ears, but one of them spat when I tried to take its photo.

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Then on to Pisac, to climb Incan terraces which step up the mountain to the ruined fortress at the peak. The Incas dominated the western half of South America before the Spanish arrived, expanding from the Sacred Valley across Peru and into present-day Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. They built complex structures which have withstood centuries of earthquakes and impress engineers to this day. Yet they never devised a system of notation; they invented the wheel but could see no use for it except in toys; and they were still sacrificing children around the time of the European Renaissance.

Back on the bus, driving through little towns laid out along dirt roads with single-storey adobe buildings, whitewashed and painted by hand with the name of a proprietor, the nature of his business and perhaps a familiar logo, like Coca Cola or Repsol Oil.

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I was intrigued by the names carefully signwritten across the walls of houses: the same ones on house after house, “Humberto” or “Miguel Morales” in huge red letters, shaded in blue. It turned out that they were local politicians.

I climbed more Incan terraces at Ollantaytambo, where the Incas fought the conquistadors and won. The terrraces are impressively straight, impressively uniform, and the enormous blocks are shaped and slotted together so snugly, without mortar, that you would not slide a feeler gauge between them. The Incas did all sorts of ingenious things to get the blocks to the site, including diverting a river. But they would have made things a great deal easier for themselves if they had seen the potential of the wheel.

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There is an ethereal air about the town below with its adobe walls and trapezoid doorways, despite the trucks which bully their way with blasts of their horns along lanes meant for carts. The Andean people have lived there continuously since before the Incas came, let alone the conquistadors.

In the morning, I took the train for the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

© Richard Senior 2016

Pop-Up Tango in Buenos Aires

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It was late in the afternoon on a sultry day and there were a handful of people at the tables in Plaza Dorrego. A few craft stalls at the margin gave the palest hint of the bustle of the famous Feria de San Telmo on Sunday afternoons. Bored teenagers sat on the wall, glaring and smoking.

The couple appeared from nowhere, both with Hollywood faces, he in a fedora and waistcoat, she in a thigh-split dress and strappy heels. Someone switched on the music and they took to the floor in the middle of the open-air café.

Think of Buenos Aires and you inevitably think of tango. You might also think of fruity Malbecs and thick-cut steaks, choripanes and empanadas, the harlequin houses of La Boca, Eva Perón and the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. But, first, you think of tango.

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It is a sexy, stylish dance with carefully choreographed high kicks, lifts and drops, and a close contact which scandalised conservatives for generations. They were uneasy about women being so intimate with their husbands, let alone strangers. When the far right seized power, they banned it and sent it underground until the early 1980’s.

In the nineteenth century, the Argentine government advertised across Europe for labour, and the ambitious and the adventurous came in number to seek fortunes which few of them actually made. The theory goes that they brought the fashionable dances of their old countries with them and that they morphed into one to become what we now know as tango.

But quite why, how and when, nobody really knows, because – as Christine Denniston put it in her insightful history – it “was created by the kinds of people who generally leave no mark on history except by dying in wars”.

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It is a popular cliché that tango began in the brothels of Buenos Aires where – with an abundance of men and a shortage of women – queues would form and the girls would dance with the men as they waited. But, as Denniston noted, if the women were free to dance, they were free to do what the men had gone there for. She might well be right, though, that it was at brothels that the middle classes discovered tango and that it is when it started to get written about.

It spread from the courtyards of the poor to the drawing rooms of the rich and from Buenos Aires to the rest of Argentina and, by the early twentieth century, to Paris, Berlin. London and New York.

It is big business now. There are elaborate stage shows for the tourist market at US$100 a ticket and stores-full of tango memorabilia from antique posters to tacky figurines. For locals and the more adventurous tourists, there are milongas, where everyone is expected to take part. The more traditional have a sad, end-of-the-pier quality and are filled with couples in late middle-age trying to re-enact their youth; modern milongas have DJs instead of bands and attract Millennials.

But you don’t really need to go looking for tango. Spend any time around San Telmo or La Boca, and you are likely to see couples dancing for pesos or just for the hell of it. There is no schedule; it is not advertised: you just have to be there at the right time. It seems entirely spontaneous, and it is closer in spirit to tango’s origins than any top dollar stage show.

© Richard Senior 2016

 

The Curious Classics of Colonia

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An ancient Beetle, firing on two or three cylinders and with more holes than exhaust, snapped, crackled and popped down Calle De San Pedro.

The diabolical sound echoed between the walls, shattered the peace, outraged the feral dogs which spend their days padding round town and dozing in the shade. For each one that set off barking, another three responded. Those closest ran, barking, after the Beetle, trying and failing to bite its tyres; reinforcements bounded from nearby streets, barging aside old ladies who shouted in protest.

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I saw the Beetle again later in the day, parked with its windows left open and doors unlocked, the bodywork slumped on its shot rear suspension. The engine cover was held on with twisted wire; kitchen foil had been crumpled into the hole where the speedo wasn’t; the front wings had been painted in household emulsion, with a brush.

There are classic cars everywhere in Colonia del Sacramento in the southwestern corner of Uruguay. Many – like the Beetle – are everyday runabouts. Others sit at the side of the road in the middle of town, apparently abandoned; some have been made into features.

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There is a rare, century-old Model T pick-up outside a restobar. They rest their menu boards against it and store firewood in the back. Restored, it might fetch US$40,000 on the international market, but then where would the restobar lean its boards?

The popular café, El Drugstore, on Plaza de Armas, has a collection of old cars. There is a Model A Ford built sometime around 1930, which they have cut the side out of and turned into an intimate table for two. Behind it, painted in the same matt black, is a Citroen Traction Avant from the Forties, which they use as a planter: fronds erupt from the windows and boot. Round the corner is an Austin 10 from the late 1930’s, in fair condition and not – as yet – converted into anything whimsical.

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Another Model A – a station wagon – has seemingly been forgotten under sycamore trees on the edge of the old town; its white paint is blackened and sticky with sap. All the doors were open when I passed it early one morning, presumably so the dogs could jump in to sleep. They were closed again an hour later, although the streets were still silent and the windows all around still shuttered.

On a quiet corner, shaded by trees, down near the yacht club, there is a Morris Oxford from the 1950s under a thick layer of dust. Much of its paint has flaked off, but the body has not rusted in that temperate climate, as it would have done half a century ago in the soggy country in which it was built.

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A Ford Pop of similar vintage is displayed as a conceptual artwork down a side street off the main drag of Avenida General Flores. There are tags sprayed on one door and the boot and six-foot papier-mache fish in the front seats.

There were still Vauxhall Chevettes on the road in Britain when I was a kid.  Shove-its, we called them. They were laughable old bangers even then. I had not seen one for years, but saw at least half a dozen in Colonia, along with other European cars from the Sixties and Seventies which I never even knew existed: a Peugeot 404, a Fiat 600 (a bit like the iconic Cinquecento, but with all the charm engineered out), and a very rusty Fiat 124, which I mistook for the virtually identical Lada.

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There were Ford and Chevrolet pick-up trucks built before Eisenhower was sworn-in as President, yet still looking surprisingly fresh. There were better Beetles than the one which had upset the dogs in the morning.

I have seen it suggested on several sites that Colonia’s classic cars are a legacy of economic collapse in the Sixties: that a people once rich enough on wool and beef to import new cars from Europe and the United States suddenly found themselves having to make the old ones last much longer. I am not at all convinced, though. That could, perhaps, explain the Morris Oxfords and Ford Pops, but not the Model A’s and Austin 10’s, nor, for that matter, the Chevettes.

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Besides, other Latin American countries saw their economies trashed in the second half of the twentieth century; several, like Uruguay, ended up ruled by noxious dictatorships. But with the obvious exception of embargoed Cuba, none has the abundance of classic cars you see in Colonia del Sacramento.

© Richard Senior 2016   

Staying in San Telmo

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It was a fine nineteenth century building in the same state of repair as most in San Telmo. The paint was flaking from the shutters, the stonework had fallen from the balustrades; the stucco was criss-crossed with graffiti.

The sign outside called it a hotel, the WiFi code called it a hostel. More than anything, though, it recalled the cheaper guesthouses of Bangkok.

The room was hot and airless. The fan did not so much cool the air as swish it about, and made a noise like the treadmill at the gym. The walls were dirty, the floorboards were splintering, the French doors had swelled too much to shut. There was the inevitable dead cockroach in the corner, as ubiquitous in hotels at this level as Molton Brown toiletries at the top end. It was there when I arrived, it was there when I left five days later, and it is probably still there now.

There was a sort of a patio linking the room to the bathroom, but it had a high wall blocking the view to anything but rusting tin sheets, broken windows and ferns growing up the inside wall. If I stood on a chair, though, I could look over at the place where they slung the broken furniture.

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San Telmo is a characterful neighbourhood, the oldest in Buenos Aires. It was a poor barrio, centred upon a Jesuit mission, until 1767 when the Spanish drove the Jesuits out. It briefly went upmarket in the mid-nineteenth century, but a yellow fever epidemic put a stop to that. The rich left and their empty homes were carved into tenements and filled with immigrants fresh off the boats from Europe. Artists later moved in among them and lent the barrio the bohemian air it retains.

There was neither the money nor the mindset to tear down the old buildings and replace them with new, to extend or to bring into line with each ephemeral fashion, so everything stayed much as it was, photogenically decaying.

In the mornings, the smell of strong coffee and freshly-baked empanadas hangs in the air all over the barrio; in the evenings, the smoke converges from the many parrillas* as thick slabs of prime beef sizzle on grills. The convenience stores stay open late and do business through bars on the doors. The jobless sit listlessly in doorways; some sell odds and ends laid out on blankets.

There are rusting tram tracks up Calle Estados Unidos, although trams have not run on them for half a century. Dozens of Quilmes bottle tops have been trodden between the cobblestones outside the bars.

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I assumed that the cars parked up the street had been abandoned years before, until one of them grumbled past my hotel. It was as if all the cars from all the scrapyards of Buenos Aires had come spontaneously to life to roam the city’s streets. One was missing a bonnet, another a windscreen, and a few seemed to have been in the sort of accidents which make the front page of the newspaper, yet remained in everyday use.

Mercado San Telmo is outwardly unchanged since the last years of the nineteenth century when the barrio’s European immigrants went there to buy cheeses and hams from back home. It takes up the whole of the block between Estados Unidos and Carlos Calvo, opening out in the middle to an attractive wrought-iron and glass atrium.

There are hole-in-the-wall stalls selling beer and choripanes, baguettes toasted on the grill and stuffed with chorizo and slathered with chimichurri sauce**; but they seem, sadly, to be getting edged out by shiny coffee stands which could be anywhere from Washington to Wellington, from Cape Town to Cape Cod.

There are still butchers and greengrocers, as there have been for going on 120 years, but much of the market is now given over to antiques: to tinplate toy cars, brass letterboxes, old tango posters, military uniforms, radios, typewriters, and telephones. The antique shops continue down the lower end of Carlos Calvo and round the corner along Calle Defensa, interspersed with wine merchants, bodegas and design shops, all the way to Plaza Dorrega where the world-famous antiques fair, Feria de San Telmo, bustles every Sunday morning.

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A block to the south, there are two good galleries side-by-side, Museo de Arte Moderno and Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, then the gentrified end of San Telmo fades into the dangerous edges of La Boca.

© Richard Senior 2016

*Literally ‘grills’. In this context, restaurants specialising in grilled meat, especially the celebrated Argentinian beef.

**Made with finely chopped shallots, dried chillies, garlic, dried oregano, olive oil and red wine vinegar

En El Hospital

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In Argentina I was bitten by mosquitoes. Then I was bitten by bed bugs. I had lost count of the bites by the time I got the ferry to Uruguay – and, there, I was bitten by sandflies, or something as small and pugnacious. Dozens of them died in the DEET on my legs; dozens more got through and bit me. Horrible things.

One bite smarted as if I had been stung by a wasp. I ignored it until late in the evening when it blew up like a balloon and turned yellow.  I slapped a big plaster on it until morning, then went to the pharmacist for antihistamines and more plasters. I showed her the bite.

“¿Do you have médico?” she asked

“Medico?” I guessed she was talking about some kind of insurance scheme until I dredged up a memory from my desultory attempts to learn Spanish. “Oh! Have I seen a doctor? No, I haven’t.”

“Deberίas: you eshould. Pienso que might be espider.”

“A spider?”

“Sί, espider.”

Where do I go?”

El hospital. La próxima block.”

There were a dozen or more clinics crammed into two cross streets, each covering a separate discipline but my Spanish was too hopeless to work out which was which, and they all, in any case, had the sleek corporate look of institutions who specialise in sending big bills to insurers.

But there was a grubbier building with “Emergencias” on the sign above the door and no smart reception with blonde wood floors and expensively bland art on the walls. It was the familiar chaos of an A&E unit with coughing, sneezing, crying children, hobbling adults and ice packs clamped over painful bits.

¿Sί?” said a guy in a white coat, and I explained – in English – why I was there.

No espeak espanish,” he said with a smirk and seemed to think it was a clever line, because he sniggered and repeated it to several other people. Nobody laughed except him.

Someone else pointed to a sliding window in the far wall and I went over and spoke to the guy inside and he had no English either but called over a girl who spoke Spanglish like the pharmacist and took me through to the accounts department.

No espeak espanish,” the sniggering man called out to the girl as we passed, but she ignored him. I imagine that happens to him a lot.

You need for to pay,” they told me in accounts.

How much?” I asked, but they didn’t want to talk about figures until they had swiped my card and then, when they found out what card I had, didn’t want to talk to me at all. They sent me over the road.

No aquί,” they said across the road.

¿Hablas Inglés?” I asked, but they didn’t. Nada. No una sola palabra. Lo siento.

But where should I go, then? ¿Donde?

“Fuera de la clínica, a la izquierda, ir a la vuelta de la esquina, traverser la calle, y hay un edificio blanco con un rótulo de «emergencias»*.”

I gathered from the gestures and the occasional word I understood that she was directing me back to the hospital from which I had come.

“Erm, I think that’s where I’ve just been and they sent me over to you?”

“Fuera de la clínica,” she repeated with a sigh, louder and a little more slowly, although it was still just a blur of sound to me,“a la izquierda, ir a la vuelta de la esquina, traverser la calle, y hay un edificio blanco con un rótulo de «emergencias».”

Oh bollocks to it, I thought, and went out to enjoy my day.

But my mind always looped round to spider bites. What kind of spider? Why did the pharmacist think I needed to see a doctor straight away? In the end, I had to go back to the hostel and get onto Google.

It seemed clear enough: if you were bitten by the sort of spider toxic enough to leave a blister like that – and assuming it didn’t kill you outright – you either had to be rushed straight to intensive care, or there was not much a doctor could do for you, except prescribe things which you could buy over the counter, anyway.

But the blister got bigger overnight and I read some more about spider bites and found horror stories – admittedly in sources like The Daily Mail – about people who had been bitten and left the blisters to take their course and ended up with agonising ulcers, gangrene, and worse.

I was due to go back to Argentina, up to the far north and then down to Patagonia, but I would not, now, be able to do the trekking and climbing I had planned. I thought that the bite would more likely than not turn out to be nothing to worry about; but if there were any real risk of getting the symptoms I had read about, I wanted to be at home, not in a backpacker hostel, still less in a hospital where hardly anyone spoke English.

So I went back to BA and got the next plane but one to London.

© Richard Senior 2016

*I’m sure this is terrible Spanish. It’s the gist, of course, not the actual words.

The Uros and the Uru-Sceptics

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The island was made from layers of totora reeds and looked like a giant hay bale. It was one of forty-four floating islands between the reed beds on Lake Titicaca. As I stepped ashore, it sank underfoot, forcing up a puddle of water. It flexed and wobbled like a plywood sheet laid over uneven ground. Yet a few families called it home.

The Uru people have lived life their own way for hundreds of years. They fled to the lake and built the floating islands when the Aymara arrived in Southern Peru; they anchored the islands to the bed of the lake and stood ready, if attacked, to weigh anchor and row them to safety.

The islands rotted from the bottom up but the Uros maintained them by adding more layers of reeds. They used the same reeds to build huts and watchtowers and the white lower part as a foodstuff: they say that it works as a painkiller and hangover cure and inures them to the cold. They fished with tethered cormorants, kept ibis for eggs and hunted birds with flintlock rifles.

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They took bundles of totora reeds to the mainland to barter and sell and, by now, you will have guessed what they made their boats from.

There are solar panels, nowadays, on some of the huts; the Uros have TVs and smartphones, and their own radio station. They have motorboats to get to the mainland, although they still build rowing boats from totora reeds – I was rowed round the islands in one. They earn money, now, by selling textiles and handicrafts to the tourists who visit the islands.

Otherwise, though, their lives seem largely unchanged in the half a millennium or so within which the Aymara where subjugated by the Incas, the Incas crushed by the Spanish, the Spanish driven out by Bolivarian rebels and independent Peru fought wars, in turn, with Colombia, Spain, Chile, Colombia again and Ecuador and went through military juntas, Maoist insurgencies and strong-armed economic reforms.

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Sceptics maintain that it is all a façade. They accuse the Uros of embellishing their history – if not making it up – to entertain the tourists. But wherever there are people living an alternative lifestyle, there are mainstream figures doing their best to discredit them.

With no written records until the Spanish arrived, neither the Uros nor the Uru-sceptics can prove their case; but researchers have at least established that the Uros are genetically different from other indigenous groups.

Their lifestyle, though, has been under threat since the 1980s, when the government restricted hunting and fishing on Lake Titicaca and started confiscating their eggs and birds. Then climate change caused the surface of the lake to rise dramatically and inundate the islands, and brought droughts which ravaged the tortora reeds.

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The Uros rebuilt their islands closer to the shore of the lake and many drifted off to live a regular life on the mainland; others have followed since. The sceptics – who obviously have too little going on in their own lives – claim that no one really lives on the floating islands anymore and that the Uros return to homes in Puno after the last tourist boat leaves.

It seems unlikely to me that they pack up their children, their birds and their cats every night and leave their televisions, solar panels and radio equipment unattended. But, whether fixed or transitory, the population of the islands has undoubtedly fallen and each generation seems a little less interested than the last in maintaining the traditional lifestyle. Tourism is now a major part of the lives of the Uros who remain on the islands, and may soon be their only reason for staying.

© Richard Senior 2016

Peru between the Sights

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It was a dark restobar with a wobbly iron staircase, terracotta floor tiles and stacked Coca Cola crates.

Two old men were having a one-sided fight outside. The first lurched onto the street and hit the other on the shoulder in the way that you might greet a friend. The second took it badly, started shouting and pummelling the drunk man’s shoulders. He kicked him in the arse and he fell over and lay as helpless as a bug upside down. A policeman saw them, strode over, helped the drunk man up and sent both of them on their way.

Aguas Calientes began, a century ago, as a camp for railway workers and still looks as if it might be abandoned on half a day’s notice. The buildings seem to have been put up in a hurry and occupied before they were finished. The only road out leads up to the mountains. The railroad alone links the town to the rest of Peru.

The tracks serve as the high street and shops and restaurants open straight onto the platform. When the train approaches, a man in a cap strolls out of a bar and onto the track and waves a red flag and pedestrians shuffle aside. The train passes and whistles and the man with the flag goes back to his drink and the pedestrians pick up their journey.

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I had reached Aguas Calientes the hard way, via the Inca Trail, and seen a glimpse of Machu Picchu at the end. I got back on the bus to the mountains in the morning to see it properly.

There had been a landslide a few days earlier and there were rocks the size of houses at the side of the road. A team was working to clear them but progress was slow; sledgehammers made little impression on rocks of that size. There were more rocks overhanging the road and it seemed as if a sneeze might dislodge them and if one had fallen with the bus underneath there would have been nowhere for the driver to swerve.

There was a boulder in the middle of the road near the top, blocking it to traffic. The bus stopped and disgorged the passengers and we walked round the corner, up the hill, to another bus which took us the last few hundred yards.

Around lunchtime, then, I took the two buses back to Aguas Calientes and bustled onto a train to Ollantaytambo, just as it was about to leave, and gazed out of the window at the angry river, an Amazon tributary, and the verdant mountains either side, and adobe villages with political slogans painted on walls, and Quechua ladies leading llamas, and tethered donkeys and free-ranging pigs, and a dog trying to face down a bull which was roped to the ground from a ring in its nose.

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The station was a chaos of bewildered travellers and persistent vendors:

“¡Taxi! ¡Taxi! ¡Cusco! ¡ Taxi!”

“¡Choc-o-late!”

“¡Cusco-Cusco-Cusco!”

“¡Empanadas!”

“¡Taxi, amigo! ¡Taxi!”

I forced my way through and got on a bus to Cuzco. I had stayed there before but had only seen the Centro Historico and the scenic route out past the Incan ruins of Saqsaywaman. The western suburbs are nothing like that, with rubble and weeds where the pavements should be and houses of unpainted concrete and rusty rebar sticking out of roofs and people buying provisions through bars on the doors of the shops.

As so often, the bits which the tourists see have little to do with the lives of ordinary people who live there.

© Richard Senior 2015

Sand, Salt and Sunsets in the Atacama Desert

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Chile, that “long petal of sea, wine and snow” in the beautiful words of its Nobel laureate, Pablo Neruda, stands out on a map of the world. At 2,700 miles north to south, it is longer than any other country except Brazil – roughly the same as Britain and the United States bolted together. Yet it is all of 40 miles wide at its narrowest point east to west, 220 at its widest and a little over 100 on average.

The south has glaciers and ski slopes, the north has the Atacama Desert. Geographers know it as the driest place on earth, but it is better known now for the San José mine where, in 2010, 33 copper miners were trapped underground for over two months.

Valle de la Lune (Moon Valley) is around 300 miles to the north of that, roughly in the middle of the desert. The sand is sprinkled with ancient salt deposits, like lorryloads of Shake n’ Vac. Natural sculptures sprout in the middle of nothingness. Dunes rise three storeys high, pristine except for a narrow strip which has been corrugated by the wind. Nature has carved the variegated sandstone into walls, as if of a fairytale castle. There are narrow alleys which you can squeeze through, and jump in alarm when the walls bang as they cool in the late afternoon and you think the whole lot will collapse.

As the sun dies down and the sky dims, the golden rocks turn gradually pink then gradually red. The Licancabur Volcano we had tracked towards on our way from Bolivia was pink at the crater, blending to red, then blue, then purple at the base of the cone. Busloads of people had come to watch the sun set. They crouched with their cameras, fussing with tripods; or sprawled on the rocks, sipping wine from plastic cups.

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Back in San Pedro, I went to a restobar with tables outside and a bonfire to chase off the chill of the evening. The fire crackled and scented the air as I looked through the menu and the waiter brought a basket of bread and the bowl of pebre, which always comes with it in Chile. It is simple enough to make. Roughly chop a handful of coriander, toss with a couple of diced tomatoes, a few sliced spring onions and a finely diced green chilli, add a glug of wine vinegar, three or four of olive oil, a sprinkle of seasoning, and toss it all again.

I was out by seven the next morning, looking to hire a bike. But everything was closed. Doors were bolted, windows were shuttered; there was no one else about. It was the same again when I went back at eight. A few cafes had opened by nine, but everything else was still shut. I had a coffee and an empanada de pino as I waited for the hire shops to unlock their doors. Then I really needed the exercise: Chilean empanadas are massive things, like half a rugby ball.

Sometime around 9.30, the keenest of the hire shops opened for business and I chose a mountain bike which surprised me by stopping when I squeezed the brakes. Hire bikes tend just to slow down. I had, as always, to remind myself that it was left hand drive. Squeeze hard on what would be the back brake at home and you are over the handlebars wondering how it happened.

I pootled around town and into the outskirts and rode out to the remains of a pre-Incan fortress named Pukará de Quitor. I could have cycled all day in that weather, but I had a bus to catch in the early afternoon: South towards Santiago.

© Richard Senior 2015