Friday 27 May 2011

Argie bargie.......

“You’ll got any dinner plans?” asked the American.

Dinner plans? We hadn’t even got off the plane?

“This is my card and this is where I’m staying.”

Keen? Lonely.....

“Oh...and do you have any dietary requirements?”

My travelling companion and I had left our puffy jackets and woolly jumpers with our hiking boots, back in Buenos Aires, because we had said good-bye to chilly, southern Patagonia and hello to Salta, a town rich with colonial architecture, nudging the north-west border of Argentina and Bolivia. So we were quite cold as we stood waiting for a cab into town, sheltering under a brooding sky, the supposed beautiful surrounding scenery obscured by low-slung cloud.

“Cold no?” said Martin, opening the door to our room, “never like this before, very strange weather.”

Between the plane and the bed, my travelling companion had sprung a leak. She blew her nose, violently. Coughed. Blew some more. Her eyes glazed and puffy, closed as she sank into the ample pillows of our boutique B&B.

“Half an hour, babes, I’ll be fine.”

I discussed my travelling companion's illness with Claudia, who spoke excellent English, and discovered the B&B's cleaner was also a nurse. We went to the pharmacy and bought drugs and a syringe. The patient could not take penicillin. I mimed death and repeated penicilina which is Spanish for penicillin. I went back to our room.

"I've bought medicine." I said, "and a syringe."

She wasn't too pleased but I convinced her the nurse would be coming. Soon. When she'd finished her cleaning.

I went for a walk. The dull day and chilly breeze didn't do much to enhance the colonial-ish main square. I found a restaurant that would let me take soup away. I mimed vegetarian and repeated 'vegetarianos', which is Spanish for vegetarian. I gave the soup to my travelling companion. It had bacon bits in it.

The recovery did involve a bit of hallucination but otherwise was swift and dramatic. We went for dinner with the American. He smoked for a living. He was the tobacco leaf inspector for Phillip Morris. He was in fact, the Marlboro Man and gave us cigarettes. And bought us dinner. Then we went to one of the many music bars on the strip and watched an Argentine Indian band. A very large man in a very large, black, leather jacket sat at an adjacent table. He engaged in conversation with my travelling companion. However, he spoke no English and she spoke less Spanish. But we were informed by his entourage that he was a famous Argentinean folk singer. People began to turn and look at our table. He then took to the stage and explained .... something ..... at length. The only word we could understand was 'Banessa', the Spanish pronunciation of Vanessa and the name of my travelling companion. Everyone turned around to look at us. And clap. Then he sang a song and played the guitar, a solemn, haunting melody the chorus of which appeared to be: Baaaaanessa...... Everyone clapped. And then he sang another, similar song, with the same chorus. The third song may have been the same but I was laughing so much I no longer cared. We thought the The Marlboro Man was about 40. He was 30. He thought I was somewhere between 38 and 42. It was a good evening.

Top tip: learn Spanish.

Sunday 15 May 2011

In Patagonia........

A dish of pickled aubergine and a basket of pillowy-white bread were left on the table.

"I bring you menu" said the waiter.

He looked Lebanese or possibly from southern Italy. Like most Argentinians he came with a melted pot of ancestry.

The wine was warm and red and rich with the pink-baked rocks and yellow pampas. And delicious. I ordered lamb, I was in Patagonia. My travelling companion yet again went through the menu creating a smorgasbord of vegetarian delights. Being blond and pert and young meant that wherever we went chefs were only too happy to fling aside the flesh their country was famed for in order to skewer onions, peppers, potatoes and pumpkin at will. Travelling with such a heavenly creature was brilliant. There was not a room we entered, nor a street we walked down, that did not have heads was like being 18 again.......

Outside in the dark a thin moon rose over Largo Argentino. Imagine the Yorkshire Moors and the Scottish Highlands, New England in the fall with the back drop of the Swiss Alps, by way of the Grand Canyon and you have some idea of the scenery surrounding El Calafate, a one horse town that was no trick pony. We were tired from our day’s adventure: exploring the steppe and ice field, beating around the Calafate Bush: a spiky-berried plant indigenous to Patagonia. The bleached fists and weathered fingers of ghost trees poked the ice-blue sky, swirled with cotton-candy clouds that spun and swooped like flying saucers across the Autumn leaves of burnt umber, sienna and tangerine. The yellow, wind-bent grass scudded the steppe until Monte Fitz Roy rose, snowed white and gray. A jade-green river runs through it, meanders, loops, runs dry. The bones of trees are trunked on the river bed, shingled pebbles banked against the un-melt ice. While wide birds swoop above wild horse and guanaco herd and jump the scrub.

"Look Condors," said our guide, a dead spit for Charlotte Gainsburg, "they have their wings three metres."

"Three metres?"

"Three very big."

The lamb was cooked on a cross stabbed into the fire at a jaunty angle, an asado. It was soft and sweet and melted in my truly was the best lamb I had ever eaten. We ate quickly, hungry from a day walking on thick ice. The glacier at Perito Moreno may not be the largest but it is the most spectacular. And extraordinary.

“Why is the ice blue?” we asked our guide: young, seasonally –whiskered, his hat pulled down to the bridge of his reflective sunglasses, his nose freckled from the sun.

“Because there is no oxygen in the water.”

But what does that mean?

“And here is where the warm air rises.”

Ah ha.

“Here is where the....liars of rock come down....”

Ah ha.

And this is why there are no glaciers in London or Hamburg at the same latitude. But here, only in Patagonia, here we have the glaciers.”

Ah ha. And what is that shuddering crash like an out-take from Jurassic Park?

“That is the ice breaking off. And now you go to the cramponier.....”

The health and safety talk over, we set off: knees bent, feet apart, small steps, single the march of the penguins we crunched our way across the glacier. And after we’d wandered up and down, peered into various holes and crevasses, found out the blue barrel in the hole contained the accident and emergency kit, our guides cracked open a bottle and gave us all a whiskey & glacier to warm us for the journey home.....

Top tip: Don't ever take your eye off your bag in Buenos Aires........