Tea with D’Artagnan: what am I doing?!

And so it is decided: on the 1st November, I will take up my pen. As part of National Novel Writing Month, I will write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. But why, I hear you ask? I thought you didn’t do fiction? Well, I do have a good reason, but it requires a little help.

You see, my friends, I am going to Bolivia in January, and while I’m out there I will be volunteering for a wonderful charity called BiblioWorks. Their aim is to promote literacy and education by setting up and running libraries for isolated communities in rural Southern Bolivia. I think we all agree that’s a pretty cool project! And so I ask one thing: read the novel if you like, let me know what you think, but most of all check out their website and donate if you feel able: as much or as little as you like, every little helps!

As an extra incentive, I’m offering a special prize: the biggest donor will be able to choose a mystery guest from any novel or TV series that they like to appear in the penultimate chapter. Can’t say fairer than that: a novel written to measure! (The closing date will be midnight on the 25th, to give me time to write it!)

Extracts will be available on here, and the full thing will be available, chapter by chapter, on Tea with D’Artagnan.

L’anglaise et la mer

I grew up on an island. A reasonably sized island, a country, where we eat fish but don’t necessarily live by the coast. (Indeed, even when I was taken to the ‘seaside’ as a child, it was often the Blackpool-Southport area, where the tide goes out so far that you can’t even catch a glimpse from the prom. And trust me, you wouldn’t want to jump in there!) Of course, I have fond memories of beach holidays, of the one where we found a beautiful little bay with the disadvantage of hundreds of steps to get back up to the town, or a stunning, totally deserted, windswept, freezing cold and totally exposed bit of Irish coast where a cup of hot Vimto was a more appropriate post-swim treat than an ice cream. But the sea is the sea is the sea. It’s big and salty and cold and full of grime and hazards.

At least, that’s what I spent three landlocked months in Bolivia saying. For a country that had a coast and lost it in a disastrous war (and one that has considered buying or creating an offshore island and building a tunnel under the sea and neighbouring Chile to have access to it), the blue stuff seems pretty special. Documentaries have been made showing elderly people being taken to see the sea for the first time in their lives. A multi-million pound development project is being proposed for the nouveaux riches and wealthy expats in Santa Cruz (unless, that is, you believe the rumours that it’s just a money laundering scheme, but we won’t go into that here…). Excessively emotive posters are displayed around La Paz’ Plaza Avaroa showing a little girl running along a beach with a Bolivian flag streaming behind her: an impossible dream. The country may have an ongoing case in the International Court of Justice at The Hague, but anyone even slightly realistic knows that it isn’t getting a coastline any time soon.

I went to Chile, to a part of the northern coast that was lost by Peru in the same War of the Pacific. And the beach was dirty and covered in broken glass, the slog up to the top of the big hill revealed a lovely view of the industrial port and its lorries, and it took nearly 24 hours to get home. Overrated, I assured the Bolivians. You’re not missing anything.

And then I came to Anglet. The only place in Western Europe with more red flags than Oxford. Where gusting winds blow your laundry onto tourists’ heads and the lifeguards get more practice at keepy-uppies than swimming. Where clinging too tightly to your umbrella might get you swept away, Mary Poppins style, and you can easily get three pairs of shoes drenched in one day. Yes, this is the French Atlantic coast.

My landlady is the world’s biggest fan of Anglet, and should probably have a job working for its tourist board, (or, considering the amount of time she spends lauding its many wonderful qualities, perhaps already does). And while I may not always agree about its preeminent position as ‘the best place on the Atlantic coast/ in France/ north of Australia/ in our galaxy’ (delete as appropriate), one thing is for certain. Its beach is amazing.

It was, in fact, the first thing I discovered, when I dropped my bags off and went to explore. I followed the path north, as far as one lighthouse, and then I came back and went all the way south to the cliffs and the lighthouse at the other end. And there, all the way along, are the rolling waves and the clouds and the limitless horizon that stretches off into the distance of roughly-where-I-was-a-while-back. It is not, like Biarritz, all sheltered in little bays and coves and with rocky things that break up your view and add twee little touches to your photos. There are no little pools for small children to fish for seaweed in, there is no diving area, and there is definitely no dolphin. I’m not even sure if there’s an ice cream man, although, this being France, there are a million and one places to get a coffee and/or a glass of wine. The sand is rough and pebbly and simultaneously massages and rips the skin off your feet. The areas you can actually swim in are strictly limited, because nasty currents (or possibly angry raisins) threaten to whisk you far out to sea or dash you against some unforgiving rocks. And looking inland, the view consists of a golf course and a few new holiday apartment buildings. It’s not exactly picture postcard material.

And you know what? I don’t care. I leave the house, cross the road and am at the beach. I head down to the water, attempt to wade through the first wave, fall over and get a face full of salt, and that’s it, I’m giggling and splashing and like a small child again. I dig in my feet and wait for the footprints to fill with water. I forget to hold my nose as I dive through a rising wall of water, and surface spluttering. I bob on the waves, floating on my back with my eyes screwed shut against the spray, the sun making patterns on the backs of my eyelids. I twist and turn and duck and dive. It is a million miles from the lengths that I swum in the municipal swimming pool of Paris. And, as I float there, waiting for the holidaying families to head home for baths and team and leave me with the soothing almost-silence of the wind and waves, I realise that there is something innate in human nature that draws us to the water.

Human history is marked by the ocean. Any ‘discoveries’ that have been made, any great explorations of the past, the Drakes and Raleighs and Columbuses of our world, involved great sea voyages. We are drawn to stories of the sea, from Hemingway’s Old Man to the Titanic (in factual or Hollywood form), the Life of Pi or the Pirates of the Caribbean or Darwin and the Beagle. I cannot help but feel that what draws us to the shore and across the ocean, onto a boat and away from the port, is in fact all of the reasons that should keep us away.

The sea is not safe or comfortable or familiar. Standing on the shore, you can rarely see the other side, and almost never your destination, and thus, by definition, heading out into the sea is stepping into the unknown. Tales of navigating by stars, or of accidentally discovering a continent whilst looking to get to another, or simply of vanishing, become ever more enticing as we increasingly know everything about everything. We have little chance to get lost any more, but a look out of an aeroplane window on a transatlantic flight is enough to remind you of just how big the ocean is, and how easily it could and can swallow up a simple human life.

A town, however beautiful, will only ever exist on a human scale. We can control it, understand it, tame it even. But the sea, and those clouds and the wide, rolling expanses of open water and sky and a horizon that merges those many shades of blue, is vast and out of reach, and will ever be so.

Cultural Confusion in Cusco (or, 10 things that aren’t quite Peruvian)

10. The Peace Boat(s). We saw them wandering around Machu Picchu first, hundreds (or at least, it felt like it) of Japanese tourists, all in white gloves, oversized sunglasses and broad brimmed hats, and with a brightly coloured sticker on their chest with a picture of a cruise ship and the words ‘Peace Boat’. Their ‘group leaders’ were waving panels declaring them to be ‘Boat J-4′ or ‘Boat G-6′, and they were wandering around like slightly lost herds of llamas. Flash forward a day and they’re all over Cusco, in buses, clogging up pavements, blocking key info panels in museums. The most interesting thing about them? Their obviously Peruvian guides were all nattering away fluently in what I presume was Japanese. Makes learning French seem pretty easy.

9. How many falafel places have I come across in nearly five months in South America? None. How many are there in two streets off the main square in Cusco? About twelve. Even more excitingly, there is a Bagel Café, and for a resident of North Manchester still mourning the loss of Crusty Corner, it was a must-try for lunch. Was it authentic? Well, I arrived and was offered a menu in Hebrew, and let’s just say that I don’t think any of my fellow lunchers would be ordering the pepperoni bagel. But my bagel had no hole in! I felt somehow cheated by being given too much bread. Was easier to eat without the filling falling through the middle though…

8. There is a problem with having menus in English. It is that your waiting staff doesn’t always understand what’s being ordered. Cue me attempting to translate ‘choccie monkey shake’ into Spanish…

7. In my search for exciting and varied food in Cusco (getting a little bored of soup and unconvincing pizza by now), I was briefly led astray by the Baghdad Café on the Plaza de Armas. What kind of cuisine does it serve? ‘Tipical Food’. Typical of where, I hear you ask? Peru. There’s guinea pig on the menu, as usual. Not sure if they just pointed blindly at a map for the name, or if they even know where exactly Baghdad is: possibly near Arequipa?

6. In France, I quickly got into the habit of speaking Franglais at work, talking about bookings and check-in’s and transfers. Here in Peru, there’s ‘estorage’ (Spanish speakers have problems with words beginning with ‘s’), ‘Snack’ (describing a café that serves butties, coffee, cake and juices) and ‘trekking’. But my biggest dilemma? Is it pronounced WiFi or WeeFee? Oh, and the peanut chocolate bar that you might think was Sublime? Sub-lee-may…

5. Lonely Planet mentions a coffee shop in central Cusco with traditional roasted coffee and staff who chat to regular customers. The coffee (served in what was effectively a large glass tankard) was pretty good, but the only conversation I overheard was the elderly lady on the next table sending her chocolate back because ‘It should be drunk hot, and this is tepid!’ Well, if you had it when it arrived at your table, judging from the steam coming off it, you’d probably burn the roof off your mouth, love…

4. The Peruvians appear to be unsure as to whether to be proud of their national products or not. Some shops advertise ’100% Peruvian products’. Others are selling Chinese minibuses, Bolivian salteñas, US wellies’. When I turned down the first insect repellent offered as too expensive, another was produced, literally from under the counter, and offered for half of the price. What’s the difference, I enquired. Oh, nothing, I was told, it’s just that this one’s Peruvian…

3. When your lasagne has broccoli, carrot and peas in it, and you overhear the group behind being reassured that its vegetables aren’t cooked in oil, you begin to wonder what exactly it is, and what an Italian would do if they saw it: laugh, start weeping uncontrollably or throw the plate at the wall?

2. The Natural History museum contains some rather gruesome specimens of various typical animals and plants: sloths, monkeys, snakes, hummingbirds, turtles, pumas, ocelots… and peacocks. Yes, that well-known South American bird…

1. Thousands of people swarm to Machu Picchu every day. So, if you’re travelling alone, what’s the odds of coming across someone from your home town. What’s the likelihood of seeing someone in a Bury FC shirt, that internationally know and renowned team from the bottom English league. Well, from my experience, there’s a pretty good chance of it happening, actually.

Huancayo, or Life in a Central Highlands Town

Huancayo: a town with a population of 400,000, and located at an altitude of 3244m above sea level. A place described by Lonely Planet as giving the traveller “the impression of arriving in some Wild West frontier town. Tumbledown outer suburbs, dusty, chaotic streets, people wandering seemingly at random and all around the mountains rise and surround”. Nine hours on a bus along a windingly steep and narrow road from Lima. Eleven hours on what is basically a dirt track (especially in the rainy season) to Ayacucho, which is another twenty-odd hours on from Cusco. What, indeed, am I doing here?

This is a question that I began to ask myself shortly after boarding a Lima-bound bus in Cusco. To be precise, it was around the time that the hairpin bends began, and the three children squashed into the two seats opposite me stopped smacking one another around the head with their rodent-faced hats and started vomiting. Was this really such a good idea? I was leaving a beautiful Incan city, all cute cobbled streets and plazas with fountains and mind-blowing ruins, travelling for the best part of two days to what the guidebook suggested was a bit of a shithole.

When I did eventually arrive, Huancayo was facing a bit of an uphill struggle to win me over. I hadn’t eaten anything other than bread, biscuits and crackers in rather too long, hadn’t showered in even longer and my bus had broken down in some mysterious place on the altiplano, nearly provoking a riot amongst the middle-aged women who made up 90% of its passengers. Oh, and my window had been covered up with black sticky-backed plastic, so I hadn’t even had a view of the mountains we were scrambling up. I had to bite my lip to stop myself from laughing out loud as a fellow passenger turned to me as we clambered out of the bus at our final (finally!) destination (and I smacked my head on the television for the umpteenth time: I wouldn’t have minded so much if I’d actually been able to watch the thing without dislocating my neck) and said “Bienvenida a Huancayo”. And then the heavens opened.

So, this was Huancayo. Ensconced in my hostel room that evening, showered and changed and fed on pizza, I pondered my situation. It is not a pretty town, and even less so in the rain. A poster advertising the infamous breakdown-bus company shows a photograph of a colonial-style church standing imposingly on a large, tree-filled plaza, various couples, families, children etc wandering by. And while it’s true that this square does exist (at least, in the right light it does), it’s not exactly what I’d call representative of the town. The place is dusty, dirty and messy, the roads full of angry drivers and the pavements (when they’re there at all) clogged with aimlessly wandering pedestrians.

It is a town with no bus terminal, but an infinite number of buses doing eternal loops, their conductors keeping up a steady stream of incomprehensible shouts in an attempt to entice an additional passenger onto a vehicle that is inching along in the nightmarish traffic of a 24 hour rush hour. The kind of place where even the main road feels a little dodgy, and more of the shops seem boarded up than actually open for serving customers. A town where the print shops are united by the ubiquitous presence of a blonde woman in skimpy underwear on their signs, even if all they sell is black and white photocopies. The sort of place where you only realise how conspicuous you feel as a foreigner when you walk past ‘Gringo’s’ fried chicken restaurant and are relieved to hear some badly accented Spanish from the grumpy man in the baseball cap scooping chips out of a deep fat fryer. Off the beaten track somehow doesn’t really cover it.

On my first morning here, waiting on the street for my first craft class, I see a collision between a car and a cyclist. No-one is hurt, not the cyclist or the girlfriend perched on his handlebars, and there is no sign of obvious damage to the car. Until the cyclist swings a punch at the driver, and the girlfriend starts kicking his tyre, that is. The accompanying shrieking and carrying on might, somewhere else, attract a great deal of attention. Here, I am perhaps the only person interested enough to watch. This, it seems, is life in Huancayo.

And yet, somehow, I have found myself here, and what’s more, I’ve discovered that I’m happy here. There is something wonderfully refreshing about a town that isn’t trying to be something it’s not, a place where even the street ice cream vendors look thoroughly bored (and are usually to be found eating their own wares). The odd touch of ‘class’, as you might (rather snobbishly) call it, usually comes with a large dollop of anti-climax, somehow refreshing when you arrive from a city so cosmopolitan and outwards-looking and tourist orientated that there’s a Starbucks, KFC or McDonalds on every corner and an English menu in every café. Walk into a coffee shop in Huancayo and you’ll probably have to track down the waiter (most likely lurking in a corner watching the television) before you can even begin to think about ordering. Should you make the mistake of opting for one of the fancy coffees listed on the menu, its service will probably be preceded by a frantic phone call to someone who (hopefully) knows exactly how one goes about making a triple-frothy-caramel-mocha-cappuccino, and whether the biscuit goes on the top of the cup or on the saucer. Even an old-fashioned milky coffee is served, rather oddly, as a mug of warm milk with an espresso on the side, and a request for the ‘Selva Negra’ cake (yes, that is a literal translation of ‘Black Forest’) is greeted by a look of confusion and query as to whether that’s the chocolate or the lemon one. Such innocence hasn’t been seen since the arrival of the café latte to my home town of Bury.

This, I suspect, is the reason I like Huancayo so much: I have spent most of my life to date in a Northern Town. Warnings about keeping a tight hold of your handbag (“there’s delinquents everywhere”), horrendously bad parking and an inordinate fondness for fried chicken shops are, I suspect, as much a part of my heritage as the cotton industry about which I enthusiastically talk to my weaving teacher. So is all of the tat for sale on the streets (the tacky mobile phone cases probably fell off the back of the same lorry as the ones back at home) and the sulky attitude of the shopkeepers (“What do you mean you’ve not got change? You’d better bloody go and get some then, hadn’t you?”). Huancayo even has, like Bury, a railway so inefficient that it’s geared purely to tourists, although I suspect they don’t have the problem of people turning up to the war weekend in Nazi costumes, and Santa might get a bit chilly on his Special going over a pass that reaches an altitude of over 4000m above sea level. The Peruvian station car park might be cheaper too.

When, on my first day in Huancayo, I was taken plunging into the labyrinthine depths of the local market, there were many aspects that might have overwhelmed me. There was the way the stalls were set up in the middle of the road, with no thought to the passing traffic, drivers angrily beeping their horns. There was the frog soup and accompanying tanks of live amphibians awaiting their fate, whilst salesmen proclaimed the restorative properties of the foul looking brew (I wonder if men are chosen for the job in order to avoid unfavourable comparisons with the opening scene of a certain Scottish Play). There was the way you could buy everything from boiled quails’ eggs to entire alpaca pelts, and there was the fact that people were openly urinating in the streets, right alongside the women cutting up bread, avocados and mysterious-looking meat for sandwiches. There were the open manholes and the litter-filled gutters, the surgically-masked women selling fruit juices and the bits of dead animal piled in cardboard boxes. Many a comparison could be drawn, from North African souks to … It was a travel experience, certainly, but perhaps not an entirely pleasant one, my main consolation being that I didn’t have my handbag with me and therefore nothing for pickpockets or petty thieves to steal.

Yet what struck me most of all was the utter normality of the scene: this isn’t a market for tourists, visitors or foreigners. There are no women waving baby llamas around in the hope of earning money from photographs, no calls to “Buy Miss, very good price”. To return to the Lonely Planet, this is “a glimpse of Peru at its most normal… the heartland of Andean Peru – its soul.”

Talk of souls tends to lead to sentimental, romantic or religious interpretations. But surely if our soul is the truest part of ourselves, then it is in fact this ugly, unadorned and undisguised face that we tend not to show to the world. If Machu Picchu is how this country wants to be seen, then the Darkest Peru from which Paddington Bear hails is probably somewhere around here. Life on the altiplano is hard, things aren’t pretty, the mountains are just a pain to get over and the food, whilst cheap, isn’t always the most exciting, being heavily based on potatoes, bread and rice. Half of the shops in the art and craft market are permanently closed, and the woman manning the tourist police desk seems so bored that she optimistically looks up every time I walk past, presumably hoping that I (apparently the only tourist in this place) have had some terrible misfortune befall me, just to give her something to do. Even getting out of here is difficult, since the many bus offices scattered around town have no sign of timetables, staff or even vehicles.

A traveller once told me that he measured the isolation of a town by the number of stray dogs it has: get beyond more than a couple per street and you know you’re really in the back of beyond. As I set off walking for the rock formations of Torre Torre, 3km from the centre of town, following “a sign and an obvious path”, I began to notice just how many four-legged creatures were wandering the streets. Canines, yes, generally either large and asleep or small and angry, but also sheep, pigs, and some strangely woolly things that, whilst definitely not picturesque to be llamas, could have been just about anything else, from a kangaroo to a koala bear. Wandering through the increasingly rural-feeling outskirts of town, I was aware of the open stares of small boys, elderly women and delivery truck drivers, all watching and quite clearly wondering what on earth I was doing in their neighbourhood. There was not, by any means, what I would call a clear path to anywhere. The prevalence of cow manure in the streets put paid to that. If this wasn’t the back of beyond, I don’t know what is.

I found my rocks, eventually, took my photographs and squeezed onto a local bus back into town, no doubt causing yet more astonishment. And then it hit me that this was entirely the wrong way to go about getting to know Huancayo. There are no famous sights here, nothing to be missed out on, no ‘must-sees’ or unforgettable experiences. Attempting to seek such things out is a rather fruitless effort: slog to the top of a hill and someone will have constructed a concrete monstrosity perfectly positioned to block your view. Frustrating, some might say, but also strangely liberating. Because without these tourist sites, without all of the pressure that they entail, you are free to aimlessly wander the dusty, chaotic streets.

So, mug of coffee, jug of milk? Maybe not...

So, mug of coffee, jug of milk? Maybe not…

20 things that happen on buses in Peru

I know, 20 seems a lot, doesn’t it? But the thing is, I’ve spent a lot of time on buses here. Of the last 48 hours, over 30 involved me sat on a bus (I know, I know: when I told the woman at the travel agency that I’ve arranged my time here in Huancayo with that I had come from Cusco and was going to Machu Picchu next I got a look of ‘But WHY?!’ All I can say is that it made sense at the time.) But anway, suffice to say that I’ve had a lot of time to spent thinking about the oddities of buses.

20. You get on the bus and someone comes round with a camera taking mugshots. It’s unclear whether this is because you might be a hijacker, or so that they can more easily identify your body when the vehicle goes over a cliff.

19. You notice that there is a sign by the front seats on the top deck. It is of the ‘remember, you may die’ variety, pointing out  if you’re not wearing your seatbelt, you WILL end up going straight through the windscreen. It may be true, but it’s not EXACTLY reassuring.

18. There is a departure tax in the terminal. Of a bizarre and arbitrary amount: 1.20S, 0.90S, 1.60S. Where are these people getting all of their change from?!

17. You have opted for a window seat. Yet for some unknown reason it always ends up being the gap between two windows where there is no window, with any residual potential view blocked by the curtains that stubbornly refuse to draw back. And the strange black substance inexplicably covering the outside of part of the window too…

16. Before the bus can leave, the post van pulls up with a set of boxes that are unceremoniously lobbed here, there and everywhere. Even the ones labelled ‘FRAGILE’. Not exactly FedEx…

15. This is by far the least odd thing loaded under the coach, however. Items range from child-size rucksacks to enormous bags of potatoes (we’re talking ‘two men to lift’ weight), not forgetting the bags of live chickens. Just don’t bring a cat: they’re bad luck. Oh, and remember, everything is labelled (even the enormous saucepan of raw meat), and you’re not getting it back if you lose your ticket. Like anyone else wants it…

14. You realise that there are an awful lot of signs about people trafficking. Most appear to be of the ‘how to’ variety, with a small  warning in the bottom right hand corner that this is highly illegal and all offenders will be prosecuted. Right. Not entirely convincing.

13. As soon as you arrive at the terminal to board your bus, you are bombarded with people trying to persuade you that you want a taxi back into the city you just came from. For an excellent price, of course.

12. Similarly, the most persistent sales people at the terminal are the ones flogging tickets to somewhere you have no intention of going. But they just won’t take no for an answer. Am I meant to snap in the end and say ‘Yes, what the hell, I was going to go to Lima but I’ll go for Puno instead, since you’re offering such a good price.’?

11. The woman handing out the meals on the bus is dressed like a flight attendant, complete with hair scrunchie and matching red shoes. But as the bus goes over the Andes, she also has a spare coat and a woolly pair of socks. And spends most of her time wrestling windows open and shut for people.

10. You think it’s lovely that you’re being offered sweeties as you go over a mountain pass. Then a bag is offered too and you realise it’s meant to stop you being sick everywhere. You are glared at when you refuse the bag: think you’re invincible, do you?

9. The first badly dubbed science fiction film you see is OK. By the time you’ve reached the fifth of the omnibus DVD, you’re wishing the predicted apocalypse would hurry up and happen already. Plus you’re a bit disconcerted by how avidly the small children around you are watching all of the gore.

8. Having been lulled into a false sense of security, believing that the seat next to you is unoccupied, you have spaced into it, only for someone to appear, utterly spread out (we’re talking armrest control, foot space invasion, the works) and fall asleep, snoring loudly for the next 20 hours. Do you climb over them or wake them up to use the toilet? Or do you just hold on..?

7. The service station you stop at appears half constructed. There are three versions of the same shop, only one of which has any stock, whilst the toilets are being fiercely guarded by a boy who looks about 5. On the other hand, there are various kinds of soup, chicken and fried rice available, and what you don’t finish you can take away in a polystyrene container (just to add to the lovely fresh fragrance of the bus). The drivers appear to have their own secret clubhouse.

6. The windscreen is cracked in various places. Some cracks have been patched with sellotape. The advantage of this? The glass isn’t going to suddenly shatter into the driver’s eyes. The disadvantage? It’s not the cleanest or the clearest, so he’s having to peer through big grimy grubby strips to see the twists and turns of the road, and stop the bus plunging into a bottomless abyss in the middle of the night.

5. The people who want to get off early are never actually ready to get off when the time comes, leading to frantic shouts of ‘let me off, let me off’ as the bus pulls away, their luggage unloaded but them not.

4. The use of mobile phones with obnoxiously loud ringtones is prevalent, particularly by older women who aren’t quite sure how they work. Queue lots of repeated ‘Hola! HOLA! CAN YOU HEAR ME?’. Updates of progress are usually along the ‘I’m on the bus’ lines. No-one is ever ready and waiting to pick them up when the bus arrives at the terminal.

3. The concept of the terminal is a sketchy one, particularly in Lima where it doesn’t appear to exist. Everyone helpfully sends you in the wrong direction for the office you’re looking for, or informs you that buses don’t go there, or not at this time, or only from ‘arriba’. It is only when the bus is actually pulling out from across the road that you realise this is all lies, damned lies.

2. The conductor feels that it is wise patrolling the bus at frequent intervals loudly reminding everyone that the on-board toilet is for urinating only. ‘Cause it’ll stink if you shit in there. So if you need to go, knock on the door and let us know’. Obviously this is a popular course of action for the discreet traveller.

1. When it’s time to get off, there’s a free-for-all and if you miss your slot, you’re doomed to be the last left on the bus. Oh, and you will smack your head on the low-hanging TV. The children giggling indiscreetly at this are probably more entertained than they have been all trip. So you are useful for something…

Ten things that happen when you go to a show in Peru

I know, I know… It’s been a while, so long that I’m now in a different country… But I blame South American internet, and too much time exploring and eating cake to write about it. Anyway, I’m back (at least for now!) and here with yet more observations of the oddities of life. You see, it all started with getting a free ticket to the dance show at the Centro Q’osqo de Arte Nativo…

10. The seating is not reserved. That doesn’t mean that you get in early, find a good seat and stick with it. Oh no. It means you play an elaborate game of musical chairs, as every time a seat becomes available you dive for it, only to spot another one that might just be better. As they say, the grass is always greener. Or, to paraphrase a song from my childhood, the bear went over the mountain to see what he could see, but all that he could see was the other side of the mountain (for ‘mountain’ read ‘side of dancer’s heads).

9. When the small boy next to you gets bored and leaves, his seat (obviously in a prime position) is immediately taken. He reappears five minutes later searching for his hat. Where is it? Well, in my experience, you’re probably sat on it. The man next to me clearly didn’t subscribe to this theory. Somehow the situation ended up with the small boy crawling under the seat, with the man sat on it stoically pretending nothing was happening.

8. The woman behind’s phone rings. Loudly and for a long time. She proceeds to answer it and conduct an in-depth conversation, which definitely started with ‘Well, I’m sat here watching this dance thing…’.

7. The descriptions of the dances are interspersed with random announcements, including one which specifies that the Ministry of Defence requires that the audience be made aware of all available safety features, including the emergency exits, the location of all fire exits and the entire contents of the first aid kit. This is followed by a nice spiel about a bird-mating dance. No-one bats an eyelid at this juxtaposition.

6. One of the musicians clearly thinks that if he scratches himself under his poncho, no-one will see. This is not the case, especially as he is in the middle of the front row and holding a flute (thus having nothing to hide behind: he could’ve done what he liked if he were a guitarist).

5. One of the dancers appears inept at speedy costume changes, and so the routines invariably start one woman down, with her poor partner trying to bluff with a bit of air-twirling.

4. The lights are oddly inconsistent, turning on and off at random moments. The house lights are reminiscent of those found in school classrooms. An interesting effect is added by all of the flashes from the audience’s cameras going off.

3. It becomes clear that any props used in dances can be weapons: that string of pompoms? A whip. Handkerchief? Yep, that too. Coil of rope? Obviously. Stick? What do you think?!

2. During the musical interval, members of the audience are invited up to dance. This descends into one of those snake trains people make at parties when they’re drunk. A man (who has dragged his girlfriend up onto the stage) disappears into the wings and reappears with a dancer. Girlfriend looks unimpressed.

1. There is, inexplicably, a backdrop of Machu Picchu. And large papier-mâché dancers on the walls. And a large red curtain that swishes shut rather dramatically at certain moments, but is slightly transparent, so odd silhouettes can be seen doing costume changes behind it. Oh, and the shop sells beer and lollipops, whilst the saleswomen outside go for necklaces, llama pens and ceramic ashtrays. Never miss an opportunity for a sale, that’s the Peruvians!

Gabriel and me

OK, let’s start with a little quiz. Ten famous Gabriels? There’s the angel, known for appearing to a certain woman in Nazareth, and being played by the blonde girl in primary school Nativity plays (I suppose of the predominantly male parts available, an angel is closer to androgynous than a Wise MAN…) Erm… and then…

So, I study Latin American literature. Which Gabriel do I mean? My Gabriel, who hogs a reasonable proportion of my shelf, and whose work I have a tendency to assume everyone has read, because, well, I have. And if I say ‘Cien años’ to you, you should just know what I’m waffling on about. Because if you’ve known me long enough, I’ll have made you read it anyway!

I don’t even know how I came across Gabriel (OK, I’ll be kind, in case you haven’t guessed already, and fill you in: it’s Gabriel García Márquez that I’m waffling on about!). I vaguely remember being recommended one of his books (possibly Love in the Time of Cholera, but we’ll get to that in a minute), and then there was definitely the phase where I read everything I could get my hands on in preparation for my Oxford interviews (to the extent that I can still remember the one with the mayor and the dentist and the one with the sun that gets shot by Rebecca (sorry, getting ahead of myself again!) and the symbolism of the stifling heat and the almond trees. I’d never been to South America, and other than a doomed family holiday to Cuba when I was very young (I knew neither Che Guevara nor Ernest Hemingway, making it rather a cultural failure. I hadn’t even read Our Man in Havana!), Europe was about the limit of my horizons. And so GGM’s world was exciting and amazing and new and nothing like the Musketeers (which I also loved, and still do: that is perhaps my formative French reading experience, and explains why I spent six months traipsing around castles). And I like to think he got me into Oxford, too, so bonus points for him for that.

The thing is, when you read a lot,  people have a tendency to ask what your favourite book is. I don’t know whether they think you have no other facets to your personality (I don’t actually do the real world, you know…) or if in fact they’re expecting some fascinating insight. The problem is (or rather, the problems…) that when you rattle through four or five books a week, you really remember them. And then you analyse them to shreds, which kind of takes the enjoyment out of the whole thing. And you can’t read trashy rubbish because it just annoys you. And there are simply too many to choose from. All of this explains the ‘rabbit in the headlights’ look I tend to greet said question with. So although I might mumble ‘something by García Márquez’, really I’d just be hoping that you’d change the subject.

I have never read a García Márquez book that I didn’t like. He has a tendency to be crude, his imagery can be obvious and he’s pretty sexist, but he’s also wonderfully witty and clever and his stories have a way of intertwining, so that characters that appear in one crop up in another, giving you the feeling of being in on an in-joke, which is just the best thing an author can do (in my humble opinion). That Rebecca? She’s in Cien Años too, so you read about her shooting someone and you know that she’s crazy, because you’ve read all about it. I love that GGM doesn’t pander to you either: if you haven’t read his other stuff, you won’t get the reference, and he doesn’t care, and he isn’t going to explain it to you.

Now, I try hard to appear serious with my reading tastes. I once spent a whole essay and a tutorial arguing against the existence of ‘women’s writing’ as a distinct genre. I do NOT like slushy romantic books. But if I had to pick one book, one wonderfully amazingly lovely story, what would it be? Not Crónica de una Muerte Anunciada. Nothing from Los Funerales de Mamá Grande. Not even Cien Años, fantastic as it is. No, it would be Love in the Time of Cholera. 

Why? I don’t know. Because as a love story, it is about as masculine as it can get: girl breaks boy’s heart, marries someone else, so he decides to console himself by seducing every woman he comes across. And then at the end, she realises she was wrong and runs off with him. From a feminist standpoint, it’s just… uuurgh… But somehow you manage to forget that when you’re reading it, and I can only assume that this must be down to how García Márquez writes. For me, one of the most wonderful things about his work is that no-one gets happy endings and nothing turns out perfectly: he’s completely aware that we humans are a messed-up bunch, and that interacting with each other is rarely straightforward. People are forever rambling on about ‘magical realism’, but I don’t really know if that’s actually what’s so enticing about his writing. I prefer to think of it as the tragic stupidity of humanity. Maybe that’s a particularly Latin American thing, maybe not. 

So if you haven’t read Love in the Time…, go and find it and snuggle down in a comfy chair with it. I challenge you not to weep, shout with frustration and laugh out loud, possibly all three at the same time. And then go and read everything else old Gabriel’s ever written too, and despair that you aren’t him, and that you’ll never quite have the words to say it as he does. I promise, it’s the only possible reaction.

Chocolate Chuquiasqeña

5th March 2014, Sucre, Bolivia

I know, I know. I know what you’re thinking. What happened to the cake? What happened to Fridays? Well, I don’t really know. I guess La Paz is a wonderful city for street food (keep your eyes peeled for a future post on the many kinds of pastry you come across being sold from ad-hoc bakeries or little carts on the street) but it just can’t compare to Paris on the cake front. But that doesn’t mean that a ritual should be abandoned (that’s a bit like the ex-Pope saying that Mass doesn’t live up to when he was in the Vatican, so he’s becoming atheist. Well, sort of…) and this little holiday to Sucre was obviously the ideal opportunity to get back on the cake bandwagon. (Possibly the first time that phrase was written in that particular order!)

Now, in some ways, La Paz reminds me of Manchester. (Another sentence first, no doubt!) A bit grimy, rains a lot, lots of hills, in the North… (Don’t know if there’s a paceño Oasis or Smiths, but there really should be!) Maybe that’s why it feels like home? Anyway, where does that leave Sucre? Pretty, yes, sunny, yes, a bit pretentious, full of students… Yep, that’s right, Sucre is Oxford. Even down to having been the capital: old Ox stood in as the base for the Royalists in the Civil War, whilst they named Sucre after the bloke that killed the Spanish monarchists and had it as the capital until they decided that La Paz was a better bet. (Mancunians take note: Parliament could be heading north yet!)

Having established this delightful fact, I did my favourite trick when arriving in a new place: climbed up to get a bird’s eye view! The guidebook led me on a slight dud, to a bit of a dingy church with random tarpaulin over bits of it:

Apparently one of the loveliest church interiors in Sucre

However, all was forgiven once I’d scrambled up the pretty dodgy spiral staircase and clambered out of what was effectively a hole onto the roof. Because Sucre is pretty gorgeous from this height.




Worth the precarious staircase, no?

So, speaking of views, and excessive exercise, there was then the slog up to the Plaza Anzunes. Now, La Paz has some horrible hills with lovely panoramas at the top, and they still make me stop and smile (and not just from relief at finally making it up there), and so I thought I’d got beyond being impressed. After all, once you’ve seen snowy mountains on your way to pick up your clean undies, you’re a bit harder to please. And then I found this:



(Sorry it’s getting a bit photo-heavy here, but how else do you describe it, really?)

Anyway… on to lunch: the inevitable ‘vegetarian sandwich’ and the still-not-used-to-it juice-list-tome. As in, you say ‘What juices do you have?’ and prepare for a 3-hour long list of every possible combination you can imagine, most of which flavours are utter mysteries since we don’t have the fruits back home. Settling for a mixture of banana, passion fruit and various other things, I leaned back into a deckchair, dug out my notepad and chilled. Juice, actually pretty good butty (proper roasted veg, big hunk of smoked cheese, toasted, olive, random carrot salad: what more could you want?), and this view (I promise, nearly at the end of the photos! If nothing else, because Bolivian Internet doesn’t appreciate this image overload!):



And then, finally, sadly, back from the glorious peace, quiet and stillness of this little oasis to the real world of the city of Sucre. (And yes, I know, the ‘real world’ of Sucre is about 10 times more dreamlike than the rest of the known universe, but compared to that quiet little square, coming back down into town was like getting a bus through Cheetham Hill at rush hour.) Fortunately for me, I stumbled across a certain little chocolate shop with three tables and a menu consisting of half a dozen items: hot chocolate (big or little cup), chocolate milkshake, chocolate-dipped fruit kebab, liqueur shots in chocolate cups and Sacher torte. It was a wee bit early in the day for the shots (although it has been a while since I had Amarula and/ or Bailey’s: maybe tomorrow…) and who wants fruit? Why pretend to be healthy in a chocolate emporium?! So I went for the hot chocolate (long) and Sacher torte.

Now, let’s get one thing straight. This was not Sacher torte as Slattery’s of Prestwich do it. On the other hand, I am assured that the Viennese don’t do Sacher torte as Slattery’s do, so we can’t be too picky. And this chocolate concoction could not be accused of being dry. Especially not when served on a plate with yet more chocolate sauce (and inexplicably, some strawberry/ raspberry/ red stuff (not ketchup!): what’s that about?!). Was it authentic? Probably not. Was it tasty? Oh, yes. Especially when accompanied by the rather delicious hot chocolate. The only odd bit was the couple on the next table asking for a guidebook swap (theirs recommended the place, mine didn’t, other than that they were pretty much identical!) and the creeping invasion of my space by a random family. Atmosphere = a little bit surreal. Chocolate = pretty bloody good.


PS. Apparently, local regulations state that all buildings in central Sucre have to be re-whitewashed every year. Told you they were pretentious!

Ten crazy things about Carnaval: Bolivian style!

In the UK, about the craziest we get in the run-up to Lent is a few pancakes with a bit of lemon, sugar, Nutella or, if you’re my mother, salt (weirdy Lithuanian!). And then we get on with moaning about the sudden appearance of Easter bunnies and cream eggs for about six weeks. But not in Bolivia. Oh, no! Their pre-Lent thing goes on for about four days, and none of this frugal idea of using stuff up: this is a full-on excuse for a party, a load of buying stuff and a lot of messiness. So, here goes…

10. Saturday before Shrove Tuesday is Oruro day. Their parade is that huge (yes, that huge) that it’s been UNESCO recognised (in the category of ‘Stuff-It’s-Really-Hard-To-UNESCO-Recognise, which actually has a fancier and more official sounding name) and goes on all day. So for weeks before you’re bombarded with offers for packages to go there, and for weeks afterwards you’re being told that you really should have been.

9. There’s that much drinking goes on (start early, keep going as long as you can) at said Oruro that no-one who actually went can remember it. That’s why you have lots of slightly out-of-focus photos though, right?

8. The ever-flaky Bolivian timetabling of anything and everything gets about a hundred times worse. Try to buy a bus ticket for Tuesday: ‘Ooh, no, we’re not running then’. Monday? ‘Ooh, no, I’m not sure…’ When will you be sure? ‘Monday?’ Grrrr…

7. Despite the fact that all of the Carnival stuff happens every year, it still has to be televised because, you know, there’s nothing else going on. So as if there weren’t enough people clogging up the streets, hanging around the bus station trying to get to Oruro (diving in front of you because who needs queues?), the TV crews are there, getting in the way by interviewing ticket sales people (erm, excuse me, I’m trying to BUY A TICKET here…) and trying to get shots of us tourists, just to prove how popular it is. (Let’s not rain on their parade by telling them that I was actually after a ticket for next week…)

6. La Paz is also fond of parades. Ones that go down the main street, blocking it off for four days. Attempting to get to the station, I was assured by a variety of people that it was simply impossible. But impossible is nothing: I just had to do a detour so long that I was half expecting to be asked for my passport and find I’d ended up in Brazil.

5. Paceños aren’t big fans of rules of the road at the best of times. Get to Carnaval and they just give in altogether. Walk down the middle of the road? Yeah, fine. Set up a little barbecue in the middle of the road? Why not? Set off firecrackers as buses are driving past. Sure thing!

4. Speaking of those firecrackers… So, they don’t do Pancake Day here, they do Challa. And what is that, I hear you ask? Well, in a wonderfully mixed-up Bolivian way, it has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus, since it’s all about blessing your house/ shop/ car/ pet and asking the Pachamama for a healthy and prosperous time ahead. (Kind of like Alasitas, but without little stuff). There are flower petals, spilling of beer (deliberately: wards off the evil spirits, because you obviously don’t mix your drinks), little charcoal bonfires with a selection of things being burned on them… Balloons are tied to cars, streamers are wrapped around things and people. Loud music (VERY loud music) is played, with the aim being to drown out your neighbour. Dancing on the street ensues. This starts at about 9am…

3. Of course, this means that shops are confusingly closed but with their doors open. Meaning that Monday is a bit of a siege-preparation day, unless you want to live off beer and candied nuts. Or, you know, if you’ve just done a 14 hour bus journey from the other end of the country.

2. But it’s OK, you don’t need food, because you’ll probably end up swallowing a load of foam. And getting covered in water. Water pistols, balloons and cans of shaving foam are sold in vast quantities on every street corner (along with plastic ponchos, but that’s surely defeating the object?) and are put to pretty good use. Dropping from upstairs windows or squirting out of car windows isn’t just allowed, it’s encouraged. Especially if your target is a tourist. Mother of family joining in too? Of course. And if you run out of foam in your can, just scoop some off your hair and dab it directly on to someone. I suppose it could be worse: so far it’s only been water in the balloons. Or have I just tempted fate?

1. Those firecrackers. Part of the whole blessing ritual, no-one seems to have any objection to letting them off in the most inappropriate of places: covered shopping arcades, offices, the side of the road. And you get worryingly used to being surrounded by what sounds like gunfire (but hopefully isn’t). And flying sparks. Ah, Bolivia, land of health and safety…

Ten weird things that happened in Chile

So, here’s the thing. I am and always have been a little bit scared of random patriotism. I blame my dad, since when we used to watch sports on TV, he’d make me root for the athlete/ team from the country I’d never heard of, and we’d desperately hope that Britain would drop the baton, score an own goal or get half of the team sent off. So, coming to Bolivia with my scepticism of nationalism, how do you expect me to react to the various stories I’m told about how odd the Chileans are? That’s right, polite nodding as a symptom of not-really-buying it. And then I went to Chile, and the following rather odd things happened.

1. I came across not one, not two but THREE toilets (in restaurants/ cafés) positioned so close to the opposite wall that there was basically no space for my knees. I’m getting used to that on public transport, but I couldn’t help but think there might have been a little more space if there hadn’t been a full on shower in the way too…

2. The bus driver on my way to Chile asked for my passport to fill in his funny immigration form. Utterly baffled by the fact that I had only one surname, he decided that the part that says ‘British Citizen’ must be part of my name, and decides I must be called Alison Citizen Walsh. And be Irish. Where he got that from I don’t know. Since no-one mentioned any of this, I conclude that no-one actually reads these forms. Like, ever.

3. I found an amazing but rather surreal meal deal in a café in Arica. Listed as ‘ice cream, cake, juice, coffee and toastie’, I asked if it included all of these things. It did. Oddly, they also came in that precise order. Because ice cream makes a wonderful starter, and a cheese toastie is clearly pudding.

4. Ever get sick of trying to find somewhere to park near the seaside? Tired of lugging picnic hampers, inflatables, towels and deck chairs around? Arica has it covered: just drive onto the beach, practically into the sea if you like, and then unload from there. (Ignoring the signs about the protection of green turtles: you can’t litter, but you can drive over one).

5. For some strange reason, despite the fact that Chile is west of Bolivia, it is an hour ahead (this being because it has daylight saving time, although I think it’s rather futile in the north of the country anyway). Every time I tried to get my head around this, I gave in, realising it made absolutely no sense. And then arriving at the border, we were told it opened at 8am. Bolivian or Chilean time? Neither: we were eventually let through at about 9/10:45… So the timekeeping isn’t any better over there…

6. There was a triathlon going on in Arica (land of dust and blistering heat: sounded a bit like hell). And in an attempt to motivate the competitors to keep moving on their laps around the deathly dull road-based course, they had chosen to blast some music out. Who had they decided would be great motivation? U2. Yep, what you really want chasing you round is the wailing sound of ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’. Perhaps it’s meant to make you run faster, in a desperate attempt to escape Bono?

7. So, turns out this Bolivian-Chilean animosity isn’t one-sided. In taking a tour around a replica of a sunken Peruvian ship, a general question was raised as to where everyone was from. In the midst of the general chorus of ‘Santiago’, I pipe up ‘Except me, of course,’ to which the reply is, ‘No, bet you’re from Bolivia’. And on it went. Every time mention of the B-word was made, it was to angry accusations that the war was all their fault. And the land was Bolivian first, it was just given to their made-up country because they needed a bit of a hand. Etc, etc, etc.

8. There are railways in Chile (unlike in Bolivia). And they cross roads, utterly at random. Without any kind of signals, barriers or anything. So the bus driver just has to slow down and peer over his shoulder to see if there’s any large metal objects hurtling along at high speed on the rails. And there isn’t, so he carries on. Thoughts of Fried Green Tomatoes come to mind. Or possibly Stand By Me? My film knowledge is dodgy. But you get the idea…

9. Public toilets appear to have a new feature. A price reduction for OAPs and the disabled. But not children, obviously, because they’re by far the best market for this kind of facility. I’m just surprised they’re not charged double.

10. Going for breakfast one morning, I request a croissant. Not available. Raspberry pastry. Not available. There is this ‘paila’ thing mentioned, the same price as a slice of sad, limp white bread and jam. So I order it. Turns out to be a little frying pan of scrambled eggs with cheese and an ENORMOUS square stottie cake. (For those who’ve never been to Newcastle, just think of a really big bread roll). Like, plate-sized. Bigger than the pan of scrambled eggs. For about £1.50. (The coffee was a bit dodgy, since it was a sachet of instant and a mug of hot water: mix it yourself style! But really, was I in a position to be fussy?)

So, that’s Chile for you! And now I’m safely back in the normality of Bolivia. Oh, wait a second…