Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Tom’s Latin American Vacation (Part 3): Uruguay – or how to break a bunk bed

October 24, 2010 1 comment

It was somewhere betwixt Christmas and New Years when I met her. The stripy dress was the thing that caught my eye, I was curious enough to see the face of whomsoever would go out in such an outrageously stripy outfit. Without really thinking, I semi-drunkardly wandered around to the front with as much panache as a car salesman checking out the front of a car to see what it looked like. I got to the front-end and, well, not a bad frontage it was too. She smiled at me – and I introduced myself. Once the introductions were over I paused and said, “I have to go – lovely to meet you.”

0001 I walked out onto the street (still in Buenos Aires at this stage) to get some fresh air and within a few minutes the rest of the crowd (that I was with) decided to move on to the next club. She appeared and commented on the fact that I had not yet left – I took this in a positive way, as only I can. The night went on and I found myself in a taxi with her cousin and another girl on the way back to the hostel being propositioned by the taxi driver (via their translation) to a night in the seedier districts of Buenos Aires (an odd story, one I still don’t understand myself). This must have sparked their interest as a couple of days later they had invited me to Uruguay to celebrate New Years – which, of course, I did.

Uruguay (well, certainly the capital: Montevideo) is fantastic, the place is full of beautiful and decrepit old buildings (just waiting for someone with money to restore them), cars that look like they’ve been transported in time from the 1940’s and a whole host of characters who seem to spend all day playing and betting on street chess games. This isn’t a bad place to have a think about things.

The hostel we stayed in, Che Lagarto, was right next door to the ‘old district’ towards the sea side of town and only cost about 10 pounds a night. It was in a beautiful building – with interiors still being repainted and refrub’d whilst we stayed. The place was gorgeous – as was the company, of course. There was a celebratory city wide water fight a day or two before New Years, which ended up being more a city wide cheap fizzy wine fight – and I resisted the temptation to drink whatever was fired my way, despite what you might think. During the mayhem nearly everybody involved (those hanging from balconies, those running down the street brandishing bottles or water pistols) got hair-singe-ingly sun burnt and sticky. Returning to the hostel was painful for some, with backs reddened as well as cheeks, quite possibly for more than one reason (I’ll let your imagination take that one).01

The New Year’s party that ensued has been made infamous by the breaking of a bunk bed – the exact details of which I will leave out – but needless to say it involved two persons, one of whom was male, the other of whom was female. They deny any wrong-doing, but we couldn’t help take the mickey out of them anyway. That’ll learn ‘em.

Meanwhile I was passing out in the hallway and being talked at by the stripy-dress woman – a good job too, hic. There was a fleeting moment when I thought I understood everything everybody was saying and then I realised I was drunk – thankfully, though, I realised I was empathic – which led to my hostess for the evening declaring me to be a woman. Just great – and she was my only opportunity for the night. Never mind, hopefully she’ll come round at some stage and realise I’m a man after all…

So the evening drew to a close and the festivities faded from our memories as hang-overs began to kick in by about 5am. I clambered into my bed at some hour – god knows when – and realised that Christmas may have been a downer, but New Years was most certainly not. I think I may still be recovering from it.

P.S. The mysterious ‘Stripy Dress Woman’ in photo above – showing off her tan, I like a woman who isn’t shy.

Categories: Travel

Tom’s Latin American Vacation (Part 2): Ura… no Rio – or ‘A run-in in a deserted town’

October 24, 2010 2 comments

038_38Forgive me if the details are a little sketchy – whether I went from Buenos Aires to Iguacu Falls first, or Rio or Uraguay, is all a bit confused. Ahhh, yes, I remember now – I spent Christmas in Rio, it felt like the thing to do; but then we (that being me and everyone else staying in the two main hostels in town) didn’t bargain on the fact that everywhere closes on Christmas Eve in Rio, apart from the restaurants which seemed to have been booked up since October (no doubt). A walk in Rio on Christmas Eve is a walk in a ghost town with the odd shady figure (not unlike myself) aimlessly looking for something to do and then, after five or six streets of darkness and solitude, being drawn to the next restaurant with bouncers on the door and smiling faces inside. I stood and scratched my nails down the food establishment’s window pane in a grand display of my anguish at being left alone on such a festive occasion.

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Tom’s Latin American Vacation (Part 1): Buenos Aires

October 23, 2010 Leave a comment

007_7It was time for another trip, I’d worked for a while in the UK and the unknown world, once again, beckoned. This time in the shape of a full blown trip around South America. It was a time and a half.

I’d booked my trip in an STA Travel shop in London, where else, and found that I was overcome with desire to fill my mind with all things Latin American. With a smattering of French it seemed reasonable to assume I might pick up a tad of Spanish if I put my mind to it – after all they both share a great deal of Latin as does English, so I hoped the learning curve would be shallow enough to make it worth while.

So, I set off in search of something new and arrived in Buenos Aires with a hostel booked just off the ‘Veinte Cinco de Mayo’ (25th of May), the main street 019_19running through the centre of the city which commemorates a city wide revolution (which did not find favour with the Argentine provinces). The place is BIG, and I don’t mean London City big – but simply, like all things that side of the ‘pond’, space is in abundance. As an example, the 25th of May street is about eight carriageways wide with pedestrian zones that add up to at least another six carriageways of width. The trek from one side to the other through the mid-day sun was never taken lightly.

Coffee shops, theatres, palaces (including the palace made famous by the story and film Evita, where Eva Perón stood waving at the crowds as we thought back to how she actually got there), shopping streets, restaurants galore and indoor/outdoor nightclubs (the last of which I left at about 6 in the morning wondering how on earth I should get back to the hostel). There’s artists at markets (one of whom I made a friend of, albeit mostly on Facebook – see her stuff here), tango lessons at the dead of night, tango displays in the street and whilst you eat (if you so desire your tango danced whilst you masticate) and plenty of people who are interested in getting to know you and anyone else that passes by.MargaFair

Buenos Aires is certainly a wonderful place. The hostel I stayed in had a wonderful roof terrace that caught the sun – and whilst supping a beer on this 5th of 6th floor heaven I per chanced on my perfect way of life: across the void of the street was a chalet style roof opening onto a very small terrace, perhaps only big enough for a couple of chairs and a small table. The owner of the apartment within had the wooden shutter doors thrown open along with the inner glass doors behind them, I could just see the blue tiled floor – nothing special, just functional. As the extent of my vision descended into darkness and mystery I could just make out the frayed edges of a rug and in the distance what could have been some old wooden furniture; I’m not certain now what musical instrument was being practiced through those doors, but the sun, the music and the beer combined and for a moment (possibly even more so now, if I could afford the time off work) I thought such a way of life would be damn good. Yes – I started to think I wanted to become a student again. …or at least a student of music.

The Tango nightlife was everywhere and when I wasn’t trying to find myself another good restaurant that would serve me a half bottle of good wine and good food (or sake and sushi) for around £12, I went with others to find restaurants that put on a show. These were fun – much fun, it’s got to be done is all I can say!015_15

I took time out to try to find a tango lesson – one where I could fade into the background. I found one through my artist friend Marga, who directed me to ‘Armenian Street’, or thereabouts, where for less than £2 I found myself surrounded by about 100 others that wanted to learn to dance. If you’re ‘of the female persuasion’ then you’ll get along fine – some young and, let us say, ‘robust’ (for the sake of argument) man would grab you and teach you all he knew – without needing you to speak Spanish. If, on the other hand, you are male you may find the going a little more confusing, especially as the instructors describe what is to be done in Spanish at the start of each 20 minute practice session. I quickly faded to the back after the ‘copy what I do’ start (I was always a reasonable mimic) and decided to simply try to comprehend as much Spanish as I could.

Yes – and what story of a lone man travelling would be complete without my near on obligatory misunderstood situation (all the better if it can be about something embarrassing, no?). Well, after a hard days exploring I decided to stop off in a cafe for a bit of light refreshment and to write (what became) a very unstructured diary of events. The cafe was packed with about 25 people, but I managed to find myself a table, order and start scribbling. Before long I noticed that one of the couple of women sitting on the table next to me was spending a fair amount of time watching me. I looked back and smiled (as one would – she was not an DSC01712unattractive ‘young thing’). More writing. To my left, as I had my head down concentrating on my script, I noticed a fishnetted leg waving for attention, it bounced from the knees of a companion leg with which it was crossed. The owner was rather bohemian-ly dressed with lace and bra straps on show, dark eye make-up and a very broad smile. She was laughing with her friend about something and, at my attention, immediately looked me in the eye and smiled.

‘How friendly the locals are in this neck of Buenos Aires’, I thought to myself – and so pretty. I continued writing and thinking back to times of flirtation at school, ‘twas a good moment. As I looked around to see what other ‘talent’ (as some might put it) was in the place to find that there were many young women – infact, besides me, an old couple (seemingly in argument), a couple of lovers (in a darkened corner) and two old men near the bar, everyone was a provocatively dressed, fairly attractive Latino ‘babe’. Once again, dear reader, I had found myself in the very heart of the town’s local pick up joint for ‘women of the night’. In this case, however, it was still the afternoon and the fresh faced girls chatted nineteen to the dozen as if they were gossip driven and enjoying life. A few brief negotiations between men who quickly arrived in the cafe and then left with a girl on their arm rather than a coffee confirmed my suspicions – and once my friend, by fishnets and proximity alone, had left I thought I had seen enough and went on my way.


I wonder if I will ever see my Dusky Fishnet Clad Mistress again – I do hope so…








Tom’s European Vacation (Part 9) – Pompeii, Rome, Venice

October 20, 2010 Leave a comment

DSC02463 ‘When in Rome’, my mother always used to say…  but if I were to follow that way of thinking I would probably attempt to take over the world, name my offspring the next emperor and die as my world domination slowly fell apart after a few hundred years. Not bad – but I’d prefer to do things my own way, so…

Bit of Greece? Thank you very much – over to Italy, sir? But of course… I caught myself a boat from Greece over to Italy and after a relaxing trip across the width of Italy I landed in Pompeii – or there-abouts.

Pushpin: Pompeii - a short rail trip from Naples

The town I stopped in was Naples, down near the water front was a hostel of epic cheapness, the town itself is worth a visit with fantastic back streets that make you feel like it could be the 1950’s all over again, wonderful churches & squares with wide open spaces that stretch down to the sea, as well as shopping for those of you with no imagination other than to spend money.

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Tom’s European Vacation (Part 8): Athens…

October 18, 2010 Leave a comment

What I was doing in Athens is anyone’s guess… I had got there (from a different place) by train (I think) only to find that, as with everywhere else I found myself, I did not speak the language and, hitherto, had felt no particular desire to go in the first place.

Mildly enthusiastic about the possibility of sitting down and discussing high-brow theories of logic vs belief or, alternatively, meeting some gorgeous Greek girl (either would have been fine) I set off for the only recognisable structure in the area…

Once there (the Parthenon), and whilst surveying Athens from above, I eavesdropped on an art/history lesson. It was interesting, however the only bits of information I didn’t already know I have since forgotten. On the gorgeous Greek girl front (if, indeed, I could get anywhere near her front) there was no action; as for the opportunity to discuss logic vs belief on the steps where some old guys chatted ages ago; no luck. Although I did have a look at the steps, very worn they were too.

So, some nice photos at least, but little else. I do recall a most splendid cold beer (or was it several hundred?) with some snack food somewhere in the narrow streets below the Acropolis – the rest is a blur for some reason.

‘Be thankful for the beer’, says my mangled mind in a kind of religious stupor; let us pray: oh Lord please provide us with beer, women and enough money to enjoy the two in large enough quantities that we forget what we did the following morning… Amen.

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Tom’s European Vacation (Part 7): Istanbul

October 12, 2010 Leave a comment

Hours and hours of sitting on a train. Then more hours sitting on a train. If you imagine that with a dose of sleep followed by yet more hours sitting on a train then you may start to have the beginnings of the nightmare which is travelling non-stop from Bucharest to Istanbul by rail, once you have run out of money.

It was when I realised that I needed to ration my water supply, for the near on 48 hour journey, that I understood I should have prepared in advance. Foolish of me – but I was recovering from an Irish bar hang over of mystique proportions, so please forgive me.

Sliding into Istanbul near on 6am at the end of this journey from hell could never have been a greater relief – the sun was shining and the view from the right of the train was of the sea, with the window open to the breeze. The railway ‘tracks’ the coastline and the train goes into slow-mo to give you a chance to take it all in. Finally the train halts in the station leaving you, once more, as is so wonderful with train travel, smack bang in the centre of where you are visiting.

Istanbul station is positioned at the topright (just left of the Gulhane Parki - the railway having circumnavigated the peninsula.

Using my ‘Europe on a Shoestring (Lonely Planet Shoestring Guides)’ book I quickly found a raft of options for hostels to stay in within easy walking distance of the station.

Why was I here? Mainly to get an eyeful of the Blue & Sofia Mosques which I’d read about earlier in the trip. This was the farthest I was travelling East for now so this seemed like the

outer limits of my journey. Having said that, in many ways it seemed the most civilised stop off I had yet made – perhaps as the city was so tourist friendly, everyone knew where the hostels and hotels were, were willing to help and sign language worked well when English was not understood. I have to say it was one of the most relaxed atmospheres I had experienced up to this point in my European vacation.

The Mosques were amazing – The Blue Mosque’s interior was superb with the addition of carpets (over the Christian churches I’d been inside before) making for a completely different auditory experience. The Hagia Sofia (Holy Wisdom) Mosque, originally a Christian church until the 15th century (and now a museum), is enormous in scale – putting one in mind of Persian myth. The fact that the church has been around since the 4th century is impressive enough, for a place of worship to withstand the test of time, that is – but to know that the current structure with it’s vast dome has been here since the 6th century staggers. I wandered the galleries for a while and lost all track of the fact that I was no longer on the ground floor – so capacious were they.

A quick tour of the cisterns gave rise to the understanding of the sheer scale of the civilisation here – these people were prepared to build underground ‘water vaults’ beneath their city that could contain up to 80,000 cubic meters of water (80 million litres of water). Not only that but these cisterns were, in places, quite decorative – each sporting columns with Corinthian style carvings. In one picture (above) their is an off-cut of sculpted stone used as a base for one of these columns – presumably a carving that didn’t quite come up to scratch.

Lastly the markets – who can go to Istanbul without trying out the ‘Grand Bazaar’, it’s very name seems to suggest a wondrous place with carpets, magical or not, awaiting you to haggle over them. The range of herbs and spices for sale are extraordinary, not only that but if you look slightly further afield one can find birds and animals awaiting your perusal – although you won’t be able to hear anything when you do see them. The noise from the birds alone is deafening.

So that’s it – Istanbul, plenty of cheap hostels to stay in – lovely restaurants, views over the sea whilst sipping tea just outside the Fort of Rumeli grounds, bazaars, cisterns (or should I say ‘grand water caverns’ so we don’t get confused) and mosques.

Beautiful!  …and sunny too! 

Tom’s European Vacation (Part 6): Bucharest

September 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Arriving at Gara De Nord the first thing one notices is that we’re back in Latin Land! Yes, after my baffled head scratching and sign language in previous countries since Belgium I’m in a land where ‘Gara de Nord’ is clearly understandable to me. Phew!

That, unfortunately, was where the similarity ended. Actually, that’s not entirely true. The written word is very similar, seemingly a strange mix of French, Italian and Spanish. TheDSC01999 spoken word might be too if you’re not quietly falling in love with the girl who’s serving you food in MacDonalds. OK, ok, I admit it – I had a MacDonalds in Romania, in the station – I was hungry.

Now, Bucharest is a funny old place, there’s not much one can say about it other than the fact that it’s Grand – in a proper Yorkshire type way. The streets are grand, the buildings are grand. Everything, in the parlance of a southerner is big.

It would be wonderful if I could tell you that I started to integrate into society and get a feel DSC01998

for the way of ‘Romania’ – but in all honesty it just seemed strangely closed. As if everyone had their own private business to get on with and I wasn’t that welcome.

(To the left is a photo of The Peoples Palace built by the self confessed ‘Genius of the Carpathians’, Nicolae Ceausescu – the dictator of Romania until circa Christmas day 1989 when they shot him. I say it was built by him, rather, it was built by the people whilst they starved as a consequence of the build project. So big I couldn’t fit it all in.)

Using my trustee Europe on a shoe-string manual I sought refuge in an Irish bar to see if I DSC02002could find someone who might enlighten me as to how things work in Romania.

Many beers were had and much fun – although I didn’t learn too much other than the Irish can drink as well in Romania as they can in any other part of the world! Oh, and Romanian girls are gorgeous – at least the ones I saw. How I got back to the hotel that night is still a bit of a blur, but I made it all the same.

Strangest moment – receiving a phone call from an agent offering me work. When asked, ‘Is it a good time to talk’ – i.e. are you at a customer site, I had to reply, “No, actually I’m in Bucharest”. Silence & much confusion.

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