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France Revisited

The ferry I took to France, which oscillates between the Devon port of Plymouth and the small Brétagne town  of Roscoff (or Rosko in Bréton), is the longest maritime route available between England and France. Crossing the Channel at its very widest point, the voyage lasts roughly 10 hours, compared to the hour it takes on the more traditional route between Dover and Calais. Dover, however, is on the opposite end of the country to the delightful village of Ashburton where I was staying; Plymouth, on the other hand, is just 45 minutes south by train.roscoff601685_520397468038773_264065277_n

My ferry was to leave Plymouth at 10 PM and arrive in Roscoff at 8 AM (Central European Time, which is one hour later than British time). From there, I would activate my Eurail pass – which, unlike my BritRail pass, was continuous, allowing for unlimited travel during a 30-day period), take the 11:40 train to nearby Morlaix, and catch the next train to Paris from there, where a bed and a shower longingly awaited me. The longing was mutual.

This time, I swore to myself, I would not accidentally leave my camera in the checked luggage; and no matter what a lifetime of experience with foreshadowing might suggest, I actually followed through (and did not regret it one bit, either).

The voyage itself – you have journeys in trains, but ships are for voyages – was uneventful. I settled down in the lounge, went online for a while, and eventually even got a little sleep. Given the day I was about to have, this was a very good thing indeed.

I do not know what mental image the word ferry conjures up for you, but, for me, it basically means a profoundly unattractive, flat barge, sort of a floating car park. This is not the image to have in mind here.

Instead, picture a multi-storey shopping centre topped by a series of bars, cinemas, restaurants, duty-free shops, and a hotel. Now picture it floating.

I think it no exaggeration to say that the MV Armorique had space enough for the entire population of Ashburton, and probably neighbouring Widecombe as well. It is a truly titanic thing to behold.

Or perhaps colossal. Yes, I do suppose that works better.

Not long after dawn, I got my first look at Roscoff. The vista was dominated by a beautifully craggy, rocky, rough-hewn coastline, not so much so as the southern English coast, perhaps, but impressive nonetheless. Perfect golden sunlight gilded the small cluster of old stone buildings that made up the town of Roscoff, as well as the mass of metallic unloveliness that was its port.

Roscoff is located in a district of Brétagne known as Finistère, a gallicisation of finis terrae, or Land’s End. And, as in the bit of Cornwall with the corresponding name, the rail connections are not the best.

The last time I’d had to wait for several hours for a train on no sleep in a small French seaside town was nearly three years before, in the southern border village of Cerbère. I arrived there from what may soon become the independent state of Catalunya, physically and emotionally drained from what had been an utter cockup of a visit.

Two days before, in Barcelona, I had managed to get both my computer (read: my livelihood) and my purse with all my cash and cards (read: my lifeline) nicked in the space of two hours in the Rambla dels estudis.

Getting my purse stolen had been particularly embarrassing because I’d actually seen it happen. After filing a police report all concerned knew to be futile, you see, I had decided to have a look round the Rambla to see if anyone might be carrying my distinctive red computer case.

As expected, whoever had taken the case had long since buggered off. Whilst navigating the crowd of tourists and fingersmiths from the world over (the Rambla, it turns out, is Graceland for pickpocket), a young man brushed up against me. I saw him clearly.

Did he just… I thought, but quickly dismissed it. There was just no way – it simply could not be that I would have been robbed twice in one afternoon at the same fucking place. What could the odds on that be?

Not bad at all, I discovered about four hours later when I nipped by a cashpoint to get money for a packet of fags.

Even after emptying my handbag twice in growing panic, the purse wasn’t there. It was gone, and, with it, my access to what money I already had.

Six hours passed before I was able to utter another word.

My only saving grace was that I had several clients who owed me a bit of money, and who were willing to send it to me by Western Union. And, fortunately, my passport and Eurail pass had been in a separate compartment, and were still there. Once I got out of Spain (and I mean no offence to the fine people of Spain when I say that I ached to get out of Spain), I could at least get to my next destination, Sonthofen in Germany.

My journey out of Spain was the sort of adventure it is infinitely more enjoyable to read (or, come to that, write) about than to experience first-hand. I spent the night in a bit of Barcelona that had no transit connections with a Facebook friend called Montse Reynal (name unaltered to protect the innocent), who nearly got me killed twice in traffic, left me stranded in her housing estate with nearly no time to catch my train when she had promised to drive me to the railway station, and spent the thirty hours it took before I could get online again telling all our mutual friends on Facebook that I had nicked her wallet. Fortunately, my friends knew me well enough to know that this was an utter lie.

I took a taxi to the station, and just barely managed to board the train to Cerbère, the French border town from which I was going to take a train to Paris and then on to Germany.

Two separate, but equally disastrous, things happened once I had boarded the train to Cerbère.

First, my body informed me that I was operating on borrowed blood sugar.

Then, an announcement came over the PA system that, due to a railway strike in France, the train would not be able to cross the border. The border hamlet of Portbou was to be the end of the line.

Then, to make the evening complete, a woman with a two-year-old in tow decided to shame me out of my seat, not caring that I was feeling so weak I could barely sand. I spent the remaining 90 minutes of the journey on my feet, silently willing her little son to grow up to pawn everything she owns in order to fund an ill-advised music career. I have rarely loathed anyone quite as intensely as, in that moment, I loathed the woman who forced me to spend an hour and a half being tossed about on legs that threatened to fold at any minute.

I decided to get off at Figueres, one stop before Portbou, because I had been through there once before and it seemed big enough that I would find something to eat there, which, fortunately, I did (at a pizzeria near the station called Augustea, which I highly recommend for the excellent, generously proportioned pizza).

However, I also found that rail service to France would not resume until 8 the next morning, and that the station in Figueres closed at 11:30 PM. I seem to have been the last to understand the implications of this, because every hotel room in the entire city turned out to be booked.

I would, in other words, have to roam around a strange city in the middle of the night, until the station opened at 6 AM.

I found a Texmex-themed bar called El Dorado that was open until 3 AM, and decided to kill some time there. However, it was so smoky and unventilated that I could barely breathe, and I ended up leaving at 1 AM, with five hours left to go.

For lack of a better idea, I decided to sit on the bench opposite the station, which was well lit, came with a clear view of the station clock, and had a phone box nearby, just in case.

When I had been there about an hour and a half, I saw a group of local youths arrive in the playground about 100 metres behind the bench. I turned to get a closer look, to see whether this was anything to be concerned about.

They saw this, and started advancing towards me, laughing in a decidedly uncomforting manner.

I decided to run for it, in profoundly inappropriate footwear and with my heavy suitcase in tow. They gave chase, still laughing nastily. I managed to turn two corners before the three could see me, and, o9ut of breath, hid between two vans.

The acoustics of these narrow streets and thin walls meant that I could almost certainly wake up the whole neighbourhood if necessary. Luckily, however, the youths had lost interest. I remained in my hiding place long enough to catch my breath and listen for footsteps. Once I was sure they had pissed off in search of more rewarding pursuits, I resumed walking.

The problem, however, was that I now had nowhere at all to be. I certainly wasn’t going to return to the station, but had no idea where else to go. So, I walked around aimlessly.

Three hours and thirty minutes to go.

I wandered, trying to stay close enough to the station that I would not be utterly lost. I have no idea how long I had been wondering thus when my next bit of excitement decided to make its appearance in the form of a white Citroen.

The Citroen stopped in the cross street in front of me, and the window opened to reveal a driver in his mid-20s with a nondescript face.

Oye nena, ¿necesitas ayuda?‘ (Hey, babe, need help?), he asked. I said I was fine. In my state of exhaustion, however, I was rather more informative than I ought to have been. I explained why I was rambling about and that I had no place to be. After I told him once again that I was not in need of help, he rolled up the window and drove on.

A few blocks further on, the Citroen reappeared in another cross street.

‘Sure you don’t need help, love?’

Yes, I was sure. He continued his travels, and I continued mine, Thinking of something I had once read in an old CIA manual from the 1950s.

The CIA, you see, had developed a series of rules of thumb, called the Moscow Rules, for agents operating in the Soviet Union.

One rule in particular stood out as relevant to my current predicament: If you see a Soviet agent once, think nothing of it. Twice is probably a coincidence. If, however, you see the same agent a third time, something bad is in the offing. I may not have reproduced the exact phrasing, but this was certainly the basic idea of the thing.

I had this rule firmly in mind when the Citroen approached via yet another cross street a few blocks later. again, the window opened.

This time, however, the driver had evidently decided to abandon futile pretexts.

Venga, nena, ¡súbete, que lo vamos a pasar bien!’ (Come on, babe, get in and we can have a good time!).

I decided to meet his candour with my own: ‘¡Ni cagando, weón!’ (No fucking way, arsehole!).

The good thing about the narrow streets of Figueres is that they make it impossible to execute a U-turn in a car. On foot, however, there is no such impediment. I made an about-face and walked quickly in the other direction, turning multiple random corners in order to make it harder for him to work out my route.

That was the last I saw of him.

And after all that, I still had two and a half hours left to go.

Fortunately, the evening’s entertainment was at an end. I happened upon a park bench and had a seat. Nearby, the local fruit and veg vendors were setting up their market stalls. pleased to encounter some legitimate late-night goings on, I watched for an hour, until I caught myself dozing off.

I returned to the station, where I found a group of women sat outside, waiting for it to open, and joined them.

One of them offered me a cigarette, and we sat together, talking and counting the minutes.

At long last, the doors opened, and I eagerly went inside, greeted by the smell of coffee. I bought my ticket to Cerbère, got a cup of coffee and a packet of Ducados, and waited the two hours before my train in relative comfort.

Another hour later, I alighted in Cerbère, delighted to be anywhere but Spain. In saying this, I do not mean to malign a lovely country full of people who neither robbed me nor stalked me, and likely would not do, even given the opportunity. However, in that moment, I could only think, Free at last!

Cerbère station was full of travellers looking for tickets elsewhere, most of whom did not speak French. I decided to visit the loo before joining the queue. Discovering that there was no toilet seat, I stood outside and waited for the occupant of the other toilet to leave. The other loo, as it happened, was also seatless.

After much acrobatics, I joined the queue of English speakers with evidently impossible requests. Half an hour later, the woman at the ticket window, visibly relieved that I spoke French, sorted my reservations. I would have to wait two hours for my train.

‘One question’, I began after the reservations were made, ‘you wouldn’t happen to know where I might have a cup of coffee whilst I wait?’

‘There’s a vending machine over there,’ she replied.

‘No,’ I said, ‘I mean a café, some nice little place where I might sit down and have an espresso. Are there any cafés nearby?’

Désolée,’ she answered, ‘the vending machine is all we’ve got here.’

After the night I’d had, I was in no mood to drink vending machine coffee, so I went outside to have a smoke and wait. There, I found a wall with ‘Cerbère is a shithole’ written on it in at least ten languages.

Roscoff, I am happy to report, comfortably exceeds the decidedly low standard set by Cerbère. It is, based on my few hours there, a pretty seaside town that – above all in the circumstances of my arrival there – has actual cafés where actual people brew you actual fresh coffee.

At the port’s information desk, I ascertained that I would need to go to the railway station to activate my Eurail pass. The station, as it happened, was quite nearby, but separated from the port by a steep incline. A taxi it would be.

As I was waiting out front for the taxi, a young man with blond hair and a friendly face approached me to ask if I would mind sharing the cab to the station. I didn’t mind at all, and so we sat and waited together. My companion, Quentin, was from Nantes, and was just returning from a few months’ work experience in Plymouth. There, he had become a fan of the Plymouth Argyle football club, and carried with him a great deal of merchandise attesting to that fact.

The taxi ride lasted about five minutes, and cost us three euros each.

At the station, we found Bob, a Plymouth native, who was puzzling over why the station door was locked. I had a look at a small notice posted on the door and explained to him that the French railway workers were on strike. There would be trains, albeit on a reduced schedule, but no station staff to activate his Interrail and my Eurail pass.

Bob didn’t speak French, though he was making valiant efforts to overcome this. He bonded immediately with Quentin over their shared tragic love of Argyle, and thus we became a trio.

Since we all had two hours until the train to Morlaix, I suggested we look for a source of coffee. We didn’t have to look very far. About a block away from the station, we found a convivial little café/restaurant/bar/convenience store, where we spent a thoroughly enjoyable hour caffeinating ourselves and getting to know each other.

Bob endeared himself to all and sundry with his efforts to pronounce French words properly, with dedicated assistance from Quentin and myself.

After we had reached adequate serum caffeine levels, we made our way back to the station, with an hour or so to go until the train to Morlaix (or so we thought).

Various people began to show up at the station to see about the next train elsewhere. In response to their perplexity upon finding the station locked, Quentin and I informed them of the strike in whatever language happened to be appropriate, reassuring them that the modified timetable still had the train to Morlaix leaving at 11:4 and that tickets could be purchased at the ticket machine by the platform.

As 11:41 approached and the Morlaix train did not follow suit, the new arrivals began to show signs of doubt, returning to the front of the station. Taxis had begun to show up to take people to Morlaix, and they ultimately picked up everyone.

Except the three of us. It seemed such a waste to pay for a taxi to Morlaix when a train was on the way, especially when both Bob and I could take the train for free.

So we settled in. Fortunately, the weather was – as it had been for nearly the entire trip – gorgeous, gently warm without a cloud in sight.

Gradually, our belief that a train would be coming in the foreseeable future began to falter. A taxi was starting to seem a very good idea indeed, an epiphany that arrived not long after the last taxi had departed, leaving us alone. Alone and knackered in Roscoff.

To pass the time, Quentin began kicking the football around that he’d brought back from Plymouth, an activity in which Bob happily joined.

After some hesitation – my sandals were not exactly made for football – I, too, joined in.

I have never seen the point of watching or following the football; it always struck me as rather dull. However, I do enjoy playing the game, although – with the exception of kicking the ball back and forth with my delightful four-year-old niece Ella – I had not actually played since sometime in Bill Clinton’s first term, a few years before either of my companions had been born.

Apart from a few nervous moments involving the ball hitting precarious-looking plumbing installations and coming dangerously close to the odd window, I discovered still enjoyed the game as much as I did back in those innocent times when we thought Clinton was as unimpressive as a Democrat could get. Despite my utterly inappropriate footwear, it turned out that my aim was as accurate as ever (I hasten to add here that I mean by this that my aim was quite good, with the ball generally going exactly where I hoped it would).

One thing we did not have to worry about hitting, however, was a train. Or a taxi, come to that.

Sometime about an hour after we had been meant to arrive in Morlaix, a rail replacement bus arrived. The driver alighted and promptly disappeared to parts unknown.

Quentin rang SNCF to see what was going on. From, these conversations, we learnt that there would likely be no more taxis, and that the earliest we could leave Roscoff was 1:30 PM. This news we took with aplomb, having long ago resigned ourselves to spending the rest of our lives in Roscoff.

Eventually, the bus driver returned, and, after having a protracted smoko, turned on the display to indicate that actual passengers would be taken on board.

Roughly half an hour later, we alighted at Morlaix station. Bob and I proceeded to the ticket office to reserve seats and activate our rail passes.

To activate a rail pass, a station employee must merely affix the station’s stamp to the appropriate part of the pass. No one had apparently explained this to the SNCF staff working in Morlaix.

Nor, I discovered after I had already boarded the train to Paris, had anyone explained to them how to make reservations. The reservation card I had been handed contained no actual reservation.

I also discovered on the train that, unlike most other railways I have frequented, the SNCF does not in any way mark reserved seats.

After finding a location for my monster suitcase and stowing the rest of my things, I sat down in what appeared to be a free seat, and settled in with my laptop to get a bit of work done. Once I was sufficiently comfortable, a woman who looked to be in her seventies appeared, looked at her reservation card, and hesitantly remarked that I appeared to be in her seat.

I made my apologies, explaining that I had not seen any indication that the seat was reserved, and moved to the nearest free seat, which happened to be directly opposite.

About half an hour later, a middle-aged man showed up to announce that I was in his spot. I gathered my things and took another look at my reservation card, hoping I had merely overlooked the seat assignment. I hadn’t done. I had indeed been given a reservation card that contained no reservation.

Not wanting a repeat of this scene, I ultimately settled in on one of the folding overflow seats in the space between the carriages. These seats are just spring-loaded cushions that fold back into the wall when a passenger stands up. Needless to say, they offer nothing in the way of assurance that one will not fall down if one falls asleep. I had planned on supplementing the sleep I didn’t get on the ferry during the three-hour train raid to Paris. This was not going to happen.

Instead, I bounced along with the train through the French countryside, hoping desperately that Paris would not be long in coming. Not far from me was the stowage compartment for heavy and bulky luggage.

At one point, a woman decided to ‘stow’ an ironing board by simply leaning it against the wall. Not long thereafter, the ironing board, along with nearly everything else in the baggage compartment, fell into the walkway with a most impressive sound, rendering it impassable.

Having nothing else to do, I decided to move at least enough of the suitcases to ensure that people could get through, laying the ironing board horizontally behind a few suitcases to ensure it wouldn’t crash again.

About twenty minutes later, the woman returned, and, seeing that a safe way of storing her ironing board had been found, immediately proceeded to stand the fucking thing up again.

Shortly before we reached Rennes, a man in SNCF uniform boarded the train, and, seeing my state of overall misery, asked why I was so uncomfortably seated. I explained about my reservationless reservation card, and we ended up talking for a while before he made his rounds.

Eventually, a couple who were alighting in Rennes took pity on me and gave me their seat numbers, allowing me to spend the last hour until my arrival in Paris in relative comfort.

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Al medio de un gentío
que tuvo que afrontar,

un transbordo por culpa
del último huracán,
en un puerto quebrado
cerca de Vallenar,
con una cruz al hombro
Run-Run debió cruzar
Run-Run siguió su viaje
llegó al Tamarugal.
Sentado en una piedra
se puso a divagar,
que si esto que lo otro,
que nunca que además,
que la vida es mentira
que la muerte es verdad,

In the middle of a crowd
that had to face a ferry voyage
because of the last hurricane,
in a broken-down port near Vallenar,
with a cross on his shoulder
Run-Run had to cross.
Run-Run continued his travels,
arrived at the Tamarugal.
Seated on a stone,
he began to ruminate.
If this, if that other thing,
if never, and furthermore,
that life is a lie and that death is the truth.
Violeta Parra, Run-Run se fue pal norte

My first night in Chile – with the possible exception of having to dodge traffic on Avenida Sta María because no one had thought to advise pedestrians that there was no place to walk due to construction on one side of the street – was fairly calm. I dined on a thoroughly middling meal of empanadas (Chilean calzones, but smaller) and chips – chips, I would find, are almost invariably good in Chile – and then retired to my room at the Rocca Luna to recharge my camera batteries, check the bus timetables, and then recharge myself. Even given the manifest shortcomings of the bed, my body did not require much coaxing in order to fall asleep.

I awoke the next day, thoroughly refreshed, took another shower (I could never shower enough after these long bus rides), and went downstairs, where I was greeted by the man who had welcomed me the night before.

“You still planning on leaving today?” he asked, after the pleasantries had been exhausted.

“Yes,” I replied, “in a couple of hours.”

“Do you need any help with your things?”

I indicated that this would be greatly appreciated.

“Any chance I might be able to leave my bags here for a couple of hours while I take care of a few things in town?”

I did not want to be burdened with all that luggage while getting coffee and bus tickets, or anything else, unless absolutely necessary.

“Of course,” he replied.

“Great. I’ll be back in an hour or so. Thanks.”

I did not go too far. I simply crossed the street to get to the bus station, where I planned on getting my tickets and a cup of coffee.

As I looked for the Tur-Bus counter – a company I had decided on by virtue of having heard of them – I considered my plans. I had been thinking of taking the trip in two legs, first stopping to spend a few hours in Iquique, which I had been told by a friend who lived there was a lovely city, and then continuing on to Santiago. Fuck that, I believe, were the words that put an end to my deliberations. I very much wanted to see Iquique, but I wanted to end this journey even more. I was not looking forward to schlepping my luggage about whilst trying to explore a new city. I just wanted to  reach Santiago, where I was very eagerly awaited by friends and the opportunity to get some proper rest (recovering from this trip would take a few days at the very least).

A Semi-Cama in the Copiapó Terminal

A Semi-Cama in the Copiapó Terminal

Tur-Bus offers four classes of buses, the basic Clásico, which I have never actually experienced, Semi-Cama (Half-Bed), which is the fairly standard intercity bus with reclining seats and not much more, Salón-Cama, offering something in the nature of an easy chair, and Premium, which I am told is so comfortable that one barely realises one is on a bus.

The bus I ended up taking was a Semi-Cama due to leave Arica at 2 PM, giving me a good two and a half hours to get ready. Assuming everything was on schedule, I would be arriving at Santiago’s main bus terminal, Terminal Alameda, at 6 PM the next day.

Upon my return to the Rocca Luna, I found that my suitcase was already downstairs waiting for me.

“I’d like to get online for a little bit just to let my friends in Santiago know when to expect me, if that’s all right.”

“Feel free”, replied the man, who I hope does not have chronic back pain from lugging my things up and down that narrow staircase.

I went over to one of the tables set up for this purpose in the downstairs common area, set up my computer, and informed everyone who needed to know of my itinerary.

I would be staying in an apartment made available by my friend Cristián in the district (comuna)

"Chile: Open House of the Apocalypse", one of Cristián's best

“Chile: Open House of the Apocalypse”, one of Cristián’s best

of Recoleta. Cristián, a popular political cartoonist with whom I had maintained an artistic exchange of sorts for the past couple of years, based on a shared sense of humour and shared political convictions, occasionally used the apartment as a studio. When it was not in use, he often hired it out to people looking for a place to stay. Many a mutual friend had spent time there.

This I was greatly looking forward to. For one thing, I had always admired Cristián’s work and enjoyed our conversations, which I was excited to at last be able to continue in person. For another thing, it would be nice to have a proper apartment, rather than impersonal hotel, to stay in.

The announcement, some weeks prior, of my upcoming visit  , had unleashed a veritable wave of creativity amongst my friends there, nearly all of whom are involved in independent media in one way or another. Several had online radio shows with which I had collaborated as a call-in guest on various occasions, and hoped to do live shows with me during my stay. Cristián was in the process of launching an online TV show in which he and whatever guests happened to show up for a taping would engage in freestyle discussion of current events and whatever else came to mind, and wanted to have me on the show. Quite a few others were simply excited to get to meet me in person after months – and sometimes years – of online correspondence. It was extremely mutual.

It was clear that Santiago would be extending me a welcome, the like of which I had never before experienced in a new city. Essentially, a whole community of like-minded artists, writers, and journalists were awaiting my visit with a degree of excitement that I am quite unaccustomed to generating. Though I had never before been to the city, and knew of it only what I had gleaned over the years from exhaustive reading and what I had learnt from my friends there, I was, in a sense, already part of a community there. I could not wait to arrive.

Having informed my welcoming committee of my ETA, I decided to make my way over to the station. I still had over an hour left before I had to get on the bus, and the station was just across the street, but I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. For one thing, I wanted to budget enough time to make it to the station whilst loaded down with luggage. It seemed likely that I would have to stop and rest my aching shoulders at some point during the 300 metre walk to the nearest crosswalk. For another, I am quite paranoid about missing trains, buses, and flights. The last thing I want is to find myself stranded because I’ve missed the final boarding call by 30 seconds. As such, I generally try to be an hour or so earlier than is strictly necessary, and tend to plan an overnight stay if I am going to have to transfer between modes of transportation during a long trip such as this one. That way, late arrivals will not require me to rethink my entire itinerary.

I arrived at the station with 45 minutes to spare, stopped at the kiosk in front to pick up a copy of THE CLINIC, a satirical newspaper that also includes occasionally informative reporting, and went inside to get a cup of coffee.

The coffee, as it turned out, was some crap instant variety that made a valiant effort to look like coffee, but lacked both the flavour and the caffeine. At the time, I assumed this was down to the fact that bus station snack bars rarely offer haute cuisine. However, I later discovered that this was more or less the standard of coffee on offer at most establishments. In part, this is because Chileans, by and large, are tea drinkers. For another thing, most of South America’s abundant coffee production is for export to North America and Europe. Finding a good cup of coffee in Chile would prove to be a matter of considerable trial and error.

I found a spot in front of the terminal, arranged my bags around me, and read the paper while trying to convince myself that I was actually drinking coffee. This was not easy.

For a long time, I have felt that the instant coffee manufacturers who insist on insulting our intelligence with these “blind taste test” adverts should not be allowed to cherry-pick their footage, showing only the reactions of agusia sufferers. They should be required to use the first take, no matter what the reaction:

PRESENTER: Good afternoon, I just wanted to tell you that we arranged to swap this establishment’s normal whole-bean coffee for Plonker’s freeze-dried crystals.

            PATRON: Ah, that explains it, then. Thank you for informing me. We were just about to tell our waiter that the coffee must have gone off, weren’t we, Clive?

            CLIVE: Yes, we were just remarking on how the coffee had the same full-bodied aroma as my socks after an afternoon at the tennis court.

            GUEST AT NEIGHBOURING TABLE (interrupts): Oh, fuck off, did you hear that? This mob are trying to save money by swapping our coffee for that powdered shit from Plonker’s!

            HASTY CUT TO VOICE OVER: Plonker’s Crystals – Our flavour is our trademark.

Not too far from me, I saw a thin, mid-twentyish man having a smoke next to a well-worn rucksack. One of his shoes appeared untied.

“Excuse me”, I began, “Just thought you might want to know your shoe’s untied.” He would likely have discovered this on his own in due time, but the fact was that I was starving for conversation after what already felt like a hundred years of solitude.

“Ah, so it is”, he replied, “Where you off to?”

“Santiago.”

“The two-o’clock?”

“That’s the one.”

“Turns out we’re waiting for the same bus,” he grinned.

We exchanged names, and as is my habit, I forgot his almost immediately. I recall only his surname, Toloza, which I glimpsed when he took out his ID at a police checkpoint.  Toloza, as it turned out, was a student at Arica’s Universidad de Tarapacá, on his way home to the northern coastal city of Tocopilla, about 16 hours south of Arica. I was not exaggerating when I said that Arica was convenient to nowhere.

We got on immediately, both quite happy to have a companion for the long road ahead. Not long thereafter, a friend of his, who had come to see him off, joined us. Following the introductions, Toloza asked if we’d fancy something to eat.

“Do you think we’ve got time?” I asked.

He checked his watch.

“Oh yeah, heaps. Plus, it’s not too far away.”

“Sounds good to me, then,” I replied. I had rather been hoping to get something decent to eat, since I doubted anything edible would be available on the bus, but, after the medley of mediocrities I’d risked my life for the night before, I had no idea where I might find anything.

Toloza and his friend picked up my luggage, leaving me with nothing to carry but my purse, and we proceeded down Avenida Santa María in search of sustenance. My back hadn’t felt this good since New York. We ended up at one of Chile’s many pollerías, which are fast-food-type restaurants specialising in chicken in all its forms. Chicken is extremely popular in Chile, and quite well prepared virtually everywhere it can be found. We divided up a roast chicken, which I combined with a monumental, order of chips, and had a lively and enjoyable conversation, of which I can recall pretty much nothing except how good it was to have someone to talk to. I quite enjoy travelling alone, but I was not really accustomed to spending so much time in silence.

Once we’d finished, we made our way back to the station. Hugs and kisses good-bye followed, and Toloza and I went inside.

“Do you have your boarding pass?” Toloza asked me.

“My ticket? Yeah, right here”, I indicated my pocket.

“No,” he shook his head, “you also need a boarding pass to get onto the platform.”

I had never heard of a bus terminal requiring a boarding pass in addition to the ticket, and, indeed, no other station I visited in Chile had such a policy. I imagine it is probably a way to keep at least some of the tourism revenue in Arica, rather than all of it going to the home offices of the bus companies. In any event, the boarding pass cost only 100 pesos.

Soon enough, the bus arrived, and Toloza and I handed over our checked baggage, boarded, and found two adjacent seats in the back of the bus. Once we were seated, I pulled out my camera and attached the wide-angle lens so that I would be ready as soon as anything photogenic came into view.

It turned out that Toloza was an excellent travelling companion in more ways than one. He was, in fact, something of an area specialist, doing postgraduate work in the history of northern Chile, and knew pretty much every inch of the land between Arica and his home in Tocopilla. As we progressed southward on Ruta 5, he made sure to let me know in advance when something noteworthy was coming up. Because of his studies, not only could he tell me when something was about to come into view; he could actually provide all manner of interesting information about what it was and how it got there. This was the first time I’d ever had such a knowledgeable guide, and it was entirely by coincidence.

We passed the hours talking about everything that came to mind, but every once in a while, he’d change gears:

“If you look out the window in just a second, you’ll see a riverbed that dried out thousands of years ago. It’s what’s known as a wadi.”

A wadi just south of Arica

A wadi just south of Arica

I had heard the term wadi used many times, but had never actually been clear on what it was. What it was, in this case anyway, was spectacular. Shortly after Toloza made this announcement, a huge rift in the earth, almost a canyon, came into view, with steep, smooth walls and a smattering of intense green that looked like grass or small shrubs at the bottom. It was impossible to get a sense of scale from our vantage point on top, but, even so, it was clearly immense. In the photos I took of these chasms, clearly the product of water having eaten through the ground for untold millennia before finally drying out at some point in advance of recorded history, I noticed later that the wadis could have been anywhere between two and two thousand metres deep.

Fortunately, a few hours after our departure from Arica, we actually passed through one of these wadis, one in which there was still a bit of water flowing. This wadi was home to the small desert town of Camarones (“prawns”, for some reason) on the border between Arica and Tarapacá Region and Iquique Region. From below, it is much easier to see the order of magnitude on which the wadis of the Atacama Desert exist. What I had thought when looking from above were small shrubs and patches of grass, turned out in fact to be trees as tall or taller than the bus we were in. Cars, buses, and semis driving on the inclined corkscrew road that allowed them to ascend to the high ground, looked like something small enough for a toddler to choke on. If you were to try to take it on foot and climb straight up the wall of one of these wadis, you would have at least a day of extremely hard going.

Wadi

Wadi

My eyes may have been playing tricks on me after so many hours surrounded by shades of brown, counterbalanced only by the purest, bluest sky I have ever seen, but I don’t think I have ever seen a more intense, vivid green colour than those rare green spaces in the desert, especially those in the wadis of northern Chile. I have always had a neutral attitude towards the colour green – my favourites have always been red tones – but the splashes of green in the midst of so much arid land were positively spellbinding.

When I got dressed that morning, I had decided to put on my ankle-length, full denim skirt. It seemed the most comfortable option for such a long bus ride, since it was long and loose enough to curl up underneath like a makeshift blanket. This, it turned out, was an exceedingly bad idea indeed. In my defence, I would like to note for the record that had no way of knowing this beforehand, but I soon discovered that the toilets on Chilean buses (at least on Tur-Bus) were most likely not only designed – but also field-tested – exclusively by men. This is the only explanation that occurs to me for the decision to put the toilet seat on a spring that makes it pop up unless you keep constant pressure on it. The upshot of this was that, every time I visited the facilities, I had to lift up my skirt to avoid the hemline dragging in the decidedly unappetising collections of fluid that had accumulated on the floor, whilst using the other hand to hold the door shut, because it did not latch properly, and somehow simultaneously hold down the seat long enough that I could sit down without falling down a hole that could easily have been given pride of place in Dante’s Inferno (perhaps as the punishment for misogynists). This would have been enough of a feat as it was, but I also had to do all of this whilst holding my breath so as not to pass out or vomit from the stench of excrement that had clearly been simmering for days in the desert heat. Consequently, my visits to this corner of the vehicle were extremely rare, and made only when I had reached the point of longing for a Foley.

It was jeans and t-shirts for travel days from then on.

Eventually, the sun set over the desert, and we were surrounded in nearly total darkness, save for the incredible array of stars that can be seen in the area. This is, as I have noted ad nauseam by now, the most arid place on Earth. It has virtually no humidity, and the skies are almost always cloudless. Because of this, you can see what appear to be millions of stars spread out before you if you look up. It is truly breathtaking. So many stars are so clearly visible in the Atacama Desert, in fact, that the European Space Agency acquired some land in the most arid section of the desert in order to build an observatory. The land had been owned by a pirquinero, a poor, small-time prospector looking to stake a claim to a small portion of Chile’s vast mineral wealth, but was bought up by a Chilean businessman – who did not see fit to tell the pirquinero why the sudden interest in this barren tract of land – when it became known that the ESA wanted to build an observatory. The pirquinero received a tiny fraction of the ultimate sale price paid by the European Union for the land. While even that tiny fraction was enough to significantly improve the living standard enjoyed (or endured) by a pirquinero, I can’t imagine he was overjoyed to discover that he had been swindled out of a sum of money that would have more or less guaranteed that he would never have to work again.

A few hours after dark, the bus began to slow down, and one of the two drivers announced that we were going to have to get out for a customs inspection. Arica is part of a zona franca, a duty-free zone. For customs purposes, this area is not entirely considered part of Chile. As such, the customs service inspect all southbound travellers before allowing them to proceed. Toloza and I got out with our carry-on luggage and waited on the pavement for the drivers to unload our suitcases.

“They are going to do a manual inspection”, the driver announced, prompting groans from a number of people who had been hoping to get back to sleep sometime soon.

Personally, I didn’t mind all that much. The air was brisk, with a pleasant breeze, and I had a chance, after so many hours, to stretch my legs and have a smoke. There were tables set up under the shelter roof for our belongings to be laid out, so Toloza and I set ourselves up there and waited. It was probably at least half an hour before an agent showed up to inspect our things. When she did, all she did was unzip my suitcase a few inches, run her fingers through it, and zip it up again.

“Right, you’re set, then.”

When she was out of earshot, I couldn’t help laughing a bit.

“What the hell was the point of that?” I asked Toloza, “Are they trying to catch the dumbest drug smugglers in the hemisphere or something?”

He laughed, “Actually, what they’re really interested in is consumer electronics. They want to catch people out who bought more than the maximum permitted.”

“Still”, I said, “how would they ever find anything with an ‘inspection’ like that? Anyone could just put a few layers of clothes over their stereo or whatever, and customs would never be the wiser.”

He thought about this. “Touché.”

“But at least, thanks to the Chilean National Customs Service, we’re finally getting a decent smoke break,” I added, and we both laughed.

I dozed off not too long after that, and awoke again at sunrise. The driver’s assistant was handing out little packets of what was meant to be food. Mine contained a roll that could be used to break windowpanes, some sort of petrochemical spreadstuff, and a drink box purporting to contain pineapple juice.

The Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert

I gave the breadbrick and lube a miss, and decided to concentrate on the “juice”, which tasted less like pineapple tastes and more like a well-used habitrail smells. Still, I reasoned, a little blood sugar couldn’t go amiss.

One of the curious things about these long drives was that I ate virtually nothing (apart from the “juice”), but never actually felt hungry. Most likely, I wasn’t actually consuming enough energy for my body to notice, given that my days were spent staring out the window, reading, taking the odd picture, dozing off, waking up again, shuffling around a bit outside when we were able to get out of the bus for a few minutes, sitting down again, staring out the window some more, taking more pictures until my memory cards and both batteries were thoroughly exhausted, and dozing off again. Not exactly strenuous.

About three days after my arrival in Santiago, around midnight, however, my body apparently conducted some sort of internal audit. It has come to my attention…can this possibly be correct?…that you didn’t fucking feed me for three days. Suddenly, although I had actually eaten quite well in the days since my arrival, including that day, I was so gripped by hunger pangs that I felt as if I were about to collapse. The thing about Recoleta, especially the part of Recoleta I was staying in, is that the district pretty much closes for the night at around 10 PM. By the time my hunger attack kicked in, there was literally nothing – not even a pizza delivery service – open. Out of sheer desperation, I got a bit of watermelon – I have never liked watermelon, with its mothballish texture and syrupy flavour – out of the fridge just to have something in my stomach, and tried to console myself by spending the night researching the best pizza in Santiago in order to treat myself the next day.

Alto Hospicio

Alto Hospicio

Another thing about these long journeys is that it becomes very difficult to maintain one’s sense of time and chronology. The pace of life is so slow and repetitive, with no real need to know what time it is, that things can start to run together. For example, I can’t for the life of me say for certain when we arrived in Iquique (though I remember the event itself very well). I know that the sun was either just rising or setting, and that we crossed into the region in which Iquique is located after nightfall, indicating that our arrival in Iquique must have occurred sometime in the morning (since otherwise the entire chronology would make no sense: if we had arrived in Iquique the same night as the customs inspection, it would have been dark, which it wasn’t, and had we reached Iquique the next evening, there is no way we could have been in Santiago until two days after leaving Arica, when I know for certain that it was the day after our departure).

The dune

The dune

In any event, at some point, I glimpsed a town rather a bit larger than the ones we had been seeing. We passed a small flower garden and hill flanked by three flags and a large painted stone plaque reading COMUNA ALTO HOSPICIO. Alto Hospicio is a town just north of Iquique, one of the few major cities this far north.

Overlooking Iquique

Overlooking Iquique

There are few sights more striking in the Atacama Desert than the northern approach to Iquique on Ruta 5. The altitudes in most parts of the inland desert are quite high, so high as to be literally dizzying due to the thinner air. As such, you approach Iquique more or less from the height of a passenger jet just coming in for landing, via a road etched into what looks like a mountainous pyramid of sand. From this vantage point (provided that you are facing westward), you see the entire city of 226,000 people laid out before you in miniature, and just beyond it, the Pacific Ocean, fading into congruence with the sky on some impossibly distant horizon. If the sun is just rising (or setting), a warm glow is cast over the entire city, causing it to radiate golden light, reflected in a trail in the ocean that must be hundreds of miles long. And after hour after hour of soil dried and cracked by millennia of unyielding sunlight and heat, it felt like a glimpse of paradise.

Iquique

Iquique

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Cricket lovely Cricket,
At Lord’s where I saw it;
Cricket lovely Cricket,
At Lord’s where I saw it;
Yardley tried his best
But Goddard won the test.
They gave the crowd plenty fun;
Second Test and West Indies won.

–  Victory Calypso (“Cricket,  Lovely Cricket”)Egbert Moore, 1950

We don’t wave flags or make a sound,
 or we’ll be evicted from the cricket ground.
 We’ve got corporate boxes and the MCC,
 and we lose by an innings and forty-three.
 …
 Cricket, English cricket
 at Lords, where we play it,
 we politely lose our wicket,
 unless the rain comes to delay it.

– Comedian Mark Steel’s parody

Fortunately, the Megabus luggage policy was not as strict as it had seemed two hours earlier. This was particularly lucky, as it turned out that the problem was not the weight of my suitcase, which I could theoretically have done something about, but its dimensions, which I was rather stuck with. I was allowed on the bus, but only after everyone else’s luggage had been loaded, in order to make sure there was enough space. This, while annoying, was a lot better than being stranded in Pittsburgh at 11:00 PM with no place to stay. (more…)

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Those of you who have been following Reunion – a Travelogue may have noticed that not much – OK, bugger all – has been written in recent months. A combination of writer’s block and various personal disasters, one of which involves a strong candidate for Worst Dentist in Southern Ohio, have conspired to delay my progress in finding an amusing and informative way to chronicle my travels through Europe in Fall 2010, culminating in my reunion with Berlin after 10 years of absence.

However, thanks in part to the Worst Dentist in Southern Ohio (more on that later), I have begun working on what I intend to use as a second part to Reunion, narrating a month and a half spent travelling through Chile and Perú, a preview of which you can find below…

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One of my favourite things about Berlin is the presence of beautiful forests and lakes within a short S-Bahn (light rail) trip of the city, and the Großes Fenster (Great Window) is possibly the most striking example. Getting there from the east or centre of the city is a 30-min-to-one hour journey to the Nikolassee station (line S7), followed by an approximately 2 km (1 mile) hike. From Alexanderplatz, you can take the S7 (going to Potsdam Hbf) directly, and will be there in about half an hour.

Google maps will give you directions from the station to the Großes Fenster, but these directions need to be taken with a grain of salt. In the directions, Google describes footpaths as if they were streets, and, by naming them (Wannseebadeweg, Am Großen Fenster). However, they are not marked in any way, so the names are meaningless. For another thing, if you list the destination as “Am Großen Fenster” (the path that the Großes Fenster is on, surprisingly enough), it stops short of where you actually need to go. Indeed, the only way to get accurate directions is to list the destination as Schwanenwerder, an island a short walk away from the actual destination.

Once you arrive at Nikolassee, just follow the signs to the exit. You will almost immediately see a pedestrian bridge (Rosemeyerweg). If you look for Rosemeyerweg, you will miss it, as the street sign is parallel to your line of sight coming out, and you will add an extra 15-20 minute bonus walk to your hike as you walk back and realise that all you actually had to do was keep going straight.

Eventually, you will come to Kronprinzessinnenweg (Crown Princess Way). Turn right, and walk about half a block until you see Spanische Allee. Turn left there. The Google directions describe the street you are turning into as “Wannseebadeweg”; however, there was no sign (that I saw, anyway) indicating that that was indeed the name of the street. You will cross the street and come to a warning sign indicating that no motor vehicles are permitted and that pedestrians enter at their own risk. Walk past this, and keep going for about half an hour.

At this point, it is important to get gradually more apprehensive that you are going the wrong way. At least, that is what the people who did the signposting in the forest (Grunewald) seem to think. You will see various turnoffs. Keep going straight. After about half an hour, you will see a white painted stone listing various destinations and distances. One of them will be “Großes Fenster”. Follow the arrow. You will be staying on the same path, but it will veer off to the right. You will see one more of these stones about another half an hour later.

Eventually, you will start to see water through the trees, and the path will start going down hill. You will go down some stairs that have been built discreetly into the path and arrive at a T-intersection. On the left, you’ll see a small marina. Go to the right, and walk another fifteen odd minutes, and you’ll be at the Großes Fenster.

On your left, you will notice that there is a fence and a sign. In case you do not understand German, the sign states that it is prohibited (subject to prosecution) to go beyond the fence, as the area is used to obtain drinking water, and any disturbance of the ground and the plants on it could adversely affect the quality of the groundwater.

When you reach a small clearing on your left, bordered by two large trees, you’re there. Off to your right, you will see Spandau in the distance, and somewhat farther to your right, you will see a tower jutting out of the trees. This is the Grunewaldturm, an observatory tower providing a panoramic view of the forest and a restaurant at the base, approximately 4 km (2 miles) away. The same stones that you followed to get to the Großes Fenster will direct you there.

The Autobahn to Magdeburg, as seen from the Rosenmeyerweg pedestrian bridgeSpanische Allee ("Wannseebadeweg")

The sign at the entrance to the Grunewald

The first of the very sparsely distributed signs

Das Große Fenster

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