From January 2006 I am spending 9 months working on a voluntary art project for the Artcorps in Guatemala. I am working for Fundación Riecken, an NGO who are constructing libraries in Honduras and Guatemala. I will be artist-in-residence at libraries in Chiché and Zacualpa, in the Quiché region of Guatemala. I also plan to do a little travelling along the way...

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Buenos Aires highlights

I was invited to a Celtic festival. After my close encounter with a bagpiping porteno on the shores of Lago Lacar in Patagonia, I was no stranger to the firmly upheld Scots traditions in these parts, and readied my limbs for a good dance at a ceilidgh. Did I underestimate the scale of the event! A full Celtic festival in a major theatre with several Celtic bands, a beautiful harpist who would make Enya weep and to top it all off, the South American Pipers’ Association (SAPA), a twenty piece piping band (plus dancing troop) all in full regalia; kilts, sporrens and all, playing all the favourites plus a few Argentine remixes to the bounds of the highland fling! I must admit, my eyes welled with emotion and pride at being a Scotswoman (I may easily have been the only one in the whole venue!). And how the Argentines loved it! We were then invited back to the house of one of the pipers who had a remarkable collection of malt whiskey and more Gaellic CDs than you could ever imagine, a selection of which is now in my possesion! Hurrah! More ironic it could not have been: me, a Scot lured to Buenos Aires by the intrigue of tango, whilst the Argentines are more interested in keeping alive the traditions of their immigrant roots, e.g. Celtic festivals. They almost outdo the Scots! The last I heard, the SAPA are currently at the annual Scottish piping convention, this year in Santiago, Chile, together with St Andrews Pipes and Drums (of the Lago Lacar piper), and the third Buenos Aires piping troop, plus several others from Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile, nine in all!

Attending a live concert by Fernandez Fierro, an "orquesta tipica". Usually "orquestas tipicas" signify old men bent over bandoneons who have been playing the same music for at least half a century. These guys are young, dreadlocked and totally laid back. When the curtain rose, to total silence, revealing a row of four bandoneon players seated in front of a six piece string section, the air tense with anticipation, then BOOM! Every shockingly dramatic, piercing jolt of the four bandoneons in unison felt like being stabbed in the heart. Not to mention the four violinists vibrating to dramatic crescendoes, all accompanied by a manic pianist and a totally loco singer, who appeared several times in outrageous attire; drag, wigs, skirt hitched up at the back…totalmente electrifying! I bought the DVD of them in concert so wait for the first London showing…

Being seated at a table, champagne in hand, around the gleaming, polished dancefloor of one of the ritziest milongas in town. Every table packed, rows of tangueros craning from behind, the bandoneon accelerates into action and the dancing begins. Some of the best tanguero couples in the world perform, the quality improving as the dancefloor changes glitzy shoes…all that passion, love, betrayal, fear, pride, envy that defines the dance suggested in the embrace, the expression, the pose…spinning, sexy, passionate, legs between legs, feet tripping, tapping, moving so fast as if in a blur…spellbinding! The audience mesmerised, stunned, applauding, applauding. Faces wide with frank appreciation have no words to describe their emotion. Slowly the dancefloor fills up. A tanguero raises his eyebrows at me from across the room. I incline my head, accepting his invitation to dance. He escorts me to the floor. I rest my temple against his brow, we unify as one and glide across the mirror polished surface. This is Salon Canning.

Palermo SoHo. The trendiest place in town. As dusk falls, I wander along tree-lined avenues, flitting past designer boutiques and ultra-modern café bars. The day has been an autumnal delight, unusually warm for this time of year (yes, climate change is here too). As the darkness intensifies, the welcoming light cast from evening businesses fills me with nostalgia for warmth on an approaching winter’s night, open fires, falling crimson leaves…I realise, for the first time in 16 months I am missing the coziness a cold climate can provoke. But only the coziness! Not the cold! I have successfully missed two British winters in a row, and now I am gliding effortlessly from summer to summer, and with a return flight booked to these parts just in time to catch the Argentine summer next year, I am happy. Cold: no gracias! Calor, por favor!

Cuban Buenos Aires. I met a fellow ceramicist, friend of a friend, who just so happened to be a keen salsera too. So she took me to her salsa club, with Cuban style salsa. Cubans poo-poo this! There is no Cuban style! There is only salsa and that is Cuban! However, outside of Cuba, we have invented "LA", "New York" and "Puerto Rico" styles, which are very different to our "Cuban style". This style of salsa is home to one of the most beautiful dances of all: "la rueda" (the wheel), where the dance takes place in a circle, the men passing the women around. It’s gorgeous to watch, and even better to be involved. That’s what we did in the classes. And all the leads were excellent (light years from my early experiences in Cardiff. Hmm, funny, that).

A last memorable moment:
Back in Palermo SoHo. Sitting on a roof terrace surrounded by foliage and milling trendies in the small hours of a summer's night. Very good, very cheap champagne on the table. Excellent funky music on the decks. Stars overhead. Laughing. Divine.

South American musing

Some facts:
The average time to eat dinner in Argentina is midnight. My friends, for example, with whom I stayed for the first two weeks, never dine before 1 AM, as Sergio doesn’t get home from work until 12.30.
There is no point turning up to a club before 3 AM, as it will be empty.
The meat is excellent. Even moi, less interested in meat after Guatemala than I was before, found myself lusting after succulent slabs of fresh grilled flesh, almost! The fish is excellent too. So is the pizza. And the pasta. And the ice cream. Let’s face it, the food is impressive. And as for the wine, it’s a well-kept secret that the best wine in South America is Argentine. After a year of eating frijoles, tortillas and "coffee" made from maize, wheat and rice in Guatemala, I found myself in gastronomy heaven the minute I landed in Argentina.
As a race, the Argentines are pretty good looking. The girls are thin. At least I didn’t feel like quite such a giant as I did in Guatemala, where the average height is well under 5 feet, but I was a trifle put out to find that I fitted size large clothes! Obesity is not a problem in these countries. Not yet.
Buenos Aires is no.1 in the world (on a par with NYC) for therapy. Everyone I met had undertaken therapy at some point. I conducted a survey hanging out at the beach with a group of about ten portenos. Not a single one had never had therapy.
Plastic surgery is pretty popular too.
It’s hard to beat the friendliness of the Argentines and the Uruguayans. Uruguay is an often-missed country on the South America list, because it is so small and overshadowed by its dominant neighbours, Brazil and Argentina. Which is what makes it such a special place, almost like a secret. Montevideo is the best kind of capital city – a manageable size, easy to get around, very laid back. It has 23 km of sea- or should I say river-front promenade meandering along the entire length of the city, with bathing beaches which start in the centre of Montevideo and get better the further east you go, right up to the Brazilian border.
Uruguay, I was surprised to learn, is the product of British meddling, who wanted to control trade around the River Plate.
During this trip, I have learnt a lot about the British Empire. While we Brits in present-day Britain have all but forgotten the glory days we once knew, our legacy is entrenched in the memory of colonised nations around the world. Often negatively, unfortunately. Some see us still as a colonising nation. Others lump us in with the US (thanks Tony). In Argentina there is the fervent memory of the Falklands war. Sadly for us, it is less unusual to be at war, and something that happened thousands of miles away 25 years ago under the rule of the iron lady is rather distant history. For Argentina, whose sole memory of war and of 1000 young inexperienced lives lost in Las Malvinas, it is a wound that still hurts. And many show it! Woe betide the English visitor.
Being Scottish comes in very handy when globe trotting.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Buenos Aires life

I have finally reached my final destination and am smoothly establishing myself into the rythmn of Buenos Aires life. This city has been beckoning me for years. For so long have I created images in my mind of how it looks and feels to be here and I am not disappointed. Granted, it is a sizeable city which feels slightly suffocating after spending three months communing with mother nature. Montevideo, the capital city of Uruguay, was a delightfully manageable stepping stone between these two worlds. Buenos Aires is a beautiful, captivating city nonetheless and certainly deserves its reputation as a Europeanesque oasis afloat in the vast continent of South America, with its eclectic mix of latin and indigenous cultures. To be here feels like going back in time. It reminds me of the “old-time Spain” feeling which exudes Chilean cities such as Valparaíso and Santiago. The ubiquitous crooning of 30s tango singers accentuates this old-world feeling as does stepping into a real porteño (hailing from Buenos Aires) milonga, where the dance floor brims with older couples, all impeccably attired for the occasion.

The legacy of an immigrant population composed 50% of Italian descent has imbued Buenos Aires with many distinctly Italian flavours, notably the gastronomy (this is ice cream heaven!) and communication, both in terms of spoken lingo and gesticulations as only the Italians know how. It´s a constant source of fascination to see so many Italian attributes being manifested Argentine style. The porteño dialect is peppered with Italian words, most obviously with Lunfardo, a wonderful “language” born out of the emerging tango culture with words composed of reversed syllables like a secret code invented by children to prevent others´comprehension, which was apparently necessary in the face of disapproving authorities of the time.

I have been donning my dance shoes and attending milongas where the performances have to be seen to be believed! With all the distractions of an excellent salsa scene and a multitude of friends to catch up with, I have not managed to become quite the accomplished tango dancer I attain to be…yet, but I ´m on the way!

I have managed to assimilate the porteño schedule into my daily life, which involves lunching during the afternoon, dining at midnight and dancing until the early morning, every day. So I calculate I should not have any problems with jet lag as I am used to staying up all night anyway.

With all these references, you may have gathered that the end of my latin odyssey is nigh. I must admit that after such a long stay away, the thought of returning to British soil both thrills and apalls me, pending the inevitable culture shock, of course. After an absence of 16 months, I can hardly believe that my journey is about to end, however I treasure the thought of joining and sharing with so many familiar faces once again. I have had such a wealth of experiences, seen such sights, met so many amazing people over the past 16 months, it is hard to take it all in and much harder to summarise! If you´ve been reading my blog (or emails), you will have been living it with me…well now I´m ready to come home and start a new adventure in my own land.

Hasta muy pronto, chicos, and stay posted for news of a timely reunion in London…

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Living in luxury in Uruguay

Note HRH Lizzie gazing from an excellent viewpoint on the stairs
The union jack is not flying because, of course, the Ambassador is not at home
Afternoon requisite

La Residencia Britanica

I have been in Uruguay for a month now and it is having several notable effects:

1. I have become a dulce de leche addict. How did I ever live without it before?

2. I have reformed and become a mate-drinker. Yerba de mate is a green herb that grows in Uruguay, Northern Argentina and Southern Brazil and nowhere is the tradition more fervently upheld than in Uruguay. As my Argentine friends commented, “In Argentina we drink mate, but we wait until we arrive at our destination to sit down and drink it”. In Uruguay absolutely everywhere, in every situation, people can be seen carrying thermos flasks under one arm, mate in hand, sipping, refilling, sipping, refilling, all day long. So, now I own a mate (recipient carved out of a gourd), a bombilla (metal straw) and a thermos flask recently purchased in a duty free shop on the Brazilian border. Never in my life have I seen people so excited about the qualities of my thermos flask! So I can now pose as an Uruguayan (pronounced Uruguashan with plenty of emphasis on the “sh”) with my new-found national preferences.

3. I have become a proper carnivore. Parilladas, barbeques Uruguayan style, are truly excellent here. It makes our BBQ tradition look pathetic in comparison. Argentina has all the fame for the quality of its meat, but Uruguayans are perhaps even more obsessed. The mountains of sizzling steaks served at any given moment are hard to believe.

4. I am a rare breed. It’s great to answer “Scotland” when people ask where I’m from and watch the look of astonishment which follows. You would think that I’m the first Scot they’ve ever met and it’s probably true. They are always intrigued as to how I ended up here whilst simultaneously expressing surprise that more people don’t know their country. I have at least met one other Scot here: the British ambassador, who hails from Lothian. After spending a month in some fairly basic accommodation, I have arrived to Montevideo in style: I am now safely installed in the palacial-like British residence where my private quarters are several times larger than the average 3 bed house! Thanks to Emily, my new friend, who just so happens to be wife to the ambassador. So here I can feel like a true ex-pat, admire the many portraits of the royal family, swirl down the grand staircase like Scarlett to take afternoon tea in fine bone china with silver spoons. I am getting used to be waited on by several maids and a butler. Long may it last!

Apart from that, I can vouch that the beaches in Uruguay are paradasaical. I should know, having just spent a solid month lying on them. I don’t think I’ve ever been so tanned! Uruguay also has an extravagant carnival tradition full of dance, music and costumes and it is still going on, which is a treat. Now I’m off to a marimba concert at the Guatemalan embassy, being an old-timer when it comes to marimba and all that Guatemalan jazz! Hasta luego,

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Cabo Polonio

Three weeks ago, I entered a magical world, a secret place where, after dark, objects reveal their form only by flickering candlelight or by the light of the moon if she´s willing to show herself. One´s eyes grow accustomed to the darkness and one´s soul is revitalised by closer contact with the earth, free from convenient distractionssuch as telephones, computers, televisions; free from electricity. Water is hauled up from wells and is used sparingly, a precious resource.

Cabo Polonio, Uruguay is one of those places that leaves a huge imprint on your senses. In this day and age, a popular beach resort without roads, electricity or running water yet which draws up to 5000 visitors daily (during very high season) seems hard to believe. During the winter it boasts a population of 82, mainly fishermen, who live primitively, as do the tourists, when they come, thirsty for an escape from the demands of modern life.
I arrived in Cabo Polonio on carnival Monday intending to stay a couple of days and stayed three weeks and even then found it so hard to leave. I watched the influx of visitors diminish radically from the two long beaches flanking the cape. At first crammed with bronzing bodies, they soon became peaceful oases, a few surfers riding the waves and a few people dotting the beach, nada mas.

Cabo Polonio boasts the largest sealion population in South America. Originally exploited for their valuable pelts, the population is now protected and is expanding successfully. The outer-lying islands are a mass of sealion harems and at all times of day and night strange shrieks and cries travel across the water providing a backgroundof weird and wonderful Hallowe´enish sound... During the day sealions play in the sea along with cormorants and dolphins and while I was there, a huge whale appeared on the beach, dead but fascinating.

It is impossible to be alone in the Cabo, as the Uruguayans call it. I made so many new friends, easy as the Uruguayans are so friendly. The nightlife is wild, especially considering the remoteness. It is like a permanent festival. But don´t tell everyone! It draws visitors from around the globe but it still manages to retain an air of secrecy. Let´s hope it stays that way.

Welsh Patagonia

My Patagonian odyssey concluded in Puerto Madryn, on the Atlantic coast of Argentina. This area was colonised by the Welsh towards the end of the 19th Century, who, seeking freedom from British repression, and having been granted permission by the Argentine government, arrived expecting to establish farms and instead found avast barren desert promising little hope of survival. Many died and the colony only survived because they befriended the indigenous tribes who taught them how to hunt. Interestingly, this is the only occurrence in the history of the colonisation of Argentina wherein a friendly relationship existed between the natives and the settlers. I went to visit Gaiman, one of the "Welsh" villages where they still speak Welsh. Part of the typical tourist circuit, we went to a Welsh teahouse (since when was Wales famous for tea? I thought it rude to sing the more obvious praises of Devonshire cream teas in too high a voice but I did let my travelling companions know sotto voce). Anyway, the remarkable thing about this particular teahouse, appropriately called Caerdydd (I did not fail to let them know where I live when I´m in the UK), is that it is a shrine to Princess Diana (Lady Dee as she is affectionately called in Patagonia) This is THE teahouse where she took her tea when she visited Patagonia and sure enough, her lipstick-imprinted teacup is encased in a glass display cabinet, together with a cornucopia of Diana kitsch filling the whole building....! Fabulous!

I walked with penguins, 700,000 of them, in Punta Tombo. Funny, curious creatures, crossing your path. I did feel a touch of moral unease about being able to walk through their colony, especially when I saw a child taunting a penguin with a plastic bottle. Hmm. Not so good.

I visited colonies of sealions and elephant seals and saw Commerson`s dolphins playing in the waves, all around the Valdès Peninsula, a natural haven for the animalitos. You need to go in the Patagonian winter to see the awesome sight of whales splashing in front of the boat, so that I did not see. But all in all, I was living a veritable wildlife David Attenborough stylie documentary. ¡Que barbaro!, as they say here!

I visited colonies of sealions and elephant seals and saw Commerson`s dolphins playing in the waves, all around the Valdès Peninsula, a natural haven for the animalitos. You need to go in the Patagonian winter to see the awesome sight of whales splashing in front of the boat, so that I did not see. But all in all, I was living a veritable wildlife David Attenborough stylie documentary. ¡Que barbaro!, as they say here!

Sunday, February 04, 2007

El Fin del Mundo

I am offcially at the end of the world so I thought it important enough to let you all know! I am in Ushuaia, on Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost town in the world, where, at this time of year, daylight rules.
It snowed last night! Now it`s pouring with rain. Yesterday we took a lovely boat trip through the Beagle Channel and said hello to colonies of penguins, sealions and cormorants, all metres from the boat.

Antarctica is a mere few hundred kilometres away, and indeed this place is full of Antarctic explorers, although these days the kind of explorer is more likely to be a Western tourist with plenty of money lining their pocket than a true scientist, and they all depart from Ushuaia in cruise liners rather than icebreakers (especially as there is ever less ice to break). I met an Australian who was heading there in a small yacht for a mere 8 people, an indication that it`s now de rigeur to cruise around the Antarctic icebergs, a well-stocked fridge and a case full of the latest high-tech outdoors equipment. It`s all somewhat distantly removed from my humble Guatemalan experience and it`s strange adapting to the changes.

Argentina is an astonishingly beautiful country. So far I can only boast to have seen Patagonia, which is full of exquisite national parks and outstanding national monuments. A couple of days ago I crossed over to Chile to see the spectacular Torres del Paine national park, where granite pinnacles rise out of the plains, glaciers carving treacherous crevasses which plummet down from the heights; guanaco and silver foxes roaming freely below.

I took an excursion to see the Perito Moreno Glaciar, one of the most spectacular sights I have ever seen. It is one of the world`s most dynamic glaciers, stretching 14km into the distance, with a 5km long front of 60m high walls of ice which calve icebergs into the milky blue lake in front…That was a sight so surreal you can hardly believe what nature is capable of. Truly awesome! We saw condors at relatively close range who spread their wings and took off to circle high in the sky above.

I went trekking for two days around the Fitz Roy peaks; needles of vertical rock piercing the sky, which provides one of the scariest rock climbing challenges in the world. We camped in the forest and the next day donned crampons and ice axes and off we went conquering the Torre Glaciar, climbing vertical ice walls, death-sliding across rivers, etc.!

I joined up with some Porteños (those that hail from Buenos Aires) and we hiked up to a refuge in the Patagonian Lake District called the Laguna Negra. After hiking for 5 hours, conquering what appeared to be a vertical cliff face, we reached the top and low and behold there lay a pristine lagoon surrounded by a circular wall of snow-clad rock! We camped on the lakeshore and the following day I donned my bikini and swam in the icy waters to disbelieving onlookers!

My next stop is Puerto Madryn, land of Welsh settlements and the famous Valdès Peninsula, home to a wealth of penguins, cormorants, sealions, elephant seals, whales and dolphins…

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Patagonia - Lake District

I feel like I have landed on another planet. After two and a half days` solid travelling, covering several thousand miles, I arrived in Patagonia, south Argentina, to be welcomed into the warm embrace of my dear friend Micala and her Danish travelling crew. Micala and I, for the last three years, have established a pattern of meeting once a year in a different country, so where better than Argentina to start 2007 with a bang! One would think that Guatemala is in closer proximity to Patagonia than northern Europe, being on the same side of the world, but in actual fact, the distance is about the same, i.e. really far away. And it feels like it. Central America is a world away from Argentina. This is civilization proper; very different from Chichè, that`s for sure!
This country is vast. There is so much space. Guatemala has spectacular scenery, but nowhere seems to be untouched by human hands. Here nature dominates everything. In a short few days we took in so many breathtaking views; lakes, waterfalls, snow-capped mountains, virgin forests, crystal-clear rivers… One day we hiked for hours through an exquisite forest alongside a stunning lake to hot spring waterfalls gushing out of a wall of rock. We bathed in steaming pools before returning to feast at an estancia (country ranch) which had surely been sent from heaven, in a remarkable and isolated location on the shores of another wilderness lake, where we sat on the lawn and dined on exquisite food (very much appreciated after 5 hours trekking) in the company of extremely amiable hosts, who, it turned out, had attended St. Andrews School in Buenos Aires. They seemed delighted to have a real Scot amongst them and invited me back with the promise of bagpipes…

After four intense days I sadly but fondly bid farewell to the Danish posse – we shared much fun, laughter, excellent food and even more excellent wine. (Argentinian wine is a must! That`s what we`ll be drinking when we land!) Then I went back to the estancia, where I joined the clan for a couple of days. Sure enough, Brian had arrived, virtuoso piper by appointment to Her Majesty the Queen and to many other visiting dignitaries from far British shores. So there we were, surrounded by the trees and the mountains, the sound of Scottish bagpipes floating on the breeze…another unforgettable experience in this grand adventure I am undertaking. I have been showing my Scottish hardiness by swimming in the icy waters of the many lakes every day – something the Argentinians consider utter madness, but it`s good for body and soul, I am convinced. A few days ago I arrived in Bariloche, Argentina`s hub of summer and winter mountain sports, where I have been royally hosted by the family of an Argentinian friend I met in Guatemala. Bariloche is like Switzerland in Argentina – small wonder so many Swiss and Germans settled here – right down to the growth of a fine chocolate industry. I am currently sitting in a chocolate parlour partaking in the delicias! Soon I will be heading for the glaciers and the end of the world…Love to my Patagonian chums and keep on suppin` that vino argentino!