Friday, 14 March 2014

Que Interesante!

Gossens' last words
The revelations from exploration, the beauty in diversity, the wonders of travel. In essence: If you venture out into the world, you're likely to see some interesting stuff. Two months on the road have passed for me now, traversing Ecuador, Peru and Chile to end up in the deep south of Argentinian Patagonia. Four previous blog entries containing my blathering meandering train of thought testify that there has been plenty to relate. Sin embargo, it is difficult to find space for some of the most intriguing nuggets of info while simultaneously attempting to maintain a vaguely-cohesive narrative structure. Hence the decision here to abandon any thematic premise and instead adopt a scatter-gun, context-free approach to share some interesting, wide-ranging stuff I've experienced recently. Entonces...

Wild Dogs

Valparaiso, Chile
It's difficult for me to admit, and I've been trying to convince myself otherwise for a while now, but the hesitant truth is... I don't like dogs any more. The friendly, pet-able slobbering mutts of home don't exist in Latin America. Here, more often than not, Los Perros wander the streets on a wilder plane of existence. This rule isn't completely universal but the majority of big Latin American cities house a population of tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of stray dogs. Forced to live along primal lines, they act accordingly; only taking a break from fighting for a little fucking (sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between the two). Street dogs are the Catholic priests of the animal kingdom when it comes to using prophylactics, and this penchant for unprotected amorous activity spawns yet more strays; the problem ever increasing.

Neutering is non-existent. After many years accustomed to the snipped nether regions of puppies back home, it takes a while to get used to the sight of animals here waddling around like John Wayne, struggling not to trip over their own giant testicles. The unchecked hormones also make for very aggressive mutts – fighting each other for territory or mating rights, and occasionally turning their attentions to the human population.

After dark, some cities (especially in Central America) feature roaming packs of wild dogs. Liberated by the empty streets and unthreatened by the presence of people. It can be very intimidating to encounter such a group. Especially if you're wandering solo, outnumbered by the pride, there's no choice but to retreat and hope to avoid them in the future.

Personally, my worst canine experiences have occurred away from the cities, trekking through smaller highland villages and sparsely populated mountain regions. Stumble upon an angry pack here and you could be in trouble. Teeth-baring, snapping at ankles, bristling with menace, it's best to back away slowly. Not always possible if they are blocking the only path though, in which case thrown rocks or swinging branches may come into play. Repeated experiences along this theme have left me with a real dislike, rooted in fear, of dogs in general.

Valparaiso, Chile
The only country-wide exception to this rule seems to be Chile. Perros de la calle still exist, in fact they outnumber many other LAm countries – 400,000 street dogs in Santiago alone, many millions across the nation. But they are loved and cared for by the whole population. Well-fed, constantly petted, hugged by children, able to use public kennels in city parks. Their glossy coats shine with health, often overweight, never fighting and bouncing around showing nothing but affection for people. However, the rate of reproduction is still uncontrolled and the safe, happy living environment causes numbers to increase even quicker than elsewhere on the continent. Despite the mutual love and harmony shared by humans and canines in Chile, this means that sensible management is required here even more urgently than other countries.

Argentinian Exchange Rate

Politics and economy go hand-in-hand and both are roller-coaster rides in this part of the world. The current situation with the Argentinian exchange rate is the perfect illustration. Without getting too financially technical - the economy is fucked. Despite the government's best attempts to divert the public's attention with heated political rhetoric on the continued English 'occupation' of Islas Malvinas (a distraction technique adopted during every frequent economic bust in Argentina) the situation is unavoidably and undoubtedly dire.

Santiago, Chile
With little to no faith in their currency, the locals are desperate to change their hard-earned savings into the stable US dollar. To discourage this, the government limits the amount of income Argentinians can change from Pesos to Dollars each month and only allows them to store this within the volatile bank system. If they want to withdraw their money in dollars and keep it safely under the bed, an additional 20% tax is added. Por eso, the sheer desperation for dollars en efectivo has created the 'blue market' in currency-changing cuevas where locals are willing to pay an increased number of pesos in order to receive US currency in cold, hard cash. The knock-on effect on the opposite side of the money-changing fence (US dollars to Argentinian pesos) means that travellers get much more bang for their buck on the mercado azul. The blue market so called because it's more mainstream than the very naughty black market, but still a bit dodgy legally-speaking. Large denominations are required, but your crisp $50 and $100 bills will get you roughly 20% more pesos on the blue market than when changing money officially or using your bank card.

To make things even more complicated for me, arriving into Patagonia, the blue market is only really accessible in the big cities (of which there are none down here). A little research revealed that official money changers in Chile give an exchange deal that tracks the blue rate rather than the official rate. As a result, changing a wad of cash to Argentinian pesos in the neighbouring country before heading over the border saved me over $100 (or prevented me from losing it, depending on how you look at it).

Economics is interesting, right? Robert Peston, eat your heart out. Now just to spend the next month pretending I'm American in order to avoid awkward Falklands questioning...

Wifi

As a man renowned for his steadfast, not to mention highly moral and charitable principles, Wifi is an anomaly in how conflicted it leaves me. Undeniably a great leap forward in technology, information-sharing and education on a global scale, but I can't help feeling that it's ruined travelling a bit.

Chiloe Island, Chile
“Do you have Wifi”. Invariably the first question asked by an alarming number of travellers on arrival at a new hotel/restaurant/cafe/bar/attraction/cemetery/diving site/ancient ruin. Nowadays the answer is overwhelmingly, yes! People are so used to this relatively new state of affairs that they won't even consider staying somewhere without wireless internet access. How could they possibly have a good time without the ability to instantly tell their friends back home about it?

I often reflect with misty-eyed fondness on my first extended trip abroad to Asia back in 2009. In this different technological age, Wifi was still a very new concept and no-one really travelled with iPhones let alone laptops. Hostel friendships were formed over many a late night, shared stories and a beer. Nowadays the sharing is confined to Instagram photos and status updates. People arrive, remain and leave as strangers, each glued to a separate small luminescent screen.

Penguin! Chiloe Island, Chile
I recently spent a couple of weeks in a brand new beach hostel in Ecuador. So new was this accommodation that, shock horror, it didn't have Wifi! All those looking for a bed reacted with confusion to this news, most turned around and left without another question. But those of us who remained shared something special: Friendships formed in the old manner with intimate conversations, full attention given and received, no-one else existing in the world for that moment. It was refreshing, genuine untainted interaction, a pleasant throwback to the not-so-distant past.

We're all Facebook friends now. I like irony.

Stargazing

Recent weeks spent traversing the long, thin 4000km strip of Chilean landmass, my surroundings have changed drastically; from the world's driest desert at 2500m above sea level in North Chile to the sparsely-populated expanses around Tierra del Fuego and southern-most Chilean Patagonia. These are hugely different worlds, yet they both share a special something - the night sky.

Atacama Desert, Chile
Accustomed to living in highly-populated, light-polluted London where the nocturnal landscape offers nothing overhead but a hazy orange smog, providing no reason to look up, it took me a couple of days in San Pedro de Atacama to even think about gazing skyward after dark. Raise your eyes to the heavens in the Atacama Desert though and you'll see scattered stars twinkling in their thousands. Tiny pinpricks of light contrasting against the never-ending darkness of space, appearing so unfathomably unknowable in number that they seem to overpower the night and become the dominant force. As if the patches of dark are struggling to pierce through a blanket of light.

Observing such a sight, it's impossible not to halt and adopt a slack-jawed stare. The corresponding undeniable realisation that you are observing a thousand other suns spread throughout this galaxy and beyond into a never-ending expanding universe compounds the state of awesome contemplation (this is the correct use of the word 'awesome', by the way, for those of you who think you had an 'awesome' hamburger for lunch...). You understand nothing, feel very small. What really matters? Certainly not the pointless shit you were worrying about earlier today. This nauseating, overwhelming sense of terrible true perspective is ultimately good. It may lead to more confusion about what's really important, what actually means something, but it helpfully leaves no doubt about what doesn't.

If such a sight was available on a nightly basis in London it would be very hard to concentrate on the latest banal performance appraisal at work. Does living head-down in a big bustling city, attaching importance to climbing the corporate ladder and other pursuits of questionable worth have a direct relationship to not being able to see the stars in such a built-up area? Would city culture remain the same with an infinite universe of possibility and mystery shimmering overhead each night? Do you need something out of this world to look up to in order to broaden your perspective here within it? Have I been away for too long? Quite possibly. Still, using this starry-eyed example or not, the fact remains that wider horizons prevent narrow thinking. We all need to escape the bustle once in a while, find a quiet, unblemished point in space, and look up.

Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Santiago, Chile

Santiago, Chile

Valparaiso, Chile

Valparaiso, Chile

Santiago, Chile

Santiago Fish Market, Chile

Santiago Chile

Valparaiso, Chile

Atacama Desert, Chile

Tatio Geysers, Atacama Desert, Chile

Tatio Geysers, Atacama Desert, Chile

Atacama Desert, Chile

Tatio Geysers, Atacama Desert, Chile

Atacama Desert, Chile

Atacama Desert, Chile

Atacama Desert, Chile

Atacama Desert, Chile

Atacama Desert, Chile

Atacama Desert, Chile

Lake District, Chile

Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Glaciar Grey, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile


Glaciar Grey, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Chiloe Island, Chile

Chiloe Island, Chile

Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Glaciar Grey, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Glaciar Grey, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

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