Getting mugged in Buenos Aires

I’d been to one of those birthday parties where the only person you know is the host.

At that stage my Spanish was still rudimentary, meaning that only Argentines of the utmost patience and generosity would be willing to listen to me describe my daily routines, in the present tense of course. Since there are in fact no Argentines like that, I knew that I must resort to artificial help; with a bit of Dutch Courage I would become not only a virtuoso Spanish-speaking wordsmith, but also, crucially, an interesting person. To the bottle I went, and found that soon I was holding forth in front of a crowd of one on my past routines (in the imperfect tense).

It was around 2:30am when I left the party, early by Argentine standards; late by civilised standards. It was in a shared house at the southern end of San Telmo, near the intersection of 9 de Julio with Juan de Garay, and I had already identified a bus, the 39, that would take me almost to my doorstep in Palermo.

On the map there was a large block of green opposite my bus stop – lovely, a nice park to contemplate in the early hours. Not quite. Unfortunately I forgot to switch to ‘satellite view’, which would have revealed that the Plaza, in fact a concrete-ridden drugs hole, lay at the doorstep of the Constitución train station, vying with the San Lorenzo football stadium for the title of ‘most unsavoury place in the whole of Argentina’.

In my blissful ignorance I sauntered – or rather stumbled – my way towards my chosen bus station, my flip-flops slapping around on the pavement, my white arms like beacons in the night. I had earlier noted that in my wallet were 200 pesos (around $40 US at that time), a sizeable amount. In my other pocket was my crappy nokia phone, the predecessor of the 32-10, and my little moleskin notebook, chosen that night because it was the only thing I had that contained words and would fit into my pocket.

The street was silent, and the only lamp flickered uselessly. A man appeared from around the corner and veered towards me:

“Give me money.”

I probably should have found this command worrying, but the truth is everyone speaks like this in Buenos Aires. A ‘please’ or a ‘thank you’ are luxuries meant only for your grandparents and your boss. So I thought I would humour him, assuming that if I gave him a token amount he would decide not to pester me and I would be allowed to wait for the bus in peace, maybe even read a little. There was a kind of wild look in his eyes which I found unnerving, probably drug-related – ‘paco’ is the favourite in these parts – and I calculated that apart from leaving me alone, he was less likely to do something irrational like attack me if I just gave him something.

The moment the giving was concluded, I was dismayed to see that three previously unseen shadows materialised from under the hood of the bus stop and were walking directly for me. Bugger.

I tell myself now that if they had just stood around me and demanded my wallet then I would have acquiesced. Well, I probably would have; although those 200 pesos could have bought 40 bottles of Quilmes beer…

But they didn’t stand around me. The first of the trio went straight for my left pocket. I didn’t realise it at the time but he actually ripped the pocket open, which later required a sewing job that I was certainly not capable of doing. The other two, and possibly the original ‘beggar’ as well, who for all I knew may have been in on the whole plan, proceeded to attack me in a rather haphazard flailing manner.

I matched their flailing with my own. I had never punched anyone in my life, and my only experience of fighting was in boarding school, in which you were expected to grapple honourably until you or your opponent achieved some kind of head or arm lock, at which point the fight would be concluded and you would leave in silent sweaty satisfaction, your Alpha status confirmed for that day. So my fight with my Argentine attackers, probably in their teens and all at least a head shorter than me, followed the boarding school pattern, but with less locks and more shoving.

At some point three of us were on the ground rolling around. One of the boys, still standing, reached into his pocket and I suddenly considered that he might be carrying a knife, or worse, a gun, so I rugby-tackled him, making sure to take the man and the ball – or, as in this case, the man and the knife/gun.

By this stage I sensed that they were rather losing interest in the whole thing. They had probably just been waiting for a bus when I’d come trundling into view and, short of conversation, they’d seen the opportunity to make a bit of money while having a bit of fun. Whatever the case, I ran off to a taxi that had slowed in passing, sensing a fare (albeit one who probably didn’t have a wallet), and jumped in.

“Plaza de Mayo, por favor,” I said, choosing the nearest populated bus station. Even in times of trauma, it’s best not to waste money on an expensive taxi ride home (at least 20 pesos). The taxidriver railed against my young attackers, cursing them in all the colourful ways that only Argentines know. I agreed with him energetically and assessed the damage: one flip-flop missing – annoying; no phone missing – good; no wallet missing – very good; the notebook?

Bugger. I’d lost my bloody notebook. It must have fallen out of the ripped pocket without my noticing. Full of the last few weeks’ observations, I fancied that one day it would lay the foundations of my Great South American novel. So irritated was I by this turn of events that I considered asking the taxidriver to turn back.

I did in fact return, the next day. After a few minutes scouring around the bus stop I found my missing flip-flop. I assume my attackers left it because it was about 20 sizes too big for them, and a single flip-flop is not as useful as a pair.

The search for my notebook was less productive, it wasn’t even around the corner where my attackers, having realised it was of no value, would surely have thrown it away. I consoled myself in the thought that they would be so anxious to know its contents – the treasure maps hidden within, the coded messages and bank account details – that they would endeavour to learn English and actually read it. Maybe they would even ask me for English lessons…?

Snapshot – The mythical birth of the Inca Bridge

inca bridge, punete del inca

The quechua say that before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, when the Inca ruled all the way from Northern Argentina – Salta and Tucuman and Jujuy – up until far above Cuzco in what is now Northern Peru, the heir to the throne of the Inca empire contracted a mysterious paralysis.

When all known cures had been exhausted the wise elders decreed that his only salvation could be found in the deep south, beyond the frontier of the Inca Empire, where a frothing river passes over healing rocks ripped from the centre of the Earth that shine orange like the evening sun.

The finest warriors of the Empire left from Cuzco carrying the heir and heading South. They climbed up into the spine of the Andes, skirting around the magical blue waters of Lake Titicaca where the air was as thin as the heir’s rasping breath and the sun burned but didn’t warm. Down through the snow-covered passes to Humahuaca, where rose a mountain draped in a rainbow. Then fighting through the hostile territory owned by the Aymaran-speaking Kolla people and past the blood-red soils of Cafayate to the endless plains.

Finally, after losing many men to the land and through skirmishes with hostile peoples, and after climbing once more into the bowels of the Andes where the peaks rise beyond the dome of the sky, the Inca warriors arrived at a deep ravine painted in all the colours the world then had to offer. Barring their way to the magical slope with its healing waters was a river frothing like a rabid puma.

The Inca warriors joined their bodies and formed a human bridge over the tempestuous bubbling. Over this bridge, the length of 50 men lying down, was carried the paralysed heir. Then he was dipped into the thermal waters while the colours of the slope swirled around him chanting incantations which only the mountains knew.

He was cured, and upon turning to thank his courageous escort he found them still, petrified, turned to stone by the sungod Inti so that the Inca might remember that in this place was completed a great feat of human courage and divine power. It still bears the name Bridge of the Inca.

The bridge is now deemed too dangerous to cross, so we stayed on our side and took photos. Under the bridge itself is a series of pillars and holes that one first assumes is an Inca ruin. In fact it’s the remains of a hotel built in 1925 for the rich and famous before it was gutted by the unruly river. Now it stands as a fitting monument to Argentina’s decadent past washed away by time, all that’s left is an empty but enduring skeleton.

(Note: I took a few liberties with the story!)

inca bridge, punete del inca

The bridge with the old spa, built in 1925 but gutted by the river.

inca bridge, punete del inca

The magical slope that cured the Inca king.

inca bridge, punete del inca

Andy (right) and me at the bridge. Note: I do not have elephantiasis in my legs; it’s windy.

March 2012

Snapshot – Getting up that bloody hill

Looking down from the top of the hill.

Looking down from the top of the hill.

It’s strange that the tour agencies sell the Colca Canyon tour as an easy trek, because on the second morning, before breakfast, you are expected to gain 1000m in altitude on a steep relentless path. It’s really quite quite a bugger. We wake at 5am and I take the wise decision to eat something, a packet of biscuits, before joining the group mingling around in the cold of the early morning darkness. Up on the path we can already see headtorches lighting the path. I don’t have a headtorch, in fact only about three people in our group do, which means that the first hour or so is spent bunched up behind one of the people who had the sense to bring one, trying to remember how the path looked when it was lit up.

It’s not too serious, since soon a thin light washes away the darkness of the night and the path becomes readable. Our group spreads out, Patricia tells us to wait at the top, and I soon find myself passing slower groups and moving relatively quickly. I was using the climb as a kind of test: if I did it fast and felt ok at the top then I’d probably be ok to try one of the big volcanoes around Arequipa: Misti or Chachani. If I died before reaching the top… well, that would be that.

About three quarters of the way up, having passed most of the other groups, my legs start acting like whining toddlers, screaming at me to stop and threatening to pull me down the mountain if I don’t listen. I take a break and watch a few similarly lonesome walkers catch up. A burly bearded man from Italy, from South Tyrol, passes me near the top and offers the sage advice: “you can go slowly, but you should never stop”. When I reach the top he congratulates me and then lights another cigarette; he’s now halfway through his celebratory 20-pack – it seems the rum-and-cigarette-themed rest stop of the first day was on to something after all.

It’s 7:15, and up at the top I am surprised to find a group of middle-aged German hikers who, much to my annoyance, scaled the path quicker and seemingly with less problems than I did. Most of them are carrying ripe bellies and completely grey hair. It’s around then that I decide that the big mountains will have to wait, that I’m just not that fit.

Waiting at the top of the hill.

Waiting at the top of the hill.

Over the next 90 minutes the rest of our group arrives, in twos and threes and fours. We cheer them as they approach, sweaty and exhausted, and the Brazilians open their sacred pot of peanut-butter and offer it around as a form of celebration. We still haven’t eaten breakfast, so the offering is well-received. When we do eat breakfast, in a village close to the top of the trail, it’s a bit disappointing. I was expecting a recently killed wild boar to be bronzing on the spit surrounded by an array of crispy guinea pigs, freshly-congealed cheeses, rice, cakes, scones with cream and jam, porridge, peanutbutter and jam sandwiches, and every variety of potato that Peru has to offer (around 4000). I wanted something worthy of our early morning struggles. Instead we were given a petridish of scrambled eggs and some crap bread.

The path climbing up the hill from Sangalle.

The zig-zag path climbing up the hill from Sangalle.

May 2013

Snapshot – Smelly disaster on Ruta 40

Perito Moreno

Despite the clear crispness of the air the smell of petrol still lingers on my jacket. Everyone had told us that to negotiate the hundreds of kilometres of gravel road that constitute the Southern tail of Ruta 40 we would need a spare petrol tank. We took this to mean that we would need a full petrol tank, our reasoning being that if we ran out of petrol in the middle of nowhere (and the windy plains of Patagonia are more nowhere than anywhere I’ve ever been before), then we would be able to fill up and keep on going to the next huddled cluster of buildings and maybe – but probably not – find some petrol.

DSC_1428

One of the towns huddled against the wind in which nothing happens.

Apparently we were mistaken, the thing to do is to take an empty spare tank and then flag down a passerby and have them take you to said huddled cluster of buildings and then, presumably, have them take you back to your forlorn car.

Back in Buenos Aires when we told Argentines about our decision to keep the spare tank full of petrol they laughed at us, at our naivety. But I suspected that they had never been to Patagonia, that they’d never been on that dastardly stretch of Ruta 40, between Los Antiguos and Tres Lagos, because apart from there being very little vegetation and precious few communities (some of which are composed of and managed entirely by sheep), there are no cars.

Imagine the scene: our car dies on the gravel road, 200km from Tres Lagos, I try to open the car door to get out and see what’s what but the wind won’t let me. So we all sit in the car and wait for a passing sign of life. Hours pass. The sky is yellowing as the sun falls and I know that Bear Grylls would be trying to make a fire while telling us about the vital importance of making a fire. I mention the vital importance of making a fire to the group but they ignore me, because they’re all American and they haven’t heard of Bear Grylls. I try to think of the American equivalent but can only think of Steven Seagal’s massive head, which convinces Ian but not the girls. So we continue sitting in the car. Days pass. When it rains we roll down the windows and point our open mouths up to the heavens. We eat the weakest, uncooked. Weeks pass. I’m the only one left. In a final pathetic show of resistance I try to open the door. But the wind’s too strong. I expire.

Windy

Patagonia is WINDY. A minute before this photo was taken the car was on the right side of the frame.

That’s why we filled up our spare petrol tank. But in the end we made it to El Chalten, and then beyond to El Calafate, without needing to dip into it. At the hostel we emptied out our bags but left the petrol tank inert in the boot. The next day, snaking around the thin roads that led to the blue crispy glacier, Perito Moreno, the tank, previously held in place by our snugly fitting bags, fell over and leaked all over the boot, leaving a congealed layer of sticky tarry gunk over every surface and especially in the hole where the spare tyre sits.

At the place where you take a boat and chug up to the glacier’s walls a car park attendant told us that our car stank of ‘Nafta’ (from ‘naphta’, not ‘North Atlantic Free Trade Alliance’). We looked at him, perplexed, then in unison we breathed in deep and full before collectively retching so thick the stench. ‘Ah, yes, it appears you’re right’, I try to communicate in Spanish. ‘Thank you.’

Much of the following day was spent bent over the boot with wire brushes more suited to cleaning dried pasta off a plate than scraping out congealed petrol. The car would stink until we reached Reta in Provincia Buenos Aires, where we were able to leave all the doors and windows open for three days and three nights. Quite how the people at the car rental company didn’t notice is beyond me. I suspect they’d overcharged us for the car in the first place and so let slide the suspicious smell and the patches of dissolved paint.

Car

Our very smelly Volkswagen Passat.

January 2012