A Travellerspoint blog

A Fistful of Francs

rain 10 °C
View Channelling the Cane Spirits in South America on Jeremy T's travel map.

Friday 04.04.08 (Continued)

Despite the fine weather the remainder of western Europe seemed to be enjoying, Switzerland's capital Zurich was overcast, that shade of formless grey that does nothing but promise large helpings of dreariness. This time I'd memorised the overland route to the hostel but seemed to be progressing straight from the bahnhof (train station) into an industrial district. I engaged two men having a chuckle at my expense (a bewildered backpacker is an amusing thing to behold), and queried regarding directions. The African one of the pair spoke English, and when I enquired about the safety of strolling in these parts, he replied heartily, "Don't worry man, you are in Switzerland!" With confirmed directions from a friend on the opposite end of the cellular, I was gone, all waves and danke schöns.

I encountered an Australian couple on the way, and when they escorted me behind some large stacks of scrap metal, the hostel materialised like I'd just pushed a trolley onto Kings Cross platform 9¾. I was hustled into one of four beige barracks and introduced to the owner, Tina. Naturally my first question for her was regarding the nature of the place. Nestled between the Autobahn and the railway, a schrebergarten (gnome-infested public garden plot) and an industrial park, Biker's Home is not your average hostel. At once a home for immigrants awaiting papers and accommodation for East German workers, we were about as far from the Swiss ideal as humanly possible. I soon became part of the family, which meant drinking large quantities of the local beer, Feldschlosschen with brave backpacker and German alike. The high wages offered keep foreign workers arriving; especially the East Germans who still don't enjoy equality in their homeland nearly twenty years after the Wall came down. There were no such barriers in Tina's, just a night of beer and laughs punctuated by some frankly bizarre attempts to make oneself understood.

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On Saturday morning I climbed aboard a sleek locomotive and caught the fast rail for Solothurn. For just a one-hour journey, the price was thirty francs (over AUS$30), but was as soothing as a warm bath on rails. Once there, I was re-united with Susanna, who I'd met previously in Mexico in 2005, and we caught a bus toward her village of Halten. She lives in one of the oldest dwellings of the village, a 300-year old ex-farmhouse comprising four storeys and a basement. Although presently partitioned into three apartments, the tenants are more like a big family and there's always a fair bit of traffic between, whether to swap beers, dinners or the day's news.

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We made our way back to Solothurn in the morning to meet Susi's good friend Joceline for drinks. As we sheltered from the cold inside a groovy cafe on a river bank, it became apparent it was perfectly acceptable to drink beer at any hour of the day, but after buying a round realised a fistful of Francs really doesn't go too far in this tiny nation, even if food, shelter and the household Lindt chocolate stash are already accounted for.

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On Thursday I took Bobby to Bern, just an hour distant by train and Switerland's capital city. Nestled within a hairpin bend of the river Aare, Bern's gorgeous historic town is dressed in green sandstone - a UNESCO world heritage site built up in layers around the steep banks of the fast-flowing and green-hued waterway. Not long after the city was founded, its mayor shot and killed a bear, which became the town's icon, and ever since, its most controversial attraction. Just on the other side of the Nydeggbrücke Bridge, a pair of spartan concrete pits are home to two frustrated brown bears, pacing up and down like they could use a change of scenery.

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As the weekend pulled into the station, I was reminded of my holiday's imminent ending. We made the most of the occasion with a carriageload of Feldschlossschen, horse, schnapps and wine, and a traditional Racklett of cheese melted with whatever else you'd choose to load on top. Before I knew it, nine great days had elapsed and I was departing midday on Monday. I rode first a bus, then train to Zurich, and soon was airborne, bound for Heathrow Airport. From there, I caught a ten hour flight to Bangkok, followed by another ten hour journey to Sydney. There was just one more flight, a Qantas into Melbourne, and I was back on solid ground, exhausted after 30 hours in controlled environments; into the waiting arms of my parents after eleven months abroad.

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Posted by Jeremy T 10.07.2008 07:58 Archived in Switzerland Tagged transportation Comments (0)

Terminal Velocity

sunny 25 °C
View Channelling the Cane Spirits in South America on Jeremy T's travel map.

Wednesday 02.04.08

Bogota's airport was stuffed tighter than a rocker's jeans, and it appeared the star attraction was the Iberia desk servicing the two A-340 flights to Spain. More or less ninety minutes and two passport checks passed before I finally reached the weigh-in and passport/ticket desk. On route to the gate, I breezed through another passport check, a screening point and metal detector patdown, a 2-point bag search partial frisk into a bag screen plus patdown ticket check, onto the final double tear-off ticket validation and I was aboard; I may have forgotten to mention three hours behind schedule. It was about this point, with just moments left in Latin America that my timing belt re-adjusted to fire all systems randomly and leave me completely in the lurch for the next couple of days. I'm blaming the radiation.

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Madrid's Terminal 4 is huge, beautiful and a very long way from everything else. The Iberia section is not only a train ride away, but right at the end, making it the airport equivalent of the outer part of Outer Mongolia. Let's keep that in mind for later. I hauled my belongings (now a rucksack, suitcase, backpack and laptop) down to Madrid's metro system. I surfaced in the dead-centre of the city at Plaza del Sol feeling like a B-Double of the backpacker world and spent two hours trying to find a hostel bed that was both vacant and wouldn't require me to pawn off half my stuff; though I doubt anyone would be too keen on Peruvian handicrafts or year-old Explorer socks. When I finally checked into a hostel I realised a day had slipped between the cogs and my early flight to Switzerland was leaving the next morning. I had time to visit one tourist site – the Picasso exhibition at the Reina Sofia, but embarrassingly began passing out while trying figure out the cubist ones.

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So as you may guess, come Friday my five-Euro deposit alarm clock failed to fire and I was instead woken by the superior timing of my German-manufactured roommates at 8am. With just forty-five minutes before my aircraft took to flight, I surmised I wouldn't probably make it. €11 and three anxious phone calls later, I transferred to a later flight, and by early afternoon I was on the metro back to Terminal 4. To get to the Iberia gates from the second floor weigh-in and screening point, it was a quadruple escalator descent and then a five minute subway ride to passport control. But where was my passport? The final words of the screening point guard ring through my ears: "Are you sure you have everything?" Well, now that you're re-mentioning it, no.

Suddenly the airport's expert people-funnelling system began to work against me. How could I get back there? Everything so far had been completely one way. With only a quarter hour before the boarding call, I got moving. Up two escalators and down two and I was on the other side of the tracks. Into the train and out of the train. Through the baggage pick 'n' mix; running now, nothing to declare. Past the huggers and sign holders to the elevator. Second floor. Toe tapping. A power-walk to security; a conversation in Spanish: "Ticket please."
"Er....I lost it there," pointing toward the guard on the other side of the glass, "That man has it."
"You can't go through without a ticket." An anxious and somewhat frantic re-iteration. A security guard is called over and motions me to step forward; another fretful repeat of the same thing. I pass through and approach the screening guard. "Señor, I left my passport here ten minutes ago, have you seen it?"
"Hmmm, so far in that time I've picked up four phones, two wallets...." my mind is racing so much I miss the rest. "That way please," he gestures to yet another security guard, this one armed, who disappears into a tiny booth shaped like an Art Deco snail. He emerges with the passport. I decide not to kiss him, instead saying thank-you's in as many directions as I could face. No one notices.

I quickstep down the first two escalators, consider sliding down the next two and leap aboard the waiting train seconds before the doors shut. A five minute break. Out and up two escalators, I triumphantly present my passport and make a break for the gates. Mine is the third-last but I have the moving walkways on my side and make double time in straight lines, reaching the gate fifteen minutes late, but incredibly with time to spare.

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Posted by Jeremy T 18.06.2008 07:13 Archived in Spain Tagged air_travel Comments (0)

Little Box o' Horrors

all seasons in one day 14 °C
View Channelling the Cane Spirits in South America on Jeremy T's travel map.

Thursday 27.03.08

Candelaria, where I was staying, is Bogota's oldest barrio, a snaking suburb of low-rise and ancient colonial buildings between the city centre and a mountain range that marks the city's eastern edge. The place is crawling with people during the day: tourists, business people and thousands of university students. Present too in alarming numbers are the police, the tourist police (who visit the hostel nightly without fail), camouflaged army personnel of seemingly every rank and private security dog-handlers. It was the latter that had me most concerned – Why did the government hire security firms for 'on the beat' work? What was with the heavy blind-man-cum-nightstick leash all about? And is that a golden retriever? What is that going to do, nuzzle me to death?

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I was collected in the evening by my friend Juan, who I'd met in Iguazu back in August. He took me to the Zona Rosa in the northern suburbs, and it was here I had my first taste of Aguardiente. The name literally means 'Firewater', it's aniseed flavoured and tends to sneak up on you at about 1.30am. Liquor comes in a box in Colombia. Not only do the country's favourite rums, aguardientes and red wines come in 1-litre easy pour Tetra-Paks, but they also come in 250ml fun-size varieties, perfect for slamming down 'on the go' or sucked up with a straw for playlunch. Try swapping that for a peanut butter sandwich!

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Despite morning sunshine turning to bitter hail every afternoon, I was positive the good weather would hold out at least until after I had visited Monserrate atop the mountain range. The first thing I'd noticed once the cog-train had climbed the frighteningly steep slope was the complete change in temperature. The second was dark clouds lurking about the place like a bunch of hooded teenagers at 7-11. The general trend would be downhill, I surmised as I snapped a couple of shots and slowly began to ice over. By the time the rain commenced I was already heading off the precipice in a gondola to the station below. I chose the scenic route for the walk home and before long was huddled under a conifer begging a disgruntled canine security guard to share his easement. He refused. Eventually I took advantage of a less sodden spell, but soon the sleet began and I found myself hurtling down a treacherous embankment with a drizzle of other stranded nitwits. The next ten minutes were spent charging from doorway to doorway to escape the worst of it, but I was halfway to 'drowned cuy' when I finally reached the hostel.

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It was Juan's birthday party on Saturday night, and we celebrated with his girlfriend Ana and friends in their apartment before a few of us headed to the Zona Rosa again. There was quite the lineup outside 'The Basement', but according to Bacon's Law, we knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who could get us in immediately, but sadly neither that person nor Kevin Bacon himself could let us enter without paying. The club attempted to be everything that every other Latin club was, and for that it was hugely popular. I'd hate to complain about the music selection, but when Salsa is followed by Reggaetón, and then into Latin Rock, Cumbia, Hard Dance and a ballad or two, the whole thing becomes incredibly hard to follow. In times like these I start drinking and looking to the lasers for guidance. This time they told me to go home, and I wasn't in the mood to argue.

Sometimes when travelling you encounter a group of street-savvy folk who are highly motivated to get smashed every single night. I had been spending the week with such a group, including an American named Levi and Daniel from Sydney, but I'd been finishing a magazine edition. In fact it'd been ages since I'd had a good blowout, and on Tuesday night I was ready to cut loose. With Candelaria too dangerous to loiter in at night, the mayhem was confined within the hostel, but when I was finally ready to retire, from outside came a bit of a commotion. The night guard took his nightstick and went to investigate while I scanned the security cameras. Lo and behold, Daniel and Levi had crawled up onto the roof to watch the sunrise, but after breaking a couple of tiles, the cops swooped, yelling "Ladrones!" and pointing their guns. I grabbed a nearby ladder and rescued them from the roof while the hostel guard convinced them not to fire. At the end of it all, we were handed free beers and kicked on until 9am. I wasn't relishing the thought of catching a flight in the coming evening.

Posted by Jeremy T 05.06.2008 00:05 Archived in Colombia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Quakes, Shakes and Tummy Troubles

sunny 32 °C
View Channelling the Cane Spirits in South America on Jeremy T's travel map.

Monday 24.03.08

No sooner had we left mountainous Ayacucho for Ica at a quarter past nine in the evening, the driver switched the lights off, leaving us to try and eke out some shuteye while he wrestled the steering wheel, braked savagely, bounced curbs and generally acted in a manner not especially sleep-friendly. I did go up the front to ask whether he could turn them back on, but a hostile stare put paid to any further dialogue. The air temperature sank to a level that would make a mammoth shiver as I rugged up in my sleeping bag (bus jockey's best mate) and nursed my bulging bladder. Finally after almost busting a valve, the drivers swapped and I relieved myself roadside as enthusiastically as one could when one's extremities are imitating something sold by Birdseye.

While stowing the sleeping bag before sunrise in Ica, i was approached by a maté-sipping stranger named Greghor. We'd shared the same refrigerator and since we were going the same way, we took a mototaxi to Haucachina. Just five or so kilometres from Ica's centre floats a palm-dotted oasis amongst giant sand dunes, serving as an isolated mission in a previous incarnation. But we'd arrived for an entirely different purpose than for the quiet appreciation of those above. The old colonial barracks have become a hotel and various other buildings have sprung up to support a new sandboarding craze. In a cyclone of irony, I found myself with plenty of time for contemplation as a bowel-quake heralded a violent bout of sickness. Within moments, I was shitting a tsunami and contorted in a relative amount of pain. Luckily it was as acute as it was severe, and despite a couple of aftershocks, the seas were calm in just a few hours.

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I spent the afternoon with my achilles tendon between the teeth of a particularly capricious monkey before we roared upwards into the dunes. Our driver pushed his buggy to a level which bettered even his counterpart's in Brasil (see Com Emoção), and then of course there was the sandboarding. As the shadows grew long, we hurtled down the giant slopes as fast as we dared, but all too soon the sun had dived below the horizon and we had retired to oasis Huacachina.

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With Apollo's chariot's horizon to horizon gallop underway again, we followed suit toward nearby Pisco on Peru's coastline. The entire region had been struck by an earthquake of magnitude 8.0 on August 15, 2007, and Pisco was still showing the scars. The town looked as if the Big Bad Wolf's Bigger Badder Brother had huffed and puffed and blown the place down bricks and all, and now all the little Piscovites had seen the error of their ways and reconstructed with straw and sticks.

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Pisco wasn't the most charming of places, feeling decidedly sketchy even though the day was far from over, so with arms full of fresh fruit we climbed aboard a combi and went down the coast to Paracas where Greghor would stay the night. The road bisected a hellish wasteland of dark brown earth that appeared blasted clean of any life whatsoever. Apparently lots of brick smelters stood here before the quake, but traces of their previous existence were few and far between. To my dismay, not a single straw or twig smelter, which would have helped supplement Pisco's alternate housing boom was within sight....at least in the places I was looking. After a brief swim and seafood snack in laid-back Paracas, I returned to Lima to stay the night.

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By late morning, I was sitting amongst the rank and file of fellow aeronauts on a flight beginning its bank and ascent toward Bogota, Colombia's capital. We hadn't yet escaped Lima's mammoth sprawl, and from barely a few thousand feet it became apparent just how brown Lima was. Umber buildings carpeted almost-treeless terrain gridlocked by dusty streets overlooked by barren hills. We pierced the smog layer, and although the offshore Pacific swayed deep and blue, Lima's share bore swarthy serpents of contaminants shifting with wave motion.

I'd been expecting Bogota, so close to the equator to be hot. Instead at my new lodgings I was donning layer after bulky layer until I looked like a psychedelic Michelin Man. I had underestimated the effects of altitude, and here at 2600m, the air was chilly. There wasn't much more to do than to socialise with new-found friends; and of course the Tetra-Pak red wine certainly helped with that.

Posted by Jeremy T 01.06.2008 18:39 Archived in Peru Tagged transportation Comments (0)

Pascuan pyramid procession promotes Peruvian prickly pears

Now with fashionable fabric underlay!

overcast 15 °C
View Channelling the Cane Spirits in South America on Jeremy T's travel map.

Good Friday 21.03.08

Bedazzled by a ray of early morning sunlight, I awoke and peered outside the window. The Lima-Ayacucho coach was weaving through high country now, skirting the gentle slopes of a broad river valley. Rocky outcrops perched like watchtowers over a tranquil scene of farms and little hamlets. People tended to their morning chores outside thimble-sized dwellings while herds of llamas roamed sloping pastures partitioned by old-fashioned stone walls. With the road cross-stitching ever higher, new scenes bathed in morning radiance presented themselves at every purl. The now youthful stream ripped a seam fast and rough, while grassland gave way to heath which in turn yielded to tundra as we ascended into a cloud and snow-adorned mountain pass.

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On the backstitch, we threaded through a narrow eyelet dotted with stone ruins and eucalyptus, and I began chatting to a Peruvian woman named Clarice who it seems had been fortunate to avoid my wayward feet the night before. Before we knew it, we had macraméd into the dry, cactus-filled valley which Ayacucho occupies. This town flaunts the second-biggest Semana Santa (Holy Week) festival in the world, and I had come to watch. It was just a yarns-length mototaxi ride into the Parque Central, and I was soon making a nearby hostel my own with a new friend Kike, a Peruano from Lima.

We found a VW taxi on the other side of town to take us to Wari, a Pre-Colombian ruin in the area. The Wari people preceded the Incas, this particular site occupied for some 600 years. With the highway cutting between certain buildings much like the Formula One circuit traces the streets of Monte Carlo, we got the impression the entire site was only uncovered during the road's creation. The ruin of Wari, knitted using a combination of assorted stones and adobe is surrounded on all sides by a giant quilt of prickly pear, bearing thousands of the fruit known locally as Tuná.

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Our taxi ride for the return trip was flagged down by one of the classic black-hat-wearing indigenous women and her daughters by the roadside. While one daughter and the family's wood bundles occupied the boot, her mother squeezed in the front seat with me. Halfway through the forty-five minute journey she began breastfeeding her infant and within minutes both had fallen asleep, her head lolling gently onto my shoulder like a boat nudging a wharf. Soon my foot, uncomfortably wedged between her leg and the glove-box, followed suit into painful pins and needles, but when I considered rousing her to mention my predicament, a big brown nipple (now liberated from baby and garment) winked at me in reflection from the rear-vision mirror and I was too embarrassed to comment.

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The weekend's first procession began around seven in the evening as a glass coffin containing Christ's wooden body was carried out of a church a block from the central park. I soon became utterly trapped in a moshpit of several hundred candle-wielding devotees, and it was only a matter of minutes before a fellow pilgrim's hair was alight. The brass band played a jaunty tune as Christ pushed through the crowd to the parque central to the showering of petals from nearby balconies. We lingered in the street, which began filling with women of all ages wearing black veils and carrying candles. The Virgin Dolorosa, representing Mary's sorrow, slowly approached on a giant palanquin, sweeping silent reverie before her. The old indigenous women, wrinkle-creased faces wise and solemn cut contrasting figures in candlelight as the last procession of the night passed by.

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Despite a hypothermic beginning, the celebrations soon got the heart rate going with the Pascua Toro, the Easter Bull run through Ayacucho's main arteries. Hedonism was at high pressure for the Day without Sin, a theological loophole between Friday's death and Sunday's resurreción. A youthful crowd dressed in red danced to the crazy brass band tunes and began constructing human pyramids and throwing each other into the air. Beer and water also took to flight indiscriminately at or from the pyramids, which occasionally collapsed catastrophically onto those below. Screams and frantic manoeuvring announced the approach of a bull, towed behind a galloping gaucho. Once the animal departed on its less than merry way, the street filled again, and the cycle began anew.

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Inebriated from three straight hours of this, we headed to a little district named Flores to fill our stomachs. I thought I'd try to local delicacy named Cuy (known to you and me as Guinea Pig). From what I'd heard it arrived on the plate whole with claws bared and deathly snarl. Fortunately mine was fried to a crisp and face down, and it appeared the canny cook had divined at least six of the Colonel's secret herbs and spices. For those that know me well, this was about the best outcome one could ever hope for.

I lay my drunk self down for a few hours before night two and during the first hours of darkness Kike and I caught the performances of folkloric dancing in the Centro Cultural. Many traditional dances featured from around the country, all performed in classical dress that is still worn daily by some in the rural areas. While this was going on the staunch Catholics were attending mass, the Evangelicals had all paid to see a concert, the indigenous souvenir vendors were asleep atop their wares and the drunks were doing what they do best. We presently found ourselves at an out of town discoteque playing Salsa and Cumbia and I was lubricating my dancing legs with Peruvian beer. Once it had reached critical mass, my one-size-fits-all Latin two-step and unabated enthusiasm made up well enough for the flaws in my technique. Well, at least that's what I thought at the time.

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Back in the central park later on, the fireworks had begun and centre point to the whole arrangement were giant castillos of bamboo, mistakenly assumed by me to be works of art but instead multi-tiered platforms of utter dangerousness. Soon all kinds of fireworks were exploding from them in every direction - bright embers cascaded all over, fiery wheels spun and took off, lunatics sprinted about jetting sparks and overhead blossomed glorious bursts of colour. Eventually though, anarchy mellowed to anticipation as the growing crowd looked to the cathedral for the final show. Emerging from the great doors was a pyramid covered in candles and glowing in incandescent blue-white light. Topped by a figure of Christ, three hundred men shouldered the huge structure for a lap around the square in representation of his resurrection.

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When I awoke, Peru's biggest holy fiesta was winding down. Everywhere stalls were being packed up, people were beginning to disperse and we took our time walking about, victims of our own sinful behaviour. Ironically, on this day of Christ's resurrection, many in Ayacucho were prone on the footpaths, slumped against walls or face down in doorways. After nightfall, I squeezed into a mototaxi bound for the bus station, and before long had departed for Ica on the Pacific coast.

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Posted by Jeremy T 19.05.2008 01:53 Archived in Peru Tagged events Comments (0)

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