Blowing hot and cold

Trip Start May 01, 2005
Trip End Mar 25, 2006

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Flag of Argentina  ,
Friday, January 13, 2006

Beware old women shuffling slowly down badly-lit streets late at night in Buenos Aires. For there will be an even slower but surprisingly vicious small dog mincing behind, just waiting to put the fear of god into an unsuspecting and dog-fearing traveller. Just one of the many memories I will take with me from my time here.

My two months of voluntary work have been fun and has taught me a few invaluable lessons. Small children, for example, do not mix well with copious amounts of birthday cake followed by an hour of skipping. Neither do children have the patience to finish their home-made christmas cards - all sixty of them - and if I ever see another pritt-stick again in my life it will be too soon. And spending a roasting-hot day supervising forty hyperactive children at a fun-run without applying sun cream to the face first will result in the kind of chemical peel most women in Hollywood would kill for.

Having cable television in my flat was a real treat, especially being able to watch premiership matches live whilst lying in bed. And I became addicted to re-runs of the legendary 'America's Next Top Model', my favourite episode being when the models flew to South Africa for a photo shoot and one of them ate something.

But it's not all been fun. One of the little girls I had been visiting in hospital died unexpectedly the week before Christmas, and her mother asked me to go the funeral. It was a grim experience and one I won't forget. Not what I expected to be doing on my travels.

And so it was really special to be able to share the festive season with my sisters, and we spent Christmas Day horse-riding over the pampas. The estancia we stayed at wasn't exactly a rough-and-ready working ranch, what with the infinity pool and all, so we celebrated in style. But even though the chef was notified beforehand that my sisters are veggies, he didn't quite understand that white meat is not in fact a vegetable. I, on the other hand, made full use of the huge slabs of meat served at every meal.

Julia and Louise had arrived in BA loaded down with christmas presents, and I was thoroughly spoiled by family and friends. I now have more pairs of knickers than there are vegetables in Buenos Aires. Back to BA, and needing some relief from the heat, we were forced to take refuge in the swimming pool at the Hilton - who says travelling is all about slumming it? New Year's Eve was spent marvelling at the fire-works which exploded from every direction around the city, but keeping out of the line of fire as my sister yelled "Incoming!!" every time a firework whizzed past the window.

Buenos Aires is a wonderful city to unload the rucksack and have a bit of a break from travelling. But it's important to blend in as soon as possible, and this means sticking to the following rules:

- Many Porteņos like to try out their English on visitors, making it difficult to practise what you've learnt at school. Avoid this by pretending to be from Khazakstan. Beware crafty Porteņos who have seen 'The Great Escape' and will try to trick you a la David McCallum.

- Get out of the habit of being ultra-polite. You may as well be wearing a pair of union jack knickers on your head. Porteņos expect to be bossed about a bit - saying "please may I have a coffee when you have a moment, thanks awfully" in Spanish instead of "get me a coffee please" will not only be sniggered at, but will more than likely double your bill as the waitress plays the 'let's stiff the foreigner' game.

- Take full advantage of a practice that is so abhorrent in the UK that it'll probably soon be outlawed. No, not smoking in public, but queue-jumping. It's a real art here and considered rude if you don't join in.

- Leave the trekking shoes, fleece and guide book back at the hostel. And try to look as if you've washed recently.

I was really sad to leave Buenos Aires, it's a fantastic city and I hope one day to return. I flew from there to Patagonia, starting off in El Calafate. Patagonia is like the north of Scotland but with icebergs. Beautiful, desolate and wind-swept scenery stretches out as far as the eye can see. And it's cold.

El Calafate, on the shore of Lake Argentina, is the town from which to visit the famous 30km-long Perito Moreno Glacier. From a distance, the glacier looks like it's made from the kind of polystyrene you get when unpacking a new freezer. Closer up, it's more of a washing-powder blue colour than white, with dirty tips like burnt meringue. The size of it is impressive, and every now and then huge chunks of ice crash into the lake, sounding like massive thunder claps. I spent an afternoon ice-trekking on it, complete with crampons like old-fashioned metal roller-skates but without the wheels. Our instructor was the most handsome man I've seen so far in Argentina, and it was funny to watch all the women try to look alluring whilst following his instructions to trek down a slope pimp-style, with knees bent and pelvis thrust forward to avoid falling. Not to be rude, I joined in with the other ladies but given all the layers I was wearing, the midget-Michelin-man look really didn't work. We ended the day toasting the glacier with whisky and ice chipped from its side. I would have preferred a champagne cocktail, but one makes do.

The next day I took a boat to see some of the other glaciers, including the longest glacier in South America, the Upsala Glacier. Even though I offered to sit at the end of a row of seats, I got wedged in the corner by three very fat old ladies, and spent most of the day waiting for them to shift themselves every time I wanted to go out on deck. They spent most of the day trying to feed me, zip up my jacket and make sure I wore my hat. Mothering, Argy style.

Onwards to El Chalten to marvel at the Fitz Roy massif, which I always thought was a scary Glaswegian street-gang but is actually a series of mountain peaks in the Parque Nacional Los Galciares.
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