REFLECTIONS OF A BUS DRIVER'S HOLIDAY OCTOBER - NOVEMBER 2006:
"Why South America?" some might ask.
Well, I believe the idea may have been conceived as far back as 1959 - soon after I returned to the UK after serving with the Combined Forces during the British nuclear tests at Christmas Island in the South Pacific. During the outward journey, we called at Ireland, Greenland, Newfoundland, North America and Honolulu and, after a tour of duty, most servicemen returned by the same route. However, I was one of a very fortunate few who flew back via Fiji, Australia and various military bases in Asia, the middle east, Africa and Malta and, as a consequence of my good fortune, I had completed a round-the-world tour by the time I arrived home. Some time later, it occurred to me that I had visited every continent in the world - except South America.
My intrigue was enhanced when I learnt about the Welsh settlements in Patagonia. My mother was Welsh and she evacuated me to North Wales during WW2 to escape the bombing raids over Liverpool - were I was born. I spoke Welsh before I spoke English and felt Welsh; so, when I heard of Patagonia, I felt an urge to go there. A few years later, my interest was re-kindled when we were given a Patagonian Conure parrot. However, the idea of actually going there had remained at the back of my mind until I began to realise that my sell-by date was approaching rather quickly and there was a danger that if I didn't get it out of my system whilst I still enjoyed relatively good health, I might not get there at all.
I decided to 'look into it' and very soon concluded it might make more sense to seek the opinions of the locals (in Argentina) before committing myself to anything definite. Booking the flights to and from South America and sorting out the actual itinerary when I got there seemed the best idea. I have to admit, there were times when I wondered whether I could justify the expense of such a long journey - but Brenda, my wife, convinced me that I would, almost certainly, regret NOT going.
It was around this time of uncertainty that I received encouragement from an unexpected quarter. Kate, a close neighbour, suggested I should contact Andres Hahn, a friend from her time at university in the US of A who now lived in Buenos Aires - which I did. Andy couldn't have been more helpful. He and his family were familiar with the region and he seemed quite happy to answer any questions I had and he recommended several web-sites that might be useful for my research.
I was, however, still not quite fully convinced.
The only aspect of my plans which could be called definite, at that stage, was the impression that it would be a good idea to enrol in a four-day Spanish language course I had discovered on the web. What particularly appealed to me about the course was the fact that, instead of being held in a classroom environment, Spanish was learnt in small bars and restaurants around Buenos Aires and put into practice by combining the lesson with a tour of the city. I decided to contact Paula, the young lady who ran it, to learn more and this turned out to be rather fortunate because she advised me that the Welsh community in Patagonia held their annual Eisteddfod (a festival of Welsh culture) during October.
This was just the incentive I needed.
As it happened, I had practically convinced myself that, if I diverted my return journey through Peru, I could visit The Nazca Lines (a World Heritage Site which intrigued me) - thus justifying, in my own mind, a South American adventure. The opportunity to attend an Eisteddfod proved to be the deciding factor and would be the icing on the cake; so, I e-mailed Paula to check on the availability of her language course.
In the event, she had taken time out from running her course and had passed the reins over to a colleague, Julieta, who had lived in London for some time. She was just as helpful as Paula had been and, in addition to confirming dates for the course, she even offered to arrange accommodation in Buenos Aires for me. All that remained for me to do was to book flights to and from South America, buy travellers' cheques, apply for an International Driving Permit and get whatever inoculations were neccessary. I also decided to book a flight from Buenos Aires to Lima in Peru and a three-day escorted tour from there to The Nazca Lines - as well as accommodation for the time I would be in Lima.
DAY ONE - LONDON TO BUENOS AIRES
Another neighbour, Paul, drove me to Heathrow Airport and it seemed that almost everyone in Terminal Three on Saturday, 21st. October, 2006, was travelling with the same airline as me and I was impressed by the way the American Airlines staff were monitoring the situation. Queues were 'policed' sensibly and passengers from flights which were imminent were ushered to the front. However, it still took me well over two hours to clear the check-in procedures and negotiate the increased security measures introduced to counter the recent terrorist threat. Because of these factors, I barely had time to rush to the Duty Free area to buy a new digital movie camera which I had promised myself to replace my rather ancient model.
The flight to New York was pleasant enough but, what I experienced at JFK Airport was a very long way from being enjoyable. In contrast to Heathrow, there was a marked absence of American Airlines staff to re-direct incoming passengers. Although the plane from Heathrow arrived on time, the amount of time which was scheduled until the departure of my next flight was diminishing at an alarming rate and I approached the only American Airline representative inside the Immigration area to explain my concern. Regretably, not only was this young lady extremely rude, but she wasn't prepared to help and, as a result, even though I ran as fast as I could to collect my own luggage (to take it to the baggage forwarding point) by the time I reached the departure gate for the Miami flight, they had sold the seat I had reserved - because I was too late!!
It would be something of an understatement to suggest that I wasn't too pleased with the situation. Anyway, for whatever reason, someone decided that there was a seat available, after all, and I was allowed to board the aircraft - not entirely surprised to find that the seat I was given didn't have nearly as much leg-room as the seat I had reserved on the internet. I'm six-foot-two and, whilst that's not particularly tall these days, the whole point of pre-booking seats for my journey was to get ones which would afford me the least discomfort.
When we arrived at MiamiInternational Airport, I sought out an American Airlines representative to explain my concern that, if I had so much trouble getting there, perhaps, my luggage may have had the same experience. However, I was assured there would be "........no problem at all, Honey."
Whilst waiting for my next flight - to Buenos Aires - after a bite to eat, I was wandering through the airport terminal when I noticed some of the buses on the tarmac were manufactured by a company I worked for, from time to time, in the UK and I couldn't resist taking some photographs. Some time later, at the departure gate, a representative of American Airlines announced that their flight had been seriously over-booked (whose fault was that, I wondered) and they were offering quite a lot of cash, together with first-class hotel accommodation for the night, to anyone who was prepared to give up their seat and travel on a later flight. For a moment, I was tempted to accept their offer, but decided that 'a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush' and kept to my original plan.
DAY TWO - BUENOS AIRES
BUENOS AIRES - ARGENTINA
Nomadic Indians roamed the Argentine Pampas when the Spaniards invaded the region in 1515 and, until 1776, the country was governed from Peru. Independence from Spain was achieved in 1816 and, even then, there was no real unity because of a struggle for domination between the authorities in the port of Buenos Aires and the rest of the nation who were ruled by local gaucho leaders or Indian tribes. Until the 1880’s, when Buenos Aires eventually gained control, large parts of Argentina had been beyond the influence of national leaders. From then on, significant immigration from Germany, Italy and Spain contributed towards Argentina becoming the most prosperous of the major Latin American nations and, for more than a century, was second only to the United States of America in the hopes and aspirations of the homeless and jobless of Europe. As a result, most of the current population are of European origin and have created a culture with a distinctly European flavour. Throughout the twentieth century, Argentina has been administered by a series of civilian regimes interspersed by a succession of military coups. Terrorist violence has been rife throughout with hundreds killed and lucrative kidnappings have netted tens of millions of dollars. As recently as 1976, under a continuing state of siege from guerrillas and leftists, the army killed 2,000 to 5,000 and jailed and tortured others. Today, of a population of about 26.8 million people, 97 percent are of European ancestry and the other 3 percent are Indians. Buenos Aires, with a population of about 10 million in the metropolitan area, ranks amoung the world’s fifteen largest cities.
Paradoxically, in view of my experience at New York, one reason I had chosen to travel with American Airlines was that the option of three medium length flights (with a reasonable break between each one) was more appealing than a short hop across the English Channel to Paris or Madrid followed by a lengthy flight to Argentina. A further reason for choosing this alternative was that the final leg - from Miami to Buenos Aires - was an overnight flight and, since I expected to get at least a little sleep, I had hoped to arrive there relatively well-rested.
As it happened, although I didn't sleep especially well, I was in reasonably good spirits during the latter part of my flight and, from my window seat, I enjoyed a clear view of the River Plate and the countryside surrounding the Argentine capital.
Unfortunately, my good humour didn't last very long.
Although my passage through Immigration and Customs was relatively trouble-free, having stopping to cash some travellers' cheques, when I arrived at the baggage carousel, almost everyone else had collected their luggage - but the was no sign of mine. Evidently, my concern about what may, or may not, have happened at JFK seemed to have been justified and, after a lengthy wait at the American Airlines baggage reclaim desk, I was told that my luggage 'might' be delivered to my hostel, "Soon."
"Soon." turned out to be nearly two days later.
Surprisingly but, mercifully, the taxi driver the Antico Hostel had booked for me was endowed with the patience of a saint and was still waiting and, as we drove away from the airport, I experienced the first (of many) slightly awkward situations during my visit to South America where my own limited command of Spanish was little better than the English of whomsoever I was trying to talk to. Happily, the driver and I managed to understand most of what we were trying to say and we enjoyed a conversation (of sorts) as we drove towards the San Telmo district in the bohemian quarter of 'Old' Buenos Aires.
As soon as I climbed the stairs to the reception desk (the hostel occupied the upper floors of the building), I sensed an agreeable atmosphere which went a long way towards easing the tension which had been building up since leaving London. Recognising one of the problems the loss of my luggage was causing, the duty receptionist offered to arrange for the clothes I was wearing to be laundered whilst I took advantage of a hot shower and two or three hours rest in my 'Penthouse' room on the top floor of the building.
During the flight from Miami, bearing in mind the fact that my toilet bag was in the cargo hold (or, so I imagined), I bought a package containing, amongst other things (like a blindfold) a tube of toothpaste and a toothbrush. Having had the good fortune to have kept it, I was able to spruce myself up a bit after my nap and, in my newly cleaned clothes, I collected a street map from the reception desk and ventured out into the brightness of a spring afternoon in Buenos Aires.
On three out of of the four corners of the junction where the hostel was situated, there was an eating establishment of some sort and I chose the one which was enjoying the most sunlight at that time. I'm a long way removed from being a gourmet, so I decided to play safe by asking for for a toasted cheese and tomato sandwich and "un cafe con leche, por favor."
Earlier, before I left the hostel, the receptionist had suggested that I must visit La Plaza Dorrego. This is a very pleasant, tree-lined, area where (only on Sundays) antique dealers ply their trade in bazars in and around the square. It was only two or three blocks away and turned out to be well worth the visit. Although there were one or two 'touristy' stalls, the ambience of a genuine antique fair prevailed and I thoroughly enjoyed wandering around - absorbing the atmosphere and listening to and watching an assortment of musical entertainers and, in particular, the street tango displays for which Buenos Aires is rightly renowned.
Apart from a rather expensive T shirt with a rude message printed on the front (I reckoned there were bound to be some more reasonably-priced clothing during my travels), there wasn't anything which especially appealed to me. So, as the sun began to set, I made my way back towards the hostel. By now, in spite of having rested earlier, jet-lag was starting to manifest itself and I decided not to stay up for a dinner and settled for a repeat of my lunchtime snack at the little bar opposite the hostel - instead of coffee, however, I sampled some local beer.
Later, back in my room, I telephoned Andy Hahn (to discuss when and where we might meet) before watching the end of The Brazilian GP on TV. When that was over, having already heard the result, the prospect of watching MFU beating my own team, Liverpool, proved too hard to bear; so, after a hot shower, I went to bed.
My body-clock was probably still tuned in to GMT and I woke up quite early.
I had set my alarm for eight-o-clock but didn't feel like going back to sleep and, remembering that I had seen someone using a laptop on the roof-top area during the previous evening, I decided to see if I could get a wi-fi connection myself. I had brought my iBook with me to download digital photos - but, if there was any chance of getting on-line, it seemed silly not to take advantage of it. However, although I moved around in search of a signal, I wasn't successful; so, went downstairs to check out the breakfast arrangements.
What had been a courtyard and open to the elements when the building was constructed a century ago, now had a glass roof and was used as a drinks bar and breakfast area. Taking into account it was a hostel (i.e. NOT an hotel) what was on offer was reasonably good. A selection of cereals, yoghurts croissants, toast, butter and preserves - together with some tea, coffee and fruit juice were available each morning and, as was the case each day whilst I was there, I had fruit juice, cereal, toast and marmalade followed by some tea.
After breakfast, since I still didn't know what I was expected to do to take part in the language course, I asked Lolo (a young receptionist from Venezuela whose sister lived in London and who had been my e-mail contact with the hostel before I left the UK) if there were any telephone messages for me. It turned out there had been and she informed me that the lesson wasn't due to start until two-o-clock in the afternoon; so, I spent the morning familiarising myself with San Telmo. Not far from the hostel, I found the local indoor market - where I bought some post-cards, sun cream and a lightweight shoulder bag for my digital camera and note-book for the language course.
After a snack lunch, I made my way towards the Puerto Madero district and, not far from La Plaza Eva Peron, I found the bar which was to be the meeting-point. It was in the same street as La Casa Minima - which, at a little over seven feet wide and forty two feet deep, is the smallest house in Buenos Aires. It was built early in the nineteenth century for freed slaves.
The actual meeting with my 'profesora' was rather like what I imagine a blind date might be like. Neither of us had met before and Julieta (a sweet girl) said she was expecting someone who looked much older. For my part, I was looking for a group of people. However, at very short notice, the other participants had cancelled - creating a situation which, normally, would have meant that the course should be abandoned. However, since she knew all my travel plans had been tailored around the language course, Julieta felt it would be unfair to let me down and I was able to enjoy the benefit of a one-to-one lesson.
After about an hour of learning some elementary Spanish and, in particular, how to digest travel information, we left the bar, crossed the busy Avenue Paseo Colon and hopped on a colectivo (an urban bus) where, with myself doing all the talking, I asked the driver for the cost of the boletas (tickets) and after depositing the cash in the ticket-machine, we were driven to the Retiro district of the city - near where the central bus and railway stations are situated.
When we got off the bus, I had to ask directions to the bus station and, when there, Julieta sent me off on my own to carry out a series of exercises in and around the complex. I discovered that the basement is where luggage is sorted, the ground level has the waiting areas and some shops and all the Booking Offices are on the upper level. Using my recently acquired language skills, I completed a pre-printed questionnaire (from the language school) relating to destinations, timetables and ticket prices.
Later, we passed The English Tower on our way to the subte (underground railway). Intended to be in the image of Big Ben, it was presented by the British to celebrate independence from Spain. The name was changed to The Monumental Tower after The Falklands War but most locals still used the original title.
We used the subte to travel to La Plaza de Mayo from where it was only a ten or fifteen minute walk back to San Telmo. It was about seven-o-clock by the time I got to the hostel and, almost immediately, I tried to get a wi-fi connection but, was unsuccessful. I, then, telephoned Andy again because I was keen to meet up with him to give him a gift Kate had sent for his daughter. Unfortunately, he was in the midst of an extremely hectic business schedule and couldn't commit to anything definite. However, he made a note of Julieta's mobile telephone number in case a convenient time presented itself during the following day.
At a little after eight-o-clock, I ventured out into the night lights to search for somewhere to eat and discovered the "Las Marias" , an archetypal Buenos Airean restaurant, which was practically next door to the indoor market I had visited earlier that morning. It seemed to meet my requirements admirably and, having taken the sensible precaution of learning the Spanish for fish and chicken (my favourites), I settled for some very nice grilled salmon and chips followed by a bowl of ice cream - all of which were washed down by a large bottle of beer.
Had I known what would happen later that night, I might have chosen to have more than just one bottle of beer because the hostel had arranged a midnight BBQ on the Night Terrace outside my room. Fortunately, however, the youngsters were much quieter that they could have been and it was mentioned to me later, that they would have been quite happy for me to join them. Evidently, there was an element of respect for el pensionista Ingles who seemed determined to seek new horizons during his twilight years without resorting to the pampered luxury more commonly used by his generation.
Tuesday started off with a pleasant surprise. I had woken at about eight-thirty and, more in hope than anything else, I took my iBook outside to see if there was a wi-fi signal and, lo-and-behold, there was! So, having checked my Inbox, I sent a few e-mails to family and friends before going downstairs for my usual breakfast,
Later, I set off to find a Post Office to mail the post-cards I had bought at the indoor market and, using my new-found linguistic skills (stop laughing at the back), I soon found out where I could buy postage stamps. However, finding a bank which was prepared to cash American Express travellers' cheques was a much different proposition - and, for the rest of that morning, despite visiting almost as many banks as Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid robbed during their entire careers, I had no luck. Fortunately, my UK debit and credit cards were accepted in ATM machines; so I was able to lay my hands on funds if and when I needed some.
At a little after mid-day, as the meeting point for my second language lesson was on the other side of Buenos Aires, I realised there was no time for my usual snack lunch. So, I rushed back to the hostel to change out of my (by now) sweaty clothing before making my way towards the nearest subte station for a quite lengthy underground journey to The Plaza Italia in the Palmero district.
After getting off the subte, I soon realised I was pushed for time and, even though I walked as quickly as I could, I was a few minutes late when I eventually reached the Bar Cronico in La Plaza Cortazar. Luckily, Julieta had only just arrived herself and, conveniently, she had ordered something to eat. So, bearing in mind I had missed my own lunch, I ordered something too.
As we ate, Julieta had some news for me. During the course of the previous day's lesson, I had mentioned I hoped to visit the Welsh settlements and attend the Eisteddfod. By a remarkable coincidence, Julieta's father actually owned a Travel Agency in Patagonia; so, she had made a note of some of the things I wanted to do and had telephoned him. Evidently, he was quite happy to put together a detailed itinerary for a tour of the three principle regions of Patagonia which interested me and, naturally, I asked Julieta to tell him to go ahead with the arrangements.
It would have been about an hour into the lesson when I reached down to get something from the shoulder bag I had bought at the indoor market. It had been on the seat next to mine and I soon realised it had disappeared. Following a lengthy search, it began to dawn on us that it had been stolen and, after a discussion with staff and some other people in the restaurant, we established that there were four people involved in the theft. Two were sitting at the table behind me and another two had gone to the counter to divert the attention of the bar staff. In the meantime, one of the two behind me waited until Julieta (who was facing them) was looking away and, at that point, told the one nearest to me to take the bag.
The bar staff insisted on calling the police, but I felt there wasn't a cat in hell's chance of getting anything back. Fortunately (in a way) my digital camera was the only thing of any significant value in the bag. My passport, driving license and cash were distributed around various pockets in my clothing. However, what distressed me most about the incident was the fact that Kate's gift for Andy's daughter was also in it. I had brought it with me in case he telephoned to arrange a meeting. In fact, paradoxically, he had telephoned; however, with the confusion generated by the robbery, Julieta had missed the call.
It was nearly five-o-clock by the time we left the bar. Not surprisingly, any enthusiasm for the remainder of the lesson was somewhat diminished. However, the subject we had been dealing with was 'Shopping'. So, we popped into one or two shops on the way back to the subte to practice what I had learnt and bought, for example, a baseball cap to replace the one which had been stolen.
Back at the hostel, as if they felt their own reputation had been besmirched by the robbery, the staff were especially sympathetic - particularly Manuel, one of the owners, who set about mending a faulty catch on the window in my room. I hadn't realised it was broken and the fact that he did, suggested it might have been an ongoing problem. Whilst he was doing it, I managed to contact Andy to tell him the bad news about Kate's gift and, at the same time, he explained that an opportunity for us to meet was becoming increasingly unlikely.
Later, being a creature of habit, I walked to the same restaurant as I had visited during the previous evening. Having already sampled a fish course on the previous visit, I settled for grilled chicken breast - followed by ice cream - together with two bottles of beer- in case a sedative (of sorts) was required again. In the event, there was no sign of any night-time activity outside my room that night and I slept rather well - although my slumber was slightly disturbed by an impression that it may have been raining.
On drawing the curtains aside, I saw that it had, indeed, rained during the night. In fact, it had poured down and the ceramic device on the wall outside my room was almost overflowing. It was still quite early, so I decided to send a couple of e-mails.
After breakfast, as I passed the Reception Desk, I dropped off some clothing to be laundered and walked to the stall in the indoor market where I bought the ill-fated shoulder bag and bought another one - smaller, this time - and in the form of a belt which could be secured around the waist. It might not hold as much as the other one could, but was less likely to meet the same fate. I also bought a few more post-cards and some interesting 'fridge magnets' which caught my eye.
Back in my room, I wrote the post-cards and checked the new bag for size. Although I had lost my digital camera, I still had the new one I got at Duty Free at Heathrow. I had actually bought it to take moving pictures and, it wasn't until the other one was stolen, that I realised it could be used to to capture 'still' images as well. So, for the remainder of my trip, I took both style of images with a minimum of fuss. Furthermore, it fitted into the new bag quite well.
Even though it was still raining and rather overcast, I felt that I really ought to persist with my quest to find a bank which would cash my travellers' cheques. For the first day since I arrived, it was chilly enough to wear the corduroy trousers I had brought with me. They weren't waterproof, however, so, I donned my trusty Pac a Mac and set off to walk towards the business district of the city - which was in and around The Plaza de Mayo.
The square is where the official seat of the executive branch of the Argentine government is located. Popularly known as the 'Pink House', the name derives from a nineteenth century decision to combine the colours (red and white) of the political sectors at the time. In more recent times, the square became famous as the location for a weekly demonstration by the mothers of children who had disappeared during what became known as the "Dirty War" which was waged in Argentina from 1976 to 1983. It was only in the early part of 2006 that they stopped marching. A striking new bridge in the re-vamped area around the old docks has been dedicated them.
Distinctly damp and disappointed that, after the best part of two hours, I still hadn't cashed my travellers' cheques, I walked to where the penultimate language lesson was being held. Julieta had already arrived and was looking around the cafe to see if she could spot a new pupil who was due to join us. In time, we were approached by a young girl who introduced herself as Rachel. The reason we hadn't seen her was the fact Rachel was sitting with another girl and Julieta had been looking for someone on their own. Evidently, Rachel's friend was only showing her where the 'Lorea Cafe' was and left as soon as the connection had been established.
Rachel was Canadian and I have to say that, when Julieta had warned me someone else would be joining us, I experienced a tinge of disappointment as I had enjoyed the exclusivity of the one-to-one lessons. However, in the event, my apprehension was entirely unfounded. What's more, the introduction of an element of competition and the fact that we could 'bounce' our linguistic efforts off each other was entirely beneficial for both of us. Also, although she might be reluctant to admit it to my face, I expect Julieta may have appreciated some younger company.
It had been raining nearly all day and it was fortunate that most of the lesson was conducted indoors. However, since the subject had been "Newspapers and the printed word", we were required to go outside to visit some newsagents and book shops to put our new found knowledge to the test. In doing so, we crossed the widest street in the world - named to honour the county's Independence Day.
Having completed the practical part of the lesson, on our way to the subte, Julieta invited us to visit The Confiteria Ideal, one of the ornately decorated tango cafes for which Buenos Aires is rightly famous. Even although we arrived during a period when there wasn't any dancing going on, Rachel and I could appreciate the atmosphere that the old beautiful building could generate.
When I arrived back at San Telmo, I was begining to feel the effects of all the walking I had done over the past few days - going from one bank to another - not to mention the distances covered during the lessons. So, I decided not to wait for my (by now) favourite restaurant to open and had an omelette and a couple of beers at the bar opposite the hostel.
Later, I enjoyed a more than welcome hot shower and watched TV for a short time before going to bed. Coincidentally, bearing in mind our visit to the tango cafe that afternoon, one of the TV programmes I watched featured professional dancers demonstrating their tango techniques. So far as I could tell, similar programmes were shown on Argentine TV most nights.
As was becoming a daily routine, I checked for a wi-fi signal soon after I woke up and, somewhat annoyingly, I couldn't make a connection. After some breakfast, I tried to plan my day. The final lesson of the language course was going to be held in the evening - not during the afternoon, as had been the case every day up until now. As a consequence, I had the whole day to myself and my absolute priority was to try to resolve the travellers' cheques dilemma.
It was already Thursday. I had been in Buenos Aires since early on Sunday morning and, although Manuel, the co-owner of the hostel, seemed incredibly laid back about the sorry situation, the fact of the matter was that I still hadn't paid him for my accommodation. What's more, it wasn't beyond the realms of possibility that the itinerary Julieta's father was preparing might mean that I could leave within twenty-four hours. Manuel had asked to be paid in US dollars and, with the benefit of hindsight, the obvious solution would have been to find an American Express office. As it happened, there was one near the bus station; so, I hopped on one of the frequent (and I really do mean frequent) buses which drove past the hostel.
After I had cashed some of my cheques, I decided to spend some time wandering around 'downtown' Buenos Aires and, not far from the American Express office, I walked through a square where several Argentine artists were displaying assorted heart-shaped creations. It really was quite eye-catching.
Later, on my way back to San Telmo, I walked along the pedestrianised, Calle Florida - one of few streets in the city which have been 'taken over' by the type of retail establishments which retail 'touristy' type goods - but are somewhat lacking in style and substance, for my own taste.
In spite of that, I had a pleasant enough afternoon and didn't get back to San Telmo until tea-time. Julieta had said that the final lesson would be conducted over what she described as an 'end-of-term' celebration dinner. So, it didn't seem wise to eat too much, too soon; so, once again, I visited the little bar opposite the hostel for a snack and some coffee.
As I had already booked my flight to Peru, Julieta's father calculated that there really wasn't enough time to fit in a worthwhile visit to the Welsh settlements, attend the Eisteddfod, see whales at The Valdes Peninsula AND travel a lot further south just to see some glaciers. So, we decided to reject the glaciers. Although we knew there wasn't a flight to Patagonia on Friday, it still wasn't clear exactly when I would be leaving Buenos Aires and I decided to take advantage of the spare time by sorting through my belongings and packing heavier (now redundant) clothing into the 'spare' bag - which the hostel were going to store until my return.
The language lesson was scheduled for eight-o-clock and was a little further away than any of the others had been - and some distance from the nearest subte station; so I decided to book a taxi. Although the hostel receptionist suggested that seven-thirty would be a good time to leave, it turned out to be much further away than he imagined and Julieta and Rachel were already there and had ordered their drinks by the time I arrived at the Bar Acabar on Honduras Street in the Palmero district of Buenos Aires.
The food was very good and, throughout the meal each one of us offered the other two an opportunity to sample our own choice. So far as the educational part of the evening was concerned, the procedure involved Rachel and myself taking part in a variety of pre-prepared party games where we were obliged to compete against each other using our new-found language skills.
Putting a bright, university educated, young business executive up against an elderly bus driver was, in my opinion, rather cruel and, almost inevitably, I came a rather poor second in most of them. However, so far as I could tell, we both had an enjoyable time. As we prepared to leave, a little before midnight, it was intriguing to see families (often with infants) arriving for their evening meals. Nothing wrong with that, I hasten to say - especially when taking into account the siesta culture of the Latin Americans and, speaking for myself, I could quite easily learn to live with.
Rachel hailed a taxi to take her wherever she was staying and, since Julieta lived a couple of blocks away from the hostel, I walked with her to an adjacent bus stop. I've mentioned, earlier, how frequently buses ran in and around Buenos Aires and, even at that time of night, we didn't have to wait long for one which (although hardly in a straight line) took us to San Telmo.
As we arrived at the front door of her apartment, Julieta asked me if I would like to join her and her husband for a jar, or two, at a neighbouring bar. Fearing a refusal might damage international relations (Garth, her spouse, is an Australian she met and married in London), I was happy to accept her invitation and we spent a pleasant hour in the company of two American (US) musician friends of theirs who, from time to time (although not on that night) played a gig in the bar.
Even though I was later than usual going to bed, it was some time after I had gone to sleep that my slumber was disturbed by a few hostel residents arriving on the terrace to enjoy whatever youngsters ingest to heighten their enjoyment in this day and age. Let's face it, hostels are usually for youngsters - rather than elderly people taking 'their' gap year at the 'wrong' end of life's spectrum. So, I had little grounds to complain. Nonetheless, it was getting on for four-o-clock before they left and I didn't get much sleep that night.
Not long after breakfast, I received a telephone call from Julieta to say that her father had completed the itinerary for my Patagonia trip. The only matter which remained outstanding was for me to transfer the cost of the trip into his company's bank account so that his staff could confirm the various provisional bookings they had made on my behalf. Like Manuel, from the hostel, Julieta's father expressed a preference to be paid in US dollars and, since I now knew where the American Express office was, that wasn't a problem. However, as it was almost certain I might be confused by the assorted exchange rates which were involved in the procedure, Julieta offered to accompany me.
Before I left the UK, I had asked my wife, if she would let me have some of the elaborately decorated, cellophane paper, brooches she makes for special friends, charities and so on. I thought they could be a nice way of saying, "Thank you." to anyone who might be especially helpful during my journey. When Julieta arrived at the hostel, since there was absolutely no doubt she qualified and since it may be the last time we would meet each other, I presented one to her.
When we left the hostel, it was raining, so I hailed a passing taxi. Unusually for Argentina, I suspect, the driver was a lady. I gathered she was actually an architect but, I couldn't make out why she was now driving a taxi. As it happened, Julieta and I were obliged to enjoy her company for longer than we had anticipated because there was a students' demonstration which was causing almost total grid-lock in the city centre. We arrived eventually, however, and completed the procedures without too much trouble. Afterwards, Julieta telephoned her father and he told her that he would e-mail a written itinerary to me as soon as his bank confirmed the transfer. We, then, took a bus back to San Telmo.
During the remainder of the afternoon I finished sorting out my luggage and 'pottered' around doing nothing in particular. Somewhat annoyingly, I still couldn't get a wi-fi signal on the terrace. However, throughout my stay, I had seen other guests using the hostel's computer, so I asked if I could do so, too, and I got into my mail account to see if the itinerary had arrived. The first time I tried, it hadn't but, an hour or two later, when I tried again, it had. Unfortunately, however, there wasn't a printer in the hostel and it was suggested that I try an internet shop - which seemed to be on almost every street corner throughout the city.
I found one less than a block away from the hostel but, perhaps, because I'm a Mac user and not familiar with PCs, I couldn't get into my mail account and, since we were having trouble understanding each other, the man in charge gave me my money back and (so far as I could tell) suggested I try somewhere else.
The manager at the second place I went to was far more helpful. However, I still couldn't get into my mail account. So, he suggested I went back to the hostel and, using the hostel computer, e-mail the itinerary to him (at his internet shop) and he would print it out for me - and that's exactly what we did. It was all ready and waiting for me when I returned.
By the time all this to-ing and fro-ing was over and done with, it was time for my evening visit to my favourite restaurant. By now, the waiters - all of whom were mature men - seemed to recognise me and, despite the fact that not one of them spoke English but (hopefully) helped by my improving Spanish, we were able to communicate with each other. They understood this was to be my last night before leaving for Patagonia because they gave me a bottle of beer as a parting gesture. Although I had only patronised them for three nights, it was my distinct impression that they were trying to compliment me (for at least trying) to speak their language instead of expecting everyone else in the world to speak mine.
DAY EIGHT - BUENOS AIRES TO PUERTO MADRYN
Although I hadn't gone to bed especially late, I had set the alarm for much later than usual because my plane wasn't due to leave until quarter-past-three in the afternoon. After breakfast, I set off on my last stroll around the area. I was going to leave my unwanted clothing in what had been my 'hand-luggage' bag. So, I felt I needed something to replace it for my forthcoming journey and I bought yet another bag from my (by now) friend in the indoor market. On the way back to the hostel, I came across an Argentine Real Ale Enthusiasts' festival on a narrow piece of spare ground between two buildings and I bought a souvenir 'T' shirt for my son, Adam.
Aeroparque Jorge Newbery, the airport for 'domestic' flights from Buenos Aires, wasn't as far away as the international one. Even so, bearing in mind the traffic chaos we encountered going to cash my travellers' cheques on Friday, I booked a taxi allowing plenty of time for the journey. Paradoxically, there was hardly any traffic and I got here in next to no time. There were no queues at the check-in desks and, all in all, the couple of hours I spent there were amongst the most pleasant I had ever experienced at an airport. Senor Newbery, by the way, was one of the first Hispanic pilots in aviation history.
The flight to Trelew left on time and I was fortunate enough to have been able to get a window seat on the front row of the starboard (right) side of the aircraft. This meant that I enjoyed a wonderful view of Buenos Aires as (and for some time after) we took off. Although it was only a two hour flight, Aerolineas Argentineas provided a favourite snack throughout South America - paper-thin slivers of ham and cheese sandwiched between three slices of bread and butter.
The plane landed at Trelew (not the largest 'International' airport in the world) a little after five-o-clock and, along with other passengers, I boarded a mini-bus to take us to our various destinations. A few minutes after leaving the airport, I was concerned that the position of the sun suggested that, instead of going towards the town of Trelew (as I had expected), we were travelling in the opposite direction towards Puerto Madryn. I concluded that the driver must be based in Trelew and was dropping people off at the port town before completing his journey home.
It came as some surprise, therefore, that having dropped some passengers off (but not having left the town) he pulled up at a hostel and called out my name. I tried to explain there must be some mistake and produced my itinerary to support my argument. Having studied the document, the driver explained that I must have misunderstood the itinerary (which, by the way, was written completely in Spanish). Whilst I had thought it said 'Transfer TO Trelew' it actually said "Transfer FROM Trelew' - meaning from Trelew Airport!
Because of the Eisteddfod, it had been very difficult for Julieta's father to find any quality accommodation in the area; so, although ideal for backpackers, Hostel Viajeros wasn't really up to the standards I would experience during the rest of the journey. However, since all I needed was a bed to sleep in, it didn't really matter.
Less than an hour after I got there, a hire car was delivered to the hostel for me. It had been booked for two days, but I only needed it for one day and asked them to collect it in twenty-four hours. I used it to drive into town for an evening meal and, afterwards - intrigued by the fact that Puerto Madryn was where the original Welsh settlers landed - I had a short drive around the town - in particular, the port area. Later, after a not very hot shower, I went to bed.
Y Wladfa - The Welsh in Patagonia Prompted by a desire to protect a lifestyle which was becoming endangered by domination by the English, the idea of a Welsh colony was first mooted at a public meeting in Bala by Michael D Jones, a nonconformist minister, who had been in discussions with the Argentine Government. Subsequently, a tea clipper named Mimosa set sail from Liverpool to South America with 159 people on board and on 28 July, 1865, they landed on a bleak beach which later became known as Porth Madryn.
The land was not the rich, fertile, ground they had hoped for and for the first three years, the Welsh settlers had a hard time creating a successful colony and many of them wondered if they had made a mistake in coming to such a desolate, inhospitable, location. The colony seemed as if it would be doomed to fail due to a lack of food; however, in exchange for the likes of "poco bara" (a bit of bread), for example, the Teheulche, the native Indians, taught the settlers how to hunt the guanaco, rhea, and those other sources of food available on the prairie. Some of the Teheulche even learnt Welsh and their descendants take part in the annual Eisteddfod in Trelew.
In the late 1860s more settlers arrived, bringing with them supplies and by 1875 the town of Gaiman was established and the region began to flourish with the formation of a farmers co-operative and the construction of the Porth Madryn Railway Company in the late 1870s to transport goods to Porth Madryn for export. Some time later, a further 130 people arrived but, after heavy flooding on the Andes plains, about 200 lost faith in the project and moved to Canada. Others moved westward toward the more fertile area on the edge of The Andes. Of the current population of Patagonia of around 150,000, 20,000 are descended from the Welsh settlers and around 5,000 of them are able to speak Welsh. A further 700, of all ages, are currently learning the language.
DAY NINE - THE EISTEDDFOD
Chubut is a province in the southern part of Argentina - between the provinces of Rio Negro, to the north, and Santa Cruz, to the south. The Atlantic Ocean is to the east and the Andes range of mountains and border with Chile runs along its western boundary. The name is derived from the Tehuelche word, 'chupat' - meaning 'transparent' - their description of the Chubut river. The Tehuelches were the original tribes of Patagonia. The capital of the province is the port of Rawson. Other important cities include Puerto Madryn, Trelew, Gaiman, Esquel and Trevelin. Gaiman is considered to be he cultural centre of the region known as 'Y Wladfa' - where the descendants of the original Welsh settlers are concentrated.
Breakfast at the Hostel Viajeros was basic, to say the least. A small basket containing portions of French rolls, a saucer of butter, a bowl of jam and a jug of coffee were available for everyone - and I mean everyone - not each. From my point of view, it wasn't very appealing. The rolls were stale and the coffee was little more than luke warm: so, I decided to give it a miss.
The road leading out of Puerto Madryn was composed of loose gravel - a type of surface which is quite common in rural parts of Argentine and is known as 'rippo'. I wondered if that referred to the fact that tyres could be punctured quite easily by it. Fortunately, the main highways were constructed of tarmac and, being a Sunday morning, they were almost deserted as I headed towards the town of Gaiman - where, I understood the Eisteddfod was being held.
It didn't seem to take too long to get there and I stopped at a garage near the entrance to the town to ask where the Eisteddfod was being held. At first, no one seemed to understand what I meant - until I mentioned the word "festival" - at which point I was directed to an indoor gymnasium - but it was closed. Undeterred, I followed signs advertising 'The Welsh Tea House visited by Princess Diana' which took me through the town centre and alongside a verdant river bank - which was quite a change from the dry, sandy, landscape of the rest of the region.
Sadly, when I reached the tea house, the gate was locked and the gardener explained that they didn't open until two-o-clock in the afternoon. Returning to the town, I discovered that hardly anywhere started trading until that time of day and the only place I could find open was a little shop where I bought some post cards.
By now, I was becoming concerned that the town was remarkably quiet for somewhere which was supposed to staging an annual Eisteddfod. So, I returned to the gymnasium and found encouraging signs of life - at least, the doors were open. So, I went inside and saw that a catering organisation were setting up tables for a function. Seeking out the lady who seemed to be in charge, I asked her if she knew anything about an Eisteddfod and it was at this point that I discovered that the all-singing -and-dancing part of the proceedings had finished yesterday. Furthermore, it had taken place in Trelew (where the airport was) - a town I drove past in the hire car, earlier - and, as if to add insult to my injuries, whilst I had been wandering round Gaiman like a lost sheep, a Cymanfa Canu (a communal singing festival and a particular favourite of mine) was being held at the Welsh chapel in Trelew.
On a more optimistic note, in a couple of hours, three hundred, or so, of those who had taken part (many of whom had travelled from Wales) were due to gather at the gymnasium for a celebratory meal and I could attend it myself if I bought a ticket. As it happened, I probably met and was able to talk (in Welsh, of course) to more people than might have been the case had I attended the actual Eisteddfod. What's more, I met some folk from the other Welsh settlement I was hoping to visit later on my journey and I was given a telephone number to contact when I arrived there.
On my way back, I drove towards the port of Rawson - partly because I was keen to explore all of the region where the original settlers had landed and, partly because it had been my intention to take a road along the coast towards Puerto Madryn. However, I stopped to give a lift to a policeman (I thought he was pulling me over for something - not thumbing a lift). Anyway, he told me that road was of the 'rippo' type and should be avoided. He also recommend a restaurant in Puerto Madryn - which I visited before returning to the hostel in time for the hire car to be collected. Later, having decided against another cold(ish) shower, I watched a little TV before retiring to bed.
DAY TEN - VALDES PENINSULA
The itinerary had suggested I would be collected at half-past-seven. However, at a little after seven, I was about to tuck into a rather sad looking French roll when the mini-bus for the Valdes Peninsulaexcursion arrived and I had to leave. To be perfectly honest, apart from the prospect of bragging-rights for having been in very close proximity to some extremely large mammals, a tour of a nature reserve hadn't especially appealed to me. The reason I did go was that everyone had said, "Oh, you really must." However, I have to admit that I enjoyed every single minute of a very long day. Maurisimo, the tour guide and Hugo, the driver, really knew their stuff and, although the boat-trip to the whales was the highlight of the day, I hadn't expected to enjoy everything else as much as I did and I have no hesitation in recommending the whole experience to everyone - whether or not they are interested in 'green' or conservation issues. To add to my pleasure, on the way back to Puerto Madryn, Maurisimo pointed out an area where a colony of burrowing parrots - i.e. Patagonian Conures (Charlie's relations) nested.
It was the best part of twelve hours after we had left the hostel when I returned to it. As I was due to travel to the other Welsh settlement later that evening, before leaving for the excursion, I had been asked to leave my bags in a storage room so that the bedroom I had been occupying could be prepared for a new guest. When I got back, I was allowed to use one of the bathrooms to freshen-up and change into clothing which I hoped might be appropriate for the over-night journey. Afterwards, I waited in the small reception area until the taxi arrived to take me to the bus station.
Before leaving the UK, I had read on the internet that the interiors of some long-distance buses in South America were remarkably luxurious - by European standards, at any rate. Indeed, it was as a result of my curiosity in this respect that I had requested an overnight trip in one during my tour. I wasn't disappointed. Not only were the extra-wide seats up to business class standards, but airline type food was provided and, about an hour after leaving Puerto Madryn, having stopped at Trelew to pick up more passengers, a piping-hot, lasagne-type, meal - followed by desert and a choice of drinks was served. After that, most passengers lowered their seats towards a horizontal position and, using the blankets and pillows provided, tried to get some sleep. I learned, later, that there were some First-Class seats on the lower deck which would lower to a completely horizontal position.
DAY ELEVEN - ESQUEL
I can't say I slept especially well, but it was certainly no worse than I might have expected on an aircraft. It was shortly after six-o-clock when I woke up and, drawing back the curtain, I could see that the landscape had changed from semi-desert to the snow-covered mountains of the Patagonian Lake District.
When I arrived at Esquel bus station, as would be the case wherever I went throughout my trip, there was a taxi waiting for me . As it happened, it wasn't too far to the hosteria and, as soon as I saw the breakfast which was laid out for their guests, I realised that the facilities on offer at the Hosteria La Angelina were more like those of a small hotel than a hostel. I have rarely seen tables so heavily-laden.
Since it would be some time before a room would be available I was invited to have some breakfast. When I had finished, I was shown to a room which was set up for a wi-fi connection and I hadn't been there very long when (much sooner than I had expected) I was told that a room had been prepared for me after all. When I got there, I was delighted to discover that the bathroom had a bath (only a half size one - but large enough to sit in) and, after a hot soak, I sorted out clothes which needed washing and took them to a lavanderia (launderette) which was a couple of blocks away where they told me they would deliver the cleaned items back to the hostel.
The town centre was quite compact. During the winter months, Esquel is a popular ski- resort and several shops were stocked with items for the winter-sports fraternity. At the Tourist Office, I was given helpful advice about the town's Welsh connections and, in particular, where the Welsh school and chapel were. I decided to go and have a look at them, but there was no one there. However, I remembered about the telephone number I was given at the Eisteddfod dinner and I wandered back to the hosteria to get the details.
The hosteria let me to use their telephone and I got through to a lady called Rini Griffiths, who owned a guest-house two or three miles from town. Very kindly, she offered to show me round the chapel and we arranged to meet later when she was expecting to drive into Esquel to collect her granddaughter from school.
Before going to the chapel, I found the office of the local hire-car company. It had been arranged for a car to be delivered to me during the following morning, but I reckoned it made more sense to collect it that evening and make an earlier start to the next day. It was agreed that this would be possible and, in the time it took to prepare the vehicle, I met up with Reni. Unfortunately, no one could find the keys for the Welsh chapel - but I got an idea of the layout by peeping through a window.
I was, however, able to look around the school. Intriguingly, there was a lesson in progress and I couldn't resist expressing my opinion that they already spoke better Welsh than some of that which I hear on S4C (the Welsh language channel on UK television). I believe some of the Welsh spoken on the channel (in particular, dramas and soap operas) could be compared with how an English cast might sound presenting a play in French. It's obvious that, for a significant number of the actors, the language was learnt in a classroom and not at their mother's knee.
When I got back to the hire car office, the car (a little VW Polo) was ready and, as there was still some daylight left, I took the opportunity to familiarise myself with it and, at the same time, to reconnoitre the route I would be taking out of Esquel during the following morning.
Later, I had a cheese and tomato pizza (I can never remember the proper Italian name for it - other than to believe it starts with the letter M) in a nice little restaurant a few doors away from the hosteria. Later still, following another hot bath, I watched some European football on TV (Chelsea v Barcelona) before deciding to have an early night. It had, after all, been quite a long day.
DAY TWELVE - TREVELIN
After breakfast, as I drove towards Trevelin, the final Welsh settlement on my travels, I caught sight of a sign featuring a Draig Coch (Welsh Dragon) and the words 'La Chacara'. Realising it was Rini's guest house, I turned back and headed up a tree-lined drive to a very impressive, architect-designed, wooden bungalow. The purpose of my visit was to ask Reni what she would suggest I should look out for in and around Trevelin. However, although she was most welcoming, I sensed that I hadn't called at a very convenient time, so I didn't stay long.
Interestingly, since starting to write this journal, Rini and her house have featured in a programme about architecture on the Welsh language television channel, S4C. Quite a few S4C productions are about Patagonia and I often wonder if it's just an excuse for the presenters to take advantage of all-expenses paid holidays in South America.
As I continued my drive there were several places which reminded me of Wales - Snowdonia, in particular - and I could well imagine what it was about the Patagonian Lake District which appealed to the early settlers. What's more, it's no surprise to me that many decided to leave the arid and uninteresting landscape of the Atlantic coast in order to head towards the mountains - where they were bound to feel more at home.
It was only ten-o-clock when I arrived at Trevelin and, as had been the case at Gaiman a couple of days earlier, hardly anywhere seemed open. The Tourist Office was, however. So, I went in and, in marked contrast to the one in Esquel, I was met with an atmosphere bordering on indifference. What's more, nobody spoke Welsh (or English, for that matter) which I thought was strange for a town which traded on its 'Welshness'. I picked up a couple of leaflets and a map of the area and left.
Having studied the map for a few minutes, I decided to abandon Trevelin, for the time being, and drive towards the Los Alerces National Park which, intriguingly, was little more that fifty miles from the Chilian border. Evidently the pass leading up to the Fataleufu hydro-electric power station within the park was well worth a visit - although some of the road surface might on the 'rippo' type.
On the outskirts of the town - entirely by chance, I caught sight of a little Welsh chapel standing, rather forlornly, in a field. Instinctively, I pulled off the road and walked across to have a closer look. Sadly, the doors were locked but, as had been the case in Esquel, I could peep through the windows and, despite the remote location, it would seem it was still in regular use.
The drive up to the hydro-electric power station was quite pleasant. At the entrance to the site, there was an Information Board which indicated there were two or three different routes which could be taken to get to the lake. Although it was the one with the 'rippo' road surface, I selected the road which allowed me to go up one side of the valley, drive across over the dam and come down the other side. When I reached the dam, I got out of the car to take some photos and, although the views were well worth the effort, I have rarely encountered such powerful wind. It was extremely difficult to prevent myself from being blown off my feet.
The drive back to Trevelin was uneventful and, fortunately, at least one of the Welsh tea houses had opened by the time I arrived. When I went inside to order a snack, I couldn't help noticing that, not long after I sat down, the background music (which I suspect had been from a local radio station) was replaced by some rousing Welsh male-voice choir renditions. After a nice cup of tea (real tea - not a tea bag), I called into the 'shop' area of the establishment and bought one or two souvenirs.
The name of Trevelin is derived from the two Welsh words - TRE (town) and FELIN (mill). In other words it was a mill town. In the Welsh language, a single 'F' is pronounced softly (as a 'V") and I guess that's how the name Tre(v)elin came about. Appropriately, perhaps, what now acts as the town's museum was the mill which is incorporated in the name. After I left the tea house, I spent a pleasant hour or so looking around it. Not surprisingly, a significant number of the exhibits related to the achievements of the early Welsh settlers and, although to my shame, I can't remember her name, the lady at the reception desk seemed incredibly proud of the fact that (whatever it was) it was Welsh. Furthermore, she wanted to talk in Welsh as much as possible because she and her children were attending lessons.
After leaving the museum, I headed back towards Esquel. Apart from the fact that there didn't seem to be a lot more to see at Trevelin, I was anxious to return the hire car at the agreed time - which, indeed, I did. Some time later, after checking my e-mails and doing some packing in preparation for quite an early start the following morning, I enjoyed a nice meal in one of the many town centre restaurants before returning to Hosteria La Angelina and and early night.
DAY THIRTEEN - ESQUEL TO BARILOCHE
The bus to Bariloche was scheduled to leave Esquel at a quarter-past-seven on a fine Thursday morning, so, even though it was less than half a mile to the bus station, the taxi arrived at a quarter-to-seven. Fortunately, I was already up and had packed my bags in good time to get some breakfast.
The journey was, without any doubt, one of the most enjoyable I have ever experienced. I was fortunate to have booked a seat on the front row of the upper deck and the entire route - through The Patagonian Lake District, with The Andes acting as a backdrop - was spectacular. As was the case on the bus from Puerto Madryn, aircraft-style food was served - once after leaving and again about half way through the four-and-a-half-hours it took us to get to Bariloche. A taxi was waiting and took me to The New Andino Hotel and, as soon as I reached the town, I understood why the area was known as 'Little Switzerland'. The restaurant (shown below) opposite the hotel , for example, was decidedly Tyrolean in its design.
Bariloche (as it is more commonly known) is in the province of Rio Negro which is to the north east of the Chubut province. Situated at the foothills of the Andes and surrounded by lakes (Nahuel, Huapi, Moreno and many others), it is a major centre for skiing, winter and water-sports and sight-seeing.
I was still unpacking when the bedside telephone rang. Evidently, a young lady called Alejandra was in the foyer with a message for me. Thoroughly intrigued, I went downstairs and found that she worked for Julieta's father. Unfortunately, he couldn't visit me himself, but was anxious to make a cash refund because I had only used the hire-car in Puerto Madryn for one day - whereas he had booked it for two. I was enormously impressed. There was no way I could possibly have known of the refund and I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending his company :- www.miradorpatagonico.com/index.html
By this stage of my South American adventure, one might have thought I had become accustomed to the 'seista' factor and that I shouldn't have been surprised to find that most of the shops on the High Street were closed when I ventured out after lunch. Anyway, the town was deserted; so, I went back to the hotel and decided to telephone my aunt in North Wales. She's practically blind and a post-card would be meaningless. Some time later, I went out again and the place was much busier and I spent some time watching the start of a vintage-car rally in the town's main square.
Later still, whilst returning from an evening meal, I passed a luggage retailer and, conscious of the fact that the bag I had brought from the UK had been so badly treated by the American Airline baggage (mis)handlers that it was in grave danger of falling apart, I bought a new one. Returning to my room, I relaxed in the first full length bath I had encountered since leaving home and, after watching some TV, I opted for relatively early night.
DAY FOURTEEN - BARILOCHE TO BUENOS AIRES
The plane to Buenos Aires was scheduled to leave Bariloche at half-past-eleven and the taxi to take me to the arport arrived a little after nine. As had been the case at Buenos Aires, the Aerolineas Argentinas check-in staff were extremely efficient. They didn't hesitate to admit (as I suspect might not always be the case the UK) that the flight was delayed for two hours and, even at this early stage in the proceedings, they were issuing vouchers to enable passengers to take advantage of a free breakfast whilst they waited. As the views from the dining area were so impressive, it seemed rude to refuse; even if I had eaten before leaving the hotel.
Somewhat disappointingly (but understandably since they were due to be delivered by the aircraft I was waiting for) there were no English-language papers at the bookstall and I had just selected a rather interesting Spanish language book when it was announced that the flight was being delayed for another hour. On this occasion, passengers were offered vouchers for a free lunch! At first, I resisted the urge to take advantage of the offer and put off a decision for quite a while. However, when I finally decided to use my voucher, the aircraft landed and I had to make my way to the Departure Gate 'pronto'. In the event, we didn't have to wait too long to eat after take-off before we were served the standard South American snack.
Once again, I managed to get a window seat and enjoyed looking down on the changing landscape as we flew eastwards from the mountains of The Andes to the plains as we approached the Atlantic coast. For some reason (I'm sure it was explained, but I missed the announcement) the flight was diverted from the domestic airport to the international one.
When I reached The Arrivals Hall, bearing in mind my itinerary was arranged from the time I flew out of Buenos Aires until the time I returned, I had to sort out my own transport from the airport and I opted for an express bus to the city centre. From there I caught a taxi back 'home' - to The Antico Hostel - where it was heartening to be greeted like an old friend of the family. To add to my pleasure at being back, a completely new wi-fi system had been installed whilst I was away and I was able to check my e-mails and, in particular, confirm that the arrangements I had made for my forthcoming journey to Peru were still in place.
It had been a little before seven-o-clock when I returned to San Telmo and, no more than a couple of hours later, I wandered out to visit my 'favourite' restaurant. At that time of evening in the UK, most eating establishment would be full to the rafters but, as I had learnt during my first week in the city, night-life in Buenos Aires starts very much later. As a consequence, there were still several tables for me to choose from and I sat down to enjoy another meal of grilled salmon, a bottle of chilled beer, followed by a bowl of ice cream.
Mercifully, there were no plans for any activities on the terrace outside 'my' room that night and, although I didn't feel that I had experienced an exceptionally busy day, sleep came easily during my last night in Argentina and, so far as I know, no one cried for me.
DAY FIFTEEN - BUENOS AIRES TO LIMA
Saturday, 4th. November, 2006, proved to be a slightly frustrating day. The flight to Lima wasn't until the evening and the only things I did of any consequence were to buy a book (which I inscribed and put in the library the hostel provided for guests) and, although all the others were very good, Lolo had been by far the most helpful receptionist during my stay; so, I gave her one of my wife's brooches .
At five-o-clock, the taxi arrived to take me to Buenos Aires International airport and when I got there, before being allowed to check-in, I was required to pay some sort of Airport Tax. Afterwards, my progress through the airport procedures was uneventful. However, after about an hour, it was announced that the flight to Lima was delayed by two-and-a-half-hours and, by a stroke of good fortune, the tedium of waiting was considerably relieved for everyone by a choir who assembled in the middle of the concourse and proceeded to perform, entirely unaccompanied, what seemed like their complete repertoire of songs.
The flight, itself, was fairly mundane and, although it was extremely late when it landed, the taxi driver who had been engaged to meet me at the airport was still waiting and at a little after two-o-clock on Sunday morning, he dropped me off at The Maimi Panchita Hostal Turistico in the San Miguel district of Lima.
Peru is the third largest country in South America. It is bordered by Ecuador and Columbia to the north, Brazil to the east, Bolivia to the south-east, Chile to the south and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Archaeologists have revealed evidence of human existence from as far back as 11,000 BC and a succession of cultures left their mark since then - in particular, The Paracas (from about 300 BC until 700 AD) and, more recently, The Inca - whose Empire extended from north Ecuador to central Chile - dominating the region for several hundred years until the Spanish landed in 1531.
Establishing a stable government took time - not only because of resistance from the native population, but as a result of divisions between the Spanish themselves and it wasn't until 1542 that 'The Viceroyalty of Peru' was established with authority over most of South America - except for the Portuguese dominated, Brazil. Over the succeeding two centuries, other 'Viceroyalties' were established. However, Peru remained the principle source of Spanish wealth because of gold and silver from the Andes which was transported to Spain. During that time, Lima, the capital, grew into a powerful city, with jurisdiction over almost all of the continent and was the chief Spanish stronghold in all the Americas.
During the years of Spanish rule, as the Conquistadors attempted to spread their own culture throughout South America, The Inca were never entirely suppressed. As recently as the eighteenth century, there were fourteen major uprisings and, although there was no evidence of organised genocide, the fact remains that the indigenous population was reduced by several million during the period of occupation. Paradoxically, freedom from Spanish rule was initiated by an uprising of Spanish landowners and, in 1831, Peruvian independence was declared. However, their attempts to regain and maintain control meant that it wasn't until 1879 that Spain finally recognised Peru's independence.
DAY SIXTEEN - LIMA TO PISCO
Bearing in mind the fact that it was well after half-past-two in the morning when I had gone to bed, having to get up again at five-o-clock (during the same morning) would have been hard for me to bear even if I had managed to get some sleep. However, I hardly slept at all because there were an awful lot of very noisy motor-cars cruising around the San Miguel district that night and, unfortunately, I had been allocated a room overlooking (and overhearing) the road.
Conveniently, as had been the case in San Telmo, the hostel in Lima agreed to store my 'excess' baggage whilst I was away and, after I had decided what to leave behind, I hauled myself and my bags downstairs in time for some breakfast before the taxi arrived for the first leg of my journey towards The Nazca Lines.
In Lima, in common (I was to discover) with all the towns I would visit in Peru, each company had its own bus station and, a bit like the forts one sees in western movies, they are constructed in the form of a gated 'compound' under the control of a security guard who marshalled the buses in and out of the facility.
My bus was scheduled to leave at half-past-seven and I soon saw the first of several difference I would notice over the next few days between the behaviour of people in Peru as opposed to those in The Argentine. In Argentina, for example, departing on time seemed to be an absolute obsession with the bus operators whereas in Lima, the driver wasn't going to leave until he was ready. Luckily there wasn't much traffic on a Sunday and, in no time, we left the densely populated Lima area for the more desolate, desert-like, terrain of the Pacific coastline of Peru.
Although built by the same manufacturer, the bus from Lima didn't appear to be as well maintained as the Argentine buses had been and, in a way, that could be seen as another example of differences which exist between the two nations. It seemed that Argentina embraced European standards, whereas Peru appeared to be more like a country from the third world. For example, most cars in Argentina were manufactured in Europe; Fiat, Renault, Volkswagen being prominent. In Peru, on the other hand, most cars were from southern Asia or Japan and a significant proportion of them were from the second-hand, so-called, 'grey' market.
As if to illustrate the 'third-world' factor, Chincha, the first town we stopped at reminded me very much of India - an impression considerably enhanced by the little, scooter-powered, taxis which were scurrying in and around the town centre.
My destination was Pisco, a small port and fishing village famous for a type of brandy named after it. When I arrived there, a taxi took me to the Las Olas Hostal on the outskirts of the town and I hadn't been there very long when another taxi driver, called Elipo, collected me and drove a few kilometres alongside the Pacific coast, through a small fishing village, and into the well-manicured grounds of a large and extremely luxurious hotel. Here, I met Jose and Ana, a Spanish couple who were to be my travelling companions for the next couple of days. Soon, Rolando, our tour guide, joined us and we all climbed into Elipo's MPV. Within minutes of leaving the hotel, we left the tarmac road and were driving alongside some impressively large sandhills and could be excused for imagining we were in the the middle of the Sahara desert. In fact, we were actually driving through The Paracas National Park Nature Reserve towards a spectacular coastline.
Looking at a map, later, I was intrigued to see that the Paracas peninsula (on the Pacific coastline) was almost a mirror image of the Valdes peninsula (on the Atlantic coastline) which I had visited during my Patagonian adventure.
After our trip through the nature reserve, we dropped Rolando, Jose and Ana off at the Paracas Hotel and Elipo took me back to Pisco - where I had hoped to get something to eat. Rolando had warned me that, since it was a busy port, the town centre wasn't an area where he would advise me to carry too many items of value; so, as we passed my hostal, Elipo was kind enough to wait for me whilst I took most of my money and my camera into my room.
In the event, I felt completely at ease in Pisco and had a pleasant meal in a restaurant in the main square. Afterwards, to add to the local flavour (as it were) I took one of the little scooter-powered taxis back to the hostal - where I resisted the urge to have a dip in the swimming-pool and settled, instead, for some Peruvian TV before a hot shower and bed. Not surprisingly, bearing in mind I had slept very little since leaving Buenos Aires a little more than twenty four hours previously, I fell asleep almost immediately.
DAY SEVENTEEN - PISCO TO NAZCA
Las Olas Hostal was the first (and only one) of the establishments I stayed at in South America to offer a cooked breakfast. So, following a cereal, I had some scrambled eggs on toast and a cup of coffee before Elipo arrived to take me to The Paracas Hotel again. Not long after arriving there, Rolando, Jose and Ana joined me and we walked to the impressive jetty which belonged to the hotel and where there were at least six high-powered speed boats waiting to take several groups of tourists to The Ballestas Islands - Peru's version of The Galapagos Islands.
For the next three hours, I experienced a similar situation to that which I had experienced at The Valdes Peninsula a few days previously - in that an excursion which hadn't especially appealed to me became a highlight of my holiday. In fact, in many respects, the excursion to The Ballestas Islands provided to be a more rewarding experience than the one to The Valdes Peninsula had been because, as had been the case whilst whale-watching, being on board a boat enabled us to get much closer and within touching distance of the animals.
When we got back to the shore, our luggage had been packed into a newer people-carrier with a different driver who took us on the two or three hour drive to Nazca. On the way, he turned off the main Pan-American Highway and took us along the old road which drove through a tunnel in the Andes.
Not long after passing through the tunnel, we arrived at the toll-gates for entry into the Nazca region and, not long after that, we saw the plateau where most of the Nazca Lines are sited and stopped at the viewing tower alongside the road. To be perfectly frank, although it was possible to see some lines it was clear that a better view would be achieved from the air. As it happened, my Spanish friends' timetable was different to mine and they were due to fly over the Nazca Lines that afternoon and, with Rolando, Jose and Ana were dropped off at an hotel opposite the airfield. For my part, I wasn't booked in to be flying until the following morning and, for the time being, I was driven to the Paredones Inn near Nazca town centre.
After a light lunch, I was collected and taken to rejoin Rolando, Jose and Ana. Sadly, Ana had felt unwell during their flight. To her great credit, however, she was determined to keep to schedule and we were taken to visit a Chauchilla Cemetary about 30 km from the airfield. Unfortunately, by the time they were discovered by archaeologists, the graves were already known to local tomb-raiders and many valuable items had been stolen. All that remains are some mummified bodies; most of whom, as was the local custom at the time, were buried in the foetal position. Enough remained to make it an interesting afternoon, nonetheless.
During the journey back, I discussed my itinerary with Rolando. It had been planned that I would return to Lima immediately after my morning flight over the lines. However, during my brief visit to Nazca at lunch-time, I found that I liked the 'feel' of the place and felt that leaving so soon would deprive me of an opportunity to appreciate some more of the area. So, after Jose and Ana had been dropped off at the Airport hotel (they had booked a room to relax in until they were due to take an overnight bus towards the Cusco region), Rolando went with me and arranged for me to stay an extra night at the hotel. After that, he went to the bus station and managed to get them to alter the date of the ticket for the bus back to Lima. Finally, as if that hadn't been enough, he contacted a colleague who lived in Nazca to ask her to give me an escorted tour of some of the other places of interest in the region after the following morning's flight over the lines.
As darkness began to fall, I heard the sound of music coming from the road outside my room. At first, I wasn't too concerned because during the time I had been in Peru, I had seen several cars driving around with loudspeakers on their roofs to gather support for one candidate or another for a forthcoming political election. This time, however, the music seemed different and I went to the window just in time to see a colourful procession of floats, marching bands, and children in fancy dress celebrating the annual crowning of the local High School's 'Queen'. It was almost as though I was being rewarded for staying an extra day.
That evening, I walked around the town centre. Much of the area round the hotel (and most of the Nazca, for that matter) consisted of a quaint mixture of buildings in the traditional style. However, parts of the town centre were starting to show signs of 'benefitting' from the income tourism had brought to the region and more modern features were starting to make their mark. Speaking just for myself, I found it rather disappointing.
In time, I found a restaurant which looked appealing and it was a fortunate choice because, not only was the food excellent, there was an entertaining cabaret which consisted of a couple of scantily-clad local dancers performing (in the nicest possible taste - as Kenny Everett might have said) in the Afro-Peruvian style. They were extremely good and well-worth a cash donation. Back at the hotel, I had a hot shower, checked my e-mails, watched some TV and went to bed.
DAY EIGHTEEN - THE NAZCA LINES
THE NAZCA LINES
Sometimes spelt Nasca, the Nazca Lines of Peru are an enigma. Etched on a remote plateau in the Andes, there are about 300 figures made up of straight lines and geometric shapes between 30 m and 9 km long. Due to a combination of a unique climate (only twenty minutes of rain a year) and a flat, stony, surface which minimises the effect of the wind at ground level, the plateau were the lines are located is unique for its ability to preserve the markings. These factors, combined with the existence of a lighter-coloured subsoil beneath the darker pebbles which cover the surface of the desert provided a vast writing pad for the artists.
There seem to be two kinds of design; the first are figures of various creatures and plants - whereas the rest form geometric lines. No one knows for certain, but they are thought to have been built by The Nazca civilisation and, since their discovery, they have inspired several explanations ranging from a landing strip for returning aliens to a celestial calendar or a map of underground water supplies.
My flight over the lines was booked for half-past-eight; so, to be on the safe side, I set my alarm for half-past-six. Unusually (I thought) the breakfast room was on the roof of the hotel in what was, in effect, a penthouse area but with ample room for outside BBQs. The menu was fairly basic - plenty of bread, butter and thin slices of cheese and ham to enable you to make your own sandwiches together with as much coffee as you wanted.
At half-past-seven, Morleny, the local guide Rolando had contacted for me, arrived in a taxi to take me to the airfield. When we arrived there, she went to the reception area to check my flight time and I waited in the lounge of the luxury hotel where Jose and Ana had spent some time on the previous evening.
As it happened, I didn't have to wait very long at all and, almost before I knew what was happening, our pilot, Captain Fernando, was guiding myself and a Swiss couple towards his aircraft. Being on my own proved to be a distinct advantage because I was directed into the front seat (next to the pilot) whilst the couple were shepherded into the two rear seats. As a consequence. I'm fairly sure that I had a much better view than would have been the case from the seats in the back.
So far as I can recall (the whole experience seemed to go by far too quickly) we were in the air for about thirty or forty minutes and were given a thorough aerial tour of the area where the lines were located - swooping down and around, often at a sharp angle, to get a better view of each one - accompanied by an explanation from Captain Fernando in the headphones he had provided.
Morleny was waiting for me when we landed back at the airfield; so was the taxi we had arrived in and, during the rest of the morning, I was driven around the Nazca area visiting various sites of interest.
Firstly, we visited a local pottery where everything was hand-made, in the traditional way, on the premises and I bought a small souvenir for my wife. I was also shown around and given an interesting demonstration in the yard of a gold mining concern. Gold mining in Peru goes back to pre-Hispanic times and it was a major factor in Spain's interest in the country. Although the large-scale commercial mining has been abandoned now, traditional methods are being re-introduced on a small scale to try to generate some much-needed income to mitigate the pressing social problems of the Nazca-Ocina zone.
Perhaps, the most fascinating feature we visited were the aqueducts. Created several hundreds of years ago by the ancient Nazca people, they were designed to offer a solution to the problem of the shortage of water in the region. Because it very rarely rained on the plateau, rain water from the distant Andes range was channelled through miles of intricately constructed tunnels - so technically advanced that, for example, bends were strategically built into the system to regulate the flow of the water. Down in the valley, at regular intervals, 'wells' were created - from which the farmers drew water to irrigate their crops.
It was sometime after noon when I was dropped back at the hotel - my excursion completed. After a light lunch in a small cafe opposite the hotel, I was free to do whatsoever I liked during the afternoon and I 'chilled-out' - passing some of the time by checking e-mails (in particular, one from the hostel in Lima to confirm they were expecting me to arrive a day later than had been originally planned).
Later, that evening, on the way to re-visit the same restaurant I had dined at on the previous evening, I walked through the town-centre again and saw further evidence of the 'touristy' tendency - as manifested by the illuminated and coloured water fountain in the plaza. it was quite nice, I suppose, but (to repeat my previously stated opinion) somewhat at odds with the older, more traditional, buildings around the square. During my walk around the town-centre, I was approached by a young shoe-shine-boy who did a very professional job on my extremely dirty shoes.
The 'cabaret' at the restaurant, that evening, was a local guitar band and, during their performance, the lead singer had asked some of the audience where they were from. One couple was from South Wales and I spent some time chatting to them before I returned to the hotel - and bed.
DAY NINETEEN - NAZCA TO LIMA
As is often the case when I have all the time in the world to take advantage of a 'lie-in', I woke up early and couldn't get back to sleep again. After breakfast, I set about packing my bags for the journey back to Lima. Having done that, I wandered around the town centre again. Previously, I had only been 'out and about' during the afternoon or evening and it was interesting to see the local market in full swing and the occasional ordinary person wearing Peruvian dress. Up to then, the only traditional clothing I had seen were being worn by people in the tourism industry.
Another thing which intrigued me was the fact that most of the taxis were absolutely tiny. Notwithstanding that fact, they still somehow managed to squeeze four people and their shopping (often on a roof rack) into them.
When I got back to the hotel, on the expectation that I might get something to eat on the coach to Lima, I just had a sandwich lunch and, at half-past-one, a taxi arrived to take me to the bus station. The coach left at two-o-clock and, since I had managed to reserve a front seat again, I thoroughly enjoyed the journey to Lima.
The first part of the journey was the most interesting as it involved climbing up and across the Andes. However, some of the more deprived rural areas we passed through later were somewhat depressing - to say the least. We stopped at the bus stations in Pisco and Chincha on the way and it was about half-past-nine when we arrived in Lima. The waiting taxi took me to the hostel - where (after I had explained about my previous experience with the traffic noise) the proprietor put me in a room well away from the road and, after a hot shower, I fell asleep quite quickly.
DAY TWENTY - LIMA
On the way back from the bus station during the previous evening, Renato, the taxi driver, told me that he was in the process of establishing his own business - www.taxilimaperu.com. He had lived and worked in New York for some time, spoke excellent English, and he offered to take me on a guided tour of Lima. We had agreed a fee and he collected me from the hostel at half-past-ten and, for the next four hours, I was given a thorough and thoroughly enjoyable tour of the city and the surrounding area. My first impression was that, almost everywhere I looked, poverty and prosperity stood uncomfortably close to each other.
Perhaps, as a consequence of this proximity, the differences appear more pronounced and, whilst it seemed that people in the rural areas were relatively content with their circumstances, those within the urban region were less happy. Indeed, even as I toured Lima and under the watchful eye of the far from discreet military-style police force, a large group of citizens were gathering to protest about something or another... whilst, at the same time, near Government buildings, anti-riot forces were being assembled to deal with any eventuality.
Despite this interesting diversion, Renato provided a fairly comprehensive tour of the area. He even timed our arrival at the Presidential palace to coincide with the daily changing of the guard ceremony - which was being closely monitored by the aforementioned military-style police force.
Interestingly, I had a brief encounter with one of them - a sour-faced young woman who was dressed in a style which would not have been out of place in a SS division during WW2. Although I had permission from an 'ordinary' policeman to climb on a bench to film the proceedings, this female Fuehrer had other ideas and indicated that I should get down 'pronto'. Fortunately, she didn't understand English because subsequent viewing of the video reveals I had muttered, "stupid woman" before Renato escorted me away and drove back to the hostel.
That evening, before going to bed quite early, I strolled along the promenade alongside the Pacific Ocean and found a Chinese restaurant. I had been suffering from an upset tummy all day and, although none of us could understand very much of what each other was saying, I managed to let the staff know that I would like some chicken noodles - which was to my taste and met my dietary requirements.
DAY TWENTY-ONE - LIMA TO WASHINGTON D.C.
The flight from Lima to Miami was scheduled to leave at half-past-seven in the morning. The ever-helpful taxi driver, Renato, had offered to drive me to the airport and he suggested that four-o-clock would be a sensible time to leave the hostel. I set the alarm for a quarter-past-three and, although it took me quite some time to carry my luggage downstairs, I had time for a quick breakfast before he arrived.
True to form and not altogether surprisingly, I encountered a problem at the American Airlines check-in desk. Evidently, my luggage was 'overweight' and a fee in excess of a hundred US dollars was mentioned. I explained that the reason my luggage was too heavy was because I had to buy a new case to replace the one which they had trashed whilst misplacing it on the outward journey. The chap on the desk said that the same thing had happened to him on a flight to Acapulco (as if that made any difference) and suggested I remove my lap-top from my 'cargo' case and put it in my hand luggage. How that was supposed to resolve the issue was a mystery to me, but by then, I was beyond caring and did as he advised.
On the way to the Departure Gate, I bought a golf magazine and some water. Unfortunately, a member of the airport security personnel decided to confiscate the (unopened) bottle. However, no more that ten yards from where it was taken from me - and within plain sight of the security staff - there was a shop where I was able to buy another!
Mercifully, the flight left on time, was fairly unremarkable and, unusually, during my increasingly frustrating recent flying experiences, I was actually sitting in the seat I had booked prior to my departure from the U.K. So, I was able to enjoy a pretty good view as we approached Miami International Airport. We landed at about noon and I had quite a lengthy wait until the flight to Washington D.C.
After a leisurely meal, one of the resident 'Jobsworths' at the departure gate told me that two aerosol canisters in my hand luggage wasn't allowed. I explained that both aerosols were for medicinal purposes and the reason they were in my hand luggage was that I didn't want American Airlines to lose them again. Sadly, that had no effect and the silly man confiscated one of them. I decided against waiting around to find out whether, or not, he put it where I suggested he should.
The day after I arrived in Washington D.C. would be Veterans' Day and the main reason I was calling there on my way back from South America was that my daughter-in-law, Beth, could take advantage of the holiday to bring my grandsons, William and Frank, to see me. They met me at the airport and Beth drove us to her father, Bob's, house on Capitol Hill - where I was to stay for the weekend.
That evening, Bob and his wife, Jackie, arranged an informal get-together and, assorted family members (including Beth's brother, Danny) popped in to say "Hello" Afterwards, considering how early I had got up that morning, it had been a long, long day and sleep came easily.
DAY TWENTY-TWO - WASHINGTON D.C.
It would be about nine-o-clock when I woke up and, over a leisurely 'brunch', Beth asked me if I would like to be dropped off in Manhattan when she and the boys went home to New England on Sunday. She knew I liked the Big Apple and didn't think that humping my luggage across New York would appeal to me. To be honest, I couldn't quite understand what she was talking about. However, not being an experienced traveller, I had failed to notice that my flight from Washington landed at LaGuardia - but, the flight to Heathrow departed from JFK.......
Date: Date: 13NOV - MONDAY 13NOV - MONDAY Flight : Flight : AMERICAN AIRLINES AMERICAN AIRLINES 4794 116 Departure: Departure: WASHINGTON REAGAN NEW YORK JFK 7:00 PM 11:45 PM Arrival: Arrival: NEW YORK LGA LONDON HEATHROW 8:15 PM 11:40 AM
When I telephoned American Airlines, with their usual lack of grace, it was made clear that - even though to have done so would have enabled them to sell my seat 'again' - any deviation from the original itinerary would nullify the whole ticket. So, I had to abandon Beth's plan.
I spent the rest of the morning watching TV (the Democrat's victory during the elections was the current hot topic). At the same time, but unknown to me, Beth and her dad had gone to The Union Station to enquire about a DUKW tour of the city they had heard about. Beth knew that I had been a DUKW coxswain during my military service and she thought an excursion in one would interest me - and it did! Furthermore, I gather it was appreciated by everyone else who went - none more so than Frank - who was invited, by the Captain, to steer the craft as we sailed along the Potomac River. Some time later, I got an opportunity to take the controls and the memories came flooding back. No pun intended.
When we got back to Constitution Hill, Frank spent the time counting down every single second of every minute until we all went to have an evening meal at Beth's twin, John's house. Evidently, John's son, Zac, is Frank's soul-mate and they get along very well indeed - in fact, everyone did - and It was a particularly pleasant evening. Georgia, Beth's mother, was there - as well as one of Jackie's daughter, Jill and her son Patrick. Beth and the boys were staying the night at John's and I went back to Capitol Hill with Bob and Jackie.
DAY TWENTY-THREE - WASHINGTON D.C.
The kitchen at Bob's house was very busy on Sunday morning.
A succession of sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, grandchildren and visiting in-laws from across the pond wandered in and out to sample an assortment of food and drinks. At around noon, Beth and her boys arrived. The weather wasn't very pleasant and the prospect of a long drive to Easthampton couldn't have been that appealing to her. She had rented a people carrier for the journey and this enabled Bob to give her some furniture which had been stored in the garage. Luckily, there were several willing hands to help load it into the back of the vehicle and, after the usual pleasantries, the New England branch of the Cole family headed northwards for what (I learned later) turned out to be a rather arduous journey.
For my part, Bob had recommended a visit to the International Spy Museum and he drove me there. Privately owned, it is one of few museums in the city which charges for admission. It was an interesting enough experience, nonetheless and, when I came out, I crossed the road to an equally interesting art gallery. Almost ten years previously, I visited the Wounded Knee Indian Reservation in South Dakota and I found some of the native American art in the gallery particularly evocative.
Afterwards, I took a taxi back to Bob's house and was intrigued by the fact that the driver stopped to pick up some other passengers before he had completed my journey. Bob had warned me that this might happen and, apparently, it's a common practice in Washington D.C.
Soon after arriving back, Jackie telephoned Bob to say that she was going to stay the night with her daughter, Jill - because she (Jill) was suffering from adverse effects of recent surgery. Bob and I managed to rustle up something to eat and we spent a thoroughly enjoyable (for me, at any rate) evening chatting about one thing and another before retiring for the night.
DAY TWENTY-FOUR & TWENTY-FIVE - WASHINGTON D.C. TO LONDON
Some representatives of the U.S. Justice Department were going to have a dinner in the function room on the second floor of Bob & Jackie's house later that evening and, throughout the morning, a succession of Jackie and her daughters' catering staff trooped through the garage and kitchen area to 'set up' the room. Although Jackie had remained with Jill, she frequently 'phoned Bob to make sure everything was going according to plan. Clearly, it was going to be a busy day for them and I decided to call American Airlines to ask if there was any possibility of catching an earlier flight to New York. I should have known better because, once again, they were completely unwilling to accommodate my request.
At lunchtime, Bob took me to a local restaurant which was close to a US Marine establishment. Evidently, a VIP was visiting the base and finding a parking place took quite a while. We had a pleasant meal, nonetheless.
When we got back, I took the precaution of telephoning American Airlines to check that the flight they had insisted I must take was going to leave on time. ''Oh. It's been cancelled." I was, casually, informed. Furthermore, they were unable (or unwilling) to let me know what they could offer as an alternative.
I won't reveal my precise response - other than to suggest I believe Bob may have learnt some old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon words with which he may not have been entirely familiar and I terminated the conversation with the earnest advice that the airline should call back when they could let me know how they were going to get me to Heathrow. Whether my displeasure affected their response is open to conjecture but, within an hour I was offered a flight which would leave at about the same time as originally scheduled, However, it was routed via Chicago - a much lengthier journey - but one which should arrive at Heathrow at about the same time.
Bob drove me to the Ronald Reagan International Airport.
As soon as I reached the American Airlines check-in desk, they told me the Chicago flight was delayed and would be leaving an hour and fifty-five minutes late. When I pointed out that this would make me exactly one hour too late for the Heathrow connection, the response was a disinterested shrug of the shoulders. What's more, despite the fact that the next flight to London wouldn't be leaving until the following morning, I was informed that the prospect of being offered overnight hotel accommodation in Chicago was out of the question.
In the event, all flights in and out of Chicago O'Hare Airport were delayed that night and, when I got there, by running along what seemed like the entire length of the terminal more quickly than is good for a man of advanced years, I became the last passenger to board an American Airlines flight once again. As usual, the seat I was allocated was nowhere near as comfortable as the one I had reserved for the flight from New York would have been and I hardly slept at all during the journey.
By some sort of a miracle, my luggage had been successfully transferred at Chicago and, very much to my surprise, it was waiting for me when I arrived at the baggage carousel at Heathrow's Terminal Three.
As my neighbour, Paul, drove me home, I reflected on the fact that, rather than fond memories of an incredible adventure, the sub-standard treatment I received from American Airlines would stick in my craw for a very long time.
Even now, as I complete this journal, I find it quite difficult to believe that not a single representative of the world's largest airline offered anything approaching an apology for a catalogue of disasters to which I had been subjected. It goes without saying, it's highly unlikely I would choose (nor advise anyone else) to travel with them in future.
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