I awoke with tired legs from the last couple of days walking round and dodging the throngs of christmas shoppers. It was one of those dull grey flat days that I had been expecting for the entire trip, Id been lucky with the weather so far. Luckily enough this was the day Id picked to go calling on clients and most were organised for mid to late afternoon when it would be getting dark anyway. So to compensate for the late start, the dull crappy day I thought I’d sample some of the local cuisine (yet again). When I’d stayed in London before everthing was horrendously expensive, I thought this trip would be no different. I’d ordered an oyster card in advance and loaded it up with the equivalent of day rates for the trip. Its not hard to believe that after only 2 and a half days in London, the transport costs had exceeded the entire hong kong trip!
The hotel had a couple of ‘greasy spoon’ type cafes across the road so I thought Id give them ago. Id chosen to stay between cricklewood and kilburn as Id wanted to sample a bit of non-tourist London. One of my aunts had lived up near Tottenham for a while so was keen to get out and about with ‘locals’. The ‘locals’ in the cafe consisted mostly of Irish and Polish men, the type of guys who would be usually working on building sites at this time of day if it wasnt for the recession.
The fry up would have choked 2 horses, never mind one, and cost about 7 quid and I genuinely thought I wouldnt eat anything else for a week. Prompting the later in the day well worn phrase of ‘no, I’m not hungry, but I could eat something’ that became the passphrase for my Canada/US trip last year.
Spending most of the morning in and out of the London transport system you get the feeling of how it has seemed to have grown organically rather than someone actually sitting down and designing it. It may have been designed, indeed it wasnt until I was 21 that I realised that Northern Ireland busses and railways actually had a timetable rather than just turning up and waiting for the next one.
Glad I wasnt taking many photos today as the train broke down, tube line was closed, roadworks for the busses and I only had 200 quid cash on me so couldnt take a taxi into town.
I could have been a one off but in my 4 month sojourn in London I decided Id try out this commuting lark for a week to see if I could hack it. My girlfriend at the time was living in Felixstowe so Id get the 6:30am train to Ipswich with the supposed connection to London Liverpool street which would put me at my desk by 8:50am. Well thats the theory… I dont think I was at my desk before 9:15am any morning. Im sure things have improved but at the time I worked with a guy who had a similar commute, he saw his kids only at the weekends despite living in the same house. He would be out of the house in the morning before they got up and back home long after they went to bed. I know its necessary but what sort of a life is that, not one for me really.
So I ask again, how on earth are they going to carry off the Olympics? Im only adding these lines in to wind English people up, every time theres an Olympics or World Cup or any major event, a lot of the pre-event publicity is on how much of a shambles it is going to be.
Reminds me of sitting in an internet cafe in Tokyo during the 2002 world cup. A number of US journalist were giving one of the fifa officials earache about all the problems they were having and one said ‘we told you about these problems yesterday’, to which the very polite official said ‘no sir, the problems you told us about yesterday have been fixed, these are new problems’. I suspect that wont be the case in London
As well as spending the vast majority of the morning in various states of waiting for parts of london transport to arrive I thought Id head over to Harrods and have a look round at how the other half lives. There had been an edtiorial in the papers about how Knightsbridge and Kensington had some of the most expensive parking in the world. I can well believe it as one of the houses I walked past cost more to rent per month than my whole house originally cost me!
I took a walk past One Hyde Park and joined the window shoppers outside the McLaren shop, some of the most expensive real estate in the world. I felt I didnt have enough money to even stand on the street outside! Across the road is Harvey Nichols and I’ve never been there, billed as the young persons Harrods I’ll have to have a look the next time Im over as I needed to get across town for various meetings. Just as I walked down the side, one of the security personnel asked me to move on. Well I was moving on, just not quick enough obviously and I wondered what was up. He said he thought I was paparazzi and Lady GaGa was about to come out and they’d been asked to clear the pavement. I laughed saying Id photographed her before but was heading on anyway. Oh PS mate, your building is on fire….
In between meetings I managed to get to the Imperial War Museum and their Don McCullin exhibition. I only had a quick look round, not enough to do it justice. Definitely worth a visit if you are in the area.
I had a few follow up meetings on my last full day but during the free time the weather did work out for me again.
The phone apps Id mentioned in my last post did work wonders for highlighting some of the current events and I made a detour down to the South Bank for the chocolate food festival. No purchases here but wandering round the smell of cooking chocolate was enough!
It might seem odd but in the whole time Ive been coming to London I cant remember ever going anywhere near Buckingham Palace. Probably one of the must sees, if for nothing else than to say you have seen it. Its one of those weird places where tourists gather and just stand and stare. I watched loads of people just staring through the gates and I wondered if they thought the Queen would just pop out and say hello. Its not as if they just stopped, took a photo and cleared off, it took me about 15 mins to walk past the area and most of the people who were there when I arrived were still there and still staring through the railings. Would hate to see if if there was something on!
I enjoyed my trip to London, maybe I needed that break away from it to go back and appreciate it as one of the outstanding tourist cities instead of just a place to work ridiculous hours. I certainly saw more of it in my 4 days here than I did in the whole 4 months of working there. It was good to go back and wander round some of the old haunts and have a look round some new places. I’ll certainly be planning a return sometime in 2012, but maybe not anywhere near the Olympics
One of the most famous, accessible, cheap and most memorable sights in Hong Kong is the star ferry journey across the harbour. As I mentioned in my last blog post the journey isnt as long as I remember it due to the land reclamation in the harbour. Some locals joke that in a few years you will be able to walk to the island without getting your feet wet!
IF you have a couple of hours only in Hong Kong make sure you take the trip. If you have more than a day make sure you take it at night as well. Check out the seats as they are all reversible and you just move the back depending on which direction you are moving in. Also keep an eye out for the moving gangplank when boarding, particularly in a heavy swell and sometimes the night crossing can be a bit hairy in one of the most congested areas of sea on the planet!
After the food excesses of the previous couple of days it turned out to be a McDonalds day. As much as I dont eat this stuff, well almost ever, out where my hotel was the cafes and restaurants didnt open until 10am (another reason for lying in) and McDonalds was open from 7am. 10am is all well and good in the summer months but when it gets dark at 4:30-5pm and you need to get photos taken then time really is money. So using my octopus card I just went in pointed to a breakfast menu and stood and waited. Normally Im very anal about research but how far wrong can you go?
Well ok you get this…
When I first took the lid off I thought WTF? Someone has accidently dumped my egg, burger pasta and cheese into a bowl of hot water. Then I thought hold on check around and see what other people get. Yes the same thing. Odd. As usual I ended up wearing some of it and realised I’d better go on a diet when I get home because I dont stain the top of my trousers any more I stain half way down my shirt (you can work that out yourself!
I had a few things on my must see list from previous trips and one of those was to see people do Tai Chi in the parks. In the previous trips I’d failed to see any purely because it seems to be mostly done at 7am and well, lets be honest I only see 7am if Im coming home or if the house was catching fire. So rather than the mass numbers you see in all the guidebooks (usually old looking photos – does it happen any more?) I happened to catch a few folk in one garden in central.
Down at the Star Ferry terminal the previous there had been loads of police knocking about with cordoned off areas. Nothing unusual there I just assumed it was a queue for some famous person signing or queue for a ticket launch or some other thing. I found out today when I saw the length of it that it was the queue for the launch of the iPhone 4GS. When I say queue I mean over 3000 people queued up. Yes three thousand! I was at the opening of the apple store in Belfast and I think there was one sad loser who queued all night and felt a right prat because number 2 in the queue didnt show up to 6am. There were perhaps about 150 people total, if that? Now all the mac evangelists I know are quite sad people. Its a cult or religion rather than a piece of over styled average technology but come on. At what point did people turn up and queue for 3 days think ‘maybe they only have 2000 in stock?’. Maybe they had more. Very sad indeed, get a life folks its a bloody phone and not a very good phone at that! The reason why the police were there was that scuffles had broken out at the front because people had been paid over 1000 pounds to stand at the front of the queue for other people. Now I can understand queueing up for 3 days and nights for a grand, I would be tempted myself but paying the grand? plus the price of the phone? Come on. Still it didnt stop me exploiting the situation and wiring in a few photos to a news agency.
One other thing on the list to see was the noonday gun down in Causeway Bay. A hangover from the British occupation where this cannon would be fired on the shoreline every day at noon by the Jardines company. It had apparently stopped for a couple of years but was going today. Give it another 6 months and it wont be anywhere near the sea which will be odd having this row of Cannons on a pier a few hundred yards inland. Access to the gun is limited to the half hour after the gun is fired and access to the gun area is a bit convoluted, down through the basement of a hotel. One of those times you ask for help or directions and are led down stairs, down a corridor, past heating ducts into the darkness when every ounce of sense you have is screaming at you to get the f**k out of Dodge and you laugh at the stupidity of such people in daft horror or zombie movies. Well I followed a couple of women down so I thought if they started disappearing one by one it was time to leg it.
The whole firing the cannon ceremony was typically British lots of spit and polish and loads of old colonialism thrown in for good measure but ultimately pointless. Still it keeps the tourists happy.
Speaking of the British and colonialism and all that. On my first trip to Hong Kong it was still a British Colony and I found most of the tourists were the panama hat, linen suit wearing brigade whose daily duty it was to be loud and thoroughly insult and be rude to the natives. A few were looking forward to going back to Mainland China control to get rid of the foreign oppressors. Of course now the chinese people barge into you, are loud and seem to spend the day being thoroughly rude to the natives. The American Navy were also in town and… well you get the picture. I guess most tourists seem to be the same regardless of where they come from and where they go.
Hong Kong is a shoppers paradise but it isnt as cheap as it used to be. As I mentioned in the previous post everything seems to be available on ebay for not much more and without the hassle of lugging it around, luggage weight restrictions and customs declarations but it is still fun to haggle regardless. Todays markets were the fresh food market in Yaumatei and the Jade Market. Now my first experience of a chinese fresh food market involved my first trip were we went into China for the day. The food was fresh as it was indeed, still breathing. The coach trip didnt realise that if you went around a market pointing at things they were generally fished out of their tank or cage and beheaded on the spot. 10 mins in to our 1/2 hour visit I was the only one left in the place.
It reeked of cow faeces, blood and the noise was amazing. I didnt mind the tying the goat up and slitting its throat, food has to be got somehow, what turned my stomach was the guy clearing his head, nose, throat and lungs up and spitting it into the fish tank to be completely devoured by the fish. Now I know you are probably retching now at the thought, I can still see it and will probably see it to my dying day. Thats one thing that has improved. My first two times people just decided to dump the contents of their mucal cavaties at each and every opportunity. You would never put your bag down on the floor in a tram, bus or even restaurant. To be fair to one of my previous travelling companions even my chicken dinner didnt taste the same when the crowd of builders at the next restaurant table put half the contents of their brains on the floor next to us.
Im assuming the outbreaks of SARS and bird flu hit all that on the head. Originally I thought people wearing facemasks about town were just paranoid, turns out it is a health issue but its one enforced by doctors in that if you have a cold and go in to town with millions of other people you wear a facemask to limit the chances of infecting someone else. A couple of weeks later on the London Underground I wished that rule applied here. Would probably breach our human rights…
Markets now are a lot more civilised places but the food is still fresh and some of it is still breathing. When I say food I mean things that you could possibly stick in your gub. Im assuming the more disgusting it is the more of a ‘delicacy’ it becomes. You cant say its not fresh though and remembering my first trip I remember seeing every single part of four pigs hanging up for sale in a butchers stall. When I say every single part, I mean every single part and you could tell there were a couple of male pigs in there as well. Think about it… ….but it took me a long while to eat pork sausages again.
The Jade Market is another good memory having visited it on previous trips with a couple of cheap souvenirs still around the house. As long as you realise you are probably buying cheap plastic then you cant be far wrong. Lets be honest if someone asks me for a tenner for a piece of polished jade stone and settles on a pound then the odds are its up there with my jade dragon story. If I havent already elaborated on that one before I’ll do a later blog post on the tat, sorry souvenirs I’ve bought around the world.
Ive mentioned the silk embroidery before and theres nothing like this and the range available from Hong Kong, just make sure you haggle in the night markets although places like Stanley Market shops have better quality and the prices on show are pretty much it although in bulk with cash you can get a deal.
Ive mentioned my chinese rosewood furniture before and the hollywood road is one of the places to go but a better deal was had on Queens Road East.
Unfortunately or rather fortunately the shop I bought all my stuff from had moved. To cut a long story short (would be a first) I ordered a dining room table and wooden bureau to my spec, colours, seats etc and paid the money to have it delivered half way round the world. Simple transaction and of course my mate (who also ordered some stuff) only researched how to do business in China after we came home. Oh the handing money and business cards over with two hands is polite and one is rude. Oops, now who were acting the colonialists? You dont do a deal straight away as its more polite to accept the sweets they offer, ok so I insulted the locals too, talk about family, ok yet again, and then come back the next day and do the deal. Ok you get the picture about insulting the locals.
So it would take six weeks to make and six weeks to ship in a container. It was only when we got home and arguably sobered up that we realised we’d just paid a couple of grand to a stranger in a small shop halfway round the world and did we really expect the stuff to be delivered on time. Well I can tell you it wasnt delivered on time, it came a week early. Despite the jokes from people at home it backed up all the advice we had been given before going that chinese people do business with trust and honour and I had hoped to call into the same shop and thank the owner or more likely their son or heir for the great service we received from them.
I was listening to the radio the other day when they were discussing the British Governments plan to boost tourism to the UK. The presenter was from Belfast and he said that we have lovely countryside, areas of outstanding natural beauty, areas of special scientific interest and you are positively falling over ancient and modern heritage. Yet the tourists want to see the areas of the troubles, where so and so was shot, which areas were blown up etc etc.
To emphasise the point I have an image published in the current edition of the Sunday Times travel magazine special on Ireland. Is it a photo of the sun rising over Belfast, No. Is it a photo of the sun setting on the Giants causeway, No. Is it the food, the people, any number of ancient monuments, castles, valleys, countryside… No. Its a photo of a loyalist wall mural.
The Northern Ireland Tourist Board and associated city organisations spend a fortune promoting ‘Luxury Belfast’ or come and get engaged in Northern Ireland. Im from here and I didnt get engaged in Northern Ireland. All this is dreamed up by marketing gurus and people getting ‘on message.’ Im sure there are focus groups and people just wanting junkets in the luxury hotels around Belfast. They spend a fortune producing glitzy ads try to attract different demographics whilst ignoring the vast majority of things going on here and what the local people are actually trying to promote.
Im all for marketing and having a message, I preach it to clients often enough but somewhere when promoting tourism you should have people who have actually travelled, and not just a fortnight in Ibiza, Blackpool or Portrush.
Ive travelled on all 5 continents, Ive flown from bucket seat 3rd World airlines where landing was usually considered optional to First Class inter continental British Airways. Ive stayed in all ranges from the ‘Places to stay – top end’ to campsites and youth hostels with fresh blood on the walls. Ive sat on dirty ground eating food from street vendors to silver service personal waiter service in what looked liked a remnant of old collonialism (with the price to match). Ive enjoyed watching puppet street theatre in Prague to candlelit opera in the Tsars summer palace in Moscow.
All a slightly exaggerated way of saying, Ive got about a bit.
In every single place, in every single language, every single person has asked me about ‘the war’.
Thats what Belfast is known for. Whether we like it or not, thats what we should be selling. You cant go to Berlin and not go to the Wall, you cant go to Cyprus and not overlook no mans land, Krakow and not go to Auschwitz. Maybe its because Im from here but I go to every conflict area and hole in the hedge when travelling.
It pishes down here most of the time so I do feel like I should be prosecuted under the trades description act for some of my photos so sell people what they are going to get.
As for the luxury end of the market, I dont know who does their research but when Ive booked luxury Ive done it from home, Ive been picked up at the airport, looked after until Ive went home. Not once have I went from my youth hostel or campsite and picked up a luxury brochure by accident when looking for my best fry in Belfast deal and decided to go to the Merchant or Four Square on the strength of it. Madness.
Last week I went for a walk along the Lagan at night to do some photos, it was a poor night photographically and in the 2 hours I was out I spotted 4 lost looking tourists, wandering around looking, well lost. Any other city in the world with a riverside similar to ours would have a bit of life, street entertainment, stalls, people walking up and down and you could get a fecking cup of coffee after 9pm!
Maybe thats all the tourists we have on a wet thursday night in August in Belfast, maybe they are all at the Giants Causeway, lapping up the Luxury hotels, popping the question down in Fermanagh or helping the locals beat the living shit out of each other in Ardoyne. Maybe they dont want to walk along a still river at night, soak up the maritime heritage, buy a cuppa and a a bit of tat that will sit on the foreign equivalent of a fireplace for years to say ‘Ive been to Belfast’.
I once drove 17 hours straight to get a signed piece of paper to say Id crossed the arctic circle. I was in Bergen with a few mates and it rains there 360 days a year (bit like here) so after 3 days of rain we hired a car and drove north at speed. Thats what tourists do.
Sell them the war tours, sell them the murals, its what we have thats unique in the world. When we have them here sell them Belfast waterfront, Bangor, Newry, Armagh, Derry, Omagh, Fermanagh. Give them the option of going on a tour to the ancient monuments, christian heritage, world heritage sites, inland waterways, surfing holidays, walking holidays, boating holidays, whiskey and drink tours, etc etc, you might even sell the odd engagement ring or persuade people to upgrade hotel for one night. Who knows they may even come back after we have sold them a poncho with the giants causeway on the back of it.
As for the waterfront, well there is a recession on but when the titanic quarter is built, and it is already showing signs of life with luxury car makers moving in, then it will be a thoroughfare and with people will come the need for stalls, street entertainment, nightlife etc.
Possibly one of the worlds future ‘best kept secrets’…
Until then, keep selling the troubles, whilst people here still remember what it was.
…well lough really.
As Ive mentioned before Ive recently bought a boat. Ive always wanted a boat, primarily to go sea fishing in so this year I got the opportunity and went for it. The boat itself is almost as old as me but with a bit of elbow grease, some rewiring and tinkering about with the engine Ive a quite usable speedboat….
…well if it didnt bloody rain all the time I might have, so next week its going in to get a custom all over cover fitted. Maybe then I’ll get to take it out more than 4 times in 6 weeks.
The last good opportunity to take the boat out was on the 12th July when my fellow countrymen made a liar out of me with my last posts. Good to see that recreational rioting is getting full media recognition and maybe it will be Northern Irelands gold medal sport in the 2012 olympics.
Having bought the boat and spent a couple of weeks redoing wiring, replacing all the safety gear, polishing and cleaning the boat up Ive been taking a pragmatic approach to taking the boat out on the water. My nephews enthusiasm to see its maiden voyage cross one of the most dangerous stretches of water on this island to Rathlin Island has had to be tempered though. A couple of hours out on Lough Neagh will suffice. Having said that though the first day I took it out I did enough miles to go to Scotland and back and realised that Lough Neagh is more like an inland sea than a peaceful lough. Its the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles and that doesnt say much when you are reading it but out in the middle when the wind picks up you realise what that actually means.
The Lough was said to be formed when Irish Giant Finn McCool took a dislike to his Scottish Giant neighbour and scooped out a large load of soil and stones and threw it at the theiving git as he made off home. Finn missed by a large margin and the large lump of soil landed in the Irish sea and became the Isle of Man. Always a better story than the actual geological history of the lough.
Its hard to get tourist information about the lough itself and Ive recently found out that is because it is owned by the Shaftesbury family. Apparently back in the dim and distant past some English King gave it to another English lord and it has been passed down through their family. Most of the people here thought it was owned by the State including northern Ireland water who take about 40% of the countries freshwater supply from the lough and thats thrown a spanner in the works for privatisation. Hence all the islands are private as Shaftesbury estates own the lake bed and some of the surrounds. One of the islands, Coney Island was purchased and then donated to the National Trust and now Craigavon Council.
So you can get loads of information on the bike circuit of the lough, the canoe trail but very little else about the inside of the lough.
The Lough itself has a lot of interesting features including Coney Island and Rams island with its round tower. Theres also an old World War 2 torpedo testing station which is now crumbling and a nature reserve full of nesting terns and other birds. Seemed a reasonable enough place to test torpedos from the nearby factory in antrim. Just load them up and let them fly across the lough!
Theres a couple of marinas as well, mainly Ballyronan and Kinnego marina and the Shaftesbury connection is probably the reason why a body of water that large is so under utilised compared to other lakes in other countries, certainly the Fermanagh Lakelands have more tourist facilities and information in a much smaller area.
More photo trips will follow now that Ive started to get the handle on this powerboating lark and will start to risk more than a floating compact in an underwater housing
I have to say though that although the idea for the boat was to go sea fishing and to give different photographic perspectives to local landmarks from the sea/water, the idea of just going out into the lough and sitting when the sun shines is definitely appealing.
6:30am alarm call this morning. Thats two days in a row, one more for the record.
Lots of sweet pastries for breakfast and as much coffee as my bladder would take and it was off to the bus station. At this point I have to say the internet is a marvellous tool for travelling. The cost of a taxi to the park is about 70 pesos, which lets be honest is about 13 quid, not a lot in real money. Problem is Ive been living like a local and have got used to local travel. So 5 pesos from the local bus station to the park, along with the rest of the plebs.
Its 8am by the time we reach the park, just as it opens and already its 32C. Will top 40 by the time I leave the park. As for humidity, well I´ll get on to that later
The one advantage the local bus has is that it bypasses the main park gate and even at 8am there was a very long queue of tour busses, private cars and taxis waiting to get in. Yet another reason to go the cheap way.
Just a short queue to get the tickets and I was in the park. Later that evening a lot of the tourists in the hotel were complaining about being stiffed as foreigners. The price for locals was about 15 pesos or so and for foreigners 85. Thats about 14 or 15 quid. Like seriously folks, if you didnt think the park was worth that, then there is something wrong with your head.
Anyway Id bought the grand adventure ticket in the hotel after some not so hard selling by the people in the hotel. Its a 4×4 truck ride through the jungle/rainforest followed by a boat ride up to the falls. A lot of people on the net forums said the 4×4 bit wasnt worth the money and to skip it but Im glad I didnt.
I had to exchange my voucher for a ticket and one of the reps said I would be better going on the first tour of the morning. Now I did think this was a bit of a tourist trap as Id already paid and they probably didnt want the later people arriving to only full tours but sure what else was I doing and besides which it wasnt going to get any cooler so why not.
Im so glad I did, even though I and the others who had agreed felt like complete tools all 8 of us sitting in this massive flatbed military truck. When we got to the queue for those arriving in the park and buying tickets we filled another 4 trucks. I had been told about the animals, butterflies, spiders and all that but hearing about it and seeing it are completely different things. Ive never seen as many, different coloured, strange looking butterflies in my life and that includes visits to butterfly houses. Forgive the inability to recite the types but to me there were loads of big yellow ones, strange looking iridescent blue ones, bright red ones and the woman sitting next to me on the truck had a small green leaf fall on her and when she went to brush it off it flew away. Some big brown leaves also flew away. Amazing to see.
The guide told us about this big spider which had spun webs across our trail, all bright golden thread. By that I mean there were loads of them, just not one man sized spider working through the night. Although travelling down the path in the early morning light if youd told me it was one big man sized spider Id have believed you. Yet another good reason for being the first truck through in the morning.
These spiders webs are so strong they can catch small birds in flight and lizards. A few minutes later I had my head pulled back by the treads of one and was spitting out yellow web thread. I wasnt the only one. It was like pulling fishing line or thread off your face, it didnt break just came off in long threads. I did think about keeping some to bring home but I can just imagine US and UK customs allowing that one.
After a while we reached the river and it was a long walk down steps to the boats, nothing particularly interesting about that except for the depth markers by the side of the steps long before we could see the boats. Id seen these the day before on the way down to the three frontier crossing point and they started from 40 metres depth downwards. I think the river level at both was about 15 metres. Thats a lot of flooding.
As we got to the boats we were advised to put our belongings in big waterproof bags. I came prepared, my camera backpack has an allweather cover and Id put everything in it. My camera is a pro range one and waterproof and sealed (no Im not setting myself up for a fall, it really is). Now you can buy all sorts of attachments for cameras that you can put round them to make them waterproof, housings, see through windows, etc. My weapon of choice is a supermarket carrier bag. Put a hole at the closed end, push your lens through, sellotape it to the lens hood, and the open end is your access to your controls. It just doesnt work with water, but Ive also used it in the sahara for sand protection. Besides which, how wet could it get?
Lifejackets on, fully seated, although what good were lifejackets going to do as the boat was surrounded by cayman, we took off, and I mean took off. This is the point where I wish my bloody mac hadnt died and I could at least put a whole load of photos to add – I´ll put them up later when I get home.
We sped up to the falls and you hear them before you see them. Theres something primaeval and inherently wrong about humans speeding towards this type of noise. Probably since the dawn of time we have learned to stay the hell away!
I dont have the words to describe the feelings of first seeing the waterfalls from up close. A speeding motorboat isnt the place you notice people going quiet but all talk did stop and every one of us just looked with our mouths open. The word Awesome is overused in the english language but if there ever was a dictionary definition of the word it would include ´see going under the Iguazu waterfalls in a boat´.
We got soaked, we didnt care. We got soaked again, we cared even less.
Up under the Falls, spray hitting you, sun shining, speeding around. Not a care in the world.
The guides then told us to put our stuff in the waterproof bags as this was the point of no return.
Yes, no, really, we are going _under_ the waterfalls. Up until now we had only just skirted round them.
The luggage was stowed, we were told to sit down and they opened the engines up.
Now the night before I had done the old travellers trick of getting showered then putting on my dirty t-shirt and shorts and getting showered again, this time with them on to wash them. I thought that was pretty much about as wet as you cold get. Wrong.
We disappeared in the worlds biggest shower. The sound was deafening, you couldnt see a thing the water was hitting your eyeballs with so much force, wiping away and holding my hand over my eyes you could just occasionally get glimpses of blue sky. You couldnt see the person in front of you the back of whose seat you were gripping for dear life. Screaming seemed the natural thing to do As did laughing.
If ever there was a case of all sound and no picture, this was it.
We came back out of it and everyone was telling whoever would listen about their experience. Of course they were all exactly the same but we just had to tell _someone_ after all I was 10 years old again.
People started to unpack their cameras again but we were told that that was only one of the smaller falls, the big one would be next. I can honestly say I have never been as wet in my life. Even if I sat in the bath with all my clothes on, it still wouldnt seem like I was as wet as I got beneath the big Falls. The plastic supermarket bag did its job and I even tried taking pictures of the water falling on me, if only to give one eye respite from the pounding water. Never again will I pay any attention to a shower gel commercial that says ´fresh´or ´natural´ They have absolutely no idea.
I take it thats what they mean by 100% humidity then!
By the time we got to shore I realised I was out of breath and my heart was racing, we had been the first of the morning and didnt get the chance to see the other boats behind us disappear into the waterfalls and I do mean disappear. Even seeing it I dont think would have prepared us for what happened.
The whole ´grand adventure´was 200 pesos, I hate to use the word cost as it wasnt a cost, it was a life experience and those things dont cost money. Just under 70 quid. For those of you going, or going on day trips to Iguazu, spend the money, insist on your tour bus waiting. If you dont, you will regret it.
Dripping with water and shaking from the adrenaline rush I made my way back up the lower path to the first coffee shop. You could see the smiles and elation in everyones face, you could see the people walking past us all completely soaked smiling, wondering what the hell they had let themselves in for.
I sat down with a coffee and ordered empanadas. They didnt have any empanadas yet as it wasnt lunchtime so I had 2 pieces of cheesebread. Dont have the cheesebread, I will say nothing more.
Sitting in an air conditioned coffee shop with an ever increasing pool of water on the floor, I did look like Id just pissed myself again but this time I was in company. People walking past staring, wondering what lay in store for them down the path!
Its only then I started to notice the wildlife, big lizards nearby and large raccoon type animals that travelled round in families. The signs said not to feed the wildlife but when the wildlife babies distracted people long enough for the wildlife parents to unzip rucksacks and hunt around in them, its hard not too. Butterflies everywhere.
I didnt review my pictures, I´ll save that for when I get home as I was still in the ´did I just do that´stage.
When I booked the hotel I did have the choice of the Sheraton which is in the park itself but at over 450 quid for two nights just a little bit beyond paying for that extra. I went round to take a look and it is a nice enough hotel but not that much. If I had only one night it would be a no brainer, you get earlier and later access to the park as you are onsite and you can sit with a beer and look at the falls as the moon comes up. OK thats got to be worth an extra 100 quid just for the bragging rights alone.
So on to the trails along the upper part of the falls then the devils throat path in the early afternoon when it was very hot so as not to be as busy. Id hate to see it if it was busy!
I was trying not to think of the rest of the day as downhill after the boatride but there was the temptation to just skip stuff and go back and lie down and recover.
I skipped most of the lower trail as its a lot of steps and the leg probably wouldnt take it. The upper path was quite short and you could either walk to the devils throat or get the train. Let me think about that one.
My 2 litres of water I brought with me was gone in 4 hours, add to that the probably litre I drank under the Falls and it still wasnt enough. It was now around the 40C mark. Id been at this temperature in the Sahara but it didnt feel anywhere near as hot. The walk along the metal walkway out to the Devils throat was scary stuff as you could see the torrents below you rushing past. In the slower sections you could see the fish below, turtles, all sorts of strange things. Birds with BLUE and I dont mean blue, wings, and more butterflies.
I knew I was going to be toasted on the way out, it was windy and there were enough baseball caps going over the falls to say that any hat wouldnt stay on for long.
A couple of hundred yards away from the end you pass over this island with two large palm trees that look like a gateway and when you pass it you hear that roar again, you see the mist and hear the screaming. This is no downturn to the day.
As you get closer the wind changes periodically and you see nothing but you hear everything,more all sound and no picture. The sensible people are in their swimming costumes, Im now as wet as I was in the shower again.
Ive lived in Northern Ireland all my life and one of the regular soundbites for the last 40 years has been ´we are standing on the edge of the abyss´ Well let me tell you boys, you have no fecking idea!
Looking down you couldnt see the bottom, the noise was tremendous, the spray hitting you, just nothing but pure, natural, raw, energy. The devils throat indeed.
Now I could have just taken a few pics and cleared off but it was mesmerising, also fascinating to watch was other peoples reactions, probably just as dumbstruck as Id been. That and just a little bit scared. Did I mention the noise? Bravery award had to go to the onsite photographers who were standing on their stepladders set on a metal frame stuck on metal posts above the garantua del diablo. You couldnt pay me enough to stand on the ladder, never mind shout at people and try to get photos in those conditions.
So that was it, time to call it a day and head back to the hotel. It had been a very good day indeed.
Back at the hotel I tried to explain it as many countless other tourists have tried. The desk staff were smiling the smile of having seen it time and time again and the ´we told you so´ look. They asked if it had been worth it and I said if Id flown Belfast to London to Washington to Buenos Aires to Iguazu, taken just the boat ride and was about to go back the same way, that would have been worth it alone.
I thought Id splurge on dinner in the hotels restaurant. I asked for recommendations from the waiter and he recommended the local fish pulled out of the Iguazu river. I then asked the hotel owner who asked if I liked fish and I told him about years of trout fishing and sea fishing eating really fresh fish, so he said not to have the fish and go for the steak instead! The local fish some people were raving about is just a type of catfish. I have to say the steak was a superb option.
The restaurant was full with a tour group from Australia, mostly women so of course I offered my services to do their group photo. After a bit of shouting and herding the photos were done and my steak was almost ready. One of the women came up to me and asked was I from Belfast and I said I was. She said she used to live in Belfast when she was younger before emigrating to Australia and her family still lived there.
In Glengormley, just across from the Northcott centre, do you know it?
Know it? I live off the Hightown Road less than 5 mins away!
All too soon it was time to go to bed as it was another 6:30 am start to go to the Brazil side of the Falls before going home. The late english language movie was Black Hawk Down.
Maybe I wont take that helicopter ride over the Falls after all….
6:30am quick three Ss (someone emailed to say I wouldnt be brave enough to put a reference to the 3Ss in my blog) and then it was off to Brazil.
The hotel arranged a taxi driver to take me across the border, sort out formalities, take me to the park, wait there the 2-3 hours it takes to do the Brazilian side then back again.
This did sound excessive but I had to be back at the airport at 2:30 and to be honest after a day in the sun, air con failure during the night I had a bit of heatstroke and the longer I was in air conditioning the better!
When we got to the border I saw all the tourists being taken off coaches and the cheap busses, get into line and then go through immigration one at a time, on both sides of the border. The border isnt back to back but theres rather a duty free buffer zone and a great big bridge across the river so two queues.
Apart from a small wait until the Samba band stopped playing and the boys on the sandy beach finished their game of football it was straightforward. Ok I made that bit up but it was in my head crossing the border.
The hotel got it spot on again and the taxi driver sorted it all out and in half an hour I was at the gates to the park. He walked me to the door, saw I got in ok then arranged to meet me in 3 hours at the gate. Real good service.
The Brazilian park is a fraction of the size of the Argentinian one so it only really has one walk and its a 2 hr maximum one allowing for stops and rest points and all that sort of thing. It was interesting to see the Falls from this side as it gave a more panoramic view and particularly with the likes of the Sheraton hotel, put it all in context. I still think the best view is from down in the water but walking along the opposite cliff would again be spectacular if you hadnt done the other side.
The cliff path descends to a spectacular walkway which goes right out under the falls and it was time for a soaking again. It was here you could makeout most of the devils throat whereas on the Argentinian side you only really got to see the top of it. Soaked through again but still laughing it was the first time Id ever seen a circular rainbow, you are at the mid stage of that particular group of falls with one behind and one below so the spray is coming at you from all angles including up!
The photos will do the talking for this side! It was still an awesome experience and Im glad I did both sides, seems a bit of a shame if you have the time not to do both.
I made my way back to the entrance and was still an hour short of my alloted time so I found myself wandering round to the helicopter place right in front of the entrance. I had toyed with the idea of doing this then against due to the whole ecological effects but there is only one operator allowed and they only have one helicopter. Its not like when I did it in the Grand Canyon where it was like a scene from a Vietnam movie with the number of helicopters shuttling around.
The taxi driver was parked outside and he wanted to know if I was going back to the hotel but I said helicopter! Now far be it from me to say that they are on some sort of kickback but he virtually led me by the hand into the office and stood by my side entering all the discussions even though the guy there was very fluent in english. I asked for how long I would have to wait and I was told about a half hour which just about tied in with my return time. As always there was a loud, conversation in Spanish and as soon as the visa machine spat out my receipt I was handed a set of earplugs and told to get to the helicopter. Within 90 seconds I was off the ground and away.
I love helicopter travel, I´ve had about 4 or 5 flights now, all over places like Disneyworld, the Grand Canyon etc etc and its another one of those 10 year old boy incidents. Id always wanted to fly in a bell jet ranger as well and had never flew in one and now I was. I had the rear window seat with the window open so the lens was stuck out quite a few times. I know all flying is three dimensional but theres nothing like a helicopter or light aircraft flight to make you feel all of those three dimensions, its a weird feeling and something I would recommend to anyone, anywhere never mind with the jungle, the rainforest and above all those falls below us.
We didnt get too close to the Falls, for obvious reasons but it really did make the experience complete for me. Ive now seen them from all sides, below, above and inside as well. Another case of getting off and telling everyone who was with me, did you see this, that, did you feel it when it banked over etc etc.
Ive spent more time being 10 in the last 2 days than I did when I was 10.
Back to the hotel and only time left for lunch with that Argentinian special – pizza. Well its Pizza but not as we know it. On my first night here we had pizza. Well it was a cheese and tomato sauce pizza with a few olives thrown in. Thats mozarella man. Was the reply when I asked if they had forgotten to order toppings. So bear that in mind, pizza here is just a base pizza. So I made sure this one had pineapple and ham and sweetcorn and other stuff and very nice it was too.
The rest of the time was spent heading to and waiting at the airport, reasonably uneventful flight but in complete contrast to the flight out. As we made our final approach to BA all you could see as far as the eye could see in all directions were buildings. The closer to the airport it was all apartment blocks and high rises. Whilst not on the same scale as the approach to the old Hong Kng Kai Tak airport it did remind me slightly of that. 2 hour flight from a rainforest environment to an urban jungle.
That was it, no doubt by far and away the highlight of the trip, almost half the budget of the entire month long was spent in 3 days in Iguazu.
And do you know what? It was a bargain.
To see the photos from the Argentina Trip, click here
Sorry, did you really think I was going to make it through an entire month in Argentina without one ‘Dont Cry for me’ quote. Well today it happened before we took the city bus tour. As we queued for the buenosairesbus.com tour the suntan cream was running into my eyes and one of my friends said ‘Dont Cry’ to which the reply was ‘for me Argentina’. Sad I know but there you go.
So I finally made it down into the centre of Buenos Aires. The city bus tour looked like a good option if I was going to try and avoid being mugged, robbed, beaten up, raped, shot, stabbed and dumped in a skip.
As Ive mentioned previously I had a whole shot list of photo ideas that I wanted to do but talking to my friends here in the current climate it would probably at best end up with me coming home several kilos of camera equipment lighter and at worst several kilos of body parts lighter.
Going round on the tour bus Im not saying that my friends were being overly cautious but based more on travelling between tourist areas than the tourist areas themselves.
The bus is one of those hop-on hop-off affairs and it takes about 3 and a half hours to do the circuit, we had all day and it was dull and overcast in the morning. Typical, the day I’m fit and well enough to go out and do a major photo session its the first real overcast day we’ve had. Of course the weather forecast for the rest of my stay in BA is thunderstorms so manana doesnt really quite cut it
So the plan was to be completely sad and stay on the bus for the first circuit and see if the weather improved. This involved no more effort than sticking the elbow out of the side of the bus and lying back. Of course sticking the elbow out of the side of the bus was precisely how I got a perfect triangle of peeling tan on my left elbow. by now of course this is now redder and deeper but thats another story.
The first thing I noticed about our newly arrived open top bus was that it wasnt open topped. There had been some rain the day before and people got wet and complained and tried to get their money back. The bus company had then put the bolt on rooves on. Great to stop you getting wet, rubbish if you want to sit at the top of the bus and look all around you. To those people who complained about getting wet in the rain on an open topped bus I can probably guess your nationality, but sure come to Belfast, our open top busses have a forcefield that deflects rain so you can see all around you in the worst weather. Just remember its pay in advance and absolutely no refunds and dont beleive everything you read on the internet.
So of course I managed to pick the wrong side of the bus, the row with no working headphones and even if they were the speakers behind me blasting out the spanish tour information would have drowned them out anyway. No-one thought to think that the high volume setting might need to come down a bit now theres a roof on.
But still very little to see in the dull grey light anyway and even less to photograph.
After about 3 or 4 stops of the hop on hop off tour no-one had hopped on or hopped off. I thought we were going to be the only saddos doing this but it turned out that the scare stories had indeed pervaded all of the visiting society who deemed it safer just to sit on this bright yellow bus. For those reading and if you are ever in the same situation, the left hand side of the bus is best, probably about 2 or 3 rows from the loudspeakers at the back. Judging by the number of tree branches crashing off the roof a crash helmet wouldnt be a bad idea, but definitely sunglasses. Thats todays health and safety announcement over.
I love watching people and I had a real treat on this trip, in front of me was a tourist couple, German, who sat over two rows of two seats, both at the window side one behind the other. For most of the trip they sat with their backpacks on the spare seats beside them. People would come up to the top deck to look for free seats and they both would ruffle about in their bag to take up as much space as possible. You rarely see such coordination outside of the synchronised swimming in the Olympics. The old man in front had a wee point and shoot camera with a big screen so it would be rude of me not to look at what he was shooting. All I can say is dirty old man. Every time we stopped he would use the high vantage point to zoom down on some really good looking tanned womans cleavage and take a photo. Im describing this in great detail for research purposes only. I dont know if his wife was aware, didnt know, didnt care whatever but firstly I thought what a sleaze, secondly I thought I really should have brought my point and shoot (to blend in and be safe you understand, not to look down womens cleavage). Anyway at one point in the tour outside Recoleta these two stunningly beautiful tall blonde women came up to the top of the bus and had a look round for seats (either German or Scandinavian or similar). The old guy couldnt lift his bag off the seat quick enough, Im sure he was verging on hernia territory he moved that quickly. But they took one look and moved down the bus. Following them up the stairs were two huge black guys and our hero couldnt get the bag down in time before one took up residence beside him. I must have seemed a right idiot laughing away to myself.
Driving round on the bus we got to see pretty much all the tourist sites and spots, in complete contrast to my previous experience, BA is a beautiful city, full of wide avenues, mixtures of old colonial buildings, modern architecture, european with a hint of not. The commercial area is pretty much the same as any commercial area in any big city in the world and down here it was the first I’d seen of multinationals and billboard type advertising. Again little to separate the place from most other world cities.
Its the quirky nature of some places, the old decaying buildings, the former rich family palaces who when they fell on hard times sold out to foreign governments so there is an area filled with some of the best looking embassies in the world.
Its not really a walk around city as a lot of it is very spread out (as the 3 and a half hour bus tour with only 12 stops) would tell you, but there are areas that it looked like it would be very safe to walk around. Its a strange mix, one of the locals told me theres no real middle class, just rich and poor and this certainly seems to be borne out travelling round. The bus tour mainly goes through rich areas but down around La Boca it goes through areas the police had told me not to walk through. Of course these are the areas with the friendliest people, waving and smiling at the people on the bus.
The weather was picking up as we finished our first circuit so we decided to stay on the bus and go round again and get off at Recoleta, famous for us primarily as the area containing the Recoleta cemetary and the tomb of Evita Peron. The bus stops outside the tourist office and theres a half hour wait before it continues so we chatted and I decided to get off the bus, get some photos of the nearby Plaza De Mayo before we set off. Of course the driver and guide had nicked off for a mate and a smoke so we were locked in, something they dont tell you so be warned
So at this point I have a confession to make, well not a confession of sorts but more an explanation of how we work. I love getting all the tourist literature from a place and going through all the photos and comparing whats in the brochures to whats actually there. For example, if I want to photograph a place in Ireland at dawn I would scout out the location, pick a good morning with relevant clouds, pick area, pick spot, get there well before dawn, get photos, come home, review etc etc. This might take 2 or 3 goes due to changing weather conditions, some moron has parked a white van in the wrong spot or any multitude of things. So the finished images could have taken weeks of research and maybe a couple of years to get the right sort of conditions.
None of which you are going to see speeding past in a big yellow bus. You might but its highly doubtful. Its like the city tour, coming mid summer isnt going to be a good idea, going over midday isnt a good idea, certain buildings will look better in the morning, or evening or in the case of the Theatro Colon, in May when they take the scaffolding down! Im glad there isnt a trade descriptions act for tourism or Id be permanently in court.
‘Your honour, exhibit A, the Giants Causeway’
‘Your honour, exhibit B, what we saw, mist’
So bearing that in mind and taking a more realistic view of the descriptions of Recoleta cemetary I went forearmed.
I have to say though, it lived up to every single description. The cemetary is for the rich and famous of Argentina, its described as a city of the dead, with streets, walkways, ornate buildings. No-one is buried underground (at least that I could tell) and the whole place is a show of wealth and status, even when you are dead. Every word is true, Ive never seen the like of it before. Well organised and laid out, the equivalent of coffin multistoreys in some cases. Glass doors with small rooms with coffins neatly stacked and laid out. It seems strange for someone used to burying people in the ground or burning them to see them laid out in a small living room type environment. Some coffins hundreds of years old, in most cases perfectly preserved. In some tombs the marble has broken and bits of coffin sticking out here or there adds to the slightly eerie feeling when you find an avenue not populated by tourists. We spent time wandering around and avoided the headlong rush to Evitas tomb. One of my friends has a family burial plot there that they have never seen and we found it. A distant relative was a general in the army and judging by the size of the tomb was very well off indeed and very well thought of judging by the number of plaques.
Wandering back I just kept an eye out for a queue of tourists and sure enough found evitas tomb. In relative terms it is quite modest compared to some there but probably the most famous for non-Argentinians.
There is a busy market on the hill on the way up to the cemetary, something they dont show you in the tourist brochures of the walls Its a place selling all sorts of tourist tat but notorious for pickpockets so watch out.
That pretty much sums up the bus tour of BA for me, lots of nice looking places but little in the way of real interest for me. I could have got on and off and did a lot more tourist shots of buildings rather than just drive bys but unlike other cities I do get bad vibes from acting the tourist here. Ideally Id like to take time over things hanging around waiting for decent or the ‘right’ light to photograph things, take pictures of local people doing local things and generally experiencing the life of the place but with a camera and lens worth more than most people make here in a year, the gulf in society, the massive and unpublished inflation and similarly underplayed unemployment figures I have to realise that I would like to go home in one piece. For me thats the saddest thing about being here, a beautiful city but I suspect there isnt much income from tourism to justify the extra spend making people feel safer. Travel forums are full of stories of tourists being victims of crime and yes the internet gives a voice to the dozen or so people affected, thats not to diminish their plights but there are perhaps thousands that nothing has happened to. Im not a normal tourist though, I carry a lot of expensive equipment, I have two cellphones with me, both of which have never left my room in the apartment. I have a ‘cheap’ swatch watch that has never been on my wrist since the airport, I cant wear half my travel clothes as they would signal me out as a target. Its something I feel stronger here, again perhaps my friends are being overcautious but as with the kidney stones incident it will be them left to pick up the pieces and I have to bow to their judgement, they are the people who live here and are on the ground day in day out.
There are some beautiful photos of Buenos Aires out there, Id come with loads of ideas of how to do them my way but sadly thats not going to be the case, Im sure things will improve here, just as probably things at home might worsen. A friend of mine travelled round the world 10 years ago and has some beautiful photos of places you would never consider travelling to today. Similarly places he couldnt go then have become must sees now.
Things will change, cruise ships regularly dock in Belfast now, something not considered just 10 years ago.
I have to say though, if you do get the bus tour and you only decide to hop on and hop off once, do it at Recoleta. It is probably one of the most unique places I’ve ever visited and I say that about very few places I’ve been.
Speaking of which, its nearly time to pack to head to Iguazu Falls. Ive just checked the weather forecast for Wednesday and they have a ‘feels like’ value. In Belfast its normally something like 2C but feels like -5C. For Iguazu its 39C feels like 56C. Poke me with a stick and tell me when I’m done.
Following on from yesterdays disaster I did indeed get up at 6am. Needless to say consuming 3 litres of water in as many hours meant that sleep was almost impossible.
So by 6am I was still a bit sore but the water was flowing freely and going on previous experience the worst had passed or been passed but thats too much information.
So had a shower and got ready to go on the day trip to Colonia Del Sacremento. Which is in Uruguay a completely different country altogether
I had hoped for a longer trip to Colonia then on to Montevideo for a couple of night but just wasnt able to put it in the time remaining. If I had been able to plan as I wanted then the whole kidney stones thing would have hit me roughly as I was on a 2 hour bus trip from Colonia to Montevideo. Who says things dont happen for a reason.
So I packed my bag and put in 2 half litre bottles of water.
By the time I’d caught the underground and walked to the ferry terminal Id about 100ml left. Oops.
Due to the late nature in booking this trip Id booked the luxury trip (ferry, full guided tour, full dinner) etc and the cheapo seats on the ferry were booked up. So I had the option of premier class or first class. Since first class was only 3 quid dearer then why the hell not.
On arriving I had my ticket double checked (I always travel like a scruff, then again I always dress like a scruff so no change there then) and was escorted to the VIP lounge. I could get used to this. So priority boarding and up to the ‘special’ lounge which has more airconditioning, large lounge type leather seats, free drinks and table waitress service. Of course other than downing my coffee and visiting the loo I slept most of the way there.
Even in ‘special’ class with its ‘special’ reserve toilets the stink was overpowering, each toilet and urinal had a wee note explaining that the toilets were eco friendly and the odd colour of the water was because it came directly from the river. What was left unsaid was that the contents were probably rejoined with the river just as quickly.
I made a mental note that if the boat went down it would probably be a better bet not to put on a lifejacket and to forget that I know how to swim. Probably best to go quickly. As the ship left BA at a speed the seacat and HSS can only dream of all the huge dead fish in its wake told its old story. It also explains why when the tour guide in Colonia asked if we wanted the driver to stop for a bit by the river so we could go swimming. Silence. That will be a no then.
I dont remember much else about the trip over apart from some of the proles down in cattle class starting a fight. Oh they can be such ruffians.
Now out of water I thought I’d buy a bottle from the first class lounge, I didnt know if they took Argentinian pesos in Uruguay (they do) or if they had ATMs (they do) or what the currency rate is (about 30 to the pound). I didnt want to go to an ATM and take money out only to find I was presenting a shopkeeper with something that would buy a small car rather than a bottle of water. In my defence last nights research time was spent in casualty.
So I ordered a bottle of water, no make that two, no better make that three. So it came to about 18 arg pesos which although is about 3 quid is a massive ripoff, maybe I should have bought them down in cattle class.
As I started to get off the boat some of the pain started coming back, maybe all the movement in the boat had moved stuff around or dislodged stuff. Im not a doctor so stuff is as good as you get.
I got the feeling this could be the shortest day trip to Colonia on record but by the time I’d got to the terminal I was feeling less terminal. Immigration had taken place back in BA so it was straight to the tour busses.
Now. I love travelling alone or with friends and doing the independent thing but at times its nice just to kick back and let someone else take the strain in an organised tour. Since the luxury tour here was about 10 quid extra including a full meal instead of sandwiches and a coach tour to various spots, what the hell.
I have a dim view of most of these tours organised by local reps as I dont expect most of them to be anything like you read in the brochures or online literature. Looking through sites like the lonely planet forums or tripadvisor usually gives a decent bit of feedback.
Two ‘tours’ I always laugh about are the Moscow river and dinner tour and another one I took in Guangzhou in China quite a few years ago. The Moscow one wasnt cheap and we ‘cruised’ the Moscow river for two hours followed by a ‘gourmet’ dinner. Ive put two of those words in quotes and you can probably guess why. 30 tourists hiding under a plastic canopy in freezing July in Moscow whilst a tour guide rattled off names in Russian cannot be called a cruise by any dictionary in the world. I did find out that the big Stalin built (not by him himself of course) apartment blocks ringed the city so the one Id been using to get directions off was probably 3 different ones. The ‘gourmet’ dinner consisted of a starter plate of slices of tomato and cucumber (about 3 of each), followed by a tray of fried eggs between us all, followed by a baked potato with a small amount of pike, followed by a tray of chocolate eclair pastries. One of my mates doesnt eat fish or eggs, I suppose he got the better deal really although it was funny at the time. What was even funnier was when they served the chocolate eclairs, they lifted them off the serving plate, cut them in two then put half on each of our plates. I have to say having spent 3 days in Moscow this probably was gourmet and rather than complain was one of the funniest things we’d ever seen. People had stopped showing their disappointment, even to our ever present vhs camerman. Funnily enough we werent told we’d be videoed and were never offered copies….
The previous best to that was the tour of Guangzhou. The terracotta warriors museum (of which there were two and many mirrors), the kids of Kindergarden 1 performing (it was closed that day), the visit to see a panda at the zoo (well you could see the ear of the panda) and the trip to the market and the gourmet (that word again) dinner.
The market was brilliant, I mean brilliant from a cruel observer point of view. Many on the bus thought it would be a place full of trinkets, and colourful items and loads of plastic tat. It was in fact a live animal market. When I say live, all the animals we saw were live when we got there and a few had expired by the time I was the last one back on the bus. I have to say the people carrying off the fish and the chickens couldnt get much fresher, as they walked past the bus the animals were still twitching. I have to say though its easy to criticise other tourists but almost getting splattered by the blood from the goat who had just got his throat cut but managed to work itself loose would almost have put me off my dinner too.
We got to a really superb hotel and everyone relaxed, gold and marble everywhere, not even the Romans would have had somewhere as decadent as that. As we entered the restaurant are there were the usual row of fishtanks which most of the new arrivals didnt realise were our dinner options. Most people are familiar with the straight to wok noodles but straight to wok fish needs a bit of getting used to. Particularly the selection method which you think means ‘ahh look at that fish’ and which means ‘spear that one and cook it immediately’.
Once this had passed down the line people stopped pointing. Then as we all gathered one of the fishkeepers decided to clear his entire sinuses in a way only footballers know how. (finger over one nostril, blow like mad). He had great aim and it went straight into the biggest tank and was promptly devoured by a mass of fish.
Looks like nobody for fish then.
Surprisingly the most popular item consumed during the whole banquet was rice. In fact I think it was the only item consumed.
So back to Colonia, back on an air conditioned coach, there were only 5 of us on the bus, myself and 2 australian couples. Which isnt really a surprise. I love australians and their attitude to things, they get on with it and do it, no pissing around, no pissing anyone else off. Just leaving your job to go travelling round the world for 8 months, I just take my hat off to anyone doing it. Just Do It as the famous ad says. One couple were 2 weeks into a world tour which would last 8 months the other had been away 2 months and were on their last couple of weeks having been to Cuba, Colombia and Bolivia previously. Of course one of them had to have been of Irish descent and I said the only difference between his great great grandfather and mine was that his got caught stealing bread and mine didnt. Even the mutual greeting of ‘hows it going’ seemed to bond us all. Great travelling companions and a good laugh and down to earth as well.
The first stop was only 5 mins down the road, a walking tour round old Colonia. Colonia is a beautiful wee place and deserves the unesco recognition. It is a bit of a tourist trap but today it wasnt busy so we got time to walk around and see things, and from a photography perspective, time to assess light and see which places I could easily return to in the afternoon.
Id recommend a trip to Colonia to anyone, but only for a couple of hours, thats all it really takes, you dont need a guide and everything is signposted in different languages. Above all else it is very very safe, It relies on tourist trade and people cant do enough for you. They will accept arg pesos, us dollars and euros in the shops as well as the local currencies. Like any other tourist resort you can hire mopeds or quads and golf carts to get around. Although I didnt I would consider it. Did I mention it was safe to walk around with a camera? if I didnt, it is.
Getting to act like a real tourist for the first time since I’ve been here. Have to say it was refreshing.
After the walking tour (which was pretty much the whole of colonia) we got on the bus to visit the bullring and a homestead/farm (read tourist trap) place.
Id been interested in seeing the bullring but as we drove round it it had been fenced off as too dangerous. For some odd reason I thought it might have been working or had been working until recently. No it was built in 1910, staged 8 bullfights then bullfighting was banned in 1912. Still it looks like a mini colosseum but not even worth asking them to stop the bus for. The homestead was interesting as it was the first place we saw toilets and my current predicament I was thankful for that. Other than that a few photos, some marmalade and cheese tasting (not at the same time) was about it. Well not quite the owner of the place has quite a few collections of things, keyrings, pencils, perfume bottles, a whole house devoted to the collections.
Then it was back into Colonia for lunch. I have to say the lunch was superb and we took 2 hours over it, lovely restaurant, great service and real good food. I did say to my travelling companions that as an irishman it takes a lot for me to compliment the steak and potatoes elsewhere. They laughed as one of the couples came from a sheep and dairy farm and agreed with me. Lo De Renata was the restaurant and thoroughly recommended.
Id say the cost of the entire trip would probably have only cost twice would it would have cost for the dinner back home.
After lunch there was just time for a bit of wandering down to the handicraft market and then back through the town before pickup to go back to the early evening fast ferry. Seems like a hurried day but was just enough time without feeling rushed.
Back on the fast ferry I was greeted with a glass of champagne in the ‘special’ lounge but I bet theyve never had anyone refuse it before and ask for water. So whilst everyone drank champagne I had water out of a coca cola cup.
Thats my kind of travelling first class
I travelled to Colonia with Buquebus (who has one of the worst websites going and never answer their email) and would recommend the trip to anyone. Definitely something worth doing if you have a couple of days to spare in Buenos Aires.
Well it finally had to happen. I managed to drag myself away from photographing beautiful women and drinking cheap beer to get my ass down into Buenos Aires.
It was time to get the camera out, dodge the muggers and thieves and get down to photographing the tourist spots.
But first another cup of coffee.
Then a look at the thermometer which surely must be wrong.
Then a look outside up into direct sunlight that would make a gremlin shriek.
So after two hours of faffing around further it was decided that no it wasnt going to get any cooler and we had a 3 hour window of good light to get at least some tourist shots under my belt.
When I came here I had two A4 pages of shots I wanted to take. I showed this to my hosts who did a lot of tutting, pointing, and sharp intakes of breath only before seen in the world of automobile mechanics.
It was decided that if I want to get home in approximately the same number of pieces I came in I’d better limit myself to all the other photos of Buenos Aires there are on the net.
It became apparent that there are only certain pictures from certain angles for a reason, firstly few tourists seem to come here and those that do are only stopping off for a day or two on the way to Antarctica or Patagonia or some other remote reason.
Thats a shame and then again it isnt. As people have offered by email I’ve long since lost hope of my chances of getting a job with the Argentinian tourist board. I like to think of myself as fairly streetwise having grown up in the lower falls area of Belfast during the height of the troubles but I keep reminding myself, you dont know _here_.
Thats what I have local guides for and for those of you thinking of travelling to places like BA this is well worth the investment. I say investment as its not really an expense. A local guide can give you a flavour no disney like cruise ship day pass can ever do.
Be sensible, dont wear jewelry, expensive watches, dont walk around with designer clothes on (fake or otherwise), take a minimum of stuff out with you, keep a photocopy of your passport somewhere. Always bear in mind that most crime is opportunist, no matter what country you are in. Dont take strange cabs, I had two young women jump in my car in Belfast one night and ask me to take them home because they couldnt afford a taxi. If I wasnt acting like their big brother I wonder what the hell they were thinking of. One lived up a dark road just outside Belfast and got me to drop them off there. Height of stupidity. But they were drunk, on a work night out and had spent their last few quid on a kebab rather than a bus or taxi.
It also sounds heartless but try to distance yourself from obvious targets as you might get caught in the crossfire.
Getting back to today the plan was to go to La Boca, walk to Caminito then walk round the shoreline to Puerto Madero. Sounds simple enough. Then why are tour busses dropping people off at the Boca stadium door, picking them up there then driving them the couple of blocks to Caminito? As my guide said, well it may just be a short distance between here and there but the muggers know that tourists will be walking that way so take your pictures, put your camera in your bag and then we walk down.
I stopped to get a picture of a local cop who was standing on the ‘border’ street corner giving out advice. He posed for a picture and asked me to make sure I captioned it with the word ‘underpaid’, so I will. We walked a block (about 100m) away from the Boca shops and had lunch, a steady stream of the odd one or two tourists walked past looking obviously like tourists and covering their cameras round their necks with their hands. Yes from my experience of Northern Ireland I highly doubt that will stop a bullet.
So on to Caminito and to be honest as a lot of the locals here describe it its the disneyworld version of BA. A couple of brightly painted houses, street cafes that even Michael Schumacher couldnt weave his way through and a few handicrafts stalls. We even had a Maradona lookalike to get photos with. Poor guy must have ate a lot of pies to get that physique.
I was more interested in the old areas that Caminito had been refurbished from, lots of old colonial and crumbling architecture, old bridges and cranes undergoing refurbishment. Real town planning or lack of in all its glory. As with any waterfront each building tells a part of the history and one leads to another telling the story of the area.
Then I got stopped by the police.
At first I thought it was something to do with no photos in the port area, there was a sign saying argentine naval prefecture or something like that so thought it must be something military. When my guides translated it as, your friend will not make it through this area alive, not with those trainers, we decided to get the bus to Puerto Madero.
On the bus through what can only truly be described as a slum it was obvious that our maps didnt tell the whole story, from tourist traps of Caminito to 3rd world in less than 300 yards. It was that stark.
Dont get me wrong when you live in that type of poverty and I remember similar stuff growing up, you really cant blame people for taking the only routes open to them. It is good to sit in an ivory tower and say I wouldnt do this or I wouldnt do that, you never know what you will do until you are in that situation. If your family havent eaten for 3 days and some dumbass tourist walks past with something that will feed your family for a month, then dont say what you would do in that situation until you are actually there.
As the saying goes, ‘Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes’, which reminds me I better put both pairs of Nikes back in the bag and buy something local.
As we got off the bus at Puerto Madero there was the sight of two cops in a wee hut which now I come to recognise as the boundaries of safe areas. We stay in a relatively safe area, the shops dont have grills on the windows and at busy times theres an armed cop every 100 metres or so. In the other areas they seem to be just left to get on with it.
Puerto Madero is a testament to new money, like a lot of other previously neglected cities it is full of gleaming new buildings, lovely walkways by the water, new bridges, cafes, expensive shops, a nice place to be. For me though I could be any modern city. The Santiago Calatrava bridge has its double in Dublin and to be honest it reminded me a lot of the regeneration of Dublins docks. The layouts were similar, right up to the masted ship sitting next to the Calatrava bridge. Maybe he thought no-one would find out.
Dear people of Buenos Aires,
I’ve designed you a new bridge that represents two people doing the Tango.
‘Santiago, Dublin have been on the phone asking where their new bridge design is’
‘Quick give me the Buenos Aires one’ quick scribble ‘Here that will do’
Dear people of Dublin,
I’ve designed you a new bridge that represents the Irish harp.
Well ok maybe a slight exaggeration but judge for yourselves.
So where does the take the boy out of Belfast come in?
Well at the start of the journey we visited the home of Boca Juniors. Argentinas best club ever (so I’m told). As I was completely unattached in the Argentine football world I am now a Boca fan.
So the stadium tour had to be done. Due to my love of football and having been in or toured a lot of the worlds great stadiums this really was the highlight of the day for me. Getting in and around the stadium, seeing the terracing, long since gone from UK football, the sparse nature of the visiting dressing room to the plush surroundings of the home dressing room with accompanying underground 5 a side warm up pitch. Just what you want to see, opposition – sod them!
On the tour the tour guide said she would split the couple of hundred people up into two groups, the spanish speakers and the english ones. So we were left in a group of about 9 and asked where we were from. Poland, England, Ireland, Scotland, France. We were then asked what teams we supported, which of course in my case is Liverpool (for my sins). As they went from Warsaw to Middlesborough to Norwich, the scottish guy in front of me said ‘Rangers’. Now, I dont follow Scottish football but something deep down in me wanted to scream ‘Celtic’. I did think better of it as to come halfway round the world to start a sectarian fight would only leave the muggers very confused.
So you can take the boy out of Belfast but you cant take Belfast out of the boy.