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December 14

December 14, 2008

Having toured the east of the island yesterday, our plans for today were to check out the volcanic crater of Rano Kau to the south via a walking track looping around the bottom point of the island. Before long, we were on the road, walking out of town in what appeared to be the right direction. Still, we took a few strange turns before finding the walking trail proper leading off the road.

The sun was bright and shining, though graciously not beating down on us quite so strongly as yesterday, which gave our sensitised skin a bit of a break. The trail was of the dirt track variety, and led us first through a group of manavai that had been lovingly maintained by Conaf as a display garden. Manavai are circular walls built of stones that function as garden beds, making it easier for the people of Rapa Nui to monitor the soil and separate plantings. The manavai have been so effective that many of them survive today scattered around the island, and some endemic species still grow in them despite having disappeared from the wild.

After exiting the garden, the trail took a sharp upward turn as it started to ascend the volcano. The walk was not as long as expected, perhaps only an hour and a half or so, but we took it easy nonetheless, stopping occasionally to look back down the hill at the wonderful view of Hanga Roa and the surrounding coast. Soon enough we climbed over the lip of the hill on to a road, and on the other side was the crater.

The crater was wonderful- almost perfectly round and perhaps four hundred metres deep. The steeply sloping walls were black and green in places where a moss-like vegetation had managed to work its way into the scree, and the base was covered in countless small lagoons of clear, sweet water. The resulting effect was a blue a green patchwork protected by steep, green-tinged cliffs and painted yellow on top. Out to our left, and visible through a gap in the crater wall, was the endless blue Pacific. The islanders traditionally used the crater as a giant manavai, and there is one plant still growing there that is the only specimen of its type.

We trod over the long yellow grass on the crater lip, making our way around the top of the crater to find ourselves at the entrance to Orongo, a ceremonial village used by the islanders some time after the ancestor worship cult had given way. The village was the scene of the Birdman ritual, a tribute to the creator god Make-Make. After paying our dues to the polite guard in a little hut at the entrance, the path led us past a collection of round stone houses with low ceilings, which were cut into the hillside to protect from the strong winds on the cliff-top promontory. The uts were thick-walled and really very low, the doors being little more than holes to slide through on your stomach. The funerary towers at Sillastani had bigger entrances! A series of ritualistic dwellings and observation points later, we located the petroglyphs for which the site is known, and climbed onto the roof of a hut to look past them to the bright blue ocean and a collection of small islands. This place was the centre of the birdman ritual.

Once a year, a collection of the fittest and most ambitious men would gather at this spot to vie for the grandiose title of Birdman. Some were in it for themselves, and some participating on behalf of a tribe chief or wealthy aristocrat. The competition began with the men climbing down the cliffs- but standing where we did, looking down, I didn’t see how a person could survive. These cliffs were vertical and at least a few hundred metres deep, ending in sharp rocks and fierce waves at the base. The next task was to swim out to sea, heading toward Moto Nui, a small, rocky island some distance out, probably a kilometre or two, where the participants would need to find a way up. Once aboard the island, the men waited.

The object was to be the man to seize the first egg of the season from a nesting sooty tern, a seabird who called the island home. Once they had it, they needed to find their way back, where they would be met with fame, glory and a razor to spend a year eyebrowless in isolation in the house underneath the petroglyphs, revered as a messenger to the creator god. The last ceremony took place in 1867, which is surprisingly recent in the scheme of things.

The petroglyphs themselves were carved into the boulders at the cliff top and were in startlingly good condition for their exposed location. They depicted scenes from the ritual, as well as the seabirds and a number of other animals. By far the best petroglyphs I’ve seen on the trip, and well worth the entry fee.

The village, though spectacular, was small, and it wasn’t too long after taking our fill of it that we started back down the hill toward the campsite. It had been great to see such a beautiful place with such an amazing story behind it, and I spent most of the downward trek thinking about Birdmen. We ran into Ludwich from the hostel in Santiago on the way down the hill and stopped for a quick chat. We arrived back at the campsite around four o’clock (via a few shops to pick up some souvenirs), where I spent the evening diligently packing in the fading light while Tom… well, I don’t know really, he was somewhere, doing something. We kept our eyes out for our last of the brilliant island sunsets we’d come to look forward to at day’s end, and went to bed fairly early in preparation for our big days of flying coming up.

It was the last of our real holiday days today. From here, I think, the transition will be quick- only a day in the air to think about adjusting before we’re back to our normal lives.

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December 13

December 13, 2008

I had a very solid night of sleep in the tent after carefully holding off from rest on and after yesterday’s flight. Even though my self-deflating mattress was as flat as a teatowel by morning, on I dozed until well after nine o’clock. When we did rise, it was quite lovely to stick our heads out of the tentflap and see the mighty, endless Pacific Ocean sweeping away to the horizon.

Three coffees and a mixed bowl of ChocoForties and Carrefour-branded corn flakes under the large square sunshelter at Camping Mihinoa were deemed an adequate fuel stop for the day ahead, and off we walked to the inner streets of Hanga Roa, where we had an appointment to pick up a motorcycle. The only real settlement on Easter Island is a rustic place, and does not look as wealthy as I’d expected – some part of me had anticipated cleaving to the cheapest holds of a manicured tourist theme park with everything hideously overpriced, but in fact things are reasonable enough, there aren’t too many tourists, and the overall vibe is country town, not scam zone. There are palm trees, banana trees. I don’t know Polynesia, so I’m going to call the vibe Caribbean. The locals are all barefoot, bare shouldered, in shorts and tattered tank tops, with baseball caps and surfboards. The break for surfers off Hanga Roa is impressive, although the jagged volcanic rocks they’re surfing towards might give some cause for concern.

We arrived on time for our moto booking and picked up a silver, slightly scuffed thing called a Yamaha F8, practically a clone of Max’s Bug Espresso from Canberra in design, with continuously varying transmission and an engine size somewhere around the 125cc mark. This type of scooter is easier to ride than a pushbike, but since it was only the second powered vehicle I’d controlled since April – last time I steered anything was Christian the paraglider’s 4WD in Panajachel, Guatemala – and Max was on the back, and we didn’t have helmets, I was taking all due care.

We set off to Hanga Roa’s east along the south coast of the island, bickering a little about an appropriate speed for the bike. At Ahu Vinapu we had our first moai sighting of the day, a rocky promontory with several of the large heads recumbent on a ruined platform. The Easter Island landscape was bright and picturesque in the sunlight, amongst rolling green hills and sharp rocks. It is a bare place with a marked lack of diversity in its plant life.

The moai are always described as “inexplicable” and popularly associated with alien landings and so forth, but it seems widely accepted in the literature on the island that they were part of an ancestor cult in which large family groups competed to erect the most impressive monuments to their forebears. Where the figures have toppled, it is speculated that their collapse was the result of inter-family skirmishes in which “ancestor tipping” played an important role, demoralising and humiliating the opposition. The cult itself is defunct, having been replaced by a series of rituals based around the “birdman” event in later centuries, which are also now defunct.

The moai have a dispassionate, gentle but stern look to them in the present day, grey and eroded by time, eyeless, perhaps with some of the melancholy demeanour of the old black and white Frankenstein. But in their heyday they were painted, and had large cylindrical stone “topknots” perched on top of their flat heads, and white granite eye-pieces complete with pupils, which would have given them a much fiercer, more cartoonish outlook. It is easy to confuse the bare, monochromatic elegance of a ruin with the aesthetic character of the days in which it was originally constructed, as we have found with other sites such a Chichen Itza.

We continued along the coast road, stopping off frequently to walk around the foreshore and inspect more of the remnant moai. It was warm and a fresh breeze was blowing, and I was really enjoying being back on a motorcycle, which is quite a liberating feeling when you’ve been relying almost exclusively on transportation controlled by other drivers for months.

Further around the south coast and some way inland is the crater of Rano Raraku, which we reached after an hour or two of moai-hopping. Aside from being one of two huge volcanic calderas on Easter Island, Rano Raraku was the site at which the hard volcanic rock used in the construction of moai was mined. Here we saw the finest Easter Island Heads yet, their main pieces nearly perfectly preserved, still buried up to the shoulder in solid earth. Max accordingly interrupted our wandering to take some silly perspective shortening photographs of my oversized head next to a moai.

Where the material for the moai had been extracted there was an oblong gash in the mountainside. A vast volume of rock had been carved out and taken away. They were carved in place, as could be told by two places where a nearly complete new moai lay still embedded in its rocky womb, waiting for finishing touches before it could be cut from the volcano. Bearing in mind that the first colonists of Rapa Nui had no metal tools, making even one of these huge statues would’ve been an incredible achievement. To make hundreds seems absurd.

Hawks were circling above Rano Raraku, occasionally alighting on the tops of the statues which made convenient landing points for them. We cast about for a while for a footpath up to the crater lip, but since some indeterminate time in the past many of the old paths have been closed to tourists, and frustratingly we weren’t able to get close enough for a look.

We gave up, retrieved our hire scooter from where we’d dumped it under the shade of some bushes in the car park below, and rode on. Stopping briefly to observe petroglyphs at Ahu Te Pito Kura – to be frank, I don’t find the cruder type of rock carving particularly impressive, especially when the examples are only six or seven hundred years old – we continued with all haste to Anakena, Easter Island’s only officially swimmable beach. We’d been out in the sun with no shade and no food for hours, and were starving, boiling and probably rapidly getting sunburnt despite all efforts with the last of our suncream.

As we approached the coast at Anakena, which is on the northern side of Rapa Nui, we could see at a glance that the water would be calm and relaxing. The bay was very sheltered, and the white beach marked out by a row of palm trees. On the right, an unattended lifeguard tower overlooked the water adjacent to a a small diving platform.

Before swimming, we made sure to buy some anticuchos at a mobile food stall, mixed kebab sticks with sausage and chicken. The local cuisine seems to be barbecued meat here. The food was pretty cheap, and pretty good. While Max wandered down to the waterside I strolled to a patch of sclerophyll beside a row of guardian moai and discreetly whipped my pants off in favour of my boardies.

The water was cold and clear, and we only stayed in for a few minutes. Not having brought a towel with me, I stretched myself out in exhaustion directly on the fine, resonant sand, which with my head down on my crossed arms was amplifying every conversation and footstep around us, turning the whole beach into a sound stage. I was able to listen in on some of the silly conversations that tourists have, basically the same kind of conversation that Max and I have all the time at the moment, revolving around food, lodging, travel arrangements and exchanges of limited knowledge about the local sights.

In the twenty minutes or so I had on the sand, I’m pretty sure I managed to pick up about half of the disastrous sunburn with which I finished the day. Claro que llegara el cancer. We walked a little along the beach, saw some sanctioned campers in a copse of tea-trees up on the hill, and walked back, where I needed a thorough second dunking to clean the sand off my face, arms, legs, chest and lips from where I’d been lying in it.

It was a fairly long ride back from Anakena to our campsite in Hanga Roa, although at least we were able to cut across the island on a sealed road instead of going back the entire way we’d come. In my tanktop from Macy’s in New York, with my shoulders still bared, I could palpably feel ultraviolet rays threading the hole in the ozone layer and killing the surface of my skin. I’m going to regret the amount of sun I’ve picked up in the next few days.

We walked back through town after dropping off the bike, and the moment we were back at the site, I realised I’d left my togs and my wet microfibre minitowel in the under-seat recess – so I had to walk twenty minutes straight back to the hire place to collect them, and then back again to the site. While I finished off the last of a “rooted in Celtic mythology” snoozefest called “The White Raven”, typical of its breed, and quite typically written by a Californian mediaeval history postgraduate (what is it with Californians and bad Arthurian adaptations?), Max concocted a rather interesting pasta with “mornay” from ravioli, cream sauce, and a tin of tuna. Another sublime and stunning Easter Island sunset occurred to our west as the day concluded, enormous white breakers throwing spray up almost into the campsite from the ocean twenty or thirty metres away, and we allowed the evening to slip away over one or two glasses of wine. Further down towards the shore, some of the numerous Japanese tourists at the campsite had set up a bonfire and were grilling tuna head on it enthusiastically.

We are almost at the end of the trip, and there is now an urge to somehow maximise the psychological benefit of what is left to us, to suck up some of the extra quiet in the quiet moments. In two days, we’ll be on one of a series of aircraft that will eventually get us to Australia.

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December 12

December 12, 2008

Aaah, it’s been a long and very good day.

I’ll start this post at the technical beginning- midnight found me on the terrace of the hostel, learning to make pisco sours both ways and drinking the spoils with my fellow hostelmates. Tom had decided he wasn’t up for much of a night, and was instead ‘laxing in front of the telly with a beer. The occasion was “takillers”- a night run by Luz Azul originally to raise money for a conference, but now just because it’s fun. The night started with empanadas and ‘piscolas’ (nowhere near as good as the sours), and we there were roughly twenty of us under the pergola in our travellers’ best- which for me was a dress I cunningly purchased in Uruguay just in case.

Around one thirty, in typical Latin American style, it became time to seek out a club- the choice of our hosts was “Subterranea”, and we were all piled into taxis and taken to some neighbourhood somewhere to have a bit of a dance. The club was a little place with some decent music, and we all danced in a big circle pulling the occasional move in the centre. The bar maintained the annoying Chilean standard of queuing once to pay (and receive a drink ticket) then again to actually receive your drink, but it was a small price to pay. At three-thirty I opted for the early cab home, and managed to sneak in an hour and a half’s sleep before getting up for our morning flight.

We made it to the airport on time, even managing to make good use of our regreso bus tickets, and filled our waiting time with donuts, coffee and a spin in a massage chair that had been thoughtfully placed by the gate. It was with much relief that we boarded our lush LAN plane on time and promptly took off. I managed to sneak in another hour’s napping before the breakfast arrived, then watched ‘Bottle Shock’ on the nifty little personal entertainment system. Tom indulged in a re-watch of ‘Tropic Thunder’ before setting up my movie on recommendation. The film was a decent rendition of a true story by which the Californian wine region grew to fame and followed the fates of some small vineyards selected to compete in a blind taste test against French wines. The ending was pretty dismal and completely disregarded one of the main characters, but the bulk of it was most watchable.

The flight was a five and a half hours long, and we landed at Easter Island a little after midday. The airport is one of the kind we’re used to in rural Australia- a strip of tarmac, a parking lot and a walk off to a tin shed to collect your baggage. Perfectly understandable, I think, since they receive less than one commercial flight a day on average. We talked to the desk of Camping Mihinoa, were told we could pitch our tent with them for 4500 pesos each (an acceptable price) and threw our bags in the back of a ute as they transferred us the three minutes to the place.

The campground is a big grassy lot on the top of a small cliff overlooking the ocean, where we can see waves being forced metres into the air as they crash around jagged volcanic rocks. The field was quite packed with tents, but a huge open pergola and fully stocked kitchen make for lots of shade and an agreeable stay. We took in a coffee to make up for our lack of sleep before starting off on some sightseeing, beginning by trying to walk to the main street, but taking the wrong direction. We ended instead at a little grotto of diving shops clustered around … well, for lack of a better word a beach, but so small it could fit in your back pocket. Here we purchased a snack from an old woman standing on the sidewalk with a barbecue, and my heart did a little leap- old women with barbecues on the sidewalk were the mainstay of our eating habits in Centroamerica, and I’ve sorely missed them since. An amazing range of food can be cooked by an old woman with a barbecue on the sidewalk, but this particular barbecuer profferred slightly greasy quarter chickens with crispy skin and a piece of bread as cutlery. We chowed down to the envy of four or five stray dogs as we sat on the wall of a small statue.

We wandered on and presently found ourselves on the main street, Hanga Roa is small so it was nigh on impossible to stay lost for long. We went fruitlessly searching for a bank before catching sight of a sign with an arrow pointing to “museo”, which we decided to follow. Very soon though, our arrow started pointing to nowhere, and we once again found ourselves differently placed to where we ought to be. We tacked back towards the coast, usually a good orientation technique, and caught sight of a wonderful thing- our first giant head.

The giant heads consist of three parts- the ahu, a raised platform with a ramp that serves as bedrock for the statue; the moai, the statue itself; and the pukao, or topknot, a kind of hat carved from red scoria. They were carved in place in a quarry leaving tongue of rock connecting them to the mountainside, which was then broken before the statues were transported to their platforms, mostly along the coast. They were raised facing inwards toward the land for the most part.

Although no-one can say for certain, they’re believed to be the ceremonial focus of ancestor worship- some of the ahu also served as burial grounds, though it is uncertain whether the remains might be those of the people the statues represent or of sacrifices. There are about 300 moai in total, though large scale clan warfare in the 17th led to most of the statues being toppled. The Chilean government has restored and remounted many of them at various sites around the island- the one we caught sight of lay just to the north of Hanga Roa, and had had it’s eyes painted on.

After a good gander and the odd “yep, it’s a giant head”, we found another sign to the museum and walked back up the hill away from the coast, and this time managed to find the place. The museum was housed in a red and black circular stone building. It was rather small but packed in a lot of information- the English interpretive guide was thick enough to be a PhD thesis. The plaques were arranged in a roughly chronological order, starting with the formation of the island by the eruption of its three volcanoes, resulting in a triangular shape. it then covered the inhabitation of the island, thought to be from peoples moving from either South America or neighbouring islands under the guidance of King Hotu Matua (‘matua’ means ‘father’ in the local language) in canoes, which is a pretty impressive feat seeing as it represents about 4000kms of travel on the high ocean in small, open-topped boats.

The museum then moved on to the theories about the making of the heads and the ways they were erected, and hypothesised about their purpose. At some stage in the 16th century the heads were abandoned and a ritual called the Birdman Cult, which honoured the creation god Make-Make, gained popularity. Soon after this cult became commonplace, and just before the Spanish arrived, the moai were toppled as a lack of resources pushed the islanders into clan warfare.

We hadn’t quite bet on the intensity of the sun in these parts and hadn’t brought water with us, so by the time we got this far we were parched enough to call it a day and head back to the campsite. There we made a dinner of a packet rice thingamy which was definitely on the average side, and sat watching a glorious sunset in gold and orange over the ferociously breaking waves on the cliff below. It certainly is good to have gotten here.

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December 11

December 11, 2008

Over the past few days, I had somehow rationalised myself into line with the popularly held view that Buenos Aires is a “better” city than Santiago de Chile – more vibrant, more interesting, grander, more wonderful; but now that we are back in Santiago after an absence of two months, I am rejecting that idea. This place is more amiable, sunnier, and in my opinion preferable to BA.

I’m not sure I will be able to put my finger on why, but you could take the understated grandeur of the Alameda vs. the self-consciously epic width of Nueve de julio as a touchstone. Santiago is simply a large city – Buenos Aires thinks it’s a gift to cities. And in Buenos Aires, I thought I detected the unpleasant lingering odour of social stratification a little too often. Granted I am a degenerate at the moment, with my old and filthy clothing and broken boots, but in Baires there were a few too many skinny old women in designer jeans looking upon me as if upon a leper. All that vented, in general we see so little of each place we visit that it’s only our few and specific experiences, and our mood at the time that end up being generalised to these overall feelings; we came to Santiago first on an emotional upswing, and to Buenos Aires on a downswing.

We hadn’t planned to be here of course, and have a two night stay only thanks to the wilful screwing up of our travel arrangements by Aerolineas Argentinas, which must be locked in close competition with American Airlines for the title of world’s worst airline (both have the initials “AA” — chance, or coincidence?). They suck! But all the same, the prospect of an unplanned, enforced rest day wasn’t entirely miserable.

Over breakfast, I was struck by reminiscences on this return to Luz Azul Hostel, remembering the exact photographs of backpackers hanging on the wall, the faces of the counter staff, the Concha y Toro wineglasses arrayed on the kitchen shelf, the particular type of marmalade in the included breakfast, the endearingly misspelt English signage around the place. If Santiago felt like home (like Australia) the first time we came here, it feels doubly so as one of the only places we’ve doubled back on in eight or nine months of travel.

We went out to do some sort-of Christmas shopping. I imagine people back home will be waiting for exotic gifts from far lands, and a few of you might end up getting them, but I’m goddamned sick of looking at souvenirs. If I never see another souvenir in my life it won’t be too long a wait. To be honest I would love to fly back into Australia and just buy my friends and family books and CDs from Dymocks and JB Hi-Fi or something – whilst my rational mind can still occasionally perceive the merit of the ornaments and so on in the tourist shops, there is something the rest of it has begun to resent deeply about the relentless cheap commodification of geographical locality.

We walked along the Alameda, anyway, and we did find Cerro Santa Lucia, a high steep hill in the heart of Santiago, at the foot of which was located a quasi-official Mapuche arts emporium which wasn’t, at least, purveying rubbish. They even had some nice T-shirts. Above this commercial hustle, we signed into the parks and gardens of the terraced hill themselves. On the lower level, a grand, deep fountain was surrounded by signs warning against bathing, and it was hot enough weather that I could really understand the temptation.

There were botanic displays, small war memorials, a monument to Chilean youth, and as we clambered up onto the narrower upper slopes, a high landing with diverse plantings and coin-operated telescopes, dedicated to Charles Darwin. It has been pleasant to see how much Darwin is honoured in Chile, although I’m uncertain how this lionisation (heh – amusing word to use in relation to an evolutionary theorist) of the scientist interplays with the vast cohorts of Catholics and Evangelicals here. Can’t see it happening in the US, though: people would assume it was ideologically motivated.

From the peak of Cerro Santa Lucia, the three hundred and sixty degree panorama revealed to us the true bulk of Santiago, which is quite impressive. The high-rise zone of the central business district extends for great distances in all directions from this point, and hints properly at the eight million inhabitants whose dwellings and workplaces span an even greater urbanised surface. On the ground downtown, Santiago feels smaller than that, perhaps like a half-Melbourne or a twice-Perth.

Descending to the footpath and below, we got back onto the Escuela Militar subway line and made our way to bustling Tobalaba and certain specialty stores which will remain nameless, following those up with a cocktail apiece at a trendy, expensive street bar called Pub Licity. I hadn’t had a Bloody Mary since the one the steward mixed me so expertly on our Trans-Atlantic flight in early July. Hmm, actually, I think I might’ve had one in Guatemala. Oh well, I hadn’t had one in a long time.

We took the subway back to the hostel and began resting in earnest. The day wore on a bit faster than we ha expected. By coincidence, the two guys from Melbourne we’d intersected with here two months ago were back in Santiago at the same time as us. They are two brutishly huge lads in their mid-twenties just outside the top ranks of professional football in Australia. One of them, Jordan something, is going to be playing first team for the Port Adelaide Magpies next season. One of them declared “I haven’t had a beer out of my hand since I last saw you!”, but both of them were pretty worried by how much detriment to their physical conditioning two months of partying on cheap booze had caused. Unlike us, they’d headed north, going around Peru, Bolivia and Brazil and back south through Argentina.

While watching “Gossip Girl” on the hostel TV (highly trashy), we discussed such chestnuts as the composition of the backline of the Carlton ’95 premiership team (I could only remember Sexton, Dean, Whitehead, and Silvagni) and “reformed” drug abuser Ben Cousins’ prospects of getting picked up in the AFL draft.

I dropped off “Kingfishers Catch Fire” in the book exchange and started in on a re-read of Stevenson’s “Kidnapped” as Max prepared for a hostel event called “Takillers!”, a lesson in Chilean cocktail mixing followed by a group disco visit. It sounded a bit intense for me given we had to be at the airport at seven o’clock in the morning. “Hannibal” came on on the telly so I watched that with a couple of the other lazy hostel bums (God, I’ve watched a lot of crap lately). Somewhere in the middle of that the cocktail mixing began out on the upstairs terrace, and I was laid out on my top bunk finishing off more of “Kidnapped” as the partygoers wound out the door. O Davey Balfour, you really were a daft bastard.

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December 10

December 10, 2008

Well, today is not a good day. Today is, in fact, I’m afraid to say, a bad day.

The details of the morning unfolded in the same way that they usually do- a little boringly. Wake up, shower, eat an overly sweet breakfast at the hostel. There was then some running about madly trying to change a little money and picking up groceries for Easter Island- apparently food is incredibly expensive there. Our flight was at two forty-five, and we were stressing a little as we got in a taxi at twelve. Nevertheless, we arrived in the terminal, our flight was on the board, we gave a little cheer and went to check in.

Then the shit hit the fan. We checked in, our bags went through and our dude said “you’re boarding at five o’clock through gate B”. And this was a problem, as our connecting flight was to leave Santiago at 5.20pm, and so we would miss it. More probing found that they’d cancelled the flight yesterday, giving us a full twenty four hours to change our flights (plenty of time,no?). We trudged around for a bit being grumpy and trying unsuccessfully to get free stuff, then gave up and got LAN to reschedule our Santiago to Easter Island leg for the next flight- in two days time. Grrr. Then, we waited. Then, we flew.

It was actually not the worst thing to arrive back in Santiago, as it’s a place we both really like. After finding our way on to the airport bus and being dropped in town, we checked back in to Luz Azul, and despite having not being there for two months, got recognised. The amiable owner engaged us in a challenge to find the things that had changed (we had a hard time finding anything big, but he’d made a couple of small alterations) before we popped out for a bit, coming back to cook up some of the pasta we’d ambitiously and mistakenly bought for Easter Island. In true end-of-holiday style, we spent the night in front of the telly, chatting to fellow travellers and complaining about the crapness of the programming.

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December 9

December 9, 2008

There were no conventional beginnings today, no comfortable beds. My first vague memory is of standing in line at some place called Carmelo on the banks of Rio de Plata. Outside the brightly-lit transit building, quiet cobbled streets extended away delineating a dim grid of closed shops and markets. Having taken the bus from Montevideo, we were now waiting upon the Uruguayan immigration and customs formalities at a narrower neck of the river than the more direct Colonia – Buenos Aires route.

It felt like a ridiculously long delay at three o’clock in the morning, and we were forced to stand in zombie-like torpor as a whole crew of customs officials sat around and seemed to do precisely nothing for about half an hour. At moments like these, our travel-weary minds now wander to somewhat bitter places, and I was thankful when the ferry for Argentina turned out to be comfortable and spacious, although I didn’t have much time to ponder my gratitude before passing out again – just enough to observe the inky waters out the lower deck window begin to glide past at the brisk pace of a high-class passenger coach. Sleep, thick and thorough, followed.

When we awoke again, we were arriving at the moneyed canals of Tigre in the dawn, a delta settlement to the west of Buenos Aires. These frequently interrupted night transits bring to mind the practice of sleep deprivation as torture – waking the subject each moment the eyes close. We’d considered Tigre as a possible travel destination, but as we passed the private mooring points of several yachting and country clubs, well-tended and shrouded by old, deciduous green European trees, and ineffably boring-looking, I was glad we were just passing through.

After more immigration shenanigans carried out by the Argentinian authorities, we transferred to a bus towards the centre of the teeming city, and fell once more asleep. We were able to jump from this second bus with surprising nimbleness on Nueve de julio, and from there walked back to “our” hostel, BA Stop, where we were pleasantly surprised to be allowed to participate in the breakfast service, medialunas, dinner rolls, marmalade, and lots and lots of coffee.

On our last proper day in Buenos Aires, a little more than lazing around was called for, so we walked down in San Telmo, an elegant district near the north shore replete with antique fairs, as many shops selling junk as designer homewares (and sometimes little distinction between the two), and plenty of cafes. The curtains shrouding two other worlds, one of unaffordable luxury and another of undesirable knick-knacks, were swept aside for a brief two hours. In amongst the dross we also saw many affordable desirables, but my single effort to bargain with an antique salesman over a teacup I thought rather overpriced met with thorough-going failure. It is “part of a collection”, he repeatedly exclaimed as if I were an idiot – oh well, it was a bit ugly anyway. Outside, the streets were quiet and unpopulated, much as they had been in Montevideo on Sunday, and the sky was overcast.

Heading further north from San Telmo, we past a canal boulevard lined with cheap ‘n’ nasty parrillas at least of the type frequented by locals, but the mood had taken us to eat something fancier. We crossed this harbour waterway, then, to Puerto Madero, where an overturned hulk lay mostly submerged in the murky water, its exposed expanse providing a landing for three or four turtles. Along the water’s edge the ground floor of a long, banal office-type building hosted a string of practically deserted restaurants each of which advertised a different lunch special. Having more time than we needed and no idea what to do with it, we spent ages deciding where to eat, finally settling on a modish place called “Chuega”, with cushy white leather couches for dining.

The trip home proper is about to begin, and this lent a slightly elegiac air to the meal. We ordered the menu del dia, a mini-Caesar salad followed by a decent, if unexceptional churrasco-style minute steak, accompanied by two massive glases of cabernet sauvignon, and concluded by some excellent dulce de leche ice cream and an espresso. This mundane restaurant fare, which would hardly have set our palates alight in the days before we came away, felt like a wonderful, civilised indulgence after recent weeks dominated by self-catered pasta, packet soups, and junk food. I savoured each morsel.

We were tired now, and more or less gave up on the day. It was a surprisingly long walk back to the hostel, and there we hung about watching TV, and on the internet, for hours. The place had emptied out a little – the depressing pair of backpackers who’d been watching cable non-stop at the hostel during our entire Uruguayan sojourn had finally cleared off. Admittedly we haven’t been getting much done lately, but I’ve never sat in a hotel and just watched TV for a whole week! Dinner heralded a return to packet pasta, ravioli with tomato sauce, and there was no drinking. Later in the evening, I posted applications for a couple of interesting-sounding jobs back in Perth, and followed up with a recruiter. The invasive tentacles of bills, insurance, employment, council rates, pet registration, taxation, rental income, furniture delivery and so forth are beginning to reattach their sucker-electrodes to my reluctant cranium. It took such an effort to make the needed calls that it was very late before I fell into bed.

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December 8

December 8, 2008

Our last day in Montevideo came as a bit of a surprise, so we weren’t entirely sure what we ought to do with it. We started, predictably, with breakfast- a shared spinach pie and orange juice sitting in the park at Independence Square, watching the pompously dressed guards come and go from Artigas’ mausoleum. We followed this up with a coffee in the same old coffee shop on the square- a cafe con leche for Tom, because it’s really two coffees, and a submarino (hot chocolate) for me.

We then took a stroll down to the port market, which was meant to be a tourist heaven of food, souvenirs and gifts. Our activities met with moderate success, though the real star of the place was the large selection of parrilla restaurants, and unfortunately we’d just eaten. Aimless strolling was more or less the order of the day, and it culminated in a search for a movie theatre, which we found and then patronised. The movie- ‘Eagle Eye’ or ‘Control Total’ in Spanish- was of predictably dubious quality, starring an insane computer composed of mechanical arms and golden “infrared” spheres. Hmm.

There was then lots of hanging out at the bus terminal, reading and whatnot while waiting for our ridiculously late bus through to Argentina via the Uruguayan coast. We interrupted the waiting with a trip outside to a big covered pavement restaurant where we had a lovely dinner- baked chicken with salad and lime sauce for me and a steak burger with chips for Tom. We finally boarded the bus at eleven thirty and fell pretty much straight to sleep.