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Sunning Myself in Mar del Plata (On Sea!)

I left Montevideo on a bus-boat combo that Lucrecia helped me book because it meant my ruck sack would go all the way to Buenos Aires! It’s the sort of local knowledge that is invaluable.

Returning to Buenos Aires felt a homecoming thanks to the wonderful Silvana and Ricardo who I feel as if I have know all my life rather than for just a few weeks. Silvana came running into to the terminal shouting ‘Jayne!!!!’ and embraced me warmly. Ricardo who has the kindest face in Argentina was at the car to help me load my rucksack in to the boot.

We returned to my favourite restaurant in Buenos Aires, El Sanjuanino, where the waiter had the same jokes about English Football as he had used a few weeks before! On countless occasions I have been able to engage with Argentinian men on the subject of football. It was initially brought to Argentina when the British were employed to build the railways here in the late nineteenth century but they have more than made it their own! They have, of course, won the World Cup twice (and we won’t mention ‘the hand of God’ here because Maradona is a God in his own right here!). Silvana works as the accounts manager in a very upmarket jewellers and she said Carlos Tevez (and she’s got the selfie to prove it) spent $23,000 on Jewellery for his future wife and female members of both families. When you think that the average Argentine earns 640 pounds a month, that’s pretty obscene! Matsi, my host in Mar de la Plata, is a fan of Rosario Central and goes by bus to see them twice a season, a mere 9 hour journey. Barbi, his girlfriend, and I exchanged, a ‘don’t get it look’ when he was telling me!

We went for the smaller jug of sangria this time as I had a night on a bus and one of our desserts was named after a famous gaucho, ‘Queso y Dulce “Martin Fierro” translated as sweet potato jelly and cheese. Martin Fierro is revered in Argentina as not just a gaucho but a poet.

Silvana and Ricardo very kindly accompanied me to the bus station and insisted on waiting with me until I was safely on the bus which took about an hour as the bus left after midnight. It was a week night for them and they had work next day and a 45 minute journey home so I was very touched by this gesture.

As we sat and waited for my bus to Mar del Plata, which didn’t come up on the board until the last minute, I was very glad of their company. It was like some subterranean underworld that you don’t normally experience. The people who came round to beg were small and deformed. It was very sad to see and Silvana explained that most were migrants, for example, from Venezuela. Near the bus station there is a shanty town that looked like something out of Brazil or South Africa so this is, presumably, where they live. On my return from Pergamino, I noticed that new housing has been built but is not yet in use so I assume the intention is to demolish the shanty town. In addition, on the road out to where Silvana and Ricardo live, large fences have been erected beside the motorway because missiles were being hurled at cars from another shanty town so they had to stop and could then be robbed. There is now a police post beside this stretch of motorway.

Silvana complained that there were no police but we did eventually see two female officers. You had to feel sorry for them though when it all kicked off between two gangs and they were resisting arrest! Back up was not “rapid reaction”! Silvana later said that as they returned to their car, an ambulance had been called.

I boarded my bus and sat in my executive seat! For about three extra pounds it was wider and didn’t go all the way back but almost. The bus drew out with Silvana and Ricardo waving me off, definitely for the last time this time as I have no plans to return to Buenos Aires on this trip but I have an invitation from them to return with Richard in the future which I will definitely take them up on.

The bus

left at 12 midnight and I dozed off. The next thing I knew was it was 5.10 am and someone was shouting at me. I woke with a start to find the bus totally empty and an impatient bus driver shouting from just outside the door. I quickly had to check I had all my vital belongings, the most valuable of which I had slept with attached to my body, for example, hiking boots, passport/phone/cards/cash in money belt and iPad in body warmer. The consequences of losing any of these items, in particular my passport, doesn’t bear thinking about. I stumbled off the bus still feeling comatose and retrieved my large rucksack from the driver. Mind you, it is a good job he did shout at me to wake me up because I had visions of waking up in some desolate bus depot at about 9am locked inside the bus!

Now those people that know me well will know that I’m not a morning person. I don’t function well at 8am let alone 5.10am! In most bus station toilets there is a narrow corridor leading to the cubicles which is not designed for large ruck sacks but Silvana was absolutely right when she said this is not the case with Mar del Plata, it is wonderfully wide! I had a quick wash and brush up before waiting at the bus station until it go light. I could get internet connection so the time flew.

By 7am I was outside Barbi and Matsi’s flat trying to work out exactly which was their number when I heard my name called from above. I looked around but could see no one, however, it soon became clear that they were calling me from their balcony and were directly above me. They had kindly been keeping an eye out for me.

We had breakfast together and I found out that they are in their mid thirties and that Barbi is a child psychologist and Matsi is a history teacher- both professions seem to be a theme on this trip!

I had a few hours sleep and then I went to the beach with Barbi to meet up with her cousin, Sabrina and friend Agustini. The beach was packed and practically standing room. It is, of course, their summer holidays, and Mar del Plata is one of Argentina’s most popular beach resorts. It was like being on Brighton Beach on the one hot day we have in summer and everyone turns out!

I had a very pleasurable afternoon chatting on the beach to Barbi, Sabrina and Agustina. They haven’t travelled to Europe but were very interested to hear about life outside South America and they are, impressively, very outward looking. Sabrina said she loves London and is a Spice Girl Fan! She is a biologist who works in a laboratory doing medical testing on laboratory rats. I asked if they get people protesting outside but she said they didn’t and that they could do testing in Argentina that is not allowed in some western countries. Agustina is a social worker for the local health service and based at the hospital.

After a few hours on the beach with me being the only person not in a bikini or swimsuit because the sun was just so strong and I didn’t want to fry my fair skin, they took me for churros, the famous Spanish doughnut like snack but with an Argentinian twist as it had the famous Dulce de Leche inside. Dulce de Leche is legendary in Argentina and Uruguay. It is a sauce that is normally caramel or chocolate. It is popular at breakfast and revered all over!

Next we joined a protest in support of women’s right to an abortion. It is currently illegal in most cases but Barbi said she expected the new left wing government to make it legal in 2020. Argentina is still heavily influenced by the Catholic Church and, currently, Uruguay is the only country in the region where abortion is legal. Mind you, as I told Barbi, it was only made legal in Northern Ireland, a part of the U.K. in the last few months! There were speakers, a band and lots of banners and bandanas being held up.

On my second day in Mar del Plata, I walked along the coast to the port where I could see Lobos Marinos, which literally means sea wolves but in reality is South American Sea Lions. Everyone had told me they were smelly and they certainly were but I suspect they were subject to a miscarriage of justice and that it may have had something to do with the fishing fleet nearby and discarded fish. They are all males and they were very entertaining. Some waddled along, making loud noises and stopped to scratch. Some slept but woke up every so often to get in to arguments and biting matches with their neighbours which were normally not as bad as they looked.

Next morning, Barbi and Matsi, took me on a tour of their town of 800,000 people. First stop was the “Reclining Lady” by the famous Columbian artist and sculptor, Fernando Botero. He is famous for depicting people that look as if they have been blown up like a balloon. Think Aunt Marge in the second Harry Potter movie. He hails from Medellin which I will visit near the end of my trip so this has really whetted my appetite.

Next we visited a functioning water tower built in 1943. The lift to the viewing platform took us past a tank holding 50 million litres of water. The 360 degree view from the top was impressive and the guide and Matsi translated the interesting talk and show on it.

We had large empanadas for lunch which are like a Cornish Pasty but with a wide range of fillings. They are very popular in Argentina and whilst most contain meat, I enjoyed those with cheese and vegetables.

Whilst on the subject of food and drink, and at the request of the wonderful Jemma Jopson, I wanted to take this opportunity to expand a bit on this topic. As we all know, Argentina is world famous for its meat. It has excellent meat and exports it all over the world. When you travel through its miles and miles of wilderness you can see why. Sheep farm the size of Wales? Try the size of the whole of the U.K. They just don’t do vegetarian. I don’t think I have come across a vegetarian on my trip. Just as in Australia, I think the attitude would be ‘vegetarians damage our meat industry. Why would you want to be one of those?’ Luckily for vegetarians they have great pizza and okay most are covered in meat but they do have a fabulous range of cheese.

Earlier, I mentioned the iconic Dulce de Leche but just as iconic, if not more, is mate, a drink that is like a national religion in both Argentina and Uruguay. It is herbal and drunk from a fancy gourd through a fancy silver straw. As a herbal rather than black tea drinker myself, I really liked it. So far, so good! It is a communal drink. You put the dry herb in and then keep topping it up with hot water from a flask. You pass it to your left and keep doing that until you say ‘gracias’ which mean you don’t want anymore. Now this would be considered to be an undesirable practice at home but the sharing of all those germs during the hight of the Coronavirus Hype took it to new levels! Luckily, I prefer to say ‘when in Rome’ so I really enjoyed taking parting in this communal activity and can report that I have never felt healthier!! You don’t just drink it at home but also in parks and on the beach etc. In Uruguay they have a special shoulder bag for carrying mate. I soon realised its main attraction is it has caffeine in it. On days when I didn’t have coffee, unheard of in the U.K., I still seemed to have an energy boost. I had assumed it was the adrenaline of travel but later realised it was the caffeine boost from mate.

Barbi made an appointment at her local hairdressers so I could have my hair cut. On a five month tour it is impossible to go without getting your hair cut but trying to explain “Please take off 4 cms, cut right in to the nape of the neck and keep the straight bob style,” is hard in a country where hardly anyone speaks English and when my Spanish doesn’t extend beyond the supermarket and post office. Luckily, Barbi was able to translate this for me. For those of you who remember my disastrous Ugandan hair cut, now in my top ten travel stories, you will be sorry to hear that my Argentinian hair cut was very uneventful and I could have just been at my regular salon in Basildon Bus Station. Well, apart from the fact that it was half the price! A quarter of the price for those of you that get your hair cut in Billericay or Upminster!!!

I emerged feeling like a super model (I said feeling, not looking!) rather than an ageing back packer and immediately decided to go to see the glamorous photo exhibition by Rocca, a famous Argentinian photographer at the Modern Art Gallery. This entailed a walk in the other direction along the coast. The walk was entertaining in itself. I may have been on the other side of the world but there were young lads in souped up cars showing them off with music booming, just as they do in Southend on Sea! Next I came across Argentinian Folk Dancing on the beach which I recognised immediately thanks to the lesson I had with Yami in Pergamino.

Once at the Modern Art Gallery I was able to browse the huge photographic canvases of famous Argentinians. I didn’t recognise most of them but Barbi and Matsi gave me some bibliographies of the subjects when I showed them my photos. They ranged from very glamorous to very sexual to extremely disturbing. My favourite was the famous polo player with his horse- not sure if it is in the extremely sexual or extremely disturbing category!

On my final day, I did a trip by public bus to Sierra de los Padres. This translates as mountains of the fathers which is a definite use of poetic license but in reality these rolling fertile hills were very pleasant. It was recommended to me by Silvana who used to live in Mar del Plata. Matsi told me which bus to get and where to get it. The 717 bus had a helpful list of stops on the bus stop itself, however, for some inexplicable reason, the bus I got onto didn’t go there. Every time the bus pulled up to the stop, people were asking if it went there and he was clearly saying no. Full marks, however, to the bus driver, as he identified the fact that I was probably heading there and tipped me off the bus to get one 20 minutes later. I wouldn’t mind but with a prepaid card, there is no way of getting your money back. Okay, it only cost 35p but that is not the point, my prepaid card was getting low and I was worried I wouldn’t have enough to get me back. In the end I just stayed on the bus because the town itself looked like a faded ski resort and enjoyed doing the loop past posh houses with swimming pools, often owned as second homes by rich Argentinians from Buenos Aires or Mar del Plata. As I arrived back in town, I congratulated myself on doing a 1.5 hour bus trip for 35p (70p) if you count the aborted journey. What’s not to like!!!!

On the last evening, I managed to persuade Barbi and Matsi to let me take them out for a meal which was no mean feat as they kept saying ‘no need’. They have home stayed themselves in Peru and just wanted to give back. We went to a very contemporary wine bar and had a bottle of Malbec and some food platters. The young waiter spoke good English and told us about a one month trip to Europe. I think he’d done just about every Western European capital and some other notable spots. I felt exhausted just listening to him. This is not unusual and not the first time I had heard about such a trip. It is very expensive for Argentinians to travel so they have to make the most of it. I roughly calculated that based the average Argentinian wage it would cost 3000 GBP to do what I did in the opposite direction for 600 GBP based on U.K. average wages. It made me realise how lucky I am to live on the doorstep of such a great continent and have the buying power of the U.K.

Barbi and Matsi then treated me to ice cream at their favourite ice cream parlour. As I have said before, Italian heritage in Argentina has led to some excellent ice cream. I had two of the Dulce de Leche flavours.

On the day of departure, Barbi and Matsi accompanied me to the bus station. The Sunday Bus Schedule made it a little nerve wracking and we were just about to take a taxi when one turned up. It then went all round the town and houses and I was really starting to panic. This was the first bus in a series of three. Miss this one and I miss my connections! Barbi and Matsi assured me all would be well and it was, with about ten minutes to spare! Matsi had kindly got his sister, who works at the bus station, to print my tickets so he collected them and I was good to go!

As my bus drew out of the bus station and Barbi and Matsi waved me off, I felt very sad as this was the end of my home stays. Barbi and Matsi, like my other homestay hosts, have been warm and generous; and they had given me fascinating and exciting experiences (plus, of course, the use of a washing machine!). The rest of the trip will have much to live up to!

Huge thanks to Jesi, Leandro, Zoe, Rosa, Silvana, Ricardo, Yami, Analia, Antonio, Lucrecia, Barbi and Matsi. Please, please come and stay with me in London so I can return your kind hospitality!

The Gaucho by Martin Fierro

Here I come to sing to the beat of my guitar:

because a man who is kept from sleep by an uncommon sorrow comforts himself with singing, like a solitary bird.

I beg the saints in heaven to help my thoughts:

I beg them here and now as I start to sing my story

that they refresh my memory and make my understanding clear.

Come, saints with your miracles, come all of you to my aid, because my tongue is twisting and my sight growing dim— I beg my God to help me at this hard time.

I have seen many singers whose fame was well won,

and after they've achieved it they can't keep it up --

it's as if they'd tired in the trial runs* without ever starting the race.

But where another criollo* goes Martin Fierro will go too: there's nothing sets him back, even ghosts don't scare him -- and since everybody sings I want to sing also.

Singing I'll die, singing they'll bury me,

and singing I'll arrive at the Eternal Father's feet –

out of my mother's womb I came into this world to sing.

Let me not he tongue-tied nor words fail me:

singing carves my fame, and once I set myself to sing

they'll find me singing, even though the earth should open up.

I'll sit down in a hollow to sing a story --

I make the grass-blades shiver as if it was a wind that blew: my thoughts go playing there with all the cards in the pack.*

I'm no educated singer, but if I start to sing

there's nothing to make me stop and I'll grow old singing -- the verses go spouting from me like water from a spring.

With the guitar in my hand no one sets his foot on me, I make the top string moan

I'm the bull in my own herd

I always thought I was pretty good, and if anyone else wants to try me let them come out and sing and we'll see who comes off worst.

I don't move off the track even though they're out cutting throats:* with the soft, I am soft, and I am hard with the hard,

and in a time of peril, no one has seen me hesitate.

In danger -- by Christ! my heart swells wide:

since the whole earth's a battlefield and no one need be surprised at that, anyone who holds himself a man stands his ground, no matter where.

even flies don't come near me: and when I sing full from my heart and the low string cry.

and a braver bull in the next one;

I am a gaucho, and take this from me as my tongue explains it to you: for me the earth is a small place and could be bigger yet --

the snake does not bite me nor the sun burn my brow.

I was born as a fish is born at the bottom of the sea;

no one can take from me what I was given by God --

what I brought into the world I shall take from the world with me.

It is my glory to live as free as a bird in the sky:

I make no nest on this ground where there's so much to be suffered, and no one follows me when I take to flight again.

In love I have no one to come to me with quarrels:

like those beautiful birds that go hopping from branch to branch I make my bed in the clover and the stars cover me.

And whoever may be listening know that I never fight nor kill and that only injustice threw me

to the tale of my sorrows – except when it has to be done,

into so much adversity.

And listen to the story told by a gaucho who's hunted by the law; who's been a father and husband hard-working and willing -- and in spite of that, people take him to be a criminal.

NOTES to I.1.

TITLE] Gaucho] Historically, as a social class, gaucho means the countrymen who were born and lived on the pampa plain, originally descendents of Spanish settlers with the more approachable of the native Indians from the north of the country. In earlier times they lived off the herds of wild cattle and horses introduced by the settlers, selling hides etc.; later as the land became more controlled, by working on the estancias (ranches). Gaucho in common speech is more a description of the characteristics evolved from this way of life: horsemanship and skill in dealing with cattle, courage and total self-reliance in their isolated primitive life. As fighters the gauchos were typically fierce, following their own laws of honour and chosen leaders; hence they were a considerable force during the nineteenth-century struggles for power in the land – the dictatorship of Rosas (1835-52) was founded on their loyalty to him. To city people gaucho was often a synonym for barbarism, but with time the less violent aspects of gauchos prevailed in popular imagination, and by extension gaucho comes to be a description of anything strong and simple, well-done or well-made. A gauchada in modern Argentine slang means the action of a friend, doing a favour. There are diverse theories of the origin of the name; one being from guacho, orphan (see note to I.11.7).

I.1.4] trial runs] Local horse-racing was a big event in gaucho life (see II.11). There may also be a reference here to earlier writers on "gaucho" themes who were disheartened by the disapproval of literary circles in the city.

I.1.5] criollo ("criOZHo")] native Spanish-American. It comes to mean true countryman, as opposed to immigrants (gringos) and Europeanised city-men. (See I/12/12, II/12/18 etc)

I.1.8] cards in the pack] Literally "Coins, Cups, and Clubs" (suits from the originally European card pack).

I.1.12] cutting throats] Prisoners and wounded were commonly killed off after a battle. Throat-cutting was the preferred method with gauchos as with Indians. There is a horrifying account of this in W.H.Hudson's Far Away and Long Ago

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