Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 43, 10 January 2003
Cheap Thrills, Golden Showering, The Joy of Crampons
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Rude Boys

Beautiful, beautiful scenery – the route from Pucon in Chile through to Argentina is one of the most stunning drives in the world. But rather marred by the group of twenty something Israelis we were sharing the coach with. It started out badly - there we were politely queuing to put our luggage on and wham, this enormous chap and his chum shoulder barged Jane out of the way. Nor did it get much better once we were on the bus – among general uncouthness, they were even rude to the guy at customs who, unfortunately, didn’t rise to the bait and exercise his right to detain idiots for six hours. Regrettably this is something of a leitmotif – the traveling British may be boozy and hopeless, the Swiss tight, the Germans uptight and the Dutch generally good eggs, but, in South America at least, for out and out rudeness nobody can really hold a candle to the Israelis. Yes, worse even than the French, who, rude as they can be, are usually not louts.

Of course, one has to be very, very careful when griping about the Israelis, lest one be accused all sorts of ghastly sentiments. So I feel I ought to categorically state that I’m sure all those who aren’t traveling in South America are terrific and that (especially as I’ve bitched about almost every other nationality in this diary) the only prejudice of mine this reflects is one against people who travel abroad and act like pricks.

Reality Bites

Once you get to the not especially high pass that marks the border, everything changes. It really is one of those continental divide cum rain shadow things that you read about in geography lessons. Chile is lush like Devon; towards the pass you get forests of monkey puzzle – very surreal and offset nicely by the snowy bulk of Volcan Lanin (more of which later) then, suddenly you’re in somewhere that looks like the setting for a spaghetti western.

We had been planning on staying in Junin de los Andes – and as the only people who appeared to be getting off the bus here, we were patting ourselves heartily on the back for keeping it so real, getting off the beaten track, not going to the same place as the rest of our thoroughly unpleasant coach, etc, etc. But, especially in Patagonia – where there towns are hardly plentiful - there is usually a reason for this. As indeed there was. Not that Junin is a particularly bad place – it’s just that the self proclaimed Trout Capital of the World is a bit lacking in non piscine charms. To go to Junin rather than its flashier neighbour (70i km away) would be like going to Royston on the grounds that you thought Cambridge was too touristy. So we decided to get real about keeping it real and joined the stampede to St Martin de los Andes.

Aspen del Sur

And it is rather nice. Actually it’s very nice. It’s a sort of Aspen of South America. It’s just sooo cute and sooo chocolate boxy. And, pre crash, my God it must have been expensive. Even now, with a currency that’s lost 70% of its value, it’s not as ridiculously cheap as you might assume. Interestingly the crash doesn’t seem to have hurt SM overmuch. The town is absolutely chokka – most hotels are full and there are thousands of tourists: rich Chileans, rich Argies who held their money in dollars, plus a (surprisingly few) westerners wondering around looking faintly bemused at finding themselves in a place which is a cross between chi chi Spain and ritzy Italy where an espresso costs 25p.

One such man was an Australian in his mid fifties who I had the luck to be stuck behind while he was working on a home video, provisionally entitled, I imagine, ‘Argentina – A place apart’ or some such. While he faithfully recorded the town’s every ersatz Olde Worlde detail, he supplied a voiceover whose blandness was such that I really thought he might be onto something. ‘This is the square’ he intoned flatly, ‘as you can see there are a lot of people here. Some are playing.’ Fascinated, I tailed him as he described chocolate shops with the word ‘Chocolate’ written all over the front, explaining that, yes, these sold dark cocoa based sweets. And, my personal favourite, an economic sketch of a restaurant, where if the fancy took him, he said, he later dine with his wife. Having seen this scene repeated thousands of times over the past year, I know who makes home movies. But who watches them? Have you ever watched anyone’s holiday movie? And if you have, have you ever enjoyed it? Billions of hours of footage unseen by anyone, except perhaps the auteurs themselves. Still, I suppose if you’re ever lucky enough to catch someone walking into a lamppost, you might get two hundred quid for it.

Very Cheap Thrills

Still on the subject of televisual ‘entertainment,’ I was channel surfing (honest) on Argie cable, when I stumbled across what most be the cheapest porno in the world – and I speak as a connoisseur of entry level (as it were) erotica. Basically you had a camera trained on a PC monitor which was logged into a porn site, a gallery of links to various unsavoury images. The mouse arrow would click on a link and it would open, usually showing a disinterested and vaguely grubbing looking woman demonstrating some aspect of her genitalia. While this was going on a guttural commentator whose name was probably something like Raoul told us in reassuring tones what the picture was about. Pornography does not really need a voice over, although, I suppose, Raoul may have been there because blind people like to masturbate too (indeed, some still think there is a link). Anyway, the whole thing, including Raoul’s fee cannot have cost more than $200. But it was so tacky and smutty and just plain bad that there was a sort of genius about it. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before Channel 4 or Channel 5 pick it up, the former going for the bad genius angle and the latter stressing that this really is the tackiest smut you are ever likely to see.

Volcano Training

Sorry to be a dull bastard and spring another one on you so soon, but it’s volcano time again. As we plan to climb Aconcagua in less than ten days, Jane and I are in serious ‘cano training. As last week’s effort, Volcan Villarice, had been pretty easy, we decided to have a stab at Volcan Lanin, which from the base looks like a slightly bigger, rather less cute version of the former. In fact, it is about 1000 metres higher and, as we were shortly to find out, what a difference a kay makes.

So we signed up with Hector, a guide to climb Lanin. Our group consisted of us and another couple, who were pleasingly exotic in a financial kind of way. He was an American who lived in Moscow, where he ran an investment firm which specialized in distressed debt. All very ‘Liar’s Poker’; he said that he’d been doing a bit of work in Argentina lately as there was plenty of debt in these parts which was looking less than chipper. She was an Americanised Bulgarian who worked in management in the Russian heavy machinery sector. I started to feel that maybe I should be doing something a bit more financial and swashbuckling, although Jane did score novelty points for being an ex pizza developer.

Lanin starts with a walk in the monkey puzzle forest forest, which would be charming, except that I had so many horseflies buzzing around me that I felt like a walking turd. Not only did they hurt like hell, but they stayed with us until way up on the glacier, which I felt a little unfair. One does not really expect to have to fend off biting insects while walking on snow.

After a hot and dusty but not particularly arduous climb, we pitched up at the first mountain hut or refugio. In Chile, refugios are pretty luxurious, with chefs dousing sides of sides of salmon in white wine, but this looked rather more like a literal place of refuge. Probably World War II vintage and sitting on the only piece of rock proud of the glacier. The glacier itself wasn’t much cop either: the problem with glaciers on volcanoes is that there is so much volcanic rock and ash around that they invariably wind up looking a bit like someone has stubbed out a cigarette on an ice cube.

Pissing in the Wind

And the second the sun went down the wind picked up. It wasn’t especially cold or anything – but there was a 100kph gale outside. I know this because I went to answer the call of nature in, surrounded by nature, in the middle of the night, eventually finding a place with the wind at my back. Ten seconds in and well past any sort of cut off point and the wind changed direction. Terrifyingly, you can hear this a before it hits you and I had a good couple of seconds before the event to reflect on the fact that I was about to give myself a golden shower.

Sluiced as I was, any aroma I might have acquired was lost in the fug of the refugio which, although the size of a garden shed was sleeping 18, including an Argentinian family. Mum, dad, two brothers, daughter and daughter’s boyfriend were all there. I have to say I was pretty impressed - not only with the strength of Latin family bonds, but by a family that would choose to climb a 3800 metre mountain together. Lanin is by no means an easy hike: you need ice axes, crampons, gortex strides and the like. I saluted this extreme family unit.

So we got up at 3:30am, left at 5:00 (yes, we chose – paid - to do this) and walked the remaining 1400 metres to the stop, all on ice and mostly on slopes of 45 degrees or more. It is actually a very, very difficult walk and, although the altitude doesn’t really affect you, pretty much everything else does. But Hector kept our spirits up, mainly by lying constantly and telling us that everything was twice as far as it actually was. And the view from the top (of Volcan Villarice and over into Chile is absolute fabulous). Well worth it. Well, that’s what you have to tell yourself.

Crampons for Heavy Snow Days

Although the joy of Villacrice was being allowed to slide down 1200 vertical metres on your arse, Hector would not allow me this pleasure. Initially I was a little disgruntled but I had concede that, as he had been right about everything else, he was probably worried that I’d catch my butt on a piece of volcanic rock and, as they say in correctional facilities, ‘tear myself a new one’.

This was actually no bad thing as it opened my eyes to the joy of crampons (yes, for anyone with a public school sense of humour out there, I too find the similarity to the hygiene product vaguely amusing and occasionally wonder if there’s a brand called crampax for heavy snow days [haha]). Seriously though, with a good pair of crampons on you can actually run down a glacier (if the snow is soft) in great lolloping strides, much like the astronauts on the moon. They are fantastic: even using the crappy strap on crampons – you can do pretty much anything you like on snow or ice. Moreover, as these definitely count as performance equipment, the connoisseur would undoubtedly be able to find all kinds of cool, pointless stuff like Teflon coated titanium crampons with diamond tips. And to think I’d thought these wonderful items were the preserve of beardy types who did research in Greenland.

The other really impressive thing about crampons is their capacity for damage. Who can fail to be impressed with something that looks like it was designed as footwear for the characters in an ultraviolent video game. Indeed, it is a matter of some surprise to me that the football hooligan / pub fight demographic has yet to discover the joys of the crampon. Although this may well be because it is almost impossible to fit a crampon onto a white Adidas trainer.