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A selection of recommended and not-so-recommended books about South America

27 Apr

My obsession with South America continues to power on, leaving me with little choose to spend the majority of every day either reading about the Peruvian elections, listening to Brazilian music, trying unconvincingly to make milanesas, watching films about indigenous tribes and reading book after book about any subject that has some vague link to South America. Therefore, I thought I would share a few of those books here, the majority of which I would recommend.

Tropical Truth by Caetano Veloso

Start with the best! This is Veloso’s autobiography from childhood upto the modern day, though most of the content is the story of how tropicalia was borne, and then Veloso’s incarceration by the Brazilian government. There’s something incredibly easy about reading this book, Veloso will vary the subject from personal traumas to discussing the avant-garde or even talking about masturbation, yet always he comes across as informal yet incredibly knowledgeable, and with a serious passion for music. The sections about tropicalia and his role within the movement are truly revelatory. Far too little has been written about that particular period in Brazil’s history, but this does help to fill that gap somewhat.

Viva South America! by Oliver Balch

This is a selection of articles by Oliver Balch as he travels throughout South America. Written in a journalistic style, it follows Balch as he goes from country-to-country and subject-to-subject, all the time relating the experience to Simon Bolivar’s idea of how South America would evolve. This is a very interesting book that underwhelmed me for the first three chapters in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. For some reason the overly-political tone disengaged me and I found it hard to relate to Balch and his stories. This changed though once he visited Paraguay and it’s disastrous human rights record and then Brazil, where he looked into attitudes towards race. Even better though are the last two chapters on Colombia and Venezuela where he somehow managed to show both in a bad light, yet through the warmth of the natives involved, made me want to visit these countries as soon as possible.

This is highly recommended for anyone visiting South America who wants to get under it’s skin and begin to understand how the continent functions.

Travels in a Thin Country by Sara Wheeler

A travel diary devoted to Chile, this is a really well-written, well-researched book, though left me cold in places. Yes, Wheeler travelled to many of the most interesting spots Chile has to offer, including Easter Island. But somehow I always feel like I want someone to truly engage with a country and the author never does here. She is great at studying it, and its people, and telling some nice stories along the way, but for some reason it never gets beyond that. All said though, this is very readable and is worth reading if you’re heading to the Chile for the detail alone.

Amazon Watershed by George Monbiot

This is almost the opposite of Wheeler’s book on Chile. Here, Monbiot goes completely over-the-top in his examination of Brazil’s Amazon. At times he is chased by landowners, caught by hired gunmen, beaten up at one stage, etc., etc. Monbiot knows how to be a true investigative journalist, and thankfully his writing is as thrilling as his research is thorough. Through the book Monbiot looks at some of the factors that have led to the destruction of the rainforest, and goes to both the people who the destruction is affecting and those that are doing the destruction.

In short, I can’t recommend this book enough. I can’t imagine a more evocative and informative book on this great rainforest.

Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life by Alex Bellos

All I need to say about this book is that if you have any interest in football or Brazil you will love it. Months after reading it I am still boring my friends with all the ridiculous anecdotes I have taken from this one.

We all know Brazil is crazy about football, but it’s not until you read this book that you really just how crazy!

The Condor and the Cows by Christopher Isherwood

Isherwood is an old-school author – this was written in the 40s – and it shows. This is a South American travel diary from a time that I struggle to evoke. Isherwood travels across South America (minus Brazil and Uruguay) staying with dignitaries and fellow authors and artists. The sections which talk about the social circles he finds himself can be a little suffocating but there is something very warm and erudite about his descriptions of the landscapes and cities, especially as his often barbed, sarcastic tones are the perfect antidote for anyone sick of the normal hyperbolous guff that finds its way into many travel journals these days.

Brazilian Popular Music & Globalization (edited by Charles A. Perrone & Christopher Dunn)

A selection of essays about Brazilian music. Some of these are very interesting, i.e. those on tropicalia and mangue bit, but some can be a little analytical. I don’t really want to talk about this book too much as it’s really only something that people with an academic nature and interest in Brazilian music will enjoy. If you’re not interested in the academic style but want to know more about Brazilian music then you should buy Veloso’s Tropical Truth instead, it’s far more enjoyable!

Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard

Yvon Chouinard is the founder and owner of Patagonia, the most respected of all outdoor clothes manufacturers. This autobiography tells how he started out rock-climbing in South California, got involved in surfing as he started selling his own climbing equipment, until eventually starting Patagonia and making millions with an ethical business model. The first half of this book is very interesting with Chouinard’s tales of the early days of surfing and climbing, includes his first experiences in Patagonia where he climbed Mount Fitz Roy. It was these experiences in Chile which led to his company being named after the region. However, the book tales off as Chouinard dissects one too many detail about how his ethnic business model is able to work and succeed.

Argentina and Uruguay to host 2030 World Cup?

9 Oct

Very exciting news that Argentina and Uruguay have put forward tentative plans to host the 2030 World Cup. Their main hope with the bid is that the organisers won’t be able to resist the temptation of hosting the tournament on its centennial year at the place where it all began. That final of that first ever tournament in 1930 was contested between Uruguay and Argentina at the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo. There is no way Uruguay could hold a World Cup these days so it makes perfect sense to propose a joint bid with Argentina, whose Estadio Monumental (home of River Plate), Estadio Gigante (home of Rosario Central), Estadio Ciudad de la Plata, the potentially refurbished La Bombonera (the chocolate box, Boca Juniors home) and at least five other stadiums, off the top of my head, with a capacity of over 40,000, would instantly be ready for hosting a tournament.

After announcing the bid on 30th May Argentina and Uruguay have received the unanimous backing of their fellow CONMEBOL nations and then submitted the bid formally to FIFA when Sepp Blatter visited Colombia in September. He was presented with the bid document as well as a shirt made up from the two nations’ national team shirts with the phrase ‘history unites – sport too’ included in the presentation box. This is what it looked like:

The only problem I could see the bid as ever having trouble would be if the Brazil Would Cup in 2014 proved to be an absolute failure, souring the idea of having another World Cup in South America for some time. It is also in Argentina and Uruguay’s favour that the rule of one tournament in Europe followed by one worldwide will work in their favour. It looks likely that either England or Russia will host the 2018 World Cup. Following that, Australia, Japan and Qatar are all in the running for 2022 (with the amount of money that Qatar are pouring into the game it’s very easy to see them getting that one) which will be followed by another European tournament. Personally, I think that could be a nailed on Spain/Portugal World Cup 2026, though obviously there are a few politics in the way of that one.

It would be great for the Centenario to host another World Cup Final, especially since the Uruguayans are still talking about their Semi-Final appearance in South Africa; it would definitely bring a lot of joy to the nation.

Sounds and Colours – a magazine about South American music and culture

24 Jul

Sounds and Colours, as mentioned in a previous post, is a website I have been working on for the last couple of months. It seems like now is the time to get the word out on this thing! The site features interviews, mixtapes, news and reviews of all aspects of South American music and culture. At the moment the focus is Brazil, with a strong bias towards everything musical. In August we will be looking at Argentina.

The basic idea is to create a site about South America in a way that’s not been done for. The majority of sites that are about South American music in particular tend to categorise it as ‘world music’ or ‘latin american music’. These tags are just too broad to ever really embrace all the amazing styles of music from this region. The same also applies to culture with Brazil largely described as ‘carnival’ country, Argentina as the home of ‘tango’ and Peru as the place to visit ‘macchu picchu.’ There is just so much more going on and we are hoping to get the word out as much as possible! Keep on eye on this blog as well obviously as the Sounds and Colours site for the latest on this new project.

Sounds and Colours

When Couchsurfing does not seem like the best idea in the world

28 Dec

I think I am going to have to find another home! The Dutch guy has gone too far now. I just arrived back at the house after a date to find Ulysses alone here at the house. I had bought a carton of apple juice which I had just opened. I plonked it down on the table and the next thing I heard was “is it okay if I finish off the apple juice, there’s only a little left anyway?” The bastard drank the whole thing. Then he talked a load of shit for about half an hour which I really can’t remember, something about maps. Then he asked me about the date and realised he’d met the girl at the xmas eve and was quite happy to tell me that the girl was not even good-looking and so maybe it was just nice for me to go on a date with anyone. I thought she was one of the better looking girls there. Then he popped into the kitchen and walked out with all the food I’d bought and cooked last night on his plate and started piling it into his face, without even thinking of asking me if it’s okay to finish this one off. All this after just 2 hours sleep and I really think this is going to have to motor me onto another couch. Plus, he left the water pump on and now there is water pouring through the ceiling. Although I think this is more of a structural problem and don’t want to blame him too much for this one!

Post-Christmas Blur in Buenos Aires

27 Dec

So it’s the day after Boxing Day and I’m already starting to fall to pieces. Buenos Aires during Christmas is not a place to get any relaxation. After a month of living the quiet life, getting regular siestas, playing guitar for most of the day, all the food I could possibly eat and going to bed at 2am, which is quite a normal time to go to sleep here, I feel I can’t keep up with the pace.

After a 26 hour bus journey followed by 14 hours of drinking, half an hour’s sleep, more drinking, a few more hour’s sleep, then getting quite drunk yesterday in the daytime only for everyone to decide to go out at 3am (just when I was getting ready to bed) and now after waking up covered in sweat after a few more hours sleep (it’s so hot!) I’m really not sure how much longer I can go on.

Plus, I’m currently sharing a room with some crazy Dutch guy who seems to think that he can really get me to enjoy Dutch techno music by playing it consistently in my earholes, when I’m just trying to have a nice naptime. Being made to listen to music completely involuntarily will only result in offence, why does he not realise this?

Now, I’m just waiting for him to take a shower or something so I can sneak out without him trying to come too!

Las Baludas de Catamarca

16 Dec

Today I’m in Catamarca, a city, with people and everything, walking around, doing stuff, bit of shopping, buying some bananas, that kind of thing. It couldn’t be more different to Fiambala. This week has been my most eventful for a while. On Saturday I agreed to go for a run with some lad who works at one of the bodegas and we ended up running all the way to the thermal baths, about 11km in total. Which normally wouldn’t be too crazy but this was over the desert with 30 degree heat piping down. At one point I thought I saw the thermals and made a sprint for it, flying across the sand and rocks. It was a mirage though, the thermals were still a good couple of kilometres away and this almost finished me off. Eventually we reached a road and then a couple of fellas from Catamarca drove past in some tiny wagon that looked like it had been designed to navigate down potholes. We wasted no time in sticking up our thumbs and jumping in the back.

running to the mountains

There’s seemingly nothing better than ducking under volcano-warmed thermal waters after a long run though and soon i was doing my best Stretch Armstrong impressions as I tried to pull myself out of the pool.

Next day I was pretty crudo but Santi, the guy I went running with the day before, was going off to do some sandboarding with a couple of lasses, also from Catamarca, so I decided to join them. We met at around 9am and went off to the dunes, around 50km away. As soon as the first smallest dune appeared we jumped out to have a bit of a practice. It was a beautiful day, perfect blue sky, sun blazing down and total tranquility on the dunes. We practiced for about half an hour and then went back to the car before heading off to the bigger dunes, or so I thought we were doing. The two girls at this point got quite hungry and then sleepy and then suddenly very weary of the sun. They were done for the day. Me and Santi were quite against this idea, why come all the way here for a little practice on the sand, but anyway, it was their car and their decision ultimately so we headed back. I can’t help but think they were the ones that really lost out though. They came all the way from Catamarca, a four hour drive after waking up at 5am in the morning. Drove for another hour to the dunes and then had to go all the way back. A long way for a couple of slides down about 10 metres of sand.

contemplating the next move

No bother, it was still a good day, just a bit of a pity to not get some proper sandboarding action. That night I went to the thermals again, this time with Audrey, Omar and Sarah, where we had a barbecue and I spent far too long sitting under tiny thermal waterfalls.

Now we’re in Catamarca as we have to pick up Audrey’s mum, arriving for Christmas. Will be back in Fiambala later for my last week or so of work.

Catamarca – the land of dust

8 Dec

Okay, so I think this blog here is well overdue an update. After the rigours of travelling around the south of Argentina it seemed my body was needing to rest. I have since become the king of siestas. Napping in chairs, on benches, lying down, standing up, during conversations, upside down, basically whenever I get the chance. This could also be due to the weather though, it’s been blisteringly hot here around 30-35 degrees most of the time and I’ve been working in a kitchen so probably even hotter there.

My pizza-making skills are coming on good, milanesas sheer perfection and my banter with the locals a little bit confusing but this can only get better. Unfortunately the pasta machine is broken so that skill will have to wait.

Life is good here though and very tranquil. Fiambalá is a village of maybe 5000 people, there are five restaurants, one internet kiosk and not a chance of buying coconut milk. It was worth trying though. Each day consists of waking up, having some porridge, cooking milanesas and pizzas for a few hours, having a nap, being woken up by a small child, being taught how to play guitar by this small child (she has a very specific style of playing), going for a walk with Nani (known by the locals as ‘the dog that follows’), then pottering around for a bit, maybe playing some guitar or something, until some clients arrive at about 9 or 10 to have some dinner (people eat their main meal between 9pm and 1am in Argentina). The majority will have left by 2am at which point I drink all the wine and beer left over in the bottles and that’s normally enough to see me off to pillow paradise and one big nap.

Argentina: North to South, from frostbite to sunburn

1 Dec

I spent far too long in the South of Argentina, especially in Ushuaia, Torres Del Paine and El Chalten. This all meant that instead of a nice leasurely stroll up Ruta 40 and the cordillera I would have to tank it. Over the course of four days I believe I spent around 57 hours in total on buses. Now I’ve arrived in Fiambala where I am resting for a day before starting work in the restaurant tomorrow. The weather has changed inexplicably. From piling layer upon layer on my cold bones I have just come back from a half an hour stroll around town red as a baboon’s butt and covered in sweat. Not that I’m complaining. It just came as a bit of a surprise.

Chalk this one up (Couchsurfing gone wrong)

16 Nov

Well I guess it was bound to happen sometime. I fell out with a couchsurfer. In fact, he kicked me out! A little bit drastic if you ask me but he was a military man, a man of discipline, and he wasn’t taking no prisoners.

I think he had it in for me from the start, asking me if I knew what happened in 1982 and how he’d worked for the Navy at that time, and how since then he’s had something of a special relationship with the English. I don’t know if that’s ever the way you should start the conversation. He kept referring to me as just a kid and how it’s crazy that kids can just go on holiday for a year willy-nilly, without ever really asking me if I was just on vacations or how old I am or anything, so I wasn’t too surprised when he asked me to leave.

I had decided to climb to the top of the nearby glacier. A 5km walk to the top of the hill followed by a 1000km vertical ascent. In my canvas shoes with holes in the soles it wasn’t the best decision I’ve ever made, especially since it had been snowing for the past 12 days. About halfway up I realised I had a plastic bag in my backpack and so could stop at least one of my feet from freezing to death, the other unfortunately was going to have to suffer. I didn’t make it to the top, probably about 100m off. The snow was getting too deep and I was started to slip more than ever so decided to call it quits before the summit. Nice walk though.

As soon as I stepped off the snow and onto land a Frenchman drove past and offered me a lift, straight to the door of my couchsurfer. Luis was sleeping so I quickly popped upstairs, grabbed my laptop and headed out again. I wanted to try and make a couple of phone calls to England before night-time across the atlantic seeped in a little too much. As it was, all the cafes in town have useless WiFi that I couldn’t use so spent around an hour or so jumping from one to another before I finally found a connection in a pub on the main road. It was too late to make any calls now but I had quite a lot of work. After a couple of hours of work, with a hamburger break in the middle I headed back to the house. It must have been about 1am before I got back to see Luis sitting in his armchair through the window. He wasn’t happy. He told me to go to sleep and we would discuss it in the morning. In the morning he woke me up by saying “can you please pack your bags and I will take you into the town center?” And that was it. If you ask me he should have just gone to bed instead of waiting up and getting angry, but hey I think maybe he wanted to make a point of something.

It has been a lot harder to find couchsurfers in Patagonia, and this has meant me asking some people I wouldn’t normally, Luis being one of them. I guess it’s just not possible to get on with everyone!

Another sleepless night (getting used to the siesta)

13 Nov

Whoever decided that 10.30pm was a good time to eat dinner? Going to sleep afterwards is like sleeping with half a lamb inside you, which it invariably is. By the time the meat sweats die down it’s already 2pm, which is probably why they have to have a siesta. Too much post-watershed gluttony leading to heightened restlessness between the sheets, meaning the odd eye willing itself to shut around lunchtime the next day is always going to be a possibility. They certainly can’t use the excuse of having a siesta because it’s too hot, because here in Patagonia if anything the afternoon is the coldest time. This is normally when 10 minutes of rain will be followed by 10 minutes of snow, then 10 minutes of sun before the clouds come across and all the different weather types decide ‘hey, we can’t compete with the wind, so let’s just give up!’

The days of sitting in front of Neighbours at 5.35pm with my jacket potato and beans seems a mile away. Even preparing dinner at 7.30 gets the odd furtive glance and question of whether I’m making a snack or actually making dinner. They don’t seem to realise that I need to eat before I go out. I can’t do the fancy Argentinean method of going out for one beer (maybe two if I’m feeling out of sorts) then be back at home for 10.30 to eat my supper. If I’m going to drink it needs to be 4 or 5 at a bare minimum, and I need something in my stomach beforehand to stop myself from going a bit gah-gah and upsetting all the local ladies.

For now, I’m piloting a new scheme, called bag of crisps, at 7pm each day, kind of a reminder of what used to be lunchtime but now is a laughable halfway-home between ‘hours before i last ate’ and ‘hours before I eat again’. Oh, and maybe a peppermint tea before bedtime, gotta be sensible when everything else is so fucking ridiculous!