Adios Argentina, Hola Bolivia!

After five weeks, we say goodbye to Argentina, a country of great richness and variety, and in many ways the closest we’ve come to somewhere that feels like home.

On our first night in Buenos Aires, we tried to ask at a restaurant in Spanish for a menu (menú), and instead got peanuts (maní)! We’ve come a long way since then, even if our hugely entertaining language lessons in BA taught us more about Argentinian gay culture than they did the language! We’ve also made some great friends, from Javier our lovestruck spanish teacher, to our Austrian travelling companion Karoline, and a great bunch of folks in Bariloche and Cordoba too.

Argentina’s a country with a distinctly modern feel to it; it really doesn’t seem like you’re in South America at all. In places, it comes across as brilliantly organised. Almost every big city has a grid system for its roads, with 100 street numbers allocated per block, so you can immediately tell how far you have to go to get to
number 2406. The counters at bus stations clearly display what destinations they serve, and sometimes even have printed timetables! And maybe it’s just that we’re getting used to travelling, but we’ve even been able to hop on and off the local buses without too much trouble!

From the awe of Iguazu, to party-central Buenos Aires, through to hiking amid the lakes of Bariloche and quaffing the wines of Mendoza, it’s been a civilised and cultural experience that wouldn’t look out of place in most European countries. Which is precisely why Bolivia where we are now is so very different!

As we crossed the border early this morning, it was like we’d gone back in time. Many of the local women wear traditional dress – long pleated skirts with layers of shawls, a brightly coloured blanket parcel on their back containing either a sleeping child or goods of some sort, and topped with a slightly-too-small black bowler hat. Although there are pavements, many roads are dirt and travelling is a pretty bumpy experience. And between the dust and mud-brick houses, you can really sense that this is a country where poverty is a huge issue. It feels like we’re back in the real South America I was expecting – certainly a bit more challenging to get around, but hopefully all the more rewarding for it too.


Food for thought part seven – Brazil and Argentina

Laura attempting to fit in a fridge!

After all of the flavour and spice of Asia the food in South America so far has definitely been a little underwhelming. This, compounded by the fact that Brazil and Argentina are so much more expensive than Asia, meant that we actually cooked for ourselves a fair bit. However, here’s a taste of some of the more noteworthy dishes we experienced in these two countries:

Por quilo (Brazil)
The best way to eat out in Brazil is at one of the buffet style “per kilo” restaurants where you can pile up your plate with a variety of food and pay for what you eat by weight (of the plate not the person). An oddity that we encountered at many of these restaurants was the salad dressing, having doused your lettuce in what you believed to be balsamic vinegar it is a bit of a surprise to taste the salty essence of soy sauce. In a moment of schadenfreude we enjoyed watching other tourists make the same mistake!

Per Kilo Self Service

Feijao (Brazil)
I wasn’t a huge fan of this dish as it seemed pretty flavourless to me, nevertheless feijao, stewed black beans, seems to be a Brazilian staple.

Churrascaria (Brazil)
Churrascarias serve up a range of barbecued meats cut straight off the skewer onto your plate. Somehow we managed to pass our time in Brazil without visiting a dedicated churrascaria restaurant (possibly because of the price), but we were able to sample some at the per kilo restaurants, our first foray into the food that South America is famous for – meat.

Acai (Brazil)
A slushy frozen purple delight, perfect after a day of trekking in Brazil’s heat. Acai is a blend of ice, acai berries, and if you’re not paying attention bananas (you can usually opt out of this), best enjoyed with a sprinkling of granola.


Batida (Brazil)
We discovered these incredibly sweet cocktails being sold by a street vendor in the midst of Salvador’s chaotic carnival. Batidas consist of cachaça, your choice of tropical fruit, condensed milk and some very pink fruit syrup blended together with ice.

Cocktail anyone?

Brazil’s most famous cocktail made from cachaça, lime juice (although other fruit variants can be found), sugar and ice, needs a good stir and strong alcohol tolerance. In their country of origin these cocktails are mixed with generous measures of cachaça that will definitely leave you feeling worse for wear the following day.

Steak (Argentina)
If you weren’t a fan of steak before entering the country you definitely will be by the time you leave! The thick, juicy Argentinian steaks come in a variety of cuts the best of which is bife de chorizo. Sometimes a choice of sauces are available but often the steak is served up in its own tasty juices. Sides of potatoes and vegetables are ordered separately and you definitely leave feeling that you’ve eaten enough meat for a week!

Juicy steak

Empanadas (Argentina)
Empanadas make the perfect afternoon snack when you’re waiting until the typical Argentine dinner time of 10-12 pm! These little filled pastries are probably most akin to the British Cornish pasty but come with a range of fillings the most popular of which are probably carne (minced beef, onion, pepper and sometimes a bolognese style sauce), pollo (chicken with onion, herbs and spices), and cheese and ham (a very rubbery and fairly tasteless cheese – the only kind available in Argentina with the exception of Parmesan)

Dulce de Leche (Argentina)
You can’t spend very long in Argentina without encountering dulce de leche. This sweet caramely goo is made from condensed milk and seems to be used ubiquitously in any kind of sweet or dessert. You can easily order an apple cake in the hopes of avoiding the sickly sweet emulsion, only to find a surprise layer of dulce de leche, because really what desert would be complete without it? It may seem like a delight at first but after seven weeks you’ll do almost anything to avoid it!




Looking down over Salta from a nearby hill

We spent our last couple of days in Argentina in Salta, in the far north west. It’s a town with a visibly more ethnic Bolivian population, locals with much darker skin, and much more traditional dress than we’ve seen elsewhere.

Salta was also once a distant outpost of the Inca empire, and the surrounding mountains contain many Inca relics. These include the mummified remains of child sacrifices made to appease Pachamama, in which honoured children were buried alive in full ceremonial dress at the summits of mountains, following many months of procession to and from the capital Cuzco, ‘marriages’ to children from other parts of the empire, and celebrations in the streets.

Over the past few decades, over a number of expeditions, archaeologists have excavated some of the grave sites, revealing extremely well preserved mummies, with many of the offerings and colourful dress appearing just as it was when the burial occurred 500 years ago. The freezing cold, dry conditions were perfect for preservation. Controversially, the decision was taken to remove the mummified remains from their mountaintop graves and to display them and their artefacts in a museum in Salta.

We went round the exhibition, and it was truly fascinating to see such fantastically preserved, brightly coloured textiles – and shocking to see the faces and parched skin of the sacrificed children, three of whom were recovered, aged 8 to 15.

It left me feeling deeply uncomfortable that the bodies had been removed from their place of rest; a gesture which seemed to undo the reason for their sacrifice in the first place, since they are no longer positioned to sit with the gods and watch over the valleys below. The exhibition itself attempted in part to address these concerns by pointing out that following the discovery, the unguarded grave could not be left as it would have been robbed, but it seemed to me this should have been something the archaeologists thought about before undertaking the excavation. The exhibition was very professional and the remains clearly being well maintained, but it certainly left me wondering at just what cost should we go digging up sacrificial offerings from distant cultures.



The fantastic church around the corner from our hostel

Los desaparecidos


Photos of the disappeared hang over a street in Cordoba

When in Buenos Aires, and again in
Cordoba, we visited sites used during Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’. In almost every country we’ve been to, we’ve found unspeakable horrors visited on the population in the recent past – and this was no exception.

In 1976, a bloodless coup once again put the military in charge of Argentina. At the time, there were a number of prominent left wing opposition groups, filling the full spectrum of approaches from political party to violent guerrilla terrorists. With popular (albeit not democratic) support from the press and a population whipped up into a fear of the extremist leftist terrorists, the military set about destroying these groups, in a ‘National Reorganisation Process’, known less euphemistically as the ‘Dirty War’.

Between 1976 and the end of the military’s reign after the Falklands war in 1983, it is believed that as many as 30,000 people were ‘disappeared’ – kidnapped, tortured, and in almost every case, killed. What is perhaps most chilling is that this happened in plain sight, in a modern and civilised society with a functioning press – and with support from other western nations, particularly the US as part of its global fight against the threat of Communism.

In other places we’ve visited, it has seemed possible to attribute the horrendous actions of those in power down to a form of madness or at least a lack of awareness, and that lack of logic made it easier to digest and understand. Mao had his swirling, vindictive personality cult, and held the view that progress was only possible through violent revolution. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia swept in with absolute blood-filled insanity, tearing society apart at the seams to achieve the same goals as Mao but in a matter of days – and given the pace at which it was imposed, it’s no wonder that there was little organised opposition. And on the other side of the political spectrum, through the ‘Vietnam War’, the USA unleashed hell on the people of not only Vietnam, but also Cambodia and Laos – with a hell in chemical form to follow for decades later.

I think what hit me hardest in Argentina was how the actions of the military were so clearly calculated, part of a logical, forceful political strategy, and it was conducted in full view of the public – or at least as much visibility as for example the German public had under the Nazis. Did we learn nothing?


The Naval Mechanic School in Buenos Aires where some of the worst atrocities occurred

People who were considered opponents of the regime were kidnapped, sometimes in the street in broad daylight, and then taken to interrogation centres, where information was extracted under torture. Once they had served their useful purpose, they were generally then killed – through military ‘death flights’, where the unconscious victims were dropped into the sea from a plane, having been told they were being transferred to a prison and to be given a ‘vitamin injection’ which was in fact a sedative. Even in this respect there was a stark contrast in organisation to what we’d seen in Asia: the Khmer Rouge had avoided using even bullets to kill their victims due to the cost; dropping people from planes is an expensive way to massacre a population.

A basement at the interrogation centre in the heart of Cordoba

Amid this utter horror of systematic torture and murder, you then have this bizarre notion of ethics – for example, a priest blessed the plane from which people were then dropped to their death. I think this really shows how some of those involved really did think they were doing the right thing in order to fight the threat of the extreme left, or at least found cover in the support of the church. “We are not monsters” is the phrase apparently used at the time.

Another situation where these uncertain moral lines show is when pregnant women were among the disappeared. The interrogation centres had special areas to care for such women until they gave birth; our guide explained to us that the interrogators felt that the baby should not be punished for the actions of its parents and so should be allowed to live. However, they also felt that the child should not be given back to the remaining family who had been associated with such leftist views, and so the child was secretly adopted by a new family who supported the regime, many of whom were in positions of power. Argentina now has a movement ‘The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo’, representing those who lost their children but still have grandchildren out there somewhere. They encourage those who were born during this period to verify their heritage; it is believed that some 500 children were appropriated by the state and given to new parents – to date 105 have been identified. One can only imagine the anguish that those now-adults go through to discover their true parents were killed, and that their adopted parents with whom they have grown up were likely complicit in what happened.

And there’s so much more; the Trade Unionists in factories working for well known multinationals like Ford who were disappeared en-mass and held in camps in the factory grounds; the secret island owned by the Catholic Church to which prisoners were relocated when the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights came to inspect the interrogation camps on the mainland; the two different estate agents run by the navy to sell off the appropriated houses from those they had killed. This was clearly a systematic and widespread process for purging those who disagreed with the regime, with the support of the church.


A police mural on the wall in Cordoba

All this happened at a time when through Operation Condor the USA was providing support to South American nations fighting communism. Through the ‘School of the Americas’, many of the Argentine naval officers involved in these atrocities were taught techniques of interrogation and torture, and how best to tackle the threat of the left. Given this, it is not surprising that there is so little trust of US foreign policy interventions now in South America.

I got the sense that this whole period is something Argentina is still very much trying to come to terms with – to find a way to justify what had been allowed to happen and why, and to find justice for so many victims. Few records were kept about those who were taken, and those involved at every level are still refusing to talk about it, so there is a huge gap in knowledge about what happened. But there is one thing our guide said again and again that really stuck with me : ‘nunca más’, ‘never again’. As she reiterated, everyone, everywhere has the right to a fair trial and transparent justice, even if they are being accused of mass murder or terrorism. I think we all would say the horrors of Nazi Germany or of the Dirty War should never be allowed to be repeated, but it’s a slippery slope. She drew parallels to Guantanamo bay, extraordinary rendition and the various processes going on right now around the world where people are being held, punished and sometimes killed without trial. In that context, one really has to ask oneself when we will ever truly mean those words ‘nunca más’.



Photos of some of the disappeared, Cordoba


A broken doorway, Cordoba



A replica of the famous motorcycle

While we were in Cordoba, we headed off to Alto Gracia for a day, and home to the house where Ché Guevara grew up.

I have to confess I didn’t really know the full details of the Ché story beyond the iconic picture and his symbol as a leftwing revolutionary – so it was good to have explained to us in the museum that his house has become. The £10 price tag did make us wonder if it was really holding to his principles, but then as wealthy tourists it is fair that we’re playing a lot more than the local visitors.

We did find out a few things we weren’t expecting to hear for a revolutionary fighter. For starters, at school he was a bit of a geek, playing chess and getting the best marks in class. Nothing wrong with that! He also had bad asthma, which is why his family moved to the better air in Alto Gracia in the first place. Again, not quite the macho leader one imagines.

Later in life, he (and Fidel Castro) then led the Cuban Revolution, creating the state that still exists today. I’ve heard before of the ‘miracle’ of the mere 12 fighters who took on the Cuban army and won – but the fact that is often omitted is that there were actually 82 fighters who landed in the country, but all but 12 were killed during a Cuban army raid on the first night.

The final shock came from the passport he travelled with. His birth name is actually Ernesto Lynch, and, well, his photo is hardly that of the Marxist revolutionary. Granted, he used this passport when going undercover into the Congo, and later into Bolivia, but it is somewhat surprising!


Ché's unexpected passport photo

It made me think about how we idolise people and turn them into over-saturated icons, airbrushing away the details that don’t quite agree with the popular narrative. It’s not to say that Ché wasn’t a hugely successful revolutionary who certainly made a big impact on the world stage (albeit through violent means). It’s just that when we depict our idols and role models without blemishes, although their achievements appear all the more great for it, we end up making their successes unattainable – and our attempts to imitate them impossible. Everyone has their flaws.

So, to redress the balance, as a gift to the geeks and thick-spectacle wearing, balding men of the world, I hereby present the alternative image of Ché the revolutionary. Marxist, yes. Pinup? Well, I’ll leave that decision to you!



The alternative Ché