Tales from a South American Stormdrain
Mike Plummer and Tim Foster
© Copyright 2020 by Mike Plummer and Tim foster
Photo by Ryk Porras on Unsplash
A nauseating wave of emotional turmoil swept through me as I hesitantly queued to check in my oversized Karrimor rucksack at Heathrow airport. Here I was, a former junior sales assistant at John Lewis, with career prospects and opportunities that most young people in the early eighties could have only dreamt of, about to embark on an adventure of epic proportions. My plan was to travel around the world, starting off in South America. I felt that if I could survive South America, I could survive anywhere!
Let me put this into context: imagine a tall, skinny, pale, fresh-faced male, 25 years old, blonde hair, blue eyes, who had never set foot out of Europe. I was travelling alone, having put my burgeoning professional career as a college lecturer completely on hold, to discover what lay on the other side of the ‘big bad’ world.
I had just spent the last eight years toiling away building up a career: having left school virtually unqualified with one GCSE, I had by now successfully completed my first post-graduate degree and was working as a BTEC National Coordinator at Matthew Boulton Technical College in Birmingham, with over three years’ lecturing experience under my belt, and was standing at a crossroads in my life.
One route led to a guaranteed career, promotion, safety and security - especially as I was the hero of the hour, having single-handedly stopped a riot in the college canteen between a large number of drunken engineering students and police cadets a few days before the Christmas holidays. Furthermore, I had rescued my vice-principal, a nervous little man who meekly stood or rather cowered in the middle of this rabble, surrounded by some fifty to sixty inebriated students who towered over him, boisterously threatening to rearrange his face! The other route, however, led to risk, danger and the unknown, and its mesmerising allure was so overpowering, like the song of the mythical sirens, that I resigned my post bought a pair of hiking boots and a map of the world.
It was a real, ‘life is too short, so grab it by the throat and squeeze the blood out of it’ moment. But now here I was shitting myself, metaphorically speaking, and I hadn’t even arrived at my departure gate.
This wasn’t the first time I had done something completely manic without thinking things through properly: aged 17, I decided that it would be a most wondrous idea to play ‘Chicken’ with my friend’s car, once a week, at the end of our day-release course at a local Tech college (I spent the rest of the week working at Knight and Lees Department store, in Southsea). For those of you who do not know what the game ‘Chicken’ is, let me paint a vivid picture for you. ‘Chicken’, in ordinary terms, consists of one person dodging an object or objects coming at them, generally at high speed. These objects could be anything that can be thrown, kicked or could even be runners in a race or a cyclist on the road, although unfortunately my version involved a car.
‘Car dodging’ had become a weekly tradition at Highbury Technical College and, to my own credit and being an adrenaline junkie, I was pretty good at it: standing in the middle of the road waving my arms and laughing as one of my classmates would drive out of the car park and head straight for me. Then at the critical moment, I would successfully leap out of the way and, with a manic smile on my face, I’d bathe in the surge of adrenalin that would rush through my body, leaving me elated, breathless and wanting more. However, on one occasion - just one week before my first year exams, I might add - I toyed with fate one too many times and in one misjudged feint, was completely taken out by the car. I rolled, by some stroke of luck, over the bonnet and roof, only to land unconscious in the gutter by the side of the road, rather than under the wheels.
My friend driving the car, believing we were about to collide, lost his nerve at the very last moment just as I was about to jump out of the way and, unfortunately, swerved in the same direction as I had leapt. Realising his mistake he immediately slammed his foot on the pedal missing the brake and by pure chance hitting the accelerator instead. This actually proved to be a saving grace, for as the car was speeding up when it actually hit me it propelled my body over the top of the car. If it had been braking and slowing down when it had hit me I would probably have gone under the wheels and been run over, probably fatally.
As a result, I was admitted to the intensive care unit at the local hospital in a coma, where I lay unconscious for the first week, then half awake, thankfully, for a further ten days, strapped up to an array of assorted medical machinery before being released. I spent another five weeks recovering at home, on the Isle of Wight, before starting work and ‘normal life’ again. My family and friends who visited me and helped me through this difficult time probably thought that this would, at long last, curb my antics and make me appreciate the value of my life a little more. However, unfortunately for them, surviving a collision like that only made me realise just how short life really was and how much more there was to see and experience before the final curtain falls. As clichéd as it may sound, the memory of the crash and my daredevil approach to life got me on to the tarmac, up those steps and on to that plane on that cold winter’s day in January 1981.
My palms were sweaty and my fingers trembled nervously as I fumbled with the seatbelt by my side, which, for some unapparent reason, was refusing to lock together. I let out a disgruntled sigh and proceeded to carefully study the offending apparatus, convinced that the seat had been wrongly equipped with two identical halves. Finding this not to be the case, I sheepishly began looking around me trying to see if anyone else was experiencing similar difficulties. However, it appeared not, so I once more turned to the matter in hand with renewed vigour and agitated frustration.
‘Can I be of some assistance?’ chirped a tall, slender air stewardess who had suddenly appeared beside me, hovering in the gangway. She must have caught the distressed look forming upon my face as, without further ado, she seductively lent over me to fasten the belt before smiling sweetly and saying, ‘Don’t worry, many people get nervous about flying.’
Yes, I thought, as she left my side, but it’s not the flying that worries me, it’s what happens when we land!
She continued up the aisle in search of other passengers in need of her assistance, her shapely hips tastefully wrapped in a figure hugging uniform, rhythmically swaying from side to side. This receding vision of beauty momentarily bewitched me, before I reluctantly came to and sank back into my chair.
Can this really be happening to me, I thought to myself, or am I just dreaming and, if so, what sort of dream will it turn out to be?
I sat there, silently pondering over the answer, oblivious to all the commotion around me until, as if in answer to that very question, the plane’s engines promptly roared into life and filled the cabin with their deafening cries. Yes, I decided, this is reality, and before I knew it, the ‘Fasten Your Seatbelt’ and ‘No Smoking’ signs were flashing above my head and the plane began slowly rolling across the tarmac, edging towards the awaiting runway and its destination of Miami, Florida. There was a moment’s hesitation while the pilot readied for the ‘clear for take-off’ signal from the control tower. Then, the signal received, the plane set off down the runway, picking up great speed as it went along, until its nose gently tilted skywards and it majestically ascended into the heavens.
I took a long, deep breath and closed my eyes. I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. I was extremely excited but at the same time very, very scared. What will happen to me? How, when and from where will I return? WILL I RETURN!!!!? Questions like these kept flashing into my mind, thrown out by an overactive brain that was fast becoming intoxicated on an endlessly rising tide of adrenaline.
Suddenly, all of those months of planning were over. Here I was on the verge of the single greatest adventure of my life, but I was afraid. Afraid to take that first step, that initial jolt that would lead me into the unknown, the harsh and often frightening reality of another world. I was finally leaving the confines of a protective environment, an industrialised nation with all of its social benefits and handouts, which are all too often taken for granted. Out there lay the third world, full of underdeveloped countries where sufficient food, clothing and shelter were the exclusive rights of the rich and an all-too-often hopeless ambition of the poor.
From Miami, I caught a connecting flight on to Santa Cruz in Bolivia, via Caracus in Venezuela and Manaus, the capital of the Amazon.
Santa Cruz airport, which was probably the Mecca for all Bolivian airplane enthusiasts, unfortunately left much to be desired as far as European standards went. I remember looking out of the plane’s window as it approached the runway, alarmed to see several concrete runways, each carefully placed in-between the remnants of what at first sight looked like a number of crashed planes. However, upon closer inspection, as we came into land, I realised that they were, in fact, the remains of abandoned aircraft in various stages of decomposition. It became apparent later on that the scrap metal was being used for spare parts. In third world countries, nothing went to waste.
The airport also included a few whitewashed concrete buildings, the occasional, much-valued, scraggy-looking chicken foraging around for food and the inevitable soldiers. Armed to the teeth, they stood ominously dotted around outside the buildings like acorns on an oak tree, but looking fearsome and unfriendly. Evidently, Bolivia was recovering from its latest revolution. In fact, the country seemed quite partial to revolutions and actually held the world record, having had approximately one hundred and fifty in the last one hundred years.
The plane taxied slowly to the end of the runway, veering off towards the airport’s unimpressive collection of buildings. Whereupon, reaching its destination, the aircraft lurched to a halt, prompting me to unclip my safety belt, before following the other passengers apprehensively off the plane. I climbed carefully down the mobile gangway and stepped onto Bolivian concrete. The glare from the sun made me instinctively reach for my Polaroids, while my lungs began trying to adjust to the unfamiliar warm, damp, stale-smelling air. It was like stepping into a sauna fully-clothed, under the watchful gaze of an immensely powerful searchlight.
Inside the main building, I was met by a babbling mass of people milling around in what, to my eyes, seemed disorganised chaos. Momentarily, I stood perfectly still almost stunned, allowing the array of strange sights, sounds and smells to bombard my senses all at once. I was confused, disorientated and perspiring profusely. The place reminded me of a scene from the Hollywood blockbuster Casablanca, but I could not see Bogart anywhere, and where was the pianist?
I eventually came to and, after staring all around with a ‘young little boy lost’ look written across my face, I realised that no one was going to come and help me. I was out here on my own.
For a short moment, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and clenched my fists before tentatively approaching an official-looking man who was suitably attired in his airport uniform and standing diligently behind a counter. I proceeded to ask him how, when and where I had to check in for my connecting flight to Buenos Aires. However, there was an unfortunate communication problem, as the official could not speak a word of English and my limited command of the Spanish language consisted of - ‘Si Si, Señory and Señorita!’
Consequently, either the official misunderstood my question or I his answer, or, as the case may well have been, we both misunderstood each other. The eventual outcome of which was that I went straight to passport control, from where I was ushered by an armed soldier up a creeping wooden staircase and into the ‘International Lounge’.
Lounge, I thought as I emerged through the doorway. Why, I had seen better furniture in a Glaswegian unemployment office (but that’s another story).
The elaborately decorated room, upon which the Bolivian authorities had obviously spared no expense, measured roughly 12 metres by 9. It contained eleven wooden benches covered with bodies in varying degrees of consciousness, a small wooden bar and the top of a flight of stairs that led out onto the runway. In one corner was situated a mixed toilet the stench of which could be smelled from most parts of the room and was guaranteed to put the faint-hearted off any thought of eating. The concrete floor had never heard of, let alone seen, a carpet and the windows, which adorned the two outer walls of the room overlooking the runway, stood proudly, naked to the eye, without a pair of curtains or set of blinds in sight to cover the gently distorted curves of their frames and the peeling paintwork.
The only form of entertainment, apart from watching the locals scratch themselves, was a small black and white television, positioned some two meters off the ground and surrounded by a wall of awe-struck locals; each one seemingly mesmerised by 20th century technology. The monochrome talking picture box was showing dubbed over reruns of the 1960’s British serial ‘Robin Hood’, starring Richard Greene. He was, surprisingly, an accomplished bi-lingual and managed to perform the amazing feat of miming in English while speaking in Spanish with apparent ease.
Several hours later, an ancient-looking 1940s Douglas DC3 twin-propeller plane crawled along the runway and the flight to Buenos Aires was announced. A queue quickly formed in the lounge, from the now fully conscious bodies, who began slowly moving down the stairs in an orderly fashion. It felt surreal being the only foreigner in the queue. I towered like a colossus over the rest of the travellers, many of whom were Gauchos from the Pampas. They wore colourful ponchos, thick cotton trousers, cowboy hats and weather-beaten, leathery, tanned faces.
At the bottom
of the stairs stood a ticket-collector who was carefully
checking each boarding pass, while at the other end of a short
passageway stood an armed soldier guarding the exit to the runway and
the awaiting aeroplane. He was brandishing a sub-machine gun held
firmly in his hands and it was fairly obvious that he took his job
very seriously. Slowly, one by one, the passengers walked past the
soldier and out into the sunlight to board this dinosaur from a
bygone age. At least, that’s what everyone else was doing. I,
however, handed my ticket over and started walking along the short
corridor leading to the outside, when the ticket-collector suddenly
called after me. I was abruptly brought to a halt by the armed guard
who swung the sub-machine gun he was holding and thumped the barrel
into my stomach. I immediately broke out into a cold sweat and
realised that I had an allergy to guns, especially loaded ones! My
heart started pumping like a hungry woodpecker attacking a tree and
I was beginning to wish that I had worn an incontinence-pad in case
of nervous leaks! Luckily though, it was not needed as the ticket
collector called me back and proceeded to explain, in broken English,
that I could not board the airplane, as I had not yet checked my
rucksack in from the previous flight. This was something that I had
stupidly assumed would automatically have been done for me when the
luggage was taken off the plane, as I was on a connecting flight.
Furthermore, and in typical South American style, the plane to Buenos
Aires had been overbooked so I could regrettably do little
more than helplessly watch it take off and disappear in to the
clouds without me*. As a result, I ended up spending several hours
longer than I had anticipated in Bolivia, hanging around the airport
manager’s Office, anxiously awaiting news of an available
plane. In the meantime, I was on my best behaviour, trying to be as
nice as possible to everyone, especially the armed guards, by
Nancy Reagan grin (the wife of the then American President, Ronald
Reagan, who had a strong penchant for facelifts which left her face
with a permanent grin) and waving frantically to anyone whenever I
stepped outside the office to stretch my legs.
Nigeria some years later, an army sergeant, when faced with a similar
problem of overbooking, came up with an original and amusing
solution. The plane had been overbooked to the point that every seat
was occupied and the gangways between the seats were choked with
sweating obese bodies. Meanwhile outside the mobile stairway
leading up to the plane was also full and there were a large number
of people trying to get on to the stairway. Consequently, the
sergeant brandishing his sub-machine gun ordered everyone off the
plane and made them all run around it three times, promising that the
first people back would be guaranteed a seat. It evidently resembled
a huge dodgems car race, as in West Africa the staple diet is Fou
Fou, a starchy breadfruit, which invariably causes the development
of obesity. Fortunately though, in West Africa, fatness is a sign of
good health, prosperity and beauty and so it is highly respected and
By the time I had reached Buenos Aires, all I was dreaming of was a cool shower and a bed but it seemed, for the time being at least, that even these simple pleasures were to elude me.
At the airport, I rearranged my flight to Montevideo as, due to my unexpected stopover in Bolivia, I had missed my connection. It was here that I discovered my ticket was actually valid for six months and that I could have stopped over in Caracas, Manaus and Santa Cruz if I had wished too. Oh well, I thought, it's a little late to find out now. Still, I quickly decided that my introduction to South America would be done in style, so I accordingly changed US$30 worth of travellers’ cheques into 60,960 Argentinian Pesos and went to buy a bus ticket to the city Centre. I was convinced that this would be more than enough to cover the bus fare, a room for the night and still enable me to do some sight-seeing the following day. After all, I was travelling through South America
Unfortunately, Buenos Aires turned out to be very expensive to visit (it was the most expensive city in the world for commercial office rents). In fact the bus fare alone, which only took approximately twenty five minutes, cost an incredible 27,000 pesos (that was approximately $13.30 US or $38.75 US in today’s money)!
Upon reaching my destination in the city centre, I alighted from the bus and set about scouring the backstreets and alleyways, in search of some form of cheap accommodation. While sitting at home, half-heartedly reading through a selection of South American travel books that had listed pages of accommodation, it had all seemed so easy. All I had to do was simply turn up and walk down any side-street that I chose and cheap hotels would be fighting for my custom. However, now that the day-dreaming was over and reality had taken its place, I saw everything in a somewhat different light.
There I stood, alone in the middle of a crowded bus station somewhere in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, 10,500kms away from home. It was half past ten at night (01.30 am GMT), I could not speak the local language and was tired, hungry and thirsty. Still, I was British and proud of it: one of the Bulldog breed, I kept on telling myself. So, with rucksack firmly strapped to my back and bulging kitbag in hand, I reluctantly marched out into the night, with my only comfort being the thought that at least things couldn’t get worse. Alas, I was wrong.
After several minutes, the threatening sound of thunder rang in my ears and before long I was gaining first-hand experience of a South American rainstorm as the great sink-plug in the sky was removed and water poured down in ever-increasing quantities. Droplets the size of marbles plummeted down at a considerable speed, stinging everything in their path including me; and immediately drenching me to the skin. I began to wonder if visiting South America was really such a good idea after all.
I tried several seedy-looking hotels but had little success, as they were either fully booked or didn't seem to like letting out rooms to drowned rats with rucksacks. Unknowingly, I had arrived at the peak of the Argentinian holiday season. So much for foresight and meticulous planning! I thought to myself. By now, I was starting to become paranoid over the predicament I found myself in and the more I walked, the more concerned I became; half-expecting to come face to face with a knife-wielding mugger who would leave me crumpled in a heap up a dark side-alley with my throat slit. It was like a bad dream except for two things: I wasn't tucked up in a warm bed and I most definitely couldn't wake up from this one.
Eventually, with the help of an English-speaking student that by chance I happened to ask directions from, I located a hotel called "The Pit", or at least after spending one night there, that's what I christened it.
For the princely sum of 20,500 pesos (approximately $10 US), I managed to procure a room. However, it looked more like a toilet cubicle, consisting of a cast-iron bed, paper thin mattress and a wooden chair with an assortment of different-sized legs.
The hotel itself looked like a Victorian slum: old, smelly and practically falling down; a ramshackle remnant of a bygone age. It was also infested with the Argentine equivalent to meals-on-wheels - i.e. "Meals on legs". The place was a miniature game reserve for cockroaches, which seemed to be crawling all over it.
They were literally everywhere except, that is, in my room, which reinforced my belief that insects weren't stupid. After all, even cockroaches had limits beneath which they would not stoop. I had my first close encounter with one of them as I was climbing up a dimly lit, rickety old staircase which led to my bedroom. It seemed that one of them was scurrying down the banisters for a quick bite to eat when I accidentally put my hand on it. I shuddered at the feel of its hard shell-like body writhing under my palm and instinctively withdrew my hand before racing up the stairs like a scared child, to the comparative safety of my room.
At 3 a.m. local time (6 a.m. GMT time) while sitting on my bed, listening to my neighbour’s television, which remained on all night, I wrote the day's closing comments in my diary:
‘I'm off to bed now, or at least, I think that's what it is: something long and thin that sinks in the middle and doesn't move very much when you sit on it.’
‘At last we're alone’, I softly whispered to the bed bugs. Oh happy days are here again!
In July 1987 grave robbers broke into former Argentine president Juan Peron's tomb and cut off his hands (he had died in 1974). They then demanded $8,000,000 US for their safe return, threatening to burn them unless the ransom was paid.
In October 1988 a poodle fell to its death from the thirteenth floor balcony of a tower block in Buenos Aires, killing three people in the process. It landed on a woman killing her instantly, causing a shocked bystander to step back in horror off the pavement and straight into the path of an on-coming bus, whilst an elderly man witnessing the whole regrettable incident from across the road, dropped dead from a massive heart-attack.
In November 1991, Argentinian anger boiled over into violent demonstrations when it was revealed that France had donated 32,000 tons of dried human excrement as a good will gesture to Argentina to be used as fertiliser. The arrival of the ‘detritus humanus' on a converted container ship only came to light when a somewhat perplexed Argentinian customs chief asked officials for a ruling over whether imported human faeces was subject to import tax.
However medieval physicians in England regularly used animal dung in their treatments:
Greek white, the white coating on dried dog dung, was prescribed, for sore throats, tonsillitis and lung ailments.
Mice excrement was useful for intestinal worms.
Oxen dung for rheumatism or fever.
Sheep manure was used to help treat jaundice.
Freshly dropped cow dung was often applied to aching joints.
As gross as this may seem today dried dung from healthy animals does actually contain antimicrobial and even antibiotic properties.
The Patagonian cavy or Mara is a large rodent living in the arid regions of Argentina, unusually for a rodent it is monogamous and will mate with the same partner for life. The young are well develop at birth and can start to graze within 24 hours of being born. They are kept in a large communal den where up to 15 pairs of cavy deposit their young and then take turns to look after them during the day. Each mother returns several times during the day to feed and nurse their young and look after the crèche.
The Pampas are the fertile South American lowlands that cover over
750,000 square Kilometres of the continent. They stretch across large parts of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil.
farmer, Pedro Martin Uretas, created a stunning tribute to his late
wife on their farmland at Laboulaye in the central Argentinian
province of Pampa, by planting seven thousand trees in the shape of a
guitar which stretches for almost a mile, and is so large that it can
only be properly appreciated from the sky. However, Pedro has never
been able to fully appreciate his own handiwork, as he is afraid of
January 28, 1981
Although the room was somewhat squalid and depressing to look at, I still slept well and arose the next morning feeling refreshed and ready to face through a breakfast of cheese rolls and home-made quiche lorraine, ‘Thanks mum’. This was washed down by a canteen full of chlorinated swimming pool water, or at least that's what it tasted like once I had added the correct dosage of purification tablets. Then, having satisfied my hunger and thirst, I quickly packed up my rucksack and left my previous night’s refuge. The thought of its sinking bed, sandbag pillow and view of a local poverty trap from the doorway, spurred me on towards the backstreets of Buenos Aires.
The room was situated on the fourth floor off an open veranda that clung to the side of the building like a limpet mine and overlooked a local slum area tucked away in-between several impressive-looking skyscrapers.
Once outside, I began trying to locate the city's other airport by asking for directions to the nearest bus station, from where I hoped I would be able to catch a bus. It appeared that the city had two airports and that I had flown into one on the previous night and was due to fly out of the other sometime later that afternoon. The local people were friendly and extremely helpful, especially when they found out that I was British. After all, it had been a contingent of British mercenaries that had helped liberate Argentina from the perilous clutches of its colonial masters, the Spanish. I had also arrived a year before the Falklands crisis erupted on to the scene.
Unfortunately however, the police were suspicious of everyone, especially people who looked out of the ordinary. So, it wasn't long before I had been stopped in the street by two gun-toting policemen, frisked spread-eagled against the side of their police car, questioned in broken English and made to produce my passport. I was later informed by a fellow traveller, that if I had not been carrying my passport at the time, I would have automatically been thrown into jail for a couple of days and in the process have probably lost any valuables that I had had in my possession ! Moreover, I was assured that this would be the least of my worries, as if there was a revolution during my stay in prison - which seemed to occur throughout South America with alarming regularity - the reasons for and the length of my imprisonment might easily be lost in the chaos and confusion that would inevitably follow. Consequently, I could end up becoming a long-term guest of the new military junta.
Somewhat shaken by my first encounter with the Argentinian authorities, I carried on with increasing apprehension, but, as the old saying goes, it was a case of ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire.’
Before long I had, quite by accident, stumbled across the headquarters of the Argentinian commandos, the grounds of which were next to a park littered with tanks and anti-aircraft guns, each neatly placed in-between rows of brightly coloured flower beds. I got the impression, however, that the weaponry on display was not there for decoration purposes. As I walked by, head bowed low under the weight of my rucksack, my attention was drawn towards the front of the building as an aggressive shout rang out above the droning hum of passing traffic.
I looked up to find two armed guards standing at the top of an elegantly sweeping concrete staircase looking down at me through the sights of their rifles. In between them stood a young army officer, pistol in hand, loudly gesticulating with his arm while shouting out a command, which I guessed was ordering me to immediately cross over the road and walk past the building on the other side. Remembering my allergy to guns, I quickly obeyed. I carefully negotiated my way across the busy dual carriageway, realising that I was but a hair-trigger away from having my head blown off, as the commandos carefully followed my progress with their rifles.
Having wasted most of the morning wandering through the backstreets of the city lost, I eventually stumbled upon a bus station, where fortune smiled on me as a couple of extremely helpful Argentinian sailors, one of whom was studying English, advised me on which bus to catch. Within the hour I was boarding a plane for Montevideo, the Capital of Uruguay, and by late afternoon I had settled into a cheap hotel close to the city centre.
I was glad to have left Argentina, for although the people had been very friendly, the police and military authorities were well-renowned for their ruthless and barbaric methods of dealing with people. They ruled with a rod of iron and a simple promise: if you caused trouble, you would be permanently removed from society.
During what became known as the “Dirty War” (1976-1983), the military used to regularly abduct people from their homes, usually in the middle of the night, and they would disappear, never to be seen again by their family or friends. Initially they would be taken to one of 364 secret interrogation centres, where they would be tortured.
Once the authorities believed that they had obtained all useful information from the victim, they would be driven to a nearby air field, bundled on to a helicopter and then flown out several miles into the Atlantic Ocean. Once there, they would have their hands tied behind their back, their stomachs sliced open with a machete and the bleeding body would be dumped into the dark waters below. Needless to say few bodies were ever washed up on to the coastline.
In 1977 a number of mothers whose children or partners had disappeared started protesting peacefully at the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, in front of the Casa Rosada Presidential Palace in open defiance of the government’s attempts to ban all forms of protest. Each week they would meet together and silently dance with the ghosts of their missing husbands, partners or children. In 1987 Sting released the song ‘They dance alone’, in veneration of their plight. Unfortunately, several founding members of this movement were abducted and ended up on one of those ‘death flights’. The military later admitted that over 9,000 people had disappeared under these circumstances but the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo believe that the figure is closer to 30,000.
Like all other South American countries, Argentina consisted of two classes, two extremes: you were either rich and powerful or poor and powerless. This fact was later highlighted by a friend who explained to me the different funeral arrangements available in Buenos Aires.
At the poor man's cemetery, the procedure was simple – the authorities dug a huge pit, filled it up with bodies and then covered it up with earth. Four years later, they dug it up again, burnt the remains and buried another collection of unknown people in their place. Whereas, the rich person's cemetery, called ‘The Cemetery of Ricoleta’- which roughly translated means the ‘little city of the dead’, followed a somewhat different practice.
The cemetery was like a museum of architecture, with a Greek colonnade at its entrance and a huge bronze statue of the resurrected saviour at the far end. These were linked by a main avenue that had a number of paths, each paved in stone and lined with cypress trees, branching off it. Along these paths, huddled close together like thouses in a street, stood the family vaults of the region’s influential and affluent nobility. The list of permanent residents reads like an Argentinian hall of fame and includes: Eva Perón; a granddaughter of Napoleon; past presidents of Argentina; the founder of the Argentine Navy, and Nobel Prize winners to name but a few.
Each tomb was shaped like a building, which ranged from the simple to the extravagant, with practically every conceivable style of architecture represented. There were Georgian houses, miniature banks, war memorials and even a small pyramid. Inside, the coffins were laid out on shelves and the families even employed servants to go in every day to dust the coffins, clean the floor and windows and polish the front door! Outside each family vault was mounted a large strategically positioned plaque that contained a list of the people permanently in residence, along with their date of arrival.
That night, I ventured out and sank a few bottles of local beer. This was more like it: sat in a bar, a crisp ‘cerveza’ in hand, happy and relaxed for the first time since leaving England.
In October 1992, a treasure hunter, Ruben Callado, successfully located the wreck of the ‘El Preciado’, a Spanish galleon sunk by English pirates 200 years earlier off the coast of Montevideo. The ships manifest which had been found after a detailed search of shipping archives stated it was transporting 47 tons of gold, 147 tons of silver and a six-foot-high, gold-plated statue of the Virgin Mary.
afterwards the find was discussed at a specially convened cabinet
meeting as it was thought the treasure from the ship could be
equivalent to Uruguay’s total foreign debt. Regrettably though
this proved not to be the case, although it was still worth over $400
Duelling was only outlawed in Uruguay in 1992.
Uruguay has the longest national anthem in the world: it has 11 verses and can take approximately six minutes to sing through, but it’s worth waiting for with lines such as, ‘No one insults the image of the sun!’
Uruguay’s President Jose Mujica (2010 – 2015) refused to reside in the official presidential palace during his tenure and instead lived in a one-bedroomed house. He also donated around 90% of his salary to charity and once adopted a dog that he accidently ran over in his tractor
January 29, 1981
At first light, I caught a bus along the coast to Maldonado, a popular seaside resort that I had read – ‘Should not be missed at all costs, due to its beautiful sandy beaches’. However, having dragged my rucksack around the hotels for nearly two hours, I finally came to the conclusion that there must have been a printing error in my South American handbook. It should have read – Maldonado should be missed at all costs – and at an average cost of $45 US per night on my meagre finances, could you blame me? Consequently, I got the next bus back to Montevideo and decided to push on that night to the country that I had come to South America to visit: Brazil. The fourth largest country in the world (it covers over 8.5 million square kms, approximately 48% of South America), Brazil is full of spectacular scenery, exotic food, idyllic weather and, so I had been reliably informed, beautiful women.
The return journey from Maldonado to Montevideo was particularly cosy, as the driver appeared to be attempting to gain a place in the Guinness Book of Records for squeezing the largest number of passengers onto a bus. In fact at one time there were more people standing than sitting. Following this ‘take my breath away’ experience, I promised myself to never again complain about London’s Underground at rush hour. Within a comparatively short space of time everyone was joining in with the occasion by ‘getting to know their neighbours’, which became a very intimate experience whenever someone from the back of the bus attempted to get off.
The bus eventually reached its final destination after having crawled along the road at an excruciatingly slow pace and opened its doors to release countless hordes of passengers on to the streets of Montevideo.
Upon regaining the circulation in my legs, I proceeded to make my way to the ticket office in the bus station, where, after fighting my way through the crowds to get served, I booked a ticket to Porto Allegre. I then spent a lazy afternoon wandering around the city before returning to the station to board the awaiting overnight coach.
This coach was excellent and the scenery breathtaking, but what made the journey so memorable was the way in which the driver and co-driver doubled up as waiters. Every 2 or 3 hours they would pull off the road, stop the coach and come around serving refreshments. The first time it was with boiled sweets, the second time coffee and biscuits and finally chilled drinking water.
In the early hours of the morning the coach neared the Brazilian border and I began to feel a little nervous, as this was one moment that I had not been looking forward to. I had noted when carrying out some background research on South America that the Brazilian border police often gave people travelling with rucksacks a bad time; carefully searching through their packs for anything looking vaguely suspicious and asking numerous personal questions.
The coach came to a halt outside the border post and I joined the exodus as everyone filed off to collect their luggage and carry it into the building for inspection. Once inside though, I was somewhat relieved when they only made a token gesture of checking my belongings, by casually opening up my kitbag and half-heartedly looking inside. In fact they didn’t even bother to make me open up my rucksack and instead simply drew an ‘X’ on the side of it with a piece of chalk, before walking along to the next person’s luggage. Obviously, the early hours of the morning were the best time to cross the Brazilian border with a rucksack. It seemed the guards were only too willing to pass everyone through as quickly as possible and then stamp their passports so they could get back to sleep.
During one of the refreshment stops, I got talking to an elderly widow sitting close by who enquired if I was English and upon her return, immediately introduced me to her daughter, Silfide, who had taken the opportunity to get off the coach and stretch her legs. They both spoke perfect English and Silfide was quick to grab the opportunity to find out what had been happening back in England since she had returned home.
It turned out that her father had been the Uruguayan Consulate General to England and since her return to Montevideo upon his death, she had been homesick for London and English-speaking people, which were sadly lacking in Uruguay. She had so many questions to ask that we ended up talking throughout most of the night. By the early hours, I had gained first-hand knowledge of how the inner circle of the diplomatic corps lived, played and worked in London. It appeared that her social calendar had been one long continuous cycle of banquets, balls and socialite parties; during which she rubbed shoulders with the men and women (or at least their sons and daughters), who personally advised many of the world’s leaders.
In South America they tended to do things their own way. Argentinian bandits held up a coach, and having robbed everyone of their valued possessions, proceeded to lock them all up in the boot, until some hours later they were released by an elderly peasant walking past with his donkey!
You should never burp, fart, spit or pick your teeth in public in Uruguay as it is frowned upon and regarded as extremely disrespectful to the people around you.Bolivia is one of only two landlocked countries in South America, and every year on March 23rd the country commemorates the Battle of Calama which led to the loss of the “Litoral”. This was a mainly desert region of approximately 120,000 square kilometres which gave Bolivia access to the Pacific ocean but was conceded to Chile at the end of the War of the Pacific in 1879.
At the Battle of Calama Commander Eduardo Abaroa was defending a small bridge over the River Topáter with a small company of less than a hundred men against a battalion of 500 well-armed Chilean soldiers. The Chilean commander seeing the hopeless position that the enemy was in, immediately ordered Abaroa to surrender. However he refused, uttering the immortal words “Me, surrender? Tell your grandmother to surrender!” upon which he was shot dead and the rest of the Bolivian soldiers were massacred.
Despite being landlocked for 140 years Bolivia still has a navy of over 5,000 sailors who are largely employed on Lake Titicaca (one of South America's largest lakes and the world’s highest navigable body of water), where they work in the tourist industry offering day trips on the lake to help pay for the upkeep of their boats.
At midday on March 23rd the crowds observe five minutes of silence while they listen to recordings of seagulls squawking and ships’ horns’ tooting being played over loudspeakers.
Bolivia's former president Eduardo Veltze, the country's annual GDP
growth could be 20 percent higher if it still had direct
access to international waters.
January 30, 1981
Upon arrival at Porto Allegre, Capital of the state of Rio Grande do Sol, I tentatively joined Silfide and her mother outside the bus as they waited for their respective luggage to be unloaded. I had decided to stick to them like a leech and was secretly hoping to be invited home to stay. I felt like a blood-sucker. The prospects seemed most promising and my mind began to mull over the possibilities. A soft bed instead of a hard sack, wallpaper instead of crawling cockroaches and yes, real food. although I meant no disrespect to my mother's sandwich making abilities that had sustained me for the first three days of my travels.
Unfortunately for me however, they both lived in a large house in Montevideo and were just up visiting Porto Allegre to look at some property. It seems that for the duration of their stay they had rented a small apartment, large enough for two, but not spacious enough for three.
I felt disappointed, but tried to hide it as I best I could and soon perked up when Silfide cordially invited me around that evening for a meal and even offered to help me find a reasonably-priced hotel.
Upon reaching a suitable place of habitation near the city centre, Silfide suggested that I should wait outside while she enquired within. It appeared that the managers of these establishments often kept two price lists: one entitled ‘Locals’ and the other ‘Foreigners’. Having successfully negotiated a reasonable price, she then reappeared outside the building and led me in, much to the amusement of the official behind the front desk.
Registration documents completed, she left me to settle into my room, leaving her address and suggesting that I should come around for a drink and bite to eat once I had unpacked.
The room was small and primitive looking, but clean and comparatively insect-free as far as South American standards went. There was only one slight problem, while the manager was demonstrating how to operate the shower unit along the corridor, he indicated that I should always open the window whenever I took a shower. The trouble was the hotel backed on to a block of high rise apartments and, as the window had no blinds or curtains, I wondered whether the manager was running a private peep show for the bored housewives across the way, for a small remuneration of course. I only hoped they wouldn’t demand a refund!
The hotel was situated in the centre of town at the top of a very steep hill. As I was soon to learn, Porto Allegre was actually built on a series of hills which ensured that all sightseeing would not only improve your mind, with regards to Brazilian architecture, but also your body. I also noticed that the fashionable dress for most of the nubile young women of the area consisted of a figure hugging leotard, short pleated skirt and sandals. No bra of course, as it would have been out of the question to wear one in the uncomfortable humidity of the tropics.
I readily approved of such common sense and felt that the sight of such liberated freedom, especially on some of the more well-endowed passers-by, was at times breathtakingly spectacular and well worth a closer inspection if at all possible.
In the afternoon Silfide, who regrettably did not partake in the local fashion, gave me a personalised sightseeing tour of the city. I was particularly surprised, while walking through a busy indoor market, to come across a voodoo shop neatly slotted in-between a designer clothes shop and a local butchers.
The place was filled with numerous herbs, charms and a large assortment of carvings in various sizes. There were glass jars full of animal eyes: evidently snakes’ eyes were supposed to be particularly good for solving love or money problems. I could imagine the instructions - ‘one to be taken three times a day after meals’. There was also a collection of assorted lizard skins piled high in a corner. These it seemed, would be sold and then at a later date cut into strips, ground into powder using a mortar and pestle and sprinkled over food. This evidently had the power to calm the high-spirited. Yet other containers were filled to the brim with lizard tails, which Silfide assured me made very good back scratchers! They even sold powdered dog’s tongue which, when added to a man’s food, was supposed to make him a loyal lover, while a naked ceramic couple once bought and displayed in the bedroom was guaranteed to significantly improve your love life, rectify impotency and increase fertility!
By the doorway stood a six foot tall carving of a negro woman, brightly painted and lacquered so that it stood out amongst its dull surroundings. Its deeply set eyes gazed out from a solid face of mahogany with a stare that sent a cold shiver down my spine. I refused to enter the shop for a closer examination and, much to my relief, we left the area shortly afterwards, heading for a nearby park.
It seemed that witchcraft was a recognised and often accepted form of medicine in Brazil and voodoo shops were commonplace in many towns and villages throughout the country.
In the evening I was treated to a most enjoyable meal, washed down by a liberal supply of chilled wine. Silfide and I talked on until late about London and the life of a diplomatic family, before I left to slowly retrace my steps back to the hotel, where I collapsed into bed and drifted off into a deep and restful sleep.
Twenty four kilometres along the coast from Porto Alegre is the seaside resort of Cassino that uses, among other things, a novel method of public transportation: railway flat cars powered by sail.
in Laguna, in the southeast of Brazil, have
a novel way of catching fish by using dolphins as a type of
water-based sheepdog to
herd the fish towards their waiting nets. This practice has been
going on for generations and at the end of each successful catch, the
dolphins receive a share of the bounty.
In Brazil armed robberies are known as ‘Bangie-Bangies’.
Uruguay has had problems with obesity and blood pressure. To combat this, the government banned the use of salt shakes in public places!*
has over 12 million cattle which outnumber the population by 3 to 1.
January 31, 1981
I awoke to the sunlight shining through the curtain-less window. Then, abruptly stirring from my bed, I grabbed a towel and with knobbly white knees jutting out before me, I made a quick dash down the corridor towards the bathroom. By the time I had finished, I felt sure that the neighbours would probably be demanding financial compensation from the hotelier and the initiation of a government rehousing scheme, declaring the immediate vicinity unsafe for window-watchers!
I spent the morning with Silfide and her mother, where once again the larder doors were opened as food and wine were placed before me in ever-increasing quantities. In the afternoon, Silfide took me hill-climbing around the city, revealing some of its lesser-known tourist attractions. Regrettably, however, these did not include herself.
On the way back to their apartment, I mentioned how surprised I had been that morning, to turn on my radio and, quite by accident, tune into a local station playing British and American music. Silfide explained that if the local radio stations had their own way they would probably play western music and little else. However, the Brazilian authorities, realising this to be the case, passed a law stating that all radio stations must play a higher proportion of Brazilian samba music than western music, as in this way they hoped to preserve their musical heritage for future generations.
At 18:30, Silfide walked me to the bus station where I caught the overnight coach to Curitiba. The coach was spacious and comfortable but sadly lacked one important feature: air-conditioning. Consequently, I had a restless night in the still unfamiliar humidity of the tropics. Furthermore, I noted that the toilet was worth avoiding if at all possible. In fact, I found the sanitation in most parts of Brazil to be of an extremely poor standard. You could tell the British Empire had never stretched this far! Here, as with many other developing countries, the toilet paper was not supposed to be flushed, but instead placed into an open waste paper basket close by. This was periodically emptied when it became full to overflowing, although in the tropical humidity it could have practically walked off and emptied itself !
In 1500, Pedro Cabral sailed from Lisbon with 13 ships and 1200 men following Vasco da Gama's navigation charts to India. Unfortunately for the natives of Brazil, his ships were of a bulkier design than da Gama's and were consequently much slower. This resulted in them being carried further west than intended by the strong equatorial currents of the region
When Cabral first sighted the coastline of Brazil he believed it to be an island and, upon landing, sent out a small search party to walk around it. There is no recorded evidence that they ever returned! Cabral set sail for Portugal nine days later, the holds of his ships filled with the timbers of the Brazil tree, leaving behind two convicts to learn the Indians’ language and customs.
At first, little interest was shown in the country until a small number of merchants who had successfully extracted a red dye from the Brazil tree's timbers approached the king and were granted the rights to the Brazil wood trade.
The country was originally named ‘The land of Santa Cruz’ (Holy Cross) until, in the years that followed, vast numbers of merchant ships plied the Atlantic ocean back and forth transporting huge quantities of hardwood from the Brazil tree. Over a period of time people started referring to it as ‘The Land of Brazil’ which in turn was abbreviated to ‘Brazil’.*
a swampy area of the Parana Delta near North-eastern Argentina, lies an
island with a difference. Named “The Eye”,
the Island is a near-perfect round circle of land surrounded by
an equally round thin circle of water. The water is very clear and
very cold in comparison to the other bodies of water in the area. The
diameter of the island is said to be 130 yards (119 meters) across
the outer circle. On top of all this strangeness, the island also
seems to rotate (or float) slowly around its own axis. Comparing
first images taken of it in 2003 and using the slider tool on Google
Earth, clearly shows that the circle
of land has moved around within the hole it is
The bus pulled into Curitiba (capital of the Brazilian state of Parana, built on the 900 metre high plateau of Serra do Mar), at approximately 08.00, whereupon I alighted with the other passengers. Having carefully rummaged through my belongings and repacked my kitbag, I checked my rucksack into the left luggage office for three days and bought a ticket on the overnight coach to Foz de Iguacu. I then spent the rest of the day wandering around Curitiba biding my time and taking things easy.
Within a comparatively short period of time I was yet again following in the footsteps of those less famous and often unknown explorers.* Yes, I was lost, somewhere in the backstreets, but for want of something better to do I decided to carry on regardless and eventually came across the Passeio Publico: the city's central park.
cool shade of the trees attracted my sweat-stained body and I quickly
vanished into their shadows. I was greeted by an array of lush green
vegetation and colourful flowers which scented the air with
sweet-smelling aromas. Venturing further into this Aladdin’s
cave of tropical flora, I came across a lake which had two small
artificial islands situated at its centre. These were inhabited by a
number of monkeys who spent their time either basking in the sun,
each other’s coats, or noisily chattering away amongst
themselves. The islands were linked together by a long rope suspended
between two poles which, periodically, one or more of the monkeys
would cross, casually swinging back and forth, hand over hand as they
precariously dangled above the water.
Nuttall (1786-1859) was a British botanist who in 1812 conducted a
study of plants in the remote parts of North West America.
Unfortunately however, he later became better known for his ability of
getting lost whenever he went out collecting samples rather than for
his classification of flora. In fact, on one such occasion, upon his
failing to return to camp, a search party was sent out to look for him.
However, as they approached the botanist, he mistook them for blood
thirsty Indians and proceeded to run away. The rescuers doggedly
followed him for three whole days through the bush and across rivers
until he accidentally stumbled back into his own camp.
By the water’s edge sat numerous ducks of varying sizes while, close by, several popcorn-sellers paraded up and down the pathway, noisily attacking passers-by with a barrage of sales talk as they attempted to sell their merchandise. I sat down to fully appreciate my surroundings while trying to ignore the continual drone of noise that kept battering my eardrums. Then, much to my surprise, I noticed several people stopping to buy popcorn: to feed, not themselves or the ducks as one would have automatically assumed, but the fish in the lake. The ducks would noisily hover around these human food-dispensers but their frantic quacking came to no avail as the people simply ignored them and carried on feeding a seething mass of hungry and seemingly ferocious fish. Wherever popcorn landed, the smooth surface of the water erupted into a boiling inferno of activity. No wonder few ducks actually ventured into the water. Better to be hungry than fish food! In England ducks ate fish, but somehow over here the roles of predator and prey seemed to have been mixed up in translation, as they looked like being reversed.
The park also contained a small zoo with a varied collection of animals, including thirteen lions - seven male and six female. No wonder Africa was running short of them, they were all over here !
I continued on through the park to find my exit guarded by two naked stone statues, each one over six metres in length. On one side lay a woman reclining on her elbow, head thrown back in gay abandon. While on the other, stood a man staring into the distance; a look of pensive concentration carved onto his face and, by the size of his enormous erection, I had little difficulty imagining what he was thinking of.
At 19:00 I caught a coach to Foz de Iguacu but, unfortunately, it turned out to be both crowded and uncomfortable, so I spent another uneasy night drifting in and out of sleep. While sleeping, I had a weird dream of being repeatedly beaten on the head by a monkey wielding a large fish, only to half-awake to find I was actually hitting my head against the side of the window.