Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The beginning of Patagonia

Well, here we are in Puerto Madryn - our first stop on the way down south, and our first place in Patagonia. And what a place! First of all, we were expecting Puerto Madryn to be somewhat similar to Puerto Iguazu - i.e. a town with little going on that serves only as a gateway to a larger tourist attraction (in this case Peninsula Valdes, where whales rule the sea!). But we were pleasantly surprised to find it a charming and fun town!

We arrived from Buenos Aires - that is, myself, Alan, Bones and Mac arrived (Ed and Welly took the full sleeper bus, so got here a bit later) - at about 9 in the morning, after 22 hours on a bus from Buenos Aires. Perhaps now is the time to explain what buses are like in Argentina, and maybe dispell some illusions you might have! Buses in Argentina - even the semi-beds - are like the business class section of a good airline. For example, for 30 euro (which is what the 22 hour bus cost down here), our seats tilted to a 30 degree angle - as near to lying down as you can go! You are also given a lovely fleece blanket and pillow, and a lady brings you a little sandwich when you first sit down, and brings whatever drink you like - coffee, tea, soft drinks. Then, a little later, they put on the movie, and as you are watching it, they bring a hot meal - the other night we got a little tuna salad, some bread, a chicken and potatoe dish, and some flan for dessert. We got two movies, then they turned all the lights off at about 11, and we all had a lovely sleep. They woke us up at 7.30 the next morning with some light breakfast - croissants and coffee or tea.

Not too shabby! It`s probably a bit of shock to some of you who think that I`ve been holding on to the side of buses racing through dusty roads, hanging on for dear life! But rest assured, Argentina is renowned for it`s bus service, so I`ll be hitting some fantastically basic travelling routines in Bolivia and Peru. You might see me hanging on to the side of a bus yet!

Anyway, we arrived quite early, and while Bones decided to have a snooze as his leg was hurting him (lazy bugger!), myself and Alan and Mac decided to have some physical exercise! The lovely lady in our hostel had told us about a place 17km away where a sealion colony was, so we rented bicycles and set off in the sunshine thinking "how hard can the cycle be?". It turned out that the paved road ended after about five minutes, and after that it was gravel and sand roads all the way out there. In the blistering heat. With no shade. With less-than-brilliant bikes. Eek! It was great fun, though - all along beside the sea! I thought I`d die of the heat, and my legs were giving way under me, but after an hour and a half of cycling, we found the headland where the sealions were. And wow was it worth it! They were swimming in the water, and playing with each other, and the noise of them was unreal - calling out to each other on the sand! There were hundreds of them! We stood and watched them as the tide came further in, and they were forced to all begin swimming as their little patch of beach was getting smaller and smaller. They looked so playful and lovely! So we had our little lunch at the headland, and began the cycle back. On our way along a long stretch of the road, we saw two other cyclists stopped at the side of the road. As I passed, they said that there was a whale out from the shore. We stopped our bikes, and just as we looked out to sea, we saw a huge tail flip out of the water! Wow! We watched for ages as the whale turned and flipped at the surface, shooting water into the air through it`s blowhole, and flipping its tail into the air. Amazing! We cycled on and found an abandoned sandpit that people had turned into a dirtbike playground of hills and ramps, and we tested our bikes out on that for a bit. We returned to the hostel sweating, sunburnt, but bloody happy!!

That sunshine turned out to be misleading! The next day we got up at 6.30 to join our tour at 7.15 for Peninsula Valdes. We headed out to the peninsula in time to be the first boat out in the water for whale watching. We looked great in our giant yellow waterproofs and orange lifejackets! The boat speeded out along the coast, and within minutes we were out in open water. We had been talking amongst ourselves, and all had assumed that when we saw a whale, it would be far in the distance, and that we would be lucky to even see a whale - this being just the end of whale season in this area. However, we were to be pleasantly wrong! Our first whale surfaced within ten feet of the boat, and the captain cut his engines and we all stood in silence watching this huge 30-foot long mammal breaking the water, rolling around so much waves hit the side of our boat, slapping his tail in the air, and actually spraying us with water from his blowhole! It was the most amazing thing I`ve ever seen. I actually stopped taking photos, because nothing can explain or show the actual beauty of just being there, and watching this ancient creature sunning himself in the water next to you. After he dove for the final time, and didn`t resurface, I looked over the edge of the boat into the dark water, imagining how many of these huge beasts might be swimming beneath us.

I didn´t have to wonder for long! We say four whales in total that morning, each as amazing as the last - and even a calf swimming alongside his mother in the water, playfully splashing. It was the most beautiful thing I`ve ever seen!

After our boat trip, we went further up the island to see elephant seals. What a weird experience! They looked like giant slugs, just lying on the beach as though they`d never move again. How were these even the same species as they playful and energetica sealions we had seen the day before? WERE they even the same species? We headed further up the island to see a small penguin colony, where we could look at them down on the beach, waddling around. It was bitterly cold out there! But no ice just yet - we`ll have to head further south for that!

It was a long day, but really satisfying! We felt like we were actually doing something finally!

Yesterday we took the trip to Punto Tombo, where 500,000 penguins live in a colony. Wow! Again, it was very cold - and extremely windy (it is 200km south of where we are now), but no ice. The penguins lived in little holes they had dug in the sand. You stick to a pathway running through their habitat, but the penguins have ignored the human presence, and waddle across in front of you at any given opportunity - we lost track of the amount of times you`d have to jump out of the way to let one by! They were just beautiful, and we even got to see some little chicks! At the end of the pathway is a cliffside, where you can watch them on the beach and see them swimming - for a creature so graceless on land they move like lightening in the water! Really fabulous! On the way back from the penguins we stopped at a Welsh town. In the 1800´s Welsh settlers came over to Argentina, asking the government for permission to settle here and have freedom of language and culture, as the English were oppressing them at home and forcing them to speak their language. The Argentinian government welcomed them, as they needed to populate the sparse region of Patagonia - so it was a win-win situation! There are Welsh descendents all over Patagonia, but this particular town we stopped in - Gaiman - still has Welsh speaking inhabitants. The Welsh flag flies, and there are Welsh names on streets and buildings, as well as Welsh tea-houses. Very strange - but it was lovely. And they showed us the first house built in the town - from 1840 - and you might as well have planted us down in the west of Ireland! A proper little Celtic house in the middle of Argentina!

The weather is getting colder, and we`re heading right into it today. We`re heading to El Calafate now, to see the glaciers - so Alan is bugging me to get off the computer, as we need to buy a fleece for the cold! My next entry will be with cold fingers and running nose.....ha ha!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Little bit drunken thoughts for tonight....

Went to see an exhibition today and yesterday in the Pacifico shopping centre in Florida street. Big opulant centre, full of Yves Sant Laurant shops and Lacoste, etc., and at the top of it, a huge amount of space devoted to art. The first section had paintings which were almost photographic they were so detailed and exact, and the second room had some amazing sculptures - a huge wire brain hung suspended from the ceiling, slowly rotating, whilst lights projected different shadows of the object onto a white wall. On the opposite wall, a huge green set of lungs with hundreds of pink balloons representing the expanding and retracting section of the lung - filling and deflating with air, giving the impression of actual breathing. Amazing to watch, and somewhat hypnotic!!

The next room housed the section we had sought out - the World Press Photography exhibition. Wow! The photos touched me in a way I had forgotten I could be - even in my few weeks of travel. You become somewhat desensithised to the women begging at street corners, or the ten year old juggler pathetically stuffed into a clown suit four sizes too small for her in order to garner more change from the subway travellers, or the old man washing his socks in the fountain outside the botanical gardens, or the old woman shouting abuse at you for walking through her ´house´ on the edge of the street. These photos brought all the emotion back to me with a bang! I can´t ignore all that´s done in the world - all that´s done in the name of money, and greed, and selfishness, and just out and out cruelty. Photos of Palestine, and children lying dead in the streets. Of Lebanon, refugee camps filled with the displaced. Of American soldiers interogating people in their own home. Of boxing rings under the road underpass in Sao Paulo. Of slums and death and disease and sorrow.

In particular, as usual, I was affected by the photos of Africa. Children and adults strapped down in psychiatric hospitals, with the pain of war tearing at you straight from their eyes through the camera lens; Amputees playing football on dusty ground; Young girls selling themselves, or being sold by parents, as toys for passing men; Refugee camps filled with naked children, with distended bellies, and eyes calling to you from deep. And then the revelation - there is a mobile trailer that goes through African countries, showing films, and using this mass attraction to the magic of the movies to screen short teaching films on AIDS awareness and safe sex. And that one photo that makes me think again.....of a group of children, cross-legged on the floor of the trailer, eyes filled with happiness and joy, staring entranced at the silver screen. Tomorrow might bring more hunger, next month war, but for that moment in time, the camera has caught them as what they are and should be - children.

I think I would be a fool to ignore all the signs that point me more and more towards teaching, and helping, children in some way. If I don´t do something about it, I´ll regret it forever. I can´t sit back again and again watching the world get worse and just feel any chance of changing it slip away. I want to be part of the difference, and I want to do it soon.

So ends my drunken thoughts for tonight.......

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Buenos Buenos Buenos

Again with the Buenos Aires, eh? But yes, it´s definitely my favourite city so far!! We´re having so much fun here, and there´s just so much to do, that you could spend months just floating!

El Sol didn´t have enough room for our two errant buddies who flew down from Rio to meet us, so we had to move hostel (but then the muppets didn´t book themselves in here anyway). Another good reason was to see another part of town, and also to get some Spanish classes - which other hostels advertise. However, we were very sad to say goodbye to El Sol! We had a lot of fun there, and Paul, the owner, is one of the nicest blokes ever! Laurie, an American girl who stays in the hostel, is going to come down to Patagonia with us, so we´ll see her Sunday when we head off to our next stop. She´s a really nice girl! One of those cool Americans you meet now and again on the travelling trek who have endless capacities for sarcasm and wit - quite a find! Some other Americans we met....who also stayed in El Sol...were of the dimmer and moderately ignorant variety! One girl had already angered Daragh on our last stay in El Sol a month ago by explaining that she studied political science, but then going on to say how colonialism has helped countries like Argentina, and American interest in foreign soil is ALWAYS a good thing. She compounded things further on this trip by just being incredibely vacuous! We hit an American bar with the lot of them the other night - Laurie, Nouveau (her full name is Nouveau Sky...some wicked hippie parents, eh? And she´s from Seattle, so she´s a cool chick, to say the least!), Danny born-in-Ireland-raised-in-England who is inexplicably going OUT with the dim American, and the dim American herself. Her brother Charles (we call him Chuck) didn´t come out....but he is a male version of her, complete with the most unbelievable drawl you have ever heard! Man oh man, what a night! I got stuck with the odd couple for a while, and Alan joined us. Sample line of conversation?
D.A.G.: (Dim American Girl) So what´s your second name?
Me: Mine´s Griffin, and his is Price - they´re both Welsh names, actually.
Danny: Price? Cool name
Me: Yeah, he wants to call his kid ´half´
Danny: Ha ha ha ha ha
D.A.G.: *blank look* So what kind of drinks do you like? I don´t really like wine!

Yeah, it was a good night! Met some random English bloke who was very enamoured with the selling-beer-in-giant-jugs phenomenon, as were we, and he kept shouting ´mouth shot´ before tipping your head back and pouring it down your throat! Either drink it, or have it poured on we got a wee bit tipsy!! He gave me girly-glugs, though....I didn´t have to skull it like the boyos! Daragh did his usual on the way home, and got slightly lost, heard a party from some apartment, pressed all the buttons on the buzzer downstairs saying ´Amigo? Fiesta? Ariba?´to anyone who answered....bear in mind it was five in the morning....before attempting to climb a tree to see if he could climb the balcony in. Fun times! Me and Alan were home before him, and our six bed dorm had an additional bed in it for one night only. Christian´s friend from Denmark (more on Christian later!) was asleep in it when Daragh burst through the door, fell on top of him, rolled off, and promptly went to sleep face down on the floor. I was listening to my headphones, so didn´t hear that it was Daragh. Luckily, I got up to use the loo a few minutes later and found a freaked-out looking Dane gazing in bewilderment at the pile of unconciousness on the floor. "I don´t know who this is!" he said to me. "Ah, that´s Daragh", I realised. I tried waking him...."Why am I so cold?" he asked. Because you´re on the floor, mon cheri! As I got him up and into his (lamentably) top bunk, I realised that he´d tripped over Bones´s bag of malaria pills etc. and strewn them on the floor.....the Dane must´ve thought he was off his head on pills, or something!!

Anyway, Christian. What to say about Christian!? Well, if there is a more pompous, arrogant man in the world, I have yet to meet him! On our first night back in El Sol, we took him to dinner with us, as we are kindly people, and he was in our dorm. What a mistake! He spent the whole night directing the conversation towards his main areas of expertise and interest.....language and literature. And polo. His views on the canon of literature were making my toes curl. Vainly I tried to hold back in some last vestiges of decorum - he is nominally our dinner guest, you should allow him his views, etc. - until I could hold back no more! Sample comments from our esteemed Dane? "Dostoyevsky is my favourite author, because I feel that I am leading a similar life to him", "I wish to learn Spanish so that I can read Don Quixote in it´s native tongue", "Women authors are of no interest because they only speak of minor social situations, not of the grander scale that male novelists explore"...........ah, you can see why it was that I suddenly exploded!! Women authors? NOT speaking of the grander social scale? What buffoonery is this!! So, it was a tense dinner, with him throwing ignorant mysogonistic comment after comment.....and when we returned to the hostel, what do I see in his intellectual book pile? Madame Bovary! Ah, so he reads novels about women´s narrow social view, but only if they are written BY men! What an asshole! The next night he talked about how we were lucky to be colonised by the English, as it is a fine language to have forced upon us. The next night he talked about polo. The next night he moved rooms. We rejoiced!!

On Saturday we got up at 9 in the morning and went down to the Riverplate stadium to queue for tickets to the cup semi-final that was being played. We queued for ages, but got front row seats in the middle stand at the half-way line. Excellent! We went to the match last night, and it started at 9, so it was quite late. It was a good enough game - the equivalent of a 1st division cup match in England, so the standards of football were pretty low. However, we went for the spectacle, and we weren`t disappointed! The popular stand is behind the goals, and is standing-room-only space for hardcore fans! They were pumping before the game even started. And just before the whistle, a snake of people - maybe 200 in all - marched into the popular stand (we could see it clearly from our seats) carrying flags etc. We think they were probably a firm, as they seemed the most hardcore of hardcore - the already full popular stand parted like the red sea to give them prime position. Then, as the whistle blew, flares went off in the stands, torn newspaper poured onto the pitch, the stadium heaved with the sounds of chanting! Most chants included ´puta´ - bitch. The only chant I learned was "Vamos vamos vamos Riverplate, vamos vamos vamos Riverplate, Vaaaaammmmooooossssss Riiiiiivvveeeeeerrrrpplllllaaaattteeee" (let´s go Riverplate). Anyway, it ended nil all, went to penalties, and the other team complete silence in the stadium! Very weird to see a team running all over and jumping around, and nobody saying a word! Not even a sportsmanlike clap!

We left pretty quickly, as we didn´t want to get caught up in the popular stand emptying out, and it´s a pretty quiet part of town, so not much in the way of streetlights. We lost the other lads on the way down, so me and Alan walked for about 45 minutes (it was after 12 when the match let out, so the subway was closed), before jumping on a random bus for 15 minutes, then walking for another 40 minutes. Long way home!! We have tickets to the Argentina v Bolivia world cup qualifier in Riverplate again on Saturday. We´re going with Alan, and Peruvian mano from El Sol, so that should be good fun! We´re in cheaper seats for that, so higher up...but more in with the mayhem. I´m gonna start ripping up newspapers now to throw down, and perhaps bring a few rolls of toilet paper..........just to fit in, you understand!

We´re taking Spanish classes in our new hostel at the moment. The Clan is an alright hostel. Not so great if you want to sleep, as it is a total PARTY place....eek! Luckily I have my books on tape, so I just tap into Jane Auston (thank you Orlagh and Helen!!) and I´m out like a light! Back to communal areas for the women, though - how I hate showering in the presence of others!! I will, of course, be taking the minimal amount while here! No shock to the system there....

We´re heading for Puerto Madryn on Sunday, so from then on it´s whale watching, penguin watching and bloody good nature walks! Another nice 22 hour bus journey.....we might splash out and get the sleeper seats (fully reclinable) for the expensive price of 50 euro!! What a life...

Better get back to my ´oh so fun´ hostel (just a touch of sarcasm there), and do my Spanish homework. She´s quite the taskmaster, I must say!

My cousin is doing a lot better, and is working towards speaking now that he is off the ventilator. A bit of a miracle there, and could I just say, that it couldn´t happen to a nicer man. The lengths he has gone to in his life to please other people, and now he is getting some happiness and luck of his own. God is good, as they say over here!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

From Montevideo back to Buenos Aires

Well, we only stayed a few days in Montevideo, but it really was a fantastic city! So European, and filled with windy cobbled streets and beautiful art gallerys - the best of which was the gallery devoted to their adopted child, José Gurvich (see above for a little example). He was born in Lithuania, but emigrated to Montevideo, with his parents obviously, at the age of five in 1932. His painting and sculptures were incredible, and all looked strangely familiar. Anyway, Tuesdays were free into the gallery, so we were able to stroll around to our hearts content looking at his beautiful pictures for the low-low price of nothing.

We took the opportunity, whilst in Mondevideo, of taking two hours of Spanish classes, for a tenner, which turned out to be fantastic. Our teacher was a bit loopey - but in a very good way - and we learned a lot, so we´ve decided to continue with the lessons here in Buenos Aires. Daragh´s big into learning, so he´s been researching a few places, and the lads are actually sitting down to study every night now too! It´s pretty great!

Anyway, Montevideo......not much more to say on the subject except that it was gorgeous, and had some fabulous tourist attractions. Not least the biggest market I´ve ever seen! It´s held every Sunday, and takes up about a mile squared of streets. Near the top, it´s all fresh veg, and fish, and meats, and clothes, and handmade stuff, but as you delve into the back parts, you get weirder and crazier stalls - people selling antique (read ´old´) knives and axes, alongside super nintendo games! And the craziest old dolls and clothes you´ve ever seen! We didn´t know where to look half the time, but it was hilarious! You also got some good old tapes and records - none of this new-fangled CD nonsense! Also, there were guys set up doing the three-cups-and-a-ball know, flashing the cups around with the ball inside, and you´ve to guess where it it? There were guys n gals in the crowd obviously in on the whole thing, and they kept winning - just to keep the punters coming! Ha!

We stopped off the in the city hall on the way back, where there was a photographic exhibition going on detailing some social history of Montevideo, which was very intersting. A large man who worked in the centre came over to ask me and Alan did we need any help - we didn´t have much Spanish, and he had barely any English, but he managed to find out our names and that we were from Ireland. As he left, he leaned in conspiratorally to us and said "I believe in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is my saviour", and with a smile that looked like he was letting us in on a secret, just walked away. Strange!

Went out to a great Irish bar, that was very delighted to have actual IRISH people visiting, and made great sport out of us! They had a guy on guitar singing songs, and he set up beside our table, and got us to sing the words of all his songs - mostly U2. Great fun!!

Near where our hostel was, in the old part of town - on the same square as the Gurvich gallery, actually - another type of market set up every day, filled with the most gorgeous old jewellery and silverware. It was as if the colonial houses of the city had been emptied out onto these stalls, with women´s vanity items (silver brushes and mirrors) that looked like they were from the 18th century, and pearls, and brooches that had such character and intricate detail. And all for a pittance! Given the state of Uruguay - i.e. the economy crashing from a state of wealth - these market stalls could well be the riches handed down from generation to generation, until the present generation fell on hard times. Myself and Alan got talking to a stall owner, and it turned out he had visited Ireland when he was in London in the 50´s, and thought that Dublin was a great city. "Terrible ferry crossing though", he said. I assured him that it was still the same!

We took the 11.30pm bus out of the city. The bus station is better than Dublin Airport (I know, I know - doesn´t take much!), so even though we had to get down there an hour before our bus left, we had plenty of things to do in the various shops to keep us occupied. Also had to get rid of our pesos! After the expensive Reai in Brazil, where everything was practically divided by 2 (I think it´s about 1 reai for 0.60 euro), it was weird to be in Uruguay, where it was 30 pesos for 1 euro. Therefore you paid hundreds of pesos for things! Hard to get used to having 1000 peso notes in your wallet........

The bus was supposed to deal with our border crossing, as it happens at 5 in the morning, but there must have been something wrong, because at 5 we were all woken up and ushered off the bus while the armed border guards got on and searched the bus. Then we had to line up and have our hand luggage searched, and then all our big bags were onloaded from the bus, and we had to go get our bag and bring it to the border police. I was obviously quite dozy, having just been woken up, so when I went over to the border guard with my bag and hoisted it up onto the table, I said "Hola" whilst giving a big yawn. The guard laughed at me and asked me where I was from, and when I said Ireland, asked if I´d enjoyed Uruguay. I said yes - naturally - and gave another yawn. He laughed again, and when I unlocked my bag, gave only the most perfunctuary of searches - didn´t even dislodge any items - before sending me on my way. Definitely the most pleasant encounter with an armed border guard I´ve had! When I think to the behaviour of the poxy Americans coming back from New York with my bag of Jelly Beans?? Bloody hell!!

Anyway, we arrived back in Buenos Aires early in the morning, and headed up to El Sol again. They all remembered us, and were glad to have us back - how nice! Paul, the American/Chilean owner, is great craic, and last night he showed us his hand-made acoustic bass. Very cool! He got some guy here in Buenos Aires to make it for him. He also had a guitar, and taught Alan how to play some Jackson Five and a bit of Neil Young, so we had a nice night hanging out!!

So, since I´m back in the land of cheap beer and steak, I am off to have a bit of both right now! I am far happier now also, as my cousin Patrick has made a bit of an improvement, and is starting to respond to talking. Even though Mam is back on her chemo tomorrow, which is always hard to think about, but she´s a tough cookie, that woman, so I´m sure she´ll be in her usual won´t-sit-still form this weekend.

Buenos Noches, Amigos!

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Uruguay Wa-hey

Well, we´ve finally left the backpackers hostel in Barra Lagoa. God - we went there for three days, and ended up staying 12! Testament to the wonderful people who worked there, I think, and also it´s fabulous location!

Things I´ll miss about Brazil? Christopher´s outrageously enthusiastic lust for life (tempered slightly by the moderate annoyance caused by his constant happiness); Senór Chocolate! The man who came around every night at 9.15 with the most fabulous hand-made (by his wife) chocolates you have ever tasted - chocolate, coconut, strawberry (with real chunks of strawberry), coffee - gorgeous! I ate four on my last night!; Having a double room with Alan! Definitely high on the list! You don´t realise how much you value your privacy until you are forced to undress night-in-night-out with five lads breathing down your neck; Waking up to the sound of the waves across the beach; Keef, the crazy dutch man who could play harmonica like no other; The great common area, where there was unlimited beer and craic to be had.

Things I won´t miss about Brazil? The enforced ´fun´of the hostel - you know, when people put Hawaii flower things around your head, and TELL you to laugh...not my idea of a good night! I´d rather have fun organically - you know, when the fun just HAPPENS by itself - than to have it forced upon me; Being there long enough to see three turnovers of people - do Ozzies have to be the loudest people in ever room? The girls especially - God, just relax! You don´t always have to have EVERYONE looking at you!; Not being able to just have a quiet night in, because somebody´s always berating you for not going out; The locals in Barra Lagoa - never have I seen a tourist spot so loathing of tourists! Seriously!; The crime element of Brazil - getting checked with a metal detector before entering a pub? Crazy!!; The high prices of things - be happy to return to a world where I can eat out occasionally!; The language - I´ve enough to deal with learning Spanish without throwing Portoguese on top of me, thank you very much.

Anyway, had to take two buses to Montevideo, and the border crossing happened in the middle of the night, but our lovely bus driver had collected all our passports and relevent forms and processed everything while we slept. What a service!! Montevideo is gorgeous! Yes, it helps that we left Brazil in tropical storms and torrential rain, and it is now in the mid-30´s with beautiful blue skies, but it is still a gorgeous city! Again, like Buenos Aires, very European - the lost Colonial riches still haunting the facades of buildings, giving a gravity to the vista belied slightly by the McDonalds shoved into the bottom floors!

The drive here passed a few Brazilian towns away from the coast, where lean-to´s and garbage dumps served as people´s homes. What a country! So wealthy and expensive, and yet such a multitude of people falling below - and WELL below - the poverty line. It´s a sad parallel to see, especially when you are a traveller getting through the land on comparative riches - watching barefooted children running through red-mud ´streets´in between shacks of varying states, and as night drew in, seeing that there was no electricity in a lot of ´houses´ - though the odd satellite dish could be seen attached to the delapitated side of a galvenised house. Much like the down-and-outs in Dublin who can afford Lacoste tracksuits and Sky television, but can´t feed their children, you can see that the same luxury-hunting infects this country too - and, again, it´s the innocents who suffer (children, as always).

Montevideo has it´s share of poverty, and you are beseiged by beggars asking for money, spotting, of course, your tourist status. I don´t know how to react in most circumstances. Saying no to a woman old enough to be my grandmother, or to a man bent-over with alcohol, or to a mother and child is so hard. The children running alone are tough too - ragged jumpers and bare feet. I have taken to carrying small packets of crackers or bread with me - handing those instead of money. But there is not so much here in Montevideo as you would imagine - despite the fall in economy, they are still a proud people, who hang on to their luxuries guardedly. I think I will find poorer countries - like Peru and Bolivia - so much harder. Matthew, a young chap from Derry (only 18 and travelling alone!!) we met in Barra Lagoa, is tagging along with us now. His sister is living in Buenos Aires at the moment, but before that she was working in Bolivia with street children. He says she found it extremely hard - caring for children that show up beaten the next day or, worse still, found days later with their throat´s slit for the want of 10euro that they owe the various parasites who prey on the poverty and neglect of the countries children. It is something I have always wanted to do, a thought that was cemented more with my trip to Peru last year, and is steadily getting stronger as I see the children of South America proper. I just wonder if I would be able for the emotionalism of it all!

On a more personal note, my cousin Patrick is very ill in hospital at the moment. I feel very far away and homesick thinking of him suffering at home while I am still so far away. Patrick has been a fixture in my life since as long as I can remember. He has never missed my birthday, or a Christmas - indeed, for myself and my brother and sisters, he has given us constant attention and love. And, it has been beautiful to see my brother and sisters children drawn to him as much as we were as children, recognising his boundless capacity for patience and interest in the most minute of children´s worlds. I wish that I could be there with him, and with the rest of our family, at this time, and I can only send my constant prayers and thoughts to him in hospital, and hope that he pulls through this awful time. All my love, Patrick, and I hope with all my heart that you will be at home waiting to see all my photos when I get back in June.