“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well”

I’m planning my birthday dinner at the moment, and I’ve gone with the best the Spanish-speaking world has to offer to vegetarians. Cue pintxos, tapas, home-made corn tortillas, and a Mexican chilli chocolate cake to die for. To top it all off, I have invested in copious amounts of cava, tempranillo, sangria, and – perhaps surprisingly – apple cider.  Ella Baila Sola is playing from the stereo and there’s also a misguided-purchase of a piñata sitting in the corner cause I didn’t really think through where I could tie it up…

Spanish food is fun. It’s theatrical, it’s delicious, and the invariably small serving sizes mean you get to try a little of everything and make catering a dinner party an absolute breeze. Of course, the only problem with my selection of theme for my birthday is that it’s making me feel incredibly nostalgic for Spain. I’ve blogged previously on Barcelona so today I thought I would go with San Sebastián.

I love San Sebastián. People say it’s too touristy, but what they don’t mention is that the vast majority of tourists (in the non-British season) are themselves Spanish – up from the surrounding areas for a weekend of good times. As a city of tiny alleyways, San Sebastián makes even the smallest crowd feel substantial, and we were there during a festival weekend. There were activities and performances every day, and one afternoon there was a parade in which giant wooden and paper dolls on stilts traversed the city to gather and dance in the square just next to our hostel.

San Sebastián is a loud city. Unbelievably loud. It is a city whose energy is infectious – even after a sleepless night at a Romanian airport and a very early morning flight we were ready to stay up till dawn.

And oh my god the food. The pintxos are a thing of beauty; an ocean of tiny toothpicks pressing magnificent combinations of cheese, peppers, and seafood onto crusty baguette. A well-stocked pintxo bar resembles a poorly built picket fence.

There are two types of pintxo bar. The first is staffed by middle-aged men in long-sleeve white shirts and black waistcoats. Either too bright or too dark, they are populated by a subdued crowd politely sipping table wine and nibbling simple pintxos made according to traditional recipes. The bread is topped with only one or two ingredients – always fresh – and the meal is rounded out with a serving of patatas bravas and pimientos de padrón.

The second is staffed by young bearded men working alongside women sporting bright red hair. The lighting – always just the right side of dark – obscures how many people the tiny venue contains, but the rabble of voices – and the quickly disappearing pintxos – hint at the multitude. The pintxos themselves are always works of art – beautifully executed pieces one feels almost guilty to consume – and are new twists on old favourites (brie with pomegranate, shitake mushroom skewers and the like). The drinks list is invariably simple but performance-based. At one place the cava barrel stood above the waiter’s head and streamed out in an arc. He had to hold the glass at just the right distance and angle to catch the liquid, which had formed a parabola above his head.

Two types of pintxo bar, and I honestly couldn’t tell you which is my favourite.

(I have very few photos of San Sebastián – I was having too much fun to remember to take any.)

Mikri or: How My Mother Learned to Like Cats

I have previously posted stories linked to past posts by place and by culture. Today, I want to link by cats. Last week I posted about Kotor – a must-see city for any cat lover. So from that post comes the following family story: the story of Mikri.

My mother never really liked cats. She would never have said that she hated them, but – being a dog person – she would turn her nose up at even the idea or mention of a feline. It was, sadly, a bone of contention between her and her friend, London flatmate, and often travel companion Sally whose love of cats extended to the intake of strays.

My mother spent most of her time abroad in London and Tolon – a tiny town on the coast of Greece – where, until she was sufficiently able to speak the language, she worked as a cleaner. After many of her own travels, Sally landed in Greece and, as mum was able to get her a job and offer her a spare room to stay in, she decided to stay for a while.

One day, my mother came home from work to find Sally looking – in her own words – ‘suspicious as fuck.’

“What did you do?” my mother demanded to know.

“It followed me home” was Sally’s rather ambiguous reply.

The ‘it’, as it transpired, was a tiny white kitten – near dead – that Sally had found meowing in a wet sack by the water, the other members of its litter – not as strong as the little fighter – lying dead around it.

My mother pointed out that the suggestion the tiny thing – only a few days old and near-drowned – had the strength to ‘follow’ Sally home was probably not quite truthful but, being a cat-disliker rather than an animal torturer, she allowed Sally to keep it and nurse it. She was pretty sure that without its mother and given its ordeal it would be dead by the end of the week. Clearly, she underestimated both the cat and Sally.

Although Mikri – as his naming foretold – was forever small, he became the fastest, and cheekiest, cat in town. Being the only cat within his known world to have a home to return to, his favourite activity was to head out of a morning, wind all the vicious disease-ridden strays up to peak bloodlust and then dash home – with them in fast pursuit – only to pop through the tiny make-shift cat flap in the window of the front door and leave them howling blue murder outside.

He and my mother had an uneasy relationship. Cats seem to have a knack for knowing who in a room wants them to keep their distance, and using that to decide exactly whom they want to sit right next to. He would spend his evenings fighting with mum to sit on her lap and though she invariably relented, she remained resentful.

One day, when only my mother was at home, Mikri came running through the streets with a group of strays in hot pursuit. Mum could hear them from about three blocks away. They got closer, the yowling cries became louder, and she heard Mikri make his jump to his aperture. But then there was a weird sound, followed by a new kind of scream. Mum realised that, in his latest growth spurt, Mikri had become too big for his hole. He had rebounded off the door and was now stuck out there with the big bad tabbies. And that scream was him taking his first hit.

Without really thinking about what she was doing, mum grabbed a broom and ran out to Mikri’s rescue. This is not as simple as it sounds. Tolon’s stray cats – at least those around in the 1970s – aren’t all that fussed by humans. Most humans give them a wide berth; most humans are kind of scared of them. So the tomcats stood their ground and hissed as mum brandished the broomstick at them. It must have been quite the sight – apparently a few neighbours stopped to watch. When the cats became emboldened enough to take a swipe at mum, she got fed up and gave each of them enough of a whack with the broom to show she meant business. Non-plussed by the turn of events, the toms decided to cut their losses and head off. Mikri and mum were left on the stoop observing each other. From then on, Mikri did not stir up the neighbourhood watch, and mum sometimes let him lie on her lap in the evenings. An uneasy truce had been met.

After a few years, mum and Sally found the time had come for them to leave Greece; mum for Australia, Sally for a few more years in Britain. They were worried about leaving Mikri – a domesticated cat in a city without pets or pet owners. Before they left, a friend came to visit with his mother. She was older, a widower whose children had all left home. Whilst they were all standing in the kitchen, Mikri – who had spent the day outside – climbed up to the window and banged on it, then walked around to the front door to be let in. The friend’s mother was astounded that a cat could be so clever. She was charmed. Mikri had a new home.

A few years later, my mother and Sally returned to Tolon. Curious, they asked after the cat. The old woman dissolved into sobs. They were strongly advised to ask no more questions.

Mikri had lived a charmed life, but even cats only get nine.

“Time spent with cats is never wasted”

I’m writing this post from the Mitchell Library in Sydney. I’m on a research trip, but it’s January and the sun is out and my motivation for work is low – so I’m making myself feel better about my low productivity by working on my blog.

On my way in to the library, I noticed a rather curious statue of a cat perched valiantly atop an external window sill. The plaque on the ledge in front of me informed me that it was Matthew Flinders’ ‘intrepid’ cat who circumnavigated Australia with his ‘master’. I’m scheduling this blog post to be published just before Invasion Day, and the incorporation of an animal into the valorisation of the colonial project certainly gives me pause and makes me feel a bit queasy about the way in which narratives of exploitation, violence, and war are obscured through the use of familiar and innocuous symbols like pets (in very flippant terms: ‘ooh look, Flinders had a pet cat just like me – he can’t have been all bad then’).

But the cat statue also got me thinking about how cool cats are, and how they are often invisible in the past and present of cities. Lots of cities have statues and memorialisations of dogs, but few can make the same claim for cats (Sydney – ever ready to be unique – makes the claim to having both). A quick google search for cities with statues of cats got me to here: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-tips-and-articles/the-cats-meow-top-10-destinations-for-feline-fanatics

And that, patient reader, is how I decided to spend today’s post talking about Kotor, a tiny city on the coast of Montenegro with a population of 13,510.

A port city since the Roman Empire, ruled from the 15th to 18th centuries by the Venetian Republic, and a contemporary sanctuary for cats, Kotor is a genuinely awesome place to visit (at least in summer, I have no idea if the same could be said of it in winter).

We stayed just outside the main town, in what can only be described as the most picturesque hostel in existence. We were welcomed with a glass of wine and home-made pancakes and sat for the next hour or so overlooking the jagged mountainous view out to the Mediterranean.

The old town itself is obscured from the beauty of its surrounds through an historical necessity: the Venetian fortifications still stand today, and one must scramble and climb up to the peep holes in order to catch a glimpse of ocean.

Inside the impending fortress walls lie labyrinthine stone alleyways which twist and turn past numerous tiny shops and food stalls all cobbled together and then suddenly open out onto expansive squares where tourists and locals alike lounge with wine and conversation. For every person you see, there are at least two scrawny cats similarly going about their business filching fallen or forgotten morsels of food, lounging in the sun, or exploring another of the never-ending selection of hidden passages.

The food in Kotor is tasty but simple – largely derived from bread, pasta, and ice-cream bases – and so we delighted more in the walking a cat spotting than the eating.

On our last day we woke with the dawn and took the famous walk along Kotor’s fortifications as the sun rose. A crumbling structure with many stairs, it was steep, in parts dangerous, and the still summer heat which we thought to avoid with our early-morning rise often made the going difficult. But with a view unrivalled by any other point in the city (and possibly in the Mediterranean) and unimpeded by any other walkers, it was an absolute highlight of the trip.

Walking the Great Wall: My Uncle’s Story

Until now the family stories I have shared have been set in the same cities I have posted about. Today I wanted to do something slightly different, and offer a story echo based on region. Apart from myself, no one in my family has traveled extensively in Asia, meaning that I have no family tales to share about Taiwan. My uncle has, however, been to China – a country I have yet to visit.

*

When China opened its borders to the west in the early 1980s, my uncle packed his bags and headed over. Now a somewhat older and more experienced traveler, he delighted in the oddity he presented to the locals as a foreigner. The locals pointed, some took photos, some attempted to talk to him, some were obviously shy and gave him a wide berth and sideways glance.

His delight with China once again expressed itself in his relationship to local food practices. His interest in the tastes of the cuisine and the magnificently grand cooking techniques led to an examination question he posed to his engineering students in Perth the following year:

How would one could remove the entire skeleton from a dead duck, leaving both the carcass and the skeleton still in tact? 

An ancient technique, the record of the procedure can only be found in one English translation of an obscure medieval Chinese cookery pamphlet. His students called the question unfair. My uncle argued that research was an important skill for an engineer.

My uncle always looks happy when he speaks of his time in China and even potentially unpleasant experiences are told with a smile and a laugh.

At the end of his trek along a section of the Great Wall, my uncle spied a fruit stand. Being both hungry and thirsty he headed over. There were many fruits on offer, but my uncle’s eye was drawn to the big juicy oranges at the back of the stall. He had no Mandarin, the seller had no English, and so my uncle pointed at them and then held up his finger to indicate that he wanted only one. The seller seemed shocked and checked several times – by both holding up the orange and pointing at it – that this was the fruit my uncle wanted. My uncle, somewhat confused, nodded his head vigorously and assured the man that, yes, that was the fruit he would like. The seller nodded his understanding and then began to gift-wrap the orange in paper and sugar.

My uncle, now even more confused, figured that he was simply ignorant of local cultural practice and did not question the situation. The man handed over the orange and pointed to the note my uncle was to give him. My uncle handed it over with a smile, bowed his thank you and left. It was not until the next day when he converted the sum that he realised he had paid around $50 for the orange.

It had been incredibly juicy and delicious though.

“Hunger is good discipline”

Until recently I hadn’t seen much of Asia, but Taipei was always high on the list of places I wanted to visit. My Taiwanese friends’ accounts and their epic love of food had long led me to believe that Taipei was a food paradise where continuous snacking was not only not frowned upon, but actively encouraged. In this I was certainly not disappointed. I felt like Alice nibbling her way through Wonderland, taking a tour through China’s best culinary achievements organised by region.*

Buns of every flavour – egg custard, vermicelli noodles with vegetables, red bean paste, mushrooms and spinach, black sesame paste (the kind that oozes like warmed Nutella and is so rich it acts as a tongue depressor), vegetable stew – they were innumerable to count. And then there were the pancakes! Spring onion pancake (the yum cha classic), and my new favourite post-pint treat: egg roti pancake. I think there is a similar dish to this in Singapore. You take a really thin roti pancake cooked with spring onion and fry it just a little on one side, then you flip it, crack an egg onto it and fry it till it is crisp and golden and so delicious it almost induces instant diabetes (insta-betes, if you will), then you serve the crispy buttery yolky mess with Sriracha sauce. And then you fight over it because you only got one between two and neither of you wants to wait in line for another one. Not that that happened…

But the most exciting part about discovering Taipei food culture was the dessert. Taiwanese dessert is genuinely amazing. Served hot or cold, your typical bowl involves taro, kidney beans, and jelly served in a rich red bean soup (and, one can only assume, a mountain of invisible sugar). And to wash it all down, there’s that Taiwanese export gem: bubble tea.

You never run the risk of being hungry in Taipei.

Of course, it wasn’t only the food that made the trip. Like most large Asian cities, Taipei boasts labyrinthine markets, vibrant neon-lit public spaces, amazing and diverse neighbourhoods, and an exciting nightlife.

Actually, Taipei’s nightlife has quite an interesting dynamic. Taipei has one of the lowest levels of alcohol consumption in the world (a result, it would seem, of the dual influences of an at times conservative culture and the exorbitant price of alcohol at bars). What this means is that nightlife happens in and around food markets, rather than bars, nightclubs or similar. And so you have families, groups of teenagers, business people, and tourists, all genuinely playing in the same sandpit, which makes for a very interesting – and quite wonderful and friendly – dynamic. Combined with a crime rate to rival Tokyo’s (both so low kindergarteners ride public buses to school by themselves) it also makes for an incredibly relaxed atmosphere.

And then there were the amazing day trips – visiting pandas, exploring temples, walking through all the neighbourhoods, discovering Taipei coffee culture, the amazing afternoon spent down at the converted docks (it’s now an art space for outdoor sculptures and indoor exhibition galleries), our accidental degustation dinner (it was so cheap we just thought it was a tapas style thing!), the attempt to visit all of the night markets which was very quickly deserted when we realised the actual scale of that project… The list is actually endless.

Sadly, the gallery below doesn’t adequately capture this. Regular readers (if they exist) may well have noticed that this post features a lot more description – and a lot less photos – than usual. There’s a reason for that.

We flew from Taipei to Seoul, landing at around the time locals would have been eating dinner. Somewhere between the airport and our hostel our camera – and all the memories it held – went missing. It was a horrible realisation and a bitter start to our time in Seoul.

But at least I have a valid excuse to head back to Taipei soon!

*Taiwan’s incredibly varied food culture is informed by a difficult history – something which I don’t think the tenor or length of this blog has any right to attempt to venture into. There are a number of amazing online resources which do this topic justice.

 

Once Upon A Time In Munich: My Mother’s Story

As a 1970s traveller, my mother spent most of her time in campsites around Europe, and a combi van was her and her friends’ preferred mode of transport. This sounds like it would have been all very fun in spring and summer, but it seems they also attempted it in winter.

After a week in snow-covered Munich, the seven of them packed up their tents and rucksacks, cleaned up the travel stove, and hopped in the van to head to their next destination.

The engine revved, but it wouldn’t turn over. There was much discussion about what should be done: It needs to be warmed up! – No that won’t help, you just have to keep revving it. – What are you talking about? That will destroy the engine! Maybe leave it running for a bit. – Would some hot water help?

The stubborn van, aware that their traveling was almost at an end and that its passengers were en route back to their jobs and adopted lives in London, had simply given up. Obdurately, it sat on the edge of the campsite, goading kicks and profanities from the group.

Without another option, they were forced to push the van to town. Six of them pitched in to push while one lucky member got to be steerer. I’d always imagined the six of them pushing the van until it got a good roll going before gallantly sprinting to be level with the door and then vaulting into the safety of the steel interior. When I saw Little Miss Sunshine for the first time I pointed excitedly and asked my mother if that was what she had had to do in Munich. She looked at me like I was a bit dense; apparently combi vans are heavy and if the engine doesn’t tick over even with a running start it means you just push it the whole 2k to town. At a rate of about 0.5kph.

They made it to town, no doubt glowing with exertion and a sense of achievement, only to find that the repair was going to take a few days and the rest of their money. They begged a heater-less room for a trifle above a coffee shop and spent the next couple of days sharing a morning pastry and coffee between the seven of them in an attempt to both nourish and warm themselves. They didn’t really drink the coffee, they just held the mug for its warmth, passing it on to the next in the circle only when social convention deemed they were perhaps being greedy.

After an eternity of cold and hunger and sleepless nights, the van was ready to go. Or, at least, it was as ready as it was ever going to be. The mechanics were able to patch, but not fix, the problem meaning that the van was now only able to run at a top speed of about 50kph. Given that their route home included an Autobahn, this was worrying.

Over the next few days of driving, they got a crash-course in German expletives as enraged drivers sped past their sluggish combi. Puttering down the speed limit-free highway at a piddling 45kph, they didn’t make any friends and most likely almost caused a few accidents.

Almost at their destination – or at least the exit route which would enable them to get away from the Autobahn – they encountered road works and only a single open lane. With no choice but to continue on, they crossed their fingers and hoped for the best. But luck wasn’t on their side.

About 1k from where they could see the end of the road works they heard an ominous bellow, full and rich like a boat’s klaxon. In their rear-view mirror they saw a truck traveling at immense speed, and with less breaking space than would be needed to avoid catastrophe. I don’t know who was driving, but I do know they put pedal to floor – an act which only pushed the odometer up to about 47kph. The opened-up highway was getting closer, but so was the impending road train, and there wasn’t really anything they could do but hope. The truck’s horn blew again and again – like the clap of thunder heralding the approaching storm it got louder and louder with each pull.

The combi was straining, the driver’s leg aching, and every single muscle of every single passenger was clenched to the limit. The truck filled the rear-view mirror, and then the whole of the back window – they could see nothing else. And then, at the very last second, the roadblock barriers fell away and the driver ducked into the lane on the right. The truck, thankfully, kept to its linear path, its klaxon shouting back at them until it disappeared into the horizon forever.

“Everything it is possible to imagine can also exist”

I was in Munich for three nights about 18 months ago and it was during a heatwave, so my memories of the city are hazy at best. I’d never been to Europe in summer before and before I landed at Frankfurt airport to a 28°C greeting, I was one of those smug Australians who snickered under my breath at Europeans who can’t handle real summer. Make no mistake, there is nothing worse than a heatwave in Europe. I think I almost collapsed from heat exhaustion.

One of the problems is the reverse of Australia’s lack-of-dealing with winter: there is very little in the way of air conditioning anywhere in Europe. The shock of cool relief one expects from those first few steps into a department store is nowhere to be found; it’s just more stagnant heat air. I remember waiting for a train at Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, sweating so profusely I actually could not physically keep myself in the plastic chair. Unable to breathe for the suffocating heat, I took myself to the bathroom to throw some cold water on my face. Almost delirious with the relief of the spray, standing at the basin I removed both my shirt and bra in an attempt to cool down. It wasn’t until a rather surprised and perplexed woman walked into the bathroom that I realised it would be possibly more appropriate to take some wetted towels into a stall with me…

But I digress.

My strongest memories of Munich centre on our second night. A gorgeous city steeped in medieval and early modern architecture and thick with lush greenery and amazing urban gardens, Munich is the perfect setting for a fairy tale. Journeying through one of these amazing gardens – the Englischer Garten – we alighted on an immense Biergaten. Locals, expats, and tourists of all ages stood in a genial snaking line to exchange euros for tokens which could be used to buy Bier, Bretzels, and Bratwurst.

For those who hail from the southern hemisphere, twilight still, I think, holds a surprising and magical quality. In the fading light we drank and ate and were merry; three Australians and one local enjoying the balmy glow of a midsummer’s night dream.

By the time we left the beer garden the sun had well and truly set and the park was impenetrably dark. But we needn’t have worried about tripping over. Almost as soon as we had left the glow of the Garten, a new glow materialised; a tiny floating orb of light. It was chased by another, and another, and yet another – fireflies! I had never seen a firefly before and – emboldened by my numerous steins – I chased after them in squealing glee. Luckily my companions kept me from wandering too far off the path.

As we exited the park and neared the city centre, we digressed through one more patch of park. From the path we heard music, and wandering through the trees and over to the decorated rotunda which stood in the clearing opposite, we found an informal waltz lesson underway.

Gorged with token-bought ale and Bretzels, with tricksy fairies who lead you off the path, and with hidden enclaves in which elderly couples waltz into eternity, we turned back towards the path and followed our breadcrumbs back home, dancing a little along the way.

 

“The original version of modernity”

Disney World exists on the outskirts of Orlando, Florida but here I’m considering it as a city in its own right. Such a characterisation is, in fact, doing the sprawling conglomeration a disservice. Disney World, as its moniker suggests could – economically at least – exist separate to the nation which encapsulates it, employing enough people and generating enough revenue to rival the GDP of a number of small countries. It even has its own currency! (Which is to say that you can link your credit card to your hotel room key meaning you don’t have to leave your room with anything other than a single piece of plastic. The running total is, of course, always obscured – the Spectacle of Disney World is as impressive as it is insidious and evil).

I hadn’t planned to blog about Disney World. Our decision to go was triggered by a desire to launch immediately into the absurdity of US pop-culture after six months of backpacking across a continent where we didn’t even really speak the language so both at the time and in my memories I think of it more as simulated immersion than travel. Readers of Baudrillard (whose words lent this post its title) will understand what I’m trying to get at. In describing the act of driving through America in his book of the same name, Baudrillard attempts to capture the sense of vastness and emptiness of post-war America (both geographically and culturally) but concludes that the only way he could even begin to express this to his reader/listener would be to play them the video – in real time – of his road trip. Disney World is a lie (to use another Baudrillard term, a simulacrum), but in being so it becomes truth: a site at which the very soul of the US can be momentarily witnessed.

But that’s all a bit heavy. I’ve mainly chosen to blog about Disney World today because it’s Christmas and I thought it was in keeping with the decadence of the season. And decadent it was.

All of Disney World’s hotels are themed, meaning there is no respite from sensory overload even in the cheapest of lodgings (i.e. the one we chose). The theme is everything in Disney World. It’s broken into four (themed) parks: Magic Kingdom for classic Disney, EPCOT for the future/cultural sensitivity, Hollywood Studios for America’s pop-cultural heyday, and Animal Kingdom for safari (which has to be a metaphor for colonisation, right?). And the themes extend to the food. It’s difficult to find an item of food that isn’t shaped like a Disney character; lollipops, pretzels, cookies, bagels, fries, even sandwiches – they’re all Mickey. And because each park has its own theme, it also has its own themed food.

The staff are lovely, but a little too intense in their desire to make both your stay and your sense of yourself as an individual seem exceptional and important (after asking for directions to one of the – numerous – restaurants: “Oh my gosh I love that place! It’s my absolute favourite! Great choice guys, well done.”). The rides are so full of colour and movement and sound that I now totally get how people lose their life savings on pokies. And the universes that you have to traverse whilst ‘in line’ to get to the start of the rides are so intricate and interesting that you don’t even notice how much time has been sucked away from you forever. There’s a jungle to traverse to get to Indiana Jones, a training course for Star Wars, and entire planetary systems for Space Mountain – you grow old waiting to experience these things and yet you’re happy to turn around and race straight back to the start and do it all again once it’s over.

To close I’m going to paraphrase John Oliver (speaking on a rather different topic): Disney World was like crack; it was super fun at the time, but it’s good that we left.

Santiago to Machu Picchu – My Uncle’s Story

When my uncle landed in Santiago, Chile in 1973 he was filled with the optimism of a young man on his first international adventure. Twenty years old, over-packed and under-supervised, he stepped off the plane with his whole life on his shoulders and breathed in the excitement he was sure this sparklingly exotic city would bring.

My uncle reveled in his new-found freedom. The academic success and favourite child of his family back in Perth, it must have been liberating for him to not have to worry about keeping up appearances – or grades. For the first time he could be himself and do as he pleased. He drank-in the city and its inhabitants. He stayed out late and got up early, only pausing to sleep in the late afternoon heat. He attempted local delicacies and cooking techniques, an attempt that was to spark a life-long love affair with cooking and, in particular, cooking meat, making it an eventual disappointment to him that his only niece chose to be a vegetarian. He tasted his first glass of Carmenère, an act which sparked another life-long love affair with wine and luckily bridged the gap of his niece’s culinary choices.

Santiago was good to my uncle. It welcomed him as both a comparatively rich westerner and as a shy young man attempting to construct an identity for himself away from his high grades and adoring mother. The old men who invited him to drink a late-morning coffee, the local girls who flirted with him – a first, no doubt for this bookworm – and the other backpackers who happily included him and invited him to the pub with no expectation for him to drink, and no judgment when he chose not to. I imagine my uncle at twenty, excited to have friends and to have attracted the interest of women for the first time. It fills me with a desperately sad sense of joy.

My uncle – still training to be the engineering academic with a penchant for deliciously difficult examination questions he would one day become – had a profound love of both trains and ancient architecture, meaning South America intrigued him from a very young age, and should have held him close. Although a situation of political unrest prevented him from visiting the magnificent train graveyard in Bolivia, he found himself in the now-enviable position of being able to trek to Machu Picchu on his own; sans both guide and complaining tour group.

His delight to see this mystical city in the clouds prompted him to leave Santiago rather early and to fly and then bus to Cusco, Peru from where he would begin his three day trek across lush valleys punctured with ruins.

My uncle is by no means a foolish person, but I do imagine him at that age to be slightly naïve and I imagine his excitement to soon see the ancient city would cloud his judgment, making him an obvious target for thieves. He ambled through the streets of Cusco looking for the same joy he found in Santiago, not realising that Cusco – more magnet for tourists and schemesters than Peruvian city – was not the happy, fun-loving place he had come to expect from the continent after experiencing only one of its nations. Standing in the city square he noticed the magnificent bank building. Built in the Spanish style, it still stands today; jutting out onto the pavement, allowing year-round shelter to the city’s homeless contingent. As he raised his camera to eye level a young local boy came running past and grabbed it from out his hands, dragging my uncle by the neck until the leather strap broke. My uncle called out, but the boy kept running, the onlookers seeming to not care to help. My uncle ran after the boy, yelling at him and the passersby, both angry and pleading, desperate to retrieve his memories of his time in Santiago. The boy continued running down a side street: my uncle made to follow him and then stopped. He took in his surroundings. He realised he was no longer in a well-populated part of town and the people in the alleyway stared at him with hostility. It was too dangerous to follow now.

With his photographs and memories of Santiago now lost to him forever, my uncle had no choice but to admit defeat, to turn away and return to his hotel room filled with both a crushing despair at having lost that which it had taken him so long to gain and a crushing sense of guilt that the loss had somehow been his fault.

My uncle has never returned to South America and today he remains hostile in his memories of the place. Having managed to find another camera – one which I’ve no doubt he paid through the nose for – he was still able to capture his trip to Machu Picchu. But his loss of the positive memories from the start of his trip meant that he somehow began to measure his vacation from the theft of the camera, rather than from the landing in Santiago. At the slightest mention of South America he recites to me the story of the theft, and clamps up when I try to push for more information of the continent beyond its capacity for crime. His overwhelming memories of the place now seem to be rooted in the violence he both experienced and saw, and the overwhelming levels of poverty and inequality which he witnessed.

As I look through his photo album, I am struck by how melancholy his pictures appear – a characteristic which has nothing to do with their monochromic nature.

‘This is an alpaca roaming the farming land a day’s walk from Machu Picchu,’ he tells me. I stare at that alpaca, solitary and cold on a misty mountain, tied to a stake in the earth, staring off into the horizon, and it makes me want to cry.

“Not all those who wander are lost”

We didn’t have enough time in Santiago. We were only there for about three days. We had initially planned to stay longer, and to even head south and see some of Chile before moving north to the Inca Trail, but we hadn’t done our research properly. The wet season in Peru was starting in less than a month and there was a high possibility that Machu Picchu would be closed by the time we got there. So we began our 6-month leisurely-travelling-through-South-America trip with the need to haul arse as fast as we could to Cusco.

Santiago has an amazing old-school feel about it. Bars are draped in leather and oak and the waiters in crisp white shirts beneath pressed black waistcoats, a red and white checkered tea towel hanging from the back pocket. It’s an incredibly vibrant and colourful city, and walking its streets is a delight.

It’s definitely a coffee city, and the whirr of an espresso machine is a near constant wherever (and whenever) you go. Not being from a coffee city, before arriving in Santiago (and even Melbourne before that) I was very much a tea drinker. I struggled with the bitter smack of even the most delicately brewed shot. But Santiago initiated me into the art of knocking back espressos. It was here, on my very first day in the city, that I discovered the magical drink known as the cortado. It’s a shot of coffee topped up with a tiny bit of milk. Smaller, stronger, and more satisfying than a macchiato (also cheaper), it was to become my drink of choice all the way from Santiago, Chile to Bogotá, Colombia where I finally graduate to straight black.

The coffee was amazing, but I can’t say as much about the food. To be fair, I don’t eat meat – which does cut out the best culinary adventures which South America has to offer – but I nevertheless found Santiago’s food culture… Shall we say interesting? Fun fact: Chileans are the third biggest consumers of mayonnaise in the world (Russia is first, the US a close second). So if you’re not a fan of mayo, the richness of the cuisine certainly takes some getting used to.

The most memorable meal was chorrillana – a dish consisting of fries, barbecued vegetables (or meat), fried egg, and sauce. It’s a bit like a Chilean poutine. I’m not going to lie – it was delicious. Washed down with some local beer (and with a cortado chaser) in a locals’ hangout just around the corner from our hostel in the university area, it was a nice welcome to the journey to come.

There’s no doubt that Santiago is a nineteenth-century city, and its heyday permeates every nook and cranny. The grandeur of the marketplaces (and their produce) is staggering, and fountains, squares, and colonial architecture make for an immensely pleasurable walking experience. Santiago is a city steeped richly in aesthetics.

Because we had to move on so quickly in order to make it to Machu Picchu in time, in my memories Santiago, San Pedro de Atacama, the Bolivian salt fields, and Cusco all occupy the same moment. I would love to go on and talk more about these places, but I think I might call it a day for now and return to them in a later post.