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The motorbike had come on the roof from Vietnam

Buses Across Borders – First Steps Into Laos

Unless you’re still at a nightclub, very loud European trance music (with accompanying DVD pictures) is not the sort of thing that makes 5am a more pleasurable hour. Still less comfortable, is to have this inflicted on you at this time in the wee small hours whilst effectively being stuffed into a tin can. Nevertheless, it seems that this might be what it takes to get into northern Laos from Vietnam on a small bus.

We’d spent the day before on an equally small bus travelling ten hours from Hanoi to the north-western town of Dien Bien Phu where we were to stay the night. Mercifully, this was less cramped affair; although there were moments of concern, such as when we assumed that the man necking shot after shot of vodka during a rest stop was the replacement driver (he wasn’t), or when the bus began to leave within a minute of our badly-timed noodle soup order arriving, or when we were unsure as to whether our destination was the same town we’d originally headed for, or when were to sitting next to a box that moved and chirped. But all that was simply the jitters brought on by language issues and uncertainty. Things were different as we boarded the bus to get us across the border.

Firstly, we were an international contingent of passengers, with French, Australian, Israeli, Canadian and Dutch travellers joining us in the bus. We were all there early of course, hence the DVD entertainment. Then the locals turned up. Then more. Then more. Then some with enormous boxes. Then a few more. With babies. By the time we’d reached the Laos border control, with its painstaking handwritten-in-triplicate bureaucracy, the bus designed for twenty was carrying around twice that number. It made Friday afternoon on the tube seem like a yoga retreat.

Nonetheless, we were in Laos and with some truly awful Vietnamese comedy keeping the locals on the cramped vehicle happy, we bumped down the unmade roads, picking up and dropping off people and goods in between fording streams and taking motorbikes off the roof.

Eventually we reached our destination. That is to say, we were politely shunted off onto a tiny ferry boat which took us across to the village of Muang Khua, where we would stay the night. Here buses and lorries crossed the Nam Ou on a platform secured against the current by a zip-line type mechanism and shunted across by a tug. In finding dry land on the far bank we finished a journey that we will remember for a long time to come.

In both Vietnam and Laos we passed villages and scenery to remember. Stilt houses tucked up against rivers, rice paddies and mountains. Water buffalo aided the many workers in the fields. Women’s dress changed from the high-heels of Hanoi to the head-dress of the rural north-west. Everywhere children waved. It may have been cramped and occasionally confusing and unnerving, but this was another occasion in our travels where the journey itself was the experience.

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A Tale of Two (Or More) Restaurants

It can be tricky to write about our travels without making it seen like are gushing, moaning, worrying or gluttonous. The very nature of the tour we´re on calls for at least one, if not all of these characteristics almost every day. “Oh no, another 20 hour bus journey! Oh, but the sights are just spectacularly wonderful! Oh, but what if…? Oh, but we ate and drank some great stuff!” Southern Brazil has been no exception, but with the comfort and security of a great house in Florianópolis to stay in, and with the much more comfortable lifestyle and amenities brought by the rocketing economic status of the country, it has also afforded us more time to practice the gluttony side of things.

Thus, every day on Santa Catarina we’d walk down to the beach (past the strange daylight loving owls who nested on the ground near the road) and kick up the sand (jumping out of the way of the comedic sand crabs) for twenty minutes or so until we reached the tiny fishing village of Pantolo Do Sul. Here, although it was inexplicably impossible to buy fresh fish at the market, we could sit and watch the fishing boats bobbing on the waves whilst sipping a caipirinha and ordering a dish of something that we hoped hadn´t been long out of the sea.

The most interesting of the eateries here was Arante´s. Apparently founded in 1958 as a general store for fishermen, it´s speciality seems always to have been fried fish with `pirao´, a gloupey but tasty gravy made from fish stock. However it was in the seventies, when students began to visit the nearby beaches regularly but were not endowed with the mobile communications devices of today, that Arante´s began to cultivate its most distinctive feature. Needing to know where the party was, and fuelled by the free cachaca that is still available and just as potent today, the students began to stick notes up for each other on the restaurant walls and at the bar. As more cachaca flowed, so the notes became more poetic and illustrative. Over thirty years later one suspects this has also meant that the owners have never had to buy a tin of paint, as the walls are now covered in booze and fish-insipred artwork and messages, although now the most common subject seems to be how good the booze and the fish are.

Santa Catarina and Florianopolis were good for us; clean, quiet and spacious after the populous and many-flavoured Rio. Nonetheless, the time came to move on and inevitably an overnight bus tooks us eight hours south to the big Rio Grande Do Sul city of Porto Alegre. This large metropolis seems to be home to many students and, depite the rain, we like the place. One of it´s principle attractions for a short stay such as ours seems to be the large old central market. Aside from bursting with better fresh fish (at last, so this is where it all goes!), meat and vegetable stalls than we´ve seen anywhere else in South America to date, it also houses a wealth of eateries of all sizes. These aren´t the dodgy cafes next to hairdressers you often find in English municipal markets, these range from full blown sushi restaurants to extravagant ice-cream parlours. Soaked from the rain and sadly devoid of a kitchen in which to experiment with the afformentioned market-fare, we visited one of these restaurants, Restaurante Gambrinus, for dinner. Unusually for a weeknight, and a main reason for our choice, the menu included feijoada, a traditional stew of beans and beef with pork which we´d been promising ourselves throughout Brazil. Much like cassoulet, but darker and saltier, it was a great way to dry off and worth the wait since Rio.


More than the food though, the welcome from most people in Brazil has been thoroughly warming. Despite us feeling terrible at hardly being able to understand a word of the language we have often been offered help by complete strangers just because of our lost looks or the fact that we´re from out of town. At Restaurant Gambrinus this warm welcome extended to numerous jokes, slaps on the back, questions about football and royalty, requests of letters from England, group photos even (we think) a refusal of a tip. We were only there an hour! So here´s to the gluttony of travel in Southern Brazil, to the sea, to feijoada, to caipirinha and to Jose C.L. Tavares from Gambrinus in Porto Alegre.

Now, where shall we go for lunch?

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We waved adios to Peru on a three-hour bus from Puno. Tracing the edge of the vast Lake Titicaca we crossed the Bolivian border, walking through the no-man’s land populated with yet more stalls attended to by bowler-hatted ladies and money exchanges reminding us that the days of the Peruvian Sole were over, and that thinking in Bolivianos was now the order of the day.

Copacabana (no, not the Barry Manilow version) was the first town we’d arrived to without booking accommodation. It soon became clear that this would be neither an expensive issue (hello Bolivia) nor a difficulty (hello low season Bolivia). After lugging our packs from hostel to hostel we eventually settled on a £5 room with a bathroom which, it’s fair to say, was the best of a bad bunch. Cheap, yes – but it feels it.

Copacabana confused us. Half hippy seaside town, half lakeside backwater, its feel of dilapidated 80s English resort in a place that could have been beautiful was distressing. Discarded soiled nappies were strewn across the waterside, the tourist restaurants served barely edible food at a cringingly slow pace and graffiti blighted almost every rock on the way up to the best view of the lake. We are trying hard not to impose our sometimes sanitised Western European standards onto some impoverished parts of the world, but seeing natural beauty scarred in such a way was a depressing experience, and one that we apparently shared with other visitors to the town. So, we opted to move onto La Paz, via another three-hour bus.

The bus journey was quite pleasant: fairly straight roads with good views of the lake and increasingly regular glimpses of snow capped mountains coiffured with cloud. It was made really good however, by an unexpected short break in the middle, as the pubescent drivers mate called our attention and rattled off some rapido Spanish. All that we understood was that we were to get off the bus and buy some sort of ‘boletta’ (ticket) for B$1.50 (14p). It was quite a surprise then, to see that our bus was being driven onto a flat wooden boat, using the momentum to push off, being turned around by a single man with a punt(!) and sailed across Lake Titicaca! We then queued and subsequently bobbed across the beautifully clear water in smaller craft whilst inexplicably being given a life-jacket in a country where virtually no road vehicle has seatbelts. We just hoped that we wouldn’t see our bus, containing all our possessions, have a Titanic moment. Luckily, we were soon across and on our way to the big city.


The Andes – A Bit Like Lightwater Valley

Many years ago I used to go on day trips to that magnificent Yorkshire theme park, Lightwater Valley. Aside from the Death Slide and The Ultimate, one of the biggest draws there was, for a while, The Rat. This ride basically consisted of an hour or so of queuing, followed by a couple of minutes of a fairly speedy roller coaster in the dark.

I’m currently sitting on a Cruz Del Sur bus through the Andes on the route from Lima to Cusco. This basically seems to consist of a couple of minutes of queuing, followed by 21 hours of incredibly fast roller coaster, most of which has taken place in the dark.

Of course, most people’s idea of travelling on a bus in South America might consist of dusty, bumpy roads and an uncomfortable, clapped-out old bus being pursued by packs of dogs. Well the existence of such buses remains to be seen but this one couldn’t be further from the stereotype. Large bed-seats, TVs, air-con, hostess serving dinner – it’s all pretty luxury airline. But when in darkness you are catapulted from one side of your large bed-seat to the next, the lady opposite is sick and you’re informed that under no circumstances should you poo in the toilet for the next 21 hours, you really start to wish you’d popped that sleeping pill!

The driving is remarkable. Never have I felt closer to being a NASA test pilot whilst simultaneously resembling a side of beef in a getaway meat wagon. Lewis Hamilton would struggle to hold the lines that this double decker takes around hairpin bends at 70mph.

But then daylight creeps in and the scenery emerges. You never got this at Lightwater Valley…