Wednesday, 26 November 2014

"Education is the most powerful weapon. With it, we can change the world."

The Great British/ Norwegian Tuition Fees Debate

Is education a right, a freedom, or a commodity? Should the huge amounts of money pumped into sustaining a quality university be paid for by the students, or by the state? And should these universities be protected for the use of inhabitants in that home country, or shared with others?
It is these kinds of questions that have been emerging over the last few decades. I have lived through them in Britain, and am now witness to those same debates trickling into Norway; one of the last places in the world where a student's talent and ability mean more than their nationality or wealth in terms of access to knowledge. 

In 1979- 1982 Margaret Thatcher's government introduced, for the first time, tuition fees for international students in England. Students who wished to attend British universities could previously obtain a scholarship, but after the reforms were asked to pay £4000 p.a (£13000 p.a  in modern day terms) for their education. This unequal treatment of international students marked, I think, the beginning of the commodification of education in Britain.

30 years on, the entire British higher education system is almost unrecognisable. Whilst students from the EU are protected by law, such that they can not be charged more than what is charged to home students, other international students' fees are uncapped. This means that institutions are free to charge as much as they like (or at least as much as market forces will allow them). As for home students, we have gone from paying no tuition and receiving a maintenance grant, to paying £1000 p.a. in 1998 and £3000 p.a. in 2004, both under Tony Blair's labour government. In 2010, Nick Clegg rose to the position of deputy prime minister, by large part on the back of his pledge to make university in Britain free. This pledge resulted in one of the largest number of votes for his party, the liberal democrats, in recent history and prompted many people to vote for the very first time. The pledge was promptly broken, and tuition fees in England are now £9000 a year for home students.

Yet, I would say that Britain is still luckier than America, in that we can receive from the government a loan that covers the full cost of our tuition fees, plus a maintenance loan. However, this must be paid back in full (albeit only when we start earning above a certain amount). For these reasons, many people in the UK do not see the student loan debt as real "debt", but rather a form of graduate tax that they will pay over the course of their lifetime. I see some issues with this. Debt is still debt, whether it affects your mortgage application or not. And it is still enough to put some bright students off applying, and moreover punish, however little the amount is or however long term, those who have made the decision to learn.

The loans are also not extensive. You only receive access to a loan for one bachelors degree, and cannot receive support from the government for a masters unless it is as part of an integrated programme (such as 4 year maths/ physics/ engineering programmes). As such, the majority of people in England do not have a masters, whilst you would be hard pressed in Scandinavia to get a graduate level job without one. The only people I know who studied for a masters in the arts, or even other science fields such as biology, fell into either one of three groups: 1. They were talented (and lucky) enough to obtain one of the very few scholarships available 2. They did their degree part time and worked alongside to fund it, or 3. They received support from their family. Say what you will, but it is undeniable that the British system of tuition fees prohibits any changes in career plan one might have, as well as access to masters studies for those who might really excel in it.

Moreover, the maintenance loan of £3333 a year is not even close to being enough to survive for a year in England. You receive more if you study in London, or if you come from a low income family, but even with the maximum amount you must either find a part time job or rely on support from your parents in order to live. Almost everyone I knew at university had their loan supplemented by their parents. Compare this with Norway, where once at university age, you are considered an adult in your own right, with your parent's income wholly irrelevant. No-one I know in Norway received money from the parents whilst they studied, the £10,000 a year loan from the government was more than adequate (consider also that half of this amount is given as a gift if you pass your exams, and need not be paid back).

So where does this leave us all in the whole tuition fee debate? It is quite obvious, to me at least, that the Norwegian system has got things a little better worked out. But there are now risks to this perfect system. The current (blue-blue/ right-wing) government are proposing for students outside of the EU to start to pay for their tuition fees. They argue that this will ensure that students come to Norway for the quality of its education, and not just because it is free. They point to Norwegian students who must pay tens of thousands of pounds to study at British, American and Australian universities, whilst those countries' students come and study in Norway for free. Next-door-neighbour Sweden has already introduced this policy, and there seems to be a general trend rippling across Europe towards 'sharing' the cost of university.

This governmental policy, as most right wing policies seem to do, affects the squeezed middle class most of all. Those students who do not live in the most deprived of the world's countries (thus have access to quota schemes), but are also are not sitting on piles of cash, are the ones who will miss out. In my Norwegian class, I study with students from the US, China, Belarus, Ethiopia, Romania and Pakistan who, if Norway had charged fees, would not have been able to study here. These are students that, when they applied, were found to be the very best applicants, and were given a place on a range of competitive bachelors programmes, with a year of intensive norwegian tuition intended to prepare them. And if there had been fees, they would not have come to Norway, and their places would have been given to less qualified, less capable, EU students. There is the risk that, like what has begun to happen in swedish universities, campuses become less 'globalised' and more 'europeanised'.

And what is the other impact of the commodification of education? With commodification comes marketisation. We have already seen in England the push towards student recruitment, with universities spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on promotional material to attract students to their institution. Education is now a product, and universities are to compete for customers. It is dangerous when students begin to view themselves as consumers, with consumer rights. "I pay £9000 for my eduction, my professor should be there whenever I want him to, to do x, y and z........"

There is no way that Norway is prepared to deal with this. At the moment, student recruitment in Norway is a push- model; the demand is so high that promotion and recruitment are not even a function of universities. There is no marketing office and recruitment is a wholly passive process. However, with the introduction of fees, institutions in Norway will have to actively promote themselves in order to attract students, and this is a skillet that Norwegian institutions quite simply do not have. And shouldn't have to have.

Education has been free, for all, for many years. It is an argument that is based, most of all, upon the concept that academia is something beyond the borders of nations, and that knowledge and invention should not confined to a country, but to the international fields of arts, writing, science. Knowledge, talent and passion is something to be nurtured, and then shared with the world. The very best students from anywhere in the world should be able to study and to learn what interests and inspires them where they wish, regardless of their personal wealth, their nationality, or the political prowess of their leaders in negotiating scholarships. This benefits all. What is learned in a host country can be taken back and shared in their homeland, aid development and capacity building, and nurture an understanding of different cultures. Students who stay in their own country will grow up learning, arguing and debating with like-minded and similarly skilled people from around the world, further strengthening inter-cultural ties.

And hey, maybe one or two nutters might actually fall in love with their host country, stick around, get a job there and pay taxes....... :)

Friday, 17 October 2014

Expensive expensive Norway.... Or is it?

If you mention 'Norway' to somebody, chances are they will say "oh, but isn't it so expensive there?". And the short answer is... Kind of. Norway is extremely expensive for some things, cheap for others, and if you earn a Norwegian salary you're laughing. The cost of living in Norway was the main thing that scared me from taking the leap over here- I was terrified that I would burn through my savings in a matter of weeks. But despite the rumours, I have discovered that with a few simple tricks, things can be quite manageable.....

Salary and Taxes

First things first. Every country's cost of living needs to be compared to the average salary in the country, in order to assess typical disposable income, and typical quality of life. Norway is an expensive country compared to others if you directly compare the prices of certain things. However, average wages are proportionally much higher. To give an example, the average yearly salary of somebody in the UK is (gross) £26,500. The average yearly salary in Norway is £39,000.

"Oh but.." I hear you say "So much of that goes on taxes right? So it doesn't really count".

I'm really uncertain about where this myth of high taxes in Norway comes from. It is an opinion held by both Norwegians and foreigners! I think it must be because people compare the income tax in England with the total taxes on income in Norway, ignoring what is taken away with National Insurance. I took a look at a a UK tax calculator as well as a a tax calculator from the Norwegian Skatteetaten, and the results were pretty incredible!

If you take each of the country's average salaries as an example, a salary of £26,500 would bring £20,974 after taxes in the UK. In Norway, you would take home £20,609. For £39,000, in the UK you would be left with £29,474, and in Norway £28,635 (both are almost identical!)

And consider that £39,000 is the average salary here, and what you get for your taxes! (It's no wonder the Norwegian word for tax skatt also means treasure.) Free university education for everyone for up to 7 years, a crazy student loan (half of which is given to you as a gift if you pass your exams), generous pensions, clean and safe cities some of the best (free) healthcare in the world (apart from, my one bone of contention, you have to pay £20 here for a doctor's appointment, and women must pay for contraception. Even IRAN has free contraception. Step it up Norway.)

But for my part, it only took me two weeks to find a job here where all I needed was to speak English. The average salary for child sitting// dogsitting/ tutoring is from £12- £18 an hour. I'm now breaking even/ saving money each month, and as a foreigner I get a 10% tax discount for my first 2 years of working in Norway!

Housing and Transport

These are the two things that I found to be surprisingly cheap in Norway, at least compared to London. They are also the two things that take up the greatest proportion of your monthly spending. Norway is a very large country, with a very small population. There are 5 million people in the whole country- compared to 8 million people who live in London! Unsurprisingly then, land and houses are cheaper than in England. Student accommodation in Oslo can be found for about £300 a month including all the bills, whilst private houses can be had for £500 a month in fairly good locations. Compared to London, where people pay anything between £500 to £800 a month for a place , I think that's pretty damn reasonable considering the average salary.

Transport as well in Oslo is excellent value. If you buy a monthly pass (a point which can be debated, see the other post!) you can except to pay £39 a month as a student and £70 a month as an adult for access to all transport systems in main Oslo, from the mountains to the fjords to the ferries across to the islands around Oslo. Compared to £120 a month for a zone 1 and 2 travelcard in London- not too shabby!

Food and Drink

Okay, here is where Norway really earns its expensive reputation- and it's no wonder really because reputation and stereotypes of a country are typically bred from tourists travelling there, and the one thing tourists do alot of on holiday is eat and drink. A main course in a nice restaurant here will cost you about £20. A pint of beer will be about £7 or £8. Food and drink in the shops are similarly stepped up, around about £2.50 for a pack of gum or a chocolate bar, £2 for a litre of milk, £3 for a loaf of bread (I feel giddy when I go home and enter Asda or Tesco- it's enough to consider whether it's worth paying for checked luggage and filling it with food!!)

Although there are tricks here as well. Oslo has an area called Grønland which has a large immigrant population, and some very cheap international supermarkets and fruit and vegetable stalls. There is shop which people genuinely travel across Oslo to visit; filled to the brim of the very freshest fruit and veg (and filled to the brim with people!) I stop there about once a week and spend about £10 for all of my fruit and veg for the week, which as a vegetarian is quite alot!

One other thing to bear in mind is that whilst the bill for food in supermarkets is appalling when compared to the UK, Norwegians apparently only spend about 10% of their salary on food and soft drinks (beer is another story ;) ). I'm not entirely sure what the statistic here is compared to the UK- but perhaps people could work it out? 10% seems really reasonable to me!

And I have to say the one good thing about living in a place that is so expensive is travelling home and on holiday and finding everything so cheap! Drinks on me.....

The baffling world of Norwegian transport

I have lived in Norway for about 2 months now, and one of the first things that struck was the bizarre transport systems here. This has baffled me so much that I thought it deserved its own blog post.


After cycling to work in London, I was pretty sure that nothing could phase me. I mean come on, London has a population almost double the size of the whole of Norway! Surely also, as a forward thinking Scandinavian country, they also have a fantastic cycle network?

Cycling through Oslo is perhaps the oddest thing. For a while there, you cycle along a wide cycle path by the side of the road, smugly passing long queues of traffic as you whizz along unmolested in your designated cycle lane. And then suddenly, the lane disappears and you must cycle on the pavement or else face certain death on a very busy motorway. You cycle along the pavement for a while, dodging pedestrians, before the pavement disappears and you again find yourself on the road. You then find that your road joins onto the tram line, with no kind of traffic light to inform you of whether a tram is on its way down the hill or not. For about 500 metres you cycle along the tram way, alternately looking anxiously over your shoulder as to whether a tram is coming up behind you, and then down to the perfectly wheel sized tram lines beneath your bike. It's certainly an exciting affair, cycling to university. Although I am rewarded with some far more splendid views than in London......

Norwegian cyclers themselves don't really seem to understand basic etiquette. Whilst in England, if a cyclist were to come along on the pavement, it would be met with some very English stony glares, and if you're very unlucky, some loud tutting. But in Norway it is perfectly legal and normal for the cyclists to go on the pavements. You could then be strolling along the pavement, minding your own business, when a cyclist would silently wheel up behind you and whisper "Unnskyld.... unnskyld..." As a pedestrian, you would hear a vague sound, perhaps the wind whistling through the trees, and as you casually turn to look behind you and jump out of your skin as you come face to face with a line of shy and polite spandex- clad Norwegians on bicycles. I can understand them cycling on pavements as the cycle lanes are so erratic, but I think I might have to start handing out bells. (Although the Norwegians, even if they had bells, would be far too shy to ring them.)

Road rules

One thing that I had to learn very quickly is Norway's bizarre traffic rules. And I'm not just talking about driving on the right hand side.

I'm still not entirely sure what the rules are with the traffic lights here, but there have been many times when the green man pops up and I happily begin to cross the road only to have a car begin to almost plough into me. Similarly, I have driven Per Kristian's car and the light has shown green for me to turn onto a junction, and I suddenly find myself with a swarm of pedestrians in front of the car. I'm not entirely sure who is in the right here, but in both scenarios I react with some well placed glares and an emphatic gesture to the green man. If someone could explain these bizarre situations to me, that would be greatly appreciated.

Another baffling road rule in Norway is that you must always give way to roads on the right, unless there is a sign that says you have the right of way. This is regardless of whether you are on the main road or not. Of course in England, if you are on the main road, you have priority over the smaller roads joining onto your road. Not so in Norway! Driving or cycling you must always keep an eye on the roads on the right, as cars will quite unashamedly speed on out onto your road, despite the fact that you were there first and your road is far bigger and busier.

Road works end up just as frustrating here!


And finally, we come to the T-bane. Oslo's T-bane system is actually extremely efficient. This metro system successfully links up many areas of the city, even reaching up to Holmekollen (Oslo's huge ski jump high up the side of a mountain) all the way down to the fjords. Your pass will even let you hop on the ferries that go to the numerous islands around the city, and you have easy access to lakes, forests and sea. The majority of the network is outside, which is far more pleasant than speeding along in darkness, and even for the small parts underground you will have mobile network. It's also very cheap, especially compared to the London tube network. A monthly pass for everywhere that you would normally need to go in Oslo is £39 for a student, and £70 for an adult (compared to the £120 a month for an adult travelling to zones 1 and 2 in London).

What then is baffling?

A couple of years ago, a company was hired to redesign all the ticket barriers in the T-bane. This huge project aimed to bring in similar barriers to those on the London tube, effectively preventing fare-dodgers. However, the company went bankrupt, and so ever since then every single barrier on the system is open, with nobody to check your tickets or see that you have a pass. You can literally stroll right on without a ticket! In the two months that I have lived here (and I use the T-bane for at least 2 hours a day as I live a long way from my job and the university) I have been checked once by ticket inspectors. The fine, if you are found to not have a ticket, is £80. If I was an adult, it would actually be more cost efficient to pay the fine every 5 weeks rather than buy a monthly pass.

(And yet of course, the Norwegians are far too polite and rule- abiding to even consider fare dodging. We cannot forget that their word for tax, skatt, also means treasure. To even hint at cheating the system would be met with stony disapproval. I hope I don't have my residence permit revoked now Norwegian patriotism police as a result of this blog post! ;) )

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

London Livin'

Something that people might have picked up on in past posts (it wasn't so subtle) was that I wasn't entirely excited about starting my job after travelling the world. And sure, I guess going to any job after 18 months of exploring incredible places and doing whatever you wanted was going to be hard. And I knew that, and I had resigned myself to that, and I tried to attribute my first few months of job unhappiness to the inevitable shock to the system of transitioning from travelling to working life. I really did try.

And yet. Whilst a cliche, I really did feel like quite a different person after my adventures than I did before I left. And certainly very different to the naive little 20 year old who accepted a job offer at a huge London corporation for 2 years time. Having my job at KPMG was just far too convenient for me. After making a ton of money during the internship (with the sole reason of applying and accepting the internship to make money to travel), being offered a job with an opportunity to travel for a year first was just too irresistible. Finally! I could stop thinking about boring grown up things and enjoy my final year at university without worrying about getting a job! I could travel for a year without feeling guilty about burning my savings, or borrowing money from my parents, because HEY, I have a JOB, and I can earn all that money back later!

After the time in Scandinavia I begun to wonder about whether I had been wise in my choices. But by that point, with only a short pit stop in England before being South America bound, it was just too convenient then to forget about the future and enjoy the present. Whenever someone asked me while I was travelling what I would do when I got back to England I explained about my job, and tried to quell my doubts however I could, laughing off their questions about whether I would like it and evading the questions about what it would involve. "Well well!" I said "I am enjoying this now while I can, and then will sell my soul for 3 years to pay back the money! Cheers!". And they would throw me a glance and laugh.

I perhaps should never have started the job, but then again, I got well paid for my year at KPMG. I found a lovely little flat with a couple of good friends close to the office, saved on rent and travel, and so managed to save a fair bit of my paycheck. After my year I had a fairly good sum to stick into savings, and it enabled me to be brave enough to leave and make the move towards something I actually wanted to do in my life. Oh and I also such a fun year with all my London friends!

Christmas Dinner with my two lovely housemates
KPMG grads Christmas Dinner
So, it's not that I even hated the work. It was exciting working in Canary Wharf, I had some really lovely people I worked with, and the projects all sounded so interesting (in principle.) Fraud! Money laundering! Investigations! I was gonna be like a detective sniffing out Walter White! (Okay, I knew it wouldn't be quite that sexy). The reality was many long hours in different rooms (most without windows....), staring at excel spreadsheets, or trawling through databases trying to find reference to some obscure farm in Zimbabwe whose owners held money in some bank. And I actually had it fairly easy the entire time, with never hours too crazy. Colleagues regularly worked 50 hour weeks. Some went abroad (how exciting! Working in Paris, Zurich, Milan! Except all they saw of those places was the office, the hotel room and the taxi ride to the airport.... as they worked 70 hours in a week scanning through bank sheets). And I knew that would be before long! Things got to breaking point at the time when, after working overtime without extra pay or time in lieu, you chat to your Norwegian boyfriend who cheerily mentions "Oh yeah so, I worked a few extra hours this week so.... I'm not gonna work Friday. Gonna go on a long skiing weekend instead".

Asides from the work, the studying and the exams were fairly dire, but at the same time I did enjoy learning. I enjoyed the challenges, and some things I could even see were interesting and useful. The stress was a bit ridiculous, and it didn't help that 90% of the material was stuff that didn't interest me. I felt like I was jumping through hoops, and well, I am very good at that, I have done that my whole life. The hoops led me through school, through sixth form, all the way through Durham and to a graduate job. But these KPMG hoops scared me, they seemed to be leading me not into many more opportunities like the other hoops, but into some kind of business, corporate, money-minded trap. I knew that if I jumped through too many, I would find myself locked into 2 more years with the firm (the first year you can walk away scott free. But if you jump one hoop too many and then decide to leave, you could face over £5 grand of fees to repay for the exams).

But don't get me wrong, it really was a fantastic place to work if you wanted big money, if you wanted the prestigious ACA qualification and a ticket to any financial job you could name, and if that kind of stuff interested you. But more and more I felt it didn't; no matter how many times I tried to convince myself. After many long months of indecision, I finally handed in my notice. The biggest wrench was saying goodbye to the people, who were genuinely some of the nicest and smartest people I had ever met. But I did take heart from my boss's reaction who, after hearing my reasons for leaving, exclaimed "Well, I think you're absolutely making the right decision! Wish I'd done the same before I got kids and a mortgage!".

So what was my decision? I took my dissatisfaction and I went right back to basics and thought about what I had always wanted to do since I was kid. Before pressures of teachers and society had forced me one way or another. And that was marine biology- I am a little whale and dolphin fanatic. I spent my time researching courses and options, looking for some kind of way to use my BA in Philosophy into a way that would let me do an MSc in Marine Biology. The UK was out of the picture- at 9 grand a year for a bachelors degree and no student loan support for individuals who already held a degree, there was no way I'd be able to afford to take the bachelors level modules I needed for the masters. And then Norway popped up again, like it always does, providing me with exactly what I needed.

Norway has one of the longest coastlines in the world. Its most important industry after oil is fisheries, and it has a thriving marine biology network. It also happens to have several resident populations of killer whales, dolphins, sperm whales and other marine life, and... (of course) zero tuition fees. I applied for a ton of courses and ended up getting accepted to them all, finally deciding to choose a programme at the University of Oslo. The first year is an intensive Norwegian language, preparing me for a second year of a mixture of biology chemistry and maths modules, taught in norwegian, which I need in order to qualify for the masters. It was going to be alot of time in university, but I figured it would never hurt to be fluent in Norwegian, a country that I had begun to fall in love with. (When else would I ever be able to have a whole Norwegian language course for free?!) It also of course prepared me for getting a part time job because of course, whilst the course is free, I still need to live. And Norway is a very expensive country to live in.

So here I am now, 7 weeks into the Norwegian language course, and loving being a student again! The grand goal is to get on and study my masters in marine biology, but nothing can happen until after I get my norwegian and bachelors modules. And what is the rush anyway? With the way things are going, I'll be retiring when I'm 80. Why work a grown up job before you have to?  I'm going to have fun being a student for as long as I want and can.....


So this post is only about a year and a half late (how time flies!), but what with many recent developments I thought it might be fun to rekindle this blog. But that feels wrong when things aren't all up to date!

After a wonderful time exploring Argentina, I crossed the border by the Iguazu Falls over to Brazil and caught a flight up to Rio (domestic flights= far cheaper than from country to country). By this point in the travels, I felt quite tired, and probably about ready to go home. I had been on the go for over 6 months by this point, and it had begun to take its toll, especially during the preceding 6 weeks or so where I had been travelling solo again. I did have some really fantastic times travelling after me and Per Kristian had to split ways, but it is certainly far more tiring (constantly needing to meet new people, make new friends, having to figure things out by yourself). I had begun to miss the luxury of being able to guilt-free settle down on an evening and watch an episode of Game of Thrones!

Nevertheless, I was determined to make the most of my time in Rio. I had decided to couchsurf again. This was as much to do with loving the system, as not being entirely sure how much money I had left in my bank account, after Barclays decided to block me out of my online banking system (it was always rather tense whenever I went to an ATM whether it would actually spit out any cash).

So! I was staying with an absolutely lovely Brazillian couple living in a beautiful area close the beach. The woman was learning English at a local evening class, and had heard about couchsurfing as a way to practice her English outside of class. We had a really lovely evening exploring the area, had cocktails on Cococapabana beach, and a wonderful Saturday exploring the whole city, including the botanical gardens and the sugarloaf mountain. We then went on a lovely cycle ride on the Sunday along the beach. I was so grateful for all the time and effort she had offered!

Me and my wonderful host Leticia!
Cycling with my hosts by the beach in Rio. Jesus in the background.

When my couchsurfing couple returned to work, I decided to strike out on my own and explore the other places my guidebook recommended, as well as allowing myself to be a bit lazy. I arranged to meet with the British couple I had met in Santiago and had gone skiing with- we had discovered in Chile that by some strange coincidence we were on the same flight back to London from Rio! We had some fun exploring the beaches and went out for possibly the strangest meal at a pizza restaurant- featuring 'sweet' pizza that included smarties and white chocolate and sweeties on top. It was nice to have some friends for a bit! They had gone on a tour of the favelas in Rio, but I had opted out of it. It did sound interesting, but also somewhat strange to pay to go around and take pictures of how some of the poorest people in Brazil lived. It seemed to me to be playing a little bit too much to the white western stereotypes.

Hanging out with Jesus.
I don't think this photo does credit to the sheer size of the CROWDS up there!

It was some good days in Rio, but the flight home was still always on my mind. After several long flights and a stopover in Madrid, I arrived home to London Heathrow! The air was fresh with the promise of a British summer, I could order a normal tea without having to specify the type, and the showers ran powerful and hot.

After 7 mind-blowing months of South America.... It did feel good to be home.

Arriving home at the airport.
The big blue bag on the left is about 10 years worth of llama related knitwear for every foreseeable gift and occasion. 

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Costumbres Argentina

A couple of weeks ago, Juan, the guy I couchsurfed with in Mendoza, Argentina, made good on his promise to come to London, and I was finally able to pay him back for the wonderful time that I had at his place. His visit reminded me of why I love the couchsurfing system. It's not just a free place to stay (although saving money definitely did allow me to travel longer), it is through which you make a network of friends from all over the world. And, unlike a hostel where you check in and check out and forget about it all, with couchsurfing you are really invested in the people- they have shown you their life, their culture and unbounded generosity, and there is nothing you want more but to pay them back. And you know what? Being a tourist in your own city is fun! Whilst Juan was here, we went on a free walking tour of London (it was embarrassing how little I knew about my own city!) and pretty much every tourist attraction (I myself had done so few!) Settled back now in the UK with a place in London, I anticipate the next few years to be full of the wonderful people I met visiting me in return, and hopefully many more friends to be made. (That is until my flatmates get sick of all the visitors. We'll see how long it can go ;) )

Exploring London
But back to a bright autumn day in June, in Argentina. I was traveling by bus to Mendoza from Santiago, which involved a beautiful route across the Andes and down into the wine growing region of Argentina. Juan met me at the bus station and we walked to his house upon which I was almost immediately told that I had to try MATE! Mate is a traditional hot drink in Argentina, an infusion of herbs put into a special cup, upon which hot water is poured and you take turns drinking it up through a straw. It sounds mental, and it was, but the Argentinians are crazy for it. It's like the English obsession with tea (incidentally, I had my revenge on Juan by immediately making him a proper cup of tea when he arrived in London.) They drink mate all day, everywhere, even each having a special mate bag and thermos flask so they can take it to the park and drink in the sunshine. Juan explained that it's special as it is like the antidote to TV. TV closes people up, everybody slowly stops talking and stares dumbly at the screen. Mate opens people up. The process of pouring, and drinking, re-pouring and passing the cup to the next person invites an atmosphere of conversation and friendship. It really was nice, and reminded me again of an English tea time. I can't count the number of times in my house in Durham we'd be holed up in our rooms trying to revise and you'd hear someone put the kettle on.....  And within 5 minutes we were all sitting round the kitchen table drinking a cup of tea and taking 10 minutes to talk and relax.

Drinking mate in the park
Mate bag and set
Another thing I was to learn very quickly about Argentina was the crazy schedule that they seem to be able to function on. By about 8pm my tummy was beginning to growl and I suggested we go in search of some food. Juan looks at my strangely and says yeah, we're going out soon. 'Soon' turned out to be a couple of hours later, and we settled into a heaving restaurant at 11pm to order dinner, apparently a perfectly normal and acceptable time to eat. (Most restaurants don't even open until 9.30pm) So we eat, and head out to a bar, staying until about 2am at which time I assumed we'd head home. "Home? Why would we go home? The night has just begun!" Thus followed another bar before going to a club at 3am "It should be just about getting going now...." and partying until 6 or 7 in the morning. Then falling asleep until 2 in the afternoon and repeating the process over and over. My body was thoroughly confused by all of this, but I loved every minute, partying with a gang of crazy Argentinean students excited to show me their city and their way of life.

A final, very important thing that I learnt about Argentina was how much they loved their meat. Our first day in Mendoza, Juan burbled on excitedly about a huge barbecue his friend is going have at the weekend and the amazing steak and ribs they were going to cook. Abashed, I confess to vegetarianism which by his reaction and appalled "WHAAAAT??" might as well have been a confession to baby-eating. Determined to prove to him that vegetarian food can actually be tasty, and that I'm not some kind of masochist by not eating meat, I cook for him and his friends my famous Veggie Lasagna that has now been cooked all over the world. Imagine the scene, 8 hungry meat- loving Argentinian guys, just back from playing in a football match..... loving my lasagna! Win! Test passed.

The lasagna test
Following Mendoza I headed south and south some more. Bariloche, my first glimpse of the awe-inspiring Patagonia region of southern Argentina and Chile, and a place that I have now made it my mission to go back and explore. Running out of time, and running out of season (winter was rapidly approaching and Patagonia is best explored in the summer) I was able to only spend a few days in Bariloche, but it was definitely enough to convince me to come back- bright blue lakes and endless mountains. I met a lovely Dutch girl on the bus down from Mendoza and we found a hostel for the first night, before I couchsurfed for the other couple of nights with a really great couple, a Buenos Aires girl and her American husband. My days there were spent hiking and exploring the city with my friends from the hostel, and cooking, chatting and drinking mate in the evening with my hosts. A perfect combination.

Beautiful Bariloche
I then headed back onto another crazy 24 hour bus ride where we were presented with unappetising meals, but happily, also, BINGO! (a fantastic distraction from the ride and a great way to practice spanish numbers! ;) Unfortunately even when the number of people on the bus dropped to 4, I still did not win the bottle of wine.....)
and we landed into BUENOS AIRES!
The city of tango, the Pope, Evita and very crazy nightlife. Thus follows couchsurfing with a guy who did not seem to care that I kept repeating that I had a boyfriend (I left the next day), a night in a terrible hostel (nobody really wants to hang out with a group of Chinese people who talk only in chinese to each other) before finally making it to Buenos Aires's 'party hostel'! (I swallowed all my reservations of avoiding the party hostels for fear of too many preppy 'gap yah-ers', and was so pleased I did!) This hostel was just the best way to meet people and I made some really great friends there. We had some crazy nights out in  Buenos Aires, and went to an incredible tango show where as well as the show we got a tango lesson, and a 3 course meal with unlimited beer or wine. I liked the vibe of Buenos Aires, it was was somehow different to the other cities in South America, and the many different zones and neghbourhoods gave it alot of character. Not to mention the crazy cemetery in Recoleta- a literal stone city for the dead.

Free wine!
Tango Show

Recoleta Cemetery

I felt smug in quickly becoming the spanish translator of the group, and had alot of fun negotiating money on the black market for everyone. Because yes, if you want to survive for long in Argentina, you need to come with a fistfull of dollars and go to the streets on Buenos Aires to change for a much better rate than the banks or ATMs would give up. I felt like some kind of mob star....

With a very fun Irish couple in tow, I set out for my final bus ride in South America to the Iguazu Falls. This began like most of the other bus trips, except with a thunderstorm in the night and I woke up to rain dripping onto my face and my bag soaked on the sopping wet floor. Classic.

The Iguazu Falls were spectacular, although the whole site wasn't open due to very heavy rain in the last few days (oh rain? I hadn't noticed...) Luckily the day we went was beautiful sunshine and me and my Irish friends spent a day looking around the Argentinan side, before saying goodbye and I made my way over the border into Brazil in preparation for my fight to Rio the next day.
The end of the Argentinian chapter, and the start of the final chapter.

Iguazu Falls

Monday, 19 August 2013

Cool to be Chile

What started out as an innocent 'drop-in' to Chile to check out the desert, the stars and get an extra stamp on our passports, in fact turned into a much longer stay than anticipated. The same snow that had prevented us from crossing over to Chile at the end of our Salt flats tour, later prevented me from crossing into Argentina in the north. The snow had reached so far down the Andes that the the next open crossing point was 1000 miles to the south- in Santiago! Which was just as well in the end, as what with deserts, mountains, skiing and european-esque cities, Chile turned out to be one of my favourite countries.

A proper mountain!
After our unfortunate 30 hour or something de-tour we eventually made it into Chile with only one night and one day before PK had to get his bus to take him back up to Peru to meet his brother. We promptly treated ourselves with a beautiful hotel and booked onto a star-gazing tour for the evening. This little town, San Pedro de Atacama, is right in the middle of the driest desert in the world- and the combination of very little precipitation (clouds) and no light pollution makes it one of the best observatories in the world- with renowned astronomers from all over the world flocking here because of the perfect clear night skies. This was a big part of our reason to make the huge effort to go there, and whilst annoyed at the time our detour had wasted, we were so pleased we were there for a night and had managed to book on to a star gazing tour. And so, in true style, that night, the one night we were there together, it rained like it had never rained before. Huge drops fell from thick black clouds, causing a powercut in several areas of the town.
God was not happy with us. (And we were not happy with God)

Not to be deterred, we booked an alternative tour the next day and had a great time exploring the desert and the 'valley of the moon', and watching a beautiful sunset over the Andes.

The desert!

The valley of the moon!
Sunset over the Andes
We then, shamelessly, went back to the same restaurant we'd been in the night before and enjoyed a similarly excellent pizza, by a beautiful big fire in the middle of a courtyard. And then came the horrible moment where we had to say goodbye. I was pushed towards the same star tour that had been canceled the previous night, as PK really wanted me to do it even if he couldn't. And he went off to catch the first of many long long buses up to Peru.
And all of a sudden, after 2 and a half months, I was traveling by myself again.

Feeling very sad and very lonely, albeit very determined not to let that spoil anything, I went to the star tour. This started disappointingly, with a professor speaking very fast Chilean Spanish (which is probably the most incomprehensible form of spanish there is!) Luckily after about 5 minutes another guy turned up who asked if anybody needed an English translation- for which I gratefully accepted. It was a really interesting talk- he pointed out loads of constellations, including all the signs of the zodiac, and pointing out the 13th sign of the snake which was abandoned by the Church. He complained that Scorpio should have scrapped instead as it spent less time in the sky, so being a scorpio I should really be a snake! Anyway he then pointed out the southern cross and explained its four elements, and told the story of why Orion and the Scorpion never appear in the sky at the same time. Orion was the best hunter the world had ever seen, and Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt, fell in love with him. Artemis's twin brother Apollo was jealous of her love, so sent the Scorpion to kill Orion. Artemis, finding her favourite hunter dead, honoured him by placing him in the sky. To keep peace in the sky, Zeus decreed that the Scorpion and Orion must never share the sky; they are instead in an endless cosmic chase. Just as the scorpion rises above the horizon in the winter months, Orion descends below the horizon.
Anyway it was really beautiful as the pictures below show!

The next day I had a bit of a lazy day and booked my bus ticket onwards, trying to figure out some plans now that the border to Argentina was closed where I was. It did seem slightly ironic to be stuck in the driest desert in the world because of snow, but hey it was Chile, I should have expected it to be chilly..... (hahaha......)

So I hopped on a bus to La Serena, a little place by the coast, where I met another english pair, classic 'gap yah' types but nice enough. It was a long long bus journey, but some of the most beautiful comfortable seats! There were even curtains you could draw around your seat for more privacy!

Luxurious Chilean buses!
I had a great night's sleep, and when I got there I followed the pair to a lovely little hostel that they'd recommended, and then got contacted but a couchsurfing guy who lived in the city who offered to show me around. He was such a sweetie! He picked me up in his car and drove me into the valley to see the landscape, and then to the beach to watch the sunset. It was so nice to be able to practice my spanish a bit more, and for him to practice his english.

I then pressed on to Santiago where I struck lucky with another great host. Beny lived in a cool part of Santiago in a beautiful apartment where I had my own room, and took me out for drinks and dinner when I arrived. Unfortunately he worked during the week but recommended some good places for me to go, and once he found out I was interested in skiing, offered me one of his early bird passes to a ski resort near Santiago so I could ski for half price! My task now was just to find some people to go with, as skiing by yourself isn't that fun.....
The next morning I wandered into the centre to have a little mooch around, starting to feel a little bit lonely again. Passing through the main square I noticed a group gathering for a free city walking tour. I wandered back through and started to hover as it looked like there were some nice people there, and these walks are usually so great for getting to know the city and meeting other people. So I tagged on to the end feeling quite pleased with myself as the guide gave a great first impression by being able to not only talk loudly, but being able to talk loudly about interesting things. Great qualities in a guide! It was also there that I started chatting to another English couple, Clare and Tom. Finding out that we spell our names the same way naturally meant we could become immediate friends, but what really sealed it was finding out that not only were they booked on the same fight as me back to England from Rio (somewhat spooky!) but that they were really hoping to go skiing but weren't sure if it was possible. BINGO! I had found my skiing buddies! Straight after the tour we went straight to a hire shop and booked in for a session for the next day.

Santiago as a city was one that I initially really liked. Perhaps it was the combination of being on an interesting tour and having met some nice people, but it had a very European feel and many interesting different areas, including a very cool student district. One of the most bizarre things about the place was the 'Coffee with Legs', or 'Cafe con piernas' phenomenon. At some point in the past, the only coffee that Chile was able to import was pretty terrible. So, in order to distract the men that drank it from the terrible taste, a coffee franchise was started up that hired beautiful young girls, dressed them in miniskirts and high heels, and let them serve the coffee. This was such a success, that different 'Coffee with Legs' popped up all over the city, and even now that the coffee is good, remains very popular. They are now apparently trying to entice more women in, to compete with the giants such as Starbucks, by offering women a free biscuit! My host warned me however that there was 3 distinct levels of the Coffee with Legs, and to now wander into the wrong one. Most are the innocent ones where the girls merely walk around with their legs on show, usually with a raised platform behind the bar for a better view. But there is then another type, with blacked out windows and advertisements covering the front, where the girls might walk around in alot less clothes, and a 'happy minute' every hour where the girls all dance and take their clothes off. And then there is another level where they'll over coffee-go-ers more than just a cup of coffee... A bizarre insight below the conservative facade that shrouds Chilean culture!

A more traditional 'Coffee with Leg's establishment
The next day and we had a great day skiing! I mean sure, it was a little too early in the season for great snow, and only about half of the runs were open, but hey we were skiing in South America in JUNE! Whilst it couldn't really compete with the European resorts for size and number of pistes, it certainly tried to with prices of lunch, but it was still a great day, and we all went out for dinner in the evening before exchanging facebooks so we could meet again Rio before our flight home!

Skiing in South America!

The next day I got up early to make my way to Argentina, first stop Mendoza!