Saturday, April 30

South America, Day Eight: Puerto Iguazú

It's not a stretch to say that Iguazu was the whole point of my coming to this part of South America. It was the non-negotiable, the crown jewel of the trip. I will admit that after how pleasantly surprised I was of Buenos Aires my expectations of Iguazu had been reduced, but I was excited all the same.

The most surprising part for me was how accessible it all was. A cheap local bus is all it took to get to the national park where the falls were to be found, and once we arrived we went straight for the in-house tour operator to book the first truck and boat tour of the day. Due to the rain the day before, I found the truck down to the docks to be a convenience more than an attraction (since most of the jungle had been washed clean), but it wasn't bad and we did get to see a few animals.

The main attraction was of course the boat ride up the river to the foot of the falls; as you can probably imagine we got super wet, with the fundie inside of me unable to resist doing whudu in the crashing waters (and no, it didn't last that long). The rest of the day was spent walking on trails and walkways along both the foot and head of the falls, in the hunt for the perfect photo. The weather wasn't really on our side and most of the day was overcast, but even so the pictures are a much better way of describing what we saw than me trying to write about it ever will be.

With the falls out of the way, we headed into the town to grab dinner. Due to its size it was easy to navigate and food was plentiful. That said, once we had done Iguazu we really didn't have much need to hang around, and so we decided to leave for the border the first thing the next day.

Friday, April 29

South America, Day Seven: Half Way Through

The morning was lazily spent in preparation for Jummah. It was also the day of the Royal Wedding, and although I felt a little bad for not having been in town for the big event, I secretly thanked the couple without whom my trip wouldn't have even been possible.

Before Jummah we decided to mop up the remainder of Buenos Aires. We met the South Africans for a quick ride on the A-Line train, a magnificently kept wooden transit system that would never survive the traffic you find in London. We got our jollies by taking it to Cafe Tortino, a famous icon in Buenos Aires amongst coffee lovers; which of course meant that I hadn't heard of it before. Still, the classy coffee shop was a lovely way to spend our last morning in town - all of our new friends were leaving at some point during that day.

The mosque in Buenos Aires was pretty impressive, considering. It was clean, big and well kept and just exuded peace. Which kind of made it even more disheartening that only three rows were filled. On the plus side, the kids from the adjoining school were cute.

The afternoon was relatively quiet and spent pottering around waiting for our flight to Iguazu. The travel itself was pretty uneventful until we got to our hotel. In a jungle. We knew we had made a mistake when we were asked whether we wanted a room on the upper or lower floor. The difference? Ants.

Thursday, April 28

South America, Day Six: Colonia del Sacramento

After my new Australian friend demonstrated an eagerness to travel to Uruguay too, the plan for today was pretty much set. After some basic research it turned out that the capital Montevideo was a bit too much of a time sink and so instead we went for the more typical tourist destination of Colonia, a lovely little port town a couple of hours away from Buenos Aires.

Although I will not claim that there's anything of particular interest to do in Colonia it was still one of the highlights of my time in Argentina, particularly because of how much of a quick win it was. We joined a walking tour, visited the multiple museums (each no bigger than a couple of rooms each), checked out the beaches and grabbed lunch too. I really can't impress how simply... nice it was. And their high roads didn't even have traffic lights, which I thought was amazing.

On the way back to Palermo, I was taken to Boca by the same friend, ignoring the trepidation in their voice. Apparently Boca was a place best visited during the day, but I thought it was worth checking out anyway. The experience was interesting - the place was dead and there was a definite feeling of insecurity while walking around. Grabbing the taxi back to Palermo was a relief.

Of all the advice our Buenos Aires friend in Valpo suggested to us, the one they stressed the most was to take part in a tango class as opposed to the usual tango show tourists are expected to watch. This had two benefits: the first being that the aftershow by the teachers was an order better than the commercial shows put on. I was more interested in the second reason though; the fact that we actually take part in a Tango ourselves.

The class recommended to us, La Veruta, happened to again be within walking distance of our hotel, and so with the South African and Australian friends in tow we headed there. Entry was surprisingly cheap considering my expectations and after a brief show by the other more experienced guests there the group classes finally started. Of course, I took part and of course, I had a brilliant time trying to pick up the new dance routine - dancing with random pretty women was a bonus of course.

The only dampener on the night was that we had to leave early to grab dinner, and so I missed the professional show afterwards. Still, I had already gotten a good dose of Tango so wasn't too bummed out.

Tonight was my last night in Buenos Aires. That made me sad.

Wednesday, April 27

South America, Day Five: Buenos Aires

Knowing that we were going to spend a good few days in Buenos Aires, we finally toned down the pace of our holiday. After a relatively late start and lazy breakfast, we headed off to join a free walking tour that I had heard about. Despite being funded by tips alone, it was of pretty good quality - we took in most of the highlights of central Buenos Aires that morning as well as make friends with a South African who was in town for five days. But more about them later.

Since we had a few hours to spare before our plans for the afternoon, we decided to mop up the rest of tourist trail, finally ending up at La Recoleta Cemetery in order to pay our clichéd tourist respects to Eva Peron. As someone else commented later, the place is a photographers dream and I regretted not being able to spend more time there just exploring the tombs (as macabre as that sounds).

We caught the afternoon tour in good time. It was by the same group but with a different guide and vibe, this time focussing on the cultural aspects of BA - so the architectural indications of immigration and the like. As seems to be par for the course with tours, I started talking to an Australian who was also over for a couple of days.

In what seems like undeniable proof that my knack of ending up with a bunch of chicks isn't restricted to just the UK, we all ended up grabbing dinner together that night. The South African contingent had found a place that did halal Argentine steak just minutes from the hotel we were staying at, and it was a no brainer for us to pay it a visit.

The steak deserves a paragraph of its own. I've never really understood the fuss around beef steak - as much as I enjoy the food at whatever Halal steak house I visit in London to me a steak was just an oversized chop. That all changed once I was presented with a solid lump of Argentine beef. I was a little scared at the size (perhaps due to the company), but it's amazing how much meat you can eat after you realise how melt-in-the-mouth it is. I've not eaten anything like it.

Today was an excellent day, and that not least because of how awesome Buenos Aires is - as seems usual on trips away of this type I've managed to collect friends while exploring a new place, something that adds an even bigger sense of story and adventure. I could definitely spend more time here, and already feel like I'll be missing out by taking the departing flight that's already been booked for Friday.

Tuesday, April 26

South America, Day Four: The Andes and Beyond

In what was becoming a bit of a theme for our time in Chile, we had yet another early bus ride to catch. This was a big one though, as we were going on a ride over the Andes into Argentina and on to Mendoza, in a journey that would take at least seven hours door to door. Coming from the UK and the coaches we have there seven hours may sound like a lot but in places like South America, where the distances are massive and bus the only option for many, it's actually a very comfortable way to travel - I got a lot of sleep in my semi-reclining seat for sure.

That said, we didn't pick the bus for cost purposes. In fact we didn't really feel a need to go to Mendoza (famous for its wine more than anything else) at all; the most time efficient plan would have been to fly directly to Buenos Aires from Santiago. No, this was by design purely to drive though the mighty Andes and crossing an international border while we did so. Luckily we had packed lunch for the journey.

It took four hours to reach the border. I was treated to some fascinating views of the Andes on the way, although I have to admit they seemed to be views I had already seen in other parts of the world. Still, I did get a glimpse of Mount Aconcagua, the tallest peak in South America (and yet one that is not a patch on those in Asia). Crossing the border itself took time but was relatively painless. We were now in Argentina and on our way to Mendoza.

Mendoza itself was nice enough, if only for the few hours that we were there. After leaving our suitcases with left luggage at the bus terminal, we spent the bulk of our time in the main plaza where there were many others just lazing around, watching passing entertainers and acrobats. I noted once again the excess of couples everywhere I looked, just as I noticed how the women in Argentina were an order hotter than they were in Chile. It felt like I was in South America at last.

Eventually we headed back to get our luggage and then on to the airport to catch our late flight to Buenos Aires. Amusingly enough I met an Argentine Muslim at the bus station - a classic example of practical ummahship as we attempted to communicate and pass salaams and blessings of peace, despite sharing no common language.

The flight to Buenos Aires was pretty uneventful, but seeing the city at night did spark some excitement in me. And indeed it took only two hours to fall for Buenos Aires; or at the very least fall for Palermo, the area in which we were staying. It was clean, cosmopolitan and hella sexy; all things which had nothing to do with the waitress who served us dinner at 1am in her funky American drive in cinema themed diner.

Even our hotel was classy. I guess it was more boutique than otherwise, but Jam Suites was most certainly a nice enough place to stay. I suddenly had a good feeling about the next three nights, and it finally felt like my trip to South America was about to finally begin proper.

Monday, April 25

South America, Day Three: Valparaiso

The buzz was felt pretty much as soon as we got off our early bus to Valparaiso. Compared to Santiago, this was a place with character, colour and charm, and even the weather seemed to be on our side.

As expected we had arrived pretty blind - although we had a single night booked in a hotel we had no idea how to get there or how far it was. While wandering around trying to find info about transfers and taxis, we were approached by a friendly girl who turned out to be a tour guide: and she didn't have to try to hard to sign us up for one that morning. This worked out quite well for us - in recent times I've learned to appreciate the value of local knowledge under certain circumstances (like a lack of time or exposure) so we happily paid the relatively expensive fee in return for transport, getting our luggage to the hotel, advice on bus tickets for the next day and of course being shown all the interesting bits of Valpo in the most efficient way possible.

The tour was actually pretty good anyway. Our guide, Mario, was as friendly and funny as you would expect someone in this business to be, but he was also flexible to our needs while managing our time brilliantly, somehow creating time out of nothing. We were taken up Cerro Conception to see the views and schizophrenic architecture of Valpo, we inevitably took a ride up and down one of the many elevators in the town and grabbed a fish lunch with a view of the docks and bay (although some random fog had started to creep into land by that point). The final hour or so was spent in the neighbouring resort town of Vin Del Mar, which was worth going just to see how strikingly different the two places were.

In fact we were so taken by Valpo that we decided to leverage our lack of a plan and stay another night. In hindsight this was mainly as a way to compensate for Santiago; I got talking to a couple from Sao Paulo who gave us some good tips for the Brazilian leg of our trip, and after thinking about it a little more we decided to stick to the original plan of leaving the next day in order to allow us some breathing room at the later date. The couple themselves were holidaying in Chile but there was a chance that we could meet at some point later on in their home town.

The place we were staying was so fittingly charming that I have to give it a mention here. Hotel Brighton was situated on a hill overlooking the bay, and although I have no doubt that the view wasn't particularly unique it was pretty amazing to be able to sit and chill with that in the background. I was going to spend some more time walking around the hills that evening, but instead spent it on the hotel balcony chatting to (another) couple from Buenos Aires, once again grabbing some essential tips which I knew would come in handy, including which area to stay in. We booked our hotel there and then.

It turned out that the people of Santiago who were missing were in Valpo over the Easter break, and as such had returned once we arrived here ourselves. It's worth noting (perhaps) that the women were noticeably hotter in Valpo, while Chile as a whole seemed awash with young couples just hanging out and enjoying the company of each other - this is clearly a very romantic country in population if not environment. The universities in the area also ensured that there was a visible student presence and the whole place had a very carefree and lightfooted vibe to it

Nevertheless, we had had our fill of Valpo that day and so it was time for us to move on. And besides, that fog still hadn't cleared completely.

Sunday, April 24

South America, Day Two: Twiddling Thumbs

It became apparent during the morning what was missing in this potentially exciting city of Santiago - its people. It seems that Easter in South America actually means something; the place was literally dead as its usual inhabitants fled; on top of this most museums and attractions were closed. Unfortunately the hotel had already been booked for tonight so we had to stick around, which is a shame since I would have happily moved on instead. I think the general feeling is that Santiago should serve as a gateway into Chile as a whole, and that was exactly how I considered it by that point.

Nevertheless we did manage to salvage the day, mostly by walking around aimlessly and seeing where we would be taken. After watching the changing of the guards at La Moneda Palace, we headed west to the museums of Avenue Matucana (everything was closed), and then back to Plaza de Armas to check out the Catedral Metropolitana. Slightly better was to head north to Mercado Central, a kind of enclosed fish market with restaurants and entertainment. After pottering around a bit there we once again became drawn to Bella Vista where we managed to kill some more time.

If you haven't already picked up on the tone, in my mind Santiago was pretty much a bust by this point. We took the opportunity to grab an early night in order to get out of dodge as early as possible the next day.

Saturday, April 23

South America, Day One: Santiago

To be honest I was a little anxious about the two weeks I was going to spend in South America. I'm not sure why; perhaps it was how nothing apart from our entry and exit had not been planned, or that I was missing four bank holidays away from friends and family. Perhaps it was a fear of the unknown - this would be my first time in South America and visions of the jungles of Romancing the Stone filled my mind. Perhaps my heart just wasn't in this trip as much as the other destinations I had been to?

I used my usual tactic of ignoring irrational dread, expecting my mood to change once I was on my way. Flying itself doesn't excite me as much as it did as a child - in fact an airplane seat now acts as a kind of psychological trigger to knock me out and I regularly miss take-offs now; that this was a night flight helped too.

Landing an hour early in Sao Paulo in transit for our flight to Santiago I became preoccupied with figuring out what time Fajr was. In what can only be seen as proof of a God listening to my query I met around twenty guys on jamaat, also in transit to Chile; their planned road trip down the length of the country kind of put our stint to shame really. After Fajr jamaat with them I was given the standard jammat missionary talk (to which I had become desensitised to during my teenage years), although it was interesting to find out about second generation Arab Muslims in Chile and the support they needed. All in all I took this encounter as a good sign; that things do fall into place even with the loosest of plans.

After checking into our hotel we decided to hit the tourist trail running. Heading north we took a ride on the funicular on Cerro San Cristobal to Terraza Bellavista to check out the views of Santiago as well as the statue of the Virgen de la Immaculada Concepcion. There was a cable car too, but that seemed to have been closed that day (or perhaps season?).

The rest of the day was spent hanging about Bella Vista, Forest Park and Cerro Santa Lucia in the middle of town which may have just given better views than that what we had this morning. After dinner in Bella Vista we called it a day.

We must have walked miles today and we had soaked up a lot of Santiago's atmosphere already. Still, something was nagging me about the place today; something feels missing. And it wasn't just the lack of hot chicks.

Sunday, April 17

New Music

Pre-holiday special!

U Need A Hero (D-Boy Remix) - Sef ft Des-C

All the way from 2009 but still a pretty classic and fun track. One of those tracks where dual language works really well.

Freak Out - Luv Ka The End

Maybe I'm getting old but it seems every Bollywood flick coming out is of that damned coming of age genre. Which obviously means I'm going to dig it.

Lak Twenty Eight Kudi Da - Diljit Dosanjh ft Honey Singh

Yes, that's right, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. What a banging track.

Faltu OST - Faltu

Of course the obvious Char Baj Gaye (so fun!) and Le Ja Tu Mujhe (Atif, so yes), but Rab Sab Se Sona also caught my ear. Something about the spring in its step I think.

Wednesday, April 13

Cyanide & Happiness Click for more info

Not really as risque or funny as usual C&H comics, but oh so relevant to something I talked about a few weeks ago.

Book: The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger Click for more info

As much as I hate to admit it, I suspect that The Catcher in the Rye is a book for guys. I'm uncomfortable with such an assertion because I reckon good books in particular should be gender-neutral, but my anecdotal evidence indicates that while guys seem to lap it up girls just don't get it.

Why this is, I can only guess. A lot of my particularly clever guy friends although hardly as rebellious as the main protagonist seem to have been through the phase of doubt and mistrust in themselves and others, fuelled by a high level of cynicism which eventually made them conclude that everyone (including themselves) is a fake. Caulfield's lack of direction should be recognised by most people though.

The lack of any kind of plot means that the book instead has to rely on its characters, and in this case it does very well. Despite cringing at how pathetic Caulfield could get, I did find myself understanding what he was going though, and feeling his pain as he got through the week

But despite the sophistication of his character, he also goes to show just how simple guys are - despite his contempt for women he has a soft spot for them, and the things he gets annoyed and distressed about are very obvious and in some cases trivial; there's no apparently emotionally led behaviour with him and although everything annoys him, they annoy him for a clear reason.

The Catcher in the Rye is a small and very easily read book that is more about a single guy than the story he's in. If you're into characterisation in novels then it's an utmost treat, but if not (or if you're a girl) then you might want to give it a miss. Personally though, I loved it.

Monday, April 11

Link of the Day Click for more info

7 Annoying Trends on Facebook

To be honest I got bored of Maniac Muslim's not-so-unique brand of holier than thou "them and us" humour quite early on (and you can read this for some reasons why). Of course there's no doubt that he's a funny chap, but I guess I just didn't find his Islamic themed content of much value. Of course judging by his inevitable list of groupies I'm probably quite alone in this assessment.

On the other hand I did find his current work so amusing - precisely because it doesn't just apply to Muslims or Islam but instead to my current pet peeve, Facebook (although now I'm wondering if any of it was ripped off).

If you do decide to check it out, please do me a favour and resist commenting on his article with a LOL. Thanks.

Thursday, April 7

Abstruse Goose Click for more info

At first glance, today's Abstruse is a little tame:

But it's actually the words behind the comic which are potent:

Don't just read it; fight it! Ask your own questions,
look for your own examples, discover your own proofs.
Is the hypothesis necessary? Is the converse true?
What happens in the classical special case? What
about the degenerate cases? Where does the proof
use the hypothesis?

— Paul R. Halmos

The real magic here is that this doesn't just apply to maths - or thought of another way it does if you consider most things to be reducible to maths; critical and exploratory reasoning can be applied to anything really, and is something that can help to either realise, strengthen or develop an opinion.

It's often pointed out that I have an annoying habit of turning everything (even the trivial) into a debate. And while I do acknowledge this can be seen as irritating, I do think that overall it's put me (if not others) in good stead in knowing clearly what I think. And this doesn't just happen in the presence of other people, but also in those discussions and debates I have with myself.

Wednesday, April 6

Food: Wahaca Click for more info

Ah Mexican food: will I ever understand you? Probably not, but that doesn't matter. Whether it's spicy black bean or something with mushroom and cheese in it I don't think I've ever tasted something Mexican that I didn't like.

Wahaca is, I suppose, as classy as Mexican is ever going to get. Which is then ironic seeing how the place leverages the street food vibe in its menus and decor. Of course the food was anything but street and presented well; a genuine novelty is how Wahaca deliberately offers a bunch of "mini" meals as opposed to its main dishes - a kind of make your own set menu as it were. I went for two items off this list which turned out to be the perfect amount for a tummy filling lunch. A nice touch was the chilli seeds instead of matches given out at the exit (which I believe you can plant and keep in the place itself - the best loyalty card I've ever seen).

My tastada, quesadilla and orange juice came to under a tenner which I thought was a bargain.

Monday, April 4

Film: Sucker Punch Click for more info

Writing a review for Sucker Punch is going to be difficult for me. See, the thing is that I really, genuinely, honest-to-god enjoyed this film. And furthermore that not because of the reasons everyone seems to hate it. How am I supposed to even try to convince those reading this that I liked this film for reasons other than its looks? Yes, there's a lot of young girls prancing around in sexy and revealing clothes, but the genius is that it's not presented in an erotic or titillating way; it's almost like the makes of this film threw that in deliberately just to throw off the feminists and "serious" film reviewers. Well hey, that just means more for the rest of us.

So putting this bait aside, what's left to enjoy? Well firstly there's the action. Think Kill Bill meets the Matrix and you'll get an idea of what to expect. It's a little rough around the edges but it's oh-so-cool and alright yes, the fact that the fights are fought by five girls does add a little something.

What else? Well the story is pretty cool too. This is basically an escape movie where the characters have to jump through various hoops in order to gain their freedom. On the way you meet some badly treated yet girl-powered characters who you can't help but root for and bet on.

And finally there's the hook - this isn't actually a film at all but a film of films, a bunch of set pieces to be played out for the viewing pleasure of a captured audience. Once you create a film based on the imaginations of its characters then anything goes really.

Personally I thought the ending was a bit of a deliberate cheat and so I felt a tiny bit shortchanged when it was all over. But the funny thing was that I didn't seem to mind: the film had already totally won me over by then. Recommended.

Sunday, April 3

Film: Source Code Click for more info

I think it's generally accepted by everyone that this film has a rubbish title. It's misleading, inappropriate and meaningless. Of course a film is more than just its title, but I just needed to get that off my chest.

Once you ignore the fact that this film doesn't actually make much logical sense, Source Code (urgh) is actually quite good. The beauty in the film lies in how it's not actually about the obvious themes of terrorism and murder - in fact it deals with that side of things in a simple and unobtrusive way leaving the real mind screwing depth for the wider story. Of course I can't quite go into that without spoiling it all, save to say that it is enjoyable, engaging and accessible.

The acting is on par (as is usual with Gyllenhaal), as is the rest of the production, leaving a film that's definitely more than the sum of its parts. That such a simple film can end up being full of depth is impressive and so for me Source Code is an easy film to recommend.

Food: Yaki Noodle Bar Click for more info

Simple no frills noodle bar just outside Barking station. There's really not much to say about this place, except that it is halal, the food is great and cheap and the service friendly and prompt. It was also quiet and clean which just added to the niceness.

Hmm I guess there was quite a bit to say after all. My drink, main and shared starter came to around £7, which wasn't bad at all.

Game: Bulletstorm (PC) Click for more info

I'm obviously not an FPS-head. Maybe I'm just old, or perhaps I don't have that facility in my brain to place myself in the head on another being. Whatever the case, I find them tiring and passe.

But I do still play them - at least the ones that are good enough for me to get over my issues with the genre. Obvious examples are Valve's stuff - so L4D and Portal, but then I do have a soft spot for COD games too (perhaps because they're usually short).

Which brings us to Bulletstorm. I'm going to skip the marketing gabble and focus on what makes the gameplay different or even special; the hook as it were. And in Bulletstorm it's the ability to dispose of enemy in hundreds of unique ways, and then get rewarded for your creativity and skill.

So you can shoot them in the head, the leg or the bottom. You can kick them into environmental bad places (so spikes, cliffs and man eating plants etc). Once you obtain the leash, you can snag and throw them into the same places too. To be honest once I got over the initial thrill of... well, thinking, I found I preferred to just shoot behind cover anyway.

Still, the game is short and has a lot of charm in its characters, story and the world these things inhabit. So while I won't mark this as a game I'm happy to play even though it's an FPS, there is a lot to go for if you are a fan. Recommended.