Latin America Familymoon: one night in Valparaíso with wine

Santiago is base for nine nights now, a long stretch we interspersed with a one night visit to Valparaíso for a check on contemporary culture with a stop in Casablanca on the way back to visit an organic winery. Emiliana has chickens and Alpacas roaming on site, thus one night away neatly combines the three things we wanted to do outside Santiago: wine visit, a variety of camelid and checking out the coast.

Street art as Valpo reinvents itself

A free tour in Santiago a few days earlier was an excellent orientation to the capital so it was with FREE TOUR we checked in with again for the geographically-challenging, steeply banked hills of Valpo. This was Chile’s main entrance and exit in the 19th century and a European outpost, a mainly Italian, Spanish and surprisingly British town. Come the 1920s, though, the Panama Canal circumvented its’ use as a port for Western Latin America and it slipped into sharp decline. The ascensors, lifts up steep hills, colourfully decorated houses and street art now are now its main attractions, a USP of contemporary culture and history.

 

Touring with a pushchair, however, was suicide and a sling would have done the job far better. In addition to the sharp climbs and falls, many by steps, there are also chaotic bits of pavement, three hours was tough. It’s also hard to escape the feeling there is, and was, a lot of economic hard time here so wealth is boho style. Indeed, it seems a lot of the town’s wealth is artistic, though maritime activity does have a role. Perhaps as a result of both these realities it was also tricky for food with supermarkets scarce and good restaurants hard to track down in 3D. If it’s purely sea you want to see, then the beaches of nearby Vina del Mar would make a good combination visit.

Maximising taxis, ubers and buses

Assuming a visit from Santiago, long distance buses are the way to do this and of all the public transport options in Latin America, comparatively it’s the most comfortable option. Even with a pushchair, getting the L1 Metro line to Pajaritos gives a step free journey to the bus door and a calm and navigable bus station.

Unfortunately, disgorging at Valparaíso is an altogether different experience. We were greeted with layers of dog chods on the pavement, two scrapping vagrants and a collective taxi system. These are confusing if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing and provide a disincentive for drivers if you’re armed with a baby. There is a small regular taxi rank to the right of the buses as they park, though it might need a wait.

Keen to avoid this on the way out we took an Uber, readily available in the town. The first we got, however, booted us out with a crap excuse three minutes in. The second lost his GPS signal out of town, meaning we needed to navigate and direct in Spanish. It’s been a theme of Latin America that Ubers are numerous but tend to, illogically, cancel on longer routes. Cheaper than regular cabs but seemingly less guaranteed.

Wining away

Once we did actually navigate our way to Casablanca, these stresses melted away at the bucolic setting of Emiliana Organic winery, between Valparaiso and Santiago. I always speculate what organic really means in food and drink and the answer here is pesticides and growth stimulants are eliminated and replaced with natural alternatives, animal or plant. A good approach here is take a tour to find out the organics then relax with either a tasting, a picnic or both on the lawns with a gaze to the Andes. See below of baby and chickens, seconds later mutual interest was replaced with  tears and squawking after the cockerel cock-a-doodle-doo-ed in Bart’s face.

 

Given the bus experience over the taxi, we should have bussed back as well. It was actually very easy to do. I now know that buses on this route can be flagged down from the hut stops and despite being on a motorway with the Santiago route the other side to the winery, there is a pedestrian access bridge over on the left exit as you hit the security gate. I think the prices of buses are about 10% the cost of a cab.

What’s next

It’s over the Andes to Mendoza, Argentina for a mirror image of this, namely relaxing in the ground of wineries, taking note of the oddities and by analysing at great length the differences in taste. Emiliana and Casablanca in general were cheap by European standards, it will be interesting to see if Argentina’s economic woe has made wine cheaper, in the past it was expensive, though of superb quality.

Banner image credit wiki commons

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Chilean Patagonia: Self drive tour to King Penguins and boat tours of Glaciers

My personal wet wipe record when changing a nappy was seven for one of Bart’s more elaborate constitutionals. I can now up this to 11, one pair of baby jeans, two t-shirts and the humiliation of being laughed at by Argentinian truckers during a 15 minute crossing on a cargo ferry, paying GBP 15 for the experience. A self drive tour to see Penguins from Punta Arenas in Chilean Patagonia is possible, but can be taxing.

Patagonia, the southern tip of the Latin American continent spreading across Chile and Argentina, is a vast place and while relatively simple to get to by plane, some of the distances are huge. It had taken a pair of two hour flights to get here and we’d also needed two extra layers compared to Buenos Aires. Nature is the main reason for visiting either country’s territory here and penguins, llamas, snowy mountains, glaciers and sheep, cooked and on a plate, were our particular aims.

Self drive visit to the King Penguins

There are two types of Penguins in this part of the world. The Magellanic sort are common, similar to the African type and abundant for a three months period starting days after we were here. King Penguins, the type on kids’ lunchbox chocolate snack wrappers, have grand plumage and amusing squawking behaviour. They’re around all year on a small colony near Porvenir on the Island of Tierra del Fuego, adjacent to Punta Arenas, the gateway town in this region. Tours can be bought to see them, but it’s expensive, restrictive and probably not the best expedition to take a baby on.

As these regal show birds are on an island, ferries, the car-carrying kind, are part of the agenda and two crossings are required in the day. The logical one is Punta to Porvenir, provided by Tabsa, which takes two hours and then leaves a drive along a gravel road of about 90 minutes. Perhaps an easier, though much longer four hour drive on 99% of a paved road is via Rio Gallegos for a shorter ferry crossing of 15 minutes. Technically a window of time wide enough to change a nappy on. A coffee and hot dog can be had on either side of the crossing and for us it was well needed.

From here it’s a two hour drive to Penguin town just beyond Onaissin and it’s a lot like a safari park. The Llama subspecies of Guanaco are everywhere, we nearly ran one over. Birds from grouse types to Ostriches and Flamingoes ponse around often and there’s evidence of beavers, introduced by the Argentinian military to create a fur trade but now plague the island through mass reproduction. It’s relatively flat yet there are mountains in the background so you always feel you’re on your own on a huge plain. I’ve no experience of the opposite, but a sunny day must be far superior.

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Full disclosure means I must confess I ruined it at this point. We actually missed the turning, the final turning, and then were stuck on a gravel road in sequence of military vehicles slowly chugging on to the longer ferry crossing. Long day for no Penguins. The gravel road seems much harder and although you’re only on it for an hour and a half, it’s concentration sapping. It might be the longer way is better, though crucial advice is to take the turning for Cameron at the Onaissin junction.

Porvenir, I now know, is a faintly http://www.tabsa.cl/portal/index.php/en/ desperate outpost with little going on. It was slightly livened up by getting a sandwich from the only place in town open, a fully functioning kitchen at the back of someone’s garden. It’s the only time I have ever waited for a take out with a full view, simultaneously, of the chef at work, the plumbing underneath her house and someone repairing a spoiler on a stock car on the drive you have to manoeuvre around to get in. I would quote a name, but this feature, alas, was missing.

Full disclosure also means revealing of the six hours plus driving on this day, I did none owing to the lack of official paperwork (a driving licence). Full gratitude to Becky for doing the lot and not flipping too badly at the final navigation balls up.

View of glaciers and a boat trip

Punta Arenas is an odd place, it’s dusty because it’s surrounded by heavy industry like most port cities. It’s bleak, it’s windy and it’s hard to escape the feeling you are isolated at the end of the earth, which you pretty much are. For this reason we set off to Puerto Natales, sitting on the confluence of several fjords and the far more rugged landscape of Bernardo O’Higgins National Park. My good friend Jez, the only person I know who has been, described a tale of human misery I will attempt to quote verbatim:

“There’s some crap caves there … a cafe is the best thing in town, the world record for staying in there is nine hours. We managed seven.”

Perhaps mindful of this, we booked in at a stupendous hotel that cost three times the next most expensive daily rate on the whole trip. The Singular Patagonia is a former meat refrigeration warehouse and part industrial museum with a funicular railway as a lift and steam generators made in our hometowns of the Midlands UK. Given the travel everyone has to do to get here, the Singular could play a role as a spa location with expansive views as an end destination. However, it comes into its own as a kick off for excursions into the huge amount landscape seemingly in every direction.

The hotel, therefore, quite diligently plug their own boat tours of the fjords and glaciers, which we were looking to do, plus mountain biking and hiking of the nearby areas. The nearby Torres del Paine would have been perfect for a hike, but a five day trek around the mountains it wasn’t quite on. With only the two and a quarter of us interested in the boat, we got shipped out to a separate company and paid half the price for what I could see was an identical tour, through these guys: Turismo 21 de Mayo. Plus we got the additional bonus of some Mexican tourists trying out their bespoke ski gear. At ten degrees to a little above we wore sweaters and were toasty.

A simple tour here leaves from just outside Puerto Natales and heads north away from the sea and into fresher water up the fjord Ùltima Esperanza Sound. From the off, mountains the height of the highest in the UK tower straight off the water meaning a lot of time you’re looking straight up. This vertical vista involved cormorants, looking quite similar to penguins, a huddle of sea lions slapping each other and condors.

Nothing quite compares to a Glacier though and these are left to the end. Both Balmaceda and Serrano glaciers are melting, given our status of not being in an ice age, and the cracking and splintering of vast chunks of blue ice into water is something to witness. It’s actually on foot for the final approach, up and down a path of a glacial valley for two kilometres, just about achievable with an 11kg Baby in a sling.

Extremes of Lamb

This was just enough exercise to justify a whisky with the discarded glacial ice and that plus an 0800 start was enough to have an entire boat sleeping for an hours’ chug to lunch on a lakeside estancia. Lamb is the dish round these parts, though any respectable southern Latin American dish is BBQ’ed and this was no exception. I presume some oven roasting had occurred but the output was multiple cuts finished off on a table top mini coal BBQ with the odd potato lobbed on. This creates crack-like crispy, salted skin, nine lumps of this plus a potato did me as a light lunch.

Post tour, however, this was a little heavy on the stomach. A nice solution to this, and I’d opine the additive for Lamb the world over, is a clarifying sauce to go with. Far more fussy, The Singular had a full shoulder joint for two with a morel mushroom and a morel sauce to accompany the dish, providing sweet incision. I did prefer the estancia BBQ for the sheer volume and fatty gluttony of it, but experience tells me acid or natural sugar is needed with a lamb, whether this be the British mint sauce, a Moroccan fruit tagine or the northern Japanese lamb BBQ laced with lemon juice.

Up next

It’s off to Santiago for a whole nine days in the Chilean capital. Slightly off the tourist track, we’ve got nine nights in an Airbnb to catch up on washing and take break from hauling luggage around.

Latin America Familymoon: Buenos Aires

Steak, chilling out in a party zone and making sense of economic and political disorder are the key themes from Buenos Aires, a stop in which fatigue hit but the old favourites left me optimistic when leaving.

Excitement and chilling out

Arrival in BA from Montevideo is by boat, the Buquebus, the best way to cross the River Plate. It requires an eight minute walk from Mercato del Puerto, the meat market at which we stayed, to the Buquebus terminal. With five checked bags, six hand baggage and a pram, this is a major undertaking over even two trips and hauling baggage wiped me out for the day. It didn’t help that we repeated the walking transfer two days later from one Palermo hotel to another. Exertion and the natural stress of transfers made it clear that this whole trip is pretty ambitious and that a bit of downtime is going to be needed, pity necessity made it happen in Buenos Aires, the most thriving city on the trip.

Palermo as a district either encourages relaxation, or emphatically eschews it with two barrios separated by an eight lane highway and a disused train track that smells of urine. Palermo Hollywood was first stop and it’s pretty exciting in a grungy way with a lot of good bars and interesting looking places to eat. Not a great place to relax in or take a five month old baby in all truth.

This contrasts nicely with Palermo Soho, or Viejo, which all in all is more twee but still choked with humans. Experience would dictate the best thing to do in either would be to make restaurant reservations. Everywhere we went was full to bursting and we either waited or booked to eat every night, one of which was ironically spent waiting while we were also paying for a hotel based babysitter, Mine Boutique hotel offered a very child-friendly schtick.

Steak out

The baby sitter was planned a while in advance on the basis one of two Parrillas, barbecue meat restaurants with steak as a centrepiece, was booked out and standing room-only waiting time for a few available tables. Don Julios turns this into a virtue though, with fizzy white wine offered while waiting on the pavement with empanadas passed around as well. A Tripadvisor-sourced international crowd there meant chatting to pass the time was fun. The steak here was the best, a 450g lump of either sirloin or rib eye which melted off the knife. Great chips too and a dulce du leche pancake, holiday guilt secret, contained enough of the gloop for an instant diabetes check.

Miranda was the other Parrilla on the steak off and had a much easier booking process on Hollywood side. We went for a beef ribs here, which at 600 Pesos for a kilogram was a great deal and enough for two. Very different presentation to what I’d expected from beef ribs so far, which is slow cooked, but the BBQ-ing meant it seemed more Argentinian. One thing slightly weird here was chipped sweet potato. The local type seems blander, flour-ry and less vibrant than the type I’m used to so this was less successful. The service here was altogether more charming so my call on balance is Miranda is a smoother and serendipitous experience, Don Julio is the better food.

Freak out (or be a good, informed tourist and have a great time)

The bills at both these restaurants, which I’m sure are regarded as top end, came in at under GBP 53 for a full on dinner with more than just a glass of wine. I would have not considered myself ripped off to pay more than a ton for the equivalent in UK so it’s clear there is a big advantage for tourists on buying Argentinian Pesos at the moment. Indeed, when we first visited in 2013 there were seven pesos to the pound, there are now 50. When we were booking accommodation for this trip there were around 30. So what’s going on here?

Rampant inflation usually seems to revisit Argentina every couple of years, caused by debt-fuelled state spending in the roaring thirties, Peronism in the fifties that demanded heavy welfare investment without much of an endgame and political flip-flopping and uncertainty ever since. This year’s annualised inflation rate will probably be over 40% which gives an easy answer to how you can get such a good deal for currency on the assumption you buy it and spend it fairly promptly.

As the walking tour in Uruguay was so good, we went on another here which was very unfiltered. Co-incendentally, a strike was organised the same day which wrote off most of the politically significant parts of town. It did allow a few early looks at some, magnificent, Art Deco buildings and an original Rodin ‘The Thinker’ looking over the parliament building. Despite this, the tour ended amid flares, flags and trumpets of a strike demonstration divided up by hoardings and looked over by Eva Peron. Our guide had no choice but to finish on a 45 minute speech on where Argentina has gone wrong.

There were several parts of this lament I quite seriously disagreed with but the overall thrust of it was inflation is bad for everybody, poor or wealthy, but the Peronist movement since the 1950s meant people were largely in a nationalistic agreement and occasional Falklands/Malvinas-inspired rhetoric stoking can overcome serious discontent. I can’t find a great solution to this as a tourist, but understanding a bit more about Argentina and trying to to impart knowledge of back home are the best times I’ve had here. An exchange with a taxi driver on just these lines on the way to the airport, inspired by the coming together of rugby chatter, left me optimistic.

Up next

Chilean Patagonia with a first stop in Punta Arenas to see Penguins. Later on to the Torres del Paine National Park for mountains, glaciers, Llamas and hopefully some short hikes. I’m a little apprehensive about the journey there, which constitutes three of the eight flights on this month long trip in a single day. At least I’m rested.

Latin America Familymoon: Montevideo, Uruguay

Uruguay is massively neglected by tourists. The smallest Spanish-speaking country in Latin America shares a common culture with its big brother, Argentina, but has a completely different relaxed and liberal culture. We’d spent one day there in 2013, largely just to check another country off the list, but came back to find out more about the country and especially to indulge in meat barbecue.

How we got here

Carrasco airport building looks like a space station and provides a space dock to large, brand-new Mercedes taxis to whizz you into town through a boulevard that looks freakishly like Beverley Hills. It’s a world of difference to the creaking concrete shed and spluttering, crammed cab we started the journey in Rio. Oracle and Microsoft own two of the noteworthy glass buildings on route, with a McDonalds that looks like it has been dispensing craps in baps since the opulence of the 1930s Art Deco period.

How did they get there when neighbouring Brazil is mired in a political crisis it’s been in for at least the last five years and Argentina is in the economic equivalent they seem to revisit every couple of years? I was reminded of Why Nations Fail, a book I read a few months ago while trying to get to grips with this question in Africa during another period of navel grazing. According to this source, it’s down to strength of political institutions and pluralism, where political power is devolved to all people.

History on foot

A free walking tour of Montevideo started to paint a picture of how this came to be over two and a half hours punctuated with sips of Mate. I don’t really want to publicise our host, Juan Pablo at Curioso’s, content but the upshot is public record. In 2010-15, when Argentina was busy extracting itself from the clutches of quasi dictatorship and national socialism under Christine Kirchner, and when Brazil was seeing protests about state overspending, corruption and mismanagement of state petrol utilities, Uruguay was extending citizens rights in three legislative examples.

Jose Mujica is the key figure here. A former left wing revolutionary (though seems to be regarded as centrist / libertarian at present), he spent a few years of captivity at the bottom of a well shaft before his 2010-15 presidency where he gave away 90% of his salary to charities. His sole asset registered during office was a 30 year-old VW Beetle while he shunned the presidential palace for the family farm. Perhaps consistent with these annecdotes, he passed three laws legalising gay marriage, abortion and smoking weed. All levers that placed decision making ability with people, not the state.

I’m speculating that this period also saw economic liberalism combined with this social and political freedom, providing fertile ground for economic growth. If a state’s citizens are free, educated and informed, then it’s likely that the business environment will be favourable, hence the tech firms, with safe legal sand on which to build. One fact I found a little difficult to square off was the lack of tourists and national income from this source. Again speculation, but it could be this isn’t sought and isn’t part of the development plan. It could be a good thing for all parties.

Bovine end to end

Our excellent tour ended at the Mercato del Puerto market, a collection of Meat BBQs in a wrought iron and brick port building designed and constructed in Liverpool. The raison d’etre of the building is beef is the main export of Uruguay so this makes sense to have this near the main sea port to burn off any excess. Any one of half a dozen of the businesses here will whip sausages, beef, pork and vegetables off the grill to be wolfed down with a glass of Uruguayan red.

Beef and beef products seem to be the thing that Uruguayans are most (ha!) bullish about. According to legend the oxo cube, or beef stock cube, is a Uruguayan invention which might well be its most famous export. The town of Fray Bentos, about three hours by bus from Montevideo, has a museum of the whole bovine business. I’m hopeful to find the background to this on my next visit, especially when combined with a few spa towns dotted around the Uruguay river. All this can be padded out with a few days beach time in Punta del Este, 90 mins east of Montevideo

Up next

Boat across the Rio Plata to Buenos Aires. We were given the advice to chill out in Uruguay while we could as there’s much more pace to life in the Argentinian capital. Tango, Jazz and maybe even a small break from the red meat are planned.

Latin America Familymoon: Rio de Janeiro

“He bit me!”

“He can’t bite, he hasn’t got any teeth”

“Well there’s something hard in his mouth, has something got in there?

We’d timed this month away while Bart was five to six months old on the basis babies of that age aren’t, generally, dangerously mobile yet are slightly easier to feed and to sleep. It is, however, prime time for cutting teeth and the associated gripes of nocturnal screeching, knashing of teeth, prolific dribbling and fraying of parental nerves are all expected. Discovering some teeth on the plane out on day one was something of a surprise. So far so good on teething at this stage, however, so we’ve done a revisit of Rio, albeit with slightly different expectations to 2013.

Rio in the wet

I’m coming to the conclusion that whatever the season rain will happen in Rio, and that’s a shame as I’ve never been to a city that’s so dependent on sunshine. The prime reasons for a visit revolve around party, from small bars as well as the carnival, time on the beach augmented with trips up two vertiginous mountain sites: Christo Redendor on Concavado and the Sugar Loaf mountain for a look back across the city. While we’ve largely sacrificed the beach, partly because it’s rained, we picked off the mountain sites in gaps between clouds that reduce visibility to zero.

What to do with these rainy days does require some thought. I’ve recently come across this listicle in the Telegraph of a global top fifty Grand Cafes which references Rio’s Cafe do Colombo. In 2013 we almost sulked in here while another potential beach day was washed out. This was a far more enjoyable, though a creme caramel and a creamy cappuccino did cause a slight digestive disorder. With entries also in Montevideo and Buenos Aires, the Grand Cafe thing might be a sub theme of the trip, especially being slightly less neglectful of the baby than hitting a bar.

Other venues to ward off a rainy day is the Museum of Modern Art, much underrated, in the same part of town, Centro. A termite mound-shaped modern cathedral is worth a look for the rare mix of styles from place of worship to bus station. From Santa Teresa, we reached all these sites by tram, the most hands-on mode of transport in the city. Next on the rainy day list is a Contemporary art museum over the bay in Niteroi, which can be reached by ferry. It doubles as an architecture visit, being designed by a UFO-inspired Oscar Niemeyer on his home patch.

Getting around and visiting with children

A conclusion from Istanbul was cities on multiple levels and block paving aren’t great for pushing a baby around, so quite why first stop was a city famed for hills and urban mountains is still up for review. Every Portuguese influenced place I’ve been to has also had block black and white patterned paving and Rio is no exception here, other than some of it has been chiselled up and nicked, some has been hacked up and thrown at police and some booted out through sheer boredom. With bits of concrete arbitrarily sprayed around as well, I think it’s likely to be the worst buggy terrain on this trip and the sling has been called into action more often than expected.

It is somewhat of a surprise, therefore, that the big two sites of Sugar Loaf and Christ the Redeemer on Concavado were not so much of an issue with a pushchair. As James Bond and Jaws discovered in Moonraker, the former works on multiple levels but is surprisingly totally step free with only four steps at the very highest point not ramped or lifted. The tip here was to aim for twilight which, owing to a slightly over indulgent nap, we missed and got pitch black instead. Every silver lining though: the illuminated outline of Christ was visible as were the beaches, providing a great orientation.

The funicular railway up to Christ the Redeemer statue takes about 20 minutes and this too is step free, at least in theory. In practice, the elevators for the last bit of the climb to the top were packed out, so carrying Bart and his pram up the stairs was the denouement to what was, this time, a stunning view off the top of Rio just a few minutes before a huge thunderstorm put an end to it. Getting to the train station at base camp was itself a bit of a mission, public transport not quite being that accessible in any part of Rio with topography.

Perhaps in part because of that, a lot of Rio seems absent of child tourists though tropical disease and crime combine here as well. We’d opted for the boho feel of Santa Teresa, on the foothills to the Corcovado, and stayed at Mama Shelter, one of only a few places that accept children. It’s clear they don’t have many juvenile guests, though the staff went to a lot of effort to make sure we had what we needed. I think that’s almost a metaphor for Rio’s attitude to children travelling full stop: not really expected or the norm, but it’s not difficult to do and the locals are keen.

Up next

It’s a simple flight to Montevideo in Uruguay, next country south of Brazil. I’ll be looking to add to my knowledge of the impressive political history of one of Latin America’s smallest states while getting a fix of red meat and red wine.

Flights to Tokyo (From Birmingham)

It’s coming up to a year to the Rugby World Cup and I’ll be in Latin America for four weeks imminently. In other words, good time for an early look on how to get there.

The big flight from London

I’ve been fairly sure for a while the main flight will be one of two from BA or JAL and, given the first game is in Sapporo on Sunday 22 September, departure day will be Friday 20th. That the destination, without much of a Tokyo stopover, is Sapporo actually makes a difference. There are two viable airports in Tokyo. Most of the the domestics, and fewer internationals, go to the convenient Haneda airport (HND) while most internationals go to Narita (NRT), 67km out of town and needing an hour’s worth or train to get to the next nearest transport interchange.

Ruling out flights to NRT leaves one JAL and one BA flight, both arriving in Haneda early on Saturday morning. The problem is these are really expensive at the moment at over £1000 for economy, albeit planning with a departure a few weeks earlier than the reality. Just daft to pay this. I’d expect this to come down a bit once discounts start to bite allied to the fact September is often considerably cheaper than these theorised August dates. BA take bookings 355 days in advance, JAL seems about 11 months. It’s one to review later and also to assess if miles can be redeemed.

No matter what, a change is needed to get to Sapporo though. An alternative could be to get a cheaper flight to Hong Kong or Seoul. Use One World’s Visit Asia pass here and that could mean an affordable flatrate ticket from either of these places to Sapporo then another at the end of the trip, ie one open jaw ticket nested into a long haul to a different city in Asia. The second screenshot is here are the connector flights using Cathay Pacific from Hong Kong. Expensive, but the pass would make this cheaper.

Indirects from Birmingham

67% of my target audience for this piece have already done a Lufthansa flight from Birmingham to Tokyo, so it’s the obvious carrier to look for when doing a quick skyscanner for this route. The best thing about it is the flight from Frankfurt goes to Haneda for a simple connection to Sapporo. The connections here, screenshot three, look a bit awkward, but any flight from Birmingham to Frankfurt would do with the long flight bought as a separate ticket. ANA, Japan’s second biggest airline, do a similar flat rate airpass to One World so that could make the Sapporo leg easy as well.

Cutting the journey in the Middle East (Qatar, Emirates, Turkish Airlines) seems appealing from a DVT point of view, but the latter two don’t seem to do daily flights from Birmingham, so fiddling with dates might be needed. Qatar does look a good option. Again picking a theoretical August 2019 departure date gives the result of screen shot four. Doha’s airside Hotel, luxurious in the middle of a long haul, could play a role with those middle of the night stopovers.

ONE

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E3154A73-72FF-4402-8825-4DEA5275F093

 

TWO

C4F0A987-5136-4235-B0F6-C9EFABC66AEB

THREE

2102B455-505C-4430-9FCD-5E5BBF418A6F

FOUR

A93F3835-C412-4186-822F-3CE9698E1F2F

Latin America Familymoon: learning the language

It’s a source of lasting regret that I never really got proficient at the langauges I’ve studied and it’s the one thing I really wished I could do that I can’t. With this in mind, it’s probably time to learn a few Latin American Spanish stock phrases ahead of four weeks on the continent taking in Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile. The below are language learning techniques I’ve found useful and some less so. Tempting it is to say nothing beats language immersion, there are some traps for the thirsty and lonely.

Phrasebooks and basic texts

I think it’s universally accepted this method in isolation is fairly limited, but I’ve found it fairly useful in learning phrase and sentence structure (grammar, in other words) from which you can ad-lib in other vocabulary on the fly. The Russian and Japanese I’ve learnt both started from this source and for the latter most of my conversational learning has come from staples I picked up from a text book. There will come a point, however, where fluency is choked off by this approach, and fluency from speaking is limited. The next logical step is listening and speaking more…

Audio cassettes through to DVDs and apps

… a gap that can be filled with audio prompting isolated speaking. These methods I’ve never had much patience with. Ostensibly this comes from awkwardness speaking into a void and, without fail, cynicism created through inauthentic recordings and dialogue. When I’ve taught English as a foreign language, cracking open the CDs was my least favourite part. For me, it’s all a little too one sided though I do see the theoretical appeal if you are an actorly type who enjoys speaking when no-one’s there. If I was to do another stretch of learning now, I might, however find value into just listening to pronunciation. Listening is my worst skill and one I now realise I neglect.

Evening classes for conversation (Or not)

I’ve seen real progress in classrooms where the limitations of both the previous methods are mitigated, though as both a teacher and a student I’ve seen some real limitations. Fatigue from doing a lesson in the evening after work seems to be the most frequent. Only one of the three sets of lessons I’ve come across has avoided this. A quick, short paced lesson with plenty of group repetition and restricted task-based conversational set pieces seems to be a fatigue breaker. The opposite is just unstructured conversation, tedious as a teacher and limiting, sometimes impossible to do, as a student. If you’re the learner it’s pot luck what you get, though I’ve seen enough classrooms that are influenceable it if you end up in a poor lesson.

Learning on the ground

Actually immersing yourself in the language is the only way, I think, to truly crack fluency. However, I think you need to go through some, if not all, of the above to get there. It’s sounds slightly alcoholic, but some of the evenings I spent in a dungeon Indonesian-themed bar in Tokyo moved my Japanese on the best, through the expediency of getting free beers, and time in a freezing student dorm the equivalent for my Russian.

I can see two pitfalls: A stream of male teacher colleagues I saw taking Japanese hints and chatter practice with cutesy receptionists in English produced a line of burly blokes speaking like teenage girls, I’m sure to the amusement of any Japanese speaker in earshot. Additionally, I can recall a Turkish barmen fluently and comfortably chatting to my mate Chris in German while making a string of basic grammar mistakes. Alcohol and flirting, it seems, provide good foreign language speaking practice, with slight collateral damage.