Friday, 31 December 2010

Allow me to Introduce "Zonda"

It has the feminine suffix, so I suppose that we should consider her in the female form. The trouble is, a whole host of pejoratives will come to mind; bitch witch being the mildest. Sounds like the stage name for a circus act, or the product of the cold world war days and the old East German sports pharma physical industry. “Sonya  the Shot Putter”  turned “professional”, mutated into “Zonda the  World’s Strongest Woman”

Dust in the air, pre-dawn

Shelter - one low thorn bush
and tent poles shrunken in
the cool of the morning!

She’s fast becoming an integral part of our travelling lives. She dictates our whole day, when we get up, how far we go, where we stop, how much water we carry. Zonda  is no act, she’s very real, even if she’s not a physical entity. For Zonda is the dry, desiccating, dehydrating southerly wind that blows up around midday on the eastern side of the Andes. For such a presence, she doesn’t make regular  appearances in travellers tales; maybe the winds of Patagonia are so all consuming that this wind gets lost in the narratives.  In the most recent edition of an English language visitor’s guide, Zonda is described as an autumn and winter, schizophrenia-inducing wind, capable of  raising the temperature from  frosty to  a  pleasant Scottish  summer’s day: from  0 to 20 degrees. A confusion of definitions that could be easily resolved by inviting the editors of said guide to try walking or cycling over the Arena de Campo on a December’s afternoon in 42 degrees of heat. Forget any split in your character, you will be reduced to a simpleton,  a raging ball of spilt spleens, vexatious vitriol and screaming tantrums.  Given these differing  tempestuous  descriptions, it’s maybe not odd that when we were doing, what passes for pre-planning preparation, a north-westerly  was suggested as the prevailing wind direction. Fine, possibly even true, but southerly Zonda seems able to trump that on nine out of our last ten days. She did deputise her cousin, Murphina, to take her place when she decided to take a day off, on the one day that Ruta 40  turned to the prevailing north-west. 
An afternoon, even an hour n the company of Zonda, will leave you zapped, zonked  and zombied.  Your  palate will be creased corrugations, your  tongue stuck to the roof of your mouth, your teeth all furred up, all accentuated by a fast dwindling supply of patience, lip balm and drinking water.

The pessimist accepts the inevitability of the situation and  bails out to a tent or a drain under the road. The optimist  looks for a positive and consoles himself with  the only positive piece of information that Zonda is good for: washed clothes dry fast, then he too heads for the same drain. The pragmatist turns the bicycle around and  heads the other way.
Which ever way you look at it, she’s still a bitch.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Books: Pandaemonium, by Christopher Brookmyre

If you haven’t discovered Brookmyre yet, do it now. I finished this book at a gallop, breathless and heart pumping hard with adrenalin. Then went back and read it all again.

What is it about? If I said “a trip by a group of teenagers from a Catholic High School in Glasgow to an outdoor centre in the highlands of Scotland“, you’d perhaps think that senility was setting in. But that’s just the vehicle for a brilliant satire on the beliefs of the Catholic Church, mixed with a fair bit of cool sci-fi, comic bits that will make you weep, teenage angst, Glasgow patter, and some horrific bits of blood and gore that are so wildly imagined that you find yourself laughing out loud. Confused? Reading the book won’t really help. Those of you old enough to be able to quote large chunks of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ will perhaps understand. Don’t Panic.

Brookmyre’s earlier books have taken some potshots at several sacred cows and purveyors of mumbo jumbo, all in his incomparable style. His writing is rich, and he has a fine command of language. He certainly knows his subjects. If he wrote without the large helpings of Glasgow vernacular, I guess his audience might be wider; but this seems to bother him not one jot.

In my eyes, the books don’t fit into any existing fiction ‘genre’ - they’re in a place of their own. Haddington Library files them under ‘Crime and Thrillers’ - but that doesn’t seem to quite cover it. Other descriptions include Comedy, Politics, Social Comment, Action and ‘Tartan Noir’. I’d be interested to hear what you think.

Just to add a final snippet: since April 2008, Christopher Brookmyre has been the President of the Humanist Society of Scotland.
www.brookmyre.co.uk

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Biotransfer: Gaucho Dog

Dictionary definition: Gaucho:- a South American cowboy of the Pampas, identifiable by his horse, his long knife and his string of dogs.

If a gaucho consumes meat three times a day and we pack two asados away, does that make us two-thirds a caballero? 66% gaucho, then I remember that I don’t have a machete: remove ten points from my score. But a gaucho without a horse is like the chronicler without his mount , a lost, non person. So that leaves me with the dog; and unfortunately we definitely have one of those.
I’m sitting quietly reading an e-newspaper at a table in Cachi, when I become aware of a dog lying quietly at my feet. It’s not your usual tick-parasitised, flea infested street dog; for one it’s quiet, clean and it’s behaviour suggests “pet”. From experience we know to ignore these hounds; if you want to get rid of them - and most fall into this category - just reach down, as if to pick up a stone and the effect is immediate: exit one cur at top speed, tail between legs. This one was young, with the physique of a small Alsatian, German Shepherd, which I have subconsciously named Gaucho Dog. A while later a river-rounded granite stone, a good dog’s mouthful, is dropped on my toes; GD sits down waiting for me to play. Still I ignore it, giving absolutely no encouragement. I can guess where this might lead, and I don’t want that to happen. This goes on for quite some time, the stone being pawed, the ingratiating, pleading looks; still I ignore it, still no encouragement.

It hangs around all evening, then disappears. Good, I guess that it belonged to the tent that had pulled in earlier in the afternoon. The threat of any hurled stone was never going to deter it , it would only end in a never-ending game.

At some point in the night, one of the street dogs came wandering past, and from what sounded like a few inches from my head, there was a low growl. He, it’s definitely male, is lying outside the tent on guard. Several times throughout the night I hear it chasing of other dogs. At first light I find it lying, waiting, under the parrilla, waiting for the day to start.

We pack up the bags, load up the bikes, still he’s lying waiting, expectant. The moment we move out, he’s up and settles in right behind one of our rear tyres. I know then that we’ve acquired a real Gaucho’s dog, the genuine article, and a very real problem. Back in El Carmel we had watched the mounted police leaving there guard post and collecting posse of assorted unwanted dogs and the problems they had in trying to shed them. Then seeing them coming back off their beat, a string of dogs trotting along behind. These dogs must be born with this instinct of following the horse.

We need some bread for the road, so we ride around town searching out the early opening bakery. We lose GD on three occasions, only to be reunited each time. Eventually stocked with moving on supplies, and at this instance sin dog, we head out of town and go south. Maybe he’s had enough of our ostracising, our boycotting of his games. There’s one road into Cachi and another out, a choice of two points in which to pick up a couple of gringo travellers; there’s GD waiting at the correct one . This dog is a natural. The road will be three days of ruts, washboard and sand. There’s never going to be chance to outpace this dog, top speed will be little better than a fast stroll. Our only hope is that he will get bored, give up and turn around. It never happens; he settles in behind the rear cyclist, settles in for the long haul. Even when he draws the snarling, barking guard dogs from each and every farm and finca, he will snap and growl once or twice, then pad on, keeping pace with us.

We are his horses and he’s got to keep up, even as the temperature rises. He’s panting hard, starting to throw a limp. He might jump into the occasional irrigation ditch to lap down a drink, then he’s back in his appointed station. What started as a bit of a novelty is starting to spook us. At no time have we shown any encouragement, no playing, no food, no water. I try, eventually throwing a stone, far down a banking and, as we expected, it wanted to play. We got a good distance away, whilst it rooted around looking for my projectile. I even thought we had shed our follower but not for long; there he is rooting along beside us again, the same stone in his mouth. Now, our only hope, is an “interesting bitch” might appear to divert his attention. No such luck. At Seclantes we sit in the park making and eating some lunch, GD just goes and lies down in the shade, watching waiting. I even got the length of preparing a rope, with the intention of tying the dog to a bench seat, then pedalling off, in the hope that someone would release him later on. We consider the possibility, then reject it. He just isn’t our responsibility.

Yet we get a guilty feeling, anybody watching us passing will be thinking: look at those stupid gringos, they’ve been feeding a street dog and now it’s going to follow them all over the Andes. The temperature’s rising and the road breaks away from the valley, rising into a waterless, shadowless desert. This dog is suffering, trying to find any acceptable relief thrown by a boulder, shrub or crag, even the narrow stripe of shade thrown by a telegraph pole. Still we don’t encourage him. I still have a hope that he will turn back to the last village, a hope born more of desperation than expectation of success; but no, he keeps pace and when we stop for a breather, he tries to shelter right under my bike. That’s when I definitely know that it is either bred from or is a lost Gaucho’s hound; we’ve seen the dogs sheltering under a trotting horse virtually between the legs.

Eventually our road climbs over a low col and we descend down to the next valley. A ribbon of acacia and pepper shade trees mark the line of a stream. When we cross the Rio Molinos our following, trailing hound decides that a drink is a greater necessity than duty. At last we’ve lost him. Gaucho Dog: one very clever dog. Just how clever we’re about to find out.

I had half expected him to have found us out overnight, and when we rise before sunrise, we were grateful that he wasn’t around. Whilst not our responsibility, he had played fully on our heartstrings. In another circumstance he would be an immense asset, for there’s no doubt that he already has every instinct for herding cattle and sheep.

We’re leaving town on the only road in or out, we’re only moments away from the last house, when from under a truck comes Gaucho Dog. He’s limping and tail wagging, his whole body language one of warm welcome, all ready for another day on the trail. I swore, cursed, and near wept in equal measure. We don’t need another day of devotion and loyalty. Has he eaten?, is he fit?, is it going to get hot today?, I’m not sure that he would make another full day on a section of Ruta 40, that styles itself ‘Heart of the Moon‘. The strange thing is that several local cyclists will have passed him under his truck on their way to work, but they didn’t offer the same potential for adventure.

I now commit my first crime, in frustration we try to chase him back to town, I try the stone hurling, only to get confused whimpering, running around until he gets in front , lies, cowering, waiting. I try tying a rope lead knowing that there’s little chance of being able to lead him anywhere. I’m right. So we decide to enlist some help. We head back into town, back to our campground, to ask Sr. Patron: if we tie Gaucho Dog to a tree, would he release him later in the day? The Navigator’s Spanish is fully up to the task, he only laughs, there’s no surprise at the request. I suspect that it happens all the time. So we tie him to a tree, he whines once as we pedal our guilty consciences away. We look back once, GD has lain down resigned to not getting a chance to run with the strange cycling caballeros today. Maybe tomorrow, then.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Chicoana to Cachi and The Quebrada de Salta.


What a difference 24 hours and a height rise of 2,100 metres can make.  In Chicoana we had sun, sheltering  in the local plaza,  listening to the locals greet each other with “muy calor”;  it’s gratifying to know that they to are suffering under this sun also.  Eating empanadas,  licking ice creams,  watching a  talent show  for local singers -  the winners were good, the runners up rank karaoke amateurs.  Late afternoon and the temperature has hit 40 degrees. Twenty-four hours later and we’re sitting in a tent wrapped up in sleeping bags, wearing all our clothes. Suddenly  all those extra jerseys, gloves and thermals that have  huddled, neglected and  mouldering  at the bottom  of the panniers  have a use.

We’ve left town, left a hostel near full of  a ladies 35th reunion, left behind the street sweepers clearing up after a  Saturday night that’s not long finished, left behind the competitive singers and the Mariachi bands. Slipped silently, like thieves in the night ,from our lodgings into the pre-sunrise day, and started climbing up the Cumbres del Obispo. Away from a near monoculture of non-food tobacco production and through a series of climatic zones. Rising running along the Rio Escope, along a superbly graded road. The result of the road engineers following sense and the ancient mule trails and not those of their own imaginations which are usually fuelled by the limitless power of the internal combustion engine. In Moncona we’d encountered just such a crime. To save a few kilometres of contouring track they carved a laser ruled line, allowing no respect for topography, mules or cyclists. The result was a series of 25% hills.

The vegetation shifts from thick  bush and forest, to drift sand and shattered rock. The weather reflects these changes, a heavy clouded sky that’s turned to a persistent drizzle, has accompanied us up through the green country. But always up in front there has been the carrot of a sunlit red hillside. The sun, the cacti and the dessert all arrive, all coincide, as we ascend through into another biosphere.   We climb, the river now falling far below, now a thin braided ribbon lost in a vast flat bottomed valley of gravel, that in the wet will be filled wall to wall, the monochrome occasionally punctuated by solitary deep rooted  bright green weeping willow tree.  The steep valley sides, striated walls of iron salted greens and reds, dotted with sparse tussock grasses. Dropping down through this scape of dun coloured lands, are vertical microclimates, a mere tens of metres  wide.  Verdant gashes of oozing fecundity. We ride through one such, riding under deep shade green fig and white fleshed peach trees.  Bags of the latter are for sale on a lonesome roadside stall. Then, just as suddenly, you’re back in the stark sterility of the desert.

Still the road climbs, the score increasing on the altimeter.  An accumulation of metres all safely banked and not squandered on a roller coaster of  declivities and re-ascents. The  route choosing to contour deep into a side valley, crossing  a dry arroyo bed, then  gently rising back out , returning to it’s original itinerary, back to a   generally northerly direction . A mild, tender ascent that works with, and not against the land. We refuel on empanadas and rotten instant coffee, which at 2,200 metres is like a nectar of rocket fuel; we’ll need it, for now the real work starts. The gradient remains mule track, but the surface goes from asphalt to gravel. There’s 21kms and a further 1,100 metres of climbing to go, which, once the safari of racing  Toyotas  have passed in a storm of dust and scattered  grit, we settle down to a steady rhythm, a steady accumulation of height.

The advice to those who wish  to visit the national park at Los Cardones  is to get up there early, before the late morning cloud  envelops the tops. This,  for a cyclist  poses a problem: camp in the lower valley and suffer a dark time alpine style start, then an altitudinally induced , heart thumping race against the clock and the mountain; or tent it on the summit. The downside of the latter option  is that the last 1,000 metres of approach will be in a wet cold mist, with the possibility of a sufferfest on a storm blasted moor. The upside, the potential bonus, is the possible, teasing expectation of a mountain sunrise. In the clag , the near whiteout, we listen for the ascending and descending traffic, trying to gauge which might be the service bus or the fuel tanker. Both require the use of the whole of the road at any of the multitude of hairpin bend; they’ve passed us going  over, we know that they’ve got to come back sometime. A local woman surprises me, she morphs out of the gloom, standing, waiting, swaddled in a volume of bright shawls and blue skirts,  silent, motionless at the side of the road . A bus must be imminent. The  low visibility shortens our world down to the scree banks and the sudden  surprise of small flowering cacti, splashes of blood red in the murk. As the few and infrequent cars go by they offer encouragement, yet we can’t reply, we need both hands on the handlebars for control over the river rounded ball-bearing gravel; we need the concentration to keep going.  The gradient is hard to judge, I know that it’s still going up, yet it looks flat We’re running on a near empty tank, suffering for low carbs, and lack of altitude acclimatisation. On the final three kilometres the wobble starts, we’re safer and quicker pushing the last few tens of metres to the summit. The Navigator has led from start to finish, pushing the pace.  But it’s only when we reach the top and I see her hypoxic  lips -  she claimed it was only the contrast to the tan - that I realised we needed to stop.

There was never going to be a problem with a  pitch for a tent, there are a selection of suitable spots where the cloud fed streams cross the road, the trick would to choose on with a view for the morning. It’s a cliché, but also a perfect truism:  ‘Good decisions are never made with tired minds”, so with this in mind we just fling up the tent in the first safe place.  Above the road, amongst the Spartan tussocks, a full unexpurgated unsheltered view of wet cloud.  The potential was there for a good dose of sufferfest. Now at 3,310 metres - it sounds better in metric feet: 10,923ft - you would expect some wind, but it went flat calm as the light faded.  Not long after closing up the tent and settling down, the drumming rain stopped, leaving an eerie, vacant silence. An occasional vehicle passes around our high eyrie promontory, the occasional door opens and later closes, which always sets off a spurt of adrenaline, until you remember that there’s a travellers’ shrine around the last bend. At some point I come to, there’s  a diffused light coming into the tent, instinctively I know that it has to be good news. I get up, a  waning  final quarter moon is rising out of the valley cloud. The air is sharp, the sky crystal clear above, the whole  panoply of a southern sky is  arranged overhead. It’s stunningly beautiful. I’d like to whoop, jump  for joy, but that would only tempt the mountain gods and their  Irish cousin into spoiling the morning by drawing a veil  up and over us.  We neither sleep well, the first few nights at height are always the same, the vague shadow of a headache  that reminds you  that you’re  high up, but the potential pay off is there.

Pre-dawn and we’ve got the stove running:  it’s fully leaded coffee and dulce de leche fortified oats, it’s  four layers  and full Gore-tex , it’s frozen alpines and frosted  grasses. The old moon is high in the new sky, the sun rising fast through the  inverted, clouded horizon. Suddenly the first shafts hit the  high top behind us, the shadow line racing down to engulf us. We both just sit and marvel; it’s  spiritual moment. I’m not sure that we had in any way planned  this, planned for this perfection, but we have one  of the grandest  tenting spots  imaginable. Neither photo’ nor word can convey the feeling of sitting   high on a mountain at dawn. The stillness of the air, the feeling of newness, of a nascent day breaking into life. It’s an  immediate, raw, unrepeatable, irreplaceable  moment of time.

What follows a start like this should, by any law of averages, any rules of justice, be an anti-climax. After last evening’s climb on loose gravel, we had  anticipated a rough, rocky decent, what we are offered is a slow, long easy angled slope of smooth tar. We leave gravity and the bikes to roll us gently along, dropping us into the mist that’s drifting around the hillsides. I had wondered if  the conditions were in place for a Brocken spectre, when , there running alongside me, is a fogbow. Like it’s cousin the rainbow, it’s refracted light passing through a prism of water, only the fogbow devoid of colours. Ethereal and vaporous , it appears and disappears, as we drift, rolling along .

Another weather first and a road that has just pushed it’s way into an over crowded “ top ten”, yet we haven’t reached the reason why this place is designated a National Park.

The high flat puna,  the expanses of weather shattered rock and gravel, the few tussocks of dry, brittle grasses, grazed by wild  donkeys and a few thin cattle,  gives way to a  canyon of chocolate brown vertically  striated rocks, topped by sentinels of Cardones, or cacti. The road now turns sinuous, twisting between outcrops, freewheeling  through long easy corners, then takes one last bend and opens out onto a vast monumental plain of sand, grit and gravel.  The columnar cacti set out like an army in open order march, now transfixed in time; an over-replicated Antony Gormley  installation, the stylised figures cockaded with fresh flowers, staring out  across the gravel levels, to the real high tops of Cordillera los Andes.

A classic, in your face road. A new picture around each and every bend. A moonrise, a sunrise, a temperature inversion  and a fogbow all before second breakfast. Sensory overload.  Picture postcard; sweetie tin productions. Easy, bite sized, pre-digested gobbets of tabloid tourism. An antithesis to our experiences of  the differing areas we’ve passed through so far on this trip. The  teeming madness of Buenos Aries,  the quiet solitude of Uruguay, the rolling hills of Misiones, the unfashionable Chaco and now the dry savagery of Los Andes: all are individuals, all are parts of a whole. Some are easy on the digestion, some take time and more assimilation to get their full calorific values.

1959, 1962 1971 1974 1995 2001 467 480 501

'scuse me?


Mutual language practice at 6am!

This is The Navigator trying to get a word in edgeways.

I’d just like to make mention of the Kindness of Strangers - I know that Kate Adie wrote a book with that title, but as we travel we’ve been meeting the kindest strangers.

Folk that stop on the road to make sure you have enough water; who stop for a chat; who insist on raiding their own supplies to give us gifts of fruit or bread; who help with directions; the lady in the fruit shop who wouldn’t take payment for my small purchase - “it is a gift”; Emanuel, who, when we asked for directions to a campground, jumped on his own bike and guided us on to the right road. There have been so many kindnesses, large and small. All of these folk have joined us in our adventure for a little while, and become a great part of it.

There is no way we can individually repay all these kind folk; all we can do is to pass on the kindness to someone else. In the hope that one day a circle will be completed.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Salta: Approach and Retreat


and the pool was - empty.

We came to taste, but you spat us out.

We don’t do cities very well, cities are for cars not people. Salta as written up by the guide books suggested it might be different. I’m always sceptical, but susceptible to a good suggestion. We knew that the municipal camping boasted the largest swimming pool in south America, and it had been recommended by several people. However we take bets when we see the words ’Balneario’ - a place for swimming - as to whether there will be water in the pool, river or hole. Or will it be reverting back to bush, with a tree growing out of the base. Empty, cracked and broken is the norm. Salta looked a likely place to for a lay up, a town to investigate, a chance to take a breather, collect some ideas and to buy the work’s Secret Santa gifts.
The main drag through town bisects the place, leading directly to the municipal camping, which makes for simple navigation. We’d had a short day, which is useful, cities have a habit of being able to anything between 10-50% to the end of the day.

We ignore the ‘No Cycling’ signs, just like the motorists ignore the ‘no overtaking’ signs, and run down the autopista. It’s fast and furious and drops us exactly where we want to be. Too good to be true? You bet! The vast camping and leisure complex is closed, something about ‘peligroso’. The latino catch all, or excuse that may or may not mean something is dangerous. Interestingly, the cyclist who had given us the recommendation had stayed there last year and had watched the pool attendant sling a bag of chloride on his back and proceed to walk up the pool emptying it, so chlorinating the water. Maybe health and safety has started to make an incursion here.

So our nice simple plan is confounded, and our usual city suspicions are confirmed. We’re now sent on a wild goose chase, being directed in various directions to the varying locals idea of a good campground. The result is a tour of the industrial belt, the airport district and the motel land. Finally 35kms later, we’re somewhere well to the south of Salta, down a dead end road, beside the local penitentiary. A base to explore a city by car, it might be, on a bike it is not. It only proves that cities have sold their souls to the internal combustion engine.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Fundamental Errors and the Run Out of Ciudad del Este

I’ve made the unpardonable traveller’s mistake. I’ve created a prior image of Paraguay, based on a few chance comments and the topography that we passed through to the east. I don’t think I’ve ever been so ignorant a place before. Could I have named the capital? Possibly. Did I know any history? I was vaguely aware that it had had it’s fair share of unsavory rulers, beyond that: nada. I had read and enjoyed John Gimlette’s book “The Tomb of the Inflatable Pig”, but with no personal reference points, it had simply been a travellers tale. To the east, in Misiones it had been heavy commercial forestry, subsistence farming of tobacco and manioc or small pockets of original growth jungle. Little Indio towns had been mentioned, so I had created a mental picture, one we had seen one afternoon. The wooden grass thatched shacks, a family of children with a monkey trying to pose for photo opportunities alongside roadside stalls selling woven baskets and jungle fruits bromeliads and orchids.

Of course the reality was almost diametrically opposed to this imagined picture.

Coming out of the urban sprawl of Ciudad del Este: the youthful upstart that has only just made it’s half century, heading due west for Asuncion: who likes to style itself “The Mother of the Americas”. At over five centuries it does have age on it’s side. We’ve left the downtown, wild west clutter of cut price emporia. The spurious named tee-shirts, the pirated CDs, the fake DVDs, the sham Reeboks, the bootlegged Nikes. Now comes a ribbon development of small brightly painted businesses selling intelligent batteries or religious statuary, moto tyres or rolled barbed wire, cerveza Budwieser or combine harvesters, frutas & verduras and gridlocked cars. interspersed within this brick and mortar jungle are the smoked glass and chromed steel edifices of the German euro car importers, the complete agro supplies industry and a full pack of financial services. All primary indicators of where the agri-industrial money lies.

Instead of forested jungle closing in around the road, the country side opens up soya and wheat, corn and dairy fields stretch away to a rolling horizon. All the mega agri giants are in attendance: the Cargills, the ADMs and the Parmalats. It’s a broad picture of extended intensive agriculture. Slowly though, other images start to appear. The small roadside tables of mixed herbs, chopped and pounded in a mortar with a wooden pestle for the national drink, terere. An iced yerba mate. The preponderance of Canadian Holstein cattle blood lines, opposed to the Hereford and Brahmins of Argentina; a legacy of the German speaking Canadians who came here in 1929. The rows of small stalls all selling identical stock. The twelve in Mingua Guasu that sold only Cantaloupe melons, the ten in Estigarriba that only sold gourds and oranges. The rows of small sheds in Caaguazu that sold hand made wooden hobby horses or the rows of second hand plastic drums in Luque. The chipa sellers, baskets balanced on their heads, jumping from moving bus to accelerating collectivo. Then there are those motels, the love hotels that post and precede, bracket each and every town. All start to give a distinctive Paraguayan feel, rather than the broad brush South American one.

It’s pleasant to have your preconceptions challenged, your prejudices punctured, on this occasion they have been utterly deflated. Crossing Paraguay had been a short cut to the west of Argentina, so I suspect we had been a bit apprehensive; born of ignorance and the “them over there” tales. I know for a fact that we were disrespectful and that we didn’t give enough time to the place. Yet sometimes you need short tastes to act as appetisers, confidence boosters.

As we cross the Rio Paraguay, one of the river steamers is ploughing it’s way up river, passing underneath us. It could be at that point that another possible journey was born: Colombia, Brazil, even French Guiana have roused our interest before, but to add in a major upriver trip that’s not the Amazon and come down through the Mennonite communities of the arboreal Chaco and camp out in the Jesuit ruins of San Trinidad.
Sometimes it’s fun to speculate, however it’s as well to remember to base it on a degree of fact and not on uninformed preconceptions, ignorant speculation, for otherwise bias and bigotry follow close behind.


The Discombobulated World of the Hotel Room

It’s a strange inside world lost in an hotel room. The shutters will be closed, the windows painted shut- and that’s presupposing that there is a window in the first place. Oft times there isn’t. A world dislocated from the reality on the other side of a thin skin of brick and plaster, the environment controlled by aircon, fan and a lightbulb. When you’ve lived exclusively out of doors for over two months, where you’re in touch with every nuance of nature, attuned to the cycles of day length, moving indoors comes as a disturbing shock. We’ve closed ourselves into one of these cocoons, dropped the setting on the chiller to a Scottish summer and settled down to a siesta. “when in Rome……..” it makes sense. Roused sometime later I open the room door, only to let a blaze of violent hot bright light, a blast furnace of heat, in. My subconscious mind had assumed, because there was no natural light in the room, it must be dark outside. A mistake that you can never make in a tent. It’s a trade off, an unsynchronized body clock for a cool afternoon, sensory deprivation for a sweat free night.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Moments in Chaco Time: MAMBA Conclusion

The Chaco and it’s antonym, Los Cordillera Andes are two parts to the same Argentine equation. For myself they are of equal status, only one requires a little more delving, a little more enquiry to be able to find a subtle interest, a deeper character, an inner beauty. The other is the super model. All is on the surface, open for instant inspection, flaunting her wares, grabbing the catwalk of a touristic trail.

Yet we too are voyeurs as we pass through the Chaco. How can I with a northern Anglo-Saxon experience and mindset come to understand the world of a family trying to survive on a patch of dry salty land with a herd of goats, a couple of pigs and a few hens. Living in a wooden slatted hut where the dust and grit blow in through the chinks, where neither the temperature nor the humidity can be controlled by chiller or fan. Then having to watch the daily procession of transfrontera car transporters hauling the latest imported model of chrome and steel past his front gate.

As an exercise in utter futility, I try to put myself into his shoes, maybe I would just ignore those loco gringos expending all that energy, all that pedalling effort, and for what? All that rushing around, slaving a life for the latest model to come off a BMW production line. No, I’m not able to even start to think in another person’s mind, to comprehend what living is truly like out here.
I console my conscience, by justifying that at least we put some cash back into the local economy. We have to buy food every day, we have to pay for accommodation every evening, which in this age of a globalised economy is at least locally owned.

So I might as well make the effort to look, to observe, to try to understand. That’s when you start to realise that this is not, and no countryside can ever be, MAMBA.

.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Moments in Chaco Time: Leaving the Chaco

Back onto the smooth hard top of the trans-Chaco, the sky vast, the horizon as flat as last night’s pizza. The road a notch on the distant periphery, a ribbon of grey giving way to a mirage of mirrors, the oncoming moto a mote of red, ten minutes away, floating, shimmering in mercury. The vegetation showing real signs of the dry. The prickly pear deflated, flacid and limp, the wild tomatoes fruiting, their leaves dead. The water holes mere slips of green scum, the Rio Seco living up to it’s name. Everything, you feel is just waiting for the rain, waiting for the wet to start.

The land gives a slight wobble, we manage a 10 metre climb, irrigated fields of maize occur, soya is waiting for the combine, which I take to mean that we are leaving the Chaco. Gone are the Ceibo trees, the rooting pigs in the petrol station, the herds of goats climbing through the thorn thickets, the stallion guarding the mare with her new born foal.

Moments in Chaco Time: Mollinos

Another Wichi, indigenous town that grew from it’s position on the railway line. The old prosperous buildings now housing the new wealth: the agricultural suppliers, the banks and the mobile telecoms, are congregated around where the station once stood. We’re sitting in the plaza under a few substantial shade trees, our first prospect for accommodation having drawn a blank. We’d cycled up and down the obvious streets looking for an obvious sign. We then start asking around. Yes there is a hospedaje, its two blocks along on the corner. We search, but no obvious establishment appears. Ask again: it’s obvious that it exists, everybody is sending us into the same area. Slowly we are narrowing it down. After five attempts we’re taken by the hand to an anonymous gate, incidentally not on the corner, but in the same block everybody kept pointing out. Like the shops, everyone knows where everything is, so there’s no need for a name board or an indication on a wall. Yes, they do have a room available. Another perfect refuge, just when it was required.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Moments in Chaco Time: Leaving Town

The sun has just broken through the horizon, fast rising straight up into a clear sky. It’s going to be hot again. The noise of our wheels are muffled by the carpets of soft dust and the drifts of sand, but not quiet enough, as the first dog wakes up and starts to bark. This sets of a chain reaction, that multiplies and magnifies, intensifying the further we progress along the street. It’s not as if we can pedal hard to escape the blame or the source. One mistake on this surface and one of us will be on our ribs.

Moments in Chaco Time: Place Names

These varying parts to the trans Chaco all have one underlying problem: poverty. The soil has potential, it’s high phosphate country, it could grow cotton, soya and corn, but it suffers from a six month dry, and a large area of saline aquifers. The names of pueblos and town, estancias and farms, tell a tale of hard work and high expectations, and sometimes the simple reality of the Chaco: Aguas Muertas and Vaca Muerta; the killing water that finished off the cattle, Rio Muerto and Aguas Verdas; the pessimistic reality of dead green waters. Yet there seems to have been a degree of optimism, a “heavy hope “, or more likely: strong hopes at Fuerte Esperanca.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Moments in Chaco Time: Saturday Evening

Where Saturday afternoon it had been a virtual ghost town, Saturday evening everything and everybody comes back to life. The municipal water tanker vainly attempts to dampen down the sand and dust, market stall holders splash buckets of water across the road and then set out plastic tables and chairs.s An alfresco eatery appears as if by magic outside a private house. Corrugated tin sheets are swung up and out of the way, to reveal dark caverns of mixed merchandise. Chinese cottons and watermelons, cycle pumps and crash hats. All mixed together. Need a new wooden balustrade? Try over between the washing powder and the lemons.

We need to forage for supplies for tomorrow. Bread might be useful, maybe something to go on it, something with a bit of flavour or just some interest. We’re well used to the autoservicios, we know that we won’t get everything that we need in one shop, yet we enter more in hope than in expectation. There will be no illumination, there will be a shelf of yerba mate often with the chemical cleaning products stacked right on top. Around the corner might be pasta right beside the toothpaste. A chiller fridge will have six brands of beer, yet the cheese and yogurt shelves will be empty. We emerge with a packet of dried pasta and a tin of tomato puree. It’s a start, a very slow start. Now for the optimistically names super carniceria, only there’s no meat today - it’s open but there’s nothing for sale. Next the fruit and veg. We find the shop a few blocks away. One part filled box of cosmetically challenged oranges and a pyramid of four watermelons, the sum total of supplies. Not a lot of calorific value in here. We try the next autoservicio we find, and it’s a carbon copy of the last. It does have 20kg bags of refined white flour, and the soap powder is now stacked on the porridge oats.


The one constant in all these places will be a young member of the household feather dusting what little that is available. We are starting to get desperate - we haven’t achieved our objectives, so it’s off to find the panaderia. One look through the door - no we can’t window shop, there are no windows - confirms that we’re back into dry white rusk country. True, there are a selection of shapes from one bit balls to fancy round rings, but it’s same ingredients in them all: super refined white flour, such that when you break one open they explode in a cloud of fine white dust. Useful as a substrate for dipping in dulce de leche, but so would cardboard or cottonwool. Sustenance rating: low.

Eventually we manage to put together the semblance of some road food; we’re near certain that there won’t be another re-supply tomorrow. It takes time, a lot of time to shop and this is a small town where all the shops are reasonably close together, even if it’s difficult to tell shop from a private home, and what exactly are they selling. The vet’s surgery in Dragones that sells bread, the farmacia in Mollinos that would sell you a bedside lamp.

The forager has developed a policy of trying to glean some information before entering: is it meat, vegetables or a chemists?  That way you can prepare an exit excuse for when what is on offer is so sub-par, you can leave the deserted place without offence. Asking for bananas in the fruiteria when you can see that there’s none, a tin of tuna - we can always use a spare one, or claim vegetarian status in the carniceria.



Bread - but not as we know it

Having achieved our objective, we can reward ourselves with a visit to the heladeria, the ice-cream shop. Every town has at least one, the problem is that the towns are at least 100kms apart.

We’re having a rest day in Embarcacion, an agricultural supply town on the main highway between Bolivia and Argentina. I’m using the foyer for the WiFi, the sports channel is on, but nobody is watching , but the ads. are informative. Images of organized, supermarket aisles, stacked with produce. One advert is for low cholesterol cheese, another for the seductive power of one bite pizza tartlets, neither, I can guarantee will ever be available in any of the Chaco towns.

Whilst the accommodation is very reasonable , a result of a strong exchange rate, we found the food expensive. If it’s like that for us, I find it difficult to understand how the locals afford it. Although the 20kg bags of flour and the vast bulk bags of pasta should give me the start of an answer.

Moments in Chaco Time: Plagues or Rabbles

The first indicators are the green mesh nets pinned to the front of the oncoming pick-ups and lorries. We’ve seen this before in northern Queensland: prelude to a swarm, a plague of locusts. Now comes a few vehicles with bug spattered windscreens, we suspect that they can’t be very far off. A few large, very large grasshoppers are crouched at the side of the road, possibly the scouts for an avenging foraging army? It’s only then that a few small butterflies start to drift in the wind, out from the bush alongside our road. What starts as a few, soon multiplies into thousands. Not a swarm or a plague but a rabble or a kaleidescope of butterflies. As the occasional passing truck ploughs through them, they are scattered in the swirling slipstream, many are left tattered and torn, in the wake of the behemoth , others end up in the radiator grille, like they are pinned in a lepidopterist’s display drawer. Slowly they drift to the side of the road like albinoed autumnal leaves. We encounter this same phenomenon on consecutive day, always around the same time, so I guess that it‘s a temperature dependent occurrence. As for the grasshoppers, they don‘t evolve from swarm to plague, neither do they hang around to be photographed, they can jump faster than my camera‘s top shutter rating, which is a pity as they have exquisitely patterned fishnet tights on their legs.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Moments in Chaco Time: Me and My Shadow

I think of him as masculine, inflated with ego, ecological superiority as he can annoyingly be. Yet gregarious, and genial company, never arguing or answering back. Early in the morning, he is an elongated stick-like mortal with piston like lower appendages, who’s glorying in the cool light breeze. Yet his nemesis is also his creator, which bifurcates his personality, forcing it into a symbiotic relationship, which out on these level lands, is repeated Ground Hog day after Ground Hog day. A rerun of the same scenario, reiterated as long as he and his omnipotent opponent Sol have has a visual on the land.

Our shadows shrink in inverse proportion to the thermometer’s expansion. Our shadows are laid out before us, two exaggerated leaders that merge and jumble only to be extricated, disentangled a few moments further down the road. Now as Sol climbs, near vertically into his climax, so our followers hide, taking refuge between our wheels, under the pedal cranks. Shrunken and shrivelled specimens of their morning selves. Yet Sol’s scrutiny wavers, as it does everyday, the celestials attention drawn to the western horizon where he’s required for a new noonday on his spiralling track along an invisible Capricornian line. So shadow, like a whipped cur, creeps back out from his imagined sanctuary, tail between his legs, beaten and frazzled by the infernal heat hammering down and the radiating glare pulsing in waves back out of the road.

Moments in Chaco time: Post Meridian Options



A thermograph taken thought the year shows a low daytime average of 17 degrees in September, rising to a peak in late November of 32 degrees. We’ve managed to arrive and to travel across the Chaco at it’s warmest time of year, an area that regularly records Argentina’s peak temperatures. The trouble with averages and statistics are that they don’t give a true picture. We would happily trade down to 32 degrees. Each afternoon we’ve had readings up to 45 degrees. An afternoon sitting in a mozzie burqa at El Espinilla means we’ve made a habit of searching out a fan or even an AC unit. At first we felt (actually the mean Chronicler felt) a tad guilty; an opt out from the proscribed, pre-scripted adventure, like searching out a shower every night. The thin edge of the wedge that leads eventually to credit card touring. So we take an hotel or a Hospedaje room; that turns out to be cheaper than any hostel, less than any European campsite. Heck, we’ve paid more for an hour of internet in an US hotel. We mollify our consciences by still setting up the petrol stove to brew up water for coffee and porridge. To be able to rest up in a refuge, away from the glare, blast furnace hot wind and the voracious mosquitoes has morphed from a luxury to a necessity.

The road atlas suggests that the town of Laguna Yema has population of up to 5000, which, from experience suggests that it could have some form of accommodation. The roadside petrol station certainly holds out no chance of a place to pitch a tent; there’s no showers, there’s no shade, there’s no safety rocks or bollards to protect you from any reversing lorries. So we ask after the possibility of accommodation and are pointed of to the side of the yard. A “gas station forecourt “ might suggest a paved area, some landscaped flower borders a degree of organization and order. Here it’s a reality of swirling dust devils and two foraging pigs, an vast expanse of baked earth and drifting sand. It’s siesta and the whole scene is one of desolation. What we’re directed to is a windowless, brick built, flat roofed concrete block house, the only ornamentation a row of six padlocked, ill fitting wooden doors. All rather unprepossessing; we aren’t terribly inspired, but “any port in a storm……” is still a port.

We rouse El Patron from his siesta and once he has hurriedly donned a shirt (when he realises that The Navigator is a feminine), he shows us one of his habitations. First glance shows a selection of three single beds, so its not one of those types of establishments. Second glance, and we realise that the place is immaculate and brand new, and phase two is partially under construction. This impression of constant destruction and construction is one that we see in all these towns on the trans Chaco. It’s to do with the heap of wind-blown sand that accumulates in every bielded corner, the piles of porous bricks left over and not cleared away from the last extension, that will inevitably be required for the next building project. The owner even offers us a separate room for our bikes and when we graciously refuse, insists in covering them in rugs.

Yet again we praise the God of Cyclists who seems to come to our rescue. It is also a timely reminder not to judge a book by its cover.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Moments in Chaco Time: Tanning and the Brickworks

Highway maintenance is partially underway, the potholes temporarily filled with clay. In the dry they are dusty, in the wet they instantly turn to a skid pan. I try to avoid a series of these by way of the hard, now very soft, shoulder. Mistake, a very big mistake, as I accumulate a ballast of gloop. The sun comes out and as everybody knew, it dries as quickly as it got wet. Which is what I tell my bike, the trick is knowing when to start cleaning. Too soon, and it smears every surface, working it’s way into the chain and the bearings, forming an efficient grinding paste; too late, and you might as well build a house with the bricks of baked clay that cling to the stays the frame and my panniers. Cars and the motos have the same problem: their solution is to run their wheels along the flooded gutters. Which has the interesting consequences of various transports competing for space, and my rear wheel covering The Navigator in a warm wash of tan enhancing fluids. A bad case of fake bake.

Moments in Chaco Time: The Tomorrow Storm

We’re under a rolling blanket of black and blue storm clouds, the humidity already at saturation point, then it intensifies still further. You can almost feel the static in the air. Strong, gusting wind blows up, opposing the easterly prevailing wind. Next comes a prelude of lightning, which is as good a signal as any, to stop and extricate the waterproofs, get the boots and socks off and into sandals. The first drops are big dollops of warm water, that spatter on the road, releasing pent up smells of baked earth, dry grass and old tea chests. It’s not long before the torrent hits and rivers are running down the side of the road. The motos are still on the road, moving more cautiously as visibility diminishes and rain cascades down their faces. For the Formosan is as rainwear averse as any Scottish fashionista. That or they’re into wet teeshirts and shrunk denim, certainly the poncho-less gaucho who rids past didn’t seem concerned. He knows, just as the motoistas do, that the sun will come out in a few hours and dry everything up again.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Moments in Chaco Time: Laguna Blanca

Collecting imaginative and near unique campings is rather easy these days. Commercial sites are a rarity, paying for the privilege uncommon. We’re in the National Park at Laguna Blanca. You could pay thousands to achieve this aspect in Bali or some Melanesian island. By walking down a wooden boardwalk, through the indigenous forest, amongst pond and wetland marginals, suddenly you come out onto a lagoon of mirror calm water. The boards take you out into this vast reflection of intense silver light. An area of water bordered by a low horizon, punctuated by a few date palms, held in place by a vast blue sky. It’s a picture that could come from any expensive southeastern or Conde Nast travel brochure. For this the park service charge 80 pence, ($AR 5) per person and then only on Sundays and holidays.



 
The following day we find ourselves on a Reserva at El Espiilla. This time the mosquitoes are waiting in ambush, encouraged by 41 degrees and a humidity that pomises a thunder storm tomorrow. The site is dry. A dry water play park, surrounded by date palms, royal palms and sawgrass. Initially it has the feel of a failed venture, somebody’s attempt at a tourist business. It turns that it is ourselves who have failed as tourists, by touring right out of season. The reserva comes to life, the water is pumped in, the thatch applied to the umbrellas in September.

Trans Chaco Ruta 81

As might be expected, the Australians have an acronym for it.  What, from the perspective of the steering wheel looks like “MAMBA“ or “miles and miles of bugger all”, can turn out to be something entirely different.  The stretch north of Mackie in Queensland, certainly received this appellation. The general advice to cyclists was to take the bus: you’ll only get bored. We didn’t on either score. The trans-Chaco has the same reputation and we got similar advice. Viewed through the limited scope of a windscreen I can understand why a degree of boredom might set in. Viewed from the perspective of a stubborn cyclists saddle, it is a slowly mutating, changing world.

In the east it starts the moment you roll off the bridge over the Rio Paraguay. Before that point, to the east, it’s been varying states of heavy sea swells; over the Rio and it’s into flat calm, the doldrums and the wet Chaco. It comes as a surprise after the exercising we’ve received since the Provincia de Corrientes, 1000kms of exercise, that, if we were to be honest, could at times become interminable. When the wheels felt like they were in treacle, and the odometer was on strike. Now suddenly we are sailing, bowling along. On a deserted road. I’ve not long re-read my entry for what we considered a quiet road in Uruguay. Now we will need to re-evaluate, recalibrate that equation. By the end of the Chaco, six lorries an hour constituted a normal day. There’s probably more traffic stuck on one mile of the M25 on a Monday morning than has passed us in the eight days it has taken to cover the 800+ kms of Ruta 81.

Yet this road is not about distance or miles in a day. It’s about watching the slow, almost imperceptible changes, that if you look at two different photos taken at either end, would depict two different and distinct vegetations. Yet for us it would be hard to pinpoint where the change happened.

To the east is wet Chaco, to the east is dry Chaco. Over all it is level, with a near imperceptible decline to the east, rising at 0.004% as we cycle west. I’d like to claim it was noticeable, but as each day warmed up, a blessed tailwind would develop, mitigating any perception of a hill. What that flatness does mean is you pedal crank every single kilometre, there’s no freewheeling, no easy breathers out here. That’s a Wiki simplistic overview. The journey as a whole, is made up of a series of chapters, small paragraph moments in time.

Monday, 6 December 2010

A Postscript to the War between Butt and Brooks

Asuncion has come and gone, some days the clouds and rainbows do the same. As with all perfomances, as with many battles, there is a climactic finale. The last 200 km Paraguay is over rolling countryside, the road at times moderately busy, but as there’s a wide hard shoulder, it is safe. In many ways it’s a perfect road for the legions of small motorbikes and the few cyclists. Or it would be if they hadn’t added a full width strip of tar, near pedal high every 25 metres. I’ve done the math and hung the road architect who sanctioned this crime. Approach berm, apply brakes, bump front wheel, bump back wheel, panniers clatter on their carriers, now start pedalling all over again. Repeat 8000 times.

Hanging is to good. Tarred and feathered would be appropriate and a good start. The saddle has been battered and pummeled into submission, which hurt to a degree, however it was the constant concentration that gave the real tension headaches, and didn’t allow much time to appreciate what all was going on around about.

Cataratas de Iguazu


When first Lady Eleanor Roosevelt first encountered the waterfalls at Iguazu, it’s claimed that she said “poor Niagara!”. Either that was a gut reaction, or she was a consummate diplomat and the perfect guest.


One for dreaming with
 How you measure and how you rank waterfalls: all the high-profile contenders can make a claim to superiority. Angel is the highest drop, Victoria the widest curtain, Niagara the greatest flow, Iguazu the best view; you get the point. What Iguazu does have is class, it’s a showoff, flaunting it’s displays to best effect. A performance in the round. The 275 waterfalls or saltos are arrayed all around you in a canyon over 700 metres in length. As you make your way along the boardwalks each new group of saltos are introduced to you, enticing you further in to the show. Ever pulling you to the crux, to the climactic end. These early players are curtain falls of beauty, but it’s when you eventualy reach right down into the Garganta del Diablo, down the Devil’s Throat, that the utter raw power of nature is exposed. 300,000 gallons every second cascades over the edge, falling into a maelstrom of chaos, tumult and turbulence.
As the visiting Kiwi observed “nice falls, but where’s the bungee jump?”. There isn’t one, but if you require a bit of adrenal junketing, you could join the small inflatable that’s crossing above the falls. They can’t actually see anything, it must all be in the mind and the maintenance of the outboard engine. Gravity has a tendency to be fairly predictable

Whilst the cataracts are the lead players, there‘s a supporting cast of actors. The cloud forest of air plants festooned along branches, bromeliads, ferns and orchids creating a forest on every tree. The swifts and swallows plunging into the clouds of spray, feeding on the invertebrates that get washed down river and out into the abyss. The spiralling vultures that are riding the updrafts like vortexes of litter. The plumes of vapour, squalls and showers that spiral out of the canyon, billowing high into the clear blue sky. The butterflies, each species segregated apart, feeding on mineral and salt deposits and at water puddles. They support the spectacle, but I wonder how many in the audience see them.

Spectators are part of the action
For myself, the spectators are all part of the action. Cameras are everywhere, everyone has one, it’s almost as if it’s a mandatory requirement to view the display in major part through either an eyepiece or by way of a screen. I‘m just as guilty. It‘s a Pavlovian response, new salto , must photograph. Take another, I‘ll not get back here ever again. Take a hundred, surely one will be good. I only need one. The light at the Gargantua del Diabolo , refracting off the tumult of broken water is so bright that even heavily stopped down photos are burnt out. At no point can a normal camera lens take in the whole view. That’s the beauty of the place, it’s best viewed in short extracts from low down. Those up in the helicopters, those on the whistle stop tour of the “seven new wonders of the world in seven days tour” only get the overview, the synopsis; we get the same , at no extra cost, from the diorama in the visitor centre. Down on the river level you get the detail and the nuances, so just put the camera away, just stop and look, just stare, just wonder at a truly awesome sight.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Jungle hangout……


This could be the quietest Latino weekend yet.  You have to understand that on Fridays, Argentines head to the river, to the coast, to the campo.  To light fires, cook beef, and party until Sunday evening.

We’ve decided to head for Saltos del Moncoa, a provincial park on the upper Rio Uruguay, an area of protected jungle forest.  This salto or waterfall is somewhat different in that it runs along the river longitudinally, rather than across it. You need to go by boat to view it, and unlike it’s transverse cousin, is best viewed when water levels are at medium flow.  Too great a flow and they become submerged.


Spookily quiet road to Saltos de Mocona

Up to 11 o’clock this morning you could have been forgiven for wondering why it was so green.  Off to the north, cloud is starting to amass, humidity is building, and we are reduced to pushing our steeds up a 1:4 hill, dripping sweat.  It takes the better part of two hours to cover a relatively short distance, yet not one car has passed.  It’s downright spooky. Still the clouds congregate, the atmosphere becoming heavy and oppressive. Something has to give; the question is when?

The when happens about five minutes after the tent is pitched, bags stashed in the vestibule and water on for a second breakfast.  It starts slowly, only a few large wet drops of rain.  The thunder starts to rumble far away, of to the north, the temperature drops and the wind picks up.  It’s coming.  Then it hits.  Now I know why the roadside ditches are so deep, why the Rio at 1000 kilometres from the sea, is still 1km across.  It’s a jungle, jungles are wet places.  What doesn’t figure in this equation from the university of the blindingly obvious: where does the cold, damp wind come from?

This being an Argentine campground, there’s banos, wood fired shower, a fire pit and a tin shelter over tables and chairs.  We might be damp, the RH might have gone beyond saturation, but we’re dry, we’re safe, and with front row seats for a grandstand viewing of a climactic theatrical.  Thunder rolls around the hills, the sky starts to break up, going from high level monochrome to a rolling, boiling maelstrom.  The clouds gyrating, spinning around us, all the varying levels moving at differing speeds, differing directions.  A tumbling, turbulent tumult.  Shafts of sunlight suddenly pierce through, lancing rods, stabbing the far hillside, only to be extinguished moments later as the next clatter of thunder unleashes the next downpour.  Lightning flashes, steam and mist rise out from the valley floor, cutting the tall trees into pale cardboard outlines.

Throughout all these atmospherically theatrics, the gregarious weaver birds: yaka-torries, carry on their noisy discussions, building their pendulous nests in a single date palm tree.

Then it goes quiet, the rain stops, the thunder stops, the wind stops, to leave only the slow drip of water from the gutterless roof onto the red wet pitted soil.  That and the incessant squabling of the nest builders.

It’s now Friday afternoon and we’re still the only people on the campground, on the only campground in the park.  The only road in or out is within audio distance, we haven’t heard a vehicle in the last three hours.  I’m starting to question if it really is a Friday, if this waterfall really exists or is all this beauty the
figment of somebody else’s imagination.  The truth lies somewhere in the latter.  These saltos are suffering from big brother syndrome.  The iconic touristic honey pot of Cataratas de Iguazu are not far up the road.

It’s now Friday evening, the generator is puttering somewhere of in the dark, the lights have come on. Three jungle fowl are fighting over a mate, still the nesters are squabbling, parades of moths start to congregate around the light bulbs, settling on our bags, shoulders, hands.  Still we’re the only people around.
Eight o’clock, full dark, no moon, still the only people around.  It’s going to be the quietest Friday evening yet, no dogs, no cockerels, no slamming doors.  That is until a pantheon of celestials take a hand.  They start with a light show.  Silent strobes of pale electric blue light etch out the silhouette of the forest, sudden profiles shuttering , flickering, too fast to identify.  Then the distant grumble of thunder catches up, rolling around the valleys, flowing over the vegetated mesas.  The coruscations come faster, the thunder thumps closer to their source.  The storm Gods: Thor and his mates up the ampage, and move overhead and settle down to hurling bolts of electricity across the sky.  A chaos of noise and flares.  Growing bored with their pyrotechnics, they decide to add a further percussion: a tympani of rain on the drumskin of the tent.  Now the lightning and the thunder come so fast, that it’s impossible to connect one flash to it’s crash.  A confusion of chaos, an anarchy of noise.  Slowly the clatter and the shambles settle down to one thunder flash tied to one thunder clap, that rolls like a drum roll, flowing out across the sky, seeming to wheel around and return.  The volume rising and falling, growing and diminishing, finally tapering away to black silence.

Now it’s the turn of the frogs and ciccadas to start their own symphony. The jungle by night is a noisy place.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Uninteresting fact: numero dos:…….

Why is corned beef called corned beef?

Since Anglo-Saxon times any grain, wheat, barley or oats, was known as corn. A salt crystal was of a similar size to these cereals and was used orignally in the preservation of meat, hence corned beef.

Mild observation: numero uno…..

Two ants walking towards each other on a 3mm wire, meet, exchange chemical vocabulary, and then pass each other.  They will inherit the world, post apocalypse.