Friday, 2 December 2011

Heads above the water

Well, hello there!  Been a long while - 6 months in fact - since the last post.  Despite good intentions, blogging from home hasn't happened.  But we're off again very soon, on 25th December, on another bicycle adventure, this time to the Deep South.  I'm not going to steal The Chronicler's material, so you will have to wait to hear about our plans.  No, this is a piece about what we've been up to since we spoke last - aside from working, that is.

Over the late summer and early winter of 2009-10, we had the troops in to completely remodel the little flat that is above ours in Haddington.  We've owned the wee place for 20 years, and had a long-term tenant in there for most of that time.  Since we bought it, we've had the dream of doing a remodel - as much as a creative exercise for ourselves as a moneymaking venture.  And we weren't quite clear as to the final purpose of the finished product; an interesting brief for our friend Sally Ruel, Architect.  Sally was great; as well as putting our dreams on paper (in the proper format), she was the buffer between us and the East Lothian Council Planning department.  I would not have been able to do that bit!  Seumas and his team did the clever (and heavy) bits, and created the canvas for the next bit...

After one regular tenancy, which went without a hitch, we felt that we would like to have the opportunity to use the space ourselves from time to time, so we did some research into holiday letting.  After a couple of false starts (one agency would not consider 'any property above commercial premises'), we spoke to Elizabeth from Welcome Cottages.  Elizabeth understood right away what the flat was about, and was very enthusiastic, reckoning we should get a good level of occupancy.  So, off we went, into full-on furnishing and detailing, and the property is now online and available for holidays.  For us, it was a pretty swift project - thinking, planning, researching and sourcing all take us forever, usually.  And we were determined not just to  dive into IKEA as the cheap and easy solution.  Between the beginning of September and 4th November, it has been a busy time.  The last major piece of the jigsaw finally went into place last night, with a rather splendid rug in the living area.  I can now have mine back for the living room downstairs!

You  can see the results of our project on Flickr, and the Welcome Cottages booking site.  We can take a few private bookings, so do contact us if you would like to use it.

Watch this space for more updates.

The Navigator

Monday, 30 May 2011

Running for Home

Our attack on the Paraguayan capital was a blast, a high octane dash, descending into a jolly joust with the city buses.  A trip that could have degenerated into a blood lust and the dubious sport of  'fox hunting  with hounds' was a day that developed more into a canter with  'horses running with the hounds'.  Our attack on the Argentine capital was a near identical episode; only there was one exception.  For the former there had been the requirement of a degree of navigational enquiry and some of our concentration had to be diverted to map perusal and road sign scrutiny, to negotiating left and right turn junctions.  The assault on BsAs was simple.  From Lujan, keep the rail tracks on your right; at General Rodrigues turn left.  Continue until you cross the third level crossing, then follow the railway all the way home.  What a relief to have a large scale, dependable map.  It simplifies the planning, give a degree of reassurance and security, leaving us free to concentrate on enjoying the challenge.

In the interests of investigative travel research, we had stopped at the station beside Lujan University, to check on the possibilities for railing the last stretch into town.  Cycles and trains are allowed to cohabit on the urban rail service, even when they are encumbered with an attachment of wheelbarrows and grass cutting strimmers, as we had witnessed on the coastal Mitre line.  Had there been a goods van on this train and not the Everest of ascending steps leading to the carriages' narrow doors, we would have taken our chances.  Deterred but not defeated we take to the road once again.

There's a fulfilling satisfaction about completing a tour that started at a back door and returns at the front.  In this instance we elected to call that front door our temporarily adopted flat in the northern suburbs of San Isidro.  Another item in the extended  Argentine family, it was my sister's late mother-in-law's flat, that has remained in the family.

The first and only piece of navigation arrives as the map predicted, heralded by the ubiquitous sentinel petrol station, and the usual confusion of dust, grit and broken tarmac.  Waves of macadam that have been squeezed, squashed into an interference, a disturbed sea of turbulence, over which we roll, whilst trying to work out which classification of junction we have found this time.  It looks like it could be a denuded, withered clover leaf.  Even now, after all the time that we've been here, we still can't work out the proper way to negotiate these areas of  'free for all'.  Rules of the road are sparse, adherence negligible.  On these occasions, in the midst of these intersections, a collective condition of amnesia  afflicts all the participants who are competing in this labyrinthine puzzle.  Dumbfounded as to our choice of line, as there's only one lane but two cars, going in opposite directions.  Do we go all  puritanical presbyterian, take on the superior airs of a virginal, verdant gringo, tut-tutting, or play the practical Latino game?  We go loco-local, and of course nobody bats a horn, nobody cares; we happily swerve around each other, and pass on our respective ways. 

Hitting the relax button, plotting our canny route, we're carried on a narrow, shoulderless, gunshot straight road that's an arterial lance into the northern heart of the city centre.  I know the vehicle in front is as likely to make an unsignalled swerve to left or right as we are to pulling out from behind a parked car.  We've both anticipated the manoeuvre, so there's no requirement for apoplectic gesticulations or raging horns.  I soon give up on using the rear view mirror, trusting implicitly in those around me, cycling in a bubble of confidence, that seems to be travelling faster and faster.  A helter-skelter that's verging on nirvana.  Bowling along at the same pace as the bus, number 26 never seems to leave our sights; we pass and re-pass it, always there, all the way into the delta town of Tigre.  Having  descended  from the odourless sterility of the de-oxygenated Andes, it comes as a pleasant surprise to realise that we're almost back at sea level in a place that carries the scent of its origins.  A port to service the labyrinthine mouth of the Rio Parana, a maw that feeds water traffic down an alimentary canal, deep into the guts, all the way to the heart of the continent.  The odor of decaying jungle and heavy, damp, rich air, mixes with the visual notes of date palms lining the avenues and the adverts for river boat tours.
Almost there.  Almost home.  Almost finished.  Avenidas Yrigoyen, Libertador, Peron,  Belgrano, Brown; we charge down the avenues of Argentine history and along a calendar of significant dates: 25 de Mayo, Centenario.  Then suddenly we are in familiar territory: an abrupt left over the final level crossing, and we are turning into Martin y Omar.  Back at our front door.  Doped on adrenaline, medicated with endorphins, we're perched on a high, buzzing on a physic of self-congratulatory satisfaction as we ride down the ramp into the nether regions of the underground car park of the tower block.  Moving out from the white light of uninhibited, peripatetic travel, and into the dark side of organised establishmentarianism, which is an synonym for bag packing, airport shuttles and a decent Scrabble score.  But at this precise moment we're not looking forward to a future, just glorying in a climactic conclusion to our trip.  A finale that we'd thought achieved back in Ameghino, anticipating an anticlimax, a petering out, and a gentle wind down.  We shouldn't have been so pessimistic.  The whole journey has been one of crescendos, so why not the finish? 

Monday, 23 May 2011

Lujan, Bus City

They come in many forms.  From sleek, polished chrome, tint glazed racehorses, and the scholastic's faded orange workhorses to  the chain smoking, perpetually, terminally deceased deadhorses.  From double-decker semi-cama coaches flaunting  arachnoid mirrors, and double doored school buses, polished with a patina of vocation, to the double-troubled charabancs in a patch up of repairs.  Buses, buses and yet more buses.

Memories of Lujan are twofold: one is the end of the Pampa and the start of a two hundred kilometre conurbation, the Federal Capital's outer skirt, the other is of buses.  They and the collectivos, the mini-buses for the less than mini-visitor, were everywhere, all streaming in and out, running the autopistas, queuing up along Avenida.  At the terminus they are parked ten deep, countless long in a dry sandy yard, engines rumbling, mixing up an opaque haze of fumes and dust, through which an indomitable sun is diluted down to an innocuous, benign vapour.  The diversity of public transport might be wide and plural, but the 'raison d'etre' is singular: Religion, and the veneration of a nation's patron saint.

The early settlers were moving west, moving away from the coast and out on to the Pampa, when they encountered the innocent obstacle of the Rio Lujan.  On attempting a crossing, the first cart foundered and was lost, the second fared little better.  So being a pious people they mounted their religous reliquary, particularly a statue of the Virgin, on the third cart.  This one managed to cross unscathed, and by the expedient of passing the statue back and forward, subsequent transports all attained the far bank in safety. That's one credit, one creation myth; another tells of a  Portuguese setler in Tucuman, who in 1630, ordered an image of Mary the Virgen.  Unsure of the style required, the carvers sent two renditions.  The wagon bogged out on the banks of the Rio Lujan, and only managed a safe crossing when one of the statues was removed.  Kind of obvious, standard practice in such circumstances.  Foundered?  Then lighten the load, empty the cart.  The haulers then decided to jettison one of the figurines, possibly intending to return for it later and carried on their way west.  This marvel was credited as miraculous.  A prodigy that has grown into the city of Lujan.  Of the two competing contentions, I prefer the first, but the ring of truth hangs around the second.  Since then the Virgen de Lujan has been credited, attributed with curing ailments and eliminating epidemics, sending fogs to protect settlers from indios attacks, and promoted to the status of the nation's patron saint.  Over five million  pilgrims will visit the Basilica and the Icon each year.  Hence the buses.

The closer we get to the capital, the busier the roads become, and conversely, our choice of quiet side routes diminishes.  In Cordoba province and the west of Provincia de BsAs, we managed to patch together a series of less than linear routes that's kept us on asphalt, but deep in cereal and beef country, keeping clear of the dreaded 'all roads lead to Rome', lead to town scenario.  Eventually our choices are being whittled away, narrowed down to three major highways; it's these or the purgatory of earth roads.  They, depending upon the weather can vary from 'stuck in the mud' to a 'flounder in the dust'.  Neither is pleasant, and there doesn't seem to be any half way point, going from a glutinous glaur to a smothering smog, in one short desiccating wind storm.  Now add in the grain harvest of haulage and combines, and there's every reason for avoiding them.  However, we have devised a cunning plan.

If we can avoid the main roads until Sunday morning, we would  have a window of opportunity, a five hour slot to cover 50kms of  potentially busy road.  If we can get to Lujan before the basilica empties out, before the heavy transports start their week, before the city evacuates to the balneario, we could then reach a selection of city streets that offer a choice that's greater than one, the one Ruta Nacional 7.

Fast forward to midday.  Up to a point the plan has worked.  There's been no harvest traffic, no heavy haulage, but that has been amply replaced by the horse box going to the races, the family to the relatives, the collectivos to the church.  With the latter, I'd made the erroneous, Protestant assumption that there would only be one Sunday morning service, and not the Catholic procession of masses.  It's hard work, watching to the rear, waiting for the next truck that's unable to ease over, away from us, because he too is being over taken. Watching to the front, waiting for the next overpowered Euro import to pull onto our side of the road, flashing head lights, forcing us onto the verge, and into a soft tangle of grass that absorbs all our momentum instantly.  We grumble and mump for a bit, until our efforts are thanked by  passing milk tankers and petrol lorries; at least someone appreciates that we've made an effort to share the road.  Thanks comes in  another form when a laden cattle float passes.  It's carting Hereford cows, whose anatomy combined with the height of the deck offer the perfect platfom and opportunity for spraying me with a trajectory of  by-products.  In many ways, we are only reacting to the fact that one: I now smell bovinelly fragrant, and two: we've been on empty, deserted roads for such a long time.  It takes time to adjust back into city cycling.

When a commercial campground appears on the outskirts of Lujan, and we're encouraged by the presence of a 'whipper in', an aging gent with a flicking rag, flagging down potential customers.  We pull in.  It's either proximity to the capital or the influence of religous iconography, but the charge is double what has, up to now been standard.  Maybe I'm being punished for a percieved degree of profanity; that, or there's a 'devotional duty', or a 'secularist's surcharge'.  Further chastisement comes when we make the mistake of payment  before inspection.  You might have expected that after six months of experience, we might have learned.  In our defence, I would like to explain that the site we saw from the road, the one with grass and water in the pool, was not the site we now found ourselves in.  For that less than 'free-will offering' you might expect the sanitarios to be clean.  It's what you alway think, or at least hope, half knowing that the opposite will prevail. The toilet; singular, the rest are blocked or flooding, would cause a petri dish to salivate at the prospect of reproductive super abundance, go forth and multiply.  The shower is......well cold.  Which, I suppose, helps to reduce the favourable conditions that would encourage and enhance the breeding grounds of bacilli and other micro-organisms.  I'm quite happy to do 'cold', as cold is a relative term anyway when the ambient daytime temperature hasn't dropped below the high 20s.  What comes out the tap is generally in the range of  lukewarm to comfortable.  But we've just been divested of more than the cost of a room up on the Chaco.  Location, location, location.  The rule is simple, or so it might seem.  The closer your accommodation business is to a honey pot, the more you can charge and the less you need offer.  The higher the price, the lower the service.  What makes our situation so pertinent, the circumstances so stark, is that the previous two nights we were out in a real world, pitched with the fishermen and the plantsmen of the cereal towns.  On both occasions the facilities were spotless, the pool filled, and the grass abundantly green.

Yet my whinge has less to do with a 'value for money' and more to do with the fact that the major part of our journey is over.  Travels have a natural life expectancy, and ours is, slowly, naturally dying, finally losing its direction back in Ameghino with the estancia visit.  The emotional and cerebral aspects are over, leaving just the physical and the symmetrical.  We left the capital on bicycles and we want to arrive back in a similar fashion.  It's the neatness, the completeness, the closing of the circle.  The final challenge.   
Set up home under some deep shade thrown by a cedar tree, beside a bridge that once carried the main road out from the capital and still transports the populace and the pilgrims into the town.  A bridge with a blistered expansion joint that must make it one of the noisiest in the land, as horse carts saddled with tin, cattle floats loaded with cows and empty lorries hauling nothing but noise, clattering and banging their way across, all through the day and all through the night.  Yet for every third vehicle that crosses, one will be a bus, and four have pulled into the camp ground.  It's now that I understand the meaning of the entrance hoarding, an advertisement of "parilla, pileta, eventos, camping, abierto", steak house, empty pool, room hire, day-camp, open.  We've chosen to lodge on an expensive picnic site, one that caters for  those who have attended mass at the Basilica.  A packed lunch at the concrete tables, a siesta under a tree and a queue for the toilet,  all before they make the  long journey home.  For us it's an un-Argentine scene, yet, on reflection, explainable.  They're sitting down to a home-prepared repast of crustless sandwich migas, mixte ensaladas and sugar infused postres, washed down with bottles of diluted Tang.  There's no fire to tend, no to beef sear on the asado, ergo no meaningful place for the male.  It's a world of women and children, all in their Sunday best of headscarves, long frocks and white shirts. Yet another, differing Argentine experience.

Later in the afternoon, as the crowds and the heat start to disperse, we too cross the rio, and head to the Basilica.  The low evening light accentuates the colours of the newly cleaned limestone edifice, taking up the glow of the setting sun.  Etching out with deep shadow the details in the carvings, the intricacies of the rose window, the particulars of the greater-than-life sized saints and the crouching, bedevilled gargoyles.  It's a magnificent building, easily the most impressive that we've seen on these travels.  Yet - there's always a 'yet' in Argentina - the boulevard that streches out before the basilica is polluted by parked cars, concert stages and a line of lighting standards that ruin what should be a classic structural view.  One that could stand alongside others of their ilk, like the Taj Mahal, the White House or Trafalgar Square on a pigeon-free day. The plaza is proportioned, a balance of early 20th century cloistered arches  partially concealing the  vendors' barrows of ecclesiastical wares.  Key fobs and fridge magnets, rosary beads and pendant crucifixes.  Flutters of red ribbons, like the flags that adorn every roadside shrine, these ones for hitching to rear-view mirrors and tow hooks.

We move further into the square, away from the miasma of swirling dust from the bus park and the near constant stream of slow moving penitential cars, their captivated occupants held until they either escape the confused confines of the city or find a vacant parking spot.  Moving into a pedestrian world, where picnicking family groups are scattered across the grass, sprawled around the redundant artillery pieces of the Malvinas memorial park, on to an esplanade of cobbles and crowd control barriers, of choripan fast-food and horoscopic vendors.  Mercantile mongers and holymongers are lined out, a cordon of booths, a torc of guilt, through which you are seived, through which you need to break if you are to attain redemption and the steps of the Basilica.  We stand to watch and gaze skywards at the twin spires imposing on the crowds below, on the square and its surround of coffee shops, hotels and resto bars, the pavement tables shrouded by awnings of uniform maroon, their business titles in a standardised script.  But, like the 'yet', there's always one exception, and it's always the same one.  Who carries more clout?  The Church, the State or the soda monolith Coca Cola?

Whilst the building is the focal point, a testament to the wealth of donations, it's the people that are the fascination.  I look to my left and there's a father intimately photographing his wife whilst she breastfeeds their child.  To my right a teenaged daughter is directing her mother on how to photograph her glamour style, posing, pouting and posturing with  religosity for a backcloth. dBehind me are queues rescripting the scriptures, waiting at the water fountains to fill the newly consumed wine and caffeine infused fizzy  pop bottles; converting wine into Water.  I'm approached by a leather-clad biker, who's off  to ride south, down to Tierra del Fuego and has stopped to get a blessing on his trip.  He encourages us to the same.  Holy Water, Holy Milk, Wholly Vogue and Wholly Different.  For one who was raised on the reticent wing of an inhibited, undemonstrative  Kirk o' Scotland, this feels like a challenging disrespect to place, a sacrilege of faith, a profanity of belief.  Yet it is we who are riding through someone else's normality.  Too often we move through a place like a skimming stone, stotting across the surface of a town, causing minor ripples, a mild interference, that spreads out only to fade away just as quickly.  Touching, then glancing off, only to bounce once more, but never penetrating below the skin, as we visit the bread shop and the fruit stall, the supermarket and the gas station.  Places that had a history yesterday, and will have a future tomorrow, neither of which we know or will see.  We are continually riding through in someone else's present tense.           
I want to see more, but not through the shroud of mammon that encircles and smothers this structure.  We resolve to come back in the quiet of the next morning.

Again the light is low, but now the air is clear and cool.  A heavy dampness has settled across the grassy areas, a sheen of glazed silver that can't hide the detritus of picnic.  The contents stripped and consumed, the foragers and devourers departed, the wrappings now sweepings of wind waste.  A bent man with a switch of twigs laboriously sweeps the barren acreage of cobbles, gathering piles of ketchup spattered napkins and  scripts of  votive prayers.  The early vendor carts have already pulled into place and are setting out their wares.  The first visitors - their demeanor and timing says north European - are inspecting the brass reliquary, the saintly key fobs and the 'bless me papa' hats.

Discordant notes abound.  Any public works, be they road asphalting, school construction or as in this case, stone cleaning, requires an obligatory  bragging board.  Its colour and message must be mandated in the constitution, so ubiquitous, consistent and pervasive that they are.  All the effort will be credited to one person, to the office of La Presidencia, such an industrious lady; how she manages it all, I don't know. Coloured a patriotic blue and white, they're never smaller than motorway hoarding, and  this one occupies the most prominent of positions, just where it can impose a less than subliminal message on every photograph taken of the Basilica.  It is an election year, after all.

Not bred to, or nurtured by this faith, it would be easy and cheap to stand on the outside, to be voyeuristic, to mock and ridicule what appears to be a cult founded on a superstition.  But I only have to look at my wrist to see the copper and leather band that's become a talisman for travelling, a fetish that so disturbed me when I thought it lost.  Or The Navigator's 'Koru' pendant, her own bone carving of a Maori design, deemed by orthodox faiths to be pagan, one that symbolises 'new beginnings', to realise that it might be wise to remove the skelf from my own eye before deriding another's faith.  Charms and amulets, vanities and superstitions to set alongside our much quoted, much thanked 'god of cyclists', who has come to our assistance on so many occassions.  Is it luck, providence or a guiding hand?  Today I'm not prepared to question.  We might, if our planned route into the capital fails to deliver, have to resort to those buses, or the aid of our cycling deity.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Instant Autumn

The weather señor had spoken: he'd predicted the change and he'd given us our hosing of rain, our blast of wind, and our school house camping.  In a two day period, temperatures have fallen from an afternoon high of 42°C to a new high that comes in at a sub 20°C, from a humidity and an armour of salt encrusted constraints, to multiple layers that starts with a base of woollen undies.  Night times have moved from sleeping in the scud and a sticky sweaty pool, to a wrap around of duvet and heavy wet morning dews.  It seems to be a newsworthy item as the prophetically named 'Chronic TV', has despatched a roving cameraman to wander the capital's pavments, recording people wearing coats, scarves and gloves.  The school run is in full flow, with four to a moto or two to a cycle, and all will have their hands thrust deep into pockets, circus skills that have amused and entertained us on many occasions.
Just as suddenly we are back to being the sole denizens of the mid-week municipal campgrounds and gas station rest areas.  It's part seasonal, part calendar, part geography.  We've headed away from the touristic sierras, away from the Germanically themed towns of gothic script and wooden stieners, transplanted into school time and on to the flat of the Pampa.  A place where corn and soya, beef and politics play a greater role than divesting the travellers of their pesos.  Which for ourselves translates as a return to reasonable accommodation charges and the encouraging responses of the passing grain trucks.  A return to an honesty of real working towns and the advent of mists and mellow fruitfulness, or at least the itchy dust from combines and the dull drone of grain dryers.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Heading for an Estancia.

We're off to put some faces to names, names that I've heard bandied around for a good number of years by my sister and her family. Names that are always associated with the comments "if you get to Argentina, you'll have to visit Peter and Joyce, they've got an estancia just outside Ameghino".

The initial contact starts the previous week, whilst we're still in the southern Sierras, near to Cordoba. Maybe the term 'near to', like its close associates 'close by' and 'it's not far away', need an explanation. In a country that's five times the size of France, proximities are relative. In this instance the nearness is five riding days away. So if one is going to visit people you've never met before, people who might also, like us, have a vague recollection as to who we are, it's only courtesy to give an aproximate time of arrival. So we try to plan ahead, counting distance from the atlas. Getting a score in leagues that could be a week's cycling away. Now add in the gremlins of wind, sun and cartographical nuances, it could be anything from four to eight days. Which in the lexicon of proximities makes Ameghino 'just down the road'
Flat country cycling can be heaven or hell. It all depends on the wind, and they get wind here. Days one and two, we score a nice tidy metric century, day three is short, er, curtailed by the appearance of an hotel with a chiller and a fan. The next day's ride is a blast, both of wind and heat, getting close to an imperial cetury. We could be at the estancia before the weekend. Only a roadside sign appears, suggesting that a further day's riding has miraculously been added to our journey. On the long, unscripted trip, such foibles are insignificant, but when trying not to offend potential hosts, it can be frustrating. So maybe tommorow we can lay down another big day, to try to win back a peace of stolen schedule.

Nature and the 'trixter gods' abhor a vacuum; they require a balance. We've had our day of high speed, high odometer counts; now comes the balance. It's a day of two light shows. Starting with a storm of lightning that heralds a much needed day of rain, and as it transpires the onset of autumn. It's a day that, had we not been on a timetable, we might have sat out in the dry of some comfortable accommodation. It's still raining, and the television in the hotel breakfast room is forecasting a lot more. Disconcertingly, even inappropriately, insensitively they show a picture of a spattered puddle right after live coverage of the tsunami pulverising the Japanese coastline.
Rufino on a wet Saturday morning is deserted, lakes of rain-wash flood across all the junctions, rivers flow from out of side streets. We're trying to follow the signs to the town's by-pass. Only we keep encountering soft soil roads. Instant clogged mudguards. It's a town that requires the luck and the skill to roll a 'double six' on demand, to escape it soggy confines.

Eventually we abscond and find another quiet road, quiet because it's not heading for the Capital Federal, quiet because it's not beach weather. A thick mist has strarted to clag down, one that smothers out all definition and scale from the landscape. The soft amorphous islands of shelter belts and the silent wind mills are the only silhouettes to break the the low, dank skyline. We're being gathered into a monochromatic world of wet grey, out of which the occasional car or grain truck will sudenly appear with their swirling clouds of spray. Visibility is reducing at much the same rate as the wind is increasing. Our steady progress gets slower and slower, our destination a near constant mirage away over the horizon. Nature is back to teaching us a lesson; that it can give out and take back blessings in eaqual measure. No Ameghino today.

We've sat through this class before, compared and contrasted the message and the conclusion: there's no point in challenging 'la profesora', she will only award a 'C-' out of wilfull cussedness. Time to give in, and find a place to sit out the storm.

It's almost as if, having accepted the inevitable, been humbled into humility, our 'god of cyclists' rewards our sublimination. I'm reduced to walking pace, peering through an opaque of spattered spectacles to front and rear, distortions and anticipations of the next apparition to loom out of the gloom, negotiating a wobbly passage along the white line. Hoping for a sheltering refuge. A bus stop would be a less than perfect start or even a drainage tunnel, yet both are in short supply; those that do surface are either urine or rain infused. There's a vague outline of trees up ahead, a potential source of shelter. On the other hand it could be a clump of eucalyptus that are now shedding bark, branches and 'widow maker' limbs. Those trees remain as obscure fantasies, remaining a constant distance out in front. Like the fabled pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, it seems we are destined never to meet, if only because there's barely enouigh light to build a rainbow.

Slowly some particulars are added to the washed out cardboard cutout, the details are filled in. First the long, tall trunks, next the thrashing branches. Then, dispiritingly, a definition of geometric and angular outlines, the profile of a house. We still find it difficult to ask for shelter in someone's front garden; silly, but we both treasure our sense of independence, the self deluding idea of self reliance. Closer still, and disappointment turns to hope: 'Escuela #21', a rural school standing aloof in an anonymous gray world. I know an oasis when I see one, and there's no way we're passing up on this one. It's Saturday: so no classes, no teacher, nobody to ask permission from.  However, it's not going to stop us, and anyway it's a chance to add another tick to the list of differing 'camped spots'. This register of possibilities includes: under the arches, in the wine storage room, on the gas station forecourt. Still missing from the catalogue might be a night in a police dungeon or monastery cell. We hunker down in the lee of the store room, and brew a celebratory coffee. Yet another refuge in a storm, another 'thank you' at the shrine for cycling saints. Sit and watch the tall gum trees being tossed and turned by the storm, long tatters of bark come clattering over the tin roof, twigs and leaves are shot across the grass. I think that we are out of range of any falling limbs or even trees.
Its a 'quid pro quo', pay back for the temerity of attempting an imperial century and the hubris of beliving we could cheat our way into stealing a day back from the calendar, and our supposed schedule. Lesson learned.

Then as the sun sets, shafts of warm light creep in under the retreating, depleted storm clouds. Now we can be entertained by the antithesis of this morning's pre-dawn light show. We also get a visit from the local constabulary. Once again, this land might look and feel empty and deserted but for the rolling expanse of cereal cropping, but somebody has noted our presence. Documents and pleasantries exchanged, the sergeant suggests that we pitch our tent in the teacher's car port, the unspoken supposition being that all tents leak. In the circumstances, probably a more congenial option than the local town's lock-up and it's also a neat way of gaining a permission.
If yesterday was about one extreme, about dreich, washed out land forms, about the dull roar of wind and rain, about the menacing threat from falling limbs, then today is about a new extreme: bright, dry and the novelty of cold. Similar to the vocabulary of proximities, this chill is relative, as any teenaged temperature here requires a clothing of furs and woollens. We're riding the same road in a different world. Shifting from summer to autumn, moving from a humid tent to an estancia bed.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

We of the Saddle and the Gutter

The city might be heading home, the long weekend crawling to a conclusion. The opiate dispenser, the television, scowling down on an empty room from it's perch high up on the wall, is chuntering away to itself. The pictures are of grid-locked freeways and autovias, the scrolling script claims 1700 cars an hour are not moving along Ruta 2. However our near-eternal weekend still has a few days to run, so we scout out a series of roads that are not part of the 'all roads leading to paralysis, immobility and Rome' senario. Sticking to the provincial routes that start to pass through, to link together a train of serial towns. Tancachal, Pamayasta, General Fotheringham, Hernando, Dalmacio Valez Sarsfield, Pasco, La Laguna, Idiazabal, Justiniano Posse. A history of Indios and immigration.

For we are back down on the flat lands. Where the upper deck of a long haul coach offers a degree of elevation , perspective and superiority, we of the saddle and the gutter must content ourselves with a vast panoply of sky and some immediate fields of cereals. And if the corn is near to harvest, then that immediate world becomes even more claustrophobic, more closed in. Our views refined to a dome of blue, a hem of yellow and a verge of green. On other occasions the road climbs up on a berm, just a few metres of rise, enough to clear the high water table, enough to let us see the size and extent of the estancia holdings, the small ponds and lagunas that dot and water the area. These now explain the long skiens of cormorants that arrowed, low, crossing before us at sunrise this morning. A bird that in Scottish terms, is a solitary hunter, roosting and wing drying in small sociable groups, yet here it's odd to see them behaving like migratory geese.

It's a landscape that has the potential for boredom; however the towns come at regular intervals, each has its common connection, it's tie to it's neigbour, it's origional progenitor: the railway line. You can follow the direction of it's development one hundred years ago, as each place advertises it's centennial celebrations. The shame is that the line now sits rusting, lost in weeds and disuse.

Each town is stapled by the candy pole tower of dishes and antennae, steepled by a lattice of elevators, staked out with nests of silos and clutches of corrugated bins. The mecanicals display their alegencies to their chosen brand of tractor, the reds, blues and greens alined up beside an array of contraptions and contrivances, many of which are new to me, yet are familiar, or are at least fathomable. A digger for peanut harvest, a high lift trailer for wagon loading, a device for filling 'silo bolsas',long white worms of grain filled plastic bags, that grace the edges of fields, close to our road. Adding to these emporiums of steel and grease, are the citadels of the banks, still the best renovated edifaces in town, and the glass and crome assemblages of the fertiliser, seed and agrochem merchants. Add in the other aspects of a down stream agricultural support industry, the pick-up salesman, the veterinary's clinic, the gomerias of tyre fitters and repairs, and you arrive at a solid, unpretentious cereal town.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The Noise Gets Louder as the Conurbation Gets Closer.

Our attempt to find a quiet retreat in the Parque Nacional Los Condoritos was partially successful. We departed on the Sunday morning with the intention of heading down to Mina Clavero to find an eccentric museum and a maze. However, just a few kilometres was enough to convince us that today was the wrong day to be heading that way. Maybe there's been an evacuation order in Cordoba, for everybody and his mother seems to be heading out and over our road.

This is probably no exaggeration. More cars will have pased in one four-kilometre spell on the Rutas Altas Cumbres than passed us in the first four weeks in Uruguay last October. If the government's populist creation of two new holidays was to bolster the rural economy through increased travel, then today's evidence suggests a sucess. Poeple most certainly are travelling and spending. Spending time queueing at the gas station, for today the attendant has a fabulous opportunity to create a queue, a cortege of cars that circumnavigates the block.

We opt to turn east and head back down, what we climbed two days ago. Fortunately everybody seems to be of a different mind and going the other way. They attack us in plugs, convultions of cars, like a grand prix, each jockeying for position, hunting the opportunity or the weakness of the man in front. Each driver convinced of the utter imperative for overtaking the vehicle in front. A race to reach the next paroxysm, the next procession up in front. A blue sign appears: 'transite lente' or slow lane, or as I soon christen them: 'the wimps and wimmins way'. This is machismo land, so there's none of the former and the latter don't or can't drive. Or so it would appear. I offer The Navigator very favourable odds if she can spot a lady driver and I even treble the stake if she can see a male in the front passenger seat. I know that my money is safe. So the crawler lane remains vacant, which still leaves the problem of the overtake. A Fiat 600, with propped-open engine compartment, is boiling and grumbling it's way uphill. Its blockage is a constipation of twenty-three autos. He's obviously male, so he's damned if he's going to lose face and move over; that's for the wuss and the weak. So the tailgate of Germanic marques cross what I take to be 'advisory only' double yellow line and head directly towards us. Interesting, if a tad intimidating. It's also the first time on this trip that I've felt the need to express my mild displeasure with two fingers.

All of which can't take away from the exhilaration of a 40km freewheel on a gradient that requires no braking, leaving gravity to exert its pull and nature to provide the scenery. The pleasure of the condor spotting amongst the high country of tussock, rock and the forests of feather dusters in the plumes of flowering Pampas grasses. Lower down the low country that's turning to autumn, the pyracanthas festooned in red and orange berries, the bean tree pods senescing to yellow and winter.

So a holiday weekend and the pressure of traffic has forced us into doing, what we probably should have accomplished voluntarily. That is, to start heading for home.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Same Road - Two Seasons, Two Worlds

If ever their was evidence of the efficacy of retreating or repeating a route, then our two journeys over the Cuesta de Miranda must be given as proof positive.

It’s early December, and we had left Chiliceto in the dry and the hot, climbed up a green verdant Miranda valley with the novelty of a running river, cactus flowering, to a pass that led us down into red rock country and a series of stupid errors. We had pushed on past several possible camping places and water supplies, down to a nor’wester gale that desiccated mind and body, rendering us insensible to rational decisions. We then attempted to sit out the heat and the windstorm in a dry gully under the road. But the furnace would not switch off. We fought and suffered our way to town, arriving in the dark, to the crowds of post siesta activity, and a guzzling of soda water in the local petrol station.

Few memories remain of that afternoon. One is the lack of any detail, a vague recollection of the low dry, grey shrubbery, the bare verges, the sluggish passage of the telegraph poles, all tainted by an overwhelming thirst for sustenance from our empty water bottles. The other is of the clash of indecision. To keep plugging away, or to forsake a drafting leader and stop to take a look behind me. The latter won out, more because I had fallen behind and I couldn’t be bothered fighting my way back onto that rear wheel. My reward was a momentary sunset reflecting of the five lenticular clouds that had been in permanent station over Cerro Famatina all day. It only takes one of these precious moments to make up for an afternoon of hair dyers and wind tunnels.

Now it’s February, it’s the same route, in reverse, the season likewise. The road is a sheen of water, the shoulders flourishing seeding grasses, flowering thorn and mushrooming fungi. Our mountain is lost somewhere, even the metronomic poles are faint intrusions on this our world.

There’s a persistent drizzle that evolves into mountain rain. Nobody has passed us since we dodged the un-manned police cones back at the road junction. Now we’re wondering if the route is actually open. Then this type of reasoning starts, doubts and indecision multiply. Do we return and seek advice? An alternative way is possible, but we rode it the other day and we know that it’s lacking in supplies. Offering three days of wind driven soakings, damp tent and tuna pasta. Then a pick-up rushes past; it doesn’t stop to question our decision to be heading this way. Is that a positive sign? Still we resolve to flag down the next descending car.

Eventually a heavily leaden, rusting Ford Falcon comes freewheeling towards us, “is the cuesta open?” we ask. Instead of a straightforward ‘yes or no’, we get a prevarication on the merits of cycling on wet ripio. Not what we asked. We push on and stop the next vehicle. “yes the way was open this morning”. It’s that cyclists’ dilemma: sorting fact from opinion.

In spite of the weather, our progress is three times faster than our dry season crossing, we have the advantage of knowledge, we know that just around the corner there’s an hostel with a comedor. Dry room and hot food. It just doesn’t matter how wet we get, we won’t have to retreat to a mud patch and a damp tent.

Señor does have a room, only he’s concerned: there’s a few drips coming in, maybe we should come in and see. Of course we take the room; we’re getting used to dripping ceilings, streaming walls and negotiating our way in the dark around strategically placed, halved soda bottles. ‘Hot food?’, we’d better go and ask mother. Yes, she can cook something for us. Her Spanish is fast and we catch that it might contain garlic, but it doesn’t matter: it’s all ’gasolina para cyclistas’. I love these places, where a menu is a foreigner concept and vegetarianism a peculiar aberration. The bread will be butterless and dry, the meat leftovers from last night’s parrilla. But it will always taste great. Anything cooked for you on, as wet a day as today, is going to taste great, even if the cholesterol score goes catatonic and reaches 'mucho extremo'.

We spend that afternoon drying out, what with hindsight we shouldn’t have washed the previous day. We’re still drying several days later, as humidity climbs with this aberration of inclement weather. We keep asking, 'is this rain normal?', and we get the same answer: an emphatic "no", that comes with that characteristic flick of the wrist. Will the road be open tomorrow? That comes with a shrug, ‘The Lord knows’, It’s the answer that we were expecting, as the rain outside intensifies and the tortured drips plopping into the cropped green bottle steadily increase.

Next morning, the red sandstone cliffs are ribboned in dark gory streaks, a glutinous bloody clotted river has hacked deep gutters across the road. A turbulence of washed out, water worn boulders are discarded, scattered high and wet, littering our path, around which we negotiate a soft, slithering, sucking route. The blanched white granite, against the lead red earth, are a detritus of discordant, atonal notes, sitting uneasily together. One, rotunds of impregnably solid rock, the other, a soft momentary mush. An incongruous conjunction of metamorphic and sedimentary, an inconsistent dichotomy of durable and transient. It’s as if a giant has emptied his pocket of crumbs and boules on the way home from the pub last night.

We climb higher through the cactus belt, around the cliff discards and over the incised ruts. The very occasional approaching car gives us a degree of hope and reassurance: we should now manage to avoid what would be a disagreeable, multi-day detour.

Evidence of just how close we came to being
stranded or forced into a retreat comes on the final corner, right before we breakout from the gorge, out into a wide strath of an open plain. The road has just been cleared, a mass of giant rock slabs and a slurry of silted soil, has been dozed over the embankment. The contorted, twisted remains of a crash barrier, a mash of steel, lies part buried, a vivid testament to the violence and potency of gravity and nature. Fantails of debris are still slithering down gullies and rivulets of turbid mud ooze along the ditches beside the road.

How different from the innocence and indifference of our earlier passage over this side of the mountain. One road, many moods.

Sobering Postscript: A family of five were crushed in their car by a falling boulder in Chiliceto. We passed that way earlier the same day.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

So What Have You Given Up For Lent?

Much more our style.
Where better than the old road?

It’s a long weekend, a holiday weekend, which for us translates as: avoid all campgrounds with access to musical amplification.  The term 'musical' is used in it’s loosest sense, and will range from the cacophonous to the harmonious, the discordant to the damnable.  The scale might be large, but the volume will be constant: constantly loud.  Two new days of holiday have been created by the government; to encourage the populace to travel, thus stimulating the economy.  And, yes, there is a general election this year.  It’s the start of Lent, and so it’s carnival.  Nobody seems to need any excuse for a  party, but any inducement will not be missed.  Frankly, we are only now, this being a Friday, catching up on sleep after last weekend in Cruz del Eje.  Pitching beside the public parillas was not one of my better decisions, but at four in the afternoon it was the most shaded spot.  Neither had I noted the seven foot high juke box; a wonder of modern retro, all metallic chrome and neon lights, that, when fed a few pesos, resurrected some Nana Mouskouri and Demis Rousoss wanna-bes. 

So this weekend we’ve headed west.  Headed left and away from our stated intentions of trying to head towards the conurbation on the Atlantic coast. We’ve headed up a hill of elongated hairpin bends, to Parque Nacional Los Condoritos, to watch the condors teaching their chicks how to fly.  By definition Parques Nacionales are rustic places, so we know that the camping area will be 'walk-in', ergo, car free, power free, amp free.  It’s also toilet and shower free.  So the potential is there for few quiet nights.

Used as we are to early starts, we’re first off the mark, away as the sun is just broaching the horizon, on a walk of a couple of hours to a gorge in the high country.  The cloud and the mist that gave us a wet night is slowly pulling out of the valleys, leaving the tussocks sprinkled with dewdrops.  We’re first on to the spotting site, but white guano spattered rocks are the only evidence of activity.  A want of sun has made the thermals slow to activate, so maybe our  haste was misguided.

We wait and we wait.  Is this another figment of the imagination, another ’you should have been here yesterday’ scenario?  Then I remember the rules for iconic fauna fossicking: Rule One: take a picture of the notice board that explains why you’ve made all that effort to cycle 40kms uphill.  The threat of photographs on this occasion was enough.  Away to our left, a black dot is spiralling in tight turns, the ascent is fast, then another blot joins it. Then another, and another.  Rule Two: initially count in single digits, then convert to herds, flocks and mountain ranges.

Our very best condor picture
 Slowly they float towards us.  Absolutely no doubt, they’re massive.  Flying surfboards, Andean condors.  The Sierras de Cordoba are the appendix to the western cordilleras, the easternmost outpost of the Andes - and the condors.  A range that has drifted off from the main chain, sitting in the middle of the country, surrounded by flat Pampa.  An indolent, lazy bird, the condor leaves wing flapping to others, nesting on cliffs where it can launch forth and sail effortlessly out onto the thermals, climbing high with what seems like consummate ease.  Of all the numerous birds that we watch, we see not one single wing flap.  Now another is climbing away above us, sweeping low, crossing the sun, strafing our position with a shadow.  It’s only now that I understand where we had been going wrong with our earlier identifications.  ID boards at another spotting location a few weeks ago had shown distinctive areas of white on the wings.  I had assumed that this would be on the under-side, an assumption I still feel to be natural, as not everybody can be an Attenborough and go condor-watching from a microlight or an aeroplane.  Now we are looking down on them as they float effortlessly up the gorge into the cliff and onto their roost sites, so it’s now that we see the white banding, the positively identifying feature.  It’s a display of flawless, majestic control over aeronautics, a swirling dance that turns macabre when you see pictures of them on the ground.  Hooked of beak, baldy headit, scrawny neckit, hoppit gaitit, wi’ a gown o’ rumpled black feathers, the avian epitome of a Dickensian ‘school’s heedie’, or the beadle that creeps around the kirk on a Sunday morning.

Loica, outside the tent
We watch for awhile and leave as the first wave of day visitors make their way across the hills.  We, as the ever prepared Scots have our our feet in boots, our rucksack of waterproofs, warm clothes and emergency food.  This influx comes in sandals and strappy tops with soda bottles and canned music.  One party are  hauling a mini wheeled suitcase, trundling through the mud, bouncing on rocks, rolling off boulders, like a cannon on it’s way to the front. Time might tell who is the better prepared.  We reach our tent and lunch on cafe con leche in the sun.  But this is mountain country, sitting at over six thousand feet where weather can change rapidly.  This time it was fast: a blanket of mist rolls in, cold and damp, smothering out in an instant the hot, clear sun. The rain was right behind.  Both came with no warning.  We withdraw to the tent, settling down to watch the ‘retreat from Moscow’. Shadowy phantoms trudge slowly past, some will have had the reward of a condor spotting, others, I suspect, will not.  Their consolation prize would have been the spread of wild flowers, the scuttling cuys - the fat guinea pigs that attempted a raid on our provisions - the small parakeets grazing on the downy seeds of thistle, or the glorious red-breasted Loica feeding it’s young.  But, judging from the questions that we were being asked as we made our way back, condors were the sole reason for coming this way.

Mid Saturday afternoon and it would appear that we’re far from alone in the desire to find a quiet spot in the country. The ‘camping libre’ is fast filling up with cheapskates and guitars.  The rain moves by stages from drizzle to deluge, filling our pan for a third caffeine fix, which saves us a trip through the waist high, saturating tussock grass.  Tents sprout and then disappear, Rucksacks with burgeoning , unprotected sleeping bags drip their way past. I’m ever incredulous at how unprepared people are for weather, as if a mountaintop will offer the same conditions as the back garden does down in Cordoba, BsAs or Haddington.  Or is rain always a surprise?  The same surprise that suggests that flip-flops and espadrilles are suitable footwear for a tramp over rough, crumbling granite.  What an urbanised society we’ve become.

Our holy weekend by early evening resounds to a gurgling burn that’s been engorged by the downpour, the murmur of entombed, entented damp campers and a loud, precocious Californian child, all suffused, filtered by the soft spatter of rain on our tent skin.  Imbued by the potential of a wet night that might encourage the fat mouse and the fatter cuy to sleep underground, rather than in one of our panniers.

Fat chance. One, both or the whole menagerie of rodents dine out on our front porch, all wear hobnailed boots and eat with their mouths open.  Eating out on others, for every conceivable item of ours of potential edibility has been stashed tight in roll top bags.  Others are more generous and not so houseproud.  Pans of part-consumed meals lie scattered around, joining the shoes, jackets and bedding hung out to dry in the rain.  Maybe rain is surprising.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Go East Young Man, and Find the Busy Lands.

If Cordoba is the second city of the nation, it kind of follows that we should start to encounter an increase in people, an increase in vehicular traffic.  One part of the brain understands the concept, yet it still comes as a surprise. “Who gave all these people permission to be on our road?”  Not an unpleasant surprise, for with the increase in noise comes increased  opportunities for re-supply.  We’ve been able to shed our surfeit of soda bottles, given up the 'Age of Aquarius' and the ways of the water wallah. Frankly, at times it was more 'Aged by', than 'Age of' the horoscopic zodiacs, as we hauled up to a quarter of our rolling weight in water.  Suddenly our panniers seem part empty, giving rise to a “What have we left behind in the shower stall?” panic, and “we’ve only got a kilo of  pasta left!”  As an aside, on the score of goods absent without leave, I lead by three hankies and a cap to one loofah.

As we’ve headed south and east, out from the rain shadow of the cordilleras, so the vegetation changes. The trees increase in girth and height, the grasses go from nada to thin sparse swards, to shoulder high savannas.  We re-encounter flora that we first met in spring time Uruguay, encounter new ones in an austral autumn.  Again they look familiar, in much the same way that an old school pal might, met for the first time since primary at a third decade re-union.  The uncut verges become an intimidation of vegetation that doesn’t encourage sudden escapes to starboard when the next pair of converging trucks coincide with our presence.  Yet we are still being accorded road space and the courtesies that we’ve come to expect in the quiet, trafficless west.

We start to collect towns at an increasingly frequent rate; Serrazuelo, Tuclame, Paso Viejo, Villa de Soto, Cruz del Eje.  With each place the print gets bolder, the towns bigger the closer we get to Cordoba.  We now have to persuade ourselves that we don’t have to check out every supermarket - there will be one closer to the end of the day.  No, we don’t need three spare meals, four packs of crackers and half a panaderia of bread.  Old, hard won, deeply ingrained habits can be difficult to break.

Nuclear- and asphalt-free San Marcos

We’re heading for hills that come with the promise of rivers and lakes, walking paths and swimming holes.  Heading for the nuclear free zone of San Marcos de Las Sierras, a ripio road and another quebrada.  The choice of a grit road was to avoid the Sunday traffic on RN38 and the choice of San Marcos came from Juan, a cyclist we met a few days ago.  The town might be free of nuclear particulates, but it’s not free of dreadlocks and ponytails, tie dyes and tattoos.  Hippie meets patrician as a very proper, tweeded lady leaves the chapel with her tray of home baked cake, passing the guitar stummers hitching out of town.  It comes with an easy, leafy ambiance, an expectant expectation, on the morning that we pass through.  Tables and chairs are set out on the pavements, spreading onto the road, competing for space with the rails of printed fabrics and organic cottons that are ranked outside shops.  Last night’s party is still making its way home, and two of them are determined to show us just how happy they are; but they’re gently helped to move on by the tourist police.  We find them later in mild inebriation, mounting horses.  An unusual occurrence, as Latino intoxication hasn’t been a common sight.  This is a town where the shops and the street traders are all waiting in anticipation of the Sunday visitor.  A town that’s easy to enter and difficult to leave.  Our enquiries elicit the idea that we really would be better to go back the way we came.  We know that there is an alternative to the main road; our difficulty is convincing others of its existence.  Eventually, after the usual multiple circuits of town, we roll a ‘double six’, and find the un-signposted junction.

Pan casero from the casa in San Marcos

Our ripio quebrada is another classic route.  It’s an old road, of bare, polished bed rock and ground down granite, that could only have been surveyed by muleteers.  It takes the easy, steady gradient, happy to go the extra distance into a gully to cross an arroyo, rather than roller-coastering, squandering hard won height and then having to fight to gain it all back again.  It carries a sense of stoicism, an aura of history, of permanence and endurance.  The buttresses and bridges are hand cut granite, with low stone walls to protect the steep drop-offs, all a testament to the stonemason’s craft.  So at a variance from the modern standard practice of a bulldozed ‘cut and fill’, the raw scars of which can be seen further up the valley.  There’s no washouts or rockfalls, which gives the feeling that this is a road that has come to an amicable agreement, reached an accord with nature.  Settled down and into the landscape.  The shallow road cuts have long since healed over, lichens have scabbed across the rough gabbro-like rocks.  The cracks have been colonised by wild flowers and small cactus.  It’s narrow and slow, the fastest travellers are the mountain bikers training for a large gathering later in March.  We hear them long before we see them, the clattering of a bouncing chain, the scatter of loose pebbles, the apparent disregard for flesh and bone. A flash of colour, an advertisment of lycra and they’re past.  We, like the cars, take the road at a more cautious, sedate pace, savouring the benign aura of industrial history’s impact on an ancient landscape.   

As we approach the main road and the return to a modernity of bustle and noise, we find a possible explanation for all that frenetic cycling activity.  We encounter the support vehicle, the sag wagon; the return car with bike rack and wife, mother or girlfriend.  There is a choice; the only constant is that it is female. The reason: mountain biking is male.  Macho Latino.

Like a fish out of water, the motors are out of their milieu, they tackle the route in a hesitancy that appears to verge on fear.  Tentative, cautious approaches to corners, dithering and indecision in the face of the oncoming car.  There’s no overtaking.  It’s kind of nice to have the tables turned for once.  However, the pleasure will be short lived as we will be back on a main thoroughfare all too soon, back to a hubbub of conurbation.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

When First Impressions are Everything

We need cash, we need camping, we need the first to pay for the second. Our last source for extracting pesos lies three days behind us.  The guidebook, a current edition, suggests that we are heading into a cashless, or at least, a cash sourceless zone.  It adds a certain level of interest to our day, a little spice to flavour an Argentine experience.

‘Cajeros Automaticos’, the glass cabinets that enclose a peso vending machine abound, usually in close proximity to the local plaza.  It’s as good a place as any to start enquiries.  They’re best identified by the queue of  people snaking out and around the side of the most modern, or the best renovated building in town.  Fortunately the guidebook is in error and has been since 2003.  There’s even a choice of providers: the Provincial and the National banks have a representation, both in the same building.  The ‘bean counter’ joins the queue, what seems to be a stagnant column and causes mild confusion by managing to be in two lines at the same time.  We have no particular preference or affinity for either brand, so it’s of no consequence who acquires our trade, but for locals it’s important.  It’s been a source of some interest to note the files forming outside one bank, whilst another of a differing stripe, one just down the road, one that’s just served us, stands empty. Jokingly, or at least part kidding, we wonder if there’s been a ‘run on the bank’, or did someone start a rumour?  It hasn’t  happened yet, but it’s come close. after striking a string of ATMs that are out of service, we start to become concerned.  Has the 'run' been and gone, is the cupboard empty?  It’s then that a queue is a reassuring sight and we’re happy to stand and wait for half an hour, awaiting our turn.  Will the virtual ’Indian’ bank manager consume our card?  Will it be the ink or the paper that runs out first?  Or will it be that there’s nothing left in the font?