Monday, 3 January 2011

A Tale of Two Approaches, Part One: Campo to Capital.

Argentina’s long distance bus service is world class, world renowned, and rightly so. We’ve opted to end act one of our “southern cone” adventure in San Juan and take a bus to Buenos Aires. A bus might give the wrong impression; no hard backed sticky vinyl seats, grumpy Greyhound drivers, overflowing toilets or low life downtown bus stations here.

It all starts with the ticket purchase. Sure, you can go online at a locutorio and process your own purchase, but it’s quicker and more interesting to do it in the bus station. Bus station? Images of early morning drunks, wandering vagrants, begging hobos, swirling litter and taxi touts all come to mind. Wrong again. Yes there are the usual street dogs, but the banos attendants look after them. The marble floors are constantly wiped, the concourse constantly swept. The toilets might be old, but they’re cleaned hourly, there’s loo roll, there’s soap. But it’s the orderliness of the ticket purchase that is a surprise, that is fun. There must be at least ten companies operating out of here, going to every major city in Argentina, to all the neighbouring capitals, to Chile, to Bolivia, to Brazil, to Paraguay . Now these ten companies will each have at least two separate booths, sometimes three. What to do? Too much choice. Yet nobody is pressuring, hustling, you to travel with them. The bean counter enters the ring, closes her eyes, spins around, picks out the first and heads in. She emerges moments later. I mean moments later, so quick that I thought there was a problem; they’re fully booked, they can’t take the bikes. It’s a pessimism born of a British public transport experience. Only she’s brandishing two tickets for a semi cama bus for tonight.

A 15 hour journey, for the price of eight return journeys from Haddington-Edinbugh. And you get your dinner and breakfast thrown as well. Our bikes go free.

It’s newly dark as the bus reverses out of its stance. We’ve watched our bikes loaded, our eight panniers ticketed and stowed. It’s seven more than anybody else and leaves us a tad embarrassed by our encumbrances. We’ve settled into our seats, found the all important reclining lever, approved the leg supports, the freedom of space, set the air con fan , set out all the paraphernalia for an overnight bus journey. In short, we’ve colonised our private space.

The bus wends its way through the extended environs of town, a series of pueblos that, through time have bloated, coalescing, blending into a city. It’s the usual mix of street food vendors and ‘gomeria’ tyre repairs, disgorging transports and post-siesta activity. The fruit and veg stalls an explosion of colour in the gloomth of the low street lighting.

The conductor cum cabin steward hands around moulded knee trays and a pre-packaged airline style meal. The hot, non optional, non vegetarian, foil tray comes later. Could Argentina be the only nation to produce beef so tender that it’s carveable with a plastic knife? Or conversely, are they the only country to develop a white plastic knife able to cut a steak? Either way the carne comes on a bed of mash, a side of ham and two rounds of quality vino tinto, all topped off by a sugar-enriched postre and a slab of membrillo. As transport fare goes, it’s more than sufficient, but I am glad we’ve become acclimatised to a non faddy carnivores diet, even if on occasions the gut flora takes a bit of a hammering. When asked what cyclists eat on the road , the answer is always: “a lot”. By my reckoning, today’s score stands at two breakfasts, a couple of lunches, crackers and fruit for tea, complemented by a busline dinner. Two and a half thousand odd calories and a small kilo of red meat. Just a normal, ‘a lot‘, day.

The curtains are drawn, the lights dimmed, an English language, anodyne dubbed film plays to a disinterested , apathetic bus . I fall asleep, or what passes for that state, where a film sound track intrudes into a half consciousness, mingling with the dead numbness of abused hip pin bones and where fidgeting, wriggling and squirming offer no relief. We’re awoken in San Luis, sometime well after midnight. We’ve stopped to collect the last few remaining passengers and are on our way soon after. Wide awake now, I gaze through the gap in the curtains. All the shops are closed, their eruptions of fodder and produce stowed inside, their gray shutters drawn down, metal grilles locked up, returning them to an anonymity of nameless, faceless edifices. Only the petrol service stations are identifiable pools of white flooded light, islands out of time; a place for the dislocated, lost souls of the dark. Then they too drift away, leaving me with my reflection in a black mirror, and the rhythmic, soporific beat of tyres on the broken asphalt surface, drifting slowly into a broken slumber.

Sweet dreams...
I must have slept for some part of the night, despite my subconscious arguing to the contrary. The couchette style reclining chairs are as comfortable as can be expected given the duration my pin bones have been in contact with a bovine’s skin. A post-natal rubber maternity ring is the only thing that might improve my demeanour and my humour, by relieving my nether numbness. Must have slept despite the old lady groping her way back to her seat, who mistook my head for the back rest. I must be totally into traveller relaxed mode, no startled, adrenalin infused jump. Had I been dreaming of yesterday’s encounter with a hairy tarantula, things might have been different. I must have slept as it’s dawn, a Pampa dawn.

There’s a chilled water dispenser just to my right hand we’ve used it during the night to dispel the effects of air conditioning and dehydration. There is another tap which The Forager investigates. Black coffee, hot black coffee, fully leaded black coffee, sweet fully leaded black coffee. To which everybody adds a further double shot of sugar. A heart pounding slug to kick start the day. I settle for just five styrofomic demi-tasses, a fine measure of our acclimatisation to all things sugar and a timely reminder of a dental appointment for the first day back in Scotland.

So charged with caffeine and the curtain drawn back we settle to a slowly evolving picture scrolling by outside our window. We’re on the upper deck, which extends our horizons, an elevated position that lets us see over a hedgeless flatscape. A primordial sea grave of snail shells and fish bones, planed level at the bottom of a shallow ocean. It’s flat, flat, flat, with a ruler ruled horizon pinioned in place by a monstrous dome, a sky that occupies the greatest proportion, the land the merest fraction of any available space. Level and flat as a feature and a thought will recur over the next four hundred kilometres that we spend bussing across the Pampa. Plain level but never plain boring.

It starts with a pastel washed dawn and a novelty of clouds; the first we’ve seen for several weeks. Clouds in a soft water wash of ashen greys, slowly moulding into pinks and then to oranges, into which an enlarged sun arises . Shrinking to normal, teasing , untangling, and dissolving the cloud cover, all before it’s a foot above the horizon, leaving a hard, vacant, steel blue sky. A promise of another hot day.

It’s beef, soya and corn country, occasionally changing to soya, beef and corn country and then to corn, soya and beef. Which ever combination you create, what doesn’t change is the pan of green and gold on the level flats. The unripe green irrigated circles of monogenic corn, surrounded by the gold of napped, suede like, shaved stubbles. The chopping and tailings of the newly absent combine harvesters. Red cattle and black cattle, some with, some without white Hereford faces, are dotted across the landscape, standing up to their oxters, belly deep in a silver dun of seeding grasses.

Slow gyrating blades of wind driven water pumps, atop a lattice of skeletal pylons, stand guard over tanks of irrigation water, another is motionless, it’s blades turned to idle. Now comes a lagoon, an expanse of open shallow water, enveloped by a halo of evaporated salts and the clockwork motion of darting, probing waders. Above, skeins of cormorants are arrowing in on the lake; a flight of disturbed duck suddenly erupt from the coastal rushes, flying low, fast for the safety of the middle of the lake, landing in a silvered spray of low light sun. The rhythmic occurrence of evenly spaced kilometre posts, might be a countdown to the capital federal, but they are also a reminder of the distance to the sea. A thought that’s at variance with all this evidence, for a northern traveller, of an avian sea coastal life. I can’t feel, but I can see the stiff sou’westerly breeze, streamers of spume spun over the short chopped, corrugated surface. Being blown and moulded into a lathered froth of spume.

Senor Daniel Scioli is standing for gubernatorial; he tells me so every half kilometre. I know, because he’s attached his name on polyprop banners to the fences. At a rough calculation he’s going to ram home his message over eight hundred times before we escape from this bus. The anticipated happy electoral event is in the future; unfortunately his name is already in the past. His banners are shredded by barbed wire, his name lacerated, becoming streamers in the wind, promises all tattered and torn. Augmenting the detritus of soda pop bottles and wind inflated carrier bags that are shrouds around pillars and posts.

Somehow we have lucked out again. Our seats are on the shaded side of the coach, the POSH, “port out” side; a fact emphasised as we negotiate a half circular town’s by-pass at El Vedin. The sun streams in our window, blinding those across the isle and washing the colour out of our views. We will be able to reopen the curtain when the bus swings back to it’s original bearing and it’s direct, flat, laser levelled course to the terminal.

We have the visuals, a single sense, but are deprived of the other four, cocooned in our environmentally controlled charabanc. Even then, the optics are coloured, tinged by tinted windows, that might be adding a vibrancy to the intense colour of the verdant maize circles. Deprived of four-fifths of our sensory inputs, the one- fifth expands to fill this vacuum. The rocking tussock grasses, the wavelets and spindrift on the lagoons suggest a gusty, inevitable, but at present irrelevant, head wind. The floating, suspended islands of trees on the horizon, the low, heavily shuttered steadings lost in deep shade, hint at heat. The wet, glistening rutted wheel tracks, the islands of puddles in a yard indicate recent rain. Yet I can’t be sure, I’m not on my sensory saturated cycle, but smelling cigarette smoke and listening to a hacking morning cough; held at a constant 21 degrees.

The shredded polyprop politicals now have to compete within this real world, the megacorps of agridom, the Dows and the Du Ponts, the Bayers and the Cargills. Pronouncements that you need Pioneer seeds for profit, broadcasts that recommend “Fertilizerazul”, draped on fences, hung on bill boards. This agricultural supply chain now augmented by the reds of Massey Ferguson, the greens of John Deere and the blues of New Holland.

Slowly our fellow travellers are roused , the overhead illuminated clock reverts to a regular announcement that the banos are ocupado and our cabin host distributes the breakfast trays. We speculate on the likely offering, based on previous experience. We know that our staple oat based banoffee porridge will be absent, but reckon on at least a couple of medialunas and fruit juice to complement and acidify the sugar saturated coffee. Wrong again. Styrofoam tray, a cache of three small packages, a plastic spoon, and a nameless sachet, all baled up in cling film. Dry crackers, sweet biscuits and a candied alfajore. The spoon to agitate the anonymous white powdered milk like substance into the near caramelised coffee. A product called “Vita”, that is singularly unable to counter either the sugar or to revitalise the beverage. Oddly I seem to have drunk four more cups before my heart rate escalates, reverberates from vibrato to tremolo. It’s that Presbyterian Scot’s upbringing again, raising it’s parsimonious head; ostensibly it’s free, or at least it’s included in the fare, ergo I’ve paid for it, so must gain best use. Better have another cup just in case the dispenser runs out. The capital claims a thriving coffee culture, they even have a Starbucks that once offered a ‘mate latte’; an assault on the yerba tea tradition and an, as yet unconfirmed sighting. That culture has yet to reach his bus.

With our elevated position, the bendless, cornerless linear route, the rumbling of the tyres over the uniform, evenly spaced expansion joints in the asphalt surface, all combine to give the impression of train travel. The blending of the rhythmic bumps and the mesmeric, repetitive flow of telegraph cables, rising and falling , a swell that lulls you into a half world, part way between roused and oblivion. Your eyes droop, and your head lurches between backrest and windowpane, yet still you can’t find comfort. The novelty of a first time visit, the prospect of a new scene and the effects of the polysaccharided caffeine combine to keep you awake.

A distant, slowly resolving lance, like a permanent exclamation mark, evolves into a barber poled red and white communication tower. The town, low down, sucked in, held by the immensity of sky, yet still it needs the pole to pinion it in place. A stake to pin down a town. It’s later joined on the approaching skyline by a tracery of elevators, the scaffolds of gantries and bins that make up a granary store, and only then, by the twin towers of the Virgen de Lujan’s basilica. At one time it would claim the ascendancy, a primacy of the skyline, only challenged by a stand of columnar poplar trees. Now it appears to be losing out to Mammon 2:1.

Yet, still this sensation of train travel prevails. We pass a petrol station and instinctively you look for the access road - how did that lorry get there if there’s no road in? The answer comes just as immediately as the question. You’re on the road. It’s a strange, near confusing sensation. The long straight drive, the constant unvarying speed, the lack of stop-starts, the rhythmic cadence of tyre noise all keep repeating, keep returning to the railway impression.

Then at Lujan things start to change. The asphalt doubles up to dual, the tollbooths triple to a dozen, the kilometre post are down into the tens, coastal maritime clouds accumulate off to the south-east, indicators that we can’t be far from our destination. It’s Sunday morning: there’s a parade of buses parked up in a field being augmented by more arriving along the now busy Ruta 7. A pilgrimage to honour the Virgen de Lujan is forming up at the Basilica, Her many images being carried in glass pyramids on wooden stretchers through the milling mayhem of an unregulated bus park. A slow, but irreversible metamorphosis is under way, the landscape is mutating from campo to city, from agri-culture to urban-culture, from food production to food consumption. An adjustment exemplified by the peloton of gaudy, paunch-stretched, lycra-clad cyclists. The accumulated height gain, around and between any of these sequential towns will be zero, the lay of the land is still flat. Yet these helmeted gents - it’s exclusively a male preserve - are on full suspension mountain bikes. On a ride where the only hill will be the access ramp to a four lane flyover or caged-in walkway. It’s a fashion, a vogue that you feel the campo would ridicule and mock, yet it’s mainstream, mainstreet, apparel in town.

The houses enlarge and the traffic multiplies exponentially, fields are smaller and less numerous, an irrevocable, irreversible absorption and digestion of the campo is under way. Gone are the herds of shiny horses, of the sleek cattle, the silver green sheen of low light seeding grasses; gone the post top hawk and the antisocial storks. Replaced by a plaza of 28 tollbooths and an autopista of eight lanes, supplanted by auto sales and gasoline alleys, superseded by superstores and hypermarkets. The pampa commuted to commuters. The city swallowing, consuming the campo, engorging and sprawling in ever increasing increments out over the level flats. An unregulated bloat, a swollen girth, undisciplined and disorderly, mushrooming uncontrollably. Could that be why there are more road lanes and tollbooths into town, than allow for an escape from it? City eats more than it excretes.

The bus plunges into this metropolis, Ruta 7 now a roller coaster of multiple laned flyovers and canyonlands of underpasses. The canvassing politicos have clambered off their fences and climbed up onto the highrise bill boards. Sr. Scioli now recruits the heavyweights of federal government to his campaign, adding a face to the name and enlisting the kudos of the presidentia’s office.

The scrolling screen, the slow motion cinemascope, motion picture, picture show that has been on offer over the last few hours of Pampa, now gives way to a rapid, flickering, stuttering video of short attention span images, an ADHD of accelerated impressions. We’re not moving any faster, it just appears that way. The drive now wends it’s way between slab sided accommodations, characterless extrusions of concrete expelled, evicted from tiny square plots. Where the only out is up, to reach out for a patch of sunlight. Square blocked pegs of ash gray peeling facades, stacked on a grid, like children’s wooden toy bricks. This roller coaster throws us up into the air and then plunges down, a crocheted web of concrete all stacked up on spindly cement legs. Only to be spun into a centrifuge of merry-go-rounds of side streets and inter-sections, of clover-leafs and roundabouts, of rotondas and junctions. Then suddenly we’re turning in to the bus station, to be held in a holding pattern whilst being allocated our docking platform.

The Capital has swallowed us up, subsumed us into it’s hot humid world, reduced us from a colour pallet of exuberant growth, of green on gold to the nether tones of decayed concrete and cracked asphalt. Yet, on leaving the air conditioned arrivals hall I’m assaulted by new senses. It’s the same sun that we left only yesterday in the west, but it has an entirely different touch to it. Gone is the menacing intensity, gone the desiccating threat, gone the thin, enervated air of altitude. Replaced by a pleasurable, enveloping, rich, fat fug, turgid with humidity and the succulent odours carried by the great river systems out of the north. An amalgam of heady smells and heavy air, of jungle decay and car exhaust, of asadoed carne and curdled humanity.

Once again we have collected two new ‘moments in time’, two new photages: montages of randomised images, held on a cerebral hard drive, infused with non visual senses, a synthesis and a marinade of smells and touches, noises and voices, moods and tempers. Both depictions are diametrically opposed to each other, yet intrinsically connected, wired into a whole and linked in my mind by a long distance semi-cama bus.

A fast, ultra efficient commuter train ride completes thirty-six hours in transit and now I know that it is we who are the curled humanity.