Monday, 28 February 2011

If Only - We Could Harvest Noise

If you could harvest noise, what a wonderful resource it would be.  We’ve been blown off the road on two instances - literally.  A nor’westerly that has a hot sun and a cold coming out of a clear blue sky, coming at us from the Chilean Humbolt and accentuated, chilled further over the high tops to our north.  We’ve fought the blast for the better part of a morning, the forward momentum little better than a brisk walking pace.  It comes in blasts, catching the front panniers, pushing them, then, as you compensate, the wind gives a little and you’re in the gravel or over the median line.  Either way it’s not safe.  The countyside up to this point is completely devoid of shelter.  Not a rock, bush or tree large enough to hide or hunker down behind; it’s all tooth, hook and claw.  So when a decrepit wooden sign appears like divine magic and announces ’camping’, you pull over and investigate.  It’s an estancia of deceased farm machinery, piled logs and barking dogs. Skins of goats are strung up on the washing line, hoofs of a cow beside the track.  Not very promising.  But ’yes’ we can camp, the charge is a little over a quid, of course we stop.  I hope I’ve learned my lesson, for there are lined out rows of tall fastigate poplars.  It has shelter, the one commodity that we crave at this precise moment.

At first glance, it‘s hard to tell if this ‘site’ was a hoped for, optimistic project or a has been, had-it enterprise.  Football posts outline a weed strewn patch, municipal style park swings are disappearing under a spreading willow tree.  The baños are dry, the stalls doorless there’s no water in the tap.  Two round, slab sided, bamboo thatched shelters, for sun and not rain, are mouldering amongst a litter of rusting garbage. Rotting sardine cans and twisted corrugated iron suggest an age to the place, yet the charcoaled graffiti states that Raul y Ani from Zapala were here on the 11th, the spent fireworks and empty Cava bottles suggest a party at New year. So the ’site’ must get used, possibly at week-ends, perhaps as a fish camp.

Given a choice we might have been tempted to move on; prior, surreptitious inspection before paying and we would have pushed back into that head wind.  We’ve paid, we’re tired, we need the refuge, we’ve not got a great deal of choice.  So we pitch, on the novelty of thick grass and set up home in one of the casitas, filter water from a flooded ditch, and as in all situations of desperation, brew up a pot of coffee.  It’s remarkable how one half of the brain can convince the other and we can persuade each other, that it “really isn’t such bad place”, ’it could be raining, the dust could be flying, we could be stuck in the middle of a motor bike rally.  At least we’ve got shelter.  Shelter that is increasing by increments in volume, in noise.  Poplars are not the most silent of trees, they can rustle up a murmur in the slightest of breezes.  These are no soft, light, innocent flurries, these are full blown furies, a Patagonian wind storm.  Normal weather for hereabouts.  Each squall builds and adds to the next, each encouraging the other to further spasms and rages.  The noise and the violence keep building, and just when you thought that a crescendo has been reached a further ferocity, another savagery of wind sweeps in and whips at the tall trees.  The noise level is incessant, a constant oppressive offensive, an attack that never lets up.  An onslaught on the senses.  It’s not the fear of falling branches or of toppling trees - the trunks aren’t even moving, there’s no uprooted roots, even the leaves aren’t being shredded, - this is normal Patagonian weather.  Rather it’s the numbing of thought, the hampering of speech, the slaughter of silence.  You want to plead with it, “please stop, just stop now”

Rain, hail, snow even the heat of the sun are physical entities, against whom you feel that you have a more fair and equitable battle.  All have the potential for harm, but at least you can see them, pull on a Gore-Tex, stand under a tree, book into an hotel.  Wind is too amorphous, too intangible to grab a hold of and there’s little point in fighting it.  Just give up, give in to a superior power, for today it’s in league with the devil.  It’s nature’s final rejoinder to man’s perceived mastery and command of the environment. 
An imponderable wind that’s rendering us insensible.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Roadkill Diamonds

Somewhere on a parallel universe my alter ego offered his better half the opportunity to visit the baubles counter of the local jewellery store. Personally I thought I had offered it in this, my universe, but I’ve been advised otherwise. This dislocation of ideas my explain my initial confusion between two close running rivers. The Rio Diamante, which on closer inspection turned out to actually be the Rio Actuel. It was the latter that offered up the solution to the ’rocks on fingers’ conundrum.

On the strenuous advice of other cyclists, we’ve made a slight detour from the direct run between Malargue and San Rafael, going to El Niuel and dropping down into the Cañon de Atuel. We’ve opted to forgo an asphalted road for a session on ripio, so are hopping that the effort will be worth while. On some occasions these grit road have required so much concentration that it’s been difficult to take in anything of our surroundings. Our guide book was some what less than overenthusiastic: ‘the locals call it their Grand Canyon’, and ’it has four dams, but still worthwhile’. The same author had also described El Niuel as ’podunk’. Not the world’s happiest chocolate button. The latter had given the impression of a ’three Gorges’, vast areas of flooded and swamped canyon lands, geological treasures lost to our insatiable thirst for electrical power. His first description had suggested a corniche road that stays up on the surface, offering the occasional glimpse down into a hole. The Arizonian version is ‘Grand’, as in massive, but it’s near impossible to gain any comprehension of depth, short of climbing down inside, there’s little to offer any intimation of scale. So we head off the main highway to find out for ourselves if there is a difference.

The indifferent, unflattering ‘Podunk’ would describe a rather large proportion of rural towns, so I assume our author got out the wrong side of the bed that morning.

Cañon de Atuel is different. The road was created for the hydroelectric system, so it runs down in the bottom of the gorge, following faithfully the flow of the river, cutting under high crumbling cliffs, even hacking through them on one occasion. It’s like a giant’s pudding bowl, into which a recipe of ingredients have been poured, then only partially mixed, before being baked solid, then dropped and broken open after removal from the devil’s oven. A mix of colours, and textures, a jumble of metamorphosed volcanic rocks. Chalk whites, through ash greys to rust reds and oxidised greens. Moulded , putty and shattered striations, hard basalt columns and sandwiches of aeons. In places you can imagine mummy giant telling baby giant to get out from under her apron, away from her feet, and go and play with the rock plasticene. Ay first the giantlet was creative, forming a series of stylised figures, grey monks in spiralled, pointed cowls, setting them out in files and ranks, placed in their choir stalls. He then progressed to a more Gaudiesque phase, creating looser more free formed, abstract structures. You feel that if you let your imagination wander, you can see the occasional thumb or fist print. Ending his putty production days with a more adolescent, more pubescent, more phallic structure. Mother didn’t approve, gave him a clip around the ear. Which is how the pudding came to be dropped.

The first three, of the four dams turn out to be low key affairs, the captured lakes are narrow ribbons of water that act as mirrors for the cracked and broken faces of the surrounding cliffs. Quiet oases of green, weeping willows and fruiting peppers, the tall tasselled plumes of pampa grasses covered in the activity of wild bees. The only discordance being the pylon line that climbs out of the deep gullies. Yet water seems like an alien element in this environment. Volcan, the master mason, the creative builder. Agua, the master sculptor, the ephemeral, transient visitor, who on the seasonally, fleeting visits, has over an aeon, carved back down, slicing through a mish-mash of geological time.

The final dam, forces the road out of the cañon and back up onto the plateau, back up with the palo verde thorn and the bright, hot, concentrated noon day glare. It’s here as I’m tracking the last hair pin bend that I notice something different under my pedal. Stopping isn’t difficult, preventing a roll back down the hill is the problem, that and getting going again. I hope what I thought I saw will be worth the effort. I walk back, there in the middle of the road is a cracked open ‘thunder egg’, a geode of white crystals. My solution for the jewellery counter, non encounter.

A bit further on, a roadside stall holder is selling agates and other geological curiosities, so I could have purchased my solution. However there is something neat about the chance encounter, the discovered road kill diamond. Just like the chanced, serendipitous find of this cañon road.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Serendipity Times Ten

If your'e not into rock gardening then please pass by.  If you are, then you might understand how it took us over four hours to cycle just four kilometres. We’d come to Lago Alumine more by chance than by good management; it would be on our way north and the road, from the map, looked like it might be quiet, there appeared to be some opportunities for regular resupplies of water and food.  The guidebook indicated that there were some Araucaria woods in the area.  It looked like a direction to head in.

The Araucaria is the Pehueña for the Mapuche, the Chilean Pine for some, and the Monkey Puzzle for others.  A tree that appears as a singular sorry specimen in a semi-detached suburban setting. Isolated, lonesome, centre-staged on the front lawn, outgrowing the planter, outgrowing the home.  It’s only in an arboretum that they start to exhibit their grandeur; yet still it looks stage managed, an exhibit in an exhibition. A trophy tree to complement the stuffed stag’s head in the grand hall.  They never seem natural, at peace with their adopted, translocated environment.  Dioeciously gendered, these solitary misanthropes are sexually frustrated, chaste, celibate.

The “few woods” of the guidebook transpired into over three days of arboreal splendour.  It’s never fair to compare one locality to an other, the”this looks like….”  Each place is unique, comparisons are unjust.  However if you know and admire the remnants of Caledonian pine forest of the southern Cairngorms, you will recognise this countryside.  Substitute a granny pine for an Araucaria, an understorey of heather for the temperate bamboo and you have the Valle Pehueña.  It’s no real surprise as the geology and the climatology are similar; free draining, slightly acidic volcanic soils, the extra elevation compensating for the warmer latitude. A whole age range of trees are present, from the gawky juviniles, that in a northern garden centre require a remorgage, to the young adults with the classic profile of the arched window, to the ancients, the patriarchs and matriarchs who were already well established when Willy the Norman was writing his Domesday Book.  They’ve shed their lower branches, forming a candelabra, an inverted umbrella, exposing a trunk of elephantine legs a skin of deep wrinkles that snag swatches of lichen on the wet weather side.

As we climbed up the valley, away from Alumine and found our first puzzled monkey, of course we had to stop and admire this single specimen standing alone in a forest of Southern Beech.  Photographed for evidence and prosperity, we might not get to see many more: such is the suggestive power of a guidebook. We round the next corner and there’s a few more, spread out over a tumble of broken rocks, a crystal green river running in the valley bottom.  Then more and more.  We both burn off pixels at every turn.  It’s not difficult to accept a polytheistic concept, where a spirit inhabits rocks, rivers and these grand trees.  Each individual looks and feels like it’s growing in it’s accepted place, in it’s given space.

Not wanting to give up too quickly on these trees, we decide to head off up some side roads, ending up in Lago Alumine and the municipal campground.  A setting that has tempted us to stay for an extra day.  In theory it’s a rest day, so we headed off for a short, unencumbered cycle.  Armed with the tourist office’s information, a glosst piece of paper that comes with little indication of distances or heights, no scale.  More drawing than map.  However it does indicate a road - it could be a track - disappearing off the side of the page, heading for the “ski parque”. It goes uphill, or at least we make that basic assuption based on the idea that snow sports need elevated spaces.  The roadside storyboard map is of little assistance.  Actually it’s downright inaccurate.  More story than map.

We head off in the general direction indicated, negotiate our way through the border customs and immigration post despite the fact that we don’t intend to enter Chile.  The drawing - it lost any credence for the superior title of map some time ago - seems emphatic about the ski area being on the Argentine side.  It’s that Ordnance Survey conditioning again, that instinctive belief that all maps are accurate.  They don’t lie, they can’t lie.  Unusually, on this occasion there is a roadside sign to indicate the correct gravel road, and we head off up into the hills.  Unusual, as even major roads can happily bifurcate or merge with out the help or hindrance of roadside sign.  We’ve met cars, or at least their drivers who have been forty kilometres along an unintended or plain wrong route.

With a degree of confidence - surely the signage can’t be wrong? - we pass through commercial conventional pines, planted in ranks, blocked in regiments.  Trunks brashed, cropped clean like squaddies, all one age, recruited in the same year.  Then passing into another biosphere of Southern Beech, the Nothofagus, and then the Araucarias.  Unlike their near cousins, these pines march to a different order, preferring a more archaic, looser command structure.  Stoics, patient, unperturbed by the upstarts lower down the hill.  The road carries on climbing and so do we, and cresting the hilltop, we find an open plateau.  The ancient’s woods have given way to small pockets of pines in sheltered gullies, leaving space for a rising tableland of volcanic scoria and ash, dotted with what at first we took to be tussock grass.  It’s only when we stop to inspect that we find a few low growing, mat forming plants.  Hebe rikensis in three forms, and a saxifrage.  We move on, stopping moments later for a single bright pink flower- a wild tulip, then a sisirynchium (spelling?).  I’d gone to one side of the road, the navigator to the other, we both call over “I’ve got a new one here”.  The list grows, many are familiar, even if the names won’t come to mind, a mimulus in a damp area, then a wild yellow tulip.  Higher still and the selection changes, the geraniums, the asteraeceas. All the myriad relations of the dandelion family: the composites, or as one naturalist named them, “hawk’s weirds” Chrysanthemums, calceolarias, “over here I’ve got another three new ones”, Berberis, possibly a pernettya and “another one of them”.  We didn’t start a count, but there must be in excess of fifty different species of flowering alpine plants.  Every single on would be a delight and a treasure in a stone trough or a small, well constructed rock garden.  Anemone, sedums, pasque flower.

All this in a ‘esqui parque’ that wouldn’t threaten a Kitzbuhel or any Austrian ’dorf, with it’s truncated ’T’ bar and basic button tow, but would be brilliant on Nordics, in a plaster of deep snow, ski-ing through these monkey puzzled pines.  It’s an area that might have been plastered over by a wash of designations, of acronyms, by a protection of restrictions.  The preservation comes from a blanket of snow and an alternative, much hyped attraction.  All the vehicles that pass - there’s quite a few - have only one intention: to drive up to the highest point, up to a crater lake of an extinct volcano.  Observe, turn around and drive back down again.  Which poses the question: is indifference and disinterest the best protection for wild areas?  Probably not, but it does seem to work in this instance.

On subsequent days, we’ve been to similar elevations, in similar conditions and found some of our specimens, but never the spread or diversity of plants up on that plateau. A highlight, a chance, serendipitous encounter; a grand ‘day off’.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

History Lesson

The tale goes that the Araucaria was brought to the attention of European gardeners by the botanist, Joseph Banks, who would have used it’s Latin name. The ’monkey puzzle’ monicker can be attributed to the planter of Pencarrow gardens in Bodmin, who is credited with the statement, on first encountering the tree, “there’s a tree that would puzzle a monkey”.  A bit lame, a tad apocryphal.

Meanwhile, still working hard on the quality control.....

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Run Up the Flag and Let‘s See Who Salutes

Too many businesses are getting way too savvy, getting way too security conscious, so we’ve developed a strategy to combat them that is, on occasions successful.  Firstly ask at the tourist office, to which we get one of two answers; “all businesses have one”, translation: all secured, or, “try the internet café”, translation: “we’ve got one, but I’ll be damned if you’re getting to play on it”.  Next, find the YPF petrol station, hunt the logo, and see if they are connected.  If they are, then they always give us the code, of course we buy a coffee that can be made to last an hour.  Some town halls are remarkably enlightened, openly offering the service, as part of attracting service and visitors into staying in town.  This collection comes courtesy of one such: Villa Union.  Some hotels give access then sting with a charge.  Should this game plan fail we revert to establishing ourselves in the plazza, extract the net book from it’s dust proofed bag, fire up and see who answers back. There’s always a few, but the connection is naught above a bar, need to get closer, yet the domain address can be convoluted, contrived or plain abstract; it’s out there but which way to head?  The Editor goes for a walk, perambulating the square.

Chos Malal: we’ve accumulated a supply of material, a need to do some business, we need to communicate. We need a hot spot.  It’s a Sunday so we’re negated from one source, the internet café, the locotorio, yet several named addresses are available.  So the Navigator cum Forager lives up to her title and heads off on the hunt to divine and source a connection.  Eventually success comes from a new and unexpected source - the local hospital.  It even has a shaded bench right outside.

We can now communicate, until the battery power gives out, or the techno gremlins in league with that supreme of the thwart: Señor Murphy interfere.  There was a time when you searched for a landline, now that’s a sign of the old times.  In these new times, with the advance of mobile ‘phones, finding a public call box is near impossible.  They were never a common piece of street furniture here; people relied on the locutorio, yet these too are in decline, some we locate have their windows covered over with fading, five year old newspapers.  Closed for siesta, closed never to reopen again.

Sometimes you feel that the Victorian explorers of a previous age had an easier time of it.  Maybe they didn’t have the advantages of accurate maps, NHS travel clinics or clean bed linen, but they could get away with a note sent home to their sponsors every second year.  An attachment to a cargo of plundered curios and a box of specimen plants.  It was Dervla Murphy who tells of the pleasure of travelling in a pre internet age, in the Shah’s Iran.  She would be unable to contact any of her kin for a whole six weeks.  No ‘phones.  Letters too slow.  Responsibilities only for herself.  Such decadent irresponsibility.

Of course the internet and all it’s associated appendages are an advantage, a great support vehicle.  I wouldn’t have the fun of producing these missives, of publishing photos, of gleaning some information on what to expect further up the road, or of that recommendation for tonight’s parilla.  It’s just how remarkable a morning can evaporate, how much battery power can disappear in the exercise.  For stolen Wi-Fi never comes with a power point.

We are still grateful to the unsavvy or the plain philanthropic who wittingly or unwittingly allow us to plunder their connections.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Happy Birthday, Navigator

No day is ever wasted; however we do have the ability to squander them.  That is, days lost from a calendar. So it was surprising that she remembered her own birthday. The trigger this year was registration at a campground a few days earlier,. El Patron had given her a dated receipt, a novelty in itself. So having established that it’s a special day, I need to recognise it. She turned down my offer of a trip to the jewellers, on the grounds that the nearest was several days away - or did I just imagine that promise?  A night in a five star hotel?  None within miles.  Slap up meal?  Haven’t brought a tie. A visit to a spa, a full body make over? I’m running out of excuses. Maybe that’s why my cycling benefactor stepped in.

There at the side of the road is a sign that says ’Termales’ and Camping. The latter will keep the cost down, I suppose I can cover the latter; it can’t be that expensive surely?  We head down a gravel track, a route that gets narrower and rougher, but the hand painted signs keep us going in the right direction.  Eventually we’re deposited in a baked earth yard of a very small farm. I call it that, for want of any better term.  There’s a cockerel herding a harem of hens, two geese padding about, a young dog tries on his hard man act, fails, then presents us with his stuffed monkey toy. There’s adobe bricked out buildings that are part thatched in scrub brash, part reverting back to their original mud. Factors that suggest agriculture, yet there’s none of the supporting infrastructure: a tethered horse, a patch of maze, a discard of implements. Several children are running around in varying states of undress, the eldest greets us, yes we can camp here, come this way. We’re shown around a thick wall of trees, to a very sheltered patch of beaten earth, where the rest of the family are eating al-fresco. It feels like we are intruding on a private space, on private time.  I feel alien, my perceptions challenged.  They see nothing unusual; the cold, reticent north meets the gregarious south.  Never has my lack of language been so noticeable, so lamentable, for we find ourselves in a very Latino situation, where a period of hospitable conversation is required.  Pitching the tent creates a focus and a diversion, the fact that I chose a spot right under the chickens night roost, engenders an amusement.  Playing the clown, a mimed substitution for a tongue.

The rising wind, the progenitor of the storm falling out from the massive bulk of the volcano to our south, confirms just how sheltered we are.  The ripe apples being shed from above, exploding on the ground, only verifies our decision to stop at a ’spa’.  The term’s mine, the family call them ’baños’, the dictionary definition being ’bath’.  The dictionary is accurate, the photographs don’t lie, and if you can see the goose bumps on the birthday lady’s arms you can jalouse the temperature of the water.

It comes bubbling up from the nether world, a spring full of brimstone, cold and sulphurous. The map says ’thermales’; thermals don’t necessarily have to be hot, or even warm, so that didn’t lie either.  To be honest, we hadn’t expected anything different, hadn’t expected white marble halls and masseuses in cotton robes, palm courts and Turkish baths.  We’d hunted down these mapping icons, inscriptions taken as gospel from our trusted road atlas, only to discover a smelly swamp and a scatter of roofless, thatchless shacks.

After a day that ends with a crust of dried out salt and a shirt that can stand unaided, any accumulation of water, irrespective of temperature, is a bonus.  Desert washing in two litres of water is all right for one night, but a shower becomes necessity at some point, if we’re to be able to return to a town and polite society.  We probably alter the salinity irreparably for a week, I even wonder what chemical reaction might occur between hydrogen sulphide and conc. Sodium chloride.  Then speculate if I could be prosecuted by Trading Standards for offering a spa treatment, but only delivering a smelly cold bath.

The lady seems remarkably sanguine about the whole deal, but I suspect there might be an IOU outstanding against my account

Sunday, 13 February 2011

We Have Weather

The road climbs out of Chos Malal, a slow steady grind, warm work, the temperature rising with the elevation. A pick-up passes and pulls over. The lady driver climbs out, all concern. She’s concerned that we are heading out into the unknown. Are we prepared, there’s no shade, no water, no services, it’s going to get hot. It’s a kindly concern and we try to reassure her. Actually we’re flooded, held down with a drownable supply of water. However, the day’s climatically events unfurled to a different script, from what was evident at that road junction.

We have had some weather.

A nothing weather day in Scotland, would typically be in mid to late November, it will be still, calm and monochromatically ashen gray. A gray that hems in a city street, that only confirms the realisation that this is just the start of the gloom season, a gray that precludes any likelihood of solar illumination. The only leaves left on the trees will be the insipid yellows of the ash, falling in a death rattle, despite the windless still silence. A day of monotone gray. A nothing weather day. A non weather day on the rain shadowed side of the Andes would be diametrically opposite to the Scots version, but would share many of the same characters. A day that starts clear, stays clear and ends clear. Blue sky from start to finish, sun up to sun down. To a northern Celt this is what you pay good money for when you booked those two weeks on the Costas, or optimistically predicted for your overseas visitor intending to go to Troon for the day .After multiple weeks of the same unvarying hot clear blue, a change, any change is welcome.
Three perfect examples of anvil clouds are marching, forging on in close order up the international border, an interesting meteorological phenomenon, but a good forty kilometres away, so of no consequence to us. Then, within what seems like moments, stacks of cumulus start building a boiling mass that bloats and inflates, billowing up to the stratosphere. Virginal white thunder heads. Purity against the blue, and a fair representation of the national flag. We’re still climbing, the road circumferencing the basal mass of Volcan Tolman, a mountain whose bulk is creating it’s own weather system. We’ve moved under the stacked up giants, moved under their shadows, the washing powder whiter than white gives way to a more ominous bruised cloud base, the innocence gives way to thunder claps. The sun loses power and we get a momentary respite. The temperature suddenly drops and hailstones start to explode on the road around us, shards of ice shrapnel ricochet across the tar, melting instantly to damp patches, releasing smells of burnt soil and hot dry grass. Now comes the wind, hurtling down and out from the mountain, but for once we’re in front of the storm, the gusts come like shock waves, powering us up the inclines, hitting us from the side, on the way too fast declines.

The following day we get a repeat performance, the same prologue, the same play, an assembly line of thunder heads are fabricated on the highlands, eventually reaching saturation point, overcrowded they start to migrate, down to the lowlands. Veils of rain shroud out the ranked ridges of volcanoes, creating soft focus cardboard cutouts, a stage prop of pop-up mountains. It’s a novelty, a concept that would normally disappoint , this prospect of cycling in the rain, now it’s a pleasure, however we still take refuge in a drain under the road. Pedalling in 26 degrees and a Gore-Tex is still akin to a sauna without the snow rolling. An over saturation of sweat and humidity.

One of the advantages of all this increased aerial climatic activity means that a few more photographs can be elevated up and away from the foreground. A succession of blue skies makes for disinterest and monotony, it also engenders envy and jealousy for a recipient who is staring out from an artificially light office, at a drab, damp, monochromatic, shadowless Edinburgh street. The fact that the photographer stopped to take that picture, that it was but an excuse for a breather from hauling a loaded cycle up an incline, a bike that has been recently augmented with a top up of water is of little interest and can’t be exposed in a few megabytes of pixels.  Oh, how we suffer for our art.

With advantages come disadvantages, from blessings come curses, with the wet come the flies. Little black sand flies, big brown horse flies, blood sucking mosquito flies and they all bite. Some have a sixth sense and perceive the swatting hand, others are slower and their desiccated little bodies are now being feasted on by a swarm of ants. Such is nature and it’s occasionally nice not to be on the bottom rung of the food chain ladder.

We did thank our concerned benefactor, I thanked her in absentia several times more, later that day and on subsequent occasions, for tempting the weather gods and any other arbiters of fate, my doom mongers of destiny. For not only did we get weather, we got contrasts and shadows, fleeting red puddles and nascent streamlets. Fugitives, who even now are in denial, effervescing to tide rimmed muddy holes and shiny braids of ghostly rivulets. Food for a camera, nourishment for a soul, both of whom who had been promised a tedium of hot blue skies.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Mr Google Didn't Know

It’s an innocent piece of plastic, this size of a very thin paperback book, an open lattice of plastic.  We first encountered it within moments of arriving in Argentina, as we came through customs at Santo Tome, lying at the side of the road.  Obviously a discard, less obvious was its purpose.  Possibly a one-off, for which we would never get an answer, something of no real account, of no matter.  Only we would keep finding them, not everywhere, but in certain areas that we passed through.  Places that would yield up a good number, but only in Argentina.  A mild curiosity of no great import.  Yet curiosities have a habit of growing, especially if your mind is configured, wired or afflicted for facts for facts’ sake.  Neitche’s collection of information for an inner psychological enrichment.

The answer, when it eventually appeared, turned out to be more prosaic, more internal, physical enrichment.  We’d been blown off the road by a wind storm, taken refuge in a room, decided against cooking in the toilet cubicle, resorting to bread, wine and cold cuts of meat.  Instead of being sold in a cling-film covered Styrofoam tray, the smoked ham and sliced beef is sold placed on our mysterious latticed, book-sized white plastic piece.  A somewhat prosaic, boring answer to a less than earth-shattering question, but my piqued curiosity is satisfied.  Where a few clicks of a mouse, or a typed entry in a title box give access to an instant answer, it is refreshing to find a question that can’t be Googled or Wiki’ed.

Now we can go local and ditch it in the traditional way.  That completed, I just have to find a new, inquisitive challenge.  Could it possibly be the question as to why a roadside shrine to San Cetayano has four pairs of sunglasses in it?

Monday, 7 February 2011

Clannish Herding

The scene: our family’s daily outing to the shore on an Isle of Arran holiday.  The Kildonan coast is a vast empty strand of chre red sand and we are the only encampment on it.  Windbreaker and deckchairs, spades and buckets, flasks and sandwiches.  All for that great old Scottish tradition, the seaside dook and the post-glacial swims ‘chittery bites’.  The only family, yet when another descends through the dunes, they establish themselves within quiet talking distance.  So this human magnetism, this herding or clanning that we experience in Argentine campgrounds is not a particularly Latino trait, only they have raised it to an art form.

We’re established in a ‘walk-in’ area alongside another cycling couple and a backpackers tent.  The Sunday day campers have all left, extinguished their parillas, taken their appetising savouries of cooked meat and packed their deckchairs.  The dogs have cleaned all the bones away, ripped apart the overflowing bins.  The site is near empty, the choice of pitches great.  Yet they manage to erect two tents within our guy line range.  Most odd.

A wooden fence protects us from the road; however, this structure is not a substantial enough barrier to say to another car-owner, ‘Keep Out’.  He has removed a spar, driven in, parked up and replaced and repaired the defence.  Most odd.

Father has arrived early, he’s the advance party.  He’s snagged a concrete table and parilla, kindled up a bag of carbon, the coals already glowing ready for the rest of the family.  They arrive, a car stuffed with beef and multiple generations.  The load is disgorged to full volume of Spanish rap, a bass beat that is now in direct competition with a speaker set pumping out the local radio station.  It is playing a tradition of accordion tracks and adverts for local businesses; a discordant clash of tastes.  We are strategically positioned between the two, yet nobody bats an eye, makes any comment.  I just can’t see a Dutch-run campground staying silent.

We retreat in front of this onslaught, retreat to the inevitably-named San Martin to sit in a Sunday silence of heavy shade and deep tranquillity to search for and catch a WiFi hotspot.

Later we return; our rapping neighbours are playing handball, which seems to involve trying to hit our tent at least once in each phase of play.  Once might be construed as an accident, twice a possible mistake; three times is ignorance.  Eventually the car is loaded and the ignition key turned.  Nothing.  The rapping has flattened the battery.  There is a god, after all.  Only a Fiat 127 with six incumbents is easily bump-started.  The leave, leaving the noise to the accordions that have been outgunned all afternoon.  They too, when their time comes, require a push.  It seems like a traditional part of the Sunday afternoon down at the local Municipal Campground.  Not too dissimilar to that dook and chittery bite.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Artesanal and Boutique

The OED definition for ‘Artesanal’ - a craftsman produced product, usually handmade.  Our possible definition, when the adjective is applied to beer, bread and icecream would be ‘more expensive, and of no discernible difference to its non-artesanal cousin’.

Artesanal cerveza will still be a blond beer, a lager.  It will still be a generic, fizzy, gut-distending liquid.  Of no noticeable difference to its South American brewed, germanically named euro-associate.  A Stellapilsner or a Heinekenweiser.

With artesanal icecream I find I can’t taste the difference between the mass produced ‘Arcor. Indus. Arg’ product and that of the handcrafed variety.  I even wonder if the appellation of artesanal applies to the fact that they take the mass produced and add a few nuts and give it a localised name?  I do, however, feel that several more weeks field research will be required to finally confirm this supposition.

The artesanal pan can be more problematic, both hit and miss.  A rustica will still be white, but might be more chewy.  But essentially on a blind tasting will be no different from the store purchased baguette.  It is a case of purchase more in hope than expectation.  Caveat Emptor.

As with all generalisations, you feel you have confirmed all the facts when along comes the exception.  It is the white bread rule.  If artesanal is non mass produced, made in small batches and sold locally, then our latest experience of tortas fritas and pan casero fit the artesanal title nicely, even if neither make the claim.

‘Siete Lagos‘, a much touted tourist route north from Angostura, a boutique resort where boutique and expensive are synonymous, is a mix of asphalt and grit.  As a cycling day it was a case of surviving convoys of car-induced grit storms, a pebbledash of loose stones and biting horseflies.  The scenery is a classic tourist ministry of picture postcard productions.  Flowering pastures, green lakes, steep valley sides, much of it viewed in a soft focus of pale, swirling dust clouds.  We were well warned, it is a classic cycle route, just don’t attempt it in super high season.  Interestingly, about 40 other cyclists chose to ignore the advice forbye ourselves.  It takes a lot of concentration, picking an immediate route that won’t leave you floundering in a lateral moraine of loose sand, sliding down the roadside berm.  Down and wipeout.  So, by the time we hit the hard top, fingers are stiff from gripping, body plated in a sweat-encrusted dust, mind tied tight from concentration.  The last few kilometres are an exhilarating downhill, fast, smooth and there, at the bottom of the hill is the perfect campground.  Lodged between two lakes, cropped grass, views of mountains, enough wind to deter the insects.  Perfect.  We are prospecting the possibilities for the actual tent position when a gent with his sons and a basket go by.  He shouts over: ‘Tortas Fritas?’  It’s his last bag and there’s no way we are letting anybody else get them.  Now comes the reason for holding a cache of small change and low denomination notes.  It is always a cash sale and there’s never change.  We don’t have quite enough, but he is keen to clear his basket, so we get the bargain.  ¿What are Tortas Fritas?  They make a deep fried pizza supper look healthy.  Take a piece of bread dough, shape it to a flat briquette, gaff it on a hook, then dip into a vat of boiling beef dripping.  Simple.  On another occasion the vendor suggested that we add a spreading of butter to help improve them, taking the grease-saturation index up to coronary cholesterol extreme.  As ‘gasolina para cyclistas’ at the end of an interesting day, it was nectar, but was it artesanal nectar?

The pan casero experience happened when the campground owner in Alumine offered to make some one evening.  It is a loaf baked in a conical cob bread oven, all the heat coming from the base.  It gives a thick, crusty bottom and arrived at our tent hot, ready to melt butter into.  No artesanal appellation again, but it fits our definition of good bread.

Of Watches, Zips and Techie Gear

I have long known of my lack of affinity with things of a mechanical nature.  Spring wound watches will happily keep time whilst lost in a drawer, but apply them to my wrist and within 2 days they will be defunct.  Give me a zipper and I can either jam it irreparably or manage to remove the closure off the end within moments.  Inconsequential problems, unless the timepiece was lovingly inscribed by your new bride, or the zipper keeps a flyscreen in place when camped in a malarial swamp.

However, to these two can now be added a further category; anything that involves the three letters w, anything that requires a connection or a transmission through the ether.

The Kindle went first, the screen deciding it preferred a triangulist’s montage of multiple images, followed by a refusal to connect to the weekly edition of the New Statesman; finally resolving the issue by going defunct.  The Kindle having achieved this conclusion, the netbook decided it needed to join in.  It took its cue from the book reader, catching some of its viral contagion, rendering the screen so dark it was only discernible at midday in the full glare of a southern summer sun.  Then decides to enter ´cook´ mode: place an egg on the screen, and you will have a sunny side up ready in moments.

Who knows what the cause is.  Abandoning the tenets of keeping it simple and stupid, renouncing my creed of technophobic credentials or the 80km of consolidated ripio grit road, that more closely resembled a riverbed.  I, and by inference, everything on the bike has been shaken, rattled and rolled. Hour after hour.  All the clever bits of kit (for ‘clever’ read ‘expensive‘) have been tightly packed, sealed up against the persistent, penetrating dust.  Or more likely, I’m just plain hamfisted and should not be let loose with anything more specialised than a claw hammer.

So it was rather heartening when The Navigator’s Kindle decided it too couldn’t connect even when we sat under a transmission mast.  I wasn’t the only source of infection of techno-murphdom.  Paranoia was setting in.  Was this another piece of over-hyped, westernised baubles being despatched back to base, home to Mother?  A series of communications with Amazon, or at least ‘India’ eventually produces a response: enter 311.  Remarkable.  20 seconds later we have the tanks rolling into Cairo and all the back editions of the New Statesman.  Occasionally my faith in this new, incomprehensible world of instant, ethereal information and communication is restored.  Which is more than can be claimed for my lifeless, defunct, inanimate, impedimenta.

A note from The Navigator: new netbook which speaks to us in Spanish.  You would not believe the issues involved in buying a piece of technology here - or perhaps you would.  Another story for another day!  So please forgive any spurious characters appearing in the text due to the different keyboard layout.  That's my excuse, anyway!