Thursday, 24 March 2011

Almost April....

Deserted downtown BA this morning. 
Which holiday is this?

Yes indeed, it is almost April, and we fly home from Buenos Aires tomorrow.  6 months, 10,300 km, and an absolutely amazing trip.

As the stories have not yet caught up with us, it is likely that the blog will continue to be updated for the next few weeks.  Once I've got the hang of photos, Flickr, Picasa and whatnot, (and Windows isn't speaking to me in Spanish), you will have the opportunity to see some of the (thousands of) photographs.

We would like to say a huge 'Thank You' to everyone who has been enjoying the journey with us.  It has been great to have your company; in fact, more than that: your encouragement and invisible presence has been very important to us both.

With best wishes,

Chris (The Chronicler) and Lesley (The Navigator)

Off on a Tangent: Laguna Brava

We had intended it to be a simple crossover, the start of a figure of eight, it would keep our overview map nice and simple. It would be a crossroads. We would leave Villa Union, head north and cross into Chile by way of a very quiet, very high frontier crossing point, with the possibility of returning by another Andean pass. It would be another challenge, another Americas experience, another ‘out of this world‘. In the interests of comfort and safety, we do a bit of initial planning, read some blogs, talk to the tourist office, remember some snippet of conversation we had several weeks ago, with fellow travellers. All of which leaves us in a degree of confusion: is the customs post open week round? Is there water to be sourced on the Chilean side? What is the state of the road? The real imponderable is the weather, and in particular the wind, for which there will be no reliable advice. In the end it was one single sentence from an account of a crossing the previous year that decided our eventual intentions: ‘the border was closed on the 28th February’. This year St Valentine’s day has been and gone. A crossing might be off the cards, yet there’s the tantalising prospect of a ‘parque natural’ and a cycling elevation score to collect. All sitting at the end of a road.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Podunk Pueblo

Wind storm, leads to dust storm, leads to zip failure and for once my hand was not attached to the offending item. I wasn't even in the vicinity. Our municipal site is sun shaded, but the understorey is denuded of modesty or of anything green. Rivulets of dust are running low across the surface, twisting and knotting just like river waters, collecting up píne needles and candy wrappers, then settling out in inside any crevice or bielded corner. Finding ways into book spines, screw tops and zip closures. Ears, noses and throats. Knickers, bearings and insanity. A dry powder that is hygroscopic, that attracts any moisture, dampness or sweaty body, creating a grinding paste of industrial strength and the question: will I ever get clean again?

Monday, 21 March 2011


If you read some of these posts and find they are making little sense, seems to have taken a dislike to the apostrophe and sometimes (only sometimes) uses it as a signal to scramble the post.  So no, the stream of consciousness is not any more confused than normal, it is the technology.  I will try to fix it in due course.
The Editor

Buta Billon to Bardas Blancas.

Camped high and wild, amongst the cactus, ridden the ripio down, down to an ashen grey Rio Grande, all to the sparse accompaniment of the occasional passing car. Found the tar and sailed out onto the open strath. The river removed from the constraints of it’s volcanic corset, exhales and plaits braids across the wide, flat lands. For a background we have the world’s greatest concentration of volcanic spouts. Payan Matru has been our constant companion for two days, sitting high and elegant on our eastern horizon. Last night, dressing in a thin mantle of cloud, a gauze negligee that barely preserved her modesty. Then as darkness descended, she stripped off and flew her garments like a flag in the rising night wind. An exquisite, classic near symmetrical volcanic cone, standing clear above her neighbouring siblings. Lower down, a sloping table land is softened by low vegetation and a low rising sun, that accentuates with deep shadows the numerous small volcanic eruptions. The slanting light also captures and enumerates the encampments of portacabins, the derricks of drilling rigs and the plumes of dust disturbed by servicing fuel tankers and speeding pick-up trucks. An acne of exploration among the volcanic pimples. Now we understand the bright light, that we initially took to be a star, one that never seemed to move. It was more flood-light than epiphaneal nova.


Sunday, 20 March 2011

Reverence and Homage for a Mountain: Aconcagua.

It’s sat on my left shoulder, sat at ten to the hour, for the better part of a cycling morning, only starting to recede back to a ‘quarter to’ as the day’s heat reaches it’s zenith. We’re running up the Valle del Uco, heading for the stretched out conglomeration of towns that makes up Mendoza and it’s environs. Still in an infatuation with Ruta Cuarenta. Aconcagua is so massive a mountain that it takes it three whole days to pass us by. It’s prominence is immense, yet scale is hard to apportion. A weather front spreads, rolls out from the east, out from the Pampa and approaches the Andean cordilleras. It only reaches part way up the slopes. It’s only then that you start to realise the height and size of the barrier. Those low ridges that you took to be mere hills , are in fact high mountains in their own right, and would grace any north European bagger’s tick list or postcard collection. Only today these poor hills are down graded to ’Class II’, and accorded the graceless title: ’pre-Cordilleras’

Friday, 18 March 2011

“Argentina in a Nutshell” - The Ultimate Single Image.

If, after four months, much of it in Argentina, I can take just one single image away with me, one that sums up our experiences here, then I caught it today. It’s cerebral, rather than digital in depiction, although a re-enactment could be created for the blogosphere. However it wouldn’t include the surrounding, and preceding impressions and images that have been built together to create my mood, temper and humour at that moment.

We’d solved the techie issues, survived a dose of retail therapy, sourced last minute, walk-in, city centre accommodation, all with the novelty of a bath. We’d lain long past sun rise in a youth hostel, just so we could avail ourselves of the price inclusive breakfast. The coffee alone was worth it. Exited alive from yet another city, and we’re now cycling through heavy dapple. The road lined by hefty, shading plain trees, riding past butternut squash, honeydew melons and table ready grapes.. Stopped to eat chocolate cake in a bus cum sun shelter, chatted with two inquisitive boys and watched the last of Aconcagua float away in a heat haze. Life is good.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Pottinger's Law

One of the lesser known axioms from the canon on “temptations of the fates” is Pottinger’s Law. As against the more generalised decrees promulgated by the ‘doom mongers of destiny’, this one is directly associated with roads and those who use them.

First brought to the attention of the general public, or more specifically the BBC Radio Four public, by the efforts of the late John Peel. Mr Pottinger, unlike a racially derogatory Irishman or the more generic ‘lump of turf’, is a particular, identifiable person. An Orcadian, acting as the islands’ BBC weather broadcaster, he noted that if two cars are motoring towards each other, they would inevitably meet at the narrow bridge. Simple and specific. It’s also remarkably accurate, and if you substitute bridge with dog walker, horse, cyclist or sheep for example, then the rate of incidence increases proportionately.

Saturday morning, the traffic is slight to negligible, we’re approaching El Cholar, visibility and sight lines are measurable in kilometres. A pick-up with it’s tethered, attendant plume of dust is in my rear view mirror, in front are three gauchos with a posse of dogs spread across the road, behind them another pick-up. Along with ourselves, we are the mobile imponderables, now fit in the one tangible fixed asset. A single lane bridge. You can see the inevitable unfolding.
Of course we all meet at once. As with ‘sail before steam’, so with ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ - our wheels counting as legs, dogs, horses and bikes assert their precedence and we all pass in a wave of good humoured greetings. A perfect Pottinger

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Pacha Mama Manifested, Recreated, Resurrected as an Ant.

Pacha Mama is the earth mother for the Quechuan nation, who’s god leader in pre-Colombian days was the Inca. Reverence for her is typified, even to day, by making an offering of a small morsel of your food, thrown out over the earth. A piece of crust, A cut of fruit, a sliver of meat. We do the same, although our act is more inadvertent. A scattering of crumbs, a crushed cracker, a mush of pear pulp.

Once our bequest is earth bound though, ants will soon detect our offering, crumbs will soon be heading down a motorway that’s been swept of grit, cleared of any obstructions. Size offers no complication, bulk no problem, co-operation and team work are paramount. A gobbet of corned beef, slowly but purposefully heads towards a cratered hole in the ground, I can count over twenty ants assisting in the removal. Yet, even in these ordered, co-operative societies there are the rebels, the obstructives, the jokers. A large flake of crust follows the meat down the trail, several are involved in the project, yet there are two who seem intent on thwarting the flitting, tripping the workers, clambering and riding on top of the bread. Comedians or the transport manager?  

Monday, 14 March 2011

The Conspiracy

(Note from The Editor: seems intent on screwing this post up.  Seems to have taken a dislike to apostrophes.  So if nothing makes any sense, for once you do not have to blame The Chronicler.)

Slowly but surely I am coming to the conclusion that there is a deliberate conspiracy afoot. An intrigue between anywhere with photograph-ability and the electrical supply companies. Its global and spreading like a mutating virus. This has been finally proven. Roadside signage has been erected, instructing, commanding, dictating me to take a photograph. Thank-you, I wouldnt have noticed those fantastic, sculptured, eroded rock towers if you hadnt brought them to my attention, you even offered me a scripted title. You then allowed a column of pylons to march right across the foreground. Like lumbering enslaved giants, cowed and dejected they stretch out across the hillside.
Maybe the conspiracy doesnt place natural phenomena against the utilities industry, maybe we are being prepared, manipulated by a more subtle machination. Could this be a scheme hatched by the photographic industry of Japan, whereby the next generation of cameras will automatically include photo shop soft ware that will immediately erase all poles, wires and cables, all for a small consideration, the cost of a new upgrade. Old camera cost plus 15%, sorry, no trade-ins: nobody wants them. Cynical? Who, me?

There is also, on occasions, the unintended, interesting consequences of the utilities existence. To remove them from my viewfinder Ive walked a short distance away from the road and their alignment. Ive found a perfect camp site. This on comes with a patch of compacted, thorn free sand, tree shade and a visual screen from the road.

So if you can't beat the parade of poles, and let's face it, I need their cargo to charge up my camera battery, then you just have to join them. Yet, there is a certain beauty in their outline and a degree of anthropomorphism. The tall structures found in the UK, I liken to an elegant patrician spinster; the more squat pylons of northern Europe are Homo erectus, new down from the trees. The trick is to incorporate the offending impedimenta, using their structure to tell a story, lead the eye into the picture or as a construct in their own right. Theres the tilting telegraph, like staggering drunks, that place and locate the grass swamped, disused, railway. Or the near infinite line of concrete poles, fusing as one with distance, breaching the distant horizon. The strung out pylons playing to the undulating road, rising and falling like a set of scales, metronomic in beat, scripted musical notation. Now, stand with your back propped against one of these wooden poles and you can feel and hear the song and the tension in those strung out wires. Then theres the tall thin skeletal erections, their lattice work enmeshed with a thatch of twigs, the condominium of parakeets nests.

Out here in the open, in-between spaces, they and the asphalt are the only reminder of human existence, and for ourselves, a tentative tether that prevents a vague shadow of angst or loneliness from settling down on us.

Last night you gave me air conditioning and a fan, tonight you showed me to a camp spot.

Thank you power people.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Wild and Not so Empty Campings.

The digger has scraped out the sand choked gullies, the storm cundies that run under the road, a preparation for the next flood. The spoil heaped in a bing that offers us a perfect screen from the road. We
 s a bit like two nights ago. Again a wild desert camping, surrounded by heavy thorn, a compacted area with a narrow tunnel for an entrance, a discrete entrance along which I shredded irreparably my only shirt. There is, however, a pony trail near by, and I had at first considered it for a site. It was bigger, flatter, but weve seen what speed a spooked, unbroken horse can do. Were pitched, we've cooked a meal and just about to turn in for the night. The frogs and the hoppers are in full chorus, yet above their clamour I can hear a human voice singing. Vaguely falsetto, fully off key and its coming our way, getting louder, less harmonious. A gaucho passes on his horse, waves and passes on. It would appear that hes seen it all before, gringo cyclists camped by the side of the road. It was his path that Id considered for a site.
 its safe out here in the campo’ roadside camps arent a felony, its quite acceptable, even normal.
Towards the beginning of the trip, we might have considered a pack-up and move on, to find a new, secretive site. Not now: our streetwise senses have for some considerable time been saying
 s rolling stock. A level of screech, that in the industrial work place would arouse the interests of the safety officer, and require the mandatory use of ear defenders. They could out perform, out compete any Argentine camp ground a 3am on a Sunday morning, however unlike their electro-amped competitors they come with an off button. They can all stop instantaneously, for no apparent or obvious reason, stop in perfect unison, an achievement that any choral master would be proud off. Our cola lorry site had its excavated drains, but what I hadnt noticed on my initial inspection tour was the muddy puddles that had formed out of the last downpour, a short walk along the road. Now muddy puddles in the desert have the attractive ability of an electro-magnet in an iron fillings factory. In Australia, to encourage patrons to put the lights out in the toilet they place a notice on the back of the door: s pure coincidence, but our amorous amphibians have acquired an amped sound system that any stadium rock concert venue would dream about. A man-high corrugated pipe, two full carriageways wide. It's remarkable what a din a combo of five frogs can achieve, its got the insistence of car alarms, yet without the annoyance. They employ the speaking tube, the sounding horn to maximum efficiency, sending echoing calls, love songs far out into the bush, far into the night. In the morning I check out the muddy hole; its pock marked with flooded hoof prints, each off which are a bubbling agitation of mosquito larvae, the whole area a churned up soft red glutinous ooze, into which our frog chorus plop. Theyre no bigger than a thumb nail. Only proving the adage: small bodies, big noise.
Our supposed, quasi secretive sites have one character in common. They come with critter noise. Our gaucho spotted place has cicadas and grasshoppers who set up a cacophony of chirrups, that merge and amplify as the sun wanes, a collusion of noise that sounds like the un-lubricated wheel bearings of Scotrail

Lights attract moths,
Moths attract frogs,
Frog attract snakes.
Now put the lights out!

Our water hole attracted the bell clanking cattle and the frogs. It
 s all too easy to look at these big open spaces and to expect to encounter emptiness. The tracks disappearing off from the highway will lead, eventually to a habitation, the dried out dung will have come from a cow, goat or horse. It might look like a semi-arid desert, but as our last two desert campings prove, its not depopulated, its not deserted.
ve established ourselves under a thorny acacia tree, reading books, writing blogs, studying maps. Sitting out the last of the days heat. Its a perfect spot, it seems quiet, devoid of evidence that might suggest recent activity. No car tracks, no hoof prints, no river beds. We should be undisturbed. Which begs the question: where did the bell wearing cows clang in from? And, how did the Pepsi-Cola tooting lorry see us?.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Varying and Irrational Standards or The Fickleness of a Traveller.

Chos Malal municipal campground is shown on the tourist office’s drawing as being on the banks of the Rio Curi Leuill, a small tributary of the considerably more consequential Rio Neuquen. The inference being tenting spots with immediate access, or at least view of a river. What the drawing omits are the excavated pits of river gravel, the flood protection gabion boxes, a gravel road and a link net fence. It’s a site that’s suffering under the weight of high season visitors, a spot of deep cleaning and bin emptying would help. It’s a dusty site, but the water tanker makes regular visits, one of which coincided with our ongoing research into local customs: the manufacture of artesanal ice creams. He soaked both ourselves and our field work. (The blue stuff: Cielo Azul turns out to be a bland generic whose interest lies entirely in the colour.) Not our best campground, but it’s safe, we can leave the tent unattended, a precaution not afforded on a wild roadside pitch or some of our pre-Christmas deserted camp grounds. In Scottish terms it was cheap, but we’re well converted to a South American economy so it lacked a certain level of VFM. We pay the tab, but feel slightly cheated, which is inconsistent, as we voluntarily contribute the same, for less, the following night.

We’ve found our way to our ’spa’ resort at Buta Ranquil, found our family, by the time this is posted number six will be in evidence, found the roosting chooks and the cold sulphur bath. When we arrive, like good little non-Latinos, we offer to pay immediately, ask the charge and father places his hand on his chest and says “what ever the heart considers right”. It’s also obvious that he isn’t expecting the pesos right away. It’s all very relaxed, all very easy, all very Latin. I’m distinctly unrelaxed, uneasy, very Scottish. That problem is all mine. I’m well outside a comfort box, but there’s no way that we can back out, conscience and credibility outweigh the anxiety. The tent pitch, or just the act of activity, help to create a bridge over the language chasm. The youngest boy is dressed for a dapper gaucho, eschewing the swimming attire of his brothers and sisters, bombacha trousers, checked shirt and soft leather shoes, is the first to inspect our abode. His older brother is the wheeler dealer, keen to sell us a bag of plums. We negotiate on weight rather than on price. He starts at a half carrier bag, we at a more carryable amount. We settle amicably at a quantity that will fit in our panniers and won’t leave us with upset stomachs. Then he disappears to climb through the fruit trees, returning soon, we pay and solemnly shake hands. A concluded deal. The epitome of a gentleman; he’ll enter grade three in the New Year.

What political correctness won’t readily allow, but what is very apparent; this is a form of poverty that is a challenge to my sensibilities. There’s no vehicle no machinery, no apparent means of employment. A recently extended slab sided house that asks the question, ¿How do seven, soon to be eight live in such a small space? Even with a communicable exchange, there’s no way I could ask. Yet the body language of both the parents and the siblings, speak of easy co-existence. To our own eyes, our meagre collection of western goods look and feel like oversized, overstuffed baubles. In North America we’d felt undernourished, our tent a thin disguise beside the monstrous RVs, our lack of outdoor heating mutinous, of air conditioning but a sure sign of deviance. Heretical to consumerism. We were subversives operating under the radar, and I gloried in challenging their perceptions, in being seditious, rebellious and different. Tonight it is we who are the fat, bloated face of first world western merchandise. Where a bicycle dynamo light is an extravagance, mud guards mere profligacy, travelling time a decadence. Not so gloriously revolutionary now.

Father and sons come down to our camp, ostensibly to put on a light, but there‘s no way that we could accept that expense; we‘ll be bedded down long before dark anyway. We exchange the near standard repartee of our route, the beauty, the tranquillity, the friendliness……. We try to ascertain the road conditions, the reprovisioning possibilities further up the road. But it’s obvious that his world is centred on this town and his family. The lamp lighting exercise, a polite cover for collecting our camping fee. We’d both agreed previously that a contribution that matched our previous night in Chos Malal was in order. It’s accepted with grace and an easy acceptance. What degree of our account can be set against guilt is not easy to calculate, but I can reassure my conscience that at least these pesos go direct to a beneficial cause, and not into the coffers of a local government. I was also buying, not only a pitch and a bath, but also a story and an experience. Sometimes it’s views down alleys, glimpses through windows, a spectacle from the safe exposure of a moving bicycle or the security of a tinted glass window of a passing car, that are our only exposure to a differing financial world. Voyeuristic tourism. Occasionally we need to be denuded, stripped of our protective covers, the anonymity of the traveller. If at the same time we are discomforted and challenged, then it’s these episodes and exposures that add to the travelling experience.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Hunting the Iconic Fauna

Parques National come with conservation, protection and an engorged budget for roadside signage, or so it would seem. Hunting and the dumping of rubbish are crimes, a fact of which we are repeatedly reminded of every few kilometres. We are also requested to respect the ‘cruising animales’. A row of differing species are pictogram out of carved wood. It’s a row of the icons, a row to be ticked off. Some we can recognise, others we’ve seen but are unable to name. A visit to the park’s visitor information centre offers no enlightenment. First up is a ‘rhea’: tick, one running away into the bush a few kilometres back. Next, a grouse-like road-running bird, that with a Wiki search, suggest that it might be a ‘caracara’. It’s odd the lengths contributors will go with words to describe an item, when a picture would be such a simple solution. We claim a positive sighting on a few occasions. The third we take to be either a vicuña or a guanaco. It’s a question of size, both being members of the camelids. We got quite excited about these two, they stood on a sand hill ridge for some time, unperturbed by our presence until a car came along. Big tick, they’re high up on the Americas icon stakes, alongside pumas, condors and gauchos. The fourth is a rodent with a scaled tail, nocturnal, so all sightings are road kill. The fox is the easiest to identify, and as the cubs are just starting to leave the dens, we get to see quite a few. The last is an unidentified silhouette, that could be an armadillo and, if so, is in a living form remains un-ticked.

It’s one of the advantages, one of the joys of cycle travel, moving so slowly there’s the opportunity for the pull over for a curiosity or the sudden appearance at the side of the road. So for this sign, we have four hits, one miss and a question mark. Unfortunately cars seem to have a habit of hitting them all.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Never Judge a Book by its Cover

Loncophue: reprovision and head out of town. Four kilometres and just under an hour later we’re back in the same place. I’ve been blown into the ditch once and visited the far side of the double yellow line. All it would take is for one of our swerves and an overtaking truck to coincide; enough said. We retreat, it’s the better part of valour. The tourist office is closed, it’s only super high season, so it’s difficult to tell if the campground facilities might be unlocked. We’re not alone in this dilemma, they, however, can move on, we cannot. So we fall back on our standard retreat: a Hospedaje. The first is full, the first time we’ve encountered this problem. Señora’s reticence as to the status of her four rooms makes me suspect that she didn’t fancy our bikes taking up oily residency in her place. The second is empty, maybe not a good sign. The outer aspect are not conducive, but like our previous experiences, any refugio in a storm is still a refuge. We’re led through a side gate and into a courtyard waist deep in lupins, roses, gladioli, snapdragon, kniphofia, delphiniums, poppy, sweet william, topped by a fruiting peach and a grape vine. Never judge a book by it’s cover. The room is immaculate, the shower hot and we have a veranda to laze upon., all for less than a cramped, overcrowded, Bariloche campground. Such is the market and the mantra: location, location, location.

To celebrate, or commiserate our evening’s fortune, the forager heads for the rotisseria, but it’s closed; the heladeria for further field work on ice cream varieties. Dulce Patagonia, Moka Crema and Tramontana. Then the super mercado for the second time today, she causes mild amusement when she asks for bread, ’how has she eaten a dozen rolls already’, some antipasto, and a selection of cold cuts. There’s also a bottle of vino tinto, a bottle from the bodega at the bottom of the world, a bottle of Ventus. A weird sense of perspective or a wicked sense of humour. The label says it all. An insult to injury or a case of thumbing your nose. If you can’t beat them, you may as well join them, even if that’s under the table.

Last night’s noise was all about the wind in the poplars, tonight’s is distinctly antipodean. After the clattering tin roof subsided, the parrots started to fly in. A few at first, then a few hundred, the score keeps accumulating, the clamour increasing. Still more keep flying in from the campo, suddenly I’m grateful that we’re not pitched under those trees. As each new flight arrives, the greetings and news exchanged, so the chatter increases, the parrots now outnumber the inhabitants, even out vocalising the dogs. It sounds like an amplified rookery, an Australian memory.

We might be sheltered , inured to the wind in our secluded private room, but the poplars on the crest of the hill, up on the plateau are bent over telling another story. Maybe that bottle of red called ‘The Wind’, will need time to work it’s magic, that or it’s evil, devilish ways. It’s near full on dark, still the parrots keep flying in.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Dangerous Hairy Things that Cross the Road

Head wind, soft, penetrating rain, a 70km stretch of near straight road. A 6250m cerro to our left is consumed by cloud, the low red hills on our other side, vague, amorphous out lines. We’re all lost in a soft white world. A trip across the road side berm, and now I understand why there’s little agriculture. In the dry the tierra is a baked solid mat of wind blown dust; in the wet it turns into a slime of undrinkable glutinous sludge. Eminently campable in the dry, in the wet, a mud-fest. It’s been a while since we’ve had similar conditions; oddly, it was heading for exactly the same destination, Villa Union, back in December.

We resort to drafting, taking turns at breaking trail, rotating at each even kilometre post. The leader does the grunt work, the follower has to stay alert, fingers feathering the brakes; in these conditions it becomes a near freewheel.  I’m head down, taking the weather, lost in my own small world, keeping to a rhythm, playing with thoughts. When suddenly a young tarantula appears close by the front of my wheel. I miss and turn to make sure that the following set of wheels don’t complete the coup de grace. In doing so I wobble and the next thing I know , The Navigator is spluttering expletives as she stumbles across the tarmac on her hands and knees.
Accident book entry records, partial hole in Gore-Tex trousers, spilt powdered milk in pannier and a possible bruised knee. Despite my attempt to dissuade it, the spider continued its death march across the road.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Blasts and Bubbles From the Past.

The five centavo change today came with history, an illicit, guilty childhood memory. For Bazooka bubble gum lives. It still comes wrapped around with a quasi cartoon strip, and the encrypted horoscope. Gone however, at least from this one sample, is the flesh pink colour, replaced by a menta green flavour. However it’s more green than mint. I would like to report on the elasticity of the aspartamine, the bubbleability of the produced balloon, but guilt and conscience are still strong, even after forty odd years. It was always a banned, a total no-no, purchase. Trash. Very non middle class. A cast of sweet that ranked in an even lower league than chewing gum and the penny tray. I give it a few moments of mastication, it swells up to uncomfortable proportions and just as quickly I’m scrapping a hole in the gutter for disposal. It’s as disagreeable as I remember, only now there’s no challenge of the forbidden fruits, no defiance of the illicit goods. No fun at all.

Friday, 4 March 2011

The All Over Body Workout

Six hours of ripio road is a wonderful substitution for a session of vibro-massage. However, if that surface can have the added assets of river rounded ball bearing gravel, and bomb crater pot holes, there are all the added benefits of improved poise, and body posture, better balance and complete composure, enlightened humility and self-depreciating humour. There’s the psychological pleasure of achievement in adversity, the addict’s high from endorphin production, the insomniac’s good night sleep and the gourmand’s total disregard for calorie counting. It can even be enjoyable, in much the same way as banging your head against a brick wall is fun…..when you stop. There are some, those at the extreme end of the alternative food world, who advocate a spoonful of rock dust daily; a few hours on the Seite Lagos road will easily accomplish your RWI, your recommended weekly intake. So ripio roads have their place in the tenderisation of body parts, in the stimulation of neural pathways and in improving muscle tone. Yet one of the places where they fail, is in facial aerobics. Cursing and verbally abusing the latest passing convoy only augments your RDI of dust, and excites the stress hormones, no matter how satisfying the initial response might be. So the travelling cyclist needs to find an acceptable method of countering this omission in the ’total body work out’. This is where three day old ’pan de campo’ comes to the fore.

We’ve headed back off the road that goes through those supposed, much warned, oft much feared, ’big open spaces’. So when a small peeling wooden board appears near the verge and claims ’pan casero y tortas’, you do as the Duke of Wellington advised his officers:’ never miss an opportunity’, we stop to investigate. He wasn’t referring to bread, but to ’calls of nature’, however the same rules and ethos apply. The forager returns, mission accomplished with three ’regional specials’ pan de campo. Griddle baked flat breads, the ’especial’ being a peppering of micro chipped goat jerky and a glaze of sugar syrup. Discus in shape, discus in weight and as it transpires, discus in consistency. Maybe the ’regional typical’ refers to the age as well as the dressing, for three day old bread does wonders for the facial muscle tone and the jaw line. Satisfying our ancient Neanderthal traits, an ancestral memory of tearing raw flesh from the bone and the mastication of fibrous vegetation. Refreshed with a sprinkling of water and toasting they start to improve. However they now have to out-manoeuvre the ’warm from the oven pan casero that we found around the very next bend. A situation that is nearly always inevitable, and incontrovertible proof of ’Sod’s’ existence. The picnic by the river bank that materialises around the corner, right after you’ve perched on a sharp rock, on a dusty verge, constructing a grit infused lunchtime sandwich. The near perfect tenting spot found early the next morning, after leaving last night’s less than perfect wild roadside camp. All come from within the same category. If only we’d carried on a little bit further….. - but it won’t work, it can’t work, because it’s against the rules, these places only appear, like Brigadoon, to confound and to frustrate. To prove that the trickster gods, Loki and his cohorts, have the upper hand, and to keep we mere humans in our lowly place.

With all this muscle stimulation and excitement comes physical ’belt tightening’, and a descent down the clothing size scale. I’d watched her step on the chemist’s scales and give soft smile of satisfaction. That 16 to 12 now implies an imminent requirement for fiscal belt tightening, as I can see the words ”new wardrobe” appearing just over the horizon. Just an other example of those ’benefits’ offered by dust and grit built ripio roads.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Six Sequential Nights in the Andes

Not a rock, tree or shrub to hide behind, let alone tie a tent down to, when along comes a vast heap of road-cutting spoil; a mountain of rocks that with judicious excavation, we’re able to create a platform and wall to shelter our tent. Shelter is always the issue.

A long climb at the end of a day on good ripio had not been intended or expected. A bielded spot, let alone an area big enough to take the tent, just wouldn’t materialise. The top of the pass is flat, but totally exposed, when a short distance off the road we spy a wood of commercial pine. Perfect again.

These two pitchings have been silent of human disturbing. Our third in this sextage(?) was clannish camping, a loving embrace of nylon, a granny knot of guylines.

Then a secluded spot high in the desert, only a few metres from the road but invisible to anyone passing - not that there were many; the fifth night landed us in the backyard of Don Avila’s finca, camping a la ferme.

The final night is truly bizarre. It is the storage cupboard of a small comedor alongside sixteen packs of loo roll and sixty bottles of Malbec.

Six nights of ever-changing, ever rotating experiences.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Information Transfer.

It’s siesta in Ranquil Norte. I suspect it’s always siesta in Ranquil Norte. Population sub five hundred, three are crossing the street, one is working in the ‘turista informes’. It would seem churlish to pass by with out at least saying ‘hallo’. It also happens to be the first ”i “ if you enter Provincia de Mendoza from the south, so it could, it should be a source of new intelligence. Are there provisions to be had at any of the dots that appear on our map, are there campgrounds, what’s the state of the road? Just a modicum of enlightenment. The forager takes her bag of candy with her as she noted the tourist officer’s son playing through the glass door. The son snaffles a handful and in return we get a duplication of glossy guff on the merits of the municipality’s winter ski season. An event that occurs seven riding and six calendar months ahead of us. As to reliable, usable today, information, there is a campground somewhere with in the waved arc of an arm’s distance, but as it’s without services we don’t investigate. We’ve already noted an infinite number of possibilities, including the cemetery, on the way into the pueblo. As to grocery provision she’s not sure; the road’s status?: that gets lost in translation. A handful of sweets for a handful of expensively produced non information; looks like a poor deal, the duplication hardly a bargain. Not a lot of nutritional or calorific value in the paper either, despite it being low in salts and trans-fatty acids. We enter these establishments more in hope than in expectation, yet occasionally we collect a gem which tempts us back into the next ’informes’. We’d anticipated a few days of ‘big open spaces’, stocked up on the staples of polenta, pasta and oats. It was an idea encouraged by our map, confirmed by the tourist information. The truth is somewhat different.
Next morning we meet two cycling Belgians going south, and in moments we have acquired everything a touring cyclist requires: water sources, camping areas, food reprovisioning. In return they have all our ’bon mots’. They leave us with a business card for a subsequent night’s camping possibility in Buta Billon.
Don Avila's wee campground
Out here, in a supposed ‘nothing space’, there are places trying to make a living, the passing visitor offering the prospect of some ’added value’. They get our custom. Without them life gets a little harder, yet more importantly, they deserve the support of their local government. It would have been nice to have been made aware of Don Avila’s establishment, of his proveedura, hospedaje, comidas tipicas, fresh water and camping at Buta Billon. We could so easily have stopped our day short, consequently passing by in the morning, and he missing a sale and ourselves a shower and an experience. Later we encounter Chris and Marge, two Canadians, again we top up on info, and on this occasion exchange oiling chains for a piece of dried goat jerky. A most amiable interlude.

‘Word of mouth’ as a means of advertising has always been known as the most enduring form of promotion, unfortunately doesn’t lend itself to an industry that needs to make a financial return. But for evidence of it’s efficacy take this tale from the campings in Malargue. We’re pottering around our tent, when a voice from behind asks “you must be the Scottish couple”. Pauline’s from Portobello, been cycling in the same direction as ourselves and has collected several evidences of our existence. Located and confirmed when she completed the register at reception and notices the word ’Haddington’ in the ‘Ciudad’ column. So we now know that the Belgian’s were heading for our ’spa’ camp and that the Canadians were also on their way. From her we glean all her gleanings on the road ahead, and end up travelling together for the next few days.

I’ve fulminated long and hard, wittered to my jotter, bored the covers off the ‘moleskine’ on numerous occasions about the dearth of hard, practical visitor information, of the plethora of glossy pages full of pretty, out of focus pictures and spurious, ineffectual wasted space. First prize, or at least the present leading position goes to…….. Enough is enough. I will return towards the end of the trip to enlighten you on the final positions in the “Tourist Guff League”.

Pauline, having scored some favourite sustenance
from the YPF

Desert Travellers

A cargo of extended families are loaded into an old, sun bleached, 1950s Ford Falcon pick-up. It passes slowly, grumbly, in a cloud of belched sooty reek, and an explosive horn and a sea of hands, as it tacks, eventually tracking its way to our side of the road. It must be Sunday, theyre off to., well it could be anywhere. Only there doesnt seem to be a lot of choice of anywheres out here. The road is straight, the horizon lost to a haze and an optical ocean. Some five minutes later I look up, look along the road, the pick-up is still there. Are they five miles or five years away? It makes little difference. Time seems like a concept for cities. Eventually, slowly they are absorbed by the road, dissolved by the light, consumed by the horizon. Were on our own again.