Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The Noise Gets Louder as the Conurbation Gets Closer.

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Same Road - Two Seasons, Two Worlds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

So What Have You Given Up For Lent?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 11 April 2011

Go East Young Man, and Find the Busy Lands.

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

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

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

Nuclear- and asphalt-free San Marcos

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

Pan casero from the casa in San Marcos

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

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

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

Sunday, 10 April 2011

When First Impressions are Everything

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

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

Saturday, 9 April 2011

“To be a traveller is to see the goodness in everything” Charles Darwin

Recipe for the preparation of a nothing day:

8 hours mist
1 shroud of cloud
80kms flat land
5-10km/h side wind
1 monotone of colourant
1 monoculture of vegetation.

Take the mist and thicken to a steady drizzle, allow for short bursts of more persistent rain, interspersed by the temptation to de-vest, or de-skin waterproofs.  Take this primary concoction and add to the flat land, spread out to a thin humid layer.  Then add a slight wind, side delivery is best. Care should be taken here, as a tail wind will excite the mix, giving too positive a spin, and a heavy head wind will depress and deflate the recipe.  The seasoning of a monocultural vegetation is a vital ingredient and should not be omitted.  Warning to cooks: at no time should the prospect of blue sky or any semblance of a shadow be allowed to be enter into the preparation as it will only lead to deflated depression and inflated optomism, spoiling your resultant day.  Now cook your cyclist for six hours in a skin of Gore-Tex, ensuring that humidity is kept at a constant 110%, and temperature is held at 22°C.  This should ensure the prospects for mild non-clinical depression are kept on a potential constant.  Should the recipe be exhibiting signs of failure, I offer this ’cook's secret’: over the prolonged and delicate cooking period it helps if you can add the tantalising prospect of 'coffee relief'  This can best be achieved by placing names for non existent places on the map, and by building an extinct ‘Policial Control’ on the provincial border that from a few kilometres away looks like a truckers stop.  Placing the Cola delivery lorry in the vicinity, will further enhance this misconception.  Should your recipe still be failing, try a supplication to the Saints - St. Lawrence is your man, although some would adhere to Santa Delia of Norwich as being more efficacious.

The perfect cycling non-day was well under way, but in the end it turned out spoiled.  Two bright positives were inadvertently added to the mix, spoiling what was building to be a perfect creation.  The first was one of those momentary pictorials.  Two sows, with small litters of porkers are rooting through a roadkill carcase of a cow. I would reckon that they’ve visited this comedor on many occasions before.  Possibly the rain has softened the desiccated leather hide, adding some new flavour.  My view is of a pig’s butt, it’s tail twitching with porcine bliss; the rest is inside the cavern of the rib cage. It enlivens my day nicely, starting the decomposition and putrefaction process.

The second, and concluding curdle, is the apparition of a 'hospedaje', when none was on prospect or expected.  It comes at the last house, in the last pueblo, at the end of the day.  End of culinary creation.  Sorry Delia, and thank you Charlie Darwin.

What a great opportunity for publishing a dose of boring photos; there are a few……thousand.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Evidence of Heat

A walk down any town’s shopping street tells the tale. Take Caucete as an example. A place with in the San Juan sphere of influence, a town of 33,000 souls. We walk its hot pavements during siesta, hugging the shade, hunting the WiFi and a possible source of replacement shirts, but also counting the varying species of shop. Footwear scores highest, offering up to fourteen opportunities for retail therapy. Whilst the numbers are of some interest, it’s the styles that tell the story. Take out all the glyphs, the ticks and the felines, both spurious and genuine, from the globalised sportswear industry and youre left with female fashion. This year it's all about Romano ampitheatre leather, open toed-closed ankle with high heels. Hot, dry weather wear. Second in the league table would be clothes, in particular 'ropa por mujer', ladies attire, all thin straps and short sleeves: hot weather wear. Electro-mechanicals come a close third, their windows only confirm all previous observations: that it's hot summer time. Musical amplification, air conditioners and standalone fans fill out the plate glass windows. All three could be incorporated into an heraldic shield, that, with the addition of a rising sun, would graphically summarise our experiences in these Americas.

Our initial recce scores the techi-connection at the gas station, which, of course neccessitates the purchase of the mandatory 'cafe con leche' - grande. We also ferret out the workwear shop. Behind the drills and the spades, the compressors and the knives, I find the shirts, boots and bombachas, all in a generic colour of municipalidad mud or town-hall tan. Constructed from thorn and bomb proof cotton and stained the tincture of 'soil', a hue that, both allows council workers and touring cyclists to blend into the countryside and relieves the necessity for a daily laundry session.

However, investigations and explorations at siesta time have one inherent fault: the entire selection is not on full display. A shop can magically materialise out of nowhere in the early evening, out from behind shutters, out from what we had taken to be a private home's front-room, out from a facade of dereliction. It's whilst walking back to our room in the gloom of a thick, humid evening, negotiating the broken paving slabs and the heaps of builders' sand, that we spot the glow of an emporium of discovery. An amalgam of ironmonger and agricultural supply, gents' outfitter and arsenal. A place so utterly devoid of tourist tack, yet stuffed full of potential travellers souvenirs. Fencing tools to dog chow, rat traps to horse harness, cow bells to bird cages, seeds and poisons, guns and bullets, locks and latches, machetes and switch blades, knives and knives and knives. The complete gaucho rig, saddle to spurs, hat to boots, bolladores to falcon. Everything, save the dog and the horse. It's here that we find our shirts, that come with the unusual appendages of long sleeves. Un-hot weather wear, which probably explains why we had the challenge of sourcing them.

This is a hot, dry country, all the evidence points that way.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Socioeconomic Measure of a Town: La Cumbre

La Cumbre, a polite town that sits towards the alpha end of a socioeconomic scale. My measure is based upon the 'croissant coefficient' and the 'impedimenta index'. Our empirical evidence being the availability of wholemeal bread and pond sieves, book exchanges and artists' studios. Then there's the bike hire with child's trailer and the reappearance of private school uniforms. When two shops can sell architectural and agricultural scrap, you know that you've entered a different type of town.

The maroon checked faltas, plaid kilts, hitched up to a revealing pelmet height for the ladies of the secondary, the juniors in gender segregated red and blue smocks. An old wooden cart and a rusting iron stove sit on the pavement, whilst another shop sells child sized terracotta urns and amphoras, rustic impedimenta for the designed garden. Paraphernalia, that to the west would find a second life mouldering at the back of the house, or blocking a hole in a fence.

Free WiFi at the YPF petrol stations
Cafes, or more properly coffee shops, swell onto the pavement, leaving narrow obstacle coourses through a throng of 'meet and greet' tables and chairs, and providing us with a moral dilemma. The YPF petrol station sits in the midst of this coffee culture, so do we keep loyalty, fidelity for all those times and occasions when they were the only choice, the only chance of a caffeine fix for miles around, or do we abscond, decamp to a new brand? The decision is taken from us; all their tables are full. We're disbanded and then re- branded.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Basalt Columns and Ephemeral Faces in the Hillside.

We’ve shown this picture to a few people now, and all have seen a face or a figure, yet they all give differing name or description.  An Inca, an Angle, a helmed warrior. For myself, I think of a 'green man', a flush of stone vegetation sprouting from his mouth, his cockade of Chilean pine.

Hundreds will go by each day, and most will never see him.  He sits high above the road, literally looking down on the passing traffic coming and going over the international frontier at Pino Hachado.  You have to crane your neck, look up through your sun-roof, if that’s part of your chosen transport.  For ourselves it’s easy.  We can stop anywhere, on blind corners, in gateways, even park up, abandon bikes and gaze skywards.  Just another of the cyclist’s perquisites.

Columns of basalt, pillars of granite, pediments of rock abound all around. The eroded, worn down nibs of volcanic plugs, blockhouses, citadels and castles, that erupt up and out of the landscape.  Stacked pilasters of outcropping crags, a rocky stockade, stands exposed on the cliffside.  Each emitting an endurance, venting a fortitude, that has deserted the surrounding, more tender, gentler rocks. The hexagonal geometric structures are stark and etched in the low light of morning, polished smooth by the last rays of evening.

It’s easy to see how myths started, how associations were created and places gained their names. Giants' Causeways and Samson’s Ribs, Fingal’s Caves and parental threats. “if you don’t eat your mammoth the green man’ll come and get you”.

I like to think that there’s a tale to be told about his existence. Was he wooed to his rocky grave by the duplicitous, evil wiles of a beautiful siren, who, as part of her infinite tiffs and petty bickering with celestials from the cordilleras, taunts him into an impossible task, tantalising him with pledges for trinkets of tierras and gewgaws of gold leaf. Unusually, he spurned the usual offer of eternal life.  Inevitably, predictably and prophetically, he fails.  His storm-wracked craft is ruined, petrified, his torso consumed by the mountain, mouth bunged, not by baubles of bling, but by branches of green leaves, then his head left to fossilize.  A megalithic monument to his rebellion and defiance for the preordained and his impudence and insolence to challenge the pantheon of mountain deities.  A monolithic admonitory caution for crabbit wee kids who won’t finish their mammoth burgers.

Monday, 4 April 2011

The Long Arm of a Home Society

Five months gone and a domestic, sedentary life seems and feels like an alien concept, an exotic notion; you know that it exits, you know that you once lived it.  Somewhere in the subconscious you know that you will return to it.  Yet........

Three weeks left, such a short time; then you have to remind yourself that that's a year's worth of holiday allocation for many.  A luxury for most and so must not be squandered.  Yet........ I hate this bit.  Suddenly, we actually have to start planning more than one day ahead.  Now there's the imperative of not heading off in a vague, undisclosed direction, sniffing out a spoor, following a suggestion that's been gleaned from a snippet of information, or a chance remark from a passing stranger.  Now we need to count the miles per day, factor in climatic imponderables. We need to keep our bikes pointing in a general direction of east and heading for the Atlantic coast, heading for the big conurbation. However, there's a problem with conurbations: people live in them.  So many months of misanthropic meanderings, wanderings in the wilderness, studiously by-passing cities, plotting avoidance routes, shunning the masses, that we've got out of the habit of assertive cycling, competing for street space.  Already the gloom mongerers are advising us to take a bus over the Pampa.  'Ten minutes and you've seen it all',  the 'MAMBA' stories are coming thick and fast.  The trouble is, I'm a cantankerous old sod and comments like these are a goad, a provocation to do otherwise.  Anyway it's a little over 700kms, Cordoba to BsAs, a week with a tail wind; or have I just temped fate?

Three weeks until the tentacles of a sedentary society apply their suckers and start to drag us back into its maw, back into the sticky clutches of its warm embrace.  Or so I thought.  Whilst checking our correspondence, we find that there's a notification that we've just paid for our first delivery of organic vegetables at the end of the month.  I guess that confirms it: we are going home.