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.