Monday, 9 May 2011

Heading for an Estancia.

We're off to put some faces to names, names that I've heard bandied around for a good number of years by my sister and her family. Names that are always associated with the comments "if you get to Argentina, you'll have to visit Peter and Joyce, they've got an estancia just outside Ameghino".

The initial contact starts the previous week, whilst we're still in the southern Sierras, near to Cordoba. Maybe the term 'near to', like its close associates 'close by' and 'it's not far away', need an explanation. In a country that's five times the size of France, proximities are relative. In this instance the nearness is five riding days away. So if one is going to visit people you've never met before, people who might also, like us, have a vague recollection as to who we are, it's only courtesy to give an aproximate time of arrival. So we try to plan ahead, counting distance from the atlas. Getting a score in leagues that could be a week's cycling away. Now add in the gremlins of wind, sun and cartographical nuances, it could be anything from four to eight days. Which in the lexicon of proximities makes Ameghino 'just down the road'
Flat country cycling can be heaven or hell. It all depends on the wind, and they get wind here. Days one and two, we score a nice tidy metric century, day three is short, er, curtailed by the appearance of an hotel with a chiller and a fan. The next day's ride is a blast, both of wind and heat, getting close to an imperial cetury. We could be at the estancia before the weekend. Only a roadside sign appears, suggesting that a further day's riding has miraculously been added to our journey. On the long, unscripted trip, such foibles are insignificant, but when trying not to offend potential hosts, it can be frustrating. So maybe tommorow we can lay down another big day, to try to win back a peace of stolen schedule.

Nature and the 'trixter gods' abhor a vacuum; they require a balance. We've had our day of high speed, high odometer counts; now comes the balance. It's a day of two light shows. Starting with a storm of lightning that heralds a much needed day of rain, and as it transpires the onset of autumn. It's a day that, had we not been on a timetable, we might have sat out in the dry of some comfortable accommodation. It's still raining, and the television in the hotel breakfast room is forecasting a lot more. Disconcertingly, even inappropriately, insensitively they show a picture of a spattered puddle right after live coverage of the tsunami pulverising the Japanese coastline.
Rufino on a wet Saturday morning is deserted, lakes of rain-wash flood across all the junctions, rivers flow from out of side streets. We're trying to follow the signs to the town's by-pass. Only we keep encountering soft soil roads. Instant clogged mudguards. It's a town that requires the luck and the skill to roll a 'double six' on demand, to escape it soggy confines.

Eventually we abscond and find another quiet road, quiet because it's not heading for the Capital Federal, quiet because it's not beach weather. A thick mist has strarted to clag down, one that smothers out all definition and scale from the landscape. The soft amorphous islands of shelter belts and the silent wind mills are the only silhouettes to break the the low, dank skyline. We're being gathered into a monochromatic world of wet grey, out of which the occasional car or grain truck will sudenly appear with their swirling clouds of spray. Visibility is reducing at much the same rate as the wind is increasing. Our steady progress gets slower and slower, our destination a near constant mirage away over the horizon. Nature is back to teaching us a lesson; that it can give out and take back blessings in eaqual measure. No Ameghino today.

We've sat through this class before, compared and contrasted the message and the conclusion: there's no point in challenging 'la profesora', she will only award a 'C-' out of wilfull cussedness. Time to give in, and find a place to sit out the storm.

It's almost as if, having accepted the inevitable, been humbled into humility, our 'god of cyclists' rewards our sublimination. I'm reduced to walking pace, peering through an opaque of spattered spectacles to front and rear, distortions and anticipations of the next apparition to loom out of the gloom, negotiating a wobbly passage along the white line. Hoping for a sheltering refuge. A bus stop would be a less than perfect start or even a drainage tunnel, yet both are in short supply; those that do surface are either urine or rain infused. There's a vague outline of trees up ahead, a potential source of shelter. On the other hand it could be a clump of eucalyptus that are now shedding bark, branches and 'widow maker' limbs. Those trees remain as obscure fantasies, remaining a constant distance out in front. Like the fabled pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, it seems we are destined never to meet, if only because there's barely enouigh light to build a rainbow.

Slowly some particulars are added to the washed out cardboard cutout, the details are filled in. First the long, tall trunks, next the thrashing branches. Then, dispiritingly, a definition of geometric and angular outlines, the profile of a house. We still find it difficult to ask for shelter in someone's front garden; silly, but we both treasure our sense of independence, the self deluding idea of self reliance. Closer still, and disappointment turns to hope: 'Escuela #21', a rural school standing aloof in an anonymous gray world. I know an oasis when I see one, and there's no way we're passing up on this one. It's Saturday: so no classes, no teacher, nobody to ask permission from.  However, it's not going to stop us, and anyway it's a chance to add another tick to the list of differing 'camped spots'. This register of possibilities includes: under the arches, in the wine storage room, on the gas station forecourt. Still missing from the catalogue might be a night in a police dungeon or monastery cell. We hunker down in the lee of the store room, and brew a celebratory coffee. Yet another refuge in a storm, another 'thank you' at the shrine for cycling saints. Sit and watch the tall gum trees being tossed and turned by the storm, long tatters of bark come clattering over the tin roof, twigs and leaves are shot across the grass. I think that we are out of range of any falling limbs or even trees.
Its a 'quid pro quo', pay back for the temerity of attempting an imperial century and the hubris of beliving we could cheat our way into stealing a day back from the calendar, and our supposed schedule. Lesson learned.

Then as the sun sets, shafts of warm light creep in under the retreating, depleted storm clouds. Now we can be entertained by the antithesis of this morning's pre-dawn light show. We also get a visit from the local constabulary. Once again, this land might look and feel empty and deserted but for the rolling expanse of cereal cropping, but somebody has noted our presence. Documents and pleasantries exchanged, the sergeant suggests that we pitch our tent in the teacher's car port, the unspoken supposition being that all tents leak. In the circumstances, probably a more congenial option than the local town's lock-up and it's also a neat way of gaining a permission.
If yesterday was about one extreme, about dreich, washed out land forms, about the dull roar of wind and rain, about the menacing threat from falling limbs, then today is about a new extreme: bright, dry and the novelty of cold. Similar to the vocabulary of proximities, this chill is relative, as any teenaged temperature here requires a clothing of furs and woollens. We're riding the same road in a different world. Shifting from summer to autumn, moving from a humid tent to an estancia bed.