Sunday, 30 December 2012

A Bed and a Shower

The sorbo rubber pillow that feels like it’s been stuffed with foam boulders, a thin mattress that can’t disguise the wooden slats below. A mosquito net that excludes the bugs and any air that the stratospherically-mounted fan manages to disturb. These buildings suck up the heat throughout the day, building an oven that slowly dissipates in the dark, like a night storage heater. The vague sense of cool only arriving with the crowing cocks and the first glimmer of light in the east. Then the cycle sets off again, a slow but persistent incremental increase in warmth with each day. Yet for the price of three bottles of soda we have a place out of the direct sun. It’s only when The Navigator mentions the room rate that I query her. We’ve passed several ’Motels’ that advertise this same charge, only it’s for a couple of hours. She hesitates for a moment, a small doubt is writ large. "no, I asked for una noche, I know I did. Anyway there’s two beds, no shower, no towels, no car port curtain. We’re alright."

‘Motel’: Paraguayan style, is part of an industry spawned from a lack of privacy offered to most local couples. They’re not what we had assumed on that first day in the country last time, as we blundered in like true gringos, missing the tell-tale signs of eponymous names like: ’Kiss’ or ’Venus y Amour’, or the high privacy walls  painted with love hearts. Yet I can’t help but note a steady inflation in the ‘love room’ market; the rates have remained constant, it’s the duration that has dropped. Still, you could use your loyalty card to help defray costs. For the Virgen de Caacupe pilgrimage in early December, householders along the route sell cooked meats and serve cold drinks to the observants, and one motel offers a ‘quarter hour’ rate, which has led to the axiom: ‘they came as two and left as three’.
We, if we want a half-decent night’s sleep will need to seek out the ‘habitacion con aire’; that, or find some elevation. Some 3,000 metres of it. Time to start heading west, heading for the Andean Puna.

Friday, 28 December 2012

The Liturgy

The liturgy: ‘de donde son’, ..’esc’…..followed closely by a series of gesticulations, the hand passing mid thigh, the fluttering of fingers and puckering of lips. The kilt and the bagpipe. What a lot Wattie Scott and a visiting Royal have to answer for.

I defend as best as my limited Spanish will allow, ‘it’s our national dress’ and struggling to find an Americas simile. The gaucho’s bombachas, cap or poncho. I’m not convincing.  Theirs is sensible every day workwear. It’s hard to get past the image of a man in a skirt. Then we pass through San Miguel.
The man himself is rendered in painted concrete, in an amphitheatre of national flags and ’crown of thorn’ cacti. But more importantly for my case, I now have a further argument to offer. He’s wearing a kilt.  A tad mini and in truth the clan tartan is a touch McRoman. But what I take to be significant is the fact that the saint’s namesake pueblo claims to be the Paraguayan  ‘Capital of Wool’. Now, ‘la falta Escosesa’ is, if not bought on the Royal Mile or as an Aldi Burn’s night special, made of wool.

Even if he is the patron Saint of British underwear, I find it difficult to decide if he’s wearing the kilt in the approved manner. However I don’t think he can be a true Scot. From his back sprout Archangel wings.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Definition of a Gentleman: A Man Who Knows How to Play the Accordion - but doesn't

There’s an election in the offing, it’s a near annual event in Paraguay. Our last visit coincided with polling day and everybody had blue fingertips. This one is five months away, but the starting gun has been fired. One of the downsides of a fixed term presidency is that everybody knows when it’s coming. The freehand wall-painters are back in demand, the politically pertinent coloured paints spatter every bus shelter. Stickers adorn the front side of cars and the back side of road signs; the opposition’s are crumpled balls in the gutter. The prospective candidates’ faces have been scrubbed and polished, passed  through the ‘lavadero politico’ and decorate the billboards and banners, along with their vowel-less party initials. Their names are ethnic Germanic; Fiti Shultz is running for Gov’nor, his side kick is Walter Harms. The bronze statuary in the town plazas are of woodcutters and field-tillers rather than the usual liberators and saints. The beer is Kaiser, the script is Gothic. The architecture, the hotel titles, the town’s dual language ’Welcome’ board all point to their ethnic source. We’re on a well ordered Teutonic campground in the ‘United Colonies’, a prosperous German ex-pat enclave.

This was the direction that this piece was heading in, a collection of indicators that are part of the Paraguayan economic story. That is, until we ended up in a beer keller.

It’s autumn in the northern hemisphere, it’s harvest festival in Germany, it’s OctoberFest in Bavaria, it’s Choppfest ’12 in Obligado, Paraguay.

‘Club Alemani’ is a vast humid hall, decked out in the tricolours of two nations in a Gordian knot of patriotic flags, draped over a high stage perched at one end. A  league of local dance troupes are strutting their moves when we arrive, classes of lost, bemused toddlers being led by older sisters, dressed in pig-tails and black bodices, red skirts and white aprons.   

‘ticky-tacky, ticky-tacky, oi-oi-oi’ … is the refrain that keeps repeating with each performance, such, that I start to wonder if this evening has an element of competition, the set piece…..

‘ticky-tacky, ticky- tacky, oi-oi-oi’. It’s all good clean protestant decorum, with one small exceptional moment; when one young all-girl group that’s more Latino dark than Saxon blond, dressed in multi coloured pompoms and flounces of crinoline, show their ethnic credentials with a risqué nod to carnival and a butt waggle. They’ve even brought along their younger siblings to provide the groupie scream. Then it’s back to tradition. Part one of the evening closes with a student group in lederhosen and sage hunting hats sawing lumber, chopping timber and swilling beer. The woodman’s dance.
Part Two: The evening progresses as a four piece takes to the floor in braces, shorts and leg warmers. At least the three grey heads do, the drummer is the exception, just as they are the world over, this one’s Latino black locks and conventional. The accordionist crouches on his stool like a wood imp atop his toadstool and leads the quartet into a series of polkas as the beer starts to flow. It’s steins of cerveza, two brands of indistinguishable fizzy amber liquid served or promoted by their respective ‘lager lovelies’. Remember Tennant’s cans of the 70’s?  Well, they’ve been reincarnated in the flesh. At least the ’Bramah’ girls have more flesh than the ’Pilsen’ ones. The former are pastiches of the Bavarian buxom wench, in white lacy tights, short red skirts and bust enhancing bodices, who must take eyelid exercise classes to cope with the sparkly falsies and the trowelled mascara. The latter are of the size zero, boobless, long flaxen haired type, squeezed from a mould into the sponsor’s blue body tube, and then elevated on blocked up platform shoes. Too superior to serve ale, but happy to pose with the grinning, testosterone charged balding males, whilst their greying frauliens glower, unamused.

It’s difficult to know if this is a parody, a fake ethnic memory, like the Scots abroad who are more Scottish than the ones at home. The Highland games, the Caledonian Societies. But it’s all good fun. As our Germanic German neighbour said, ‘We’d never be caught like this at home, but here‘.... as he launches into another  beer drinking song. Then that prophetic wee ditty reappears yet again…..’ticky-tacky, ticky-tacky, oi-oi-oi’, as the assembled chant and stomp the refrain: ‘ticky-tacky, ticky-tacky………’
It’s now that you remember a good Lairig Club ceilidh, a hot sweaty night in the old Union’s dungeon, kilts and rugby shirts, beer and stovies. All culminating in an inebriated ‘Auld Lang Syne’. There’s not much difference to this. In place of the tatties n’ dripping comes, what sounded like ‘ice vine’, but was sweinn. Ham haughs, sauerkraut, boiled potatoes and the Paraguayan touch of two white buns. Good heavy winter fare, stolid food fit for a forester. The plates are cleared and I sit back, replete, when along comes the pudding. Boy, do they know how to put it away, but I’m proud of my heritage and nurturing, my plate’s licked clean.

The band plays on. We’ve had ‘Y Viva España’, ‘Tulips from Amsterdam’, when, and I can only suppose that the minstrels want to call time. That wee gnome, atop his perch, calls the next dance: ‘El Paperito’. I don’t need the intro bars to get the message, the bass’ clucking hands and his flapping elbows are enough. It’s the ‘Birdy Dance’. As a method for clearing a hall, it’s effective, yet again, there’s not a great deal of difference from a group of  part inebriated students forming a circle, offering trusty hands and singing the two solitary lines that they know from their national bard’s  most famous song.  Our hosts call ‘enough’, and we leave for our tent.


Monday, 24 December 2012

Christmas and Khamas

For those of you who are following these epistles, you will no doubt have realised that there’s a time lag, worse than a Skype call, between word and map. The former has reached late October, and the jungle of Misiones, the latter is on the Puna, the Altiplano near the Bolivian border. Two worlds separated by four thousand metres of altitude, ninety percentage points of humidity and a calendar month. At the present rate of production and publication you’ll be in for a tedium of tales, long  after we return. Many establishments claim to offer a Wi-Fi connection, it seems to be a standard accoutrement , along side a toilet and a hand basin. When the reality is otherwise, strength is weak and the virus software bullies me into offering it priority. So when we get lucky and find the right place, hoping the local kids aren’t in the cyber-caf next door, destroying a virtual world and hogging any  available capacity, we go for a burn and post logs like the fire might go out.  So to keep in sequence, I now have to compose the Christmas Letter. Groan on both our parts. As we have no hyperactive offspring or overachieving events to relate, can I offer a thought and piece of lexiconic trivia?

Why Xmas? The spelling, not the event. It’s one of those assumptions that I’ve never thought to question, half assuming it was piece of slovenly shorthand or a pictorial reference to crucifixes. Time to delve… The 22nd letter of the Greek alphabet is ’x’ , ’chi’ - actually it’s slightly different but as this is a Spanish keyboard and yours is  probably an Anglo-Saxon one, you’ll need to visualise the ‘kiss’ letter, only with elongated tails. This is transliterated as ’kh’ or ’ch’, and represents the initial ’chi’ of the Greek ‘khristo’, Christ. Hence, Xmas. The ‘mass’ comes from a different root, from old English: moessa’, through ecclesiastical Latin, ‘missa’, possibly from the closing liturgy: ‘Ite missa est’, ’go, it is the dismissal’. Educational trivia.

Why Christmas? A message, not the event. Yesterday we were passing Alfarcito, a small Andean pueblo which seemed to be the centre of considerable activity, stopped to see what was happening, and more prosaically, to hunt down a tin of lentils. A place with a few low adobe dwellings, all with their mandatory PV powered satellite dishes, Coca-Cola signs and a stone church. All the standard constructs for any local village, only on this occasion, to one side stands an incongruous, smoked glass, reed thatch building.  Father Alechandro meets us and explains. The event and all the activity is to commemorate the passing of their priest a year ago. A young rugby playing man, who had been disabled in a parapenting accident seven years previously, yet as a paraplegic, had managed to minister to his congregation from his ‘donkey quad’, and to build this secondary school where none had ever existed before.  A message of Hope, writ large in tinted glazing.

A Salt Christmas Tree 
I’m penning and the Navigator will be advance blogging this, from a small mining town that extracts talc. The sun is intense, but there’s little of the debilitating heat found on the lowlands. This morning’s tent was frost-armoured and I rode in double gloves and heavy boots, which is possibly the only Venn diagrammatic point of contact between scribe and recipient this post-dated Christmas. Where we will be on the day, fate un-tempted, you will no doubt learn sometime around St. Valentine’s day.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Another Book Review

Since it's Christmas, and it is sooooo easy to buy books for the Kindle, here's another one for you.

Product Details
This is a wonderfully accessible take on a fascinating area of social history; the Chronicler and I have been exchanging brilliant gems of information as we've both been reading it on our respective Kindles.

Who knew that the perfect overbite, so beloved of modern dentists, only appeared in western populations about 250 years ago?  Coinciding with the adoption of the table knife to cut food up; the change has happened too quickly for it to be evolution. Or that in 1885, Marshall's Patent Freezer was making ice cream in 5 minutes - way faster than most modern kitchens can manage today?  

A great book for quoting from over the Christmas dinner table!

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Big Town Entry

The buses are clogged beyond standing room and every set of traffic lights becomes the starting grid for a Grand Prix race, the verges are broken and the trucks take no prisoners. Lost is the courtesy of the campo roads, it’s every person for themselves. Yet life is good. The Navigator has found her first chiperia.  A man with a gingham clothed wicker basket and standing on the corner calling his wares. After the diet of over-refined, nutrient-deficient white bread, it’s a pleasant chance to get a change, even when that product comes with it’s own dietetic devils; namely a larding of dripping that would lubricate a bike chain.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Book Review

Hello; for a change, this is the Navigator. I know, I'm usually just the editor and facilitator, but given that it's nearly Christmas, I thought I'd like to share this with you.

I've just finished reading a couple of books which I loved so much that as soon as I finished them, I started over again at the beginning. The books are the first two of a trilogy by Deborah Harkness: A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night.  The third is still in progress and hasn't been published yet.

Deborah is an historian with a few learned tomes to her name; this is a departure, and she tells some wonderful stories of witches, daemons and vampires.  Don't let the currently populist subject matter deter you; suspend your cynicism and get stuck in.  These books tell a grown-up fairytale, a fine tale of adventure and a love story within a framework of real historical facts and characters - particularly in the history of science and alchemy. During and after both readings, the story and characters stayed with me, and left me really looking forward to the next book.
 Product DetailsProduct Details
Let me know what you think.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Entry for OED

Chipa.  (n.) South America  (chiefly)  Paraguay: a bread made with manioc flour.  Sometimes known as cassava.
Derev. Tupi guraní via French mandioca.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Heathen Holiness

You don’t have to move very far down an Argentine road to become aware of the shrines that spread along the way. Some are dedicated to the more conventional Catholic saints, The Virgen de Lujan, San Cayatano, Santa Rita. Encased in glass cupolas on top of a painted nationalist blue pedestal, or imprisoned behind re-bars in a stone grotto, surround by votive candles and withering plastic flowers. Others are announced by a tatter of red flags, that suggest you’ve happened upon the remnants of socialists’ rally.

Each nation has there ne’er do wells, who are elevated to the status of national heroes. Their R. Hoods, N. Kellys, R. R. MacGregors. The ones who robbed the rich and gave to the poor. The ones who fancied a bit of steak for tea, killed the cow, and on being spotted by the old hag in the hovel, bought her silence with a pot of tripes. The Argentine version is G. Gil.

Antonio Gil, later to be remembered as Gauchito Gil or just El Gauchito, born 1847, fought in the War of the Triple Alliance, was conscripted into the Federal army, from where he deserted. Became a freebooting cattle rustler, was captured and strung up by his heels awaiting execution. Before beheading he’s supposed to have told the executing soldier that the soldier’s son was ill and would die, but would recover if he buried the unfortunate Gil’s body.  Not the standard practice, the carcass being left as gruesome warning to others. The sentence is carried out, the head taken to Goya, where a posthumous pardon is granted. The soldier’s son is deadly ill, so the executioner returns and buries the body. His son recovers and a phenomenon is born. 

By way of a  warning, and a request for respect, is this addendum; when passing the killing tree, you sound your horn, failure may result in a delayed arrival, or worse, no arrive at all.

The deed’s site lies just on the outskirts of Mercedes, but it’s a holy heathenish place, a litter of basura and cut up verges that leads to a few gimcrack stalls selling knickknacks. Droopy whiskered gaucho figurines, windscreen stickers, red rear-mirror ribbons.  His image branded on leather belts and maté flasks, with votives of car plates and wedding dresses, burnt candles and liquor bottles.

I like this form of rebellion. You can’t imagine the hierarchical authority of the Catholic church taking kindly to a beatification coming out of the plebeian morass. Which might explain  the ‘Ermita’ that stands a short distance along the road, dedicated to Santa Rita. It’s a small chapel, immaculate in white and pale blue, set among litter-free clipped grass and tidy trees. Two antithetical religious statements that have a connected history. The Crown and the Church wanted an illiterate transplanted population, an uneducated peasantry serviced by a poorly educated priesthood. For much of the early colonisation, only thee titles were allowed to be imported. A Bible and no Mills and Boon.  It can be of no surprise then, that a popular, home-grown hero can be posthumously elevated to the position of an indigenous saint.    

Like the old locomotive driver, I’ve pulled the cord on the virtual steam horn at each red-flagged shrine, along with the long-haulers who acknowledge us and the sanctified desperado. It’s benefactions accumulated in a bank of good karma, a line of credit that we might need for when we hit our first major accumulation of people and their attendant traffic. Posadas is on the horizon.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

A Trip to the Confessional Booth

I’m in a state of rehab, a self-certified prohibition for viewing the world through a camera’s lens, and on a diet for making to many photographs. Sent to the naughty step for a real greenhorn stupidity.

Maybe it helps that  we’ve been moving through less obviously, flat lit photogenic countryside. No stereotypical mountain ranges, no ranks of cataracts, no National Geographical peoples, these only
because I can’t take that type of shot. The story images are in small detail, the bumper sticker, the verge-side flowers, the mercado shelves. My Damian Hurst moments, that morbid fascination with festering, fly struck carcasses. Blog illustrations.

The red card grounding, is for an action that I would never have attempted, not even contemplated in the Victorian bush or the Southern States’ deserts. The Navigator is thrashing through some long grass, when she spooks and is spooked by a snake. All the specimens that we’ve seen so far have been tyre flattened or in the talons of a departing raptor. So a chance to capture one…… photographically? No, even I’m not that stupid. Only it was considerably bigger, longer than I had realised, it turned and I turned, and my one departing mental image is off a gaping mouth, lunging.  

However, today my resolve is challenged. Saladas is a town of sawmills and pallet makers, that has more to do with lumber than lettuces, so it’s little wonder that  we are riding through blocks of mature commercial timber.  Yet three images suggest world theme park rather than Argentine agro-business. Rounding a bend in the road I find a wall of dark, tall pines, breached by a silent blue pond, an isthmus of soft green reeds and margins fringed with white water lilies, two beasts are grazing, up to their oxters in the water. It’s pure Pacific north-west. It’s only when the two red animals lift their white faces that you realise that they’re Herefords and not moose. An idyllic, bucolic picture and I don’t take a photograph. Look to the other side of the road, and we’ve jumped continents and hemispheres. A Queensland wall of eucalyptus trees with  a water hole.  Another iconic-story, but still I couldn’t take a photo’. I won’t waste  pixels on Australia’s biggest, desecrating export, on a water guzzling, nutrient plundering  monster.  Only they make sound agro-business sense. Out of Oz, I don’t think I like the gums.

The third unconsummated  photo’ opportunity arrives later in the day as we re-enter the ’Zona del Palmares’. This time it’s a Bedouinic image: a clump of gently swaying palms that hem an oasis of water. The reason this time for the lack of recourse to the camera is another island of over-shadowing gums and the inevitable string of image-spoiling power lines.

Three celibate portraits, fleeting moments, lost to a camera’s sensor but valuably stored with the bias of a brain. And I kept the pledge.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Great questions of our Time: Why the ‘Zona del Palmares’?

At times questions present themselves which have the nature of the frivolous and are the subject of a lifetime of enquiry; others that eventually become so obvious, with the inclusion of only single observation and then the peso drops. Yet others are of a technical nature, of  personal taste, invariably agricultural. However, less esoterically and more mundane is the ’Zona del Palmares’.  It’s a question to which I can’t get a satisfactory answer.

We’ve crossed over or run along this belt of palms on five occasions now, due to our convoluted route planning and it’s elliptical sweep. We’ve become well acquainted with the phenomena. It starts with a few scattered, stunted specimens, quickly increasing in height and number. Almost antisocial in their scatter, keeping a safe water garnering distance apart. Cattle graze around them, harvesters cut around them and they’re the only plant that can survive under an apartheid of gums.

That’s the what, I need the why. Yet all the searches answer the first: that it’s ‘a belt of palms that encircles the globe’. Succinct, but not the point.  Is it a combination of geography, climatology and eco-political considerations? The way that they’re left standing unmolested in a crop of cereals, left as the sole survivors after a clear fell of  gums, suggests that they are protected. Or are they an extreme example for the definition of a ’weed’? A plant in the wrong place? Or, are they simply a plant in it’s right place?

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Great Questions of our Time: Why the Napkin Dispenser?

The napkin dispenser that is always jammed to impossible extraction with opaque, non-absorbent tissue paper. They’re there for the empanadas, and one hostess has felt that it was her national duty to show us how to eat  one of these meat pies in the Argentine way. Oddly, at the gas station I never see any locals following her demonstration.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Iberá Spotting

The best wildlife spotting in South America acts like a magnet, drawing in the national and international visitor. Pulling them through a glue of roadworks and an extraction of cash. The draw is a promise of the world’s noisiest mammal, a fat bottomed rodent and a prehistoric monster. The howler monkey, the capybara and the caiman. The usual teases, like a book’s flyer, are pasted along the roadside to encourage you in your onward quest. A fly infested roadkill carcase, followed, belatedly by a series of cut-out shadows and a request to respect the local fauna.

Then comes the prologue, that first distant spotting and the attendant excitement, the indistinct, distant photos of brown blobs, shot as they might transpire to be the sole record of the only sighting.

Like so many of these instances, there’s a script that must be followed. It’s more e-book than paper book. It’s not easy to jump ahead, to miss a chapter, to cheat and see what’s to come. The first chapter introduces the first character, that irreverent dictionary entry, that moves from a single specimen to a family group to a clan, to a giant rat without a scaly tail. You’re never more than ten feet from a capybara. 

A similar scenario is produced for the caiman. They too are lethargic, lazy players content to bask in the reeds and sink quietly into the murk, leaving a single yellow, unblinking eye above the surface. The third shadow, the Howler Monkey’s Tale never made it to the printer’s mill, possibly because there wasn’t the roadkill introduction. 

Got tired of rodent and amphibian counting, or neck wrenched from staring into simianless palms?  Then turn around and watch the watchers. I get a vague sense of their dissatisfaction that they have come all this way to find that they must now take a prepared, pre-paid, packaged boat trip, and that their accommodation comes with an inclusive horse ride and a night time excursion. Most independent travellers don’t take kindly to being herded, channelled along with the pack. The sleepless, storm bound night won’t have helped, nor the time it takes chairing the escape committee.

All wildlife watching? Is it the best location? I still contend that a bicycle is the best. I now know that capybaras are noisy eaters, especially in the night, that a ria can out run a loaded bike, and that a dead fan belt still resembles a striking snake.

Postscript: now there’s the two foot iguana, tongue scenting, that’s just walked past my foot.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Fantastical Fancies at the ATM

Need cash, always need cash. 

There’s a bank, cue a queue; there’s always a queue. The Forager joins, I defend the kit. Yet the line doesn’t move, people join and then leave. The Forager is still at the back. 

Eventually she gains entry to the booth and I lose sight of her. She returns with a tale: there was a policeman inside, standing right by the dispenser. He appeared to be entering numbers. The Forager's concern was, how could she politely dispose of him before starting a transaction?  Finally, the line of penitents is depleted and the officer leaves. The Forager is left confused and on her own.

What was going on? Have they just been sprung from the cells and are paying their overnight dues and court fines? The queue never increasing because the innocent didn’t want to be contaminated by association? Or have I just conjured up a fantastical fancy, a ridiculous scenario?

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Retreat from Iberá

It only takes a chance encounter to set our ever so tentative plans adrift. We’ve been stopped by a couple of joiners under an 'under construction' motorway bridge. We’ve passed the time of day, and yes, compared notes on the weather. Was Uruguay experiencing the same quantity of rain as Corrientes? As a parting shot they made the suggestion that we might like to try going north by way of the Iberá reserve, as the first 80km was now asphalted. This was news to us, as we had assumed the road was an earth one. It’s a route that registered on our radar two years ago, but we weren’t confident enough to take on such a problematic route. Get a shower and you might get stuck, get a storm and you will be stranded. Yet the temptations are high, it’s a route that takes in what one eminent guidebook describes as the best wildlife spotting area in the whole of South America.  Sorry Amazonia.  It’s a shot worth trying.

The distance under tar was, of course, a gross exaggeration.  A third is black topped, the remaining fraction is worse than an earth road, it’s an ’obras en construccion’, which my personal Spanish dictionary translates as a multiple-expletives ***** mess. Local road construction methods differ from those at home. Firstly in the distances undertaken as one project. The orange notice board that you see up in front is the first indication of trouble, but the depth of the problem becomes clearer the closer you get. ’Obras por 45km’. This paraphrases as: Render the existing consolidated surface to a soupy glaur for it’s entire length, then start to work on one single structure and one short distance at a time. Use the least amount of staff to make the job last the longest length of time. If, in the interim you can be blessed with a period of rain, say about two hundred mills, (that’s eight inches for the viejos), and  suddenly you have the recipe for a stranding. That’s my observational cynicism.
The once-daily bus has stopped running. To advance would be foolish, to wait will be expensive and we are stuck. Yet we’re far from being alone in our predicament. That guidebook claim, translates as ‘gringo trail’ and consequently channels European travellers this way. They too are stuck. It’s a case of finding a small group of like-minded people and hiring a pick-up truck. Ours were a South African couple; Bronwyn and Fred. The cynic in me had wondered if the bus’ procrastination was a means to enhancing the alternative transport economy, but as our truck slithered and slipped it’s way back to Mercedes, I was proven wrong. The vast width that might accommodate a multi-lane highway, has been reduced to a single tramline, two parallel trenches, one axle wide. There no place for passing the up-line oncoming traffic.

Estancias are cut off by new rivers, fence posts can barely keep their heads above water, the once step-over ditches are now a long jump wide. The troglodytic pylons, biblically stride across a vast new lake that has materialised where none existed before. Downriver the gauchos will have to enlist the aid of the fire service and the local police to shift a calving herd of Herefords off the floodplain, moving up onto higher ground, whilst we won’t be camping at the fisherman’s club site.

I’m glad we hadn’t been tempted into empiricism, and tested, probably to personal destruction, a cycle back out. That distance, riding down those two gutters, could only be for a circus trick-cyclist, and as for pushing, we would have been perfect fodder for a psychologist.

Another lesson in cycling touring. It’s liberating to realise that you can substitute, take another form of transport. The Navigator is already convinced, the Chronicler will have to surmount a few more parsimonious mountains first. With time, he’ll come around to the idea in the end. 

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Down Amongst the Smugglers

Can thinking positively get positive results? Can we wish up an alternative way to get back into Argentina? Why take the obvious and guaranteed when the problematic and covert might be more interesting?

The forager has picked up an on-line scent, the suggestion that there’s a river crossing in Bella Union. We’ve rejected an International Bridge and kept to the addictive Uruguayan roads for a further two days. Yet our Eurocentric commercial logic questions a boat's existence. The first crossing is for 9am, the locals are early risers, so this isn’t a commuter service, it’s not in any guidebook, so isn’t part of the ‘gringo trail’, no obvious gambling den can be spied from our shore line. No apparent reason to be. I’m part convinced that it might turn out to be an ephemeral ghost. A ‘here today gone tomorrow’ apparition. Even in town there’s no evidence, no advertising road signs, no pointers to it’s existence.

It’s only when we find, at the dead end of a pot-holed road, the shed for a plethora of government ministries and a solitary security guard. Without the latter we might still be lost, but a short chat and all becomes clear. The lancha is real, the service does exist.

The boat’s reason d’etre, it’s whole existence relies on one simple commercial fact: ‘Things are cheaper in Argentina’. What I’m expecting are the orientally fabricated luxury goods branded with European names, cartons of cigarettes, cases of whisky, high value items that might excite the exciseman. What we find are the shelf fillers for the mercado and the autoservicio, from boxed wine to Seagram’s whisky, from canned peas to corned beef, from corn oil to toilet rolls.

We’ve served out our wind related sentence of a grounded day in town, rolled up to the concrete ramp, to find a hint of activity. Battered trucks are reversed, backed into the pavement in an anticipation of custom, groups of young men stand chatting and passing round the maté bombilla. A cycling empanada salesman calls his wares and moves through the throng. A small wooden table appears and names are collected in exchange for dues. We’ve completed the ritual of trying to explain which country we hail from. Just check a British passport: there’s four possible countries and twenty six others alluded to on the front cover alone, three languages inside, none of which appear on the migracion officer's computer. Not that this international frontier has any electronic records. Even the date stamper had to be re-inked.

There is an air of imminent anticipation, yet nothing seems to be happening; it’s all Latino tranquilo, the Uruguayan strain. Slowly the officers of officialdom arrive and climb from their motos. The customs man, the immigrations man the prefectura man, the hydrographia man, the ministry of silly works man, men with jobs to do, and a suggestion that something might begin. Nothing does.

There is a ‘lancha’, a glazed-in river boat that looks water worthy, tethered up, but it’s not obvious if this is the intended craft. Maybe we’re waiting for another boat  that starts the day from the other side. First departure time has arrived, still nothing appears to be happening and then, as if an invisible whistle is blown, a crew morphs out of the crowd, the tethered craft is released and punted into place. We get ready, seasoned travelling Euros, ready to enter a scrum, intent on defending our space. Nobody else moves. Different rules apply here. It’s not ‘Retiro’ and the Argentine bus system, no kicked heels, no sharpened elbows, no pushing or shoving. Polite Uruguayan decorum. Names are called and individuals step forward, present their documents to migration and are nodded past the prefectura. Customs is lounging by the rail; he’ll wait till they return. At any departure point, it’s hard to tell who is actually travelling, how busy will the transport be, who is journeying and who are the meeters and greeters. There’s a capacity quota, and we’re bumped to the next sailing. It’s only fair; we’re on holiday and these people are at work. It’s fortuitous as we will get to see the second half of the story.

The lancha soon returns, crabbing across the fast current, the keel considerably deeper in the water than when it left. A few passengers climb from the cabin and it’s now that the real work starts. A chain forms and packages and boxes
start to build on the dockside. Hired hands, like sweating coolies are trotting back and forward. Such an un-Uruguayan activity, such a transformation from moments earlier. Lethargic tranquility to orderly chaos. Each trader has his own stash, a narrow passage divides them and it’s down this aisle that the prefectura has suddenly decided that the next sailing must push. Perhaps his level of caffeinated maté has dropped to critical and he needs to get back to his desk. Lesley British and  Sñ Pebels are called out and we pass down the corridor of officialdom and find ourselves at the top of a flight of wet, possibly slippery steps culminating in the pointed prow and a bobbing gunwale. The potential for a drowned bicycle is high. Somebody grabs the Navigator’s fully loaded bike and it’s spirited on board. She’s still stuffing documents into pockets and disappears from sight. I don’t hear a splash so I guess that she made it on board. These guys have a principle of pride to uphold: ‘if the señora can ride this, then I can lift it’. He’s probably got a hernia now. Now it’s my turn. I’m last and I’m a man, it’s machismo so I get to haul my own bike. The rope is cast even before I get on board, all of a sudden ‘time is money’.
Yet another permutation of coloured uniforms and document collectors await us on the other side. An even smaller ramp and a bigger tangle of ropes to navigate our kit over, whist a new cargo of dry pasta and paper napkins, soap powder and muesli bars are muscled on board; there’s even a case of Argentine liquor, aptly named: ’Viejo Contrabanditeros’, although I don’t see any of the old piratical Carib men that grace the label.  All depart, leaving ourselves and the ’prefectura naval’ as the sole survivors on the dock. We and officialdom go to find a place to be stamped into the country, he to find ink and his franker, then us to the panaderia and a celebratory bag of chipas. A toast to positive wishful thinking, and yet another return to Argentina. 

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Binomial Cities

BA, LA, KL, NY, all iconic binomial cities, even our translator in the Mongolian capital, a city of ‘gers’ and Soviet era apartment blocks was patriotically keen to use the title UB.  But has anyone heard of BU?  No it’s not a txt speak expletive, but an aggrandisement, a marketing ploy of a small municipal council in northern Uruguay. ‘Bella Union: Sugarcane Capital of the Nation’.

So in the interests of research we head into a local ‘taverna’, to see if they serve the local product.  The ‘café con leche’ arrives with the inevitable glass of carbonated water and the mandatory stack of sugar satchets.  They’re local. However, the real reason that were in a café is that we’re killing time.  BU might be a one company town, with three duty-free emporia and a full hand of government offices, but it has one major saving grace: it has a boat crossing to Argentina.  Only the ‘lancha’ is small and today the wind is up, a stiff breeze that’s fighting a strong current, setting up racks of standing, stationary waves.  The first crossing is cancelled.  Grounded in BU.  Having to drink coffee.  It’s the easiest way to buy some WiFi access. Only it’s clunk-click slow, which leaves too much time to stare at the wall mounted TV and the ubiquitous day time fare of talking heads supping the sponsors’ water and clutching the stereotypical yerba maté paraphernalia. Maybe we’ll get the graphics for a weather forecast.  The strap line across the bottom is a depressing
13°C.  The pictures are of flooded houses and rain pocked streets.  The doors to the café clatter in their metal frames, the euc leaves rattle across the dug-up plaza.  It doesn’t take a prophet to know that there won’t be any sailings today.  The non-amphibious alternatives involve Brazilian frontiers and bridges that terminate on motorways, so it’s time to see what BU has to offer. 

Two Centennial murals, a bloody dog fight and a lesson in patience.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Great Questions of Our Time?….Why Gravity? Or… why does a single garment, knickers for example, become a pair?

Camping and gravity are not compatible.  Place a full cup of coffee on what appears to be a level surface, and a tiny piece of grit will miraculously  materialise underneath.  The effect will be a rising tide of precious caffeine making it’s way towards a piece of electronics.  Wash out a pair of knickers and they will inevitably leap from your hands, to fall on the only patch of gritty, muddy ground around.  Grind a bike to the top of a mountain, with the prospect of a gravity assisted free wheel, only to find that it’s been cancelled, neutralised by the wind. Enthusiastic hand gesticulations will always end in an embarrassment and a red wine-stained tablecloth. The severed cream cheese wedge, sat on a plate, that catches in the wind, and ends cut side down.

It’s when camping that you soon start to realise that, not only does Nature abhor straight lines, but she detests flat surfaces.  A level place is a luxury, it’s why we seem to revere the often utilitarian, sometimes decrepit, Argentine ‘asado’ and concrete table.

So - do you blame Gravity, Newton or the hamfisted Scots cyclist?

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Great Questions of Our Time….Why Ants?

Quechuan tradition requires that you offer your first mouthful of food to Pacha Mama, to Mother Earth. Tradition doesn’t say who or how it’s received, but I’m sure that the ants are her handmaidens.

They come in a selection of sizes and a compilations of temperaments. From the glossy black leaf-cutters that forage on vegetation, to a tiny rusty brown omnivores that have successfully gained entry to a  sealed bag containing a salami. Maybe it’s the chilli in the sausage that gives their bites so much fire, so much success in defending their prize. A pyrrhic victory, as they and the meat both ended as landfill. The Navigator is feeling victimised: the mosquitoes inject through clothes and have raised itching red lumps, a bee attack follows and now it’s the turn of the Fire Ants. How they can enter a double sealed ziplock bag, navigate round three-fourths of a screw top jar, is a question for our time.  What is certain, they will inherit the earth when those who, erroneously believe they have  priority on the food chain, have left. 

Monday, 26 November 2012

Great Questions of Our Time……Why Skunks?

Road kill a skunk, grind it into the asphalt with unrelenting rubber, desiccate for a few months, wait until it becomes an integral part of the Macadam. The weasel teeth, the pointed nose, the double white stripes, that signature scent. The stink that lingers, the pervasive aroma of bad breakfast; of acrid coffee and burnt toast. Now add a rain storm and  the smell will liquefy, a vapour flowing like a thin fog, spreading from one carcase to the next, until the journey is dissolved in it’s gentle reek.

Too often the the roadkill debris is the sole evidence for the noises that emerge from the roadside verges. The multiplicity of croaks and grunts, weeps and sighs. The ones that sound like a wet chamois being wrung out, the distant, incessant car alarms, the road peckering digger, the greasless bearing, the overzealous referee. It builds into a soft cacophony, a background music that plays to the dark, right through the night. Yet there is one caller that had us perplexed.  A daylight song of falling sorrowful notes, that sounds like it might come from a bird, one that would complement the sad call of the Mourning Dove. The noise was coming up out of the flooded sedges by the roadside verge, and not, as I expected from the bushes on the fence line. It only takes a thrown pebble and the subsequent silence, like a flicked switch, to give the answer.  A frog.  Many frogs. I try to verify my own theory that the smaller the amphibian, the bigger the noise. Small Frog Syndrome.  All I ever get for my effort is a plop and series of concentric, spreading rings.  This frogs’ chorus will accompany us for several days, the noise becoming less languid and more manic, of turbo-charged F1Grand Prix cars screaming passed the chequered flag.  Are they a part of the carnage of blotted carcasses litter the verge, odourless dried out husks?  Then the next skunk broadcasts its presence.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Stormy Night

The storm starts with silence.  A  rolling bombardment of flashes, clashes of bruised orange and grubby white, hemmed in, below the clouds on the farthest horizon.  The pounding of ironclads, the broadsides from the dreadnoughts of an historic navy. The dull, distant roar of inclement weather. Now the wind hits, caving and vexing the flimsy skin of the tent wall, an assault that first warns and then threatens, of the impending onslaught.  An invisible hand that shakes and pulls, that wants to wake us up.  A light shrapnel of spattering rain, is a prelude that soon transcends into a maelstrom of noise. The lightning losing contact with it’s thunder, as the blasts roll one on top of the other. The storm descends into a paroxysm of noise.  Our immediate world shrunken in, tormented by the near constant strobing of light, the pummelling of  the bombardment and the violence of weather.  Even the frogs are silenced.

It’s at this moment, at the height of the attack, that we hear a
new sound, and feel the spatter of rain drops.  On peering through the bug-net door, we find a white dog shaking itself dry.  He, they don’t do ’its’ here, looks pathetically at us, as if to say  ’no way, José, am I going back out there’. I’m not sure how he managed such a feat without pulling a peg, but I suspect it’s not the first time he’s preformed this trick.  At least there’s no barking.  I hope there’s no fleas.  When I check a short while later, he’s curled up tight, unlike the flooded-out ants who are evacuating to high ground.  The massed swarms, that are crawling over and through our marooned panniers.  At this rate we might have to apply for refugee status.

Our  tent is starting to  acquire the features of a water bed, as the groundsheet ripples with a rising tide of puddles.  As the crackle of shorting out electricity fizzles across the sky, the vibration of the hammering blows rise up through the ground.  It’s now that we get the mortar round, an explosion that shatters into my sense, an instant injection of adrenalin, a racing heart rate.  The smell of wet camp-fire drifts into the tent.   How close?…Too close. 

We seem to be trapped between two competing  storm cells  The belligerents truculent invective and quarrelsome abuse reaches a peak and then, slowly they disengage.  Two battered, punch-drunk combatants that are still reluctant to back down, still they fire off an occasional retaliatory salvo, a final spat.  Now the rain settles down to a wet night, we breathe out, stepping down the picket from it’s puddle watch, as the tide turns and the ponding gets a chance to drain. Only the ants seem to be the new invaders, attacking  through the zip’s defences.  Besieged, we resort to defence, repelling this next invading army of fugitives.

 A rhythmic beat of rain settles in, the frog chorus resumes and the dog sleeps in the night.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Of Fighting Bulls and Prancing Heroes, or Protestant Modesty and Latin Realism.

Fighting bulls and prancing heroes present a particular set of problems for the monumental sculptor.  Whilst both are quadrupeds and therefore could have four potential points of contact with terra firma, yet the latter is dictated by a tradition that states: all conquering heroes’ horses must be gallopers and ‘paw the air’. It must make for some interesting sums for the artist and the engineer, calculating the stresses and strains, the balancing point, with and without a head full of defecating pigeons. Both of whom must dearly wish that our hero was a better horseman and that he could get his feisty beast under control, and ‘would you watch where you’re waving that stick, it’ll only end in tears, you’re  going to poke someones eye out with it’. There’s little concern for posturing, it’s all about balance for the concrete toro, a bovinal sentiment of ‘four legs good, two legs….I’ll fall over’.  A solid stance or a raging case of elephantitis, a genetically modified object or excessive overengineering?  A beast that looks like he’s been cloned from Albrecht Durer’s Papal rhinoceros.  At least his dignity and ’raison d’etre’ are entire, hanging free, unlike his brethren who grace the ring-road roundabouts of Rockhampton.  All are from a similar mould, anatomically perfect, each muscle group balanced, long in the back, deep in the chest.  A demonstration that’s a credit to the Australian breeders and the Queensland sculptor and a demerit for the man on the concrete mixer.  One Brangus’ is supported by the indignity of a metal rod, whilst a Braford’s has dropped and crumbled into dust.

The Victorians would have been mortified by this blatant display, this representation of sexual reproductive organs. Remember they were the generation that put skirts on chairs to cover the immodesty of bare wooden legs, which might explain why the ‘Moffat Tup‘, the Scot’s border town’s monument to local agriculture, is emasculated.

All local heroes in their various ways.  The condition of the puritanic tup and the indignant Ozzy beefies  have entered into their own local folklore. Whilst  the military horseman,
because we’re in Uruguay, has by law to be General  Artigas, stuck up on a plinth, in the middle of a plaza, has become an improvised bird roost. The Los Toros, is now El Toro as he’s  been shed from his heard and corralled on a roundabout at the entrance to Pasos de Los Toros, his drove mates’ images now rendered to bottles of fizzy grapefruit juice.
Dignified reality or prudishness primness? It probably depends upon your age.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Redefinition of Quiet and Still in Uruguay.

On a ripio road, out in the campo, on a route that redefines the definition of the term ’quiet’, one that might  require the addition of either a superlative or an expletive.  Little by way of traffic has troubled us, so it should be no surprise that, when we stop to fill our water bottles at an estancia’s water bore, a couple on a moto will pull over and present us with an ice cold bottle of water. ¿De donde son?, ’ally manny’… it must still be Uruguay.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Dictionary: What’s not fully entered in the OED.

WAVE  v. (no obj.)  move one’s hand, or other appendage, to and fro in greeting.   (ORIGIN)  old English: wafian. 

Landrover wave: (mainly UK):  the restrained elevation  of one finger above the steering wheel.

Motorbike wave: (mainly European): elevation of left leather clad leg from gear peg, extended only to other bikers in greeting and cyclists in sympathy.

Two finger wave: (mainly Anglo-Saxon, Europe, North America): extended by vehicle operators to any incumbent who might have delayed them for a nanosecond, and by incumbent to departing vehicle for a lack of courtesy, respect for road space, or their red necks.

(with obj.) Maté Wave: (Uruguayan): Full elevated  hand movement, with it’s attached bombilla, sometimes preceded with a headlight flash and hoot on the horn.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Ally Manny

Whilst being the noun for a collection of 16th century Germanic dances, is, with the addition of a question mark, a request from the locals as to our nationality.  The assumption being that all pannier carrying cyclists are German.  We’ve been asked so often, I begin to wonder if the question doesn’t have another meaning.  A local colloquialism implying ‘overloaded cyclist with a sunburnt nose’.

Strangely, the same conversation in the southern United States, would end with the question as to whether Scotland was close to Germany.  The great geopolitical conundrum: is an elephant close to a louse?  On those occasions we would just agree, on these we offer some further clarifications, ’al norte de los Reinos Unitos; it’s easier than having a Spanish language discussion about a nationalist government’s  single question plebiscite or renegotiating re-entry to an economical union.                      

‘Where are you from?’, as a conversational opener, is an improvement on the more conventional discourse about the weather. ’bit damp, but they say it’ll dry up later’.  ¿De donde son? has led to a discussion about the differences between neighbours and the fiscal advantages of being an Uruguayan pensioner living in Brazil. The former also yielded  our first ‘Tott’ encounter.  Jesus lives on the road, moving from job to job by bike, living in a poly-sheeted dome tent.  He confirms that it’s legal to roadside camp for a couple of days and that you’ll always get a free meal and a bed in an Uruguayan estancia, but that it’s a lot harder in Argentina.  Our first ’tott’ of the trip, and it’s in a foreign tongue. Accommodation recommendations, it makes for a nice change from the usual dire warnings about the dangers of road cycling.  But then cycling isn’t a deviant activity here, even our transfrontera pensioner has only recently upgraded from push-pedal to kick-start moto.

The comedian’s stereotypical portrait is of the towel draped, sun lounger thieving Fritz; my image of the Germanic traveller  is closer to a motorised version, the Mercedes converted truck with a rack of jerry cans, the stash of sand ladders, the tiers of headlamps, and a world bragging map on the back. We, on the other hand will carry on being ‘Ally Manny-ing’ Scots cyclists, helping to bolster our version of a stereotype.

And just how close can an elephant get to a louse?  Very. Especially when it stamps on it.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Bovicide, peut-etre?

I do like the quirky dislocation that language can produce. This one didn’t throw me , but I did like the short loop, the little mind game it threw me into.
‘50 Hollande: Total Liquidation’.  It’s the lead line on a flyer, pasted up in the petrol station window, deep in dairy country. What has the French president done to annoy the agricultural fraternity of central Uruguay?  Are the French farmers up to their usual dastardly tricks, burning cow carcasses whilst the gendarmerie placidly look on?  Or have they genetically modified fifty new presidents, that have escaped and now require erradication before they self-replicate and  take over the Reichstag, the German parliament?

The answer is, of course, immediately obvious: the advert is for a remate, a roup, a displenishment sale.  All the stock must sell, it’s just unfortunate that France’s unpopular premier shares the same name as a breed of dairy cow.

As a postscript, and another piece of inconsequential trivia, I now need to concoct a title for this piece, which has lead me down yet another lexiconic slope. If regicide is the killing of a king, what is the ’cide’ for a presidential termination?  My ’Roget’ didn’t help, but amongst associated suggestions were ’uxoricide’, ‘vaticide’, and ’Thug’. The latter caught my curiosity, because it has been given proper noun status. It transpires that they were devotees of  the Hindu  diety Kali, who waylaid travellers and ritually strangled them.  Another one of the many words that have passed into the English language by way of Hindi and Sanskrit.

So in the absence of a proper dictionary definition for my conundrum, might I be allowed to offer a plausible one: ‘Bovicide’?

Monday, 12 November 2012

Three Facts and a Lesson

Fact One: Last night we slept in a cutting, on iron sleepers, between steel tracks of a disused railway. 

Fact Two: Tonight I watched a passenger train rumble across the Rio Negro. 

Fact Three:  My map shows this line to be one and the same to the one that we slept on last night. We had wondered as to why, given the world wide demand for ferrous metals, why the disused ties and rails had not been salvaged or stolen.

Time for some answers. The railways finally closed in ’88, then reopening again in’95, $30m is being invested in their resurrection, using Paraguayan wooden sleepers, funded by Russia, in lieu of debt repayment.  A rolling programme of replenishment that is heading for last night’s camping. That’s change.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Tres Noches, Muy Differente...

Three days and three nights, three accommodations that have been different. Night one found us struggling to find a wild spot that wasn’t ankle deep in floodwater, or surrounded by multiple strands of high tensile wire.  We’d spotted a possible option in the corner of the JD tractor dealership yard, and the combine’s cab could have slept two, but we opted to try further into town.  We needed to spring some pesos out of the local ATM anyway.  Unfortunately, the hole in the wall closed instantly it read the words ‘Barclays Bank’.  Which leaves us in the all too familiar position, of possibly having the means to buy a bed for the night, and then trying to find one.  

We’ve passed right through town and had not spotted any indicators. Time to start narrowing down the target, time to take directions.  All agree that there is a place, that it’s yellow and that it’s on the right. The debating point is just how many blocks away, and between which panaderia and farmacia?  It doesn’t take long in a South American country to realise that every town, irrespective of wealth, will have at least  two of one, and three of the other.  By a process of elimination we find a structure lost in the middle of a building site,  that’s the white side of yellow, and looks more like a converted shop. The Navigator’s Español must be progressing, as it transpires that all the rooms are singles, but we can use the ’cocina’, the events kitchen, that a couple of beds will be moved in, that we can shower in one of the minuscule singles, and that the issue is no problem. Sounds confused, but she seems to have understood  the instructions correctly.  I suspect this is a new venture, and that the three señoras are fresh to the hospitality game and are keen to maximise any opportunity.
Contrast and compare our first night with the second. The ground might not be any drier, the fences are just as tight but there are more trees to hide behind.  We’ve pitched on an old road  before, pulling up the tar to get the pegs in, but never on an old railway - literally between the rails. With a gauge of  four foot eight and half, the tent poles sit outside, whilst we are wedged tight inside.

I’m not sure if the Navigator had intended the ’double entendre’ when she said that she needed to ’anoint her tender behind’, or had the thought been triggered by the old kids’ joke: why couldn’t the steam engine sit down?  I, on the other hand, speculate on the tonnage of Herefords that have been moved along these lines, on their way to the meat plants in Fray Bentos or Bovril, to be pied, corned, or canned for Europe.  

The third night is a scenario that we’ve encountered several times before, yet it still fascinates me. How often a serendipitous event happens at or around the eighty km mark. Our guardian angel was in a strop; maybe we hadn’t offered enough thanks for her benevolence.  Two days of a headwind should have been rewarded with a tail wind when our road changed direction. Of course the wind moved with the road. Why break a habit? We might as well be down in Patagonia. It is one way to get travel fit. The odometer is clicking on towards the end of the day and it’s time to start sussing out a possible tent spot. When up in front I can see a sign for a bridge; it’s likely to be just another cane choked ditch with a muddy stream running through; the previous ones have all fitted this description.  The nearside banking fits this script, however the far side is a vision of Eden, or at least our idea of nirvana. Clipped grass, concrete tables and chairs and a sign to the ‘duchas’.  Maybe we’ll get a shower tonight? It looks like our watching benefactor has enjoyed the gentle testing tease of headwinds and rewarded us with tonight’s site.  Never tempt fate. We remember to offer thanks.

Three nights accommodation, all different.  It’s the joy of unplanned travel. You don’t know what’s coming, even moments before it comes around the corner at catches you totally unaware.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Nothing stays the same, not even in Uruguay

Seven years ago we spent three months living in a house on the coast, ostensibly and ultimately fruitlessly, to learn Spanish. Then we came back in the spring again, two years ago. Over those two visits we built a picture of an agrarian economy moving at a slow pace, like Scotland with sun, circa 1971. The grain lorries lumbered along in a cloud of noise and particulates, barely able to climb out of second gear, flash-tooting as they crawled past going uphill. The towns were thronged with cars held together with rust and baler wire and you could easily spot, (dependent upon your age), the first car that you, your father or grandpa owned. The grain silos were peeling, crumbling ecclesiastical edifices, the cutter bars on the cabless combines were no more than two good paces. Nobody wore helmets, nobody had to pay income tax.

The exchange rate deteriorated, inflation move ahead, but not much else seemed to change over those seven years. But now…The lorries move quieter and quicker, yet still manage the maté wave, even if the wolf-whistle horns are out of fashion. The grain elevators still resemble  Italianate cathedrals, only they are now surrounded by a massed congregation of silver shimmering silos. The farm tackle has homogenised to JD green, the combines have bloated, their cabs could sleep two, their cutter bars elongated and the seeder rigs require an escort to move along the road. The old cars have been compacted, scraped and  shipped to China, yet I still manage to spot  the first vehicle I remember my father driving; his, a red soft-top, this a sun bleached and aged to soft grey, hard topped Hillman. Yet I still hope to spy my own first, having come close with an Austin A40; mine being the brakeless, rusting diminutive, an A35. The motos are still here, only they’ve added a few horses to the engine, and a fresh paint job to the bodywork.  They’re still partially exhaustless, but I suspect that  might be more a question of choice, of modified baffles, than one of age.  The babies and puppies still ride side saddle, everybody can ride, drink maté and answer their mobiles, but the girls are in colour coordinated pink helmets and bags, the guys in full faces worn rebelliously on the back of the head. Yet it takes governments to make changes.  This one has, by introducing income tax, but there is one change that will never happen - it’s written in Laws of Nature: The drivers still wave, the pedestrians still want to know if you’re ‘Ally manny’ and the dogs still bark.  All day.  All night.  

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Entries not yet Listed in the OED

MATÉ   (mat  ae) n.  (mass noun)  1. (also Yerba Maté)  a bitter infusion of leaves, high in caffeine. Dietary suppressant.  (INFO.)  Ilex paraguaiensis.  Family: Aquifoliaceae.  ORIGIN: Quecha: mati.    (USAGE)  A national social custom particular to Uruguay, requiring a specific paraphernalia of equipment, the surgical attachment of a thermos flask to elbow, and a constant supply of hot water. Skill in usage whilst controlling a moto and answering a mobile ‘phone is considered a badge of national identity.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

You know that you’re still in Uruguay...

It’s been a holiday weekend in Argentina, a European celebration of Columbus’ exploits in 1492, hence the four days of rain, which have culminated in a full blown wind and rain, thunder and lightning performance.  All the omens look set for a damp start to the trip. The porridge bowls are near flooded even before the water for the coffee has boiled, we’re huddled in our foul weather skins like drookit rats around the moated concrete table. Yet in the short distance back into town, the sky rents and the temperature starts to climb, we’re shedding layers. For a countryside that is so flat, it’s difficult to see the changes in weather approaching; it’s one of the few things that change and move fast around here.
Last night we collected the first of the ‘you know that you’re in ….’ confirmations, this morning we carry on with the list…..the moto commute, the primary bound children in their lab coat and bow tie uniform, the horse drawn ‘fletes’ trap waiting to deliver a load of bagged cement, the Tannoy speakered cart blasting out blandishments for today’s specials at the local farmacia, the cow grazing the central reservation, the all pervading smell of soap powder from the supermercado. It’s like a banner that says ‘welcome back‘.

Leave town and you’re instantly in the ‘campo’, out in agriculture, out in the reason why we crossed the Rio del Plata and are using , in part, Uruguay as a way-station to get north. Quiet roads. Wide roads.  Cyclist roads. For many Porteños, residents in the capital over the water, Uruguay is the 49th barrio, appreciated for it’s quiet, laid back, easy ambience, where not much changes. It’s two years since we passed this way, yet our pro-forma of the familiar and the trivial will require updating.  We’re seeing changes. Changes are happening.

Friday, 2 November 2012

You Know You're in Uruguay...

When having successfully negotiated the scrum that is the baggage retrieval at the ferry dock, you descend into the night-time street, only to collect your first dog.  Are then passed by seven exhaustless motos, of which two have no lights, one has a mutiple occupancy of four persons, another has a brace of Yorkshire terriers.  Further confirmation comes, as if required, with tethered horse outside the pub and the row of maté drinkers.

These are some of the physicals, then there’s the imponderables. Our ‘lancha’ arrived late, despite the captain’s attempt at catch up; he only slowed down to drop his wake when he passed a ‘Prefectura Naval’ - read police launch. So it’s late when we cycle unbooked, unannounced into a deserted camp ground.  Empty because, for any self respecting Uruguayan this is the dead of winter.  We find a guard, and of course there isn’t a problem. There never is.

Monday, 29 October 2012

The Comfort of Familiarity

Gullibilicus’ Fourth only works if it’s a new acquaintance that’s being met for the first time, and the airport management haven’t anticipated the issue. Ezeiza provides us with both. First off, we’ve been here before, and second the authorities have provided an exclusion zone where you’re screened from the taxi touts,  the baggage hustlers and the mellée of waiting extended families, the meet and greeters. A place to find onward ground transport from approved providers, where the tariff is fixed, displayed and you pay before you climb aboard. Spendicus’ First applies, however Parsimonius scoticus will just have to grin and bear it as there’s not a great deal of alternative in the evening and after two days of sleepless travel.

At the block, the same faces are at the concierge’s desk, the same tea bags are in the same jar, the bikes are hanging just as we left them, even the boiler starts first time. The German panaderia is still around the corner, the Bazaar Plastico is still at the bottom of the street. Fresh chipas for breakfast, new boxes for the dry goods.

It’s these familiarities, these same old acquaintances that displace any semblance of culture shock. We know the rules, we’ve got our breathing space, and a place to regroup. The camp stove is overhauled, the tent zippers replaced. The Lambeg drum is dismantled to reveal it’s smuggled contents. Tyres fitted, wheels mounted, gears replaced, then cursed the manufacturer who has altered the spec., bike maintenance completed, now for a road test. Climb the garage ramp: the steepest ascent this side of the Andes, turn left onto the ripio-like cobbles and a spin north to Tigre and the Delta. No jumping gears, no grinding brakes, no squealing hubs. All is as it should be. The ride is just right.  This is my bike. It’s been a year and a half, yet it feels like meeting an old friend. We simply pick up where we left off. A short break in a longer journey.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Parsimonius puritanicus

Experticus’ Law: “The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men Gang aft Agley”

There are just a few laws and theorems that pertain to the initial  moments on a journey. The most pertinent of which are:

Spendicus’ First law of Travel: Your first and last two days of travel will be the most expensive.

Muchas Extremicus’ Second Law, a corollary of the first, states  that the airport, station or port that you arrive at or depart from, will be at the furthest extent from your first or last nights accommodation.

Optimisticus’ Third Theorem suggests that if you have an excessive lay-over on a multi flight itinerary, your baggage will be first off the carrousel. If you have but moments for a transfer, the lottery belt will break down.

Gullibilicus’ Fourth Law postulates that a traveller is at his or her most vulnerable to exploitation in the first moments upon arrival at a new destination.    

Has the airport  left your boxed bikes on the forecourt, to be rendered down to papier-maché, so they can deliver them four days later? Are they anxious to persuade you to return home to an already rented out house? Do they have issues with your dirty shoes?  The common denominator to many of these hiatuses is not difficult to extrapolate: a certain national carrier and a particular airport that serves the south-east of England. So from experience comes enlightenment. Fly with the Franco-Dutch. Over-engineer the packaging. 

Our worn out cycling comestibles, the gears, wheels and tyres are up for renewal, and their replacements are packaged in what looks like a big bass drum. Parading along Edinburgh’s Princes Street, I feel like a refugee from a Drumcree march. Parading suggests organisation, rectitude and order, when the reality is a dodgem shuffle between tour bus touts and Asian tourists with cameras. Just how many pictures does one need of the Garden’s pigeons? 
Fact, not theory: bicycle panniers are the most unwieldy of packages when not attached to a bicycle.

As to why we’re partaking of public transport, that can be blamed on a collusion between  Parsimonius Scoticus and Puritanicus Albas. The latter has argued that, as a trip relies on self propulsion and independence, then it should start at your own front door; but as our bikes are stored in an Argentine garage, we can’t cycle to the airport, so the next best option is the X6 and the Airlink. The former’s contribution was to suggest that we fly the first leg the previous day, on the grounds that a bus in the middle of the day would be cheaper than a taxi in the middle of the night. Anyway they’ve got recliner seats airside at Schiphol, it’s only a 13 hour lay-over, and who can sleep soundly when you know that you’ve got to rise at 2.30?

It’s only at check-in that we encounter the first challenge to Parsimonius’ Law: they only hold in-transit baggage for 12 hours, would we please recover and recheck-in our kit. Unfortunately there’s no comfy recliner ground side, there’s no Rijksmuseum to peruse, but more crucially, there’s no tax-free coffee and waffles. Parsimonius decides that he had better downgrade his law to theorem status, with the excuse that ‘it was a good idea at the time’

It’s at check-in time that our quasi-Lambeg drum looks less out of place, as it appears to have moved off of the street and into the concert hall, it’s been joined by an orchestra of cellos and double basses. Which makes for an interesting baggage reclaim hall at Ezeiza, and it certainly interests the customs fraternity when it passes through their x-ray machine. Argentina have imposed an imported goods limit of USD300 per family, and a tax levy for excesses that would make the French premier blush. We had spent some time revaluing our replacements, and wishing that we had actually spent what we are claiming. But this is Argentina, and they didn’t even ask for the document. The ‘good cop’ even suggested that we looked like ‘cycle travellers’, which was odd as we had yet to acquire our burnt noses and earlobes.

Through officialdom, now for Gullibilcus’ Fourth Law.