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.