Wednesday, 30 October 2013

On the Buses

The sorry fact is,the train lines are extant, but defunct. Rusting iron that might carry the occasional goods train, but no passengers. So it's back on the buses. Only now we've learned a few lessons, sussed how to reduce the frenetic hiatus that are the few minutes that your bus is on it's stance.

Rule # One: Avoid Retiro. An eponymous title that could translate as 'The Return'. Suggesting a Porteno's relief at a safe conclusion to a trip out into the great and dangerous beyond. A synonym that stands in for the capital's name. Many of the route maps will not mention the name BsAs, they'll state 'Retiro'. You're supposed to know. I'm just relived that we don't have to shift our 'golden fetters' of panniers and cycles through it's manic mayhem. Imagine any international airport without baggage trolleys, air conditioning and queueing civility, but with chipa touts, garbled tannoys and black diesel fumes.

Rule# two: Put all the loose panniers into a cheap poly-prop bag. It reduces the number of total items. I'm sure you can thole looking like a bag lady for a while. They will be heavy and you might have to do the heave into the hold as the wizened, ancient fly-weight loader can't. He'll still require his tip.

Rule # Three: Offer the extra baggage bung, the cycle sweetener before the tooth sucking handler gets a chance to quibble. There's little point in mentioning you're bikes when buying the tickets, the clerk will always say that there's no problem, certainly there's no indication of charges. We still don't really know whose pocket we're lining. A degree of brinkmanship and time management might be required. Present your baggage too early and there's a chance you're precious bike ends up under a crate of beer, too late and there could be little room left.

Rule # Four: Go with the flow, but remember to sharpen your elbows.

Two large unwieldy bags, two cycles without wheels, two sweaty gringos. A dodgem of 'meeters and greeters' and no indication as to which stance your bus will pull into. A recipe for stress. Think of it as that conundrum. 'How do you shift a goose, a fox and a bag of grain over the river?' It's probably the only occasion when a three person travelling team is an advantage.

We' ve ridden the Trans Chaco before, a road that will barely rise forty metres in it's entire eight day duration. Flat. Interesting in a particular way. Yet for this bus trip, when I equate the distance to anticipated time, I get an answer in the region of 50kmh. Slow. Why? After we've pulled into the third pueblo in under a hour, rattled down their mud rutted streets, I've got an answer. We're on the long-distance local, non- express to the Andes. We'll visit each and every Chaconos community and a few of their lamp posts forbye. Even stopping in the middle of the night, in the middle of the road for a chat with another bus. Relaxed.

We've dined sumptuously on some of these Trans continental busses, they can be lux. However over the years, the after dinner liqueurs have, with inflation, deflated from hot meal to white bread to, three dry biscuits. And now not even over sweetened coffee. I now know why the service was labeled "comun". At least it had " aire". What it does give us is a starting destination within a few kilometres of a new road into Bolivia.


Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Nothing Changes or Pearl's a Singer.

It's nice to note that in a world of constant flux, something's never change. I find a sepia'd copy of the BA Herald, it's covering a 1938 treadle Singer sewing machine. Front page headline: " Berlusconi to renounce his media empire in favour of politics". This, in response to a colleague's fraud charges. The date is 30th July 1994.

Da-da-deet-da-dara, da-da-deet-da-dara, da-da-deet-da-dara, the incessant refrain. It never changes. A gibbous moon is illuminating the inner tent, it must be into the small hours, when the night fishers park beside the river . The doors opens and the techno thump flows out, the poles are set up and I here the plop of their baited monofilament hitting the water. The portents are there for a less than tranquil night. Whether the amped reverberations are an integral cpomponent to fishing is not obvious, what is, Argentine DNA comes with a phonic prefix. Racket. Nothing changes.

On that train trip, our lost neighbour inevitably turned out to be the chatty pensioner who's been buttonholing his way up and down the carriage since we left the town. We've resolved the issue as to why Glasgow isn't the capital of Scotland and that it's winter in the northern hemisphere, when he moves on to the next recipient. Pattermongers. Nothing changes.

We've rolled into a somnolent siesta town, nobody is up or about, the pack dogs are prone in the meager shade, occasionally snapping at the itinerant mosquitos. A torpid, smothering blanket stifles out all activity. Yet at dusk, as the dropping sun hangs opaque in the disturbed dust of racing motos, growling buses and the general business of a pueblo's life, every shop that we enter knows we were the cyclists who passed through earlier that day. We were spotted. It's ever thus. That or they saw the interview that the Navigator gave for the local TV that morning. Leaving the mini-mercado with our trove of food, we're presented with a bag of toffees. Kindnesses. Nothing changes.

In the luxuriant cool of pre-dawn, pre-mossie attack, we head out onto the road. The route stretches out long, straight and flat, the horizon lazer level. It will stay this way for the next nine days. A prostrate plain ironed out by a mass of sky. Geography. Nothing changes.

Continuity. Familiarity. Novelty. Discovery. It makes for interesting travels. Even, if today's Guardian Weekly has yet another political obituary for Sn. Berlasconi. Nothing changes.


Sunday, 27 October 2013

Carpe Diem

The Ikeaesque floor plan is configured for maximum retail exposure and minimum convience, each ascending escalator lost in an opposing corner. Around and around in ever dizzying circles, ever up into the stratopherics and the sports department. We need to buy a football.

A short glance at a map for Provincia Santa Fe, with a bit of local geographical knowledge and you start to understand that booking clerk's incredulity at our decision to get off the train in Ceres. It's a less than obvious way to attempt an attack on the Paraguayan capital, Asunsion. It was a city escape, a chance to heat acclimatise, a nice distance to get into cycle travel mode. However the real reason is more prosaic. Alison, my sister was going be in town volunteering with "Operation Sonrisa", or as I've known it: 'Op. Smile'. A medical 'not for profit' organisation who carry out cleft palate restoration and many of the issues that are associated with the condition. She has volunteered for more years than I can remember, we, by donor and familial association.

Each of our travels have a habit of managing to not quite coincide, often missing each other by just a few days. That, and we really do want to see how a major medical NGO operates on the ground. Time to correct some deficiencies.

Our tour starts on the upper levels of the massive military hospital, the honour guard were bugling the national flag up the pole, but not for our arrival. Moving down through the floors, down through the differing procedures that a patient progresses along. From the initial assessment, pre-med preparation, a games area where the patients play with plastic syringes and gas masks, to the door of the operating theatre. Which is quite far enough for me. Finally to the recovery ward and the mirrors.

The pervading impression is one of calm, efficiency and a complete and utter absence of blood and bandages. There's no drama, yet it is dramatic. The before and after facial changes are remarkable. Near instant. Only a matter of one hour in the theatre and a life is transformed. Hence the mirrors, and the temporary tongue restraint. It would be near inhuman not to want to explore the new you, the new and entire mouth, the new and normal lip.

At dinner that evening, Alison offers to complete the the tour. Would we like to sit in on a lip operation tomorrow? Seize the opportunity, grab the moment. It's the epitome of travel. Only not for me; they don't need someone disgracing the occasion. I understand they were grateful.

However, The Navigator is made of tougher stuff.

I arrived at the hospital at 8am, in time for the first procedure do the day. I was to be observing a cleft lip correction for a wee girl, Mayra, of about a year old. Alison and I were duly swathed in blue Tyvek gowns, caps, shoe covers and masks and proceeded into the theatre to observe the preparations. My first thought was to be deeply grateful that it was cool - the unit that the technician had sourced after a breakdown yesterday was doing a great job. Then to note how full the place seemed, with at least 15 folk, all masked and gowned, working and supporting three operating tables - and the whole procedure running like an oiled machine. And the smiles. Despite everyone wearing masks, smiling eyes were everywhere.

We watched as Mayra was prepared for surgery, tucked up in warm wraps with heating pads on her ankles and then submerged under a blue surgical sheet with only a small space to expose the lower face. Then the team stood back to 'take 5' and review before starting the procedure. Dan, the floating surgeon for today, stood with us at the foot of the table and explained what was to happen. Don't worry; I won't go into great detail. Suffice to say it was a privilege to watch skilled and dedicated folk at work. An hour later, Mayra had a repaired lip and straightened nose, and in a few days she will be trying out her new smile. Back in the recovery room, she came round quite quickly and before long was proving that her lungs were completely unaffected. She will return to a future mission to have her cleft palate repaired.

The Paraguayan medical system has been heavily proactive in reducing the visible evidence of cleft palate within the community, such that this mission is operating primarily on under one year olds. Yet still they will have the occasional adult and teenager presenting themselves. One father and son family and J.... who is nineteen. It doesn't take a psychologist to divine the playground ostracisation that he's suffered, so it's little wonder that he spent an hour in the recovery ward, staring at his new image. The staff present of a football, the fact that it was in the correct team colours, was a fortuitous bonus. It would be the final act in his remarkable day.


Saturday, 19 October 2013

City Escape, or Getting Stoned.


We've used the services of ferries, buses, our bikes, even the availability of a neighbouring county, to escape the confines of Argentina's capital city and it's surrounding province. All have their disadvantages, most notably the rammy that is the bus station at Retiro. To wit, the bung to persuade the handlers to load a cycle on a bus. So it's time try out an other escape route. At one time Argentina had an extensive passenger rail network, a product of C19th British imperial engineering and Hereford cattle. The tracks spread, web-like out across the country and it was possible to get to most places in the north at one time. Now there are just three routes left, and we plan to use the Ferrocentral service that goes to Tucuman. The booking clerk did query our intentions when we asked for singles to Ceres; I suspect that it's not a popular destination. Do some research and you find widely variable accounts of what to expect, varying from "only for the train enthusiast", to "don't bother". Encouraging stuff.. Seats book up quickly, it's also a holiday weekend, so we're left with little choice from the four grades available. It's 'tourist', it's bottom of the heap. It'll be an adventure. Only seventeen hours. It can't be as bad as some like to suggest. We arrive early, in plenty of time to fight over bike loading and graft compensation, to find a long snaking queue wrapped around the station . The trick to understand, is to watch the body language of those around you. Thence to equate the ratio of senders-off to travellers. Five to one is the general norm, even before sunrise. We've got our stash of small denomination pesos to sweeten the procedure, all tanked up and ready to engage battle. All to no avail. It could not have been simpler. The senders-off are winnowed out at the gate, a porter takes our baggage and cycles, tickets them and we head off to find our 'turista' seats. No expectation of extra remuneration. Okay, so the seats are three wide faux leatherette, with a swing back to allow for change of direction, but they are entire and clean. Not so the windows. Two panes of scratched and chipped Perspex, whose purpose was not immediately obvious. Slowly the compartment fills up, yet our potential neighbour fails to materialise; maybe we're going to be in luck and have an extra 'personal space', just like flying 'club class'. Pensioners settle down with their wicker picnic baskets, students with their yerba mate flasks, blankets and pillows, all are prepared for a long haul. Almost a degree of inevitable expectation. As the day warms up and the fug in the carriage thickens windows are slowly raised, it allows a nice cool breeze the drift in along with sticky dry dust, garbage burnt smoke and shreds of tattered leaves. For the secondary glaze acts like a cheese parer. The fecund shrub growth coupled with the thrice weekly train, means Nature is in a constant battle with the iron horse. Still this isn't the real reason for the extra skin of glazing. As we enter the outskirts of Rosario there's a clatter on the tin of the train, then another. We're being stoned. Davids with their gutties, slingshots and light artillery, a hail of railway metal. It makes for poor sport, a Goliath of twenty carriages can't return fire. Ceres at midnight. Ceres, where there's no platform. Ceres, where the museum's major exhibit is a maize peeler, 1929. Ceres where we're the only ones to disembark. Down onto the grass covered tracks and into the warm embrace of a sub-tropical night. Another successful escape from the congested narrow roads around BA.


Saturday, 12 October 2013

Don't Cry for Me if You Can´t Find My Tomb

Want to find Evita’s tomb? The advice is to follow the crowds. Trouble is, the crowds are following the advice. Catch 22. Nobody can find the tomb.
We’re in no hurry to join the throng of necro-voyeurs. I would rather keep my distance, delve into the nether reaches, the hidden corners, be intrigued by the architecture of this diminutive city. This necropolis. The narrow streets of mausolea, the stairways that lead down into an underworld, the black marble slabs of sarcophagi that reflect sky and cross. The Franco ornate scrolled gates that guard the descent into the earth’s bowels. The resting places for all those whose names grace any and every Argentine town street. Sarmiento and Lavalle, Yrigoyen and Mitré, the ranked armies of liberators and administrators. The montage mouldings to the great and the good, demonstrations of their civic duty and Christian piety. The angel tended fallen romantics. Sculptured exhibitionism. The selections of padlocks and cobwebs, the ornaments of brassware, the aerosols of air freshener.
Inevitably we stumble upon the throng. One enterprising party have had the foresight to purchase the cemetery map; they navigate in the correct direction, but walk right past, re-orientate and backtrack. I can see their confusion; they’re looking for the plaque that tells them they’ve found their trove: Sra. Eva Peron. They’ve found the shrine, only they don’t yet realise it, for she lies in the vault and under the inscription of ‘Duarte y familia‘.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Still Sleeping on Airport Floors

Remember that sleepy provincial airport and it's puritanical curfew? Arriving back on the last Parisian flight, to find the shutters down and the last bus departed long before the witching hour? Left to the avaracious mercies of an airport taxi, no coffee and the truism that the first and last days of a trip are the most expensive?

Now, there's a second floor and a high rise car park, charges for drop-off, and all-night coffee. Even a Night Bus service. All of which encourages us to sit out a night to catch the red-eye to Amsterdam and a convoluted itinerary of arrangements and sleep deprivation that deposited us back in Buenos Aires two nights and one day later. All to make a considerable saving. The cheapskates ride again.

Alternative transport may have been required
Alternative transport may be required

These enlightened advances in pocket tucks and penny pinching come with a cost. To discourage rough sleepers, the management test the fire alarms incessantly, floor polishers patrol the terrazzo and police survey passports. In spite of these incentives to purchase an overpriced hotel room, there are huddles of slumbering backpackers behind corrals of trolleys, grannies nursing slow-drunk lattes and one snoring gent who's donned his PJs and sprawls like a beached whale, around which the early morning arrivals flow. We commandeer one of only two benches that have lost their armrests, and defend them against allcomers. There's no sleep.

Thirty six hours later, my body is in Argentina, but my mind is four time zones and two seasons in arrears. Not unlike our bags. We're gazing on a fast-emptying baggage carousel, the same forlorn vacant plastic bag coming around yet again. I'm not surprised; there were the auguries. The carrier who forgot to book our final leg; the waystation that is São Paulo's Guarulhos International; waiting in a two-hour queue for a boarding card; the flight not materialising on the departures board. We've played the slots, got four fruits on the puggie, but the bandit doesn't pay out.

Thirty further hours later and the doorbell rings, revealing a courier with a jackpot of two black bags. A collection of bicycle comestibles. Sprockets and chains, leather saddle and bar tape, toothpaste and clean knickers.

Time to build a bike. Time to start a trip.