Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Over the Sea to or Up in the Skye

Familiarity breeds contempt.

The Navigator has elicited the answer that she had hoped, angled for. That her elbow, it's associated tendons and muscles would need exercise. The recommendation is to "git on yer bike", or at least it's Sanish equivalent. As to whether the patient's and the consultant's concept of cycling are same is open to debate.

So with this ringing, if fraudulently acquired endorsement, we head back over the river to collect our neglected bikes. Four weeks 'sin bici', the only substitute a back-pedal beach bike whose sole aim is to leave me floundering in the middle of the next junction. It's the longest either of us have gone in a decade, without a dose of cyclo-endorphins to cancel the encroaching road fears. With time the physical body repairs, with time the psychological damage encroaches. The spectres magnify, multiply and mutate, the devil-traffic grows horns and all the accumulated scenarios arrive in the middle of the night.

We have a choice of public transports for a shift between the two capitals. Three ferry lines, two airports or one bus route. We've frequented two of them, with increasing frequency. To the extent that 'familiar travel has morphed towards 'contemptible commute'. It's a condition that needs to be avoided, for it can only lead to the death of adventure cycling.

This time we opt for the overnight bus, only because the alternatives are fully booked. With small hand luggage and no bike, there's little angst. You don't even have to surrender your passport to the conductor, who would then process you through the frontier, only returning it after the bus was several kilometres down the road. A most disconcerting experience, an 'interesting' quirk, from a previous occasion. This time everybody has to transit the frontier on foot, this season's quirk being that we don't seem to collect an exit stamp. There was a time when this might have distressed us, now the Navigator is happy not to lose frankable space in a passport that is running out of page but not date.

There's something particular to a frontier in the middle of the night. The silhouetted cutouts of parked-up, gumtree-loaded timber trucks, the familiar smell of the empty cattle transports. The night shift sleepy officials more interested in the TV broadcasted basketball; the soft clouds of dark time bugs suiciding in the stark glare of floodlights and heavy humid night. The zombie'd passengers roused from that broken bus-sleep, our individuality surrendered to the system, shuffling through bureaucracy. Or the frustrated conductor trying to find that one inevitable missing customer; which was why the bus companies liked the old system, no opportunity for one of the corralled herd to go missing.

The return trip is by our favoured public transport method. A ferry. Only the idiosyncracies of boat travel seem to be under attack, being subsumed by the ethos of aeroplane. There's that recurring idea that flying with a member of the Catholic clergy, particularly a nun, will ensure a safe arrival. So to be on the newest, and what they claim to be the world's fastest ferry, named for the latest pontiff, who of course is Argentine, should make for an uneventful sailing. And yet all the visual indicators suggest flying rather than cruising. From the serried ranks of economy class seats with their fold down tables to the soporific view of a placid sea carried by a plasma screen TV, that will soon convert to a continuous loop of duty-free adverts. Cocooned or enprisoned? Airconditioned, hermetically sealed and force-fed a graveyard of bronchial pathogens. For there are no windows, no external stimulus, even the catamaran's vibrations suggest air travel. Then for the final confirmation: Nobody pays any attention to the safety announcements.

Yet this is South American travel, there has to be an interesting quirk. Some small spark to lift ius out of the mundane and away from the commute.

The primary reason for enjoying ship travel, is the fact that we can remain in control of our bikes. We get to load them. They stay on their inflated tyres, complete with their luggage and, ergo, are easily shifted. A novel concept for many carriers. We've ridden the loading ramp, parked up, strapped down, when we're presented with, what might be mistaken for sick bags. A prophetic anticipation of a stormy crossing? The heavy, ominous blue-black clouds were only helping to emphasise the idea. Only the puke pokes transpire to be a pair of white Tyvec bootees. Everybody is wearing them. A Maoist levelling for the proletariat? No it's a nice new boat that is decked from prow to stern in duck egg blue carpet. Who 'specs' carpeting on a boat? But then any references to seafaring have long since been removed.

Lost are the pleasures of a ferry crossing. To prop yourself against the rail and gaze absently at the soporific, repetitive roll of waves that flow along the hull. To feel the gradual change in motion as a boat moves from river to ocean. To let the old shore recede and the new shore creep over the horizon. To have that slow introduction to a new place. To not be in a hurry. To travel non-airline.

Arriving back in Montevideo, all has not been emasculated. The car deck is open to the rear, and we, as the first to disembark get a grandstand view of the docking. And that longed for introduction. Only today it's a monochrome of Soviet grey. From the naval corvettes to the skeletal cranes, from the laid up fishing fleet to the threatening sky. The ominous concrete edifice of the customs house only complements the feeling. Which is a shame as this port and this capital city is one of the simplest to navigate out of on a bike. Turn right at the lights, a few moments and you're on a cycle lane cum Costanera all the way out to beyond the suburbs. Perfect re-introductions, rehabilitations for two anxious cyclists who've been deprived of endorphins and subjected to the subconscious ghosts of devil-traffic.