Sunday, 26 October 2014


 This should be the definitive version of this posting. The old blog site that I was happily working with has blown up, the tech wizard managed to recover all of the intended drafts. This new site has, with the latest connection decided to put the 'publish' button where the save button was a few moment earlier. Hence the rather truncated, unpunctuated blurb that recently came your way. That's my excuse. I apologise..
                          Meeting the fossils

"When are you going to grow up"', the eternal plea from parent to offspring. Starts around  primary four and perpetuates through adolescence and on into early adulthood. When said parents give up vocalising the plea, although by that  age of responsibility it's a subliminal scream to leave home before you outlive your welcome. 

As we haul our bikes down a bank, and scurry under the road, into yet another deep shade culvert, the navigator makes, what is becoming a common refrain; "when are we going to grow up?". It's rhetorical. There is no answer, only several questions. Who wants to grow up anyway?, what is growing up?, and WHY? Even the petulant adult can do: "Why!". 

There's a lot of fun to be had being the petulant adult, the perpetual adolescent. The initial intentions for this trip were simple, to escape a capital city's clutches by train, to explore up the Valle del Tafi and to head over an Andean pass. The intended one being a recommendation that we acquired four years ago. Some ideas can stick around for sometime. The first two have come to pass, the latter has been a bit more problematic. We arrived at the junction where we would need to turn right and start a long, slow climb. There's a bus stop, a sun shelter. Deep shade and a siesta. There was no discussion when it came time to leave. We both silently turned 'left', into a strong headwind, when it would have been easier to have used the tailwind and gone climbing. Thirty five years of not growing up together has its advantages. Neither of us was ready for an Andean crossing. The effort, the altitude, the water scarcity are all physical presences, but crucial to the venture is a mental fitness. The body might be ready but the mind isn't in it yet. We head south to the Next pass and to find out if it's open yet. 

Only if we're not careful we'll be riding some old favourite routes, one that have already had an investigation, some multiple interrogations. Which is how we found ourselves in Capital La Rioja, having riden through some beautiful 'Bad lands'. Sculpted mud rocks, pock holed lava blocks, rotting granite hills. There's little planning, decision making taken at the next junction. It's fun to be an adolescent adult. But have we backed ourselves into a corner, the prospect of hot, pampa cycling on roads that roll away in front, all the way to a vanishing point. Fun for a few days, but have a he potential for tedium and numb butts.

Our non topographical map shows an intriguing anomaly to the west. The natural grain of the landscape is north- South, yet there are two twisting roads heading towards each other, west-east, across the first hurdle of the Andean foothills. Logic suggests there must be a reason, either they service two separate mines; a distinct possibility or there's the intention to join them up. Need to find out. 

What follows is an "auld sang to a new words". It involves our old friends in the tourist information kiosks. It's a story of mixed information, and a map that would do credit to a bingo card. An attempt to send us off on a deviation tour of over three hundred kilometres, to revisit places we've encountered before, rather than answer the two simple questions we posed. 

The route and the road are remarkable. Another incredible piece of civil engineering that begs the question as to its intention and necessity. Short tunnels quarry through cascading mountain buttresses, that then spit us out over canyon crossing bridges, thence to sweeping hairpin bends that are suspended out in thin air. A new flickering view with each linked turn. Two hours of effortless freewheeling viewing on an empty tarred road. As we literally pop out at the bottom onto a vast open pampa, I remember to give thanks to the venture capitalists in New York who I assume have financed my morning's entertainment. If the sun bleached bragging board is to be believed they stumped up 234,986,368.95 pesos in July 2007, for just one ten kilometre section. Those two serpentine squiggles on the map do join up. And yes, Mr Informes, the road does go through the national park and yes it does connect to Ruta Cuarenta. Thank You!
                           Start of route RN150.

However I do feel aggrieved that a liberty has been taken. . The first roadside signage states an assumption of our capabilities, or a warning to others of what they may encounter. Constructing a road just for "fossils", old fogies who should have grown up, who presumably should be sat in front of and tending the fire.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Train to Tucuman

There was a time when the first dance on a long trip, the first hop from provincial capital to Central hub, would be a cramped affair. A short bump in a commuter plane, crushed by the tribes of power suits. You were prepared to thole the momentary sufferfest; after all it was only for an hour. The next jump would be considerably longer, but so too would be the leg room. That's all changing. Only it's in incremental centimetres. I'm convinced there was a point, a mere half decade ago that I could rest my head in my arms on the seat-back table in front, to ease the cramps and a dearth of circulation. The fellow sufferer ahead could recline and not snap my spine in twain. Not anymore. Don't drop that portion controlled butter pat, for it will require the gymnastics of Houdini to recover it. There is but one sitting position, one that would have a posture tyrant salivating; "sit up, back straight, no slouching, or you'll get yur knuckles wrapped". It takes a contortionist to to find a position that might just allow for some broken sleep. It's more 'transports' than journeys, as in an 18th century transports, of hulks, convicts and Botany Bay. It's termed cattle class, when in fact it's more 'cattle crush'; that iron crate that a veterinarian uses to restrain a soon to be non-bull, whilst he wields the scalpel. 

As can be gathered, Air France is not high in my comfort estimations. Yet what is easy to forget is the fact that we've traded comfort for price. So with this thought in mind, and the guide book's rather sniffy comments: '...a little like stepping back in time....that might appeal to those in no hurry...' We buy tickets for a twenty six hour train journey. Vinyl covered bench seats, open window ventilation, and a reputation for non arrival. For compensation there's the sense of adventure at a pace more akin to a cycle tour, with a fare structure that panders to the eternal thrift merchant. Buenos Aires to Santiago del Estero, Good Airs to St James of the Marsh all for the price of a coffee on Scotrail. Inflation is a fact of Argentine life, yet this is the quoted rate in our ageing guidebook, all the other suggested prices for comestibles are so antiquated as to be irrelevant. What amounts to a free ride, a 'get out of jail' card. Yet another hassle-free escape route from the Megapolis Buenos Aires. The shame is the near death of passenger rail travel in a country that at one time was dependent for it's development on the iron horse. A situation that is highlighted as we pedal away from the station. A brand new road that cuts a swath through one barrio, bridging roads and free of inconvienient intersections, terminating on the terminal concourse, all for the sole use by the Argentine bus services. A statement of intent: rail is dead. 

The promised delays never materialised, we won on the seating lottery, our bikes rematerialised at the other end. That, in my estimation, counts as a success. We score the three-seat bench, but don't acquire the third passenger, which gives us the possibility of one bed, and another on the floor. We're far from alone in these arrangements, walking the aisle in the middle of the night was an adventure trip avoiding the stepping stones of sleeping faces and prostrate lilos. Then, for a further bit of colour, as we enter Rosario, we get the local kids game: 'stone the train', and now realise why the windows are made of cracked Perspex.

It might not be fast, but what's time on a tour? It might not be smooth, but the motion memory will rock me to sleep the next night. It might not be modern, but it still works. It's another perfect way for a cyclist to circumvent the torc that strangles a capital city.


Monday, 13 October 2014

Meet the Lords of Misrule

 Remember to placate the Lords of Misrule. Take not their name in vain, for they will come back and hit you where it hurts most; usually a puncture when you're running late for the train. These pantheons of pranksters come in many guises, but it's the mischief makers that you need to watch; Kili, Loki and that wee imp, Murphy. They've always had a field day of opportunity with each new technological innovation. The broken spoke on that first oxen cart. The typo on the first Gutenberg printing press. The burst radiator on Mr. Ford's first model T. The 'Houston, we have a problem'. It's well understood by every farmer that a combine harvester never breaks down on a wet day and that when there are only two cars in the whole state of Pennsylvania, the tricksters will ensure that they crash head on. So as we enter the last week before we flee the winter and the house sitters move in, so the 'Captains of the capricious' will choose now to burst a pipe, leak a roof, fail a radiator. We got lucky, it was only an electric iron that deceased. An implement that until recently, lurked near redundant in a cupboard, that gave out on the second last uniform shirt of the season. Having partially failed the 'mischief test', Lord Misrule returns for one more effort as we're about to pedal off properly. Another gremlin. It's a comment on how addicted this western man has become to his 'opiate of connectivity'. Only eleven years ago, we set off on the 'long tour', our level of technology was a pencil and a jotter. An atlas of maps. No mobile, no computers, not even a camera. We survived, we thrived, we used an object called a callbox, for the vicarious travelers back home weren't ethereally connected to social media. This time the 'Queen of Cunning' has defuncted the tablet charger. Replacement will inevitably be overpriced, over-rated and not over here. She has another giggle; the spare is lying plugged in beside our Scotland. 

We all have a tally with these 'Gods of the Gambit', and like their turf accountant brethren, their raison d'ĂȘtre is to win, always at your expense. It's a lottery of points determined on a sliding scale. Wrong change for the latest fares increase on your local bus, you contribute to the CEO's bonus, With extra points if the newsagent won't break that tenner. Your kettle blows a fuse just as the minister calls by for tea: five points away, double if you blasphemed, treble if the warranty ran out last week. The Tally Man scores your card, the guarantee is simple, you lose. Still, you need to compete, to play the system, to play the mug. You might win, 'it could be you'.

Transporting two new hub geared wheels for our hibernating cycles, a retro-fit that requires a degree of modification, would suggest a level of confidence that might be more hope over expectation. A hostage to fortune. The possibilities for the trickster are legion. Starting with the Ikea wobble: the missing irreplaceable part, closely followed by the sino-scripted manual: pictograms of confusion, or the possibility that you've ordered the wrong kit: the AD/0144, when what was intended was an AD/0114. So whilst an alteration in the comfort of our own front room, with the reassuring knowledge that rescue from 'Mike's Bikes' is just down the street and there's a returns envelope for errors, would be reassuring, we're the wrong side of the equator, behind a customs barrier with punitive tax charges. Got to get it right first time. So if we're to tangle with the Lords of Misrule, a strategy of war will be required. The Plan, with its components of anticipation, speculation and resident mechanic. Thus far the best way to thwart the 'Deils Of Deceit', is to give up, cancel the order, return to plan: original. Yet we've been here before, this is the third trip that we've dreamed on this modification, only to renege, only to meet someone on the road who's toting a hub gear, only for the wee green eye of avarice to intrude. Of course it's 'want over need'. For so long we've been in thrall to the Great God Shimano, with his spurious upgrades that are simply a bolt size change, with his use of condescending jargon and a mumble of part numbers. It will be interesting to sit as an acolyte before a different deity.

The omitted part, the Japanned manual, the dyslexic order? All is well. All parts present and correct. The journal is an English written workshop bible. But it's the engineering that stands out. It's exquisite. It's German. My mechanic, the one I brought with me, is in cycle heaven. Of course it works, She got it right first time. Well....there was that one moment, that one place where the Lords of Misrule could intrude, a sliver of hope, a place at which to ruin the whole project.

What comes next is anorak tech, but anybody who has ever tried to fit a rear mech on a pedal bike will understand how frustrating it is to hold a spring-loaded part whose sole ambition is to blacken a thumbnail, induce hysteria, damage a thread, render a cycle useless. We came close to defeat, to disaster. Of course the thread got nipped, which had the Lords of Misrule salivating and myself speculating on the Spanish for 'Taps and Dies'. Some coffee and lateral thinking has the trickster temporarily in retreat. It's like playing the 'puggies', a few coins will drop, just enough to tempt you back into the game, for next time it might be all four fruits.

The bikes are ready for a road test. Time for an interim settling up of the Diddler's Ledger: am I happy to trade a fully operational bike for an unchargable tablet? It's a No Brainer.


It' the Destination, not the Journey, Stupid....

BHow can you get excited about a new travel, even one that's scoped to last half a year? When between one and ones adventure are sixteen hours of aero transport, sandwiching between fourteen hours of enforced layover? Thirty hours of dead butt. To which I can now add the spectre of industrial action.

Excitement is the anticipation of the pleasurable, the unknown and the hunt for the quirky. Only there's little anticipation to be found in these prospects. The guarantee comes with an enforced inoculation of pathogens and recycled farts, the promise for a purgatory of haute coutureial shopping. And by the way, Air France pilots have been on strike for the last ten days.

Now I'm no different from the next person, I like a deal, that and I like to burnish a reputation for thrift. We even, on occasions, learn from our previous experiences. So yet again it's a 'red eye' flight into Northern Europe, followed by an overnighter down to South America. Which begs a question: does an accountant somewhere take pleasure in creating flight packages with the maximum of inconviences, or do they hope through the medium of tedium that I will succumb to pleasurable retail experiences afforded by tax-free diamonds and stiletto heeled shoes? At least on this occasion we did take cognisance from previous travels and avoided an additional stop-off in Brazil and decided against sleeping out on the terrazzo of Edinburgh International. The former a tale of bureaucratic inefficiency, the latter one of 'enhanced visitor experience'. One, a three hour queue of only ten persons, just to acquire two boarding passes, the other a sleep deprivation of incessant fire alarm tests and inquisitive police constables.

The early flight requires an anti-social check-in which would necessitate a six mile hike and an 'all night bus' to get away from home, so it's a cheap room in central Edinburgh. An oxymoron, especially as we're offered the seventh floor view of the capital's iconic establishments. The North British, the Scott Monument, the Old Town, the Royal Bank, all spread out across the rooftops of Princes street's department stores. A quirk, a fluke or has our God of Cyclists out trumped the 'Lords of Misrule'? From St. Giles' crown tower on the horizon to Top Shop's air-con to the fore, from the Castle's ramparts in the west, to the clanking tram down by the 'gardens', the panorama stretches from Altars to Mammon, from the Dark Ages to the New Enlightenment. (Give it another ten years, and you'll start to hear Edinburgians crowing about their tram, whilst the Weegies in the West will point out that they've had a rapid transit Metro system for over a century). 

We sit in our alumina tube on the edge of the runway for an hour, whilst 'awaiting clearance from Brussels'. Only we're supposed to be heading for Paris. Maybe someone's worried, now that the pilots have returned to work, it will be the turn of French air traffic controllers to catch the revolutionary fever, and seconded services to the Belgians. In truth, our return to Buenos Aires was hassle free, even our new 'tax paid' diamonds; our new Rohloff hub geared wheels came off the carousel intact. That, and to my eternal grief, the navigator reneged on my offer of new stilettos, opting for her cycling sandals.

This 'journey" is simply a means to a "destination". Now the real journey can commence. Time to rebuild the bikes.