Friday, 28 November 2014

Night Noise Valparaiso: 12 - 13 November 14

For some reason I can't sleep tonight. Possibly because, having been on a ration of connectivity due to a dearth of recharging electricity and hot points, I'm now able to compose in bed. More probably it's the extra coffees due to the inducement of easy access to an electric kettle, the diuretic effect of caffeine and age.
I'm in an old colonial house. All steep stairs and high ceilinged rooms in the old part of town. The window is open. Voices drift up from the cobbled street, the occasional exhaustless car grinds up the steep incline, clanking the slack drain cover. A radio plays from another place. Squabbling pelicans debate which boat's gunnel they're going to poop on. The inevitable alarm warbles in the distance as the bin lorrymen chuck glass bottles into their wagon. The compactor growls, the air brakes squeal and they roll away downhill, to allow another new quiet to descend; the soft thrum of air conditioners. The singular signature of a pigeon's flight as one shuffles the perching order on a window ledge. A key turns in the iron gate below; the hinges need lubrication and I count sixty footfalls up the long outside staircase. All in a single flight, a long fall. It's not exactly the silence of the night, but it does make a change from the usual barking dogs and non-dawn cockerels. There's even the faint tang of fish and the sea, for the Pacific Ocean is just three blocks away. This night we're in Valparaiso.
Last night I had the noise silence of Ocoa National Park. A quiet so intense that I could hear the gnawing of a rodent, feeding on fallen seeds and the feel-sound, the vibration of a passing ass' hoof fall. The occasional soft gust of air would rattle the stiff palm fronds, a sound of rain in a forest's canopy. A silence concentrated by the knowledge that the nearest human is many miles away.
It's that under-appreciated sense. Sound. The one that lacks the wow factors of sight and smell. It crept up on us today, a graduated increase with each decreasing mile towards town. With each too-close passing collectivo bus, each in a manic competition for that one last passenger. I needed three sets of eyes, the navigator her fish-lens. The reek of exhaust melding with fish meal factory. Sound as a pollution, that has driven the song birds to alter their habits, so now they serenade for a mate in the relative quiet of the sodium infused, undark city night.
The silence returns. Somebody's church chimes the forgotten hour, as a thrush sings a night time song in Sotomajor Square.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Other Travellers: 7 - 10 November 14

Seven weeks into our trip and other cycle travellers are somewhat thin on the road. But the quality far out ways the quantity. There's certain 'honey spots' that help to concentrate the possibilities of a chance encounter. Cities have poor returns, too many places to miss. Campgrounds are better, 'ender routes' better still, but best is an international frontier and the general couple of days around them. Paso Christo Redendor was especially fruitful.

Ben, ex Orcadian, ex Lancastrian, no accent, married to Natalia a Braziliana. Who on first contact, and this is so typical of cycle travellers were reticent about what they had been up too. Reticent, unassuming. They volunteered the information that they had just come on RN7. My subvocal reaction is: why? It's a fast, narrow, semi-infested road. But I'm too polite. They too are heading "over the hill", just like us, we're bound to get either confirmation of their virginity or the real explanation over the next couple of days. On a road that's over two days long, there's bound to be crossover somewhere. Yet we manage to pass and repass each other, they tracking down food, we, a siesta behind a giant rock, eventually coming together at the tunnel entrance. We take breakfast in the cafe together as we await the truck transport through the tunnel. That truck-congested Route Seven is but a fraction of their story. They're on a proving trip for their sponsors. (Swiss pharmaceutical wishing to launch a new sunscreen in Brazil) They left their front door in São Paulo forty odd days ago...four thousand odd kilometres ago...I can do the math, they're not hanging around. It's their last section. Now it's back home, then off to Canada, "to fatten up", cycle from the US border to Winnipeg in December, followed by a ski to Resolute Bay! So, not so much travellers as Adventurers.

Two days later we find another brand of adventurers. On differing occasions we've met, or we've heard reliable second hand stories of families on tour. Oddly or coincidentally most seem to be French. Famille Jouen are Bretons on an extended tour. Ewan(8) is on an independent, just like his mother Solenn, whilst his sister Meline and dad Oliv are on a recumbent tandem. It's an impressive set up. Forty kilos of kit and eighty kilos of cycle. There on their way over the same route that we've just covered, only they will be climbing up those twenty nine hairpin bends. Hopefully the wind will stay on its prevailing way for them.

Now there's been enough chatter on line about taking primary age children out of formal education for an extended period, I'm no expert, but I am an observer. I can't help but note the confidence, the inquisitiveness, the self assurance that's exhibited. Nature or nurture. Was it there before the journey started or is it a product of this tour? To have had those skills at that age. Their blog is here.

Footnote. The Jouens are 'over the hill', both physically and metaphorically, now heading north to Salta, Argentina. Ben and Natalia have signed up with their sponsors and are awaiting a firearms certificate... polar bears up around Hudson Bay. Their website is here.




Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Over The Hill

For those in the know: RN7/ International - Paso Cristo Redendor - CH60. (The main road between Argentina and Santiago, Chile.)
Another roller coaster of a day. Both geographical and psychological. It starts with a climb, a truck ride and a frontier crossing. Starting at -2 degrees and finishing at 28, started with the silence of a high altitude bivvi, and finishes with a Latino birthday party. Started in one country and finished in its neighbour's. We collect some more passport stamps and yet another version of officialdom's non-comprehension.
Camping and that essential element, sleep, are integral to a travel. Divining places of rest can be a trial, can be exciting. Like crap food which is best valued as simply fuel, so a poor site is simply a way of passing the dark time. At best a piece of questionable brain rest. A poor site, be it a grubby overpriced room or a mozzie infested scab of withered grass is tolerable but soon forgotten. Where as the notable or unusual is cherished. We collect two of the latter in quick succession. There was the tented classroom that came with parquet floor and trestle benches, followed closely by a bivvi high up on the Western Hemisphere's highest hill. To which was added a full moon.
At one time two competing train lines ran over the Paso Christo Redendor. Amazingly much of the infrastructure still exists. The track and the ties are intact, if at times swallowed up by the incessant upheavals of flood and avalanche. Near the top a series of corrugated tunnels still stand, the wooden beams still beautifully weathered, in places still charred by that last steam locomotive. In the past we've pitched between the rails of defunct lines. We were keen to repeat the experience, just for the sake of it. A bit of eccentric fun. On a wet and windy night the tunnel would be perfect, but with the promise of that moon and the array of high tops across our immediate horizon, we opt for the bielded shelter behind a couple of strategically positioned iron sheets. The afternoon gale howls down the tunnel, rattles loose tin, setting others to chatter and squeal, such that I'm convinced there's a troop of children advancing down the line. Eventually with the dusk, a profound silence settles as the sun sets and the moon arises. The mountain views still at full volume. Into this quiet a rogue gust of wind echoes along the tunnel waking me up. A ghost train of the imagination, those chattering tin sheets adding to the image.
Next morning is clear, the glacier melt streams frost rimed, but the promise is for heat. Rising through the bends to the Christo Redendor tunnel and a truck ride to Chile. Cerro Aconcagua and its attendants sharp, pristine, the ski resorts naked, empty and forlorn.
This crossing is popular with touring cyclists. It's the easiest way to access the Andes and western Argentina. Fly into Santiago and start climbing immediately. We know of eight cyclists who crossed during our two-day sojourn in the vicinity of the frontier. So what followed is a bit of a puzzle. This is our second entry into Chile with cycles; the last was with the convoys of Bolivian petrol trucks. The last was simplicity itself. Lorries and cycles being of a similar nature, the Navigator oft describing her cycle as a camion. The staff more interested in our impressions and intentions; their sole concern to make sure we had no garlic. Only here, we simply don't fit their simplistic binary formula, neither a bus passenger nor a car driver. The computer has no square box into which our round peg can be rammed. I'm now tempted to create an officious, laminated document just for my bike, along the lines of our spurious passport creations that nobody has yet to question.
We passed in and out of that hall numerous times, as we were sent back to acquire another piece of paper, to block up another queue. It became comical, its sole redeeming feature being the stunning panorama each time we emerged from that cavernous concrete hall. The Navigator giggling with each fresh absurdity. We eventually end up in a police office collecting a piece of photocopied document that states our name and number. I think its to show that we entered with cycles and when we come to leave, are not exporting or smuggling cycle contraband. Said scrap of paper accumulates four rubber stamps and now I'm concerned that I've garnered yet another piece of paper to lose. Yet the real absurdity has yet to be perpetrated. The bag search, carried out without the aid of an x-ray machine. Chile is well known for its fido sanitary restrictions, it has a major agricultural industry to protect, so the nuts and raisins are confiscated, yet the pan dulce is given the all-clear. Pan dulce has nuts and raisins in it. There's a giant poster right behind my parked up bike, depicting banned products, included is just what you might expect, fruit, veg, animal products and pencils. I carry a pencil, as pens get afflicted with altitude sickness. I also have a pair of Uruguayan sheepskin mitts that I'm rather fond of. I present them for inspection and they pass muster. Don't ask, I certainly didn't. Strange place the frontera.

Last night it was the silence that is sweet noise. Tonight it's Latino party night, to which can be added the clanking diesel loco and the jake brakes of tanker lorries, finally mix in a hazchem of rotten eggs. A day that gave us our fourth Andean crossing, yet it will be hard to think of a day that has given us such extremes.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Navigational Hunt

The navigator is in her natural habitat. On a mission to track down a paper map. The kill might be the desired result, but at times I sometimes wonder if the stalk isn't more exciting. In this age of digital mapping you might assume that what's on offer on our tablet would be adequate. We set off on this trip with that premise. No paper maps. It was at first exciting, gone the half kilo of, at times dubious information. Being able to press a few keys and, especially for me, if, as by magic, we had a new map for a new country. Being open source, it was even free. Rolling into a new town, flicking fingers and we knew where a hostal, campground or mercado were. No more going around in ever decreasing Blocks and squares tracking down each new and differing local's favoured shop or second cousin's accommodation. And yet. There's no substitute for sitting staring at a giant piece of paper on the floor. It's an essay of infinite words. So many possibilities, so many permutations, so many journeys.
Copec is an Exxon Mobil company that sells petrol. They also justifiably have the reputation for producing the best Chile road map. We know they exist, as we eventually tracked one down last year. The navigator can spot their telltale blue red and white logo at any distance. We start the hunt. Soon learning that map sales are the responsibility of the pump attendants and not the shop assistants. Many are helpful, going raking in cupboards, but all to no avail. The stalk reaches double figures with no map; it's becoming a game. Then a modicum of success. One man unearths an Esso edition from the bottom of a drawer, dated circa 1985. Well the towns will be in the right places, but many of the roads have moved. With still no success we're about to give in when she gets a bit of useful intelligence. This year's edition has sold out, next year's still to be printed. Best to head for a city bookshop and try for a generic map. Only it takes a certain level of population to support a bookseller, so we head for Valparaiso. It's fun to have a frivolous purpose when wandering a new place. So often you will end up in an interesting situation. That 'interest' can, on occasions be more of a euphemism, red light districts and wrong side of the tracks being two of the navigator's specialist destinations.
We find the bookshop by chance and now have a map. Whereupon the next petrol station that we stop at to use their bathrooms has just one road atlas left. Of course we have to purchase it. Suddenly we're back with that half kilo of mapping paper. Is there a phobianomic for those who can't leave home without a map? If so, we're both afflicted; fortunately it's easily treated. Buy a map.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Floral conquistadors

For those in the know: provincial route 52, Mendoza province. Argentina. The back road from Mendoza to Uspallata. Ruta del Ano.

A very British garden starts to materialise all around us. A creeping greenery of vegetation, surprising in its unexpectedness. Wild Rose, petunias, antirrhinum in two colours, ajuga and wandering sailors. The wild antecedents of a nurserymans breeding stock.

Leaving the desert city, the oasis town of Mendoza, with Its vineyards and its traffic, we climbed away from water influences and into a brittlescape of sand and scrub. We've plotted an alternative route from the road we took to get into town, using an atlas that lacks contours. I know that it must go uphill by the fact that there depictions of some hairpin bends and by the fact that we're surrounded by hills. There's no obviouse escape route through the barrier in front of us. The only question is how high? A question that we omitted to ask at the information kiosk, the same place that failed to volunteer the fact that the hotel at the termas was closed and that the campground was only for mine workers. We were probably her sole visitor that day, so I'll be generous and award two 'clowns'. We, of course came away with the standard clutch of paper, a glossy with a picture of a road twisting up a hillside. Its entitled "Ruta del Ano ". We've found ourselves yet another classic route by accident. Serendipity.

A slow and imperceptible change takes place. We move out of a two season year, wet or dry and into a euro- spring time. The verges erupt with colour and scents. The heavy, sweet smell of Mediterranean broom, a yellow stream of colour that picks out the transient winter water course. The steep hillsides speckled with rose, then step from the road and you crush geraniums, and wild rocket. A raw scar of recent rockfall is being populated by the early colonisers; white and magenta flowering petunias, and red valerian. The latter, a plant that's prevalence in Britain is blamed on the Romans. Only they can't be accused on this occasion. False acacia and Curtain poplars, with even one hawthorn complement the tree species. At first it's the surprise of the familiar, the discovery of vegetative greenery. Then comes the realisation that these are all weeds. Plants in the wrong place. Strangly, Australia's greatest export, the gumtree, is absent. Yet there is a certain admiration for their tenacity, their ability to expand and exclude the native flora. They're using a particular geological feature, an upwelling of ancient mineral rich waters. Only they're not the first conquistadores.

This feature has had its place in history. The route we're following is old, pre-Columbian, used by the indigenous Huarpes to trade over the Andes. Next wer the Jesuits and the designation: Camino Real.Then came the invaders. Capt. Joseph Villavicencio in 1704 hunting for easy wealth, and starts to extract silver. His legacy remembered by a mill stone and a name. "Villavicencio: The Brand" can be found in every shop, gas station and lining the verge of every Argentinian road. Yet It would have been utterly inconceivable for the original conquistadore to realise how his name and his property would discover such an unlikely new wealth. Bottled water. He was Spanish, the new owners: French.

Danone have built a bottling plant and acquired a tract of land, then preserved their investment by creating a natural park, to which is attached the usual ranger service. Were invited to camp the night in their pavilion classroom. All seventy-two square metres of it. Definitely a new sleeping location for us. They also furnish us with the interesting fact that the top of the hill is another 1200 metres above us and between here and there are 365 bends. Now the name "Ruta del Ano" makes sense. It takes over four hours to reach the top, by which time I've long given up the count. There's little point, the views are infinitely more inviting. But it's that sudden moment then we top out at 3100m and there in front, stretched across our horizon is the Cordillera Aconcagua.

Having been gracious enough to give us a sleeping space, I should offer some product placement. But as to why they have used the image of a North African camel on their bottles is a mystery. Presumably to suggest thirst quenching'. A pity as the park is well populated with another camelid, the guanaco.

Two roads into or out of Mendoza. Two utterly different experiences. One a dance with rampaging transfrontera java airs, the other a near deserted Gordian knotted road.



Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Pushing Downhills.

For those in the know: Argentina rutas 491~150~149, Huaco~ Jachal~ Rodeo~ Callingasta~ Uspallata. La Rioja Provice.


We fought the wind and the wind won.

Temples of the wind.

Downhill gradients of 5%, pedalling hard to make a meagre headway, on the outside of the bends, driven to a near standstill. Crossing the bridge at the bottom, over the Río San Juan, we give up and push. The road, having found the valley floor, then meanders in concert with the river around cliffs and buttresses, clinging to the side wall, the wind force strong enough to start grit avalanches and localised dust storms. On asking the police at the local check point if this is usual: We're offered a wry smile and "yes all day, all week". A bit like asking a Skye man "are these midges normal?" A poleaxing wind that attacks from every angle, to include that from above, its sole intention to empty my mind of any appreciations. An attack in violence and noise, so all-consuming there is neither time nor brain space to understand our surroundings. Yet to the left is the pre-cordillera, the foothills to the true Andes that climb up on our right. This road and our route are literally consumed within these mountains. The tops rise above me, 6000 metres high, but that's only a number gleaned from a map. It's impossible to appreciate their scale as there's nothing to measure against. The numbers are big, but the views are vast.

Parts of this route are credited as being the windiest in Argentina. A fact possibly only credible if you ignore Patagonia, Cape Horn and the Argentinian Antarctic. Speeds of 120kph each afternoon in October are considered normal. Windsurfing and its associated offshoots are catered for, with land sailing on the sand pampa around Leoncito, for which we saw no evidence. Which was a pity, trying to photograph wind is difficult. The Alamo poplars never bend, nor craft into wind shapes, the Sauce willows just flow gracefully, like sea swept seaweed. Neither showing any concern for the ferocity of the gale. Which should be a metaphor for our angst amongst this normal weather event. Don't fight it. Stand it out with British stiff upper lip or be Latino and go with the flow. Truth is we're probably tackling this route in the wrong direction, or we should have sought divination at that temple. Instead we investigate the underworld, climbing down into yet another culvert.

To sit still and await the early evening meteophysics, when the blessed stillness creeps in. These naked mountains take on a sidelight, the gullies and cliffs etched out stark and sharp. The tinnitus of silence. A silent wild camp, with the sure knowledge that we will get the ten minutes sunrise that can memory erase hours of wind battle. The tops sitting astride the frontier, the continental divide, picked out in pinks and russet reds, against the dark Chilean pre dawn. For its these few precious moments that make a weather battle and dark start so worth while.

The Río San Juan gives us our first true river on this trip, one that is glacier fed, albeit pinked with sediment. A 7/24 affair, the feeder side streams mere part timers, more seasonal rios of sand. It also offers that great boon, the reassurance of a resupply. It would be a difficult extraction, down crumbling banks to a questionable footing, but the thought alone, that of available water is comforting in itself. Fact is we're carrying an Aquarians' worth of tap water. Once we might have questioned our logics if we'd hauled an oversupply to the next destination; now I do not care. Water in this parched landscape is more precious than that stash of oats, bread or Mars Bar lurking in the bottom of a pannier.

Wind or no wind, this is a classic Andean introduction. An up close interview with these young mountains.



Saturday, 15 November 2014

Peck of Dirt

You've got to eat a peck of dirt before you die. An old wife's Bon mot. A truism to rank along side the 'five second rule': if it's off the floor inside five it. One way to acquire an inoculation of germs and avoid the repeated trip to the bathroom medicine cabinet. A peck being a dry volumetric measure for feeding oats to horses, a quarter bushel or its metric equivalent of around nine litres. A not insignificant amount that could easily be ingested whilst sleeping out the night under a bridge in an Argentine wind storm.

We're crossing the Campo de Arena and as the name suggests, it's a plane of sand and low scrub. A place of little shelter, offering poor tethers for a tent. A place of beautiful austerity. We've been this way before, we've been caught out in a hot wind storm and needed to find some sort of meager shelter. This time the wind is sitting square on our backs, we're being pushed along and are near to the finish. Then it drops away and returns with a vengeance, full frontal, stuck on our nebs. There's little point in fighting it, it will only result in a sufferfest. Time to investigate the culverts under the road. There's good shade and a cooler sand that's not been baked all day. The downside is the wind tunnel effect, that picks up grit and hurls it along the surface, at much the same height as a sleeping face.

Culverts, bridges and road cuttings are useful accoutrements for the cycle camper. The last can be exposed to the sun, but has the advantage that most humans have an inordinate inability to look upwards. It's easy to find a hidden place away from headlights and the black-time thoughts of crashing vehicles. The former two have the shade advantage but come with a particular South American trait. Garbage dumping. Fling the the black poly bag over the parapet, nature in the form of rain storms will sweep it out of mind. More often it's the wind that does the distribution, draping the thorn country with a flowering of polythene. Lay-bys are to be avoided, most are alfresco loos. Yet this trip has already disproved some of these assertions. A mirador, a tourist stop-off and lookout in the Valle Tafi gave us a jungle camp with screeching parrots and a dawn chorus, with the added thoughts about the night time creepy crawlers.

If you set to to construct a meal out of a can of corned beef, a few rolls and that wind, you soon learn why it might be termed a sandwich. It helps to keep up your quota of ingested dirt. We zip up the bivi bags and listen to the prattle of grit with a sense of security, yet still the talc-like dust insinuates its way through the zip. By morning there are ripples of sand formed around me. I'm scraping crud from my eyes and contemplating the tonnage of earth modelling that can be achieved in just one night.

Nine litres of dirt, one lifetime, I think I might be eating for my country this morning.





Friday, 14 November 2014

Clown Awards

The Welsh tourist organisation, a good number of years ago, had an accreditation system for accommodations, using, rather than stars, 'red dragons'. Patriotic, appropriate. Or so I thought, after encountering some of the less than welcoming landladies. We were on a cycle tour, they didn't like cyclists. They seemed well enamoured with our pound notes, it was the bike they had a problem with.

Dragon awards, it's got me thinking. I need a measuring tool for other visitor experiences. So it will not be a surprise if I nominate ' The visitor information services of the he world', as my first category. For this I will use 'clowns'. Characters whose sole aim is to make you laugh out loud. A belly laugh that leaves you feeling replenished. So no irony there. Truly it's the only reaction permissible that will leave you sane.

Automobile Club of Chile, like so many of their ilk, once produced serviceable road maps, the Argentina version still does. We need a map. We pass their Valparaiso offices; the Navigator is on mission, feeling masochistic, and enters. A single solitary answer, augmented by the evidence of her dentist's skills. 5 Clowns.


Wednesday, 12 November 2014


Inflation is a fact of present day Argentinian life. It's measure and value dependant upon the political persuasion of the calculator. Our assessor is the first encounter with a peso price. The cost of a bus ticket from the airport to the centre of town. It's risen 20% in the last eight months that we've been away. Which tallies with the stories that we've collected from the British financial press.

Sticky label conversion: 85 to 215

Our second check will come in town. A quick trip up to the city's major tourist drag: Av. Florida. A pedestrian thoroughfare, that by mid morning will be choked by a trip hazard of new age craft sellers and freshly breakfasted wandering tourists, tango-show-with-dinner touts and sundry business sorts. The navigator requires none of these, but searches for the pesomongers, the blue market touts. Not difficult to find, they're staked out twenty paces apart, five to a block, calling "cambio...cambio..." to any likely type, but never to the Portenos. Locals who either don't have access to Dollars or who carry a scowl like an Edinburger during that festival. 'Blue market', an officially unrecognised, semi official Dollar and Euro exchange, whose rate today can be found on the front page of the BA Herald. She returns with a wad of creased, tattered and well worn notes and an inflation rate of fifty percent.

Another repreese, were over west in the provincial capital of La Rioja, requiring a top-up of spending power. There's no Av. Florida, for there's few overseas visitors, no obvious cambio sellers. So she reverts to playing the ignorant gringa, and enlist the services of the visitor information service. Too often it's hard to know what these establishments are in existence for, and on occasions the navigator takes a perverse pleasure in confirming these prejudices. This time it takes a 'phone call to start the positive visitor experience. A young man appears some time later, say his father would be interested in purchasing some dollars. There's a collection of cycle police, complete with sirens, hanging around, there's a general tumult of population milling in the plaza. It feels safe for a transaction. Still as 'father' fails to materialise, the doubts mount. I suspect the parent is virtual, but a rate is agreed, the navigator is invited to 'step this way', invited into the privacy, in the back of the information kiosk. The same kiosk that's operated by the local authority. Officially unofficial.

Two physical measures. But it's on the gas station forecourt, one of the few places where prices are regularly displayed, that we see the creeping increases. A ticking clock that records the fact. There are others less obvious ones. The ghosts of priced stickers that are grubby sticky shadows of previouse costs, gathering dust on the shelf's edge. The map that was added to our collection ten years ago, that has increased fourteen hundred percent. Packets of biscuits come as cylinders, irrespective of brand, a recognisable length, that offers a neat symmetry on a shop shelf. Only now they're more bagel than biscuit in shape, having acquired a hole in their middle. A missing part that you can't but help feel has a potential for further inflation.

What never inflates is the cost of public transport. Our commuter train into the centre of town has in real terms, deflated to a quarter of it's value from when we first visited. The ticket to get all the way to Tucaman, that one and a half day trip is priced at around two quid.

The trick will be to leave the country with not a single spare pesos.


Thursday, 6 November 2014

Lapse Rate

That remnant of a fourth form geography class, delivered by the stereotypical tweed jacketed, leather elbowed teacher. The formula that confirms what you intrinsically know: it's colder on the top of Ben Nevis than it is down in Fort William. The sum a simple deduction of two degrees for every thousand feet.

These last few days have been prime examples. St. Miguel de Tucuman is known for being the hottest place in Argentina, but this is springtime, we'll be ahead of the heat, or so we've convinced ourselves. Getting off the overnight train in the early morning was 'interesting'. A simple euphemism for 'got to find shade'. Still we convince ourselves that 'we've still to acclimatise, tomorrow will be easier'.

Tucuman is sugar country, which translates as heat and high humidity, cane trucks and smouldering, burnt off fields. Strange to note how our travels encounter so many of the bête noires for the food facists. Salt from the Uyuni salar, coca from the Bolivian forest, Beefies from the hectarages of the Pampa, Tobacco from Virginia and now sugar from these poison fields. Their refineries pass us with regularity, belching steam and smoke that mingles with the clawing, pervasive sweet smell that then mixes with the lumbering truck reek and their multiply coupled trailers. The road sticky with roadkill, the discards of cane stalk.Argentina's roads can be fast and narrow; they were once an adequate width back in the decades before auto obesity, so we plan a route that might avoid the major trunk routes. It might not be direct but it will be quieter. Our choice for avoiding RN9 started out promisingly, leaving the provincial capital through a belt of under construction housing and on a few wrong turns that have yet to make it into a map. The only issue is the heat, it's increasing exponentially through the high teens, accelerating through the twenties and by early afternoon our progress is punctuated by hops from bus shelter to bus shelter. Refuges of deep shade from the predations of a 100 degree sun. It's at this point that our asphalted road gives out and reverts to sand. A surface in itself and on its own, is not a major challenge, but add the other apocalypses of sun and day one and a reappraisal is required. A baptism of fire. At least we're some what mollified by the local comments as to the intensity and its early appearance 'this year'. We head west.

Auto-help from a previous age.

Two days of overcast weather allow for a hastened, chastised retreat, a race for the Andean foothills. Whose hills are pale, ephemeral cutouts on the horizon, that even as we rise out of the fetid fug of the sugar Pampascapes, fail to form a hard focus. Yet the botanical graduations begin immediately. Sugar to tobacco, a narrow belt of stone fruit and blueberries, thence to Yungas jungle and cloud forest. culminating in the golden tussocks of the high country. From the laser precision of cropping agriculture to a natural abandonment. Tangles of aerial rooted figs and flowering trees, the zipping flights of hummingbird. Where every tree is a forest. A festoon of bromeliads and air plants. Through this I can hear an un-Argentine noise, the singing tones of a cascading river. Fast moving crystal water is so unusual, it's the perfect traveling companion.

The road up to Valle del Tafi is marketed as the country's longest continuous cycling downhill, and as is the standard on these occasions, is oft inflated to South American or World claim status. A eighty kilometre run. Comprehensible if you consider it as a downhill freewheel from Glasgow to Edinburgh. Which for us will be a long climb. A beautiful climb. We have those shade throwing jungle trees draped overhead, the resupply from the Rio Sosa and the company of the greater population of Tucuman escaping to the cool of the mountains and their Sunday asado. That lapse rate, it saves the sanity of a city. That blessed relief of physical geography.

Valle del Tafi has a similar history to the Raj hill stations of India, where the ruling Brits escaped for the season, only here the Tucumanos escape for the day. Hiring buses, piling into collectivos, loading up motos to stream in convoys up through the twist of hairpin bends, their ubiquity leaving us pondering if there will be any space for our tent. We need not have worried, for as the sun sets there's a mass exodus. We're told that it freezes at night. How will we survive?

That beautiful invigoration of cool mountain air and hot clear sun. You know from instinct, you don't need the geography lesson to understand what it is like back down below. Lapse rates writ large.


Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Technology stuff - continued

The end of the line for my trusty 2G Kindle.
I forgot to mention that Chris' Kindle gets altitude sickness. Only a re-boot will make it better.


Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Treasure Hunters

Perfect makeup, immaculate coiffure, dressed out of the city's nicest stores. She wouldn't look out of place in Edinburg's Morningside or Glasgow's Kelvinside and she isn't out of place in Buenos Aires' Niceside. The doña, the grand dame of San Isidro. She's doing the daily shop at her local supermercado, possibly it's the maid's day off. Passing the bakery, she takes to a bit off quality control, snaffling a factura; those sugar encrusted two-bite morsels piled high, so invitingly, in the self-help trough. The treasure huntress. More evidences will be found later, at the verdura cabinet, where the vegetables wither under the dehydrating influence of air-con and the predation of the free pickers. Like the winter robin of a Glasgow childhood, that has already fat-tested the cream line of your school milk, so the styrofoam has partially been disrobed of it's clingfilm and sampled. Free looters on the loose. Requesting the purchase of a pack of batteries in one store resulted in their incarceration in a security bag, to be released at the checkout. Thwarted treasure hunters. We met one French cycling couple who had been accused of 'poverty', for picking wild figs. On that occasion we too had watched overripe fruit dripping on the branch, covering the ground with windfalls. Nobody was interested in them. Funny Foreigner treasure hunters. Which might explain the carpets of crushed, sticky mulberries that we've ridden over of late. Of course it's not just an Argentine trait; consider all the apples in the gardens in Haddington that never make it to the fruit bowl in the house.

What has triggered these thoughts was the disappearance of a certain kilometre post. Route National forty, Ruta Cuarenta is iconic in the Argentina psyche, in a similar league to the U.S.' Route 66, or the A939 Cockbridge - Tomintoul. It runs from the Bolivian frontier to Tierra del Fuego. Over 5000km. We've played on it before, we're back here again, but only for a few days. However, we do pass one of the more significant 'k' posts. Last time I liked the alliteration of numerals...RN40 4040, photographing and blogging the evidence. So it was somewhat disappointing to find that others had been attracted by the same significance and poached it. Souvenir treasure hunter.

If you've ever wondered where some of these liberated signages end up, try checking out Watson's Lake, North Western Territories, Canada. They have a forest of acquired place names. Unofficially commissioned by inebriated students, it's expanded to become the community's main, well....only tourist attraction.

Anybody who knows our stair in Scotland, will realise that I too am not immune to collecting a certain type of physical trophy. Car number plates. One for each country explored. There's but one single rule: roadkill only. Morally treasure hunted. Or as can sometimes seem to be the case: scalp hunted, taken from the not unfriendly driver but the enemy motorcar. Of course its at this point that my pinprick conscience reminds me; that incredible road, with it's tunnels and bridges, its slick surface and two hour free-wheel, that's saved over three hundred kilometres of deviation, wouldn't exist without the infernal internal combustion engine. We're all hypocrites at some point.

The real, lasting treasure that's there to be hunted are the lasting images from a trip. The Sunday that we get hijacked and force fed asado steaks with chilled red wine. The presentation of a bottle of frozen water as the thermometer cruises around one hundred degrees. That short time between first light and sun up, when my world is cool and crystal sharp. Images storable only on memory.

Still I hunt a camera image that can encapsulate a place, a time, a trip. To be in the right airt at the right time, with the presence of mind to notice. To capture not to steal. That is my kind of treasure hunt.