Saturday, 31 January 2015

Moments in Atacama Time.

It's Copa de Sud America time. "Football" the Navigator dismissively snorts as if it were an annoying pestilential gnat. We're sitting in a 'polleria', a roast chicken 'n chips shop in a classic Peruvian rice town.

It's Sunday evening, and families are streaming back from the beach, retreating back up into the high country and Arequipa city. Tico taxis with four generations crammed into their underpowered minuscule interiors lurch around bends, collectivos with death wishes overtaking around corners. Mototaxis ply incessantly for trade.Some are coming into our evening eating place. Skewers of chickens are rotating on spits, spitting grease onto the flaming coals, the atmosphere hot and sweaty. A fan is switched on for the relief of the two pink gringos. The service is fast, efficient and friendly. The television is chuntering up on its pedestal, totally ignored. All totally normal. Which is strange, as Argentina are playing Peru. And they're be being hammered. Still, they score another consolation goal. Still no reaction, total concentration on shredding their quarter carcase, salad and chips. I did wonder if we were being entertained to edited highlights. The result no longer news. Not so. The commentator was infinitely more aminated, than the disinterested trencherfolk all around me.

Now it's well known that a South American football commentator is recruited for his lung capacity, his ability to elongate a simple four letter word, into a five line eulogy. Goooooooooooooal Peruño.....Goooooooooooooooal Cocacola.......Goooooooooooooooal Peru....Goooooooooooooooal CocaColaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa......It must be galling to have your national football team's efforts against a past world champion, diluted, cut in half by a soda pop company.

Then again, maybe it's not so inappropriate, given that that selfsame soda pop company now owns the Peruvian national soft drink: IncaKola. The same company that has invented the irrational concept of the 'big half'. Marketing a dumpy 650ml bottle as 'a half litre gigante', in so doing reignited a buried schooldays memory of a maths teacher who vehemently argued against the impossibility of the unequal half. Only to be disproved by an ill-advised pupil, who suggested that the second half of the football game can have an extra four minutes added on. It's 6~2 as we leave the restobar, the commentator's elocution well exercised.



Thursday, 29 January 2015

You Don't Camp on the Puna

For those in the know: Ilo ~Moquegua~Puno~Desaguadero~Moquegua (again). All Peru, first part of January 2015

You don't camp on the Puna. The altiplano that stretches away to the north, the high plain that's contained within the Cordellera Los Andes that holds Lake Titicaca in place. Take a world atlas view of the eastern Pacific seaboard; in essence it runs north from Cape Horn, and then starts to deviate towards the west around the Chilean~Peruvian border. It's around this point that the high ground starts to broaden out. No longer are there the classic 'Pasos', the steep, high climbs and are mirrored on the obverse, with equally steep descents. The high climbs are still there, only now the descents are of low denominations, relatively short drops onto that high plain. Keep heading east across that flat, and you will meet another rank of ranges, now you can start to climb back out again, followed by a long descent to the sweaty armpit of mosquito-infested jungle country.

Geography lesson over. You still don't camp in the Puna. Or at least that's the advice of the doom-mongers, invariably those that have passed through, never stopping in their rarefied, hermetically sealed bubblebus. Only the road that heads away from the saltwater port of Ilo to Puno, the main freshwater port on Lake Titicaca, goes way over 15,000 ft and will take the better part of five working days. We're going to have to hope to find some form of accommodations along the way. From previous experiences, we have some inkling as to what we might expect. Bare concrete floors, threadbare sheets, a naked light bulb and a solitary power point (cable TV is considered a higher priority than a working cold shower). With a crushing stash of blankets to compensate for the lack of heating. A basic haven. We look for, we need for, no more.

You don't camp on the Puna. Any spot that is large enough to take our tent's footprint will already be occupied by a crop of potatoes or is being grazed by a herd of llamas. We'd be trespassing on somebody's livelihood. You don't camp on the Puna, only tonight we'll need to hunt out yet another secret spot for the fifth consecutive night. For the forager, for the very first time, has rejected the solitary room that we've passed all day. The earth floor was probably the deciding factor; it wouldn't have been the $3 charge.

Stealth camping takes a degree of luck, we've been lucky. An old by-passed road, stuck out on a promontory, a vast view of the ranked cascades of old Inca era cropping terraces, that leaves you wondering at the ingenuity and sheer hard graft that went into breeding some of the world's basic staples. The next night we end up poking our way down a disused railbed, again to the perfect spot. This time the view is over a naked Atacama desert to the verdant green valley and the oasis town of Moquegua, and a short blazing sunset. Two of the other nights are less spectacular, both being in disused quarries, which however, do offer good shelter from the ice rain and the normal, penetrating wind. The final camp was a return to an highway structure that is becoming regularly familiar. A cundy back under the road. You've no idea how much vibration an ex-Danish plated lorry, hauling Bolivian petrol can shake into the ground, or the heart thumping confusion of the tunnel amplified gnawing, of a vizcacha chewing on a plastic bottle.

Yet, camping on the Puna will always remain a secondany option. Several reasons, not the least of which, finding indoor accommodation puts hard currency directly into the local economy, and as travelers that's an unarguable obligation. It also throws up a story or two. In Juli we find a place with a panoramic view of Lago Titicaca. Most establishments are named for saints, only this one gets the suburbanisation, the "acacia avenue" treatment. "Titicaca Breezes". An understatement, as I rush wet from the shower to shut the windows as a sudden gale threatens to spill the coffee cups off the windowsill. Which highlights the other aspect of most rooms; the paucity of a flat surface that isn't the floor. The floor that gets the ubiquitous, brown rubber-backed covering, of the type so beloved by parsimonious student landlords. Given the slurry of mud down on the street, and the fact that I've yet to see a vacuum cleaner for sale in any electrical store, leads me to the inevitable conclusion. Give me bare concrete any day. In Moquegua we find an old colonial era hotel, set in a garden of lemon trees, with high ceilings and surrounded by verandas. El Dueño is in his eighties and presents us each morning with fresh crushed mango juice.

Still, beggars can't be choosers. You don't camp on the Puna, yet sometimes that's exactly what you end up doing, metaphorically, inside the room. Had it been later on in the day, when the rain had started to turn to hail, that refusal of the cow byre might well have been a more enthusiastic acceptance. There wouldn't have been an issue with tent peg placement. And it would have given us another new camping situation.



Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Some Days are Diamonds, Some Days are Stone.

PanAmerican Highway between San Jose and Camana, 21 January 15. An interjection from The Navigator.

Today, the bike computer tells me that I have pedalled 112 km and climbed 1100m. However, I would contend that it does not account for the 500 vertical metres of downhill riding that I had to pedal hard against the headwind, so much so that I was somewhat shocked to see that we had descended from 1400m to 900m.


Today was a ride in the sort of traffic that we are very unaccustomed to, but there is only one road in these parts.


Today, I have been blown off the road by the wind, blasted off the road by 100db truck horns, shoved off the road by slipstream and run off the road by vehicles overtaking three abreast while coming towards me. I have been coated with sand and diesel smoke. The shoulder at best was laid on a windy day and at worst had a surface worse than some ripio. The Chronicler threatened a serious sense of humour failure when the first two roadside eateries could produce nothing to eat, despite the promising boards outside. The tunnel had no lights and a shoulder thick with sand. We didn't make it to Camana because we ran out of daylight and had to camp in the desert. There wasn't enough water even for a shared half-litre sponge bath.


Today the truck drivers (and everyone else) were generally tooting with great enthusiasm and encouragement; the shoulder was generally 2m wide and did have an asphalt surface; at the third time of asking, we did score a most excellent lunch, complete with real chicha (maize 'beer'); we were accompanied through the tunnel by a Prosegur driver who crawled along behind us in his armoured truck, protecting us from traffic from behind until we got through; we found an excellent spot for a camp between two dunes, leaving us a 22km downhill to start the next day; we had a goodly supply of prettily scented Huggies baby wipes, and enough water for coffee.


As John Denver asked, was today A Diamond or A Stone?



Sunday, 25 January 2015

Desaguadero: The Answer. 16 January

Frontier crossings are always interesting. Each has its own character. We've only managed five this trip. A great saving in passport stamps, for the navigator's document is going to be replete long before expiry. Fortunately South American officials are conservative and tidy, managing to fit at least four franks to a page, unlike their profligate counterparts in the USA, who consider their empire so important, that an entry stamp requires a whole page just for itself.

An Argentina~Chile crossing will be structured, orderly, rationally tedious. An Argentina~Uruguay is fast and effortless, going into Brazil, where they don't bother and as for Paraguay, they couldn't care less. As Europeans we're used to the ubiquity, uniformity, monotony of frontier protocols. The uniforms might differ, the languages surrounding you might indicate destination, but there's little variance. Here in South America, I find it difficult to think of two crossings that we've taken that are similar. Every single one is unique.

Our circuit through the Puna, a trip from the coast to the high plains, first encounters the sacred lake of Titicaca, at the city of Puno, where we keep its company until the major frontier town of Desaguadero. Bolivia once had its own seaboard, but lost it in the War of the Pacific, along with its nitrate rich Atacama desert. The peace settlement did, however, allow for an access, to allow it to trade with the rest of the world. That major conduit was a railway line that was destroyed by an earthquake. Now, despite Bolivia being a petro producer, she still requires to import her hydrocarbons. We know this well. Crossing over at Lago Changara we passed three kilometres of empty fuel tankers waiting to enter Chile and make their way down to the refinery on the coast. This time, we were passed at regular intervals by convoys of transports clambering up over the mountains from the Peruvian port town of Ilo. This one fact is significant for one major aspect of Desaguadero's economy.

Peruvian gas station

We were in need of a fill of petrol for the stove. I prefer to draw it from a gas station for reasons that will become apparent. But we pass station after station, some abandoned whilst still under construction, others have their pumps shrouded and trussed up in plastic sheeting. All are scrawled with political electioneering. All are closed. Yet all along the roadside there are ranks of stallholders, their frontages a squalor of diesel-infused moats, stacks of five gallon plastic Jerrycans, funnels and filler jugs.

My standard method for purchasing fuel is not to ask to have our bottle filled up, but to calculate in penny terms the quantity that will only half-fill the can. That way, hopefully, I get a half bottle full. It might prevent overfilling. All the gas stations are closed, so I join the queue of mototaxis, collectivos and fumes, standing in a slurry of greasy, muddy puddle water. Gratefully giving thanks that Peruvians are generally non-smokers. I've done the calculation, but these Peruenas never miss a trick. I end up paying not only for the full bottle, that I'm going to have to haul right back over the hill from whens it came, but also the fuel spilled over my hands and the river of pollutant that's now running back down into that puddle, spreading a flowering bloom of oily colours.

Now I'm being nagged by a question. If the petrol stations are closed, where do these ladies get their supplies? The answer is so obvious next morning. For we have inadvertently become a party to a piece of reset, taken our part in the local black economy. That quart of low grade octane, which will now clog our stove and frustrate breakfast cooking with its black reek of soot, literally "fell off the back of a lorry". There, on the edge of town, is a full, Bolivian registered, originally Icelandic owned, fuel tanker with a taxi-trike drawn up beside it. Ten five-gallon Jerrycans are being filled from a spigot in its side. Is the discrepancy noted, is it put down to evaporation, accidental spillage or just natural wastage? How long this 'economy' will survive will be interesting. That rail link from Arica on the Chilean coast to the Bolivian capital of La Paz, is now repaired, the rolling stock purchased, all that is required is the political agreements.

Taking some of those tankers off the road will not only have an effect on the road's asphalted surface, it will impinge on those roadside eateries that serve up the real fuel that we crave. The offering will either be fried cheese and trout or 'chicharrones de alpaca'. The latter a dish of unsalted maize corn, Andean freeze-dried black potatoes and fried camelid leather. A beast that doesn't run to fat. A dish that cries out for 'salt n' sauce'. Sometimes served without the aid of cutlery, we manage only half, it's so dry. Then, you do as the locals do, doggy bag the remainder, to re-fry, to resurrect it in a sauce of tomatoes and onions for tea later on.


Friday, 23 January 2015

Desaguadero: The Question. 15 January

Desaguadero: with one known exception, most will not have encountered the town. Yet the general images will be familiar to any aficionado of travel television. The White gringo wading his way through a sea of locals, scanning his immediate horizon, searching for the immigration office. Dodging around the ancient, bent-double grandmother, crushed down by her trading sack and miniature stool. Being buffeted by an engorged poly-prop sack that dwarfs the pedalled cargo trike. Finding a grime-encrusted window of a paint-peeling shack that lead on to the 'migrations ' office, there to be unceremoniously stamped out of the country.

That him, was us two years ago. I was so enthralled by the sheer exuberance of the place, that we were keen to visit it again, to find a place to stay, to wander and explore, only this time unencumbered by the tethers of cycles.

Only to find that situation, we need to actually cycle into town. It begins easily. Slalom around the loaded lorries standing outside yet another closed petrol station. One hundred kilo bags of onions are being manhandled, four sacks to a cargo-trike, then propelled furiously through the thickening throngs, over the muddy ditch that is the border, and then loaded back onto another truck. Avoiding the tangle of steel bars that cascade from another lorry. Bouncing around a compacted gravel heap that is moated by a puddle of greasy diesel water, the island topped by a castle of Jerrycans all filled with fuel. We tuck in behind a loaded trike, the cyclist lost behind a cargo of salted crisps and we use him as if he were a snowplough, only to be overtaken by an impatient pedalled taxi trike hauling a family from the collectivo rank into the maelstrom that is the centre of town.

We need to find a room. There's a sea of names hanging out from four storied walls, there's no shortages of possibilities. One would be perfect, offering grandstand balcony views on the mayhem across the road. The massed humanity surging forwards and backwards up a short street. Somewhere within that short distance is the official international border between Peru and Bolivia. It's barrierless. Only between us and a bed, is a human barrier of traders, their wares spewing out from shopfronts. This is the point that a loaded cyclist is at their most vulnerable. It's that old conundrum, "crossing the river with a fox, a chook and a bag of grain", how do you negotiate a room when reception is up on the first floor?

I spot a possibility, it's only two stories high, a significant consideration, as hauling a cycle up four floors at this altitude is heart busting. Cycling an Andean paso is relatively easy, yet three flights of stairs is a killer. The Forager sets off in pursuit and finds an old colonial building with a central atrium populated by man-high geraniums and a vast aura of tranquility. Now we have somewhere safe to unload and transport our cargo to a room that has a front row seat in the 'upper circle'. Climb the unprotected steps to the flat roof, and I'm up in the 'gods', in a roofscape of traditional Peruvian incompletion. Amongst a forest of protruding re-bar and tangled wire and a mouldering stack of clay bricks and solidified cement bags.

Now I have my stage, I can watch the unfolding life of a frontier town, the small vignettes that compose its working day. To observe the gender segregations. Women trade the fruit stalls, men work the treadle sewing machines. Women teller the cambios, the money changing booths, men drive the collectivos. Women sell from the pharmacies whilst men do the dried herbal remedies. The only place where there is an integration is within the police force. Even here there appears to be a requirement for 'height', 'good looks' and the ability to skilfully apply make-up.

The smells of the street drift up in the casual breeze. The dried grass of newly spliced ropes, the exotica of powdered chilies, the acridity of diesel fumes. A complement to the vibrancy of colours. The towered stacks of plastic stools, the rainbows of sweeping brushes, the bundled bales of broom staves. The swaying Cholita with her carrying shawl, her toddler who requires attention, holds her over the gutter to squat a pee. The noise of a soft whistling taxi-trike trying to push past, to add to the congested street, the raucous horn of a moto-trike trying to pass the yellow digger that has put down legs and wants to investigate a wet hole. Washing through this air, are the general low mumbles of vendor and buyer. Only this being Peru, there has to be the grumble of a cement mixer and the thonk of hammer on brick.

The automatic teller machines are a curse as they only dispense large denomination papers, when on the street the requirment is for small coinage. We're going to be heading back up onto the high ground, where 'cambio', small change, 'solitas' are vital. Go for the 'messages', a shopping that will entail at least five visits to stalls, all of whom will claim to have no change. We've been caught out before, the hostel owner who forgets to return with your change, who is mysteriously absent when you leave in the morning. Just another form of 'tourist tax', only one of draconian proportions. So with this scenario in mind, and armed with two 'big ones', we enter the rarified world of finance. A bank. We enter another existence. Stepping from the slurries of the street onto the polished terrazzo tiles, escorted past the waiting chairs to stand in a funereal silence. From the faces of the high Andes to the pink mascara of a Latina teller. This sanitised bubble serves as a contrasting, accentuating foil to the world outside. The separation, an open glass door and two armed guards.

Leaving town the next morning, we're in the same street but in a different place. Not a single piece of yesterday's trading evidence exists. It's an echoing canyon of dropped steel shutters and drawer doors, the detritus of trading tidied away. The black straps that constrained the bloated bags of China clothes, the shed polythene that bulked the bundles of plastic shoes. The skins of peeled tuna fruits, the scatter of unsellable grapes. Now I can see the way in to all those possible accommodations, see the narrow, near vertiginous stairs and be grateful for our luck/skill in ending where we did. Past an establishment that you never realised needed to exist, the: 'Palace of mannequin' - 100% Perueno, and a succession of shuttered gas stations. The former is obvious, as every clothes shop will have a collection of clones modelling a collection of wares, the latter is a conundrum. All those collectivos, those mototaxis that refuel from the ladies sitting in their moated forts, behind a defence of Jerry cans, where do they get their supplies?



Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Puno, 12-13 January

Potential confusion: Puna: the altplano; high plain of the Andes, Puno: City with a population of 118,000 that happens to be in or on the Puna.

Puno: Maybe you've not encountered the name, but you will have seen the classic images of the reed boats that ply the lake, the back of buses and every second craft stall. Probably in a National Geographic, whilst sitting in your dentist's waiting room. The town is often the entry point for the "trail", a trilogy of 'must sees': Cusco, Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca. We've passed along the lake road on two previous occasions and only used the city as a resupply depot. Never stopping to investigate. Our impressions were of a classic Peruvian city. A congested collection of collectivos, their conductors hollering destination names that are incomprehensible, yet we will almost certainly have passed through them. Of mototaxis that swarm around the central market like it was their hive. Of I rendered clay-brick built buildings that sprout steel rods for the extension floor that never seems to be completed. A city in perpetual construction. A city in perpetual motion. But the major impression was of the railway track that ran up the middle of the main thoroughfare, over which we seemed to be required to cross on too many occasions. In short, two words summed up the city: manic and mayhem. Fair to say it was a place low on our 'repeat' or 'to do' list. Which is disrespectful, and manifestly unfair.

Yet again the place has materialised as part of a touring circuit that starts on the coast and encompasses Lake Titicaca and the Puno. Four days cycling at high altitude, four nights of camping and bucket washing necessitates an extra day's recovery. And as has happened so often before, when you peel back the skin and start to delve a little deeper, so neat moments are thrown up.

In the Andes, if you see a man with a large drum, you turn around and follow him. He could, of course just be heading off for band practice in the local school yard, in which case, it will be like listening in on the wireless, there'll not be much visuals, you'll not get that magnificent grumble through your guts. However, if it should be Saturday early evening, you could get the full televisual performance. We follow the drum and get our reward.

A large congregation of women and men are gathering in the Plaza, in front of the cathedral. The men, dressed all in black, with a regulation haircut, the ladies in red and black, their hair in tight buns. At first I wondered if they were all waiting staff, in which case service in the city's restaurants will be slow tonight. The coiffure and the later arrival of the processional banner soon told the truth. The national police academy. Like all dance, I find it near impossible to describe. Traditional to the varying cultures of these high plains, it appears to have little structure, yet the choreography is near perfect. Every performer, there's over one hundred, turn, hop or skip-step in unison. Where these ranks and files are constrained by convention, each step traditional, there will be one single character who 'freestyle' dances. 'It' is the devil. 'It', because it's not possible to determine the dancer's gender, yet the impression is androgynous, verging on femininity. Bloody stragged hair, twisted goat's horns, bulging eyes, wild unkempt demeanor. 'It' gets to flow freely around the open spaces within the square. The whole performance is in constant motion for over an hour. A feat of enthusiasm and skill, particularly as the girls are in three inch heels. And the band plays on. That solitary drum reverberating right through my stomach.

Eventually they all troop off to the police headquarters, that are conveniently situated in the corner of the plaza. Carrying at their helm the statue of the 'Virgen de la Candelaria', for it is her festival that is about to commence. We troop off to find our tea. That accomplished, it's not difficult, you only have to decide if it's to be pizza, Chifa or chicken, then select one from the many. Replete, we're heading back to our room, when those distinctive thumps of drum, draw us right back to that same open space. The new band plays a variant on that same refrain of before. Only this time the dancers are in a traditional dress.

Puno's claim is the 'Folkloric Capital of the Peru', and on any given evening it's possible to find some 'action' somewhere in town. So maybe our serendipitous encounter wasn't quite so fortuitous.

Sunday morning we carry out one of our favourite manoeuvres. Wandering a town in the silence of the Sabbath. At a time when it's possible to look at a building and not feel that you're impeding the locals going about their businesses, when It's possible to stand in the middle of the street and not be mown down by a taximoto. Only on this Sunday the armed forces are out on the streets. Police motorbikes are strategically blocking off side roads. Time to head back to that plaza again. Only there's no riot shields or water cannon. It's all medals and swords, spit and polish. Even the local authority personages are in a uniform. All present to watch the president hoist the national flag and sing an interminable national anthem. Thereafter to goose-step past a viewing gallery of military brass weighed down by medals and caps encrusted in scrambled egg. We position ourselves unobtrusively in the farthest corner from the saluting dignitaries, watching all. The squaddie checking his mobile, another 'selfie' photographing the event, the lady civil servant hobbling in tall heels.

That show over we head down to the shore, to a lakeside walkway. This being a Sunday the area is a hive of activity. The pedal boats are dodging on the inner pond, the touts are latching onto every 'gringo', and a folkloric group are being filmed. The all-in-black director is attempting to organise the independently minded older members of the troupe. We stop to watch another piece of free, unscripted entertainment.

Puna winter, the wet season is underway. It rains hard in the night. We ride out of the city the next morning, over cracked paviors, through puddles that might be fathomless, our tyres slicked in slippery mud, negotiating with taxis and trucks, along nameless one-way streets that never want to go our way. We're back into the same world that had coloured our two previous visits. A city that's like those bunches of 'Lady's Finger' bananas that are being hawked on the passing stalls. You need to peel back that thin skin to find the flesh within.




Sunday, 18 January 2015

Jet Lag.

For those in the know: Arica (Chile) ~ Tacna (Peru). New Year's Day 2015.

Can you get jet lag, even if you've not been on a jet? What do you call a two hour jump backwards when all you've done is take a single step forwards, stepping over a singe white line that stretches across the road? The geography doesn't alter, but you know that you've entered another place.

We live our day more by the sun than by any form of timepiece. In part, as the sun dictates the ferocity of that afternoon wind. Knowing that there's a possibility of needing to do battle with the westerlies, we break camp in the dark, riding with the first glimmers of safe light. It can be the most beautiful time of a day. The long light cuts hard edges to the sand dunes and clarifies the subtle tones of the sand hills. Fresh, sharp and new. So a two hour readjustment to a 6am start is not so vital. After all, it's only a manmade construct; four or six of a morning is still the same point in the day. That is until a body decides it's time for lunch, we stop at a suitable establishment, only to find that they're still serving breakfast. Always a most disappointing affair. Variations on coffee and bread. The accompaniment being a grease and a spread who's constituents came out of a chemical, rather than a strawberry plant. Distinctly lacking in cycling calories.

That quick start is also dependent upon not being trapped in an accommodation where the owner has invested heavily in a security of roller shutters, multiple padlocks and a portcullis. Who then employs a night-watch who sleeps his night-watch. In that instance it is was best not to consider the implications of fire, 'quake or bus to catch.

Only today's slow escape is not one of time zones or caging security, but the lethargy of an all you can eat breakfast from an hostel that feels like home. It's New Year's morning, that surreal moment in a year's year, when the streets have that post-party ghostly aura. That intensified Sabbathian silence, reminiscent of 60s Glasgow and the age before Sunday trading. The malls of car showrooms, the yards of builder's supplies, are very shut. The market stalls now blank-faced ranks of drawn steel shutters. Even the side armed, body-armoured security guards are absent. Burnt out rockets and drifting tickertape, empty fake-snow aerosols and a clutch of cava corks, part drunk bottles of beer lost on a wall top and taxis gathering up the last of the revellers. All that evidence of fiesta, yet nobody is obviously under the influence. It was the same last night.

We'd gone down to the seafront, along with the rest of the population of Arica, to see out the old and bring in the new. Fireworks sales in Chile are banned, so the local authorities lay on a display. A barge is moored offshore, which simplifies safety and security. Only Peru is a short drive away. So Jumping Jacks are crackling around our feet, one father repeatedly tries to light a recalcitrant squib, another stands like he's H. Potter, Esq.., his wand spouting coloured fireballs. Fire lanterns drift on the slow breeze, distress flares fall down into the sea. Some small boys have an arsenal of bangers and have discovered that lobbing them down the railway tunnel has the desired amplifying effect. All those cars, that this morning appeared to be poorly parked, were in fact, reserving the family's traditional spot for this evening's tailgate dinner, whilst my neighbouring family's small daughter is liberally anointing all with faux snow. Each party is armed with only a light libation, yet there's a distinct lack of inebriation. It's a restrained, civilised affair, even the ambulance officers are redundant. So Chileno, so unlike other Latin New Years. Nobody's chucking dynamite around. Nobody's stoking up my adrenaline. Nobody's assaulting my hearing. That is until everybody decides they have to go home. All those cart-width streets are clogged solid with fat cars. Nobody's going anywhere soon, so the best you can do is sit with your hand on the horn. Maybe it's frustration or revenge for not being able to initiate a rolling barrage of pyrotechnics. Or just the peculiarities of a local Arican tradition. Eventually a beat develops, that becomes almost musical.

We ride out, away from this surrealist world, out into the white light of pale desert and our time zone jump. Our jump into a very different place. Which leads my thoughts to another speculation. It would be perfectly possible to have two separate New Years. One Chilean, the other Peruvian, both would be utterly different.



Thursday, 15 January 2015

Sleeping With the Atacama.

For those in the know: Iquique ~ Arica (Chile), 26th - 27th December.

Weather so predictable, it could become tedious. Every single day starts with sunrise and some high cloud that clears to a warm, rising hot sun. The long shadows are momentary, the light flattens out quickly. Now we have a period of calm. Not to be wasted, for by three o'clock the wind starts. Add another half hour and it's fierce. It's always westerly. All very predictable. The trick is to work within these parameters. Dawn starts, avoiding afternoon valleys descents, getting hunkered down when things get interesting.

Certain roads acquire reputations, both good or bad. Bolivia's Death Road was, and on occasions can still be, a killer. Although now the title is more a marketing tool for the gringo trail. "Did you do the Salar, the Lagunas, the Death Road?" is a refrain we've oft been asked. Other roads get a more subtle reputation, mostly amongst the long distancers and the 'enders'. Iquique to Arica is one such. Mention to a local your intentions, they will raise eyebrows and gleefully tell you how the road goes all the way down to the river, and then straight back up again. Thrice. The total accumulated height could be greater than some Andean crossings. An atlas gives little indication of the route's topography; it's when you round that bend and the signage breaks the news that you're in for a bit of hard work. Now you know what you're going to be doing for the rest of the morning. Three hours up, a short flat then an hour of freewheeling. Down to the next river's bridge. Repeat. Repeat.

Those rivers, at this time of year, don't even come with the blessing of clear running water, but they do come with shrubbery. Beautiful glare and wind shade pepper trees. Which have long arching branches that can come right back down to the ground. And with a bit of judicious gardening, it's possible to prune a cave structure under the largest. We do. A natural howff, fit for our tent and an afternoon away from the attrition of weather. For another night, we opted for the pleasures afforded by height. Spreading our bivvi bags behind a clutch of giant boulders that had been scoured out when the road was constructed. The advantage this time is the immediate and considerable temperature drop with nightfall, and a night of retained potential energy.

If there is a down side to Atacama camping, it's the litter. It's too dry for anything to rot. Shredding grit, sand blasting and sun bleaching are more effective. The wind simply gathers it up and any available bush, ditch or cundy will naturally riddle it out. Our pepper tree is the obvious winnowing sift. Eventually that wind dies with the sun, leaving the the night to an all-consuming silence that's only broken by the rustling of unknown rodents in the drifts of desiccated leaves. Rise in the night, open the flysheet and a grateful cool air invades, tinctured with the clean, fresh antiseptic taint of those trees.

It's an incongruous reaction that I hear for these rolling hills. It's also that difference of understanding between the cyclist and the non-cyclist. The latter will happily tell you that 'mountainous' South Island (NZ) is more arduous than 'hilly' North Island (NZ). When the cyclist knows differently. Last year we traveled inland, supposedly flat, Uruguay. Never managing to cross the thousand foot contour, in just two days we gathered enough metres to cross the Andean Cristo Redentor pass, twice. Like these, this PanAmericana is hilly country.

The antithesis to these climbs stems more from ego than their actual distaste. We all, no matter how strong a denial, have egos that require pampering; we all like our tummies to be rubbed. When asked what way we came, we extol the high Andean passes, so to impress the questioner with our supposed 'adventurer' credentials. Whilst, of course assuming a dismissive, unassuming demeanor. Yet these coastal routes are requiring of just as much respect, as much effort, only they lie on major trunk routes, which relegates them to mere commuter's highways. Yet I rather enjoy these aberrations, its a perverse form of pleasure. It's the second time in little over a year that we've passed this way. We could have 'bussed it', but it's fun to prove that a road always looks and feels different in the opposite direction. We get a new aerial perspective on Iquique, the city that is overshadowed by a giant sand dune, as we have the very outside edge of the road this time. A similar situation, whilst on the long descent into Cuyo. The view that lies on my peripheral vision is disconcerting; it's almost an avian's view of hilltops and deep gullies, of inter locking spurs and geography lessons. All feel and appear to be underneath me. A sensation of dislocation and vertigo. Yet constant concentration is required to front, the buffeting wind and the drifts of sand, the scattered rockfalls and that view, all competing together for attention.

The weather of tomorrow will repeat of today. The road of tomorrow will repeat of today. Predictable. But these can never be tedious. For there will be the melon seller around the next corner, and the tree frog who will croak in the night. There'll be the giant soda-glyph awaiting the Dakar Rally and then sitting in an 'hospedaje', hearing the incongruous sound of 'Scotland the Brave', played on a 'kazoo'.




Tuesday, 13 January 2015

A New Type Of Dry.

If the geography class was a story of climbing high to escape heat, then the notes taken from a physics lesson on evaporation will need to be checked over again. There's probably a clever formula involving ambient temperature, relative humidity and sums that can calculate how quickly I can reduce a bottle of tap water, wrapped in a wet towel, to a quenchable quality. Or a cap dipped in an irrigation channel, then cycled for a few momments, to soothe a broiled brain. We're back in the dry.

Too often technical garments have a greater design influence aimed at the catwalk than the hilltop. Rucsacs that have embraced the school run, or the breathable jacket more at home on Princes Street. We've played around with fancy wicking gear before. It works, but only if there's the backup of a daily laundry service. Leave it unattended for a day, festering in a pannier, and it will climb back out unaided. Natural fibres work best. So it's been interesting to try out a new buff-cum-headband that comes with a hype of claims. Basic to which is the instruction to soak garment, drape around neck and feel the temperature drop. "Will reduce body temperature by 40 degrees". Slightly worrying is the addition that states that the garment will also work using sweat. All of which makes me wonder if I missed the class on cryogenics and how good is my hypothermic first aid? Really there's nothing new about draped damp rag around a neck, J. Wayne did it all his cinematic life. The difference is that it will also work right through the night. Which leads to a dilemma: to soak buff or to drink its equivalent in water. And the question; can you get neck rot?

Flies, sticky flies. We must be the only moist thing for miles around. Irritating rather than annoying. Non-biters that have the ability to creep into the nether recesses of shirt and shoe. It's hard to understand how they survive, as we've had no standing water for over three hundred kilometres, yet they're here in their thousands. We're being desiccated until our old e-mail address becomes prophetic, baked prunes without that moisturising cold tea. Why were dried plums prepared in tea? Is it a West of Scotland peculiarity, or just my maternal grandmother?

So dry that our tent has shrunk, to the extent that I've had to cut a piece off the pole ends. With well over one thousand days usage, we've never had this happen to us before. The relative humidity must be heading into the impossibility of a negative figure. Nylon does shrink, alumina can expand, the result is bad words, tent peg levers ably assisted by those thousand buzzy flies.