Sunday, 29 March 2015

Faded Grandeur.

Argentina has one major cultural difference from all the other South American countries that we've visited. They camp. Ergo, they have campsites. I know the Uruguayeño and the Chileño camp, they just don't do it with the style or the fervour with which their neighbour does.

Hidden tent

'Camping' written in faded paint, on a weathered board, with an arrow pointing vaguely to some place. It's a sight for tired legs. A place that might offer security, water and a stall that could loosely be described as a shower. Three articles that are all that we require for an overnight stay. Of course there are additions and variations, no two campgrounds will be similar. Shade on a hot sunny day, restrained music systems before sunrise, dogs stopcocked from piddle-marking our flysheet, all would be considered usefulness. However beggars can't be choosers. And therein lies the interest and the speculation as we head towards evening. Will there actually be a site, or is there a degree of wishful thinking on the part of the guidebook compiler, tourist officer or mapping cartographer?

The locals camp, therefore they see nothing unusual in a pair of gringos pushing cycles and disappearing into a clump of cedar trees by the side of the road as the light is fading. Although we do try to time our disappearing act, it's remarkable how many vehicles can suddenly appear on what, until moments ago, had been a near deserted thoroughfare. This is our default option when a suitable campings haven't materialised, through either actuality or decrepitude. Or the local town has remarkably failed to provide a suitable lodging.

'Phone booth

Suitable lodgings. There's a certain style to an Argenteño accommodation. Generally falling into two categories. New, tending towards disintegration and faded, tending to a state of stable degeneration. Any 'star' rating that might be encountered will have been 'self awarded', and therefore entirely arbitrary. A not dissimilar system to that used by some of the on-line 'travel advisers'; these being adequate only for a physical description of the property and passingly good for indicating which side of the bed the contributor climbed out that morning.

We'd tent slept our way south from the capital. A succession of interesting sites, all with common themes. All have been within sight and sound of soporific river waves or exploding ocean breakers, where each night we'd been lulled to sleep by the high pitched whine of mosquitoes trying to get into the inner tent. Lying within a cocoon, that comfortable feeling of security, as a can of chemical warfare has already been deployed to eradicate the early raiders. Unfortunately, nylon tents and heavy humidity, caffeine and age, all in combination, are not conducive to a good night's sleep. Then in the morning, trying to don a salt infused shirt, that's hygroscopically sucked up a night's worth of damp, suggests that a room with a fan, bug screens and an indoor loo might be an enticing possibility. Some suitable candidates are just down the road.

That temple to hedonistic sun worship; Mar del Plata is looming on the horizon, a locale that has a vast selection of 'suitable lodgings'., if one guide is to be believed. Although derogatory terms like: 'slightly fancy', 'passingly adequate' and that final damnation: 'Tudor-style', might make for an interesting search. Now, if I'm being expected to part with good money for a roof over my head, and given a choice, I'd like to lodge in a place with character.

I've no objection to the generic, antiseptic, heartless establishment, with its cells of whitewalls cowering behind a supposed modernity of plastic chrome and reflective glass, staffed by those who would far rather be somewhere else. Just so long as fifty quid hasn't been added, just because the sobriquet: 'boutique', has been appended, all because a dish of fresh flowers sits on a table. Cast from the same mould, these places hold no secrets. They are all too easy to find.

The guidebook is the gillie, it's there to point you in the right direction, for he has the knowledge, he knows where the deer will be lying. We are the stalkers, there to make the kill when an interesting characterful lodging comes into our sights. It's a hunt for that non-definable quality, the little idiosyncratic oddities. That minuscule sanitario, whose throne sat deep under the coombed ceiling and rendered relief awkward, at least had the honesty to call itself by the diminutive: 'bañeto. That had character. Negotiating down a long, narrow alleyway that miraculously opens on to an exquisite courtyard of lemon trees. That had character. The one of so few buildings that survived the devastating earthquake, that has two thousand year old artefacts scattered around it's rooms. That had character. The octogenarian dueño, shuffling along in his slippers and makes us fresh crushed juice each morning. That had character. The windowless, wall carpeted, ceiling mirrored, hourly rated love-motel. That had (different) character. What's common to all these is an element of humanity and age. All are properties that have garnered and weathered a lot of history. All have a patina of age, only some wear it better than others.

Our gillie guide has suggested some possibilities. Only his knowledge is several years out of date. The first possibility is up for sale. The second has already been sold and is now the offices of an antiquarian foundation. The third has been renovated, gralloched, eviscerated of all character and now stands encased in glass. It looks like it's time to purchase the services of a new guidebook.

There is, however a story here. Mar del Plata has undergone many changes, mostly from upmarket to mass market resort. That first place that we searched out, was once a Porteño family's retreat from the summer heat of the capital, then morphing into an hosteria. It stands on a corner, so can't lose those outlooks; however it's neighbours are two new multi floored highrises brooding down on this diminutive house. The auguries are not good. Soon another edifice is bound to sprout from it's demise.

Three 'no shows'. We take the hint and ride out of town, to another fine campsite. Still I want to hunt for the character lodging. Fortunately were heading back into Pampan agriculture. Where the coastal communities work to the maxim: 'bods in beds', and have been denuded of anything 'old', the cereal towns seem to have a respect for the 'interesting'.

The Plaza Hotel, Tres Arrojos, which like many of its namesakes, isn't on a plaza, but is a venerable grand dam of fading grandeur. Tiled halls and iron gates, cedar panelling and central courtyard. On arriving, our bikes are directed to the parking, in the 'salon', and we to a classic Argentine room. Windows looking into a corridor, that, in turn looks out onto the central atrium. There's peeling plaster in the corners and a patina of dried soap around the taps that never seems to wipe off. The hot and cold taps are confusingly reversed, but the water is always hot. Brown stained woodwork and beige walls, but a decent wattage of light bulbs. Fan, en-suite loo and no mosquitoes.

It's next morning that this grand old lady reveals her last secret. The 'salon', is in total darkness. But there's enough ambient hall light to enable me to negotiate around a dead drinks fridge and to trip on a scatter of paint cans, to retrieve my bike. Lesley suggests I try a flash photograph, to get an idea what's hidden in this 'black hole'. A point and shoot, a shot in the dark. It's only sometime latter, when editing the day's collection of images, that we realise what an intriguing space our cycle shed had been. It looks as if the marble floor might have seen a damp cloth, but the wall murals and the wooden paneling appear complete, if only I cold have found the switch for the chandeliers, we could have had a closer inspection.

Such a typical Argentine 'suitable lodgings' scenario. Be it bush-camp, camp-ground or roofed-room, you never know that is to found until you literally fall over it.