Saturday, 31 October 2015

Bookface, Faceplook, or whatever...

The Navigator has capitulated, and is now posting wee updates on FB. You will find me if you look for the full Sunday name, Lesley Peebles Brown.

This will give you a better idea of where we are at any time, whereas The Chronicler's postings here are more in the way of musings and observations, and may be a bit behindhand.

We aim to update the blog a couple of times a week, connection permitting. This usually means that when we catch a signal, we upload and schedule a few posts. The Navigator has just spent 20 minutes on the balcony, uploading two blogposts.

FB will be updated when possible. So much for The Navigator's cool BiTel chip - no signal whatever's up here :-(

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

On the Buses

Over the years we've accumulated a modicum of authority and fact on South American bus travel. The best buses are the youngest and are employed on the long haul routes. As they age into decrepitude they progress down the divisions, through inter-town then local, until they end up being battered around on Bolivia's gravel roads. Their panels pop riveted in zinc, their windows star-cracked, their maintenance intervals punctuated by the frequency of the visits from the roadside mechanic. By division four it's best not to inspect the tyres. Yet there's one fact that, every time we consider another trip, that we forget.

What never dies is the video. It might degenerate, get tied in a loop, pixelate into fuzzy obscurity, with the volume control rendered stuck on obsolete. But still it will never die.

I look forward with anticipation to the next bus trip, to allow another to do the driving, the decision making, allowing a continuous scroll of images to flow by. And if we've already cycled the route, a fact that is becoming increasingly more likely, it's an opportunity for a reprise. Still I forget about the Video. Forget about the omnipresent screen, forget about the permeating noise.

Long haul air travel allows me that opportunity to update my social profile, or at least to nod with authority when someone says "you know that bit in....", to understand those pages in the morning newspaper that I never peruse. To watch, to complete The Hobbit trilogy. However, I'm also offered the democratic opportunity of a 'no vote', or at least a 'none of the above'. More importantly there's an 'off' button. On the buses, the selection -there is no choice - is dictatorial. A draconian mash of slaughter-house blood, and horror-house screams. Improbable scenarios and illogical dubbing. Stallone exterminates a regiment with one bullet; Jaa kung-fu kicks dead a clan of gangsters. The sub-title informs that the 'phone is ringing. The body count is always stratospheric. All very predictable. The one idiosyncrasy that I have never associated with the selection was coincidence, nor the operating conductor with clairvoyance.

World Cup Rugby; ten minutes into the quarter-final; Scotland 13 : Australia 3. The last forgettable film has finished and the conductor sets up its replacement. "Corazon Vialiente". Another mangled adaptation of Scottish history, another ultimately failed endeavour. Roll the credits Mr. Gibson.....Scotland 34 : Australia 35. Predictable. Inevitably there will be one sub-editor reaching for the 'Braveheart' sobriquet for the next day's newspaper.

For his next offering, our dictatorial conductor moves from prophet to predict. The entré warning suggests: 'unrated...scary'. The title credits roll as the driver charges into the first hair-pin bend as we climb out of the valley and attack the Cuesta de Lipan. 35 bends, 1900 metres of ascent, an infinity of heart palpitations. We're high-perched, front-rowed, beyond the front axle, an elevated, exposed, exaggerated position. The crash barrier appears to disappear below, the next cliff face rears in front, only for the physics of centrifugal forces to hurl you around the next turn. Moments of recovery before the next bend attacks you.

Mercifully, the mayhem of Hollywood closes down for the night time and only recovers as the passenger deck rouses next morning. So too does our dictatorial 'arbiter of choice'. There's an inevitability about his next decree, given that we're Perú bound. It's also atypical, as it has a body count of zero. Possibly his timing could have been better, maybe his powers of divination are on the wane. Maybe he miscued. For we're about to be stranded on the Argentinian Chilean border. It's a fable about the marmalade-loving Peruvian bear stranded in 1950's Lon-Don, where ear-buds and Risk managers are the norm and evil taxidermists stalk the streets. A piece of light hearted comedy, a modicum of dilution from the general cinematic carnage.

It's "Pad-ding-ton".

A tedium of forgettable films follow, my only regret being that I've forgotten some ear plugs, yet again. By Nazca and a kilometre post that suggest it's only a mere 500 km to Lima the populace gets rebellious. We get a music video. Mariachi Music. Four-hundred and fifty kilometres of Mariachi Music. The volume set on head penetrating, the noise set to brain numbing. The monotony. Now I can sleep through anything and I do.

It's the only 'off button' that the dictator can't control.


Sunday, 25 October 2015


No Perú Tour


I've collected a few of the idiosyncratic gestures that seem particular to this part of South America. The shaken hand, the pulled eye: too expensive and bad news. Now I've gathered another. A long distance bus is coming towards us, we both slow down, and I see the driver give a 'scissors cutting' action. The long road is near deserted, the very occasional car and then another coach, who gives the same gesture. Something has happened. Road accident? Striking frontera officials? International border dispute?

Last year we bussed between the Peruvian and the Argentine capitals via the Chilean one, two sides of a right-angle triangle. This year we're returning by bus to Lima, this time by the shorter Pythagorean side. It will save one day, from that eighty-four hour journey. Or it would if the pass was open.

We're snowbound at 4190 metres, not that there's any snow to be seen. A few old season remnants clogging the creases on the high volcanic tops.

Two soldiers in fatigues saunter down the road and a group of expectant drivers meet and confer. Body language needs no translations. Not today. There's a thought that something might be known early tomorrow morning.

Seems that this situation is becoming the theme for this year's trip. One day forgone to fog, eight days delayed by wayward luggage, followed by five days waiting for the bus tickets. Now another day and counting. The month of October is disappearing.

Only they can't be classed as lost, nor wasted. It's all travel, they're all stories. And forbye, there's always a consolation. We're being force fed a dose of altitudinal acclimatisation. A dubious silver lining that manifests as a thumping headache, nighttime cough and bleeding noses. Force fed as we've gone from sea level to this oxygen depleted pass in one day. An accumulation of height that would, on a bicycle, have been a more adaptable four to five days. Yet to listen to our fellow travelers suffer through a cold night, we must be carrying a degree of seasoning from the beginning of this year. Still, the longer that we're stuck here the more bankable that accumulation of acclimatisation.

The sun rises on a classic Andean scene, sharp clear light, frost powdered mountains, and those three discouraging cones. Early intelligence indicates that there will no immediate opening. That aura of resignation settles back down again.

Mid morning and another two soldiers approach the barriers. One picks up a cone. The reaction is instantaneous. We're off and, well maybe not running. We've still two sets of officialdom to negotiate. This will be an "Into Chile" crossing. But that too is another 'pulled eye' tale.


Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Wheelie Innovation Spotting

It could become tedious. With each return trip to Buenos Aries we have a series of visits to make. A form of returning initiations. Choripan at the port, Chipas from Retiro, a walk around with the reserve, check the street-artwork along the railway line. All have been ticked off yet again. The bikes have had their repairs attended to, the chains oiled and the tyres pumped. Time for a test ride, so as it is Sunday that leaves just one last task.

Bamboo bike

Many cities will close off a portion of street to motorised vehicles and open it up to pedestrians. The Costanera in Vicente Lopez is one such. A bario to the north of the city that fronts onto the Rio del Plata, that on highdays and holidays pacifies an eight kilometre stretch of four lane highway. With the attendant sports pitches and open space makes for a vast green lung in a manic metropolis. Crazy city, 'crazy' where skate boarders vie with the traffic on the world's widest street, where 'crazy' is spelt with a smile.

We head for the Costanera, along newly surfaced highways that on a Sunday are now prioritised for cyclists. Over the many years of visits to this city, it's been interesting to watch the improving provision in cycle infrastructure. Probably not fast enough for the campaigners but still progress.

They'll turn left onto 19 lanes of highway!

I enjoy coming down to this stretch of the city, where the in-line skaters predominate. The elegant, free flowing experts weaving their way through the beginners attempting to master the impediments of the traffic calming bumps. The child on the pedal-less bike, kicking his way along, the cycle-led Yorkshire terrier whose legs are a blur. There's a real feeling of empowerment and innovation. It's also an opportunity to watch the latest thoughts on all things "wheels". This was where I saw my first bamboo-framed bicycle, first sail-powered skateboard, the first motorised longboard. This year's visit was no disappointment; three new ideas.

Sunday morn in Lima.

A father is rolling towards me; he appears to be standing on a lump of molded plastic with two wheels on the outside. A possible adaptation of a Segway, one without a supporting handle? Similar to the machine that mowed down Usian Bolt at a recent athletics competition, that the Dutch police use to pirouette around in Schiphol airport. A quick scan of the ether suggest a possible name for my sighting: generically termed a 'rideable', more specifically the 'lesser spotted hoverboard'. It's my first spotting but I'm led to believe that they are the latest in eco-health gizmos and the "must have" for this Christmas. I spot father later on, he's carrying the contraption. It weighs twenty kilos; is this how he improves his cardiac circulation?

My second 'wheelie', is another adaptation. A skeletal, lightweight go-cart on mini plastic wheels that's propelled by twisting the front axle back and forward. Similar to those wobble trikes that were the rage two Christmases past. At least when this five year old driver gets fed up, she can pick it up and haul it herself.

My third 'wheelie' spotting has no wheels. Place one square metre of low friction plastic on the ground; a smooth concrete surface would be ideal. Place some equally low friction over shoes on your feet, crouch down in the classic speed skater's pose, place one arm behind your back, swing the other gorilla fashion, then propel yourself .... sideways. There are two 'stoppers' to restrain you on your slippery surface. Static ice skating. I suppose it does away with the need for helmets, knee and elbow protection, but it also negates that anticipation of the next flying buttock arrest. I wonder if it's significant that those availing themselves of this training service are the same young professionals who spend their midday siestas at the exercise and fitness classes that materialise each workday outside the glass city towers in the business district. Whilst the other skate learners are families clinging for support to one another, and the young couples, where more often than not it will be 'her' teaching 'him'.

Three 'wheelie' innovations, one question: will any of them be in evidence if we visit next year?


Sunday, 18 October 2015

Baggage Reclaim.

Propping up a pillar in a fast-emptying baggage reclaim hall. The same dubious pea-green suitcase comes back round for what seems like the umpteenth time. Eventually we are the sole travellers standing expectant, waiting. Then the belt stops. Only that one disconsolate case to be retrieved. Maybe the shade is too reminiscent of a late eighties shellsuit or an early seventies bathroom suite. I too might have been tempted to disown it, only it too represents somebody's hopes, expectations or at least their dirty washing. Given the confusions in Amsterdam, I would have been surprised if we had been able to exit that hall; replete. So it's off to register the Lost Luggage in the earnest hope that it will reappear tomorrow.

We're fairly sanguine, reasonably relaxed. For in this age of barcodes and on-line tracking, we'll easily follow our wayward luggage's progresses. It's happened before. Several times. The most memorable being the four days bereft of our cycles in Christchurch, they having fallen foul of a 5mm Heathrow snowstorm.

Tomorrow doesn't come. Nor the next. However, I am being reassured that 98% of lost items are returned to their owners within three weeks.

Day four and the Navigator decides to kill time by sewing a new hat; last year's creation has faded, or so I'm informed. She then follows that by boiling up a batch of strawberry jam. Looks and feels like we're stuck within a place called Limbo. Drinking too much high octane coffee.

Day five and a few facts are starting to become clear. We'd travelled on one single ticket but with two carriers, ostensibly both part of the same alliance group. For which we might have reasonably assumed that they would be able to communicate between themselves. We get a 'phone call asking if we've received our bags. NO! and the fact you are asking doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. It transpires that the online tracking site that looks so professional and remains resolutely blank for the duration of this tale, only operates when 'the lost' finds its' self in Argentina. Not a great help when you know that the bags are lying in some vast warehouse on the other side of the equator.

Day six. To really encourage our hopes that we might see our bags again, we've been sent the claim form. We'd already played a Kim's game of memory retrieval and created the eclectic list of spare and replacement parts for a bike trip. It would be interesting to be that proverbial 'fly on the wall', to watch a handler examine the contents. Whilst standing at that Lost and Found desk, we'd been asked to note down some of the contents, items that might help with identification. Schwalbe tyre and Rohloff oil, Allen keys and rust eater, two tarpaulins and a set of hair clippers. A swatch of Black Watch tartan and Matilda the Moo. The agent was somewhat bemused. In truth they're all items that could be adequately replaced in country, are all insured, but that doesn't take into account the sentimental attachments and the superstitions. The Canadian leather gloves that were rescued from the Tweed Bridge in Kelso, the Laguile clasp knife that's been a constant companion for the last twenty years.

So to start filling the form out would be an admission of defeat.

Day seven. Time to tempt fate. Time to head up to the Delta, to the streets of boat chandlers and scrap yards, a ready source of cheap fuel cans that can be cut down to make adequate panniers. Time to visit the Cacciola ferry and threaten to buy a passage to Uruguay. Time to consider a short tour in familiar country that might allow the bags a chance to catch up with us.

Day seven, only later... It worked. A 'phone call to say that our stuff has made it as far as Ezeiza airport and could they confirm our address so we they can courier it to us...... tomorrow. Another day. What the hell....? We celebrate and buy a kilo of ice cream.

Day eight and some questions. Why do our bags have a predeliction for waywardness on outbound journeys, but not for the less important returns to home? Why the concept of 'hold luggage'? Statistically the former is out of balance, whilst the latter leaves me bemused, as I remember my flight neighbour who heaves her Inca-Trail, seventy-litre rucksac into the overhead locker. It's both larger and heavier than what we've entrusted to others.

Postscript: like the lost luggage, there will be a delay of at least eight days before the photographic element reaches this posting.....if it doesn't become part of that 2% that is, forever lost.


Thursday, 15 October 2015

New Toy.

Tech-advance, tech-change: once I chose to ignore it, in the vain hope that it might go away. It was the monster under my bed, but It would have disappeared with the daylight. Morning came but it was still there.

With each succeeding return to our southern wintering grounds I finding that I've slid back down the learning curve and need to relearn some skills. Log on to the Blogsy site only to find it's been upgraded. Go to the photo album to find the 'trash can' has moved, then spend time tracing the inadvertent deletes. It's like climbing the stone screes in Glen Torridon, it's 'two steps up: one step down'.

Twelve years ago we headed off on our first long trip with the expressed intention to be 'gizmo-free'. No electronics, the limit was a handlebar computer; there wasn't even a camera. The thinking being that a camera lens will only intrude between view and viewer. It was still the Kodachrome Age. There were also the archaic concepts of cyber-cafés and bookshops, pencils and jotters. Even coin-operated call boxes.

Then came the age of the e-book reader and the economy digital SLR, fifteen hundred paperbacks and a real camera with a heavy intrusive lens. Closely followed by 'netbook'. It's a well researched fact, that if you leave any treasured artefact in a darkened corner it will breed. Be it bicycles or skis, power tools or in this instance, Apple-tech.

Like a floundering fish, I was slowly being reeled into the twenty-first century.

I liked the results that monster camera gave, only those results lie in a place where they're never viewed. So I increasingly found myself using the Navigator's point and shoot for its more unobtrusive, simple, lighter mode. I was contented.... that is until the Navigator purchased a new telephone. We had been loaned another brand of 'clever 'phone' on last year's trip, but it suffered under the perception that the USA was the world. It would, on occasions tie itself into a Gordian knot', only to revert back to the comfort blanket of its original provider. A bit of research and the fact that we've already bought into the Apple monster and the inevitable happens. A new white box containing an old series appliance materialises.

Now if the Navigator can have her new toy, although she is trying to convince me that it is a vital piece of travel equipment, then surely I can too. So I get a new camera. The results are pleasing. It's touch screen simple, light and unobtrusive. Even anonymous. Infinitely ubiquitous. Everybody carries one. Whether you're sitting on a bench in an Edinburgh street or an Andean plaza, banging your drum at a political rally or walking into a light standard, there every where. Like the oft quoted rat statistic: you really are never more than ten paces from one.

It would appear that this said camera comes with a few additional features, an infinite stream of applications. A calculator, a compass, a store of maps, the Internet, and it also appears to operate as a telephone.

We're making our way out of the flat to go into town, the Navigator asks if I've got my camera, whilst I ask if she's got her map? We both hold up our 'phones.


Friday, 9 October 2015

Uniforms of Destination.

You might have supposed that the Inca Trail would start somewhere within the shores of South America, possibly within the cultural boundaries of the Inca's vast historical domain, certainly at a place with a degree of Andean altitudinal elevation. In spite of the fact that the god-king's empire stretched from southern Equador to northern Argentina, and was laced with a network of trails that would allow his civil servants to administer his dominion, only this plethora of trails has now been reduced to The Inca Trail and its official start at km84. Or so I had assumed.

"KLM are pleased to announce.....", "we will start to board through gate .... and invite those travelling with small children....", "we ask all remaining passengers to remain seated....". It's the bugler's reveille, the call to arms, all to rise and form a queue, to create a human plug that clogs the departure gate. The supercilious, the travel snob, or at least those who are ear-budded into their iPhones remain seated and so get their first sighting of The Inca Trail. An incongruity, this vision of goretex-jacketed, day-sac-backed, stick-waving Trailers, is that the line is not in Lima or Cusco, not even Aguas Calientes, but in Amsterdam's Schipol airport.

A collection of individuals who have yet to bond into a shared-experience group, as evidenced by a lack of group selfie photography. A demographic defined by fitness, grey hair and a lack of carry-on plastic bags stuffed with duty-free cigarettes. All in contrast to the neighbouring departure gate that's loading a Miami-bound cargo of Caribbean Cruisers. The blue-rinse brigade of flowery shirts, white cardigans and inappropriate shorts. A contrast that is stark as they all emanate from the same north European street, out of a similar pay grade. Only their waistlines and leisure uniforms differ.

All of which leads me to consider our supposedly anonymous, chameleon-like attire. Of course, our clothing doesn't shout "Trailer", "Cruiser", or "Vacationer". It's only with a bit more inspection that I can't help but notice the outdoor-branded trousers, the walking (read 'sensible') shoes and an industry-standard Ortlieb pannier. It's this last item that is giving me some concern. It's new, shiny, never used, brand new. It will scream 'newbie', 'innocent', 'virgin' to the first long-distance cyclist that we might encounter. Hopefully we will have acquired some Atacaman dust to add a patina of experience. The problem is, they're German made. Experience dictates that it will take years for them to acquire their street cred.

We're off on our travels again, heading back to collect our bikes from their southern wintering home, to head off in some as yet undefined direction. Only we're already twenty eight hours behind our ticketed schedule. But that's another traveller's tale, one that has yet to be resolved.

For the moment we all have our own itineraries, our own identities, all defined by our own uniforms, with our own trail to follow. We join the queue.


Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Long haul

It started so well. The 104 bus into town turned up on time. The city hotel had our reservation. We woke up at an un-godly red-eye hour and caught the airport shuttle ahead of time. So far all is as planned. Too early, we wander the near silence of the cavernous check-in hall, yet that too was part of the plan. What wasn't was the blanket fog that has enveloped northern Europe.

Seven hours later and we've progressed all of two hundred metres. Only now we're outside on the concourse, sitting inside an aeroplane, on the runway and have been for the last hour and an half. Being entertained by a pilot whose frustration is palpable, as he relays the latest excuse from the ground handling staff. Apparently the baggage total might either be over or under the passanger head count, that he's truly surprised that luggage loading, it transpires, had somehow been neglected. So he has promised "to fly in a straight line", If we ever get clearance to take off. This frustration is a mere taste for what is to come.

Of course we've missed our connecting flight. It flew long before we even got off the ground in Edinburgh. Now the flight's purser has advised us to make our way to the transfer desk where staff will be on hand and happy to help with rebooking our onward journey. Only he omitted to mention that there would several thousands of other travelers who are being offered similar advice. It was probably as well that we didn't know, when we attached ourselves to the end of the 'transfer desk's queue, that the waiting time would be nine hours.

Survival, or at least sanity, requires a shift into that wired world of traveller's suspended animation. There is zero point in getting upset, everybody is in the same predicament. Which doesn't stop some travellers from trying to remonstrate with the airlines' staff. People watching: it can be entertaining, actually it is the only entertainment, the pain of an objecting lower back having already neutralised concentration in a Kindle novel. The pin-strip gent in the yellow corduroys is doing better, started his holiday read in Edinburgh's departure lounge, but will finish long before he reaches the front of the line. Maybe he should have opted for 'War and Peace'. The lady who tries to negotiate, in an attempt to be advanced, comes up against that most intractable of objects.....'the KLM Matriarch'. She, the remonstrator, is from Texas and, judging from her reactions this is her first encounter with one of these indomitable ladies, exuding their own brand of Dutch customer service. She's been repulsed like a North Sea wave hitting a Dutch polder dyke, and scuttles deflected, deflated back to her place in line. It leaves me smiling, remembering that first time I witnessed a similar performance. Our first flight into South America. A cabin full of holiday makers had left in the Dutch Antillies, replaced with Latino businessmen. On touching down in Lima, the said businessman had surged from their seats and started to unpack the overhead lockers. Two of these matriachs had marched, one down each isle, ramming each gent back into their seats:"Down!...Down!...Down!" When we did come to standstill, I half expected one quivering gent to put a hand up and ask for permission to leave.

Our onward progress will now be via Peru, instead of Brazil, only its going to be the following day. So by way of compensation and a light distraction, we have the excitment of a late Friday evening scamper through the streets of a partying Amsterdam to an hotel. It takes conscious thought not to wander into the cycle lanes, for to do so can only invite injury and enrage the streams of elegantly attired, Lycra-free, hands-free iPhone texting, cycling Amsterdamers. They and we weaving through clouds of sweet spliff reek, negotiating around the boisterous crowds over flowing from crowded pubs and clubs. A short night. Next morning, with a hard light and a chilly dawn, we wander back to the airport, the city's cleansing depament hosing down the detritus of a night-time, the early computers peddling over hump backed bridges and at Centrum train station, an utopian vision, a triple storey ziggurat of parked bikes ranked in infinite files. Which explains why the first 'happy snaps' of these travels, feature canals and cycles, and not the now traditional dismembering and reconstruction of a bike in Argentina and a visit to theocracy bike shop.

We do eventually make touch down in Buenos Aires, a dawn arrival. Only one day late. We at least arrive, inevitably and predictably our hold luggage doesn't. But, it would appear that the trickster gods have had their play, for the present, for the shuttle bus into town and the metro train back out depart with perfect timing, moments after we climb aboard. Back into the flat to what will be a twenty-four hour siesta.