Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Detritus Anthropologist

It's in the nature of the life, we spend a considerable amount of a riding day in close proximity to the roadside verge. A long, vast and divergent landscape, full of question, explanation and prediction. One that can both entertain and educate, amuse and bemuse.

Whilst riding towards La Paz, Bolivia, the trash consisted, in the main, of discarded compact discs. A sentiment with which I would be in full accordance, having been entertained by the nasal intonations of what I had erroneously assumed was always the same artiste. My atonal ear has yet to be enabled, attuned to distinguish between either artiste or their ubiquitous song. A main road merges and those silvered discs are augmented with the ultimate moniker of gringo arrogance: the empty, flung bottled water bottle. It was stark and immediate, repeated at many more points of interreaction, and intersection.

In northern Chile there was the preponderance of steering wheel covers, in Argentina, a white plastic mesh, to separate sliced ham; in Scotland I've collected enough ring-pulls to chain-mail a dummy knight. Then there was the unfathomable, still unsolved, stamped out, rusting upper-cased letter ’E', that seem to be falling from scrap metal trucks. They're all stories, little is of value, even to a cycling Scot. But for sheer diversity of 'treasure trove' a trip along the North American highway can be a profitable endeavour.

Road-kill Everglades.

The Tamiami Trail heads west out of Miami and crosses the Florida Everglades, heading for the gulf coast and a slow migration to the cold northern states. Which means that we will be passed by vacationers and their diversity and plethora of sporting paraphernalia. Like their ancestors in their covered wagon trains before them, we're overtaken by the 'snow-birds' and their multi yokes of recreational vehicles. One is pulling a pick-up which in turn is lumbered with a motor trike, whose brand screams 'USA', and has the bulk of a small car. Others will have tagalong golf carts that are attendants to a furniture removal pantechnicon behemoth. Yet more will be pulling an anonymous haul, secreted behind roller shutters. Mobile garages; mansions on wheels. Some will be more conventional; a car with an air-boat, a fibreglass float with attached roaring fan, or a tin dory on a flat-bed trailer. It's these that supply the vergescapes' jetsam. Shoes left on a roof, towels tucked under a transom, jeans drying on the out-board motor. All unsecured.

Which is how I'm able to collect a padded saddle cover, a blue bandana, a vicious filleting knife and enough tie-down straps to secure a mastodon. If I'd had the space or the inclination, I could have added floatation aids, flip-flops and the ability to fit out an hotel with linens. There was even a fishing pole, that with the flooded cypresses in their drapes of filament nylon and fluorescent floats would have completed the tackle. Which only leaves the question of bait. As to whether the local fish would strike on a putrid rancidity of roadkill skunk, I know not. More likely to hook an alligator.

These are what I am searching for. A roadkill 'gator, a photo' op, a physical picture that can encapsulate a rise through the Everglades. I keep spotting potential encounters up ahead, only for them to revert back into curlicues of truck tyre treads, whilst others would morph from snake back into fan belt. Their desiccated carcasses had been here the last time we passed this way, along with squashed shag, and shattered tortoise. Only the local municipalities have manicured my hunting ground.

All the evidence suggests that they must be here, for the warning signage is encouraging me not to feed them, only it's a cool, early season day, they'll be sunk into the mystery, down into the deep slime. I've stopped to look at the reflections of swamp cypress, their ghost buttress trunks reaching out of and sinking into, the dark tannins of the canal. A solid glacial skin, punctuated with islets of lily pads and the relics of evolution.


A single ripple disturbs the primordial silence; an alligator blinks its eye.


Sunday, 13 March 2016

Cartagena: Days and Ploys.

Some travellers interrogate their guide book, note all the recommendations and set forth on a prescriptive tour. All power to them, they'll need it, they'll also be in need of treatment; for a cultural religiosity overdose and a par-boiled nose, blistering toes and auto-jitters. I, on the other hand, like to set a search, not for a geographical point, more a ploy for a concept. Then set forth in a vague hope of success, more happy to find what serendipity flings my way. I'm rarely disappointed - there's always a story. For there's no such thing as a boring place, only boring observation.

First day, first ploy; to source some corrugated cardboard. Which is how we find the contents of two cruise ships being disgorged into the Castillo de San Felipe and a man with a parrot on his shoulder. But no cardboard. Which isn't a problem.... yet. We've several days before our flight leaves. Several days of excuses to wander the warrens of the old town's streets ostensibly searching for suitable packaging for our bikes.

Now we could have been logical in our old town exploration, as the gridded layout isn't that dissimilar to a supermarket's organisation. There, The Forager insists that I follow a logical route, start with the nappies and potties, turn left at the top and proceed down glassware and broomshanks, check your basket and feign surprise that it's still empty. I, on the other hand, get distracted by quirky names and juxtaposed positions, as a consequence I miss collecting the basics. My way we'd be living on porridge and thin air. It's why she's The Forager and I'm not.

Logicality lost, so we wander aimlessly. There's little chance of getting properly lost, as back in the late seventeenth century, due to the activities of some earlier visiting travellers (undesirables like Drake, Cote and the appropriately named François Roberval), the conquistadors built a useful retaining wall.

At each junction we have deliberations as to whether we've been down this lane before, was it yesterday or just this morning? "Is that Papa JP2?", if so, then we came the other way, so, no we haven't been this way before. "See if we can find that frozen yogurt stall again, I'm sure it was over here". "Is that a fat naked woman disporting herself in front of the church?", in that case we could go down this street, it'll take us back to the rampart walls. We're bouncing around like pin-balls on a bagatelle board.

Grackle bird.

We've acquired some intelligence which suggests that a previous cyclist had sourced an bicycle box in a shop whose location is described as 'opposite the video rental shop'. However, the latter will be long deceased, killed off by downloads, so we need to be vigilant. We follow the road away from those city ramparts and deeper into the generic scape of condo-land, the highrise filling cabinets that fringe the sun-bathed beaches. Surprisingly, we do find that shop (and along the way Columbia's worst cup of coffee), only to find he's disposed of the cardboard and the café has dispensed the impossible.

In truth I'm not surprised. Most shops have little spare space, that, and there's the recyclers with their trundle carts who, each evening, sweep up any usable card. That's our problem - we are competing against the professional skip rakers. Then wandering anonymously, we spot the hit, there, propped outside a white goods shop are two overlarge empty cartons. Perfect. All that's required is to manhandle them back through the heaving masses in a humidity made for papier-mâché creations. Two sweaty gringos: one awkward load; it's a magnet for every taxi in town.

New day: new ploy. Find a tape measure and a roll of sticky tape. Two days of exploration behind us, we know the general direction to head in. All we need is the street containing the local variant of the PoundStore. This is Colombia so we want a 'Tienda 5 mil pesos', of which there will be at least six, all in a row, from which to choose. Which is how we found the street-art school and a street-cat feeder. The ploy's reason: a dollar gets us the means to seal the boxes and a method to prove that we've complied with the airline's size requirements.

Next day: last ploy. Find rags, gloves and degreasers. The bikes will need to be broken down to fit in a box. So this one's simple: head straight for the supermarket, a quick run around its shelves and an interminable wait at its checkout. In doing so, we find swamp mangrove topiary, and discover, as if we need to be reminded, that check-out efficiency is so unColombian. We've already stood in line at the cash dispenser whilst the preceding customer appeared to be completing her tax return, then started on her year-end accounts. The ploy's reason: our bikes so deserve a clean, that, and we will have to face 'that' enquiry. Similar to the question: "Have you ever been a member of the Nazi party of Germany", the US customs will ask: "Do you have dirty wheels? No jokes, no sir.

Penultimate day: no ploy. Nothing needs doing. Which is how we found the tin-men and the weld-women and in doing so, collected the documented evidence.

It could of course be that ancient smell of history. That's what I explain to the commenting visitor who complains that little boys have been re-enacting history by using the castle's long-drop latrines. Only here, step into one of the rampart's iconic guard towers, a tight columnar space fit only for one conquistadorian squaddie who's watching for a 'Golden Hind' sailing over the horizon, and the smell hits you. The same is true of just about any convenient corner, door recess or lamp post. Today, Cartagena has no public conveniences, it doesn't feel it requires them, it's already one giant gent's urinal.

Ultimate day: forgotten ploy. Find replacement for unsticky, sticky tape The packages have to survive, not airline, but the short distance to the airport, balanced on a taxi roof. I've watched the antics of these swarming hornets, how they corner, attack junctions, buzz walkers. It's the source of that affliction all visitors contract: 'auto jitters' So we'll have to resort to bowlines and reef knots, parcel string and wrapping skills. First find a ball of string, which is how we discovered that all the cannons on the ramparts are made from fibreglass and ended up in that frozen yogurt place for the third time.

Flight day: final ploy. To check-in our encumbrances of luggage. Now take the world's most efficient transport, remove their wheels and they simply become rudderless lumps of unco-operative metal. It's six in the morning, the streets are empty, we've flagged a taxi, cruised the silent streets and what seems like moments later, there's a heap of baggage at the arrivals hall door. Which is how we found an airport with liveried shoeshines but without cargo trolleys. Two porters are, for a fee, prepared to transport that heap, the few paces from kerb to trolleyless abandonment at the entrance to a labyrinthine maze called queueing management. A potential problem if it wasn't for the fact that Cartagena International is small, regional and empty.

All those hours of preparation have come to fruition. The cartons of dismembered bicycles don't cause the suck of a tooth nor the raise of an eyebrow. They're removed from our care with a smile, leaving us free to calculate the best deal on losing our few remaining pesos. Four coffees and one cheesecake. Emblematic, as we leave Colombia for USA.


Wednesday, 9 March 2016

A Tale of Two Cities.

For those in the know: Barranquilla ( fourth city of the nation) ~ Ruta 90A ~ Cartagena (first city of gringo central). Northern Colombia.

Today was the best of times, the worst of times.

Barranquilla is a working city, one that has little time for a tourist industry, its infrastructure has little time for pedestrians. Or so it would seem, which is odd, as a lot of that populace walk. A place, then, of contradictions.

The main drag into the city from the now totally subsumed neighbouring town, Soledad, is a six lane highway, whose central reservation has been civilised with paths, soccer-5s and guerilla gardening. Has some magnificent buttress-rooted trees and a refuge for the fareless rickshaws. Yet for that entire sixty-four grid-blocks, it has just one set of traffic lights with a pedestrian phase. To cross, I take my cue from the locals, who tentatively step into the highway, time their advance to a lull in the tempest and venture forth, hand-waving gestures at the attacking taxis in the vain hope that they might be mistaken for a potential fare.

All conurbations come with a certain level of traffic angst. When we reach the outskirts of each new city, with each succeeding encounter, there's a feeling of trepidation. Where on the intimidation scale will this place fit? Sometimes it's a gradual immersion, an incremental increase in volume, such that you barely notice the changes; by the time you do, you're relegated into a gutter of stagnant fumes. At other times you've been city-bound on an insignificant byway that suddenly emerges onto a roundabout, or worse, a flyover, one that gives an uninterrupted grandstand view of roaring mayhem below. Instant immersion. You join in, you've no choice. It's never as bad as the anticipation. There's no intended malice, because there are no intended rules and if you can accept that, city cycling becomes manically comical. However there is one mantra to learn: "he who hesitates is lost".

At rush hour two traffic police attempt to take control. The fact that it takes two to manage one half of those six lanes is an indication of the urban aggressive nature of the driving. As a pedestrian I feel infinitely more vulnerable than I do on my bike. Maybe it's because I have more time to watch the antics on this road, my imagination to more time to create catastrophic senarios. Yet it's a road that comes with pedal rickshaws and donkey carts who seem able to coexist with the port-bound articulates, hive-swarming taxis and the unpredictable motos.

A city turned inside out, a hot city who carries on its mercantile interests out on the open street. Cafés spread unhindered over pavements, ironmongers disgorge with impunity, street traders close off junctions. An alfresco nursery class sit at desks, picture book colouring, under a rare portico. At times you're obliged to negotiate the gauntlet of haberdashery mannequins whose pneumatically-endowed cleavages try to poke your eye out. The male versions leave even less to the imagination. Move further along to another block, to find that it's been taken over by youths wielding crow-bars, breaking down cargo pallets to their constituent parts. The corner cubes to firewood, the slats stacked for re-sale. Some moving to the next neighbouring block, to be reconstituted by the craftsman joiners into bed frames and rocking horses, woven chairs and dinner tables. The dead nails are strewn liberally. It runs through my mind to wonder on the preponderance of punctured soles, tetanus jabs and lock-jaw. It's probably pure coincidence that the next block has three tyre repair shacks.

We walked that thoroughfare into town, there to wander. To do what all Latinos do: sit in the shade of a quiet plaza, find an ice cream and crowd-watch. We found the plazas, vast expanses of concrete and glare. No shade, no people, no living. One such outside San Roque church has been refurbished with a slat roofed gazebo, a sweeping modernist structure in burnished steel, whose only occupants are some sun-sheltering desolate concrete slabs. Yet the provided seating is located out under the full force of an Equatorial sun. It's a conundrum that I find interesting, this convoluted debate Colombians have with their sun. A dozen trader stands, arranged like impeding wickets, stagger my passage, all selling a colourful array of identical baseball caps, the standard counterfeit selection: Puma, Nike et al, Yet nobody is wearing any headgear, preferring to shade under an A4 envelope.

What rules? ... The car rules!

There's this board that lectures all to observe the rules of the road, there as we leave the city along its peripheral by-pass. Which to European sensitivities conjures up an image of an open free flowing highway, that easily carries the traffic that doesn't wish to enter the centre of town. This six lane road may once have had that ambition, only now the city has expanded out to smother and envelop those good intentions. Glum-faced commuters are spread along its length, more intent on trying to flag down the already overcrowded buses, than watching for passing cyclists. At each intersection, progress is ground to a halt as slip road traffic nudges its way into the now stagnant flow. I'm inching my way up the inside, undertaking a bus, conscious that at any moment a passenger might suddenly descend, when I feel the horns of at least two motos behind. They pass on either side, one in the storm drain the other in a space I know cannot exist. Had I the skill to spread both arms at once I could so easily have collected treble bonus points by decapitating both. And then, as can happen so often, the snarl of angered traffic disappears. A few more kilometres and we have the road all to ourselves. No grumbling trucks, no lawless taxis, no irritating motos, no disregard for the nonexistent rules of the road. Just the infallible guarantee of the nor'easter Trade Winds that will propel us all the way to our second city of the day.

Cartagena, fifth city of the nation, first city of tourism. Outside, motos swarm and dance, taxis fare crawl, traffic lights stop, nothing can move. Only the crashing waves on the rocks and the dunes of sand creeping over the road, wind propelled, emery coating my sweated skin. We take to the pavement and push past; now we're the fastest transports on the city by-pass. Turn under the arched walls of this ancient town. Inside, under a 'no moto' sign, into a warren and a blessed relief. For one final shock. There's more Anglo-Saxons in one street than the whole of this journey, more acres of scalded skin than on a flesher's slab. We've landed on the gringo trail.

Two cities: One day. To fight our way out the one, only to battle our way into the other, with the surreality of a near deserted interlude makes for a singularly unusual day. The way to go, it's Journey's End.


Sunday, 6 March 2016

Confusion, but it's Fun.

Lemon and cereal rambles.
First it was called 'Agua de caña', then it became 'Limonada del rancho', morphing into ' Agrapa' somewhere around Medellin and now it's disappeared. An 'jugos naturales' or at least one of the many offerings of 'natural juices: a non-alcoholic cordial made from sugar cane. Not to be confused with 'aguardiente', the distilled cane juice version, whose major selling point is that it's diet-sensitive: it's sugar free. Confusions, but it's fun.
You think you've got it all sussed, you want to sound normal, even if you can't look it. When asked as to your drink preference, you assume you've asked correctly, only to get a vague confusion. You've moved further along the road; time to figure the next new terminology. Not that it ever tasted of lemonade, more 'barley-sugar'. Not that 'barley-sugar ever tasted of barley. It's served with lashings of whole ice and a dash of lime: 'lima', little green lemons. Confusion, but it's fun.
Killer breakfast: fried egg in a deep fried arepa!
Walking up one aisle of the store, I find a selection of healthy milk drinks that are flavoured with another cereal; this time it's oats. Not that I can taste them, the sugar content is significant, enough to overpower the health. Which leaves the two major cereals of the Americas: rice and maize. We wander along the street, considering the options for an evening meal. Anything that isn't an 'asado', meat and rice, will be highly considered, simply for its near-uniqueness. There on the corner is an 'areparia', that claims 'comidas rapida'. Maize based fast-food that's not quick, as it's cooked from fresh.
Arepas are Columbia. They come in many styles and sizes. Our first encounter had been interesting. A flattened, unnaturally white toasted disc, the size of a hockey puck, was the solitary addition to the generic plate of rice and meat. It lacked taste, actually it was utterly tasteless and could easily have been substituted for styrofoam packaging. Subsequent encounters suggested that it was the authentic specimen but salt was a necessary condiment, or at least the accompanying food should always be heavily seasoned. Be that a fried egg, boiled cheese or on this occasion, minced beef in a corn bread envelope. The descriptive: 'rapida' probably referred to the fact that it was deep fried. Served on this occasion with 'mora de leche': milk based bramble juice. The quantity might look like a snack, but it's a meal, good filling cyclist's tucker.
Hot-dog guava.
With our arrival in 'arepa-land', there has been the demise of the 'chipa' and all it's variant names. Maize has displaced manioc flour. Still there is the selection of croissant-style confections, mostly constructed using margarine, despite their buttery claims. Many are filled, sometimes with ham or cheese, or not at all. The Forager emerges from one shop with a scowling face and clutching a paper bag. She'd enquired as to what the filling was and received a very brusque: "pan!". "Well, yes.....I suppose bread will be in bread". The panmonger then proceeds to attempt to offload yesterday's stale loaves on the ignorant gringa. The scowling face mutters: "two-headed town". Our private-speak to describe the assistant who's prematurely decided that she won't be able to understand the foreigner and as a consequence doesn't listen. One of the bag's contents had been described as containing 'chicharron'. Up until now this had been pig skin boiled in salted fat until saturated, then allowed to dry, generally served with 'mote': unsalted white corn. In other words, it's a savoury dish. Only this flaked pastry had what looked like a sausage through its middle and a dusting of sugar on the outside. The salt-sweet combination is not uncommon, so I wouldn't have been surprised. However, it's all sweet, the sausage transpires to be guava paste. Confusion, but it's fun.
Sancocho and limonada
There are other local variants on foods that we've met before: empanadas: meat pasties, now without the surprise stoned olive. Bunueños: deep fried dough balls, now without the depth-charged egg. Churros: baked dough, now without the gloopy chocolate sauce. Yet one, not unsurprisingly, has now become ubiquitous. Occasionally in Bolivia we'd find one hiding under a rice mountain: plantain. Here, they can come as slices for soft crisps, baked flat for crispbreads, out of a poke for salted crisps. But the best is 'sancocho', boiled lumps in a soup. A bowl that comes with the addition of yuca and potatoes floating in a choice of hen, fish or cow broth. Take the main meal option and a side of avocado, salad and the inevitable rice is served. Four doses of carbohydrates and a modicum of healthy, all in one bowl. Muddled confusion, but it's fun.
With our descent to the hot and humid Caribe flats, we start the day at first light, getting going on a fix of coffee and granola. We ride hard, trying to cover the maximum amount of ground before the heat reaches uncomfortable, before we're driven to finding a darkened room and air-con. Somewhere along that road the inevitable occurs. A lidded roof decked with palm fronds and set in deep shade drags us off the road. The array of truckers' semis outside it's best advertisement. Time for second breakfast. A menu might possibly be pegged up on the wall; ignore it, it's always irrelevant. A list of offerings will be rattled forth. Ignore again, I'm never sure that it's not last night's rehashed dinner. We work to our own set menu. "Scrambled eggs with tomato and onion, arepa, cheese and chocolate, por favor". The chef isn't offended by our presumptions, all he wants to know, apart from the usual "de donde son?", is "rice?". It's the same order I hear everybody else make; which is how I came on a new combination. I watch our neighbouring trucker break salty boiled cheese into his bowl of hot chocolate. A culinary confusion, but it's fun.
Only now that we've reached the north coast and the Caribe, that hot-chocolate has been replaced by 'tinto'. Red wine you think, you'd be right in every other Latin speaking country, but not in Colombia. 'Tinto' is black, sweet coffee. And yet, if you got it wrong, would it really matter? An indecisive confusion, but it's fun.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Where There Be Dragons.

I might be six thousand miles from home, six thousand miles away from a nation's history. Yet tonight I'm within one day's cycle from one of the pivotal crossroads to that history.

The Colombia paper map is spread out on the floor, we're considering our options for the finish to this tour. It's definitely the city of Cartagena, but by which way will we arrive there? Only my eye keeps getting drawn to the top left hand corner. To that appendix of land that both connects and divides the Western Hemisphere.

The late seventeenth century was a sorry time to be a Scot in their own homeland. The hungry decade had witnessed seven years of famine, some parishes would loose a quarter of their parishioners, continuing religious strife had already spawned one rebellion, the reality for the majority of the population was a bowl of bere and a cashless subsistence economy. The estimated total national coinage, in today's figures, was a meagre £180m and yet that collected population decided to gamble one quarter of that on a 'venture'. And it wasn't just the aristocracy who invested, the list of speculators included the 'good' city burghs as well as the lesser town councils, the craft guilds and ministers of the cloth, mercantiles and sea captains.

The Darien Venture: an attempt to establish a trading colony in the malarial swamps of modern Panama, right in the heart of the historic Spanish empire, just a few leagues from their looted precious metals export depot at Cartagena.

The Darien Debacle: it fails miserably, many lose their lives, a country is virtually bankrupted. A great deal of political machinations are involved, a great deal of blame is cast around. Many modern historians will argue that it leads directly to the union of the parliaments and a direct time-line to today's political independence debate.

'New Caledonia'; that's all that remains, a name on a map, that's all that exists of a collective financial madness. Before the age of mass communications, at a time when that master craftsman was asked to speculate a minimum of two years worth of earnings, the fact that such a diversity of the lowland Scots populace was so easily convinced of this get-rich-quick scheme, is remarkable. It's probably one of the first recorded 'bubbles'. A great many will follow. History has a habit of repeating itself.

Today, that neck of land, is termed The Darien Gap. 'Gap', suggesting that some things are missing, items for which humans consider necessary imperatives - like a highway. For no road connects north to south. Into this narrow isthmus, no modern infrastructure has encroached, a place abandoned by political authority, left to the competing forces of embattled rebels and drug gangs. For those few adventurers who do venture in, some will find it to be the true ultimate adventure.

All those historical investors couldn't have chosen a more inauspicious locale into which to sink a nation's wealth. Lost causes; that great Scottish speciality.

My map-eye travels along our proposed road, postulates on the possible terrain, speculates on possible bed-nights and food stops. Yet that same wandering eye is drifting off, plotting along other potential routes, already pondering a return visit. Still, it's heartening to realise that there are places that cycling traveller can't attain, places where the dragons roost, places like the Darien, Everest's summit and Edinburgh's botanical gardens.