Saturday, 29 January 2011

Colonia Suiza and Wandering Travellers

All Alpine Heidis and apple strudel, sugar waffles and cuckoo clocks. Little Switzerland, right down to the walrus moustached gent, the wooden gnomes and the steins of artesanal beer. The main street, the only street is compacted river gravel base with a topping of soft bull dust. Even our tyres raise up a cloud of talc that hangs, suspended among the pine and myrtle trees, then a bus passes and our mildly opaque world is instantly converted into a choking opaque world.

Slowly, out of the storm, up in front, a red blob emerges in the middle of the road. At first it appeared detached yet oddly ambulant, it leaves an odd spoor. Then it’s attendant materialises, taking form and substance, becoming human then traveller, then sack carrier. The red transpires into a roll along suitcase, ploughing a single furrow through the deep dust, staggering from pot hole to pot hole. An object so dislocated from it’s usual environment that it’s red with mortification and embarrassment, more used and suited to the superior airs of hotel foyers and airport concourses. The carrier hauling this rig turns out to be tres petite, her dwarfing rucsack is in the throes of birthing a sleeping bag and as I pass I realise that an other is in the final month of pregnancy.

Christmas time is over and now it’s Argentine holiday time. It’s good to be around other people, the campgrounds are busy, personal space at a premium. On one occasion it was impossible to plot a route from the tent to the sanitarios without infringing upon someones tent space. Nobody seams to care, so we give up apologising, and just trip over their guy lines for a change. As we’re non-auto ambulant, we’re sent to the ‘walk-ins’ the car free tenting area. A feature that meets with our full approval, memories of reversing RVs and camper vans negotiating onto our tent, are still too fresh. Being ‘sans car’ means we’re placed with the back packers, so raising the average age, a happy band who come in a cloud of music and deodorant. There tents are ‘tardises’ of nylon and plastic sheets, their sacks bulge fly fish rods and tin cups, silvered bed rolls and extension cables. Given that public transport covers virtually every single locality in the country, it’s not that surprising that we encounter them in the most interesting of localities. Another dust cloaked road, this time well north of Valle de Angostura: three lads emerge out of the latest lorry induced grit storm, it feels like the middle of nowhere. Their damp washing draped on their sacks, garnering an armour of Andean dust, a tent swinging loose, a sheathed guitar hung like a holstered gun. It looks like a recipe for a sufferfest: tramping the hot dusty road, being peppered by a shot of pebbles and stones, hoping for the Good Samaritan to pass and offer a lift. Yet they seem totally unconcerned. Unconcerned, because there is still a culture of hitchhiking, still considered honourable and safe, that and when things get tough, there is always the collectivo to be flagged down. That day we were to pass several more hitching parties, only to be re-passed by them as they and there bags are blasted clean, pilled into the back of pick-up trucks. They all wave, either in sympathy or in congratulation. We, on the other hand will get clean when we dive into a lake, surrounded by cattle cropped grass, snow topped mountains and a flora of lupins, lilies and buddelias, our own Switzer alp.

Friday, 28 January 2011

?><#@!!* Technology!

A word from The Navigator.

This is the first trip where we have carried electronic wizardry.  Bad Move.

The first to bite the dust was the Freeloader Solar Charger.  It just did not work at all.

Then Chris's Kindle; it appears to have a bruised face, and refuses to work any more.

Then Lesley's Kindle; no longer wants to connect to the 'Whispernet', so I can't get books, periodicals or e-mail.

The last straw was last night - the Netbook, purchased in Paraguay - the screen is no longer lighting properly, so I'm sitting on the grass in the campground, trying to keep the screen in the sun so that I can see it and me in the shade so I don't fry.  The result is a bit a a fried Netbook and a contorted Navigator.  Not to mention that the WiFi is not man enough to upload the pictures.

Bear with us.  The Netbook and Chris' Kindle will be shipped back to BsAs where we shall decide what to do with them.  Not sure if we'll be able to score a new Netbook here in Malargue, Mendoza, or if we'll have to wait until we get to San Rafael.

Anyone got any suggestions about the screen?  I can see it in full sun, but the backlighting is gone.  I've tried the Display Properties in the Control Panel, to no avail.

The Navigator

Cool Nights and Warm Days

The words are a promise in a guide book and like a ‘manna from heaven’. The prospect is for relaxed daylight breakfasts and afternoon cycling without the pressure of early termination due to Zonda winds or dessicating heat. The possibility of regular resupply of water and the chance to camp on grass, of lakes and running rivers. The novelty of solid butter and the colour green.

The reality is sheepskin gloves and buttered toast for sun up, wrapped in a duvet for sundown. We’re not complaining; you only have to find a few shafts of early morning sunshine to feel the prospect of a warm day. The shade is cool, the sun hot, what a wonderful, refreshing reality. Sitting on soft, thorn free grass, in a cloud of parilla smells, of cooked beef and charcoaled wood, the air so still that the fug is held, trapped in the pine trees.

This clean cut green and the crisp hard blue will last as long as we stay high, up amongst the mountains, amongst the snow fed lakes. Yet move an hour to the right, to the east, drop off a few contours in elevation and the change is dramatic. The hillsides are more rounded off, the cliffs more eroded, it’s an older, more dated landscape. Everything is spikes and thorns, hooks and needles, where your skin is a pin cushion. It’s gone from wet green to dry dun. From mountain to pampa. It goes dry and the temperature takes on a new meaning. The rios are empty, the deep rooted fastigated poplars are the indicator of a history of a running river. The afternoon sun is harder, more threatening and now we will have to accumulate a fresh supply of water carrying bottles.

We start to move between these two worlds, dipping down from Caviahue to Chos Malal, from a mountain lake and Aurucarias to a scrub of thorn and eight kilos of bottled up water.

With apologies, the photos will not load at the moment.  Look back later!  The Navigator

Supermercardo Todo, Bariloche

’Supermercado Todo’: the supermarket that sells everything, or ’everything smells’ of washing-up powder. I can smell it outside the store, it’s coming from the air ducting. Which asks the question: are they pumping it through the shop?, in the same way that UK stores tempt the credulity of their customers into believing that they have an in-store bakery or a coffee grinding plant. The sublminal message being, everything is clean in hear. Unfortunately our oats next morning are tainted clean.

Monday, 24 January 2011

San Carlos de Bariloche or 'Send Cash to Bariloche'

When our average spend on two nights camping in northern Argentina will only buy you one small coffee in Bariloche, you start to understand why we had been warned that this place is expensive. Still, everybody tells you that you just have to go there, it’s so beautiful.

Our first encounter with San $ de Bariloche was in the bus terminal. We were reconstructing our cycles; wheels and pedals reattached, handlebars realigned, when we are approached by a tout for one of the accommodations. He tells me he works for one of an hospedaje, I explain that we’re camping, he says that it’s going to rain, I say we have a good tent, he says that it’s only $300, I say no, and think: ‘Jesus!’. Further north that would buy us three nights in a good hotel. Could this be the value added premium that we can expect, that we had been warned about, a combination of tourist town and long distance, Bariloche and Patagonia. A three times markup, that could send us on our way quicker than we might have intended. It’s a pity as we’ve been forced through to many towns and cities where we’ve been prepared to dally, so we’re determined to give this one a go. The first night’s camping was cheaper than the hospidaje quote, one toilet, one shower and basin shared by a community who dare to travel without the aid, the crutch of the motor car. The walk in hikers, the backpack in fishers, the cycle in bikers. We move further out from town for the subsequent two days, it’s a slight relief on the pocket, but are shoe horned into a sloping site. We defend our pitch by the judicious placement of bikes and guy lines. All to little avail.

The guide book recommends a ‘circuito chico’, that may offer an, at times , arduous, introduction to the Argentine Lake District. Our inability to second guess a tourist office’s drawing, and our inability to pay attention, means we have a small adventure exploring Cathedral ski centre and the small sand tracks between the various lakes. It’s a classic, serendipitous route, the moment we leave the guided itinerary we are on our own, in a world of wild roses, astrolmerias and tall flowering thistles. Sudden views of bottle green lakes, far below, sliding down boulder and sand strewn tracks unencumbered by luggage or ascending pick-ups.

Lunching on mayonnaise and peach sandwiches, beside a southern beech enfolded lake. Maybe SC de Bariloche has something going for it. Then just as suddenly as we escaped the crowds, we’re back in town.
In the spirit of fairness to the town we go for some retail therapy: search out a bank that might have some cash in it. Three attempts so far have been abortive, there’s a shortage; no surprise there, I know that the notes are disappearing an increasing rate out of our pockets. To search out an ice cream shop, to continue the field work and to sit in the plazza and people watch. We sit under the most frequently reproduced bronze casting, that is after the busts of San Martin, Sarmiento, Guimes and the other super heroes of Argentine history, under a she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus. It stands just across from the Cathedral, a neat juxtapositioning of religious iconography. A professional photographer has positioned himself on the plaza with his two St. Bernard dogs, traditional wooden barrels under their chins, sitting appealingly, waiting to be the vital props in a photo opportunity. Trade is slow. Everybody is on the move, transient, passing through..

Therein lies this town’s summer time position. It’s not the place, the destination, but more the stepping of point, a hub to move out from.

Our tentative thoughts when buying our bus tickets, had been to head south, down the Chilean Carretera Austral, down to the true south. The view from the bus and the sight of so much water has caused a re-evaluation: we’ll head north and explore some more of this lake district. Terra del Fuego and the far south will have to wait for another day, another journey to add to a growing, expanding list

We eventually get our mapping skills together and head off on the, ’arduous ‘little circuit‘, ’may require some bus assistance’, leaving early to avoid the traffic, take it at a leisurely pace and are back at the beginning just as the other neighbouring campers are rousing themselves. Twenty five k of no panniers and bottles of water seems to have an effect. Another classic route that only confirms our new intensions to head north, stay in the sierras and the volcanoes for a little longer.

Yet it’s hard to see a place for what it would like to be seen as, when your hand is spraying pesos, broadcasting dollars, like seedcorn. When every stakeholder needs to make his yearly income in a very short summer season, then take a breather and repeat the procedure when the winter season starts. It’s only later when we pass through another winter wonder land ski resort clad in it’s summer mantle, that you realise what San Carlos de Bariloche has. It’s a winter resort that has successfully added on a summer programme. The park grass is clipped and the Av. San Martin completed, the pavements are level and the piles of bricks are tidied away. It’s not in a perpetual of reconstruction and renovation, it has to work hard after the snow has melted.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Part 2

I thought I knew what flat was. Up until now it had been Ruta 7, our bus trip into the Capital Federal. That I had taken to be flat, but nothing can compare with the flat we woke up to this morning. There’s flat and there’s

Part two of our adventure starts in Retiro bus station. A near full bus going to Bariloche, twenty-two hours away. The Navigator has gone native. We explained that we had two cycles when making the booking, they suggest that they may need to be bagged. We’ve purchased plastic sheets and fancy coloured duct tape; purple, to match The Navigator’s bike, fashioned covers, and so are prepared for the fray. There’s the usual teeth-sucking from the bus crew. So The Navigator breaks down her bike right at the loading point, right outside the bus, right in the way. It’s the local way, it’s the native way, it’s the only way. We assert our place in the queue. It’s every woman for herself, there’s no place for the reticent, no standing on ceremony. Sharp elbows and a brass neck, stubbornness and tenaciousness a necessity. The bikes go on last; it means they’re on to top of the pile, it will be interesting to see if they remain that way to journey’s end.

At 22 hours some part of our trip has to be in the dark. We’ve opted to go lux, purchased a ‘cama’ recumbent seat, one grade down from a fully horizontal, executive bed, so avoiding the potential sufferfest of nether numbness. The company’s web site extolled the virtues of this class; the comfort and leg room, the champagne reception, the three meals served with a choice of alcoholic beverages, The space, the blanket, the pillow were all there, so to were the three plastic baled, Styrofoam tray meals. The alcoholic beverages transpired into a plastic cup of Cola, a small coffee and a shot of Sprite. I guess we got the Alcoholics Anonymous ticket. Oh, and there were the two non-alcoholic boiled sweets. Our dark time section was the run out from BsAs, part of which we had seen in daylight two weeks earlier on the trip from San Juan. Good planning or plain luck, it’s hard to say. It does mean we will be crossing the southern desert in the early morning.

That early morning transpires to be a blanket, monochromatic ashen grey sky, a low scrub desert, viewed through a rain streaked, tinted, double glazed window. The first rain of any consequence we’ve witnessed since Embarcacion, oodles of weeks ago. I don’t keep a diary, as a consequence we lose and acquire days at will. A calendar might be useful, but that requires a degree of diligence and discipline, skills that diminish on a journey. The Kindles have already thrown a wobbly by misquoting a date; maybe they picked up a signal from over the date line. In places there’s been confusion of clock times, given the various time zones around the ‘three frontier’ region. So they’re not an infallible source of information. Frankly, it’s not an issue, we don’t have to be anywhere or any place in particular.

From one dislocation in time to another dislocation in ideas. Jungles wet, deserts dry; simple geographical fact. Wet in the desert, it has to happen otherwise there would be no vegetation, yet the rain and the blanket sky only accentuate, concentrate the overriding feature of this landscape. It’s utter flatness. From our elevated vantage on the upper deck, the horizon shows not one single variation, not one single dent, bump or pimple. Not one single tree, house or spire, conspires to break the edge. The only variance of view are the scurrying rain drops, braiding and entwining across the windowpane; nothing changes for mile upon mile. The condensation dries quicker than the view changes. It’s still
FLA ________________________________________T.

Then suddenly the bus comes to a junction, we change direction, change topography, change climatology. Coincidence maybe, but as we drop down into a valley, the road starts to roll and the rain stops, The blanket detaches from the horizon, rumpling, to allow a vague hope of light to filter in to the changed landscape. Down to a river that is flushing red, bleeding a sediment akin to a the colour of a Glasgow west-end tenement. A rio that could only be named Colorado.

All change, now it’s Patagonia and southern nomenclature everywhere, from the fruit co-operatives to the superstores, from the banks to the confused house seller who is ‘norte del sur’. Gone is the desert, so quick the change that I begin to wonder if it was an imagined apparition.

Therein lies one of the problems for the travelling cyclist; busses and trains, unlike ferries and planes have a habit of whetting the imagination, opening up new possibilities, throwing out new routes and destinations. Sowing both seeds of doubt and shoots of new ideas, cutting and shredding possible plans. Maybe that spectral desert will have to be confirmed as flat from a Brooks saddle, rather than the recumbent chair of a ‘cama’ bus.

Mild observation on the Perfidity of Technology:

This too clever machine has determined that I am a less than adequate speller and will correct, automatically, some but not all of my standard mistakes. This may be an advantage, but as with all over-eager entities it has a habit of misinterpreting my intentions. The latest being: ‘over knighted’ when I wanted ‘overnighted’.

Part Two : January 2011

Christmas and New Year are over, we’ve overnighted on a cama bus, capital to capital; Montvideo to Buenos Aires. Collected up our bikes, cleaned and serviced them, purchased tickets, there’s 248 booths to choose from in the central bus station at Retiro and are now heading for San Carlo de Bariloche

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Retail Therapy, San Isidro

We’re on the prowl, raking through an Aladdin’s cave a household goods store that name’s itself ‘Bazar Plastico‘. The merchandise stacked to the ceiling, the shelves crammed full, the aisles size medium knickers wide. We know that we need to replace our beakers, the old ones are condemned, the cracks a petri dish of penicillin bacilli, and anyway, one of them leaks. However the problem with these types of emporia is that they offer up a whole new range of ideas, things you never knew you needed. A plastic box to keep the oats in? There’s a choice of too many colours and sizes. A plasticated tablecloth, could double as a extra ground sheet for the tent, a selection that ranges from fancy to ritzy, classy to glossy but all in flowery motifs. Buy by the metre straight from the roll. Need a replacement screw stopper for your thermos flask? This one comes with a light to aid you in filling your yerba mate by night. Umpteen choices for chopping and skinning, peeling and mashing, fruit and vegetables, meat and dear knows what. Peeling?- Yes… a tattie peeler, the perfect present to add to the loo rolls, for sending the ‘gap year’ travellers on their way. Sewing kits and egg baskets, china plates and butter scoops, wine glasses and chalk crayons, if it’s small, plastic and stackable you’ll find it in here.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Mild Observations #3

If lost ballpoint pens and missing farm knives go to a parallel universe, only to return as plastic road cones and wire coat hangers, where do the lost gears and transmissions of Uruguayan lorries end up? On the evidence of today, embedded, rear-ended in a concrete ditch, half way down a steep hill. Lost gear, lost brake, ergo lost load.

The Company Store

Arcor: Industria Argentina.

They mill the oats for our breakfast, the granola biscuits that resuscitate at ‘onces‘, they bake the sesame crackers for lunch and the occasional warm weather treats of multi-flavoured ice creams later in the day. Not only do they construct the contents, they also manufacture the packaging and your change.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

A Tale of Two Approaches, Part Two: Buenos Aires to Montevideo

An overture to two capitals, both viewed through glazed, tinted windows. Only this time it’s capital to capital, Buenos Aires to Montevideo.

Once again we’re held in a clinically, environmentally, climatically controlled space, only this time it’s a high speed catamaran ferry. We’re in lock down, severed from the outside by a sealed storm proof door and a prohibition on fresh air, reduced to viewing one receding capital through grubby, salt encrusted double glazing.

Monday, 3 January 2011

A Tale of Two Approaches, Part One: Campo to Capital.

Argentina’s long distance bus service is world class, world renowned, and rightly so. We’ve opted to end act one of our “southern cone” adventure in San Juan and take a bus to Buenos Aires. A bus might give the wrong impression; no hard backed sticky vinyl seats, grumpy Greyhound drivers, overflowing toilets or low life downtown bus stations here.

It all starts with the ticket purchase. Sure, you can go online at a locutorio and process your own purchase, but it’s quicker and more interesting to do it in the bus station. Bus station? Images of early morning drunks, wandering vagrants, begging hobos, swirling litter and taxi touts all come to mind. Wrong again. Yes there are the usual street dogs, but the banos attendants look after them. The marble floors are constantly wiped, the concourse constantly swept. The toilets might be old, but they’re cleaned hourly, there’s loo roll, there’s soap. But it’s the orderliness of the ticket purchase that is a surprise, that is fun. There must be at least ten companies operating out of here, going to every major city in Argentina, to all the neighbouring capitals, to Chile, to Bolivia, to Brazil, to Paraguay . Now these ten companies will each have at least two separate booths, sometimes three. What to do? Too much choice. Yet nobody is pressuring, hustling, you to travel with them. The bean counter enters the ring, closes her eyes, spins around, picks out the first and heads in. She emerges moments later. I mean moments later, so quick that I thought there was a problem; they’re fully booked, they can’t take the bikes. It’s a pessimism born of a British public transport experience. Only she’s brandishing two tickets for a semi cama bus for tonight.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

A Dog-Leg on the Map: An Explanation

My sister’s family are foregathering at the family holiday house in Uruguay. A global convergence: arrivals coming in from Miami and New York, from Scotland and India, from Los Andes and Misiones. The dispersal will be just as great a scattering. We’ve reached San Juan and decided to have a break, join the gathering, and sit on the beach. It’s a bus to BsAs, a ferry to Montevideo, then a further bus to Maldonado.