Friday, 30 November 2012

Great Questions of Our Time?….Why Gravity? Or… why does a single garment, knickers for example, become a pair?

Camping and gravity are not compatible.  Place a full cup of coffee on what appears to be a level surface, and a tiny piece of grit will miraculously  materialise underneath.  The effect will be a rising tide of precious caffeine making it’s way towards a piece of electronics.  Wash out a pair of knickers and they will inevitably leap from your hands, to fall on the only patch of gritty, muddy ground around.  Grind a bike to the top of a mountain, with the prospect of a gravity assisted free wheel, only to find that it’s been cancelled, neutralised by the wind. Enthusiastic hand gesticulations will always end in an embarrassment and a red wine-stained tablecloth. The severed cream cheese wedge, sat on a plate, that catches in the wind, and ends cut side down.

It’s when camping that you soon start to realise that, not only does Nature abhor straight lines, but she detests flat surfaces.  A level place is a luxury, it’s why we seem to revere the often utilitarian, sometimes decrepit, Argentine ‘asado’ and concrete table.

So - do you blame Gravity, Newton or the hamfisted Scots cyclist?

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Great Questions of Our Time….Why Ants?

Quechuan tradition requires that you offer your first mouthful of food to Pacha Mama, to Mother Earth. Tradition doesn’t say who or how it’s received, but I’m sure that the ants are her handmaidens.

They come in a selection of sizes and a compilations of temperaments. From the glossy black leaf-cutters that forage on vegetation, to a tiny rusty brown omnivores that have successfully gained entry to a  sealed bag containing a salami. Maybe it’s the chilli in the sausage that gives their bites so much fire, so much success in defending their prize. A pyrrhic victory, as they and the meat both ended as landfill. The Navigator is feeling victimised: the mosquitoes inject through clothes and have raised itching red lumps, a bee attack follows and now it’s the turn of the Fire Ants. How they can enter a double sealed ziplock bag, navigate round three-fourths of a screw top jar, is a question for our time.  What is certain, they will inherit the earth when those who, erroneously believe they have  priority on the food chain, have left. 

Monday, 26 November 2012

Great Questions of Our Time……Why Skunks?

Road kill a skunk, grind it into the asphalt with unrelenting rubber, desiccate for a few months, wait until it becomes an integral part of the Macadam. The weasel teeth, the pointed nose, the double white stripes, that signature scent. The stink that lingers, the pervasive aroma of bad breakfast; of acrid coffee and burnt toast. Now add a rain storm and  the smell will liquefy, a vapour flowing like a thin fog, spreading from one carcase to the next, until the journey is dissolved in it’s gentle reek.

Too often the the roadkill debris is the sole evidence for the noises that emerge from the roadside verges. The multiplicity of croaks and grunts, weeps and sighs. The ones that sound like a wet chamois being wrung out, the distant, incessant car alarms, the road peckering digger, the greasless bearing, the overzealous referee. It builds into a soft cacophony, a background music that plays to the dark, right through the night. Yet there is one caller that had us perplexed.  A daylight song of falling sorrowful notes, that sounds like it might come from a bird, one that would complement the sad call of the Mourning Dove. The noise was coming up out of the flooded sedges by the roadside verge, and not, as I expected from the bushes on the fence line. It only takes a thrown pebble and the subsequent silence, like a flicked switch, to give the answer.  A frog.  Many frogs. I try to verify my own theory that the smaller the amphibian, the bigger the noise. Small Frog Syndrome.  All I ever get for my effort is a plop and series of concentric, spreading rings.  This frogs’ chorus will accompany us for several days, the noise becoming less languid and more manic, of turbo-charged F1Grand Prix cars screaming passed the chequered flag.  Are they a part of the carnage of blotted carcasses litter the verge, odourless dried out husks?  Then the next skunk broadcasts its presence.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Stormy Night

The storm starts with silence.  A  rolling bombardment of flashes, clashes of bruised orange and grubby white, hemmed in, below the clouds on the farthest horizon.  The pounding of ironclads, the broadsides from the dreadnoughts of an historic navy. The dull, distant roar of inclement weather. Now the wind hits, caving and vexing the flimsy skin of the tent wall, an assault that first warns and then threatens, of the impending onslaught.  An invisible hand that shakes and pulls, that wants to wake us up.  A light shrapnel of spattering rain, is a prelude that soon transcends into a maelstrom of noise. The lightning losing contact with it’s thunder, as the blasts roll one on top of the other. The storm descends into a paroxysm of noise.  Our immediate world shrunken in, tormented by the near constant strobing of light, the pummelling of  the bombardment and the violence of weather.  Even the frogs are silenced.

It’s at this moment, at the height of the attack, that we hear a
new sound, and feel the spatter of rain drops.  On peering through the bug-net door, we find a white dog shaking itself dry.  He, they don’t do ’its’ here, looks pathetically at us, as if to say  ’no way, José, am I going back out there’. I’m not sure how he managed such a feat without pulling a peg, but I suspect it’s not the first time he’s preformed this trick.  At least there’s no barking.  I hope there’s no fleas.  When I check a short while later, he’s curled up tight, unlike the flooded-out ants who are evacuating to high ground.  The massed swarms, that are crawling over and through our marooned panniers.  At this rate we might have to apply for refugee status.

Our  tent is starting to  acquire the features of a water bed, as the groundsheet ripples with a rising tide of puddles.  As the crackle of shorting out electricity fizzles across the sky, the vibration of the hammering blows rise up through the ground.  It’s now that we get the mortar round, an explosion that shatters into my sense, an instant injection of adrenalin, a racing heart rate.  The smell of wet camp-fire drifts into the tent.   How close?…Too close. 

We seem to be trapped between two competing  storm cells  The belligerents truculent invective and quarrelsome abuse reaches a peak and then, slowly they disengage.  Two battered, punch-drunk combatants that are still reluctant to back down, still they fire off an occasional retaliatory salvo, a final spat.  Now the rain settles down to a wet night, we breathe out, stepping down the picket from it’s puddle watch, as the tide turns and the ponding gets a chance to drain. Only the ants seem to be the new invaders, attacking  through the zip’s defences.  Besieged, we resort to defence, repelling this next invading army of fugitives.

 A rhythmic beat of rain settles in, the frog chorus resumes and the dog sleeps in the night.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Of Fighting Bulls and Prancing Heroes, or Protestant Modesty and Latin Realism.

Fighting bulls and prancing heroes present a particular set of problems for the monumental sculptor.  Whilst both are quadrupeds and therefore could have four potential points of contact with terra firma, yet the latter is dictated by a tradition that states: all conquering heroes’ horses must be gallopers and ‘paw the air’. It must make for some interesting sums for the artist and the engineer, calculating the stresses and strains, the balancing point, with and without a head full of defecating pigeons. Both of whom must dearly wish that our hero was a better horseman and that he could get his feisty beast under control, and ‘would you watch where you’re waving that stick, it’ll only end in tears, you’re  going to poke someones eye out with it’. There’s little concern for posturing, it’s all about balance for the concrete toro, a bovinal sentiment of ‘four legs good, two legs….I’ll fall over’.  A solid stance or a raging case of elephantitis, a genetically modified object or excessive overengineering?  A beast that looks like he’s been cloned from Albrecht Durer’s Papal rhinoceros.  At least his dignity and ’raison d’etre’ are entire, hanging free, unlike his brethren who grace the ring-road roundabouts of Rockhampton.  All are from a similar mould, anatomically perfect, each muscle group balanced, long in the back, deep in the chest.  A demonstration that’s a credit to the Australian breeders and the Queensland sculptor and a demerit for the man on the concrete mixer.  One Brangus’ is supported by the indignity of a metal rod, whilst a Braford’s has dropped and crumbled into dust.

The Victorians would have been mortified by this blatant display, this representation of sexual reproductive organs. Remember they were the generation that put skirts on chairs to cover the immodesty of bare wooden legs, which might explain why the ‘Moffat Tup‘, the Scot’s border town’s monument to local agriculture, is emasculated.

All local heroes in their various ways.  The condition of the puritanic tup and the indignant Ozzy beefies  have entered into their own local folklore. Whilst  the military horseman,
because we’re in Uruguay, has by law to be General  Artigas, stuck up on a plinth, in the middle of a plaza, has become an improvised bird roost. The Los Toros, is now El Toro as he’s  been shed from his heard and corralled on a roundabout at the entrance to Pasos de Los Toros, his drove mates’ images now rendered to bottles of fizzy grapefruit juice.
Dignified reality or prudishness primness? It probably depends upon your age.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Redefinition of Quiet and Still in Uruguay.

On a ripio road, out in the campo, on a route that redefines the definition of the term ’quiet’, one that might  require the addition of either a superlative or an expletive.  Little by way of traffic has troubled us, so it should be no surprise that, when we stop to fill our water bottles at an estancia’s water bore, a couple on a moto will pull over and present us with an ice cold bottle of water. ¿De donde son?, ’ally manny’… it must still be Uruguay.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Dictionary: What’s not fully entered in the OED.

WAVE  v. (no obj.)  move one’s hand, or other appendage, to and fro in greeting.   (ORIGIN)  old English: wafian. 

Landrover wave: (mainly UK):  the restrained elevation  of one finger above the steering wheel.

Motorbike wave: (mainly European): elevation of left leather clad leg from gear peg, extended only to other bikers in greeting and cyclists in sympathy.

Two finger wave: (mainly Anglo-Saxon, Europe, North America): extended by vehicle operators to any incumbent who might have delayed them for a nanosecond, and by incumbent to departing vehicle for a lack of courtesy, respect for road space, or their red necks.

(with obj.) Maté Wave: (Uruguayan): Full elevated  hand movement, with it’s attached bombilla, sometimes preceded with a headlight flash and hoot on the horn.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Ally Manny

Whilst being the noun for a collection of 16th century Germanic dances, is, with the addition of a question mark, a request from the locals as to our nationality.  The assumption being that all pannier carrying cyclists are German.  We’ve been asked so often, I begin to wonder if the question doesn’t have another meaning.  A local colloquialism implying ‘overloaded cyclist with a sunburnt nose’.

Strangely, the same conversation in the southern United States, would end with the question as to whether Scotland was close to Germany.  The great geopolitical conundrum: is an elephant close to a louse?  On those occasions we would just agree, on these we offer some further clarifications, ’al norte de los Reinos Unitos; it’s easier than having a Spanish language discussion about a nationalist government’s  single question plebiscite or renegotiating re-entry to an economical union.                      

‘Where are you from?’, as a conversational opener, is an improvement on the more conventional discourse about the weather. ’bit damp, but they say it’ll dry up later’.  ¿De donde son? has led to a discussion about the differences between neighbours and the fiscal advantages of being an Uruguayan pensioner living in Brazil. The former also yielded  our first ‘Tott’ encounter.  Jesus lives on the road, moving from job to job by bike, living in a poly-sheeted dome tent.  He confirms that it’s legal to roadside camp for a couple of days and that you’ll always get a free meal and a bed in an Uruguayan estancia, but that it’s a lot harder in Argentina.  Our first ’tott’ of the trip, and it’s in a foreign tongue. Accommodation recommendations, it makes for a nice change from the usual dire warnings about the dangers of road cycling.  But then cycling isn’t a deviant activity here, even our transfrontera pensioner has only recently upgraded from push-pedal to kick-start moto.

The comedian’s stereotypical portrait is of the towel draped, sun lounger thieving Fritz; my image of the Germanic traveller  is closer to a motorised version, the Mercedes converted truck with a rack of jerry cans, the stash of sand ladders, the tiers of headlamps, and a world bragging map on the back. We, on the other hand will carry on being ‘Ally Manny-ing’ Scots cyclists, helping to bolster our version of a stereotype.

And just how close can an elephant get to a louse?  Very. Especially when it stamps on it.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Bovicide, peut-etre?

I do like the quirky dislocation that language can produce. This one didn’t throw me , but I did like the short loop, the little mind game it threw me into.
‘50 Hollande: Total Liquidation’.  It’s the lead line on a flyer, pasted up in the petrol station window, deep in dairy country. What has the French president done to annoy the agricultural fraternity of central Uruguay?  Are the French farmers up to their usual dastardly tricks, burning cow carcasses whilst the gendarmerie placidly look on?  Or have they genetically modified fifty new presidents, that have escaped and now require erradication before they self-replicate and  take over the Reichstag, the German parliament?

The answer is, of course, immediately obvious: the advert is for a remate, a roup, a displenishment sale.  All the stock must sell, it’s just unfortunate that France’s unpopular premier shares the same name as a breed of dairy cow.

As a postscript, and another piece of inconsequential trivia, I now need to concoct a title for this piece, which has lead me down yet another lexiconic slope. If regicide is the killing of a king, what is the ’cide’ for a presidential termination?  My ’Roget’ didn’t help, but amongst associated suggestions were ’uxoricide’, ‘vaticide’, and ’Thug’. The latter caught my curiosity, because it has been given proper noun status. It transpires that they were devotees of  the Hindu  diety Kali, who waylaid travellers and ritually strangled them.  Another one of the many words that have passed into the English language by way of Hindi and Sanskrit.

So in the absence of a proper dictionary definition for my conundrum, might I be allowed to offer a plausible one: ‘Bovicide’?

Monday, 12 November 2012

Three Facts and a Lesson

Fact One: Last night we slept in a cutting, on iron sleepers, between steel tracks of a disused railway. 

Fact Two: Tonight I watched a passenger train rumble across the Rio Negro. 

Fact Three:  My map shows this line to be one and the same to the one that we slept on last night. We had wondered as to why, given the world wide demand for ferrous metals, why the disused ties and rails had not been salvaged or stolen.

Time for some answers. The railways finally closed in ’88, then reopening again in’95, $30m is being invested in their resurrection, using Paraguayan wooden sleepers, funded by Russia, in lieu of debt repayment.  A rolling programme of replenishment that is heading for last night’s camping. That’s change.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Tres Noches, Muy Differente...

Three days and three nights, three accommodations that have been different. Night one found us struggling to find a wild spot that wasn’t ankle deep in floodwater, or surrounded by multiple strands of high tensile wire.  We’d spotted a possible option in the corner of the JD tractor dealership yard, and the combine’s cab could have slept two, but we opted to try further into town.  We needed to spring some pesos out of the local ATM anyway.  Unfortunately, the hole in the wall closed instantly it read the words ‘Barclays Bank’.  Which leaves us in the all too familiar position, of possibly having the means to buy a bed for the night, and then trying to find one.  

We’ve passed right through town and had not spotted any indicators. Time to start narrowing down the target, time to take directions.  All agree that there is a place, that it’s yellow and that it’s on the right. The debating point is just how many blocks away, and between which panaderia and farmacia?  It doesn’t take long in a South American country to realise that every town, irrespective of wealth, will have at least  two of one, and three of the other.  By a process of elimination we find a structure lost in the middle of a building site,  that’s the white side of yellow, and looks more like a converted shop. The Navigator’s Español must be progressing, as it transpires that all the rooms are singles, but we can use the ’cocina’, the events kitchen, that a couple of beds will be moved in, that we can shower in one of the minuscule singles, and that the issue is no problem. Sounds confused, but she seems to have understood  the instructions correctly.  I suspect this is a new venture, and that the three señoras are fresh to the hospitality game and are keen to maximise any opportunity.
Contrast and compare our first night with the second. The ground might not be any drier, the fences are just as tight but there are more trees to hide behind.  We’ve pitched on an old road  before, pulling up the tar to get the pegs in, but never on an old railway - literally between the rails. With a gauge of  four foot eight and half, the tent poles sit outside, whilst we are wedged tight inside.

I’m not sure if the Navigator had intended the ’double entendre’ when she said that she needed to ’anoint her tender behind’, or had the thought been triggered by the old kids’ joke: why couldn’t the steam engine sit down?  I, on the other hand, speculate on the tonnage of Herefords that have been moved along these lines, on their way to the meat plants in Fray Bentos or Bovril, to be pied, corned, or canned for Europe.  

The third night is a scenario that we’ve encountered several times before, yet it still fascinates me. How often a serendipitous event happens at or around the eighty km mark. Our guardian angel was in a strop; maybe we hadn’t offered enough thanks for her benevolence.  Two days of a headwind should have been rewarded with a tail wind when our road changed direction. Of course the wind moved with the road. Why break a habit? We might as well be down in Patagonia. It is one way to get travel fit. The odometer is clicking on towards the end of the day and it’s time to start sussing out a possible tent spot. When up in front I can see a sign for a bridge; it’s likely to be just another cane choked ditch with a muddy stream running through; the previous ones have all fitted this description.  The nearside banking fits this script, however the far side is a vision of Eden, or at least our idea of nirvana. Clipped grass, concrete tables and chairs and a sign to the ‘duchas’.  Maybe we’ll get a shower tonight? It looks like our watching benefactor has enjoyed the gentle testing tease of headwinds and rewarded us with tonight’s site.  Never tempt fate. We remember to offer thanks.

Three nights accommodation, all different.  It’s the joy of unplanned travel. You don’t know what’s coming, even moments before it comes around the corner at catches you totally unaware.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Nothing stays the same, not even in Uruguay

Seven years ago we spent three months living in a house on the coast, ostensibly and ultimately fruitlessly, to learn Spanish. Then we came back in the spring again, two years ago. Over those two visits we built a picture of an agrarian economy moving at a slow pace, like Scotland with sun, circa 1971. The grain lorries lumbered along in a cloud of noise and particulates, barely able to climb out of second gear, flash-tooting as they crawled past going uphill. The towns were thronged with cars held together with rust and baler wire and you could easily spot, (dependent upon your age), the first car that you, your father or grandpa owned. The grain silos were peeling, crumbling ecclesiastical edifices, the cutter bars on the cabless combines were no more than two good paces. Nobody wore helmets, nobody had to pay income tax.

The exchange rate deteriorated, inflation move ahead, but not much else seemed to change over those seven years. But now…The lorries move quieter and quicker, yet still manage the maté wave, even if the wolf-whistle horns are out of fashion. The grain elevators still resemble  Italianate cathedrals, only they are now surrounded by a massed congregation of silver shimmering silos. The farm tackle has homogenised to JD green, the combines have bloated, their cabs could sleep two, their cutter bars elongated and the seeder rigs require an escort to move along the road. The old cars have been compacted, scraped and  shipped to China, yet I still manage to spot  the first vehicle I remember my father driving; his, a red soft-top, this a sun bleached and aged to soft grey, hard topped Hillman. Yet I still hope to spy my own first, having come close with an Austin A40; mine being the brakeless, rusting diminutive, an A35. The motos are still here, only they’ve added a few horses to the engine, and a fresh paint job to the bodywork.  They’re still partially exhaustless, but I suspect that  might be more a question of choice, of modified baffles, than one of age.  The babies and puppies still ride side saddle, everybody can ride, drink maté and answer their mobiles, but the girls are in colour coordinated pink helmets and bags, the guys in full faces worn rebelliously on the back of the head. Yet it takes governments to make changes.  This one has, by introducing income tax, but there is one change that will never happen - it’s written in Laws of Nature: The drivers still wave, the pedestrians still want to know if you’re ‘Ally manny’ and the dogs still bark.  All day.  All night.  

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Entries not yet Listed in the OED

MATÉ   (mat  ae) n.  (mass noun)  1. (also Yerba Maté)  a bitter infusion of leaves, high in caffeine. Dietary suppressant.  (INFO.)  Ilex paraguaiensis.  Family: Aquifoliaceae.  ORIGIN: Quecha: mati.    (USAGE)  A national social custom particular to Uruguay, requiring a specific paraphernalia of equipment, the surgical attachment of a thermos flask to elbow, and a constant supply of hot water. Skill in usage whilst controlling a moto and answering a mobile ‘phone is considered a badge of national identity.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

You know that you’re still in Uruguay...

It’s been a holiday weekend in Argentina, a European celebration of Columbus’ exploits in 1492, hence the four days of rain, which have culminated in a full blown wind and rain, thunder and lightning performance.  All the omens look set for a damp start to the trip. The porridge bowls are near flooded even before the water for the coffee has boiled, we’re huddled in our foul weather skins like drookit rats around the moated concrete table. Yet in the short distance back into town, the sky rents and the temperature starts to climb, we’re shedding layers. For a countryside that is so flat, it’s difficult to see the changes in weather approaching; it’s one of the few things that change and move fast around here.
Last night we collected the first of the ‘you know that you’re in ….’ confirmations, this morning we carry on with the list…..the moto commute, the primary bound children in their lab coat and bow tie uniform, the horse drawn ‘fletes’ trap waiting to deliver a load of bagged cement, the Tannoy speakered cart blasting out blandishments for today’s specials at the local farmacia, the cow grazing the central reservation, the all pervading smell of soap powder from the supermercado. It’s like a banner that says ‘welcome back‘.

Leave town and you’re instantly in the ‘campo’, out in agriculture, out in the reason why we crossed the Rio del Plata and are using , in part, Uruguay as a way-station to get north. Quiet roads. Wide roads.  Cyclist roads. For many Porteños, residents in the capital over the water, Uruguay is the 49th barrio, appreciated for it’s quiet, laid back, easy ambience, where not much changes. It’s two years since we passed this way, yet our pro-forma of the familiar and the trivial will require updating.  We’re seeing changes. Changes are happening.

Friday, 2 November 2012

You Know You're in Uruguay...

When having successfully negotiated the scrum that is the baggage retrieval at the ferry dock, you descend into the night-time street, only to collect your first dog.  Are then passed by seven exhaustless motos, of which two have no lights, one has a mutiple occupancy of four persons, another has a brace of Yorkshire terriers.  Further confirmation comes, as if required, with tethered horse outside the pub and the row of maté drinkers.

These are some of the physicals, then there’s the imponderables. Our ‘lancha’ arrived late, despite the captain’s attempt at catch up; he only slowed down to drop his wake when he passed a ‘Prefectura Naval’ - read police launch. So it’s late when we cycle unbooked, unannounced into a deserted camp ground.  Empty because, for any self respecting Uruguayan this is the dead of winter.  We find a guard, and of course there isn’t a problem. There never is.