Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Do They Know it's Christmas Yet?

December the twenty-fifth and my Christmas tree count has yet to reach double figures. The only forests for sale are the split eucalyptus logs in the 'Lena' yards - the log stores. Stacked and wrapped, ready to join the steak on the asado tonight. In the mercado, the minimal aisle space devoted to tinsel and baubles is far out lengthed by the wine and beer supply. The municipality painters have spruced up the poles and switched on the lights - the traffic lights. Donald Trump has applied his monicker and visage to the outside of his new tower, and his estate agents are pencil sharpening in expectation. It's all in anticipation of one day. Saint Stephan's Day, and the start of The Season. Argentines like to celebrate in their own homes and then leave, en masse, on holiday the following day. They'll be on their way, roofracks swamped by a paraphernalia of beach.

Our experiences of an Uruguayan Christmas is noticeable for it's lack of societally imposed stresses. No panic buying. No manic consumption. No Xmas card angst. No frozen or fresh debate. No Toblerone. No 'sprouts. However there are some small hints. It's imminent arrival is heralded by the itinerant firework stalls by the roadside and the shelf space given over to the festively dressed boxes of 'pan dulce'. The imported whiskies of dubious provenance and festive price inflation. So in the absence of any Yuletide prompts, I press the wireless into service, log on to a Christmas themed station. By the time they've played 'Feliz Navidad' by three differing artistes, three consecutive times, allowed Jonah Louie to 'stop the cavalry', Bing to 'let it snow' and Noddy Holder to utter the indubitably prophetic line; 'look to the future everybody, it's just begun'', I know that it must be Christmas Time.

However, this is South America, and an event, no matter what event, would not be complete without Noise. The sun is three feet above the horizon, and yet a war zone has erupted. The machine gun rattle of fire crackers, the sniper fire of squibs, that's overlaid by the sporadic crump of heavy ordnance. The bombardment has begun, family parties have started, and will continue. The dogs now reduced to a frenetic baying, but even they are drowned out as midnight passes and the full offensive is unleashed. An uncoordinated bedlam of pyrotechnics. A continuous cacophony of sonics. A preamble for the next Event. New Year.

Do hounds get hoarse? Do cows vote for Christmas? Some do. Most don't. Do I know that it's Christmas?


Tuesday, 24 December 2013

For Sale: Santa

So who owns Santa Claus? A museum, a government, a corporation? The heritage of the red-coated, soda-swilling, pot-bellied, jovial gent would appear to be open for debate. It's the third week of December, so he's the man of the moment.

It starts with a proposal by a German museum to have Father Christmas listed by UNESCO as an endangered institution; is followed by the declaration of the Canadian government that his official residence sits on their continental shelf that extends under the North Pole; and is temporarily concluded by the urban myth that Coca-Cola is responsible for the whole mess.

He wasn't always that ubiquitous character plucked from central casting. His lineage is long and contorted. Two roots and several branchlets have grown to create the present persona. Odin is the pagan root, the apocryphal precursor; his eight legged flying horse, Sleipner, being transmuted into reindeer and sleigh roos. Yet early representations are variable. In some he's young, in others he's gaunt, others downright menacing. By the latter eighteenth century, artists are depicting both Norse Odin and Old Santa with interchangeable props and features. The grey beard, the luxurious whiskers, the portly belly, a stemmed pipe, a blue coat.

The second root, one only marginally younger, is the Christian anchor. The fourth century Greek Bishop of Myra, who, amongst other activities, is attributed with donating and distributing the dowries for three destitute daughters whose potential future would have been prostitution, by dropping bags of coins down their chimneys and into a drying sock on the eve of their coming of age. Later, he's sanctified as Saint Nicolas.

Then in the mid thirties, Cola Santa materialises in his latest and present incarnation, spearheading an advertising campaign. Gone the blue coat, the grey beard and the tobacco pipe. Now hirsute in snow-white whiskers and clutching his 'find in the dark' bottle'. It's this very product penetration that has prompted the Germans to request a preservation order. They claim Father Christmas as Theirs. Whereas the Canadians want his zip code before he plants a 'nodding donkey' in his own backyard and starts pumping hydrocarbons. Despite all these political and corporate machinations, our man is busy down the street offering 'audiences' at the local chemist's shop, where he's dispensing dispensations in the form of a red and white pixie hat, branded on the furry brim with that all too recognisable patented script.

That brand, that can be measured in the trillions of dollars, but can't prevent the occasional glitch. The jolly rotund gent, is now so entrenched in the psyche of the populace that when the oxymoronic 'Milton Keynes Winter Wonderland' employed two skinny youths to entertain their toddlers in a grotty grotto, the parents raised a riot and the event had to close. So much for traditional reenactment and historical accuracy.

For Sale: To the Highest Bidder....."Santa Claus - The Brand". Asking Price: $1.6 trn.


Monday, 23 December 2013

Up the Delta.

I can hear his sales pitch, long before I see him, "Chipa, chipa, chipa", lost somewhere through the forest of swaying passengers. "Chipa, chipa, chipa..". It's the gingham cloth-covered wicker basket of manioc bread, weaving through the tangle of rail hung arms that appears first, followed by his unLatino height.

I've watched these circus acts before. In Asuncion they bus-hop the never stopping collectivos. Maybe our Chipa man honed his skills there, for he has complete hands free control, even when the train judders and jolts its way out of San Fernando station. Strangely we don't purchase. His basket is near empty, which suggests that his wares are ageing. Chipas need to be eaten fresh and warm. A few hours old and they offer excellent jaw exercise as they assume the texture and the tooth squeak of rubber.

We're riding the commuter train up to the Delta. A Saturday morning in early summer, the goods carriage filled with traders' trolleys and cycles festooned in carrier bags. The aisle a trip hazard of cardboard crates and plastic coolers, water carriers and tool boxes. Downtown Portenos are off for the weekend to their chosen retreats up on the Rio Parana. We're off to purchase ferry tickets and to sit dockside and people-watch.

Organised chaos. Like a manic taxi rank, only on water. The distinctive wooden collectivo launches surge up the narrow channel that is the Rio Tigre, turn on half their length, side slip, shunting into the kerb, double, treble, multiply parked, and start to take on the next cargo of passengers. The dispatcher at the top of the gangway controlling the apparent chaos, the loaders stacking up the baggage on the roof. The clip-boarded, uniformed member of security wanders through the swirling throng. A taxi hoot, the launch sidling out into the river, negotiating around the sunbathing octogenarian in a rowing boat, a class of canoeists and the racing scullers. A throated growl, a whiff of reek, a surge of power as they take off into the twist of narrow canals that create the delta system. It's a busy hectic scene, full of colour and story.

Returning on the train, our bread selling circus act has been replaced by a lady vending 'Kirby grips' and 'Alice bands', competing for carriage space with a gent flogging home-pirated music. Stay on the train to the terminus and you're just as likely to be offered religious tracts and alfajores, serenaded by guitar and lectured on poverty. Just another trip on the Mitre Line.


Friday, 20 December 2013

Classical Waste Disposal Operatives.

Classical Waste Disposal Operatives

The strains of the Minuetto Alegretto drift through the barrio, strengthening as we make our way to the outer reaches of town. In time we catch up with the source. An amplified bin lorry. The looped tape that’s going to be today’s ‘ear verm’, the calling card of the scaff wagon, the call to bring out your rubbish.

The first time that we encountered this, was in Potosí. A man decked from head to toe in black oilskins with a gas mask, sou’wester and a hand held maroon, walked up the middle of the street. I was perplexed. Was it a street act? The quack-man doctor, or a Darth Vader look alike? Unlikely in Bolivia, more like a re-enactment of the Black Death, the night time tolling bell, the call to bring out your dead. Some have anticipated the collection; mainly the feral dogs. Shredded bags are re-cycled and then left to drift into the road, there to be rendered down by the passing tyre.

Basura, residuos, rubbish, litter. It becomes very immediate to a slow moving traveller and an amateur anthropologist. Those iced lolly sticks that held my attention for the better part of a day, that were Santa Clause's distributions; the styrofoam swan that blew off yesterday's bridal car, the empty bottled water and food cartons as you enter the spheres of gringo trail. Inconsequential discards that tell a story. The shell middens of modern man. Each portion of our differing trips seem to acquire an emblematic piece of trash. For the southern confederate states, it was a light blue beer tin, that flowed from gulf to coast. In Australia it was the brown glazed shards of stubbies, a colour contrast to a Scottish west coast canal towpath’s green glass splinters of Bucky. On the altiplano it’s not the detritus of alcohol, but dud batteries that once played the transistor, and the black plastic compact disc box, with it’s silvered content.

Every market, irrespective of size, will have at least one stall with a vast array of recorded music on offer. To judge by what we hear from the transistor radios carried by the mattocking squads on the terraced hillsides, it’s not the expected panpipes of Rose Street busker theme. It’s a thin, whiny songstress, which on first encounter suggested we had tapped into a Hong Kong radio station. I assume that the lyrics vary, but the note rhythms I hear are consistently reiterated, a recurring alliteration. Subsequent encounters haven’t corrected that perception. There’s two assumptions to be made. First, that they’re popular, to judge by their quantity, and that the quality of production, and subsequent repetitive reproduction, is impoverished, as judged by the discards Frisbee’d from car windows, that roll into the roadside verges. Profligacy is not an Andean trait, whereas dumping is.

Cross any bridge and glance down, the bed will be strewn with shattered plastic bags, disgorging a residue of rubbish, awaiting the next deluge to flush away, out of sight and mind. Rotting mangoes, withering corn husks, gravid dirty diapers. The last, the conclusion of yet another rubbish mystery. This riddle started with concrete ditches chocked by a grey slush of assumed snow and our congratulations that we had missed another violent storm. Continued, with roadside heaps that we presumed had fallen from wheel arches, and concluded when those piles wouldn’t thaw, down in the jungle. Enlightenment comes with a shop window advert for ‘super sec Huggies’. Our slush gorged storm drains, turn out to be the entrails of dumped nappies, our snow, to be swollen moisture retaining granules.

The storm has broken loose on the high ground, the dry river beds are flushed south. The Rio Urubamba, the sacred river of the Inca’s nation, is a chowder of Styrofoam. Tin cans are held captive by bouldered eddies, plastic bottles dance in the standing waves, poly bags snag on the low slung branches. The effluvial flow sweeps down to the ocean, there to continually feed the construction of that floating pop bottle continent. We meticulously collect all our wrappings, I even, on occasions Womble around a camp ground, litter-picking. Consigning them to a bin: Out of sight, out of mind. Not my problem any more. Proper little ‘Holy Willies’, our consciences are now lightly burnished.

What happens to that oats wrapper next? We should care, for I suspect I could have cut out the middleman, the waste retrieval operative, with his repetitive classical ditty, and couped it straight into that ditch.


Monday, 16 December 2013

More Unfinished Business.

Orthopods and agroplods, they have much in common if the handiwork exhibited in the Navigator's X-rays are to be believed. A couple of nails hammered in at angles, held by a bit of twisted wire. Might hold the gate on a pen of bullocks for tonight, but it will require a proper job tomorrow. At least they don't use baler string.

They've sprung the Navigator from her five star, fifth floor ocean view. Had they not, I suspect she was ready to jump. Especially if jelly had appeared on the food tray again. For breakfast, lunch and tea, the only three servings she's had in thirty years. Her first request after escape was coffee and something with less salt and more taste. One of the consequences of cycle travel is the necessity to eat. To eat a lot. A symptom that seems to be exacerbated when the time comes to stop, and the regular drip dosages of endorphins are put on restriction. The brain goes into panic drive, demanding ever more fuel. It's the famine response. Feast today, for tomorrow might be hard tack time.

Escaped, having settled the bill, but requiring a translation service; not a linguist one, but one that can decipher surgeon scrawl. Armed with the souvenir photos, a clutch of dockets and a card with aftercare instructions. At least that is what can be deduced from the spider's script. Painkillers and sling use are decipherable, the rest is in crypto medico.

Escaped to consider the options. Which quickly narrow down to a retreat over the hill, back to the flat in BsAs. A bus ride half the length of Chile, to be followed by another across a continent. Two thousand eight hundred kilometres. It would appear we chose to start a new adventure at the furthest reach from a chosen refuge. We're both resigned to the change of plans, looking forward to a new challenge. That was until the bus left town and headed back into the Atacama. Simple stunning countryside. A landscape striped to it's bare bones, leaving naked colours and shadowed textures. Leaving unfinished business with a stark reminder. The national flags on the roadside shrines, the politico banners on the house gables are ripped taut The walking dunes march out across the gritscape, the drifts tell the tale, the prevailing winds are sou'westers. Next time we ride with the wind.



Saturday, 14 December 2013

Over the Edge

On the map, Hospicio looks like a suburb of the town. The cartographers have even given it the same bold graphics as the parent, which might suggest a conflict for supremacy or superiority. Could be a story here. The first views as we come over the Cordillera Litoral, the coastal hills, suggest an industrial town rather than the advertised resort, even if the far edge is etched by a distant heat hazed sea. It appears, as the usual commercial belts start to girdle the pueblo. The tyre repair and oil changers, the alojamiento camiones and dubious moteles, literally lorry hotels and love rooms'. Queued out gas stations and out of-town mercados. All with their loyalty cards, the support industry for copper-town. Our road held in place by crash crumpled barriers and a berm of predatory drifting grit mixed through with societal effluvia. An unprepossessing spectacle for what the guide book says is a premier destination. Through this we tread, waiting for the seashore to materialise, craving the novelty of salt water after two months of high mountain and dry pampa.


The road swings through another bend, and there, below, is Toy Town; the Lilliputian parent-burb of Iquique. Only between here and there is one single sand dune and two thousand, six hundred feet of drop. Perched, like the swirling litter of gyrating vultures that float around us, their spirographing shadows rolling across the hillside, we too launch over the edge. In much the same way that the parapenters do, only we stay true to the reality of terra firma. Then I'm over taken by a child on a mountain bike and a Lycra-clad on a racer. Still, I remain true to the reality of rim brakes. Feels like we could be heading down into an adrenaline zone.

However, what is intriguing me, as my fingers cramp on the brake levers, is the disproportion in the ascending to descending traffic. People are leaving the coast; this on a Sunday, begging the question: what have we missed behind us? A fiesta, a parade or dinner with Granny? Then remembering that this a prime tsunami shore line. A fact that is emphasised as we cross the first intersection at the bottom of the hill. A large yellow warning sign pointing the way we've just come.

If Potosi was the source of all the wealth that financed the Spanish empire, and as a consequence spurred the other European states into expansionist exploration, then Iquique is the source of the raw material that facilitated one of the major expansions in Western agriculture. Bagged nitrogen. The magic jab that could turn a field to verdant green, treble output and send the peasant serf into the fetid slums of the industrial city.

This city started life as a mere indigenous fishing village, gaining a silver mine in 1730, growing with guano extraction, until it became the largest per capita consumer of Champagne in the world. The hedonistic days of the 'Chilean Nitrate' boom, that saw the barons build their mansions and swallow the plonk. The fact that these edifices are available for restoration, and not swamped by 'quake tides or condominiums, is surprising. That one street of these part-restored buildings is pedestrianised, along which no car ever travels, is a testament to civic pride. An history story that I would not have found had I not been forced into an extended stay, predicated by a cycle crash.

Having shuttled the bikes back from the accident site, I've selected an hostel one block from the hospital. Chosen for it's proximity of course, and not it's prominent position in the "shoestring guide". That's a given, a tiger can't change it's stripes. It's in the old home of the immigrant Italian Cuneo family, shop traders from the 'nitrate era'. It's a bit worn around the edges, but still retains some individuality, that is part travelers lodge, part old folks home. It's a base for visit duty and city wandering. A bed to be woken from at four in the morning by the maroon going off. Tsunami warning or adrenal testing?

A city of split personalities. The industrial dirty secret looming on top of the dune, spliced by that dune to the tinted glaze of a financial quarter, then down the historical corridor, by the port to the oceanside. Fuel tankfarms, colonnaded mansions, fishmeal stink, baked flesh.

As happens so often, this is an example of a place that, at first encounter, seemed to lack any personal interest, just another seaside town of adrenaline sports, that with a little time, provided rewards. But not the 'rush' we would have voluntarily chosen.



Friday, 13 December 2013

Last Post and Chorus.

I'm killing time. Sitting in the ante-room of a Chilean accident and emergency department. They call the patients through using a tannoy system. Like every example of the breed, this one is equally incomprehensible. The next component for raising a blood pressure. Fortunately the Forager's name, with it's full Sunday version is sufficiently different from those previously called, sufficiently unusual, that it's enunciated slowly. When we first dated back in the age of slide rules, I was warned never to use a diminutive of her given name, and now I hear it being broadcast to all. The 's' is always swallowed. Triage ask the questions and take the reading. A meaningless blood pressure reading. It's well known in our local surgery that the sight of a pressure cuff sends the Navigator's bp score to the stratosphere. I hear her trying to reassure them as to what's normal. Then they cart her off. I'm presented with a bill and told to go and pay. One of multiple digits.....

We left our pitched campsite, the sun was breaking over the mountains, had complimented ourselves on the short break we'd had. Speculated on what lay ahead, looking forward to an ocean sat to starboard. Cycled just one kilometre when she caught her rear pannier on a surveyor's post, ending up sprawled across the road. The army bus coming from the rear stopped in time, the corporal climbed down, picked her from the asphalt, she declared that there was no problem and they moved on. Then the shock, the pain, the swelling sets in. Walked very slowly back to the site, pitched tent and hired a taxi to this corridor. Taxis don't give change.

We even had the presence of mind to collect up all our insurance documents, supposing that a credit card would be the most important for the moment. They don't take cards, cash only. Just glad they're not measuring my pressure. I wait some more.....the clock on the TV scrolls through the next hour, as an overendowed hostess discusses the attire of the underdressed celebs walking the red carpet for some award ceremony. The style is called 'Classico y tranquilo', I call it 'near naked'.

The doctor comes to find me.....elbow broken in two places......suddenly...... there's a different adventure.

Slowly we edge through the process.... A transfer to a private clinic, as internationals we'll be paying, and anyway there's no spare beds.....they need to operate, to place a metal pin.....tomorrow evening....

At the Clinica...comes the next pressure point....they don't recognise the insurance company; frankly no surprise there, but will the bank recognise this card?.....second very prolonged attempt.....success....., the tab has seven digits. I don't even try to convert.....chipped and pinned, barcoded and finger printed, now we make our way to the fifth be screwed and plated.

And a view from the small ward room.......out over the Pacific. Body boarders, parapenters, fishermen, and a cormorant's eye view into it's nest. Three full grown chicks in a nest wedged into the axil of a lamp standard. The corrosive droppings eating a Humvee's bonnet paintwork.

All those cycled miles, all the potential disasters that you can never know about because they never happened, that were a few moments behind or because we were in the right place at the right time. Now the laws of averages have caught up with us. And yet the 'what if...?' kicks in. We aren't solo travelers. We weren't on an Andean mountaintop, halfway down a bear-infested, truckless road, stuck cashless, bankless in the outback, nor crashed out in the middle of the USA's mass-transit desert.

If you must, do the deed, do it in a place that's within walking distance of a quality hospital, it helps with shoe leather and stress management. Do it close to a bus route, helps with the eventual escape. Do it where it's warm, helps with the recovery period. Better still, don't do it.

This evening, I'm sitting in a hard hospital chair, up in her grand circle, watching a soft mellow sun set right into the sea, as a finger nail new moon follows it down. One adventure is put on hold, time for a new one.



Or a bloody good score on the Scrabble board.

Happy Friday 13th; it will be if your first language is Italian. If it's Spanish, then it's another saint's day. Santa Luce's, and Martes Trece is your 'dia noir'. If you're Dutch then it's a safe day to drive, or if you're North American you might be one of the 21 million who won't go to work today.

So friggatriskaidekaphobia is a north European Christian fear, an interesting concept, probably dating back only to the nineteenth century, coupling the Good Friday crucifixion and the non-completeness of the number. Others have attributed it to an association with the death of Gio Rossini. Or the popularisation by Dan da Vinci-Brown, of the French crown's arresting hundreds of Knights Templar on 13. 09. 1307, a Friday.

It was pure happenstance that today's next contribution was slated for posting on such an interesting and auspicious date.


Thursday, 12 December 2013

Aspects Britonic

Chileans do have a certain affinity for certain aspects Britonic. Maybe it's that remnant of dubious gratitude for the strutted 'dance Macabre', executed by a Prime Minister and and a deposed Premier back in the eighties. Or is it 'neighbour hate', that enmity which epitomises many adjacent nations. As long as the UK's tail is being wagged by a few islanders, thumbing their noses at sovereignty, geopolitics and Argentina, then I suspect there will be those of the long, thin country who will smile.

Sitting eating a Chilean empanada, a calorific, arterial clogging culinary confection that, on first encounter, could challenge the Scot's deep fried pizza' s ranking in the salt and saccharin league. Sat taking tiffin at a roadside shrine to the belly gods.The television is on, but silent. The rolling script tells a tale of international news. Three headlines stuck on repeat, a diminishing descent until it hopefully disappears in on itself. A baby's birth weight; six kilograms. Ouch. A calving glacier that's being filmed from a launch by the BBC; they're almost swamped by the tsunami wave. Oops, almost met their.....This segues into Prince William in tuxedo and bow tie, rocking with Bon Jovi. Is it not time for a policy shift? it's not as if he's canvassing for election.

A case of ....Hatches, Matches and Despatches.

Nice to encounter another national newscaster with a grip on its priorities. Or is this a case of seeing ourselves as others see us? Cold as ice.


Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Societal Effluvia.

All countries have a common kerbside text, with the possible exception of Singapore; it's a litterfree city-state anyway. The subject matter is discarded rubbish. A theme that fascinates me, because it sets a signature on an area, one that can tell so much about a place. It posses questions and sometimes even answers them. On the Bolivian altiplanic plain it was the glitter of CDs and the confusion of a hail-clogged drain on a warm day. On the Atacama it's the dull alumina soda can, burnished Cola paintless and shattering plastic juice bottles. In West Central Scotland it might be the green glazed shards, or a greasy chip wrapper. These answers are easy to deduce; pirated reproduction and nappy water retaining granules. Sand blasting and cheating on a centennial life expectancy. Bucky and a poor diet. But how to answer the question posed by the discards on the Pacific coast: Steering wheel covers?

It's fun to speculate, to propose scenarios as you loose yourself pedalling along on the inside verge. None in this instance come to mind that might remotely answer the query. The Dakar Rally was in the vicinity last year; maybe there's a residue of wanna-be racers left behind? Yet that doesn't sit nicely with the road courtesy we've been experiencing. Cars that give way to pedestrians, taxis that stop in the middle of a roundabout to let me through.They're almost Nederlandish in their insistence. Those faux leather covers with their broken laces will just have to remain question marks, residing in the gutter. Leaving me to tell the tales of advertising hoardings and official roadside signs.

"No burning tyres on the road". Futile instruction. They're an utterly essential component to a protest. Be it governmental incompetence, corporate theft or plain boredom. Some routes are more prone to the evidence. The rusting rings of tyre wire, the scorched blistered asphalt, the proximity to the conflict zone. The El Alto/La Paz front line.

"No ditching stones on the road", not an instruction to gravity or nature, who are the greatest perpetrators, not even the dogs who had tried to pelt the Navigator from a high cliff with disturbed boulders. The reminder is to those who have broken down and need to chock their wheels in the absence of an adequate handbrake. It will come as no surprise to learn that this request is also ignored. It's one of the main hazards as we freewheel with abandon down the long descents.

Bolivian billboards are only about how the hard-hatted 'Evo' built the next section of road, the commercial advertising is restricted to painting household walls in the colours of the respective telecoms companies or the local cement factory. Whilst over the hill in Chile the hoardings parade across the landscape, more as slumber busters than advertising opportunities. Still they reflect the local story. Heavy trucks and giant tyres, earth shifters and a 'Wendy House'. Mining's the major economic primer. The flat-pack house, the locally recognised homemaker and hardware store, that goes by a title ripe for a piece of Scottic inuendo; "Sodimac".



One of the repeating features of our travels are political elections. Both national and local. Given that some campaigns can last three quarters of a year, as in our Paraguayan experience, it's of little surprise that we find them. Given that every available wall space is, with the exception of churches, fair game for political painting, slogans last until the sun fades them and the posture paint is reapplied all over again. Small insights and minor vignettes crop up in unlikely places.

Tonight's vignette comes from the presidential contest, Chilean style. I'm returning along the pedestrian precinct, two rows of plastic chairs and one long continuous ribbon of tables are set out, the length taking up two complete blocks. Something must be about to happen. Only there's nobody about. Now I'm a sucker for a brass band, especially the South American version. When I hear that reverberating drum thump, that staccato from the snares, that practiced perfection of timing, it's generally time to find out what's happening. Sometimes it's the police off to lay a wreath at the cemetery, or it's the spectacle of an Aymara procession, or, as in this instance, it's Michelle dining her prospective faithful, or at least it's her proxy, her door steping canvassers. Banners, flags and taxis totting tannoys, blasting out her anthem. The lyrics that are dominated by the word; "Chile". As with the lady President across the hill, so Christian names suffice. Ex-President Blanchet is on the stump.


Monday, 9 December 2013

Chilean Joke

At last, our first commercial campground, one that has the requisite components. Open for custom, alleged hot showers, non shoogly seating, shaded pitch sites and obvious security. So much for the positives, the stated intentions. If this were Argentina it would also have night long music and early morning dogs. This one has yet to deliver on the former, but does come with an adequate substitute....barking seals and their bleating pups. As for the dogs, they spend their time howling over the water, despite the fact that the seals are hauled out on an island. Two of them are Labradors, the third is an equally stupid cross.

Tent pitched on the north Chilean shore, the Atacaman sand mountains brooding to our rear, the ocean's long horizon stretched across our front. Just south of the resort of Iquique, a town of highrise holiday apartments and 'Nitrate era' wooden buildings, a port that has cormorants for pigeons and vultures for rats. Both perch, wing warming on billboards, the former nest in the plaza palm trees, the latter shred beached carcasses, all poop on the swimming pool's bleachers. Roosting up lighting columns where they guano cars and the street. A wide spread spatter that gives testament to either their projectile ability or the power of the wind. Either way, I ride quickly underneath. Memories of climbing club songs about the seagulls of Mobile who use a lighthouse as a 'toilet', come to mind. But that's not the Chilean joke.

Missed by and missing, the historical significance. Poop, skat, splat and it's constituent chemical; ammonium nitrate, it's what made the early Republica de Chile.

The Spanish conquistadores never did find that fabled gold the Inca's nation had told them of. So it all started with guano deposits and the mining of the centuries old bird waste. A finite resource that lasted a few short decades. Then it was the turn of the 'desert gold', the nitrate ore that could be shoveled and bagged from the surface of the Atacama. Any man could set up as a miner with only his pick and spade, many did, coming goldless from the Canadian Klondike. Then German science invented artificial nitro-fertiliser and it all died out over night. Instant ghost towns and a lasting architectural legacy. However the nation had already gained vast wealth, deprived Bolivia of a seaboard and created an historic tragic hero. Arturo Pratt captained a wooden gun boat that took on a Peruvian iron clad, he died but his name lives on a thousand street names. And his unfotunate moniker still isn't the Chilean joke.

The Chilean joke..... When la duena, the inn keeper, introduces you to her establishment, to her many blandishments of facilities, she'll mention the tariff, the toilet, even the WiFi, but that's not the joke although it is, no, she'll utter the inevitable 'Bon motte', her punch line....Ducha aguas caliente..... Hot shower....Haha....


Sunday, 8 December 2013

Tumble Driers

One advert that you'll never encounter in Northern Chile; "Wanted", Tumble Drier Sales Person". They might be sending coals to Newcastle and fridges to the Inuit, but there's no way that a tumble drier can compete with a clothes line on the roof of an Arican hostel. I'm asked if I've just put out our washing and then immediately advised to go and bring it back down again. As it will be dry by now. Slight exaggeration. But only just.

As every dhobi wallah knows, the sun bleaches, the wind dries. The Atacama has both, the latter in rather more profusion than a cyclist might appreciate. The sun comes with the daylight, the wind with a precision of a timepiece. From sun up until onces, the cool air flows down from the mountains, coming out of the nor'east with hints of glacial cold. At 11 o'clock precisely a few dust devils will approach from the sou'west, a racing attack. The wind will preform a perfect pirouette, a pendulum swing through half a compass in a matter of momments. An utterly un-Latino punctuality, very predictable, very Atacaman.

Atacama, the driest place in the world. Some parts have never experienced rain, in others the last time it drizzled it made world news. Yet don't get the idea that it's dawn to dusk sunshine, despite the local authority's claim to be the "City of Eternal Sun". I'm told they can expect just four days of cloud cover annually. Yet for those who might suffer a Seasonally Affective Disorder, the advice is to just drive ten miles inland, to a vast, clear skyscape. Maybe they exaggerate, as we caught one quarter of that cloud claim leaving town. The next night we sat high above a temperature inversion that blanketed both city and coast, that raised the odds to fifty percent of that fabled total. On the third night, again sleeping in the open, under the myriad stars and meteor showers, we woke to very damp, condensated bivi-bags. Nights are cold, the sky clear, convection ratios are high. We are but two alien blots of water cocooned in a meager breathable membrane. You can feel rather small in a place like the Atacama.

And yet there is no vegetation, no evidence of natural life. The land is a soft tone of roseate pink that complements the dust blue sky. Early morning light casts shadows that delineate the ripple ribbed contours, etch out the transient dry river beds and offer contrasts that are soon washed out by the fast climbing sun and the approaching flat light. The Candelabra cacti, in their narrow contoured corridor, come and go as we speed down through their domain. Their scarcity close to the road a testament to their collectability. Darker patches apparently at a distance, that suggest cropping or scrub, suddenly turn out to be much closer and are just a cluster of broken rocks. That which suggests lying water turns out to be salt pan. As with the saltlands so with these sandscapes, the perspectives are contorted by the want of reference and lack of scale.

South of Arica , for three hundred kilometres, these coastal hills fall straight to the ocean, there's no reason, no room for a road; nobody lives here. So it takes to the upper ground. Only there's two deep valleys, that suddenly appear before us. Their rims lost in the general clutter of rollicking ground. The road tips over the lip and drops. A view, a model tractor working on the valley floor, a twenty-five kilometre descent that logic suggests will have to be replicated on the other side. Potential for tedium, if it wasn't for the miraculous transformation in the canyon bottom. A lineal verdant strip a few metres wide. The Andean ranges are two hundred kilometres to the east, they feed the rios with enough melt water to allow them to cross the desert with sufficient flow to sustain a small farming industry. Rice, olives, tomatoes, onions, herbs.

Literally a line in the sand, the instant boundary between desert and life. A brain-eye green comfort blanket that takes moments to cross and will stay on our side as we take an afternoon to climb back out of it's presence. Rivers of life that will be sacrificed at the altar to agriculture. Most will have struggled over that aridity only to be captured and enslaved, many will not make the short dash to freedom and the open sea.

My advice for potential dryer sales people....stick to flogging bottled water, I'm sure it's the coming fashion.

Enough advice, enough hypocrisy; I've had a life in that agro-industry. My shirt's dry up on the roof of the aptly named "Sunny Days Hostel" and it's time to chop a salad. Basil, onion and tomato.