Sunday, 29 March 2015

Faded Grandeur.

Argentina has one major cultural difference from all the other South American countries that we've visited. They camp. Ergo, they have campsites. I know the Uruguayeño and the Chileño camp, they just don't do it with the style or the fervour with which their neighbour does.

Hidden tent

'Camping' written in faded paint, on a weathered board, with an arrow pointing vaguely to some place. It's a sight for tired legs. A place that might offer security, water and a stall that could loosely be described as a shower. Three articles that are all that we require for an overnight stay. Of course there are additions and variations, no two campgrounds will be similar. Shade on a hot sunny day, restrained music systems before sunrise, dogs stopcocked from piddle-marking our flysheet, all would be considered usefulness. However beggars can't be choosers. And therein lies the interest and the speculation as we head towards evening. Will there actually be a site, or is there a degree of wishful thinking on the part of the guidebook compiler, tourist officer or mapping cartographer?

The locals camp, therefore they see nothing unusual in a pair of gringos pushing cycles and disappearing into a clump of cedar trees by the side of the road as the light is fading. Although we do try to time our disappearing act, it's remarkable how many vehicles can suddenly appear on what, until moments ago, had been a near deserted thoroughfare. This is our default option when a suitable campings haven't materialised, through either actuality or decrepitude. Or the local town has remarkably failed to provide a suitable lodging.

'Phone booth

Suitable lodgings. There's a certain style to an Argenteño accommodation. Generally falling into two categories. New, tending towards disintegration and faded, tending to a state of stable degeneration. Any 'star' rating that might be encountered will have been 'self awarded', and therefore entirely arbitrary. A not dissimilar system to that used by some of the on-line 'travel advisers'; these being adequate only for a physical description of the property and passingly good for indicating which side of the bed the contributor climbed out that morning.

We'd tent slept our way south from the capital. A succession of interesting sites, all with common themes. All have been within sight and sound of soporific river waves or exploding ocean breakers, where each night we'd been lulled to sleep by the high pitched whine of mosquitoes trying to get into the inner tent. Lying within a cocoon, that comfortable feeling of security, as a can of chemical warfare has already been deployed to eradicate the early raiders. Unfortunately, nylon tents and heavy humidity, caffeine and age, all in combination, are not conducive to a good night's sleep. Then in the morning, trying to don a salt infused shirt, that's hygroscopically sucked up a night's worth of damp, suggests that a room with a fan, bug screens and an indoor loo might be an enticing possibility. Some suitable candidates are just down the road.

That temple to hedonistic sun worship; Mar del Plata is looming on the horizon, a locale that has a vast selection of 'suitable lodgings'., if one guide is to be believed. Although derogatory terms like: 'slightly fancy', 'passingly adequate' and that final damnation: 'Tudor-style', might make for an interesting search. Now, if I'm being expected to part with good money for a roof over my head, and given a choice, I'd like to lodge in a place with character.

I've no objection to the generic, antiseptic, heartless establishment, with its cells of whitewalls cowering behind a supposed modernity of plastic chrome and reflective glass, staffed by those who would far rather be somewhere else. Just so long as fifty quid hasn't been added, just because the sobriquet: 'boutique', has been appended, all because a dish of fresh flowers sits on a table. Cast from the same mould, these places hold no secrets. They are all too easy to find.

The guidebook is the gillie, it's there to point you in the right direction, for he has the knowledge, he knows where the deer will be lying. We are the stalkers, there to make the kill when an interesting characterful lodging comes into our sights. It's a hunt for that non-definable quality, the little idiosyncratic oddities. That minuscule sanitario, whose throne sat deep under the coombed ceiling and rendered relief awkward, at least had the honesty to call itself by the diminutive: 'bañeto. That had character. Negotiating down a long, narrow alleyway that miraculously opens on to an exquisite courtyard of lemon trees. That had character. The one of so few buildings that survived the devastating earthquake, that has two thousand year old artefacts scattered around it's rooms. That had character. The octogenarian dueño, shuffling along in his slippers and makes us fresh crushed juice each morning. That had character. The windowless, wall carpeted, ceiling mirrored, hourly rated love-motel. That had (different) character. What's common to all these is an element of humanity and age. All are properties that have garnered and weathered a lot of history. All have a patina of age, only some wear it better than others.

Our gillie guide has suggested some possibilities. Only his knowledge is several years out of date. The first possibility is up for sale. The second has already been sold and is now the offices of an antiquarian foundation. The third has been renovated, gralloched, eviscerated of all character and now stands encased in glass. It looks like it's time to purchase the services of a new guidebook.

There is, however a story here. Mar del Plata has undergone many changes, mostly from upmarket to mass market resort. That first place that we searched out, was once a Porteño family's retreat from the summer heat of the capital, then morphing into an hosteria. It stands on a corner, so can't lose those outlooks; however it's neighbours are two new multi floored highrises brooding down on this diminutive house. The auguries are not good. Soon another edifice is bound to sprout from it's demise.

Three 'no shows'. We take the hint and ride out of town, to another fine campsite. Still I want to hunt for the character lodging. Fortunately were heading back into Pampan agriculture. Where the coastal communities work to the maxim: 'bods in beds', and have been denuded of anything 'old', the cereal towns seem to have a respect for the 'interesting'.

The Plaza Hotel, Tres Arrojos, which like many of its namesakes, isn't on a plaza, but is a venerable grand dam of fading grandeur. Tiled halls and iron gates, cedar panelling and central courtyard. On arriving, our bikes are directed to the parking, in the 'salon', and we to a classic Argentine room. Windows looking into a corridor, that, in turn looks out onto the central atrium. There's peeling plaster in the corners and a patina of dried soap around the taps that never seems to wipe off. The hot and cold taps are confusingly reversed, but the water is always hot. Brown stained woodwork and beige walls, but a decent wattage of light bulbs. Fan, en-suite loo and no mosquitoes.

It's next morning that this grand old lady reveals her last secret. The 'salon', is in total darkness. But there's enough ambient hall light to enable me to negotiate around a dead drinks fridge and to trip on a scatter of paint cans, to retrieve my bike. Lesley suggests I try a flash photograph, to get an idea what's hidden in this 'black hole'. A point and shoot, a shot in the dark. It's only sometime latter, when editing the day's collection of images, that we realise what an intriguing space our cycle shed had been. It looks as if the marble floor might have seen a damp cloth, but the wall murals and the wooden paneling appear complete, if only I cold have found the switch for the chandeliers, we could have had a closer inspection.

Such a typical Argentine 'suitable lodgings' scenario. Be it bush-camp, camp-ground or roofed-room, you never know that is to found until you literally fall over it.



Friday, 27 March 2015

Diario (continued)

We did actually find the article online; you can read all about it by clicking here.




I've often wondered who reads their local paper. Now I know.

Possibly it was a quiet news day, or more likely he'd gone out to report on the commemoration for yet another multiple road death and needed to file a contrasting piece. We, or more accurately, The Navigator, had a chat, he took some pictures and we left it at that. Invariably at some point on a trip we find ourselves in one of these situations. Only we've never seen the results, generally having moved beyond the local media's coverage by the next, or at least the broadcast day. Not this time. much?

Sunday mornings are quiet in a Pampan cereal town. We've been stopped by a red traffic light, a car pulls up, the window wound down, and a voice asks if we're the people in the paper. Next stop is to extract some pesos from a bank..."can I take your photo for my kids?" the time we've replenished in the supermarket, we've answered in the affirmative, the same question five times.

The day is progressing rather rapidly, only we're not, we're getting bogged down, so rather than pushing on through town, we decide to head out to the coast, to see what a campground has to offer. It's worth noting at this point that an Argentine costa-campsite at the end of a summer season can be a dispiriting experience. The best that can be said for them is: "at least they're open". The general ambiance is one of 'well worn'. Grass, if it ever existed, will be threadbare. Sand being the more usual flooring medium, will be heavily impregnated with bottle caps and fag ends. The bins will have been emptied, the resident pack dogs, and will now be being liberally redistributed by a gale around the perimeter's fence. The poplar shade trees that are entering autumn, will be less than sun proof, water in the standpipe could be saline, if indeed it's even running. Prices can easily be double that of an inland site. With these 'vfm' experiences and low expectations in mind, we pull up at the entrance. To be met by; "we've been expecting you". There's a Saltire flag up the pole.

Graciously we accept one of their premium numbered sites that comes with deep day long shade, twenty-four hour hot running water, electricity and cable television. Direct access to twelve kilometres of bikable sand. And hold our breath for the price. At first The Navigator swallows very hard. Extortion. No, that's the pitch number. Management offers a 375% discount. Graciously we accept.... for a further three nights, making it one of the best values for pesos on this trip.

Necochea on the map had looked like just another pleasure resort, one like all its neighbours farther up the coast. We'd had no intentions of stopping, yet it's odd how serendipity can so easily intrude and change your mind.



Thursday, 26 March 2015


To read the guidebooks, to flick through the postcard carousels, to graze the coffee table glossies, it would appear that all twenty million Argentines holiday on the beach at Mar del Plata, or at least the ones that haven't absconded to Costa-Uruguay. An exaggeration, but only just. The stereotypical picture: a castellated wall of high-rise condominiums, the sand, the sea and their attendant breaking waves, indecipherable under a colourful heaving morass of humanity. The gazebo shade-sheds and the honeycombed beach parasols, ergonomically packaged for maximum financial density. The immediate hinterland streets lined out with an appropriate support infrastructure of shops, shops and shops.

Only today they stand empty. Today is Monday, the first school day, the first day of the shoulder season. That amorphous time betwixt sun lotion reek and the forlorn strands of roller-shuttered shops; between late season sales and the companionable silence of a winter's shore. A morphosis, when the peripatetic trader will sell off his last six withered apples before he heads off for another new season on the Spanish costas. When Abdel will take his stock of Egipto-asian cottons to Malaga, Eduardo will return to his mail delivery in Toronto and Juan will swap the life-guarding tower on Necochea beach for its equivalent on Benidorm's.

Yet it's a coastline that needs to be divided into two sub-sets. A Costa del Atlantica oceanboard and of the Barrancas de la Rio Plata. Two distinct shores divided by a sand spit. To study this water's edge on a map, it's hard to see how the river can be classed as the world's widest, for it looks more like a firth, an indentation of the ocean, impinging into the Corpus Argentina. A dagger of water jabbed into the torso of The Americas, secured from wandering away by two small fingers. The digits of Punta del Este on the Uruguayan northshore and Punta Rasa on the southbank.

It's difficult to imagine how these two divergent coasts, that are mere metres apart as they merge by the two Puntas, can be so different in character. That is, until you meet this river and this ocean. To westward, behind those minor promontories, the brackish, tideless water is latte-brown, the waves short chop and the banks mud and rushes. A humid soup of mosquitoes and rotting vegetation fed by the great jungle rivers: Paraná and Uruguay. Step around the corner, to ocean ward and the waves become steel-green oceanic breakers relentlessly crashing up against cliffs or pounding on long reaches of hard, compacted sand. There's a sharp clarity to the early light, a freshness to the coast, a fact that each local authority forms into great copy, Claiming that their resort town is 'sin humo', humidity free. On evidence, I would counter that it's all relative.

Bernard Rohloff, the brain behind our new bike gears, claims he got the idea whilst cycling on an Atlantic beach, trying to evade an incoming wave and finding that his cluster cogs became instantly clogged in sand. Over the years, we've had similar experiences with South American earth roads in days of rain, stranded by the verge, poking bits of stick into chains and sprockets. Allow it to dry and it soon becomes an adobe donkey brake. Still, it's exhilarating to ride where the surf runs out, seeing just how far you can go before finding an impediment.

On one strand we made twelve kilometres before a cliff intervened, forcing the enjoyable task of returning back along that glorious stretch, weaving around tide-ravaged sandcastles, ducking under monofilament lines and negotiating the legs of a pier. Sporadically scattered along the coast, these rod fishers' piers are a remnant of a past era. Their wrought iron skeletons exposed to the rotting sea salt, their scrofulous 'crete piles scabbed with mussels. Some are disconnected from land, whilst those that are fit for purpose will be festooned in rod and line, some will even have lighting and seating for the dedicated enthusiast.

What is noticeable about all of these costal places, is the cleanliness. With one interesting exception. At Santa Teresita we walk barefoot around thousands of dead freshwater fish. The retreating surfline leaving thin arching trails of scales and bones, the tideline a wrack of empty-socket carcasses. This evening, gulls and hawks are sampling the eyeball delicacies, leaving the carcass for the morning. When a digger will scoop up the previous day's deposited offerings, leaving only the faint aroma of fishmonger. It's a story that I can't find an explanation for. Theories involving insecticidal runoff, river and ocean currents abound. All an on-line search can offer, is the assistance of a lawyer specialising in 'dead cat poisoning in New Mexico". Or this curiously-translated piece of non-information. It's certainly not an image that's likely to be found in any holiday agent's glossy brochure for the Argentine Costas.








Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Somedays ~ Samedays.

Some days open and finish with the same narrative. We're on the Pampa, not a hill is in sight, the sole punctuations on the extravagant horizon the next pueblo's grain silo and some scattered islands of cedar trees. After the near continuous rolling montage of the Cordilleras Los Andes, where days could never have finished in any similar vein to which they started, down on these flats, these scapes have the potential for reiteration. A succession of twice told tales, such that I start to wonder if we're not cycling for the sake of it. Constructing a leg that in time, might become part of a completed continental end-to-end. Pall, weary and tedium drift on the far edge of my consciousness . Even that duplicitous sin 'boring', floats its dull suggestions.

Up on the hill, out in the desert, the sceneries are so at a variance from my habituated norm that experiences fall over themselves, crying out for observance. Low down on the Pampa the scapes are agricultural, recognisable, understandable. So, if I'm not careful, they could be rendered down to commonplace.

Ennui. Listlessness; dissatisfaction: derived out of excitmentlessness. The solution is simple. Patience; the stories are still there, only they're now hidden that bit deeper.

It's been a deliberate decision to return to South-East Argentina for the final leg of this trip. In part because the northern Peruvian coast will be hot humid and their inland mountains sitting in a clag of wet season rains. Yet those very places sit high on the 'wish list'. Yet more unfinished business. A deliberate decision to ride on the flat. No sudden surprises; climbs hidden around corners at the close of a day, boulders rolling down hillsides in the middle of the night, nor stacked tangles of switchback bends clambering up to the heavens. Now a chance for a differing, contrasting perspective, to set against those high, dry places. A chance for contrast and context. A different challenge, a change to some verdant rehydration.

There are two distinct worlds to the south of the capital. An agricultural heartland with a touristic slivered skin on its edge. Both vast and flat, their towns reflecting their economy's history. The former dominated by soya and windmills the latter by sand and cleavage. Only the twain never mix. Only occasionally do they meet.

The Rio Quequen Grande separates these two worlds, and their attendant twin towns. On the north bank is Quequen, which we approached from it's hinterland. Cycling through tracts of bottle green soya, hectarages of brown, ripe sunflowers and harvested stumbles of wheat. Passing clutches of corrugated silo bins, being passed by lumbering wagons hauling to the port. Rolling past the glossy offices of seed merchants, the glazed emporia of tractor salesmen and the inevitable oily yards of the grease wallah. On the south bank is Necochea. A long strand of sand with a retaining wall of crenellated highrise condominiums, and all the paraphernalia of seaside resort. Pizzerias and heladerias. Resto-bars and deckchairs hires. Asian cottons and estate agents. Spades and buckets.

We cycle the agricultural, cross the bridge and pedal the length of the beach down at the tide's edge, and find ourselves standing at the interface of these two worlds. Perched on a breakwater, a tangle of cement 'jacks' and a view, a smell and a noise. The backdrop is a high wall of concrete bins, a tangle of cereal elevators, in front of which is the bulk tanker: "Bullion Trader #2", that is part-obscured by a pall of grain dust rising from its hold. The foreground, a dredger deepening the river's channel. On my side of the river's mouth, and to my rear, are the clustered cliffs of resort accommodations, the congregations of holidaymaker's cars starting to gather at the sea's edge. It's to my immediate front that the interest exists. Two rod fishermen are casting on the water, wading through a pod of cantankerous bull sea lions.

Somedays are all pampa-agricultural, somedays are all touristically-sand. A monoculture for two different places. Then there's the surpriseday when they nearly mix.



Tuesday, 17 March 2015


For those in the know: that large react of coastline south of BA. RP11 ~ Punta Laura. 4th.March '15.

Over time we've perfected our escape routes from the Argentine capital, a city that seems to glory in its auto-centric credentials. Yes, it does seem manic from that high perch on an international bus, as we're swung through sweeping intersections only to be cooked behind the glass as we clog to a standstill at the next blockage. And yet, as we cycle away from the centre in the perpetual rush-hour, were riding in a stream of pedalling commuters. All of whom tell of the dangerousness that is Av. Libertadores, only to swing away to weave a line through it's outer lanes. Still, I never feel threatened on this escape road. A route that connects the flat to a ferryport, to a bus terminal, to a train terminus. Escape routes that are well sourced, now well versed. Escape routes that have covered many points of the compass, missing has been the southern river shore and the Atlantic Coast.

Our reticence to visit in this direction has in part been due to the city's street plan. Somehow a metropolis of millions has to be navigated along its longest axis.

Why anybody would want to "walk" to its outer reaches is a ponderable question, given the parade of omnibuses that overtake, only to pull-in and stop right in front of me, there's even a rattling Metro line up on stilts to complement the mass transit provision. But 'that' search engine has its 'walking' feature, and as cyclists can generally go where pedestrians wander, so do we. Down canyons of posh streets, weaving around suits and Starbucks, slaloming the touts offering tango and cambio, ignoring the inconvenient signages. Threading our way further from the centre, through once separate villages and that have swollen into towns and are now assimilated into the 'greater' city.

60km. clocked: still we're in built structure, 70km: the slow incremental transformation from house to factory. 80km: and we've discovered a disintegrating tarred road that, the rusting signage suggests, it could be going where we want to go. Only it feels like we're heading into a garbage dump, the road to the cowp. Fly-tipped vegetables and burnt out cars, spewing polybags and flooded potholes. Only nature is already fighting back; the trees and the natural vegetation creeping in from all sides, turbo-charged weeds heaving the macadam aside. The heavy humidity encouraging the mosquitoes, the sound of our tyres on tar falling into the swamped silence. Not a human being in sight.

A moat of grey water and indeterminate depth blocks our path, an impenetrable wall of forest defends the road's perimeter. Too late to retreat, too tired to recce, too. We plunge in. Through the vegetative tunnel and suddenly out onto the Rio del Plata's vast watery plain. An endless expanse of brown, short chop sea.

Another escape from The City. Only it's one that I suspect won't be repeated. Those trains that have rattled past, that have kept us company, still run a passanger service. It's our intended method for reversing, for breaking back into The City.


Monday, 2 March 2015

Bus Trip

For those in the know: Lima~Buenos Aires. Date: last week in February.

Four and a half thousand kilometres. Four frontier stamps. Three countries. Ten Spanified Hollywood films. Seven children. Four days: three nights....on a bus. Sounds like an audit for Hell, or at least least a recipe for Purgatory.

I come from a generation that once considered aeroplane flight as a novel and exciting form of travel. The Navigator, from a world that didn't even consider the possibility. Her first flight and her thirtieth birthday coincided with a trip to New York, mine, a fishing trip to Iceland. I can still remember a fourteen year old's thrill, when told of the intending travel plans. Surprise, even consternation, it just wasn't something that our family did. Radical travel was forgoing the annual pilgrimage to the Isle of Arran and instead sailing to the Isle of Tiree.

How things have altered.

Our clutch of cycles have, over time, accrued an un-ecological collection of air-miles; we've become adept at shifting them through airports, sweet-talking officials into accepting them as legitimate baggage. Only now those same airlines are searching for any means to maximise their returns. There's a charge for sports goods. Fair do's. Or it would be, if it wasn't for this very obvious fact: our cycles along with all the kit, weigh considerably less than that behemoth case the previous checking-in passenger couldn't lift onto the scales. Just one of the reasons that bus travel has a place in our South American logistics - there's no weight restrictions. There might be a bit of tooth sucking, but a few pesos always expedites the loading. Another is the truth that there's nothing exciting about being origami'd into a cramped seat, force-fed canned air and sold the lie that, in the unfortunate event of landing on water, you might still be alive to put on a life-vest.

Flying is the the new purgatory.

Especially when there's a viable alternative. But. Seventy-six hours on a bus with all those potential statistical hazards? I was apprehensive; we'd just reconfigured all our body parts, recovered some feeling to my derrière, this after a mere five hour flight south from Miami. This was going to be fifteen times longer.

We need not have worried. At last, we've found a bus company that offers on-line booking, seat choice and pre-boarding luggage check-in. Sounds like an airport? It is, with the additional advantage that they have their own relatively quiet departure depot. Everybody's baggage is weighed, there's an advertised scale, you pay the rate, they then take it off your hands and load it. The handlers don't even bat an eye at our bikes. Gone, those moments of mounting adrenaline, waiting to fight for cycle space in the hold, negotiating the graft that will help facilitate the transaction. At last, a simple and honest system, one that sets the tone for the next few days.

We've pre-booked the best seats on the bus. Top deck, front row. Sitting behind tinted windows that render the short twilight early. Seats with prospects. A hermetically sealed view of dust storms, the silent ribbons of sand, streamering out from the desert and over the road. Of ranked vines ordinarily hidden behind high walls topped in razor wire. In the night time, sweeping around tight bends, seated high over vantages that fall down to known sea cliffs, the imagination intensified by an infinite obsidian darkness in the window's pane. Of elevated perspectives into a shanty shack's back yard and of the adrenal rush from an advancing lorry on the wrong side of the road. A differing, new perspective on an already cycled road.

Seven children: four day journey? Some of them traveling with no male parent. There's a simple piece of advice for Latino border crossings. Try not to join the line if there's a mother and child in front. Immigration officers inspect all documents. Thoroughly. There is only one booth open, and the conductor operates under the maxim: 'women and children first'. Fair enough. We're lined up around the wall, with a grandstand view of the immigration officer's computer screen, as he processes one family group. Thorough. The lawyer's document, with its stamps and fingerprints are scrutinised minutely, repeatedly. Even the paper's quality is checked. The supervisor is called for further verification. It takes time, a lot of time. As we're held on that crossing, in a shadeless sun for four hours. Crossing borders whist actually riding a bike is, by comparison, easy.

I'm not sure what it is about Peruvian kid raising, for you would have been hard put to know they were seven children on board. No gurning, no bickering, no incessant X-box 'blinking'. One youngster plays with his toy cars in the stairwell for hours on end, utterly absorbed, bothering no one. The months old baby gurgles, but never cries.Three others let off steam playing tag in the cavernous customs hall at midnight and then retreat back on board to silence. Either it's chemical coshes, or a natural adaptation for long distance travel. We're all in a form of suspended animation.

For the people-watcher in me, it's a fascinating world. By the end of day two, a community is already starting emerge. Already it's possible to imagine who the leaders would be, were we to be suddenly transported to a desert island. The chattering grandmother, never detached from her clipboard, who I imagine as a retired teacher, now the 'organiser'. She's the one that gathers the drivers' tips. The Argentiños who fights the herd's mentality for bovine lethargy, a 'whipper-in' who chivvies the tardy to get back on the bus after a stop. But it's at the protracted Chilean border that the cooperative spirit materialises. We've all got more baggage than can be easily hauled in one carry, luggage that requires the x-ray belt. A laborious process, as there's an inequation: bus and inquisitive authority are some distance apart. I and the other 'aged persons' are pitied, those fit young men grab our bikes and the other heavy cases and spirit them over the concourse. It should have speeded up the departure, only we had to await yet another arm of officialdom: this time it's the ministry of transport's 'tyre-kicker' with his tyre-iron wandering around tapping the rubber-tyres.

Released from our suspended animation, the torpor of a travel, we navigate a final passage through an x-ray machine and escape into the rush hour of the Argentinian capital. I know I'm back in Argentina; we've only cycled one kilometre and already we've had conversations with a motorbiker, a Chipa seller and a commuting cyclist. All are eager to tell us how dangerous our route is. However, we left Lima in a rush hour only four days ago, by comparison, this is like a village lane. The evening light is low on the river, the wind is on our backs, we gather some street food. There's little ill effect from sitting high in our grand circle seats, watching another world scroll by. Life is good.

Maybe we could try some more long distance 'scheduled' bus journeys; Birmingham~Kashmir?