Dated: 20 Nov 18
I’m a believer that people who don’t like camping are doing it wrong. There is no need for discomfort, bring a pillow, a thick mattress and a duvet and enjoy a night under the stars. That being said I camp on the verge of debunking to the camp of none campers. It’s the flies, they can be relentless here in central Argentina. It is a small relief that they aren’t biters like the Scottish midges. But why do they get off from pestering people? What do they even get out of landing on any exposed flesh or buzzing about one’s noggin? Perhaps they feed of their victims shear annoyance alone.
Two nights on the trot now, without the trots, I have pitched camp on a delightful spot amongst a dell of trees or along side an aqueduct of clean fresh water funnelling the mountain run off into the depths of the wine region; its summer and the evening sun baths you in its warming glow; you can almost feel the endorphins and become wholly content after a tough days ride. But instead of lounging on the grass air drying after a swim, with a mind to read a good novel, on such fine evenings I find myself wolfing my dinner down like a china man, bowl to face and slurping before diving headlong into my tent to take shelter from the flying marauders. I wonder how many of the blighters I’ve eaten. But its not over once in for I have to play a game of tent pacman where I am the wobbly octopus chasing Mr Pacman (the flies). The little buggers pack a surprising amount on bloody when you do catch them.
It has been some time since I’ve thought to myself that life is good but as I ride though the countryside on yet another nippy early morning that I really do think that life is fucking good. But god it is. How lucky am I to be out seeing, smelling and feeling the world day in day out whilst most plebs are stuck at a desk? The answer is very, its a privilege.
Each morning whilst I shadow the spine of South America that is the Andes the vale drops. East facing slopes in the moments before sunrise show as just a slight silhouette against the deep ink blue of the night. As the sun makes its move skyward its vanguards of light begin to dilute the dark ink of night, then the peaks glow golden like a fine whisky I could never afford and the vale begins to fall; for nothing can hold back the illuminating tide. With in minutes its reached the valley floor revealing fields, roads and small clusters of houses with rising chimney smoke, people are already up and about. The mountains now exposed, almost naked save for dark shadows mottling their slopes concealing cool streams, ravines or craggy slopes. You would think that we humans would tire of sunrises or sunsets, they occur twice daily, an inevitable and quite arbitrary event but every now and again one catches you off guard.
A few days ago I made the rather blasé statement that South America isn’t as interesting as Africa and Central Asia and that I have not experienced the same generosity here either. Africa certainly had more stimulus, there was never a quiet moment and Central Asian history I find particularly fascinating. But to say that SA is an unwelcoming stingy place would be a disservice to its people. It must be said that I do not find myself writing as prolifically or that I have been offered a free bed for the night with dinner; yet.
Here in SA there is simply so much space that I do not have the need to knock on peoples doors and politely charade a request to camp on their lawns. The children are just as wide eyed as I ride on by but they do not have the audacity to ask for money, calling “muzungu.” In fact the opposite can be said to be true.
On the morning approaches to Mendoza a van driver scared me out of my skin as he shouted to out of his window, before I know it he is accelerating to draw along side and waving a plastic bag at me. I receive it with thanks, he speeds off and I come to a halt to play lucky dip. I was handed cheese, salami and bread, not a bag of dog poo, fantastic. Later that same day, a car slows at maybe a distance of one kilometre, they stop, a door opens and a bottle is place in my path, before the door shuts with a distant thud and off they shoot. Again I pull along side to inspect; an ice cold bottle of water left for me in the desert. They sped off not needing the gratification of my thanks, how very altruistic. But Is it poisoned? Its not urine as its not yellow. The cap cracks as I unscrews it, its not poison after all. And finally that very same day as I approach the city, a car pulled over on the hard shoulder revers its engine as I pass, I roll eyes, what now? And in a flurry of dust and stones the old tiring muscle car is churning along side, the man behind the wheel is yelling something, I smile and before you know it he is waving money out of the window at me…..hello steak dinner.
Culturally I’ve not spotted anything to wow me or anything out of the ordinary. There is certainly the European influence in the architecture and there are plenty of patisseries; though it must be said that the pastry, of which I have sampled ample, is a touch dry and stodgy, perhaps they are a touch stingy with the butter. If you have ever seen croissants being made you will realise just how much butter is necessary! Something’s are better left to the unknown though.
One thing I have noticed is they way they grieve or maybe the phrase, remember their loved ones, is better. By the road side I often pass great elaborate memorials which families construct themselves. Normally they are painted bright red, with fading flags hanging from the adjacent trees, benches provide mourners or cyclists somewhere to rest the bottoms and built in barbeques the likes of which you might see on rustic garden patio provide cooking facilities. It provides the facilities for extremely sinister cremations, I wouldn’t want to be the one stuck for hours by the smokey BBQ. But in actual fact on public holidays of which there seems to be many or weekends families visit these memorials together and spend time cooking up a feast where they can be close to lost loved ones.
In La Paz, Bolivia, I happened to be there on The Day of the Dead, Halloween; I visited the main cemetery. Thousands of people were entering in a great throng, it was all hustle and bustle. Gifts of food, drink and trinkets are placed at the site where one’s loved one rests, some had mountains of sweets, flowers, fruits and intricately platted breads all arranged about a photo at the foot of the tombs. Families gather to grieve, whispering prayers, singing or even playing music. The entire cemetery teemed with people in a great hubbub of noise.
Many people have faded memories of say a grandparent who died when they were to young to really remember them so I suppose this annual ritual allows them or enables them to feel a connection with past family members. It was a very personal day full of emotion, with few dry eyes to be seen, as a tourist I found it an odd thing to be part of, but moving none the less. With all the food about it is probably Christmas for the local rodent population who get to add a bit of fruit and veg in their primarily carnivorous diets. I did spot one or two scurrying little feet.
As I continue this long desert section south it has become apparent to me that my brain in need of some stimulation, as it took far to long to figure out a five years olds puzzle, killing flies only strains the brain so much: A man is on a journey when he comes to a river, with him he has a bunch of cabbages, a goat and even more bizarrely a wolf (though that might just been his pet name for his wife). There is a boat which can ferry him and one load at a time. He cant take the cabbages leaving his wife behind for left to her own devises she will eat the goat, hooves and all, and the goat the cabbages. How does he get across? I think when I was in pre school it was a guinea pig and a dog.
“Mendoza?” each day as I zig zag south, ideally with as little zig zagging as possible, I chat to a local or two and tell them my route, Mendoza, Santiago, Ushuaia.
At the mention of Mendoza a internal bell goes off and I start salivating like one of Pavlov’s dogs….steak, wine and cheese. At some point on this last leg I surpassed the 18,000 mile mark and as a reward I am having the full Argentinian experience in Mendoza. Cycling in a leisurely fashion around the vineyards of Mendoza, supping Malbec’s and eating cheese followed by a no holding back steak dinner most likely with a side of more wine. I say no holding back, I will still be wearing my one dirty t-shirt and grubby shorts so the table clothes won’t be the whitest nor the waiters the smartest but hopefully the steak will be the juiciest.
18,000 is a bench mark, no different to a thousand or two either side really but when the likes of Mark Beaumont who I’ve mentioned a few times for he is the world record holder for two wheeled man powered circumnavigation or Jenny Graham who has just pegged the women’s self supported record by covering this distance. There are other arbitrary requirements that the Guinness World Record dictate are that “a rider must travel the same distance as the circumference of the Earth — 24,900 miles — in one direction, starting and finishing in the same place. Travel by sea and air is allowed, but at least 18,000 miles of the route must be cycled.” random body f individuals who have probably never done it them selves. The circumference of the earth is 25,000mile (roughly) which is what I hope to reach but its looking like I will fall short, ah well who’s counting? ME.