Sunday, 15 November 2009

37. Into thin air

Monday morning last and a sinking feeling in my stomach began as the boiler-suited man pursed his lips and twisted his head from side to side, gesturing at the futility of prizing the broken drill bit from the braze-on that holds my right front rack onto the fork. It's hopeless, he said. Or at least he said something like that. Like all men who are destined to fix the mistakes made by others, he once again rebuked me for attempting to fix the problem myself. I pawned off a large part of the blame on 'el mechanico' who had tried to help me but had used too large a drill bit. I reenacted my journey on the greasy floor of his workshop. Amidst the iron filings I drew lines and named countries and continents. Why would this man care? But it worked. With renewed determination he tackled the braze-on again, all to no avail. Finally he decided he could weld a new one on and that would be the only solution. I wasn't excited at the thought of him going to work on Rocinante with his oxy-acetylene torch but he seemed positive and told me to come back at 6pm. Six hours later and I held the fork in my hands, admiring his handiwork. In a moment of glee I handed over slightly more than he had asked for ($30 pesos, or approximately 5 euro) but he looked quizically at the additional money and handed it back.

Cuesto del Obispo

Tuesday morning and forty kilometers out of Salta I turn into the mountains. Namibia was the last country I had a puncture in and then within the space of 24 hours I get three. The first occured as I passed a turn-off for the small town of Chicoana and after taking off the rear tyre I realised that this Schwalbe marathon xr had reached the end of its road. In several places the tyre had completely disintegrated and I could almost push my finger through the tyre. I pushed the bike into Chicoana and found a bike shop, closed for siesta, but would perhaps be opened at 7pm according to a sign on the door.

Posing in the clouds

Wednesday morning and with my new made-in-argentina tyre I nervously began the 64 kilometre climb up the Lerma valley. I was skeptical about the strength of the new tyre and almost 300 km, mostly of rough ripio or gravel road, lay between Chicoana and Cafayate. I knew I had a pass to climb over, but it had only been that morning as I was eating cereal from my billycan and pondering the tourist map that I realised the pass was 3,348 metres high, or almost 11,000 feet. As the morning wore on, however, the tyre seemed to be holding up and as various rental cars drove past, hooting their horns I settled into the climb and the rising temperature. Ten hours after setting off from Chicoana I watched the clouds close in over the pass and cover the serpentine switchbacks of the Cuesto del Obispo below. A strong tailwind and unanticipated tar soon had me gliding along at 40 kph and I was just 35 km short of Cachi by the time I camped up amidst the tall trunks of the cacti in Los Cardones national park.

Cactus sunset

The next few days were spent slowly moving down the aweinspiring Calchaqui valley, through the villages of Cachi, Molinos, and Angastaco. The remote area has become a popular tourist destination and rental cars and tourist buses were almost the only traffic on the road, which was still very quiet. No doubt the younger inhabitants of the area have fled to the nearby cities in search of work. Ironically, when the Spanish arrived in South America, it was this region of Argentina that was the most developed, inhabited by the Diaguita, who had developed a sophisticated system of irrigation and the region of Buenos Aires was a veritable backwater. The Diaguita successfully resisted Spanish forces for over 130 years until the end of the seventeenth century when the 2000 survivors were forced to walk 1500 km to a reservation on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, many dying enroute.

Snow caps above Payogasta

One evening as I set up camp in the municipal campsite at Seclantas, I was handed a sandwich of local goat's cheese and tomato by Juan. The cheese had come from an old lady who had traveled two hours by bus to Cachi, hoping to sell it to some tourists. Failing to do so she had given Juan's girlfiend the cheese as they sat and chatted on the bus that evening, Juan's four-month old baby girl gazing out the window. As we talked Juan told me of his previous travels, spending a number of years traveling through Africa and Asia. Writing a book about the former that no editor has yet accepted for publication. He had sold his house and taken to the road during the late 90s when the Menem government was privatising many of the state's enterprises and ultimately setting Argentina on course for defaulting on its US$180 billion debt and subsequent financial collapse in 2002. Juan was in New Zealand when he realised that withdrawals from bank accounts had been frozen by the government. Penniless, he then worked for several months on a fruit farm to save enough money for a ticket home. When the unpegged peso finally settled in at 3 pesos to the dollar, he was only refunded a third of the money he had saved, losing almost US$20,000 in the process. After another couple of years traveling through South America and Europe with his girlfriend, selling jewelry on the street, he yearned to settle down and has done so now in the province of Cordoba with his girlfriend and child. He never puts savings in the bank anymore and despite a complete lack of faith in the government, recognises that the experience has been a very positive force in his life, giving him a new perspective on material things, middle class stability and allowing him to take control of his own circumstances. I try not to imagine how many grapes I'd have to pick here to pay for a flight home.

Near Angastaco, Calchaqui valley

Cafayate, Argentina
Trip distance: 25,924 km

Sunday, 8 November 2009

36. Into the West

Hola amigos!

The last couple of days in Paraguay were spent being hosted by Brian, a US Peace Corps volunteer, in the southeastern city of Pilar. An old colonial town, Pilar lies isolated on the western bank of the River Paraguay, facing Argentina across the muddy flow. I had been in touch with Brian through couchsurfing.org in an attempt to find out whether there was a border control across the River Paraguay at this point and when he confirmed that there was and then offered me a place to stay, I was on my way. Pilar is not a big place. The kid who chatted with me while I ate yesterday's dinner from a plastic bag knew who Brian was and where he lived and I soon had a four-foot high guide leading me through the sandy streets. When cars came down the street the 10-year old would admonish me for not staying close enough to the footpath. He was most careful to point out all of the potholes and select the best line through some of the flooded water. How I got this far without that kid I will never know.

Little Paraguayan dudes

After a couple of fun days hanging out with Brian and his friends, and seeing some of the work that Brian has been engaged in raising awareness about environmental issues, particularly waste, in the city, it was time to move on. The mountains of the west were calling me off the flatlands and L'Inferno Verde (or the 'green hell') of the Argentinian Gran Chaco still lay between me and the hills.

Fancy a swim?

The Gran Chaco is a sparsely populated, hot and semi-arid lowland that stretches through eastern Bolivia, Paraguay, northern Argentina, and parts of southern Brazil. In fact, the landscape is largely thorn and scrubland that was reminiscent of large parts of southern Africa. Options for crossing northern Argentina, unless you like sand, are reduced to two parallel tarred highways, rutas 16 and 81. I chose the former, which follows the almost defunct railway line from Resistencia to Salta, an unbending strip of asphalt for approximately 500 kilometres before it hits the hills in Salta province. Fortunately the watering holes that were constructed at 25 kilometre intervals to serve the steam engines that once plied the route, are now little villages where water, food, and most importantly, ice, are available. For little did I realise that I was setting off into a heatwave that had hit northern Argentina and for several days temperatures of 43 degrees Celcius (107F) were recorded on my thermometer. In the shade. The northwind brings heat and the southwind brings cool, and every morning I would climb out of the tent and cringe as the northwind picked up after an evening's respite, like a hairdryer on a dimmer switch. The friendliness of the Argentinian's never wavered though and gifts of ice, beer, and cakes were received on a daily basis. The last rarely appear in those sports nutrition books, but for morale alone, they may be considered indispensable.

Seven days after leaving Paraguay, hills were spotted in the distance. It could have been a mirage, like those sixteen-wheeler cattle trucks that kept turning into Mr.Whippy vans. But no, they were still there the following morning and to top it off, the wind was now coming from the south, perhaps a whole 20 degrees cooler. The octogenarian who cleaned the municipal sports grounds in Gonzales, where I had pitched the tent, stood up and cried "isn't it beautiful". With dust-riddled eyes from the evening's gales, I too stood in tears and smiled, nodding in agreement.

Amphibious mode

Before arriving in the provincial capital of Salta, however, I decided to make a detour to the El Rey national park. The park lies on the transition zone between the eastern lowlands and the Andean highlands and although a relatively small park, has a very high level of biodiversity as a result of its warm, humid climate. The road into the park, however, involved 50 kilometres of rough track and halfway in the mild steel bolts that had held the front rack on since South Africa were shorn off again. Cable ties to the rescue and onwards we proceeded, arriving at the park entrance at sunset. Ranger Angel, was manning the entrance and in no time at all he had offered me a spare bed in his log house amidst his books on Che and the military dictatorship in Argentina. Angel's father had been a ranger at El Rey for 33 years and so this was home as well as work for him, although he still hoped that his sons would not follow him into the National Park service. Yet despite his apparent dissatisfaction with the powers that be, a more knowledgable and enthusiastic guide to the park's flora and fauna could not be found.

Ranger Angel

I spent the following day exploring the park on some of the trails. Although assured by the rangers that I could bike most of the paths, I think they may have been watching too many extreme mountain biking shows and I eventually abandoned Rocinante against a liana-covered tree and proceeded on foot. I spotted lots of raptors, a term that a professional birdwatching friend of mine assures me makes even the most illiterate avian watcher sound knowledgeable. Unfortunately no toucans were spotted though, despite their apparent abundance in the park. In addition to the larger fauna, sandflies and ticks abounded. I am still finding stragglers from the latter group, although I am assured that the ticks in these parts don't carry diseases like those in Europe. As for the sandflies, by the time I realised that trousers and long-sleeved shirt would be a good idea I had been gorged upon by the wee feckers and the legs began to swell overnight, followed by a desire to scratch the bites that would have needed hypnosis to stop me. Birds found, I broke camp and fled for the tarred road and Salta.

The lesser spotted ...

Yesterday morning in central Salta, pedaling through the cool rain, I found a dimly-lit workshop staffed by a friendly-faced old man who will go to work on rethreading the braze-on on my fork tomorrow and getting the rack bolted back on. This following several disastrous attempts by me and various mechanics along the road to sort the problem out. There are no sandflies in the city though, so he can take his time. And the ice cream is fantastic.

Salta, Argentina
Trip distance: 25,551 km