Monday, December 04, 2006



I have journeyed for six months. Traveling by motorbike freed me from other people’s schedules. I decided my own route and my own timetable. I found agreeable hotels at each halt, rose and went to bed at the hour of my choosing, ate when and where and what I wished…an utterly self-centered existence.

Store the Honda in Ushuaia, farewell to freedom. I must suffer the sadistic clutches of Aerlineas Argentina and Air Madrid.

First I have five days in Buenos Aires. I have a reservation at the Grand Hotel Espana off Avenida de Mayo (80 Tacuari). I was due to arrive in the early evening. I will now arrive closer to 11 p.m. I call from Rio Grande and beg the manager to hold my room.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006



Fly to or from Argentine Patagonia and you fly Aerolineas Argentina. Fares have doubled over the past six months. Foreigners pay a premium. There are fewer flights. Tourism has taken a hit. I am booked on a 3.30 flight to Buenas Aires. My Japanese roommate has been to the airport. All flights from Ushuaia are cancelled. A transfer coach leaves for Rio Grande airport at 2.30. My roommate’s ticket has been stamped. We grab a cab. The young check-in clerk wears a two-day beard and arrogance familiar from the USSR. Ushuaia is closed. The transfer coaches are full. Come back tomorrow.

I find a young woman employee (I am better with women). I act panicked and physically feeble. I am traveling with a Japanese – a male nurse. He came earlier to confirm our flights. He left my ticket at the hotel. His seat on the coach and the flight from Rio Grande are confirmed. What am I to do?

The woman disappears to a back office with my ticket. I wait thirty minutes. Meanwhile I listen to the Soviet apartachic enjoy himself. The next flight? How would he know? Perhaps tomorrow. Perhaps the next day. So he dismisses families desperate to get home to BA.

The woman returns. I am confirmed on the coach and a flight from Rio Grande to BA.

Two hours and thirty minutes to Rio Grande: the airport terminal is deserted; all representatives of Aerolineas Argentina are out to lunch. Rain squalls flee across the runway. We passengers wait forlorn and bewildered. The elderly sit on steps leading to a closed cafeteria. Mothers feed babies, placate toddlers, screech at teenagers. An hour passes. Tempers rise. Finally three check-in clerks appear. We queue while they chat and talk on the telephone and shift papers from one side of a desk to the other. I am first to crack. I call through the open door to the glass fronted office: “It would be good manners to tells us what is happening - or that you don’t know what is happening.”

Even as I speak, I fear that my fellow passengers will judge me one more arrogant Brit. My sally is greeted with applause.


Hi to all you readers. Writing to you has become a habit. The first section of my journey is done. I plan returning to Ushuaia in February to ride north through those countries I missed or avoided on the road south: Chile, Uruguya, Paraguya, Brazil, Venezuela. Meanwhile let me relate my return to England and my search for sponsers. The first leg was unsponsered. Those few I approached judged me mad. I would fall off my perch before the first hill or be crushed by a truck or bus. Why associate themselves with certain failure?

Sunday, October 29, 2006



My thanks to all you readers of this diary. You have been my companions over the past months. Now my journey is done. The Honda is in store. I would like to write that she is safe. However she has a friend at the warehouse. Her friend is a red 250 Honda Trail bike, very macho. I instructed the staff to keep an eye on the situation.
Once home, I must organise the journey north from Ushuaia to Duchess County, New York. I will blog progress. And I will be publishing on the web. Don't give up on me...

Saturday, October 28, 2006


Luca’s birthday party is less rowdy than I had feared. The Cruz del Sur is on the backpacker gringo trail. I am the oldest guest by some forty years. I drink red wine and eat good steak and listen to the “kids”. Their journeys are different to mine. They seek nature. They trek through national parks and scale mountains and stand in awe at the foot of waterfalls. I am a scavenger of people. Cafes and restaurants and gas station cafeterias are my hunting field. I listen to prosaic tales of Latin American life and search for evidence of where our thoughts and preconceptions differ. I do the same at Luca's birthday party - listen.


I share the bunkroom (four bunks) with an absent Japanese. I unload the bike and ride out of town to the Honda agency. The owner of the restaurant where I stopped for lunch has called to announce my impending arrival. The manager expects me. The owner of the agency also owns a warehouse and cold store. The bike is to be garaged there. I ride back to town and park on the waterfront. A passing tourist takes my picture.


I cross the final mountain pass to Ushuaia. A few specks of snow sting my cheeks. Snow turns to rain as I dip into town. Ahead lies the Beagle channel. I book into the Hostal Cruz del Sur. The owner, Luca, is Italian. He is a friend of Graciela’s. This is his birthday. He is thirty-three. Luca shows me to a bunkroom. Bunkrooms are unsuitable accomodation for an old man. How will I manage the climb to an upper bunk in the middle of the night? I cross the street to a hotel with rooms that have private baths. I look back over my shoulder and see Luca watching me. Argentine friends are preparing the barbecue on the sidewalk. Luca has invited me. I feel a traitor. I circle to a grocery and buy three bottles of red wine.


final climb

Honda and I are on the final climb of our journey. Snow closes in. Sun-lit peaks shimmer. I stop for lunch at a restaurant on the right of the road. The owner quizzes me. Where do I go next? Where will I leave my bike? At the Honda agency. I, in turn, ask what happened to the treees. Beavers did the killing. The beavers were imports from Canada.


I have gained a day. I had a Friday yesterday. Now I discover that today is Friday. One day in six months is no big deal. I ride out of Rio Grande with regret. The Hotel Argentina has been good for me. Losing the bike documents dumped me into a deep depression. Graciela dug me out. Wind is standard in Patagonia. So is the cold. I ride across sheep country, cross rivers, pass by ponds, see the occasional farmhouse tucked into a clump of trees, wave to a Hereford bull (he ignores me).
The tailend of the Andes squeezes in from the west. Snowcaps march across the horizon. A forest of strange conifers trail moss. A huge lake opens to the right. I enter a World War One battlefield. It is a scene of grim devastation in which shattered trees are tumbled one on another. The few trunks that remain standing are stripped of branches; their peaks are shared and ragged and resemble the rotting teeth of some huge prehistoric animal. What happened?

Friday, October 27, 2006


graciela, self and a
german fellow guest

I eat an excellent grill and stroll back passed the Liverpool Pub. The cops remain in occupation. The kitchen at the Hotel Argentina is welcoming. The coven and the students slope off to watch a couple of rented horror films on TV. Graciela and I sit and chat of this and that. Hotel Argentina is the best budget option in Rio Grande and Graciela gets the travellers. Most are good and easy. Some are weird; some have chemically recalibrated their brains; a few suffer from tangled wires in their heads. A young Frenchman stayed two months. He believed that Graciela was the Virgin Mary reincarnated. He was John the Baptist. He tended to stare at Graciela which put her off cooking. Imagine attempting a mayonnaise with someone gazing at you, someone with such expectations. Virginal is a tough demand when you have three grown kids and have suffered a recent divorce.
I sit there in the kitchen utterly content while Graciela tells me of her life. She is both extraordinarily youthful and very adult. She has humor and she reads books.
I have been biking five months and have enjoyed no proper (nor improper) female company apart from those few days in Nascar. I prefer a woman’s company. Men don’t do it for me. I miss Bernadette. I miss all four boys. I want to cuddle my grandson. And I want to visit with my daughter. Yeah, yeah, yeah...Get to bed, you old fool. It is 1.30 a.m. and you ride to Ushuaia in the morning. Thank you, Graciela.


Rincon de Julio in Rio Grande is across the highway from the gas station. Julio is where the locals eat, those serious about food. Don’t try the smart restaurant attached to the expensive hotel. Julio’s is the semi shack next door. Be there before 9.30 or you won’t get a table. I had intended dropping by the Liverpool Pub for a pre-dinner drink. The pub was closed. An cop was on guard at the door and a couple of officers were out back searching the grass. Disappointing - I wanted to ask the owner whether he had named his pub in honour of the city or the football club, whether he had visited England - and how he felt about LOS MALVINAS SON ARGENTINAS at the next intersection. Dinner was good.


I fill with gas, take a right at The Liverpool Pub, an immediate left and a second right on the main avenue. Hotel Argentina is the low, single-floor tin building on the right. You can’t miss it. Graciela has worked it over with a bucket of yellow paint. Graciela is the owner. She has grown kids and has kept young. I find her reading Tarot cards at the kitchen table in company with three women friends. I ask if they are a coven or the Rio Grande chapter of the Feminist Union.
“Both,” says Graciela.
Two student-age young men join us at the table. They are expert in that student skill of both being there and not being there while taking up considerable space.
Graciela tells the one to take his cap off in the house so she can see his face and tells the other to get his feet of the chair.
I love her.
I remark on a monument to Argentine ownership of the Malvinas coexisting with The Liverpool Pub. One of the coven tells me that the cost of maintaining the Malvinas will be too great for Britain. In a matter of years the islands will be absorbed by Argentinia. She talks of the islands as if they are uninhabited. On TV the news shows a battle between two political factions. The factions are participating in the reinternment of Peron at San Vicente. Most are armed with staves and baseball bats. One man fires a pistol. Immagine a kelper (Falkland Islander) watching on TV. Would he or she wish to be part of this society?


The gas gauge shows zero as I creep down the highway into Rio Grande. Visibility is down to fifty meters. My eyesight is lousy without spectacles. I can´t see to the far side of a traffic circle. I turn uphill. The engine cuts out as I park on the grass below a two-floor bourgeois house. A plump lady in green jumpers and plastic curls waters a flowerbed below the terrace. I call up to her, asking where the gas station is.
She sees an ancient greybeard astride a Honda – a greybeard in a helmet and wearing enough clothes to outfit a small tribe. The shape must perplex her. And how so much stuff can fit on such a mini-motorbike.
I ask again as to the whereabouts of the gas station.
She wonders what language I am speaking. I am too weird to be talking Spanish.
I try again: “Madam, please, where is the gas station?”
She recognises a mixture of panic and irritation – a real turn off. She shrugs and parks the small watering can on a ledge on the terrace and goes back indoors.
First I curse, then I kick the starter. The engine fires. I make a U turn and am confronted by a large notice: LOS MALVINAS SON ARGENTINAS
Three life size soldiers sculpted in khaki concrete or plastic or, possibly, bronze, threaten me with rifle and bayonet. They stand on a blue pattern that could be a representation of the islands. How would I know? I am not one of the very few English people familiar with the Malvinas. The Malvinas are an Argentine obsession.
The engine cuts out. I am blocking the road. A car stops. The driver asks whether I am lost.
I reply that I need gas.
He tells me to keep going up the highway. The gas station is on the left. If I miss the gas station in the fog, I will face the Liverpool Pub at the next intersection. The Liverpool Pub is too far.


There is a lot of water on the approach to Rio Grande. Earley evening and mist smokes off the lakes and ponds and streams. Cold closes in. Visibility drops and my spectacles fog over. The fuel gauge is on reserve (this is a first in 22,000 Ks). There must have been a gas pump at the Automobile Club hostal. Why didn´t I stop? Had I stopped, I wouldn´t have lost the bike´s documents; I wouldn´t be cold and tired and depressed. I wouldn´t be scared of running out of gas and being stranded in the dark in the middle of nowhereland.
What has happened? Is it simply that I am near the end and want to get the journey over with – or has the cold and distance finally reached into my brain and flicked the off switch?

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


I am half an hour at the Argentine border. I fly home at the end of the month and will return in February to ride north. I intend storing the Honda with the Honda agent in Ushuaia. The customs official tells me not to worry. The bike is on a temporary import permit for six months. I should show the permit to the customs at the quay in Ushuaia. I am very tired and consider stopping the night at the Automobile Club’s hostal at the border. Doing so would leave me a long ride tomorrow into Ushuaia. I ride on.
What stopped me closing and fastening my bag properly? The bag that rests against my back and which holds all the bike’s papers and the duplicates. The bag that I have unfastened and unzipped four times today at four frontiers. Exhaustion?
Or did I relax with the journey almost finished?
I stop for a pee midway to San Julian and discover the document pocket gaping. I have lost the bike’s registration papers, the temporary import permit, the FootPrint guidebook and Argentine Automobile Club member’s guide.
I have been on the road the best part of six months and have been so careful.
Weeping won’t help.
Maybe a sheep will find and eat them.


Paperwork at the Chilean border takes half an hour. I have 180 Ks to cross before reaching the next frontier. The first 30 Ks are concrete; the rest is gravel. Gravel would have defeated me at the outset in Mexico. Now I am semi-expert and ride the dirt at 60 KPH. The knack is in staying relaxed and not tightening up when the wheels slither. Expert or not, dirt is exhausting. Oncoming trucks drag clouds of dust and cut visibility to zero. When overtaken, I pull off the road and wait. I have reached serious sheep country. Not all are fenced and I beware of lambs chasing across the road. At last the Chilean border, a quick formality, then 18 Ks to Argentina and a paved road.


tierra del fuego,
no big deal

I have four borders to cross: out of Argentina, into Chile; out of Chile, into Argentina. A young Argentine cop at the first border discusses the Malvinas war. He was a child, too young to remember much and is uncertain as to the background of the conflict. He is certain that war was unnecessary. England and Argentina are friends. Many English have settled in Argentina. “It was the politicians, the Generals,” he says.
I share my thoughts of the monument in San Julian: that there were no heroes, only sacrifices.
He agrees. “Those poor boys from up north sent down there without proper clothes.”


There are no gas stations between Santa Cruz and the border. Fill up in town. Wind as usual. The landscape has more shape; scrub has given way to vast grass paddocks. The grass is thin and tufty. Sheep graze separately. Despite the cold, this is springtime. Lambing has begun. The young butt their mothers’ udders.
A road sign points left to Tierra del Fuego. An ostrich inspects me. He is one of eight. The other seven look the other way. I meet half-a-dozen trucks. The road dips. The channel lies ahead. A sailor is about to close the ferry ramp with a chain. He waves me on board. Drivers ask where I’ve come from. The driver of a new 4X4 pours me coffee from a flask. I go to the office to pay the ferry fare and am given free passage. I stand on the raised walkway and watch as we approach Tierra del Fuego. Rather than exhilaration, I feel relief. My journey is almost done.


Santa Cruz is the Provincial capital. It is packed with visiting officials and people needing to speak with officials. And it has the Province’s main hospital. I try six hotels before finding a bed. The shortage puts the room rate up to $20. I find a restaurant that professes to serve fresh fish. When will I learn? When in Argentina, stick with beef.


I face another day of wind and cold and vast distances.
I am accustomed now to the dress code for springtime in Patagonia. On the bottom half I wear underwear and long underwear, two pairs of pyjama bottoms, thick jeans and rain pants. The top gets three undershirts, cord shirt, three jerseys, leather jacket, scarf, windproof rainjacket. I pad the front of the jerseys with newspaper. Next I load the bike. One bag goes on the gas tank. I wedge a second bag into the gap between the seat and the cargo box. Maps, spare gloves and the FootPrint guidebook go in rubber webbing on the box lid. I struggle into the backpack, settle the helmet and security glasses, pull on wool gloves and leather gauntlets. Ready…
Passers-by stop to watch this large blue balloon in a crash helmet prepare to mount. I know their thoughts.
Will the old weirdo get his leg over?
Will the bike fall?
Safely seated in the saddle, I kick the starter, no throttle: Brrrmmmm…
I smile at the disbelievers, raise a disdainful paw, slip the Honda into gear and ride off into the sun. And ride – and ride – and ride…
I have seen a red lake and a green lake and blue lakes and dry lakes. I have shouted at fat married couples (birds) to get off the road. I have talked to Hereford cattle and road repair gangs.
I whirl an arm to denumb my fingers, stretch my legs, wriggle my toes. I bow to lessen wind buffeting by passing trucks, wave to gauchos, slalom the broken white line. I check my watch and the distance travelled against the distance remaining to the next gas stop. 100 Ks is the beginning of a countdown. 100 Ks is only sixty miles. 80 Ks is fifty miles. 20 Ks is nearly there.
My dismounting technique is ungainly – more a semi-fall sideways. I hobble to the lavatory and fumble deep within all the folds of clothing for something to pee with. I sip black coffee in the gas station cafeteria, munch a sandwich, chat with whoever asks where I come from. These are the moments that make the trip worthwhile: so many different people, all content to share with me a little of themselves.
I fill the tank. Backpack, helmet, glasses, gloves: Brrrrmmmm.
Ahead lies a further 150 Ks.
Is it fun?
In truth?
Fun is the wrong word.
Challenge comes closer. In my seventies, can I ride 22,000 Ks on a small bike the length of the Americas? The start of each day is hardest. I wake and lie in bed and contemplate the distance ahead. One more night in a strange bed. Broken sleep. Every part of me aches - back, knees, ankles. I want to give up. I fumble for spectacles and the lamp switch. Check the AAC route guide. Tomorrow I will be on the final page. Get up, you old fool. Take a hot shower.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006



Morning and the wind forces me to tack as I view San Julian’s monument to the Argentine airman killed in the war. The plane seems so small, little more than a toy. I stagger under the wind. The South Atlantic rollers are white with foam. I imagine the sailors of the Belgrano, human flotsam. I circle and find the the names of the dead inscribed on black plaques:
Heroes of the Malvinas.
Argentine or Brit, there were no heroes – only victims: victims of political ineptitude and politicians’ vainglory.


I am in a fishing port. I want to eat fish. The best restaurant has been taken over by elderly couples form Buenos Aires on a bus tour of Patagonia. A table will be available at 10.30.
I wait in the hotel and talk with the manager. She is a reminder of the schoolteachers who told me of the US invasion of Panama. She has the same soft voice as she tells me of the young soldiers sent to the Malvinas. Poor boys, how they suffered. Most were from the north. They had never experienced cold and they had neither suitable clothes nor adequate food.
I reply that I recall reading of British officers’ anger at discovering the condition of the Argentine soldiers and their contempt for Argentine army officers, many of whom abandoned their men.
I walk back down the cliff road to the restaurant. Wind grabs at my jacket. I imagine the ancient Argentine battleship, Belgrano, torpedoed. For how many minutes could a sailor survive in the freezing sea? The sinking was criminal. Both Brits and Argentinians were culpable. Surely a warning could have been given – through the US? Or was reasoning impossible with Galtieri and his officer clique? Galtieri was a graduate of the notorious School of the Americas - something to dwell on as I exchange the icy South Atlantic wind for the warmth of a restaurant famous for fresh fish.
The two bus drivers and the tour guide for the oldies invite me to their table. We chat of road conditions and distances and the countries we have visited. Later they drop me back at the hotel in the double-decker coach. I lie in bed and think of the vile headlines in England’s popular press. A good Argie was a dead Argie. And what of all those Brits who, over generations, have settled in Argentina?


I do my internet work at a bar in San Julian. The bar is the headquarters of the San Julian Athletic Club. The Athletic Club’s football team continuously exceeds expectations for a small town club. Two walls are required to display the trophies. The trophies are massive. I chat at the bar with two young men. I had presumed that much of the town’s wealth would come from the sea. They tell me that the fishing fleet is in the hands of a small clique and is of little benefit to the town. Mining supplies the major income: silver and gold.


Most towns on the Patagonian plain seem built by the three little piggies. Along comes a wolf and he’ll blow them away. Porto San Julian is different. It possesses solidity and permanence. I don’t know why - perhaps being out on a point and 6 Ks off the highway. The townsfolk care for their town and they make the best of where it is. A community of 18,000, it has three football clubs and a fives court. I make a tour in search of a hotel and find a monument out on the cliff front. The monument is a fighter plane from the Falklands/Malvinas war. The Hotel Municipal faces the monument. It is a good hotel. The room rate is higher than my want. Going elsewhere would be a retreat. I have been in Argentina for three weeks and have avoided the war. I am a Brit. The war is something I need to confront.


The land between Caleta Olivia and Porto San Julian began as a plateau. God got bored and chopped the plateau with the side of his hand every fifty miles or so. Rivers run through the valleys. Which direction the rivers drain depends on the angle at which God chopped: east into the South Atlantic or west to Lago Argentina. Geographers and geologists don’t care for God and will give you a different explanation.
The road runs straight as a ruler across the plateaux. Have the wind in your face and you barely move. The clarity of light leads to confusion. You can see for ever. You presume three bushes are a clump. The clump splits: the first bush is a mile closer then the second and the third is a further mile distant. A service station is the first stop after 150 Ks and there’s a new hostal on the right 100 Ks short of San Julian. That’s it. I may have seen a small tree. If so, it was a small tree. Crossing the terrain on a small bike, you need to keep your mind occupied. God as a landscape artist served me well.


I sit with the owner of the Hotel Andalucia at the front table beneath the TV. In his mid-sixties, he is a short man, thickset, square hands. He wears a flat cap with a worn peak, blue suit, white shirt, no tie. Enter any café in Andalucia and you will find his twins playing dominoes or cards. He owned land near Granada. He worked the land with mules. A hard life…so he sold up and emigrated. He was back recently, after thirty-five years. His childhood friends now use tractors on the land and employ workers. They’ve built new houses, own two or three cars. A health card gives them free medical treatment in a modern hospital. They draw comfortable State pensions. The local café has central heating. He stayed three months. He wanted to stay for ever. He is a proud man and doing so would have been an admittance of his mistake. He rises from the table and goes outside and unlocks his new Ford 4X4. He sits in the car a while before driving off round the block. I watch part of a football match on TV. The owner returns and sits in his same chair. He doesn’t speak to me. Speaking with me would remind him of where he is. His wife sits at the table in the kitchen. Open their skulls and you would uncover dreams of a village of whitewashed houses and cobbled streets, of olive trees and fresh figs and wind-cured ham – and of friendships and enmities that endure through generations. Caleta Olivia is all too new.


The politics of Argentina have been tawdry in the extreme. Politicians are held in centempt and search for heroes with whom to associate themselves. Statues memorialise great men in even the smallest village. Caleta Olivia memorialises the oil field worker. An enormous statue dominates the central plaza. The statue is a direct descendent of Soviet art. Mother’s Day and pizza parlours are doing great business.


Caleta Olivia is an oil town. Here, too, the wind is in command. I stop at a small hotel near the plaza. The owners emigrated from Andalucia so let me call it the Hotel Andalucia. The wife appears from the kitchen, books me in and retreats back into the kitchen. I open my laptop on a table in the bar/lobby and work to late evening. The wind drops and the young come out to play. The women wear the standard uniform of the young, jeans or pants supported by their backsides, two inches of bare belly, shoulder tattoos. The guys wear swagger and grease their hair against the wind. Piercings are in, mostly ears and eyebrows, a few noses, no lips that I notice.


Wind buffets the Honda and I crouch low on the ride to Comodoro Rivadavia. Ahead lies the South Atlantic. I intended servicing the bike at the Honda agency. Comodoro Rivadavia appears deserted. Wind commands the streets. Dust devils snake across the tar. I stop for fuel. A lone truck pulls into the gas station. I have hit a national holiday: Mother’s Day.
I turn south on the coastal road and halt on a cliff top. The wind has brought clear skies. The sea is dark blue. Curling lines of surf, whiter than white, burst over the rocks. My camera is buried beneath layers of clothing. I pry through the layers. My fingers are numb and the wind whips the camera case over the cliff.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


I ask Mrs Hotel Colon if there is a restaurant open nearby. She asks whether a steak and fries would satisfy. A steak and fries would be just dandy.
I drink a second beer and nod intelligently to asides from my barstool neighbour. The asides refer to the general conversation. A mystic would find them obtuse.
Mrs Hotel Colon summons me to a small dinning room. She says, “I put a couple of eggs on your steak.”
I thank her and ask for a third beer.
Three beers and dinner cost $7.
Room rate for a single with bath is $15. Should you ever pass through Sarmiento, you know where to stay. Take a right at the park, ride three blocks and turn left. The Colon is on your right.
Don’t bother with the conversation. It won’t be comprehensible. You are a year or two late…


The Hotel Colon in Sarmiento is the type of dump any respectable biker hankers after. The bar is the right length. Six people and it doesn’t feel empty; twelve and it doesn’t feel overcrowded. Sarmiento is a small town. I doubt there are more than twelve serious bar stool occupiers. The six in possession have been on the same conversation for a while. Maybe it began yesterday or last week. It is one of those conversations that expand over time and develop threads that go nowhere and are put to death. Mostly what is said now is in allusion to what has been said earlier and you would need to have been in on the conversation early to understand its direction – if it has a direction. I sit at the far end of the bar, order a small beer and watch the last few minutes of a football match on TV. The conversationalists seem content with my presence. The pool table to the left of the bar hasn’t been used in months. It is there because this type of bar requires a pool table. The girlie advertisements for beer exist for the same reason. They are expected, as are the three tables, each with four folding chairs, arranged along the wall. The barstool residents would be uncomfortable were they absent. A young couple occupies the table closest to the door. I guess that they are students. She wears spectacles and is perhaps the more confident – or the more pressing of their relationship. The obligatory guitar case protrudes from amongst the bags and backpacks heaped on the floor. I wonder if they are waiting for a bus – or for a parent.
I imagine Josh or Jed calling home. “Dad, can you pick us up.”
I wonder if my sons are aware of the happiness I find in being asked. To be of use is a joy, no matter the time of day or night. I will bitch, of course. Bitching is expected.
I don’t ask how many Us is.
I don’t ask if the girl is a friend or a girlfriend.
Asking would be an infringement.
Of course I want to know – though not to judge, but because this is part of who they are.
However I do wish that they would sit a while in the kitchen once we get home, let me cook them something, talk to me, let me share a little of their lives. They tend to hurry straight upstairs to their room.
I guess it’s my age.
I’m sort of odd, an embarrassment.
You know? Having a dad in his seventies…And, yes, I am odd. I do odd things.


The nearest pollution must be hundreds of Ks to the north. I am struck by the clarity of light and the extraordinary depth of blue in the sky. The blue is reflected in the lake on the approach to Sarmiento. The lake at Villa del Chocon was the same amazing blue. So was Lake Titicaca. I have seen parrots today. I have seen flamingos graze in ponds alongside sheep and Hereford cattle. Awareness that flamingo breed in the Andes fails to make their presence any less surprising. Those long thin legs should freeze and snap.
Now, in evening, I pass cars parked by a bridge on the outskirts of Sarmiento and Sunday fisherman walking with their fly rods along the riverbank.
I turn off the road at a sign offering B&B. Dogs greet me kindly. A woman shows me a bunkroom. She rents the room with its six beds and use of a kitchen for $20. I don’t have use for six bunks. Nor can I use the kitchen. My logic confronts her prices. My logic fails. I take a room in town at the Hotel Ismir for $15. The room is miserable. So am I. I am tired. I have ridden 600 Ks. I have hay fever or a streaming head cold. I shower and walk a couple of blocks in search of a restaurant. Joy is foreign to Sermiento in a gale. People huddle and watch TV. Bungalows shrink within themselves. The Hotel Colon is a rarity. I spy six men at the bar. I guess that they missed out on church serviced and have been at the bar much of the day. How will they view an intruder? A Brit? I pass half a dozen times before getting my courage up. A set of aluminium doors leads into a porch from which more doors open to the bar. The doors are ill fitting. They grate and squeak and clatter. An army tank would make less noise. Conversation ends. The six men at the bar turn on their stools and inspect me. So does the owner. So does he wife.
I hold my hands above my head in surrender. “I am a Brit,” I say. “Am I allowed?”
“They allow horses,” says a man in a flat gaucho hat.


I ride out of Teka into a full gale. A moment’s inattention and I would be slammed off the road. I consider turning back. A great restaurant – maybe there is a great bed. However Patagonia is famous for its winds. What I consider a gale is probably the standard Patagonian breeze.
Gobernador Costa is a further 60 Ks south on route 40. The streets are empty. Those out for a Sunday stroll have been blown away. I stop for gas and a coffee.
A pretty young woman operates both the gas pump and the coffee machine. She asks where I am going.
“Sarmiento,” I say.
“That’s two hundred and sixty kilometres,” she says.
I agree.
“There’s a gale blowing,” she says.
I’ve noticed.
“You should stay the night here,” she says.
“Patagonia is famous for wind,” I say. “Will there be less wind tomorrow?”
“Of course there will be less,” she says. “This is a storm. We don’t always have storms.”
She fails to convince me. There could be a storm tomorrow. It could bring a more intense wind. Weaken, and I could be stuck for weeks. I don’t have weeks. I have a flight booked to Madrid out of BA on the 30th.
Better the devil…


A true restaurateur is a miracle you luck on in the strangest places. Evidence starts with the greeting. Tecka, the owner has been waiting all his life for my arrival. Will the plat de jour suffice? A simple gnocchi?
The gnocchi are al dente. The sauce is a combination of tomato, garlic, herbs, ham and Italian sausage. The quantity is as vast as Argentina. It is served in a dish cradled in a basket. It is divine. So are the fresh-baked bread rolls.
Bikers, forget your schedules. Stop here and eat.


to esquel

Esquel was a hippie haven in the seventies. Now it is a fashionable resort - bright hippies tracked the change and shop with Platinum-grade credit cards. The road from Bolson crosses a stretch of altiplano. I pass two cops wrapped in balaclavas and frost-retardant. I ask what happened to the central heating. The one cop says, “The Government forgot to pay the gas bill.”
I top up with gas at Esquel and head for Tecka. The road follows a wide flat river valley of huge sheep paddocks. Trees grow along the river. I startle a flight of green parrots. What are parrots doing up here on the altiplano? And why haven’t the farmers planted shelter strips? Teka doesn’t look much on the Auto Club map. So much for maps: Teka holds a treasure. I turn off the highway onto a dirt street. Tin-roof bungalows each side are closed tight against the wind. The road becomes tar and I spot pickups parked outside a gas station. The gas station is out of use. The drivers are here for Sunday lunch.



Bolson is cute tourist town. Prices are high. So are the mountains. The tourist office found me a room ($15). Face the square and turn left up main street. Pass the oculist and t real estate office and the Hospedaje is on the left. I have a large comfortable room. The double bed has a good mattress. The radiator is hot, the water in the shower is hot. I have a window onto a garden and a table that I can write at. Honda is safe under cover in the garage. Bringing the Blogs up to date takes a full day.


biker test

Bariloche. I wonder at the name. Was it born as Barry’s loch? Pines edge the lakeshore. Above shine the ski slopes. Lift cables bisect the pistes. The road swings south towards Bolson. I follow a second lake. Rain closes in. The road climbs. Rain turns to sleet. My feet are soaked, toes and fingers numb. Sun finds a cleft in the clouds. The peaks glisten. I am in semi-dark. My cheeks suffer a bombardment of ice crystals. I raise the speed by 10 KPH to intensify the pain. I must be crazy. I even stop to photographs the peaks. I kneel beside the road and steady the camera. There, on my knees, illumination strikes. Size is of no account. Nor is speed. Years are immaterial. This is the test. The pass mark is having fun. Enjoy yourself under these conditions and you may ware the label proudly: BIKER.


Argentina excels in road signs. SINUADO is my favourite. SENSUADO would be extra. Any biker knows the meaning: sweeping curves, smooth dips, curving climbs, perfect camber, views to die for. The road to Bariloche passes through a valley maybe half a mile in width. Black mountains rise each side, sharp crests of bare rock. Black scythe blades of rain cut across the valley. Beyond rose the white peaks of the Andes. What more should I want?

Saturday, October 14, 2006


Route 237 crosses the river only once. The gas station the far side of the bridge has the appearance of a restaurant but isn’t. Ride a few miles further and there is a restaurant on your left down by the river. You can’t miss it. It is the first building after the bridge. Don’t stop. I was charged $10 for a bowl of lentil soup, salad, and a small bottle of water.


Another great day. I ride route 327 from Villa el Chocon to San Carlos del Bariloche, then take route 40 to Bolson. Lakes and mountains and dark, forbidding moors are the menu. I recognise a face on the moors. He is a young chap, not fully grown.
“Where are you from?” he asks.
“Colwall,” I reply.
“In Herefordshire? That’s close to Ledbury.”
“Six miles,” I say.
“I believe that’s where my great great grandfather came form,” he tells me.
“Very probably,” I say and take his photograph.
He is embarrassed at having spent so much time with an old fogie. Off he trots to join his friends.


Villa el Chocon down by the lake is a tourist resort. The cops at the cop station warned me of the prices and suggested a hostal in the roadside village.
Hostal El Alamo is a find. Any biker riding by should stop. The beds are perfect. Bathrooms have power showers. The lady of the house is a great cook: $10 for the room plus $4 for dinner and the tap water is safe.
I share table at dinner with a man of interesting views. He is a building contractor, self-educated. He finds modern society immoral. He places much of the blame on female liberation. Women, once educated, lose respect for their working husbands. They find their husbands uninteresting. They prefer the company of their educated female friends. Soon they are out drinking together and smoking. Prostitution is the next step. He tells me of a dance hall in Buenos Aires. A factory building, it holds three thousand couples. By two in the morning none of the women can dance – all are inebriated, all are for sale.
He was a child when his father was killed in an earthquake. He believes his father came from Syria or Iraq. Iraq is the birthplace of civilisation. Now look what the British are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have killed 650,000 civilians – they and the Americans. The British in Australia were worse than the Spanish in America. Recently 300 Aboriginal bodies were discovered. Their British employer had murdered them rather than pay wages due - a common occurrence.
He believes in a great conspiracy by the rich. Consumerism is part of the conspiracy. Women are the chief targets (yes, we are back to women). 52% of world income is spent on women. Makeup is the largest item. Women are weak and easily influenced. They have no resistance to temptation. Read the Bible. Lot’s wife…
So he continues while I nod my understanding and marvel that his wife hasn’t cut his throat.


What began as a bad day has been a great day. I stopped for lunch at a shack in the middle of nowhere. A bunch of trucks and pickups were parked outside, a good sign. The drivers sat at two long tables laid with tablecloths. A young pregnant woman was serving platters of steamed trout and bottles of red and white wine.
I sat at a table without a tablecloth and was offered steak and salad or salad and steak. I took the steak and salad. A driver, not of the party, joined me. He was familiar with the place and the pregnant woman’s daughter, a six-year-old, kissed his cheek and fetched him a glass and a bottle of soda. Our food came at the same time and we left together. The driver didn’t know what the party was but was anxious to be on the road ahead of the wine drinkers. I had a rear wheel puncture right by the gas station in the next town. A neighbouring puncture specialist fixed the tube for $1.60. I rode on through Nequeen and took Route 237 towards San Carlos de Bariloche. Late evening and I suffered a couple of sharp rain squalls. The evening sun lit the underside of dark grey cloud over the lake at Villa el Chocon and turned the water into a shimmering sheet of slate-coloured glass. The light on the water was too intense to discern the far shore.


road north

Cochico is eight shacks and a police barrier. A young cop tells me to pull off the road below a dead pickup. The shack behind the pickup serves coffee. I look for a sign. Only a couple of thin dogs. The door is tacked together from old planks that have been used elsewhere. I tap. A balding head appears and is followed by a hand that scratches the scalp.
The door opens fully and the head extends into a man of my generation. He is fresh from bed and hasn’t completed his ablutions. Coffee? Of course I can have coffee.
He shows me into what passes for a restaurant: five tables, a bar, a TV, and a fireplace big enough to roast a sheep. The unglazed windows are protected by three layers of netting to keep the sand out. The light is dim.
The owner seats me at a table and shuffles off to where ever the kitchen is. He returns after a while with two cups. He hasn’t had time or the inclination or memory to wash his face or brush what is left of his hair. He asks if I want a biscuit or a sandwich or a slice of cake.
“No,” I say, “No, I don’t think that I want a biscuit or a sandwich or a slice of cake.”
He sets the cups down on the table and sits opposite me. Where have I come from? Where am I going? How long have I been travelling? Do I have a wife? Children?
He has four children. All live and work near by – except for a daughter, 27, who is studying in San Juan. The other daughter is married to the ambulance driver. His wife has a job as cook somewhere else (he expects me to know what or where the somewhere else is). He does the cooking in the restaurant. His kids dump the grandchildren on him. He seems extraordinarily contented.
I imagine how good it would be to have my two elder sons close by and Anya running a local stud. Have the door always open. Have Sarah drop the genius off of a morning. Have everyone at table for Sunday lunch. It is the life I imagined for myself when I was young. I have made a real mess.


road south

7 a.m. and the road leads dead straight across scrub desert. A cold fierce head wind drags smoky patterns of fine sand across the tar. I bend forward over the fuel tank and edge the speedometer up to 70 KPH. The sand gets in my eyes and in my nostrils and in my ears. The road is endless. The country is featureless. Thousands of kilometres remain. Depressing, depressing, depressing…
I check the speedometer. I have ridden six kilometres.
I check the speedometer. I have ridden eight kilometres.
I mark a post on the horizon. I won’t check the speedometer again until I reach the post.
A pale spot becomes a truck. The truck becomes a monster. The bike shudders. Ten kilometres…
I need coffee.
Cochico, at 90 Ks, is the first place on the road map.
90 Ks at 70 KPH?
But it isn’t 70 KPH. I sit up and the speed drops to 60.
All bikers must suffer this type of depression one time or another, mostly when they are young and haven’t dressed for the weather or are riding the wrong bike for what ever it is they are trying to do.


General Alvear is a small modern town with a large tree-shaded plaza. Why this need to memorialise the military? What did General Alvear do?
I find a hotel room, hot water, $7. I check the Internet and learn that England has lost to Croatia. For years the sports journalists and fans have blamed a foreigner, Sven Goran Ericsson, for any failure of the national team. Perhaps the Swede did well given the paucity of talent.
I eat steak and salad and return to the hotel. A small neat man in his sixties sits on the sofa in the reception. He wears blue chinos, a blue jumper, blue socks and blue bedroom slippers. His moustache is parted in the middle and teased out into two points. The manager presents him as her friend (hence the slippers). Senor Hostility would be a better introduction. He settles himself on the sofa in the manner of fighter pilot settling in the cockpit.
“You are English.”
“Yes,” I say.
“You English are arrogant. You don’t wish to be part of Europe. You believe you are superior.”
I am pro Europe – what should I say? I suggest that some Brits are nervous of being associated with nations where political corruption is the norm: that this fear is common to most members of the six nations comprising the original European community.
“Your Blair is more corrupt than anyone. More corrupt than Belusconi. He and Belusconi are friends. Look at Iraq - he is a liar, your Blair. There is proof that more than six hundred and fifty thousand civilians have been killed. What do you say to that?”
Senor Hostility is softening me up. Soon he will shift attack to the Falklands/Malvinas war.
“I agree,” I say, “, please, if you’ll excuse me, I have to be up and on the road by six-thirty.”
So sneaks away the cowardly Brit…


I am due to meet with the regional President of the journalists’ union in San Rafael. His cell phone is permanently busy. The road south traverses flat fields. The mountains are vertical flats and equally boring. San Rafael has nothing to recommend it. I ride on.
Olive groves and terraces of ancient olive trees are familiars of European literature. Literature is passé. Argentina is agro-corporation. Kilometre upon kilometre of young olive trees march to the horizon either side of the road. I break for coffee at a service station. A young woman serves me. She is one of four daughters, no brothers. I have four sons. We compare ages, occupations. Twenty or more shade-netted plant nurseries occupy the far corner of the intersection: baby olive trees fresh from the genetic lab. The owners are Spanish. The town has become dependent on them. These same Spaniards have planted three thousand hectares of almonds. My informant is unsure as to how many thousand hectares of olives have been planted. The young woman tells me that a labourer earns $270 monthly. She asks what a farm labourer earns in England. I guess at $500 a week. I sip my coffee and wonder what the future holds for the European farmer, the Spaniard husbanding olives and almonds on a few cherished hectares. Is he aware of the intention of his compatriots here in Argentina? Perhaps a TV producer could put them together. Imagine a judge as chairperson. Is investing in the destruction of your campatriots’ living an act of treason? Or merely sensible business practice? God Bless The Global Economy, Screw The Loser…


Mendoza is a clean safe modern city of shaded streets and watered parks and squares cooled by fountains. Plaza San Martin is the centre. I check half a dozen hotels before taking a $13 room on the 3rd floor at the Imperial for two nights. The room has a full size window and hot shower. The towels rate as adequate, the elevator works, staff are helpful. I write eight hours straight at a table in the ground-floor restaurant (prices are reasonable for acceptable food). Three further hours on the internet and I am up to date with Blogs and correspondence. Late evening I sit at a sidewalk café and people-watch. The temperature is ideal, no flies nor mosquitoes. I think of Mendoza as a European city. I am wrong. In any European city I would see African and Asian faces. Here there remains a thin sprinkling of dark mestizo amongst older citizens. Amongst the young, Europe is triumphant, the indigenous visible only in a slight tanning of skin and in a bright blackness of eye. Dress is casual. The young are confident in their sensuality. These are beautiful people and they are having fun. I meet two bikers in the street, Canadians from Nova Scotia on big BMWs. They have done the trip in two months. I have ridden one half the distance in five. The BMWs have comfortable seats.


flat either way

Modern machinery and concrete sew the desert with water channels. From the sand sprout vineyards and citrus orchards and serial crops. This is Argentina: the scale is vast, the fields are flat. Close-by soar the snow-capped Andes. I long for a visual foreplay of wooded foothills.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


My wristwatch fell off some time yesterday. I bought the watch in Panama at a street stall for $9. The one window in my room at the Chepes hostal has Venetian blinds that don’t open. I need a morning call. I have parked in the garage behind the hostal owner’s car. She has to leave early.
What is early?
“By nine – half past at latest.”
Is late rising religious?
Was Evita a late riser?
She did much of her early work in bed.
The road crosses 160 Ks of desert. I count three curves, each less than ten degrees. I stop at the first town. Town? A mini-Lourdes built round a hilltop shrine dedicated to the saint of travellers. Believers arrive by bus. I am served the most disgusting cup of coffee of this entire trip, the most revolting enpanadas and the toilet facilities are filthy. The saint is a fraud. Were she genuine, she would strike these exploiters dead.


I have ridden 730 Ks today from Tafi del Valle to Chepes. I couldn’t see a reason to stop. Present a Texan with a slice of this land and he would refer to it as his ranch. Normal people recognise desert. Vegetation is sparse and grey rather than green. Sand blows across the road and gets in your ears and in your eyes. The road runs straight to the horizon and all the way back to the horizon. A dot on the road finally materialises into a truck. A car driven fast overtakes and remains in view twenty minutes later.
A road sign welcomes me to Florida. A dust track leads off to the right and crosses disused rail track. I pass a second sign the other side of the road – Florida is history.
The road crosses a dry lake. A fence runs across the lake parallel to the road. Two Aberdeen Angus bullocks walk beside the fence. They halt and look at me. I poop my klaxon. Perhaps they break wind.
Why didn’t I take the scenic route? The scenic route is riple – Honda and I don’t ride riple.
Chepes is a road junction. It used to be a rail junction. The railway died. What else can I write of Chepes? Dusty streets, a motorised procession of celebrating football fans. I found a hostal at $7. A big beer and steak dinner set me back $3. The steak was on the run from a steel foundry. I stuck my hand in a ceiling fan and sprayed blood over my bed.


I leave Tafi del Valle at 7 a.m. One elderly man in a thick fawn coat and wool hat sweeps refuse back into a bin dogs have riffled. No one else stirs. The city folk of Salta were equally late in rising. 8 a.m. had the feel of 6 a.m. in an English city. Argentineans siesta and shops stay open until 10 or 11 p.m. British shop assistants would strike. Even first generation Asian kids would rebel.
The road dips passed a lake, rises then follows a stream down through a thickly forested gorge. The trees are peculiar. The leaves are sparse and small and curled. I have ridden a couple of Ks before realisation strikes. Strikes is an understatement for being smitten visually by a mass of yellow daffodils. The trees are deciduous; this is early Spring; I am in a temperate micro climate. Sunrise tints the leaves with pink. One more gift of beauty from South America…
20 Ks further and I reach a tropic floor of cane fields, citrus and wheat. The road crosses west into the next valley. Desert…


This is my first fun night since eating out with Ming in Cartagena, Colombia. Cartegena was full of holidaying Colombians. In Tafi, this restaurant is full of holidaying Argentineans. We three are the only foreigners in the restaurant. We are guests. We want to stay, fine. We want to leave, that’s also fine. We are unimportant. We are peripheral to the economy.
Any other stop on the Gringo route and all the guests would be foreigners, essential income, prey to be targeted, territory to be occupied.
There is no fun in being prey, territory, or a target.
I prefer to be people.
In Tarif I am returned to the human race.


Tafi is a tiny tourist resort. Middle class Argentinians escape there from the heat of the plains. I meet with travelling companions. He is Scots New Zealand, Sara is Italian. We dine together at a restaurant where a gay magician acts as compere. The magician is brilliant. He leans over our table and makes coins and scarves appear and disappear. He works with his sleeves rolled up. Sara and I enjoy and admire. Our companion calculates how the tricks are done. The magician must ware a false palm.
Meanwhile two men from the next table sing to us. The elder, a grey-hair sixties, sings soft Argentine traditional packed with sob and soul. For a pro, he would be good. Amateur, he is amazing. The younger, a late forties Dudley More, is equally talented. He plays and sings pop Latino rock. Call a title, he knows the song. I watch his wife. She has seen him perform a thousand times. She has admired (probably why she fell for him). They are out to dinner, a party of six friends. They are up from San Juan. She hoped for a quiet weekend, a slow cuddle. Now she is faced with the same old need for confidence boosting every artist needs and craves. How did I do? Did I get the notes right? Did people like me? Really like me? I didn’t stay on too long? They didn’t get bored? Yeah, yeah, yeah…
And I see Bernadette reading my latest email.
How did you like the female circumcision Blog?


I intend sleeping the night in Santa Maria. Santa Maria is a small market town in the centre of nowhere. The road I take is surfaced with ripli. Ripli is Argentinian for corrugated dirt. Honda and I share an antipathy for dirt.
Should I have known that Santa Maria is holding a world conference of Camels? Morales, President of Boliva, was due to attend. Now he is attending funerals of Bolivian miners dead in a fratricidal battle between miners from a co-operative and miners in the State sector. Miners from the co-op are militant. They detest the subsidies and State contracts that advantage miners in the public sector. Their weapons are sticks of dynamite.
Morales or no Morales, every hotel in Santa Maria is full with freeloaders of the conference circuit. A pleasant elderly gentleman with few teeth mans the tourist office in the central square. He is a keen biker and owns an Alpina. He bought the Alpina as a rebuild job. It lies in bits in his garage. It has been in bits for the past fifteen years. It requires spare parts. Parts require money. He doesn’t have any. And he is getting older. Sixties? Hopefully my visit will rekindle his dreams. He advises Tarif as an alternative destination. 90 Ks, and I have two hours of daylight. Does he hate me? Is my liberty salt in the wounds of his disappointments? Why else would he fail to mention that the 90 Ks includes altiplano and a mountain pass? The sky up there is overcast. The temperature falls faster than lead. My tears snap and tinkle on the rutted tar.


The gorge of El Rio de los Conchas is a must for a biker. Temperature is ideal. The road is set up right. The curves and climbs and descents are perfect. Take time out to admire the scenery. What scenery! The walls of the gorge are red rock ground and stretched and wrenched. The thorn trees and scrub along the river seem sprayed with emerald dust and lit with strobe lights. I share the gorge with a pedal-bike race. Cops clear the route. Three riders have a kilometre lead over the pack. A couple at the back catch a drag from attendants in a van. An ambulance brings up the rear.
Weird taste to ride through such beauty with your head down and blinded with sweat.
The riders might think me weird to be riding a pizza delivery bike the length of Latin America.


typical street

The altiplano is beautiful to the traveller. He passes by. He doesn’t stop. There is nowhere to stop. In Argentina, village after village tempts. I head south from Salta. Colonel Moldes comes first – surely an odd name for a town. Argentina is full of such names: Colonel This and General That.
Colonel Moldes is too charming to be military. Trees shade the main street. Pillared arcades shade the sidewalk. I stop for coffee at the Hospedaje Dona Lada. Birds enjoy the palm trees in the small park where a bust of the Colonel holds sway. The coffee is excellent. The young woman who serves is delightful. Each passer-by greets me. This is bliss. I could stay a week. Townspeople would talk to me in the evenings. I would learn something of Argentina. Big cities don’t work. People are too busy. I am invisible. I learn nothing.
What is the cost? $8 for a single with bath.
I paid double in Salta and had my pocket picked.


I lie in bed - 7.30 a.m. The hotel room is small and dark and dank. Plumbing gurgles. A man converses in German and in Spanish. The Spanish is with a member of the hotel staff. The German complains that his bedside light doesn’t work, that the lavatory won’t flush, that the ceiling fan screeches. He wants a discount on the room rate – or his wife/girlfriend demands that he demand a discount.
My bladder is demanding.
And my laptop is demanding. It waits on the table. I hate my laptop. It is a Panasonic ToughBook and indestructible. It weighs a ton. It travels in the box on the bike’s luggage rack. The box is black. Midday the box becomes an oven. Heat murdered the batteries. I have to work indoors. I tried working last night. The chair sandwiched between the bed and the table has a cracked seat. The crack pinched my arse.
I feel inside my pyjama pants for evidence of the pinch.
I find three spots.
Before riding, I need to put cream on the spots.
I don’t want to ride.
I have been riding for months.
Tierra del Fuego is a further 5000 Ks.
Bernadette thinks that I should ride back in the New Year to New York.
My heart will give out.
I feel for my pulse.
Where the shit is my pulse?
8 a.m. - I must get up.
My years will stick knives in my spine and in my ankles.
I will slip on the soap on the wet floor of the bathroom and crack my head open.
Where did I leave my teeth?
I need my spectacles.
Being old isn’t fun.
I want to be home. I want to sprawl on the couch and watch TV and hug the kids (if they allow) and rest my head in Bernadette’s lap and know that soon she and I will go upstairs to bed.
Salta is half the world away.


Midnight and I fetch a glass of water from the water cooler in the hotel lobby. Light is dim. The cooler has two taps. One tap appears a darker blue than the other. I put my four heart pills on my tongue, raise the glass, prepare to swallow. The water is boiling. I spit. The darker tap is water for tea or mate. My lower lip is scalded. Great!


I confess. I am a racist. I am in Salta. I am in a recognisably European city of sidewalk cafes and clean parks and smart shops. I have escaped unscathed from the terrorist and bandit territory of indigenous America. I relax. I am robbed. Hah!
I report the loss of my wallet at the police station on the cathedral plaza. I am recompensed with two kisses. The police officer is young and pretty and kind. She says that I am in great shape for an Oldie – that Bernadette must be a wonderful wife to have looked after me so well.
A second police officer groans under the weight of her pregnancy. I recall Bernadette visiting a dear friend on his deathbed. John was gynaecologist. He was also a rugby player and dismissive of women’s aches and pains. Dying of cancer, he complained to Bernadette that every part of him hurt.
“At last you know what it feels like to be pregnant,” said Bernadette.
I report this tale to Salta’s female police officers. Bernadette is their hero.

Friday, October 06, 2006


Two streets leading down from Salta’s cathedral square are closed to traffic. I stroll through a hippy craft market circa Ibiza, 1970. The leather necklaces and pendants, wrist strings and bracelets are indistinguishable from the wares in every other street craft market. The people are indistinguishable. Their conversation is indistinguishable, as is their certainty in their uniqueness. These people are different. They have dropped out. In the year 2006 – wow! One man is Rastaring another’s hair - symbol of that most idiotic of all faiths, worship of Haille Selassie, King of Kings. Haille Selassie was Amharic. The Amharas believe that they are the only true white race (we are red). They have two words for black people: slave or outcast. Typical Amhahra proverb: Should you come out of your house and see a black man, go back in for a black man brings bad luck.


Joy! Salta has sidewalk cafés on the cathedral square that serve excellent coffee. I order a fruit salad, sip coffee, and people watch. I have been in a largely mestizo world for the past five months. Argentina is different. You see white people, white, white, white. A tall man selling fruit in the market is as white as an Irish nun in a closed order. Is he scared of the sun, frightened of skin cancer? What does he do at weekends? Watch football on TV?


I am in Salta. I have a room two blocks off the square at the Residencia Elena. The room opens off a patio full of flowers. The water is hot. The ceiling fan squeaks. The room rate is $20 for a couple. I am alone and pay $16.50. I don’t complain. I have ridden 400 Ks over country that is flat and boring. Agriculturally it is organised well in vast fields of sugar, some plant with a yellow flower, wheat and citrus. Mountains pretend to approach only to retreat into the haze. Entering the city is easy. The centre in clearly signed.


I am in the Argentine. Or I am in Argentina? I prefer the former. Crossing the border was routine, though time consuming. I have one more border to cross, that dividing Tierra del Fuego. Two young Frenchmen at the Bolivian frontier recounted their fears of the complications entailed in travelling by bike. There are no complications. A biker requires proof of ownership, a national driving licence, lots of photocopies, patience and a good attitude. Attitude is essential. Officials scent arrogance or impatience or contempt faster than hounds scent a fox. Same with the police. I have been treated with courtesy throughout this journey. I have ridden sixteen thousand kilometres. Other than at a frontier, I have been asked for my papers only once, on the approach to the Ecuadorian border with Peru.


Yuquiba is an odd place in which to meet a soulmate. Early evening and we sit together at the sidewalk café. He introduces himself: Luis Yudi.
Arab. Orthodox Christian.
Luis was seven when the family emigrated from Syria. Now he is in his early sixties. We are both early school leavers. Self educated, we are suspicious of what we are told. University graduates are less inquiring: a degree lies in the lecturer’s notes.
The exchange of opinions is serious stuff. Before speaking, Luis gathers himself and hunches his shoulders and dips his head the way a boxer does.
He is proudly Arab and full of odd scraps of Arab history. Did I know that Gibraltar is named after an Arab Admiral?
He has contempt for George W Bush and the US administration. Their ignorance offends him. The President’s use of the term crusade is typical. The crusaders were liberal in whom they pillaged and butchered: Muslim, Orthodox Christian, Jew.
He has visited England and Scotland. He has warm memories of London. He judges as reprehensible Blair’s failure to denounce Israel’s recent destruction of Lebanon. Does Britain no longer have its own foreign policy?
He is, of course, a true Semite. Most Israelis are mestizo. Yet to be sympathetic to the Palestinian ordeal and to criticise Israel is to be anti-Semitic.
And, though a businessman, he is also a writer. He has written a treatise on the Bolivian constitution. Eight copies of the book have been printed and bound. He fetches a copy from his house. He has dedicated the copy:
Para el amigo Gandolfi para que en tu tesis la midas con optimo calificaciones…

Luis, I thank you.
Travelling has value.


Yuquiba is a border town and a bazaar. Shops overflow onto the sidewalk my hotel’s side of the street. A young woman walks ahead, mid-twenties. Her build is too square for fashionable taste. She wears short blue shorts, sleeveless sports top, flip-flops. Add two teaspoons of creamy milk to a cup of good coffee and you have her skin tone. Her confidence and her independence strike me. Admiration is unimportant. She has dressed to please herself. I imagine her giving a nod to her reflection in the mirror: “Yeah, girl, you look good.”
I sit at a sidewalk café in the evening and watch other women pass. This female confidence is new. The mid-thirties and younger have it. They are freed of servitude. They create their own role.
Menonite women cling to serfdom. They speak softly, avoid eye contact. Whether gift of God or genetics, beauty leads to sin. Cover it up. Hats and head scarves are obligatory. The route to hell lies in the glimpse of a pink earlobe.
The hijab? A close relation to female circumcision…

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


Monday I had a tail wind and cruising at 100 Ks was easy on a great road across dry forest patched with rough fields. Hot as an oven and I stopped where ever bottled water was available from an icebox. The only service station midway was out of gas. The next gas station was a further 100 Ks and I bought 4 litres from a drum at the next village as insurance.
Today I face a head wind and 80 Ks is a maximum. Cold drizzle stings my cheeks. I stop at the roadside and pull on jacket and rainwear. Miserable, I pull into Yuquiba and find a hotel on the square, bathroom and cable for £3.70. A great restaurant on the square has an upstairs packed with Menonites in fresh blue overalls and straw Stetsons. They don’t drive cars, trucks or tractors. A Menonite baby is sucking on a plastic pacifier.


My target is Yuquiba on the border with the Argentine. I fail to pick the left turn at Kilometre 13 and ride 30 Ks on the hill road to Sucre. Dumb! So I stop the night 90 Ks short of the border at Villamontes. I try the Hotel Rancho first. It is recommended by the guidebooks. A surly receptionist gives a $26 room rate. The next two hotels are full. Finally I stop at the Hostal La Oyerencia on Avenida Heroes del Chaco: $9 for a large roomwith fan, hot water in a good bathroom, cable with CNN. I have ridden 1,000 Ks in two days.


The first 200 Ks to Santa Cruz are biker heaven, easy climbs, swooping curves. I break at Villa Tunari. Midday and fish is on the menu, fresh from the river and grilled over charcoal - $4 with freshly squeezed orange juice. Yum! 470 Ks to Santa Cruz. Beyond the mountains the road runs straight across ranch land, dairy farms and huge fields of sugar cane. The heat is splendid: no need for a jumper or leather jacket. Dusk as I reach town. Sunday and the Boys on the Bikes are out and rowdy. I grin and pull in beside a clutch of Harleys revving at the sidewalk.
One of the riders (bearded) returns my grin and says, “Yeah, I know…”
I find a $9 hotel with hot water a block off the plaza. I unload and park the bike in a parking lot two doors down. A young man has carried my gear up to my room. That I didn’t ask adds to the pleasure.
I lick great coffee ice cream on the cathedral plaza. The population appears marginally paler skinned than in Cochabamba. The cathedral is vast; the ceiling is inlaid with wood; standing room only for 8 p.m. mass.


different country

A TV crew will film my departure from Cochabamba. I pack, load the bike and wait in the central square. The cathedral is the far side, police headquarters on my left. A brass band plays. Cops wander over to inspect the bike.
I tell them I intend riding the lowland road via Villa Turani to Santa Cruz.
Villa Turani has been a centre for the US DEA - THE WAR ON DRUGS as corrupt and corrupting, ill conceived and unsuccessful as THE WAR ON TERROR.
The cops warn that I may be stopped by civilians posing as narcotics agents. There are no agents in civilian clothes. I must insist that the fakes accompany me to the police station in the next town.
What if they are armed?
“Insist,” insists a cop
Sun shines. The TV journalist waves from the far side of the artificial lake. The lake water is clean. The flowerbeds are beautifully kept.
“Right,” I say, “Yes, right, I’ll insist.”
The band plays.
The cops shake my hand and wish me well.

Saturday, September 30, 2006


Political correctness and the H quotient have been in play. The BBC’s correspondent described last week's strike of the southern provinces of Bolivia as a strike of white Bolivians against the indiginous population of the North. Odd, I find no mention on the BBC’s site of the miners’ blockade. Perhaps the correspondent is seeking to define the miners’ colour.
I have been in Cochabamba for two and a half days. I have walked the streets, sat at cafés, eaten in restaurants. Where are these pure bloods of European descent? This white majority of the BBC correspondent’s imagination?
My own perceptions are limited and probably equally erroneous. Cochabamba is a fun city. It is a city loved and cared for by its residents. Flowering trees line clean streets. After La Paz, you feel that you are in a different country. Here are a few quotations:
“There will be civil war.”
“What can you expect when the President is an Indian.”
“Better an intelligent crook than an honourable incompetent.”
“The Americans should do something.”
“The Americans are to blame, always interfering.”
The poor of La Paz love Morales.
So do Europe’s liberal intelligencia.
I am ignorant.
I have no facts.
I have no opinion.


I take lunch at the home of a Bolivian icon, a footballer, a goalkeeper. He is younger than I by a few years yet walks with a frame and is clumsy with his hands. “Cortisone,” he explains, “Playing when injured.”
We drink and talk while the TV displays extreme sports. I watch the crashes, kids bleeding, and come near to vomiting with fear for Jed, my youngest son. Jed, the mountain border, on first name terms with ambulance crews…


The sun shines. I sit at a café with members of Cochobamba’s Classic Bike Club. They insist I fetch my bike from the hotel garage. It is barely visible parked amongst its wealthy relatives, more a guinea pig than a Hog. These men are wealthy. The custom seats on their Harleys and massive Hondas cost more than my 125. We exchange tales of accidents; politics are off the menu. Frustrating, as I long to learn their opinions.


I sit in the sun and eat breakfast this morning at a sidewalk café. I am warm. Cochabamba is heaven. Rereading my Blogs of the past month or more, I realise that I have talked with few people. Opening conversations with strangers demands emotional energy. Cold is a sapper of energy. All those clothes form a barrier. Now, in the sun, I am brave. I talk after breakfast with an Argentinean architect, constructor of a cinema complex. Jewish. We talk of the conquest and the Jewish emigration from Spain to Latin America and of the Islamic influence on early Hispanic Colonial architecture and of the friendships and business friendships and alliances between Jewish and Arab immigrants in Argentina. The architect speaks of the Malvinas/Falklands war, of the young men whose lives were sacrificed to the demands of a drunk and to a woman’s need for a key to reelection.


S.I.M. are the Honda agents. I watch the Honda being serviced. The mechanic is meticulous. I am about to start the bike. The mechanic tells me not to touch the throttle. I kick and the bike burbles. The bill is $12.

Friday, September 29, 2006


The road climbed beyond the blockade. Snow sprinkled the fell. The snowline lay well below the road. Cloud spat ice at my cheeks. My fingers froze. I didn’t give a damn. Honda and I have set a new personal record: fifteen thousand, four hundred feet (4700 meters). We have covered 420 Ks. Honda is resting at a very smart Honda Agency. I am in a hotel on the square. The owners of the hotel are Croatian and friends of Jorge Stambuk whom I met in Crinon, Colombia; he of the bio-diesel plant. The hotel bares that essential of a proper European family hotel: Madame sits behind the front desk and takes the money. I have a large room and large bathroom. The water is hot. The décor is 1930. My relationship to Jorge Stanbuk earns me a 20% discount. I am very comfortable.



Bolivia’s Morales is the President of the urban poor, the subsistence farmers and the manual workers. A magic wand should go with the job. It doesn’t. Morales is behind on his promises. His electorate are impatient. The miners have blockaded the road to Chocabamba. This is the third day of the blockade. Cars can manage a U turn. Trucks and busses are stuck. They are stuck in a double column twenty five Ks long. Local women have opened up roadside eateries. Bus passengers are dragging their gear in hope of a cab. I weave through to the rock barrier. A union meeting is breaking up. I boast that my eldest son is a union official. A group collects on a bank to have their photograph taken. A miner takes the camera and photographs me in the centre of the picket. Sadly he doesn’t push the button.


I waddle because I have dressed for the altitude. First the lower half: underpants, longjohns, two pairs of Chinos, dull-blue waterproof pants, red rugby socks, Church’ shoes. The top: two undershirts, one cord shirt, one sleeveless jumper, two long-sleeve jumpers, scarf, leather jacket, bright-blue waterproof jacket, wool gloves, leather gauntlets. Why am I freezing?


La Paz is in a hole. A road leads in. A road leads out. Escape is simple. I ride a hundred Ks before pulling in at a roadhouse. I park beside an outsize Bolivian-registered four by four fitted with all the Chelsea extras: spots on the roof, spots on the bull bar, winch, cowcatcher, rocket launcher, smoke grenades, ejector seats. The passenger-side smoked window slides down. A neat Bolivian blond asks where I’ve come from. “Mexico? On that bike? Magnificant.”
I, of course, looked humble.
“Where are you going? Argentina? Tierra del Fuego? Wow! Us too. That’s really great.”
The guy (ponytail) drums a finger on the padded leather steering wheel.
The blond takes the message. The smoked window slides up.
I dismount and waddle into the roadhouse.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


I talked last night with a German, a Professor of philosophy. He has a new book finished and is taking a short break. Flying directly in to La Paz often brings on altitude sickness. The Professor is suffering – or I bored him to bed.
I was a good tourist all afternoon: two museums, two churches and a cathedral. The cathedral is gloomy. One of the museums is under repair. However the coffee in the coffee shop at the museum and church of San Francisco is the best I have drunk in more than a month. Today I visited more museums and am overdosed. The streets are steep and walking at over 4000 meters is tough on an old man. What did I see? More crude and unimaginative Inca gold, beautiful Tiwanachu ceramics. However – fifteen hundred years of working with clay, no potter’s wheel and so limited a palette.


A viciously cold wind blows across the altiplano. For protection, the Spaniards built La Paz at the bottom of a gorge and when rush hour was three horses and a mule. Imagine pouring the traffic of a major city into so constricted a space. On a bike I advanced maybe a hundred metres in twenty minutes. I am staying two nights at the Hostal Republic two blocks off the Cathedral square. The hostal once was the private house of an ex President. An estate agent would describe it as a two-patio two-floor Spanish colonial. I have a single room on the upper floor overlooking the rear patio. The shower is reasonably hot and the towels are excellent. The building is romantic; $16 is a reasonable room rate. The help found a plank so I could ride the Honda up the steps. The patios are cobbled and the Honda is happy.



Wooden barges ferry trucks and busses across the straits. The barges are outboard powered and the passage is some four hundred meters. Ten or more of the barges wait in line. The crew won’t cross for a lone biker. A minibus drives onto the lead ferry and the captain waves me on board. The coxswain asks about my journey. He wants his photograph taken with me and the bike. One of his crewmen takes the picture. He is a novice with a camera and cuts off part of my head. The coxswain is happy with the result.


I eat a chicken roll and drink a large mug of hot black coffee in the cafeteria by the ferry quay. The woman serving me lost an eye; the socket has been sewn shut. She asks if I am sometimes frightened riding alone. I say that, No, I’m fine, just so long as I avoid the guide books.
A dozen women sell fruit and whatever from stalls outside the cafeteria. One of them demonstrates the size of whatever she is discussing by holding her two forefingers a couple of inches apart.
“Me,” I say from the doorway, pointing a finger at myself. “That’s not very kind.”
A few seconds pass in which the women don’t believe what they’ve heard. Then they break up. One has the laugh of an excited chicken. An old crone is doubled over: “Mala, mala, mala,” she shrieks.


The road follows a high contour above Lake Titicaca. Thick rain-clouds to the east die the waters wine dark; a lone white motor launch draws a white trail. West is sunshine and the water is brilliant blue. My guidebook reports that the lake is mystical, that the terraces on the peninsular are Inca and the La Paz has the best market for buying ingredients for witchcraft. My guidebook also reported that the customs officers were crooks and warned that I would be raped, strangle mugged, abducted by guerrillas and shot by paramilitaries. Forget the book and the mystic and the Incas. Stick with the facts: the fells are beautiful and the lake is beautiful. I am immensely privileged in riding these hills on such a glorious morning.


Cocabamba is on a peninsular. The peninsular is mountainous and projects from Peruvian territory so it is a de facto island. You take a ferry to Bolivia proper. Cocabamaba is 25 Ks from the ferry port. The road climbs to 4100 meters. Early morning is cold – especially for a biker. The road is under repair. Men lug stones. They don’t wear gloves. Nor do the women who man the wheelbarrows. The hems of the women’s pettycoats and skirts show beneath yellow slickers. I consider myself a feminist. This wasn’t the equality I envisaged.



Cocabamba is built on the saddle between two hills. The town slopes steeply down to the shore and reminds me of a Mediteranean fishing village come tourist resort. The townsfolk seem friendlier, happier and more fun-loving than Peruvians. They may eat tourists, but they exercise charm; Peruvians prefer the bludgeon. A big white Cathedral dominates the town. The tiled domes of the towers and the vast courtyard should belong to a mosque. The simplicity of the Cathedral’s interior is equally Arabic.
I booked into the Colonial, big room with lake view and hot shower. The bedside lamp didn’t work. I switched rooms. The shower didn’t work. However the beds were great and a room rate of $5 that includes Continental breakfast isn’t exorbitant. A wet Brit on Gap Year confronted me on the stairs. He had been swimming in the lake. He claimed that the water was shallow and therefor warm. I was shivering from a bike ride. A second young Brit and two young North Americans made a foursome in the hotel garden. I would have enjoyed hearing their stories. Unfortunately, I carry a fatal disease, Age, and they chose the table furthest from where I sat. Sad.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


The vicious corrupt Bolivian customs officer is a gardener. He is dressed in a wool jumper and is pushing a wheelbarrow. He directs me to Immigration where I fill in the standard tourist fiche (five minutes). I return to the Customs office. The customs officer parks his wheelbarrow and we complete a transit permit for the Honda. Though patient, he is keen to get back to his barrow. He stamps and signs the permit and points me to the transit police for a counter signature. Total time at the Bolivian border? Barely fifteen minutes. For this I have worried. I suspect that the writer of my guidebook is an irritating and arrogant young man – a type officials hate on sight. Or perhaps I have been lucky. Perhaps my age helps. They imagine my dying on them and the paper work and they think, Quick! move the old fool on.


Peruvian Immigration takes all of two minutes. Customs is a problem. Our friendly and helpful customs officer from the frontier with Ecuador completed the exit part of the Honda’s transit permit rather than the entry.
“A tall man, talks a lot,” suggests the present officer as he scans the signature.
“Yes,” I say. “A very amiable man.”
“Very amiable,” agrees his fellow official. “Amiable is all he is. I’ve served with him.”
I wait while he writes an explanation of the error on pink paper. I add my signature. He affixes the report to the transit permit. We shake hands. I am out of Peru.


The writer of my guidebook warns of corrupt practices at the Bolivian frontier with Peru. The writer mentions motorcyclists as victims. Yeah, have a nice day. The road follows the lake shore. I see thirty or more men seated on benches at the rear of an adobe house. The men are similarly dressed in black suits and black fedoras. They are silent and solemn. This must be a wake. They should take lessons from the Irish.
The road climbs behind a hill. Concrete steps mount the hill. Each step represents a Station of the Cross. Two tall radio masts dominate the hilltop. The shrine is insignificant.
I pause and look back across a bay. The water reflects the deep blue of the sky. A thousand mirrors gleam on the far shore - tin roofs catching the sunlight.
I note two rough-coated white donkeys on a pale beach.
And I worry. Ten Ks to the frontier. Here comes the victim.


made in britain 2nd steamship brought to Puna

I count eighteen restaurants on Puna’s pedestrian street. All but Rica’s Café are geared to tourists. Look in through any window, there we sit, we, the rich (by Peruvian standards). The restaurants employ hustlers. The altitude is above three thousand meters and the hustlers wrap up in ankle-length overcoats and matching mufflers. Charcoal grey is an unfortunate colour. Look at the menu, what do you expect? Price list from a funeral parlour. Watch out for the extras…


made in britain
carried in pieces
up to Puna on mules

Cultural Colonialism hits randomly. I watch a family of six Peruvians in a small restaurant. A young woman angles her head and flashes a smile at her father. She wants something. The flirtation is pure Hollywood. On the pedestrian street, a tall, exceptionally dark-skinned young man is unique amongst his Puna contemporaries in wearing HipHop.

Saturday, September 23, 2006


Puna is great for hats. Most common are choclate soup plates baring one of those round buns that have swollen above the baking tin. I admire a pink bowler with silk ribbon edging the underside of the brim. Another favourite is a mini black bowler with a tassel warn at a jaunty angle by a plump lady in her fifties. She is dressed in black. White petticoats fluff up her skirt. A shy thin woman wears a yellow hat of plastic straw sprinkled with glitter. A teenage boy favours a red wool cloche. Then there is the man in the grey fedora who, hands in pockets, poses as an Italian Mafioso. Backpackers favour a design on white wool, the top drawn to a point, a tuft on the crest and earflaps. An elderly grey Stetson talks to two junior baseball caps. Strangest is a wide brim golden pentagon; blue lines mark the segments. Can it be a hat or is it a lampshade out for a walk? The owner is a severe schoolmistressy woman near retirement.