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.