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.