Saturday, August 04, 2007
I have been defeated here in Rio Grande. Puchero was the victor. Puchero is a stew. It is served in two deep bowls. One bowl contains the meat: half a chicken less the limbs, a huge chunk of beef, a large section of oxtail, chorizo. The meat swims in a broth and is surrounded by three types of dried beans, small, medium and butter. The other bowl contains the vegetables, also in a broth: more beans, cabbage, onion, pumpkin, carrot, potato. This is a single serving. Immagine these two huge bowls of food set before you. Even the fiercest appetite quakes.
Let me recomend a small cafe in Rio Grande frequented by oil workers on their week off: San Martin 86. The owner is Chilean. His Puchero, though grotesque in quantity, is delicious. Add two beers and the bill came to US$7.
Friday, August 03, 2007
Rio Grande has doubled in size over the past few years to a town of 75,000. It continues to grow. I wander along the waterfront. A woman at the Municipal Cultural Centre is proud to show me the theatre. The theatre has seats for 450. The ceiling is curved and of varnished wood. The Cultural Centre works closely with local schools.
I walk a little further. A sign outside a new house bears the architect’s name: Simon Thomson. I call his cellular and we meet for coffee at a gas station.
Simon is a young man reared here in Tierra del Fuego where his father is a ranch manager. Simon is qualified from the University of Buenos Aires three years ago and already offered more work than he can handle. He worked as a fishing guide during vacations. Both his maternal and paternal families have been in the Argentine for three generations. He is the fourth. He is a distant relative by marriage of my distant cousin, Tony Deanne.
Graciela, owner of the Hotel Argentino, underwent surgery three weeks ago at the Italian hospital in Buenos Aires. She is a small, dark, vivacious woman, eternally optimistic (think Ibiza in the 60s). She greets me with voluble affection. We sit in the kitchen, drink coffee and exchange views.
Views in Argentina don’t vary much: Politicians are a bunch of thieving liars.
Her hotel is a popular base with workers from the oil fields who work two weeks on and one week off. Late evening and there is a crowd in the kitchen. They all have tales. An electrician relates having to pay half his earnings back to the contractor. Wine circulates, bread, mozzarella. Her operation has put Graciela on a strict diet. I eat alone at the corner restaurant, a vast steak, salad and beer for £4. Idiot, I leave my jacket on the back of the chair. I return for it later. The lights are off. A bunch of kids are drinking beer and already midway drunk.
English? To whom to the Malvinas belong? Argentina, right?
I answer, To those who live there.
No, no. The Malvinas are Argentine.I say, Argentina has something more valuable than the islands. You have the best footballers in the World.
This is a special for travellers leaving Ushuaia. Transportes Montiel run minibusses to Rio Grande. The bus picks passengers up at their hotel and delivers them to where they wish to go in Rio Grande or vicar versa. Busses run every two hours through the day. The fare is 40 pesos (£8) – 10 pesos more than the standard bus and far more convenient.
Address in Ushuaia: Deloqui 110. Telephone: (02901) 421366.
Address in Rio Grande: 25 de Mayo 712. Telephone: (02964) 420997.
Yesterday I bought a waterproof thermal work-suit at a store for non-tourists: £12. My bags are already full so I wear the suit on the bus – also my boots. I sit up front beside the driver. The distance to Rio Grande is 200 kilometres. We hit packed snow and patches of ice for some ten kilometres as we cross the mountains behind Ushuaia. Perhaps another twenty kilometres has clear strips between strips of snow. The remainder is clear. The driver is sure I can ride safely from Rio Grande to the frontier.
Thursday, August 02, 2007
Argentines have a great passion for silver gilt and gold gilt sporting trophies. Most of the trophies are mounted on fake marble pillars. Pablo’s trophies run the full length of the wall above the workbench and pack the space above a large cupboard. No doubt there are more in the house.
The workshop only functions in the evenings. Bikers collect round the stove, work at the bench, sip maté. A couple of the bikers have ridden north to Colombia. None have shipped their bikes on into Panama.
I would enjoy receiving a degree of admiration.
Mostly they think I’m nuts.
My boots are much admired.
“Italian,” one of the bikers comments. “Waterproof. You can’t buy Alpinestars in Argentina.”
One of Pablo´s sons, a student, arrives direct from a three month holiday touring South America. Everyone talks travel costs.
In Ecuador the son survived on US$15 a day.
Avenida San Martin is Ushuaia’s Bond Street. A picket (not telephone company employees) blocks half the road on the same block as the police station. An oil drum serves as a stove. I mention to the strikers that my eldest son, Antony, is a Trotskyite Union official. I mention that he collects Union badges. A dark woman retorts that they can’t afford badges – my son must be collecting from capitalists.
The employees of the national telephone company are on strike. There is no internet connection. I can’t mail my column. Nor can I check for emails from my editor, Clare. She has been on holiday. The m/s of my new novel was part of her holiday reading. I expect her to hate it. Expecting disdain for my writing is a permanent state.
Perhaps it comes of being dyslectic and of a generation in which dyslexia wasn’t recognised and corporal punishment was standard treatment for lazy spelling.
Teachers didn’t bother reading my work.
Aged sixteen, I was grateful to be taken out of school.
Bernadette says that I am 74 and should have gained confidence.
USUAIA: WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 2
The soup is finished. For late lunch I order a serving of beef off the grill at a workman café. Home in Herefordshire we barbecue skirt. I buy direct from the abattoir where the butcher hangs beef for a minimum of eighteen days. Hanging tenderises the meat. The chunk I am served in Ushuaia must have been cut off an aged ox while it was still running wild. I struggle to hack off the corners with a saw-bladed steak knife. The juice has flavour. I chew and chew and watch the short-order cook prepare three sandwiches. First he whisks a couple of eggs onto the hot plate and adds two slices of ham. A slice of breaded veal goes on top of the ham followed by a thick slice of cheese. The whole is dumped in half of a fat French stick. Add mayonnaise, pin with a couple of toothpicks and serve.
I have given up chewing the meat and eat the salad.
The President of the Argentine is on a State visit to Mexico. Today’s newspaper publishes a discourse President Kirchner presented to the Mexican Senate. In the speech he attacks the Bush Administration for building a wall along the border. Not only is the wall an insult to Mexico, it is an insult to all the peoples of the world. President Kirchner lectures the United States on integration. President Kirchner is as white as a founder member of the Augusta National Golf Club. So is President Kirchner’s wife and possible future President, Senator Christina Kirchner - as are President Caldaron of Mexico and his wife. The front page of La Nacion carries a photograph of President Kirchner and his audience of Mexican senators. The senators are white.
On Argentine TV, brown faces are restricted to news programs.
Not even the servants in Mexican soaps are indigenous.
Both Presidents might set integration as a goal for domestic broadcasting – though criticising the United States wins more votes.
A Portuguese woman resident in Brighton, England, takes my photograph in front of the Municipal END OF THE WORLD sign. The woman has been given a Round-the-World holiday as a fortieth birthday gift.
She is an incompetent photographer.
I call a friend in Rio Grande, Graciela, owner of the Hotel Argentino. Graciela has been in Buenos Aires. I left my number at the Gran Hotel Espana with the kid she had left in charge at Rio Grande. Graciela didn’t call. I learn now that she had flown to BA for emergency surgery. Dumb kid should have told me! Kids don’t tell. A message left at my home is as likely to get through as a message in a bottle dropped in the Sargasso sea.
I have a bus ticket to Rio Grande tomorrow.
A truck will be dropping the bike at the Hotel Argentino in early evening. Total cost: 140 pesos or £22.
Two young women and a young man staff a shop specialising in up-market ski clothes. One of the women is from Bogota, Colombia. She is in Ushuaia with her novio. They are working their way round the world. The rate of pay here and the falling Argentine peso suggest that they will be in their mid-fifties before they get home. I tell the Colombian that Popayan is probably my favourite city in Hispanic America. Her novio comes from Popayan. We have established a link
The other two sales staff are from the north of Argentina. Most workers in Ushuaia come from the north. The Argentine woman offers me maté. Argentines drink maté instead of tea. What is it? An infusion of green sludge sipped through a tin straw from a tin cup. Sipping maté without grimacing is an art.
We discuss rates of pay and unemployment up north and the general corruption. The man says that most native Ushuaians have jobs in local Government. The owner of the store works in Government.
I tell the trio of Pablo’s 2000 pesos. The young man advises me to put the bike on a truck to Rio Grande. People in Rio Grande are different to Ushuaians. They aren’t so greedy.
Sandwiched between the mountains and the Beagle Channel, Ushuaia suffers the characteristics of an island. One of these characteristics is the belief that outsiders are as dumb as fish and serve the same purpose. Pablo gives me a quote for transporting the bike to Porvenir: 2000 pesos. Over £300!!!!
He tells me that the road from the frontier is black ice and deep potholes: that trying to ride would be suicide.
I reply that paying 2000 pesos would be suicide.
I need an alternative.
I also require a Balaclava.
trees permanently bent
USHUAIA: MONDAY, JULY 30
The bike is ready. Pablo has fitted new tires more suitable to snow and dirt roads. He produces a wind speed/temperature conversion table. Add 50 kph to a temperature of –2 and I would be riding at –26. Pablo will call a friend for a quote for transporting me and the bike to Porventur. A ferry runs from Porventur to the Chilean mainland where I can load the bike on a truck north to Puerto Natales.
I would enjoy reporting that I saw sealions and seals and dolphins and whales and cormorants and Imperial petrels in the Beagle Channel. I SAW nothing. I was too preoccupied with either spotting a good photograph or photographing. A half-gale blasted spray across the decks and the saloon windows. Ducking the spray and taking photographs produced interesting shots of the sky and bits of cabin and slugs slithering on rocks that only I know are sealions.
sealion or slug?
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Last November I crossed the immensity of Patagonia pretty much on cruise control. I had travelled for six months. I was cold and permanently tired. Ushuaia was the end. I stored the bike and headed for the airport.
Now Ushuaia is the beginning and I have sufficient energy to do the tourist things. Today I buy a ticket for the afternoon cruise on the Beagle Channel. The wind is blowing midway to a gale. The cruise boat is a twin-decked sixty-foot catamaran. I sit in the lower observation saloon, drink coffee and watch the cormorants. These are of the rock variety. They have white throats and bellies and are smaller than those that fishermen use in the Far East. The sea inside the harbour is smooth as slate. Every few seconds the cormorants duck their heads in the sea. Is the weather too warm? Or are they looking for fish?
They dive for fifty seconds or more. Surfacing, they paddle themselves almost clear of the water, stretch their long necks and wriggle. The catch is a swelling that passes down the throat. Two unpleasant grey gulls buzz the cormorants a couple of times before landing beside them. Cormorants float low in the water. The gulls float very high and remind me of paper sailboats my brother and I used to fold out of single sheet of paper and race down the burn.
Argentines don’t do mornings and they don’t change the clocks. First light is around 8.45. The sun finally rises between two mountains around 10.15. The cabin glows. I have bathed, made breakfast and am on my second pot of coffee. I sit in bright sunshine at the table in the bow widow and gaze up at the peaks. If you stay at the Casa Galeazzli-Basily, book the new cabin, sit out on the deck in the sun and accept that you are close to Paradise. As to the bathroom, I have it whipped. The water pressure is high. Open the bathroom taps too far and the water races through the geyser without getting hot. Open the taps too little and the gas won’t light. It takes a few minutes of a morning to perfect the flow. The bath fills and I bask, legs vertical, feet resting up the wall. Picture a dead bloated bodily-bald cow and you have the image – though cows don’t have beards. As to the lavatory, having to lift the cistern top when you flush is no big deal. The top is ceramic. Don’t drop it.
Today’s front page headline in LA NACION: only 9% of Argentines have faith in the country’s judiciary.
A Basque policeman on holiday invites me to dinner. He is not an undercover cop. He has the physique of a toned tank and is six-foot-four inches on bare feet. Disguising him would be a tough assignment. Separatists murder cops in the Basque region. I suggest that big must be a disadvantage. He answers that the size of the target is immaterial: the separatists use bombs.
He has an Argentine friend, a woman, whose parents emigrated from the Basque region.
I have been at the judicial police this afternoon to collect my deposition on the Buenos Aires pickpockets. I make a social error in remarking that the police were friendly and helpful.
In her cynicism, the Argentine Basque is typical of Argentines. All politicians are thieves. All cops are crooked. All judges are corrupt. All Peronistas are Fascist pretending to be Socialists.
We dine at an eat-all-you-can restaurant down town. We serve ourselves from a vast array of what used to be called hors d'euvre in my youth and are now commonly referred to as starters: a dozen different salads, tongue, hams, whitebait, chorizo, salami. Whole sheep, spread flat, spatter over a charcoal pit. Massive chunks of beef smoke on a grill together with offal and black pudding. There are puddings for those who want something sweet and have room. We order one of the more expensive wines on the list, an excellent heavy read Merlot. Cost for three? $40…
I’ve been writing much of the day, answering mail, Blogging, posting a column. In between times I study the guidebooks. I had a route planned through Brazil. Today a Brazilian messaged me warning that the further north the more dangerous Brazil becomes. How dangerous is dangerous? And is danger more apparent and threatening to a Brazilian. Brazilians read the newspapers, watch news on TV: every violent incident registers.
I set out on my journey south from Veracruz, Mexico, last year. Mexicans in Veracruz warned of dangers in riding across Mexico. I met only with hospitality.
Friends home in England and in the US warned that I was crazy to ride across Colombia. Of all the countries through which I rode, in Colombia I felt most secure.
However, I am a realist. I know that, in travelling, I touch only the surface. On message boards, I read questions on safety from tourists intending to travel through Guatemala. Other travellers answer that Guatemala is safe, a veritable Paradise. Guatemala is the Hispanic American country with which I am most familiar. Guatemala is extremely dangerous for Guatemalans. Police reported 2200 armed assaults on urban busses in the capital during in the first five months of 2006. I have friends who have been kidnapped, who have been held up in their own houses by gunmen, who have been robbed by armed men at midday in the city centre. As for the gentle Maya, be suspected of thieving and beware your fellow villagers. The Maya douse thieves with gasoline and strike a light.
My bike has been stored at Senor Preto's frigorifico for six months at no charge. Senor Preto is the Ushuaia distributor for Honda. He and his staff at Honda welcome me. The Agency doesn't employ a mechanic. I am dispatched to Paulo's bike shop. The bike shop is the standard bike fanatic's mess of half-assembled and half disassembled trail and endurance bikes. Some are beyond rescue. Ushuaia specialises in rocks.
Paulo lives next door to the workshop. He will be back shortly. I sit on a stool by the stove. A vast black shaggy dog leans against my legs and looks up with soulful eyes. "Please," the eyes beg , "Please, just a little love."
I scratch him behind the ears.
He leans more heavily.
Paulo arrives. He is a pony-tailed trail-biker in his mid forties with grease ingrained hands.
Can he collect my bike from the cold store and prepare it for the ride north?
Sure, why not.
He will ready the bike for Monday morning.
Sunday, July 29, 2007
I wake to the drip of melting snow off the roof. I light the heater, open the curtains. The view of mountains is magnificent. The central mountain is too sheer to hold much snow and is mostly black. The sharp peak is visible through a cap of pale-grey cloud. The sky beyond is a deeper grey. We expect snow tomorrow. I shall walk down to the sea front and watch squalls whip the surface of the Beagle channel – definitely romantic. First I make coffee. Then I report to Lola the hot water mystery. Lola calls the plumber who installed the bathroom. The taps are quality. They have china centres marked in English: Hot and Cold. The plumber doesn’t speak English. Perhaps he has reversed the taps. Yes, indeed…
After a 52-hour bus journey I am due a little comfort. I have reserved a room at the Casa Galeazzi-Basily at Gobernador Valdes 323. I am given a cabin for the same price as a room: US$38 including breakfast and use of the internet. Expensive. Ushuaia is expensive.
To reach the cabin, I walk down a wooden walkway. The walkway changes levels frequently, steps up and steps down, patches of ice The young receptionist, Lola, leads the way. I don’t care to tell her that I am terrified of slipping.
The cabin is recently completed. I am the first occupant. Two windows and panes in the upper half of the door form a bay. A table and two chairs fill the bay. There is a double bed and a kitchen counter equipped with mini fridge and two-burner hotplate. The fridge holds all the makings for my breakfast plus a couple of beers. Joy of joy, the bathroom has a bath. True, not a full size bath, but a bath big enough to bask in if I rest my feet up the wall. Fifty-two hours in a bus and my back hurts. My desires are for a hot bath and bed.
Lola leaves and I open the hot tap to the tub. The water runs cold. I open the tap in the kitchen sink. The water runs hot. I try the tap in the bathroom sink and the water runs cold. To flush the lavatory I have to lift the lid on the cistern each time I flush the lavatory. A gas heater produces too much heat. The TV shows a snowstorm on three channels. Yet the polished wood floor is delight, towels are thick, the mattress is firm. Stupid old man, stop complaining. Brush your teeth and get into bed…
FRIDAY, JULY 27
The bus departs Buenos Aires at 8.30 p.m. on Wednesday. I arrive here in Ushuaia on Friday, at 10.30 p.m. Travelling by bus is more reliable and considerably cheaper than Aerolineas Argentina. The distance is 3000 kilometres. A bed-seat for the two nights on the bus to Rio Gallegos costs US$100 including aeroplane type food. The AndesMar coach is a double-decker. The bed seats are on the lower deck and seats are sufficiently wide to enable a passenger to sleep on his side. Take books. The Atlantic littoral is endless miles of featureless dry scrub; a Texan would be at home.
We reach Rio Gallegos at 8 a.m. I catch an immediate connection to Ushuaia, £11. The road crosses a wild lumpity moorland studded with lakes. Sheep, wild geese and vacuna share immense paddocks. Raptors perch on fence posts, face to the wind. We pass through four sets of Customs and Immigration: out of Argentina, into Chile; out of Chile, into Argentina – time consuming. A small drive-on ferry carries us across the Straits of Magellan – definitely romantic. We stop briefly in Rio Grande, then climb through a strange land of shattered pine forest. Thousands of trees lie tumbled. Amongst the fallen stand jagged stumps and half trunks. So must have been the battlefields of World War One. Beavers imported from Canada did the damage – or disease – or climate change. All three explanations are on offer.We creep up through mountains that once isolated Ushuaia. The road is surfaced with packed snow and ice. A double-trailer truck sprawls crumpled in the ditch on the inside of a curve. The last descent and we see street lights curving round the bay on the Beagle channel. The Municipality promotes Ushuaia as being both the most southerly town and the end of the world – more façade. Puerto Williams in Chile is further south and globes don’t have ends. Not that I care. I like the place. It was my goal last year on the ride south from Mexico. Now it is my starting point on a new journey.
WEDNESDAY, JULY 25
I arrive at the bus terminal with an hour to spare. The bus for Rio Gallegos leaves from dock 1 to 18. I find a seat and listen to the departures announced over the speaker system. A young woman sits beside, asks the time and to where am I travelling. She tells me she and her girlfriend have seats on the same bus. The bus pulls in. I surender my ticket, shove my wallet back in the leg pocket of mmy cargo pants and carry my bags towards the cargo hold. The two women shove sandwich me, shoving with their bags. I think of them as ill mannered. I should think that Argentinians are seldom ill mannered. On public transport, men give up their seats to women and oldies. And I should wonder at women without anoraks travelling to Patagonia. Shove, shove and my wallet has gone. So have the women. The theft and fake peso bills are my fault. I am seventy-four. I know better. My only excuse is that I am re-acclimatising.
TUESDAY, JULY 24
Visitors to Buenos Aires are confused by the smart clothes and broad avenues of splendid nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings. Buy a newspaper, sit at a café, sip coffee and you enjoy the illusion of being in a major European capital. Read the paper and reality seeps through. Striking fishermen have blockaded the main fishing port and torched the processing plants. Pickets have closed all but one bridge into Uruguay. Pickets block highways. Why? Because direct action is as Argentine as beefsteak (see the smashing of computers by passengers at the airport for internal flights). And, perhaps because a Presidential election approaches. The main candidates are followers of Peron – Peronistas. The official Peronista candidate is the present President’s wife. There is an opposition Peronista candidate and there are dissident Peronista candidates. All this is incomprehensible to an outsider. Those of us with memories and an interest in foreign affairs recall Peron as something of a buffoon, a lesser Mussolini, wrecker of the seventh largest economy in the world. Our children know only the stage or film version of EVITA.
Past President Menen supports one of the canditates. A foreigner would presume Menen’s support to be the kiss of death.And, yes, the economy is once again heading for disaster. The Government has been falsifying the inflation figures. And a Minister has resigned because of the illicit money discovered hidden in her bathroom.
TUESDAY, JULY 24
Carlo, the hotel manager, is delighted. The fake bills from the cab driver confirm his faith in the villainy of his Buenos Aires compatriots. I take the underground to the bus terminal and reserve a seat for tomorrow to Rio Gallegos.
MONDAY, JULY 23
I go to the movies this evening. I take a cab back to the hotel. I don’t have sufficient change for the fare and pay with a 100-peso bill (3.3 pesos to the US dollar). I drop by the corner café, drink a beer and eat two empanadas. I pay with a 20-peso bill. The waiter catches me at the entrance to the hotel: the bill is a fake. All the bills the cabdriver gave me in change are counterfeit. A writer has an advantage over other folk: mishaps are good copy.
MONDAY, JULY 23
Discovering relatives in a foreign land is a great delight – particularly when travelling the vast expanses of Argentina. Cousins at four generations’ distance have invited me to lunch at their apartment. Tony was a great polo player in his youth. He brought a string of ponies to England each year and sold them off at the end of the polo season. My elder brother bought one of the ponies, Rubia. There is the connection. We are five at table in a panelled dinning room: Tony, a younger brother and their wives.
I feel very scruffy in my cargo trousers.