Friday, August 10, 2007


Graciela’s ex-future novio, Fernando, has been out to the frontier in his 4X4 pickup to collect the bike – the road was ice free. The back end of the bike is a mess. Xavier advises trucking the bike to the Honda Agency in Buenos Aires. The future is taking shape. I can take the bus to Puerto Natales in Chile and the ferry north to Rio Montt and bus north to Santiago. From Santiago I get the bus across northern Argentine, visit Paraguay, then bus south to collect the bike in BA and continue up through Uruguay into Brazil. Meanwhile Pepe has brought crutches. I am not good on crutches. My balance is uncertain. Maybe the painkillers are to blame. Hopefully I will improve.


Graciela has many friends. She has summoned an orthopaedic surgeon friend to offer a second opinion on the ankle. In his early sixties, Pepe is a one-legged mini version of James Robertson-Justice. He divides his life between a medical practice in Buenos Aires and a 17000 hectare estancia in Tierra del Fuego. In Buenos Aires he rides a 1970s Triumph 750. The leg was victim of a bike crash.
Pepe examines the x-rays. He is against pinning. The operation will delay recovery. Four weeks in plaster with no weight on the foot, a further month taking things carefully…


I was smashed awake three times in the night as the bike slid from under me and my shoulder hit the ice. To get to the bathroom, I use a chair as a walker. Graciela points out that I am in her room so that she can help me to the bathroom. I hate waking her. She says my pushing a chair across the floor is a more stressful awakening than being asked quietly for help. Many thousand years of human history have witnessed men resisting such female logic. Graciela says I snore.

Thursday, August 09, 2007


this morning, farewell...

Graciela drives me back to the Hotel Argentino. I am discussed in the third person by Graciela and her novio and by various massive workers off the oilrigs. I am referred either to as little grandfather or little old man. The little is a term of endearment. The decision is taken unanimously and without a vote. I am to sleep in the spare bed in Graciela’s room. There is a bathroom and the room is conveniently adjacent to the kitchen. I have run out of humour. My ankle hurts and I am beginning to fade. I am put to bed in my striped pyjamas. I lie beneath the sheets and wonder at my fortune, yes, that I am alive and so little damaged, but far more fortunately, to be in the care of such extraordinary friends. Why should they, these Argentines, each one with his or her own problems, care for an old Englishman? My only connection to them before visiting Rio Grand for the second time was a single November evening last year at the end of my ride south from Mexico. Graciela and I sat in the kitchen and talked of life and hopes and loves and sorrows late into the night. We talked of our children and of our fears for them. I spoke of my longing to return home, of how much I missed Bernadette. I have reached an age where I am no longer suspect. Sexuality no longer creates a barrier. Truth is more easily discovered. Friendships come more easily and are both more precious and more wondrous.


The orthopaedic surgeon examines the x-rays. The truck parted the round bit of what I think of as the anklebone. The surgeon advises pinning it back in place - plaster for two months, a further month of minimum activity. He applies the plaster. I enquire as to the cost.
The doctor says, “Your insurance will pay for it.”
I explain that insurance companies don’t insure old men of seventy-four who chose to ride motorcycles the length of the Americas.


Riding the eighty kilometres to the Chilean frontier took four hours. The ambulance returns me to Rio Grande in an hour. I am x-rayed from head to toe. I hate being x-rayed. Will they find something seriously frightening? The operator reports that my ankle is broken.
I am wheeled to a doctor’s office. The doctor says, “You have damaged your thorax.”
“My ankle.”
“No, your thorax.”
“My ankle,” I insist.
The x-rays arrive. The doctor holds them up to the light. “Your ankle is broken.”
I am about to reply, “No, my thorax.”
Graciela arrives. I must behave.
She says, “So, little grandfather, what have you done?”
“Nothing,” I say.
“Broken his ankle,” the doctor says.
Graciela ought to be exasperated.


The nurse at the Aid post is a warm, kindly, overweight grandmother.
She takes my temperature and my pulse and my blood pressure. I ask if I am alive. The Chilean cop says, “You shouldn’t be.”
I say, “It is something to boast of, being hit by three trucks.”
My hysteria contaminates both Argentine and Chilean cops. Raucous is an accurate description as the nurse removes my thermal suit.
To get at my ankle she has to cut through three sets of thermal underwear.
I beg her to be careful with the scissors.
She binds my ankle, helps me to the ambulance and straps me onto a stretcher.
I am being taken to the hospital in Rio Grande. The nurse holds my hand. She wants to give me a shot. I decline.
The driver skids on a rut.
She falls on me – a second assault.


This end of Tierra del Fuego is a treeless moreland of tough tufted grass. The clarity of light foreshortens the vast distances and hills seem no more than ridges sculpted and scoured by the incessant wind. Fifteen kilometres of dirt roads separate Argentine and Chilean frontier posts. The road follows the coast. The sea is grey green and fringed with foam. Ponds and lakes are iced.
The trucks hit me two kilometres short of the Chilean border. Two Chilean cops load me and the bike into a double cab 4X4 pickup. I make inane remarks and find the remarks hilarious. I doubt if I make much sense. The Chileans want rid of me. They determine that I do the sensible thing: return to the emergency clinic at the Argentine frontier. Both cops are young. The driver drives one-handed; the pickup fishtails on ice.
I ask if they are friends with the Argentine cops.
“Certainly we are friends, good friends. Difficulties are made by the politicians.”


I got hit by three trucks today. I am unlikely to write a better opening in my remaining years. I am fortunate to be writing. I intended riding from Rio Grande to Porvenir in Chile and take the ferry across the Straits of Magellan to Puerto Arenas. Monday evening I checked with men working on the oil fields near the frontier. They reported the road clear. Unfortunately snow fell on the high ground during the night. Sections of the road were sheet ice. A sensible man would have turned back. I had been in Rio Grande a week. I had said my goodbyes. Retreating would have been unmanly. I fell twice before the trucks got me. Two of the trucks were on a trailer pulled by the prime mover. I was riding very slowly on an incline and, where possible, keeping to patches of bare tar or gravel. The truck came from behind. The driver sounded his klaxon. I may have tried to swerve off the road. I don’t know. The truck hit my back wheel. The bike tipped. I was trapped astride the bike beneath the truck’s front fender. We slid for forty metres. The driver clambered down from his cab, a tall man in his late forties, grey hair. He expected to find me dead. He was close to weeping at discovering me alive. He and his mate pried the bike free. Could I stand?
I wasn’t sure.
I said, “Let me rest a little.”
I wiggled toes and fingers. I bent legs and arms. Everything functioned. My write ankle hurt. Nothing else. I rolled onto my belly and knelt, supporting myself on the truck fender. The driver helped me to my feet. He held me in his arms, named me brother. He should have called me a damn fool for riding a motorbike in winter on Tierra del Fuego, a double damned fool for attempting to ride on ice.
I said what every Englishman of my generation would say in similar circumstances, “I’m so sorry. Please excuse me…”


Argentine TV is lamentable. People read. A steady stream of customers enters the book shop up the street from the Hotel Argentino. In England, few bookstores outside major cities would equal the choice in books. I order a Spanish translation of White Sands published in Buenos Aires. The book is a farewell gift to Graciela. The owners of the store ask me to sign one of the central pillars. Any visiting author would be flattered with the same courtesy. Later I meet with the lawyer. We talk of the judical system. He says, Integrity and independence of the judicial system are the foundations of society. Here there is neither.



Rio Grande is an oil town. Xavier is a driller. He has been working rigs for nearly thirty years and is excited now at bringing in a well as he was when he began. He is a short man with a full short greying beard, permanent twinkle and lopsided smile. He drives me to Sunday lunch at Fernando's home. Fernando started as engineer on ships servicing offshore rigs before founding his own maintence business. Pedro installs security systems. Other guests are a third generation lawyer, a head of department in the Provincial Government together with pregnant wife and two-year-old grandchild.
The official is within the system. The lawyer is disgusted by endemic corruption. They differ in politics. The confrontation across the table is indirect. I almost miss it. Fernando is tending meat at the charcoal grill full width of what would be a narrow patio in a warmer climate but here is roofed with a transparent thermal palstic. Pedro is opening bottles of red wine. Xavier is twinkling. The official's pregnant wife is feeding her granddaughter. The lawyer pushes his chair back and is gone.
We eat meat and drink good red wine until evening. Back at the hotel I fall asleep in an arm chair.

Monday, August 06, 2007


Few people in the US have roots or local loyalties. People emmigrate from East to West and back in search of promotion. Make more money, and they move house from a $100,000 salary neghbourhood to a $150,000 neighbourhood, from $150,000 to $200,000. Move, move, move...A society of gypsies.
Tierra del Fuego is somewhat similar. The island is populated by incomers. Most are men. Women take their pick. Three sit at the bar. One believes herself too tall. She watches another young woman. This second woman is dressed in some sort of fashion work suit in pale beige. She plays the coquette, displaying her shape, pursing her lips for a kiss from a tall, handsome novio. Yet there is a hollow core to her confidence. She wields her beauty, yet knows that she is not beautiful, merely moderately pleasing - condemned outside Tierra del Fuego to play a different roll. Perhaps a wallflower...
The tall young woman is envious, yet sees the hollowness.


We are four in the pub on Saturday night, three men and Graciela of the Hotel Argentino. Pub? So the sign says. The oblong space is in a new building. Rental as a hardware store or shoe shop would seem more likely. Pub it is.
We sit at a corner table beneath a photograph of Rio Grande in the thirties. For Rio Grande, Thirties is antique - as it would be for much of the US. Other similarities come to mind. Political Parties represent loyalties rather than philosophy. Xavier, a driller for nearly thirty years, sites control as the only political aim. The leader of his union has exercised control for twenty years. He owns a yacht, various houses and property.
Two nondescript young men sit at the bar. They attempt jokes with the waitress and are ignored. How many times will they visit the pub? Will they eventually recognise that they will never belong, never be insiders.
Graciela, Xavier and Pedro are insiders.
The pub owner kisses and chats.
Other arrivals pay respects.
Pedro takes the car and fetches some king of cable for the music system.
Yes, we definitely belong.
The tab of under US$20 covers a bottle of wine, beers, tea for Graciela and coffee.