Monday, August 25, 2008

And the Days, They were Long and Arduous...

Well three of them were, but I'll get to that in a minute. This is a biggie I'm afraid, so strap yourselves in....
So, its been a whole week since my last post, and by crikey things have been happening! Mendoza was a nice break, although I was victim to a scam artist...sort of. My good nature allowed him to talk to me for a bit, this bloke on the street, and he was very polite and spoke slowly so I could follow what he was saying, but then he started asking about how much money I had etc and before I knew it he was holding a wedge of my cash and did some kind of magic trick where he mixed it with water in his hand, it turned into purple mush and vanished, before he revealed it in his other hand. Very clever and worth a couple of bob I guess, but it made me rather uncomfortable when he wouldn't give my cash back when I asked him to, until he'd done his trick. Still, I reckon you need to get stung once at least to learn to avoid wasps!
Anyhoo, we ended up staying in Mendoza an extra day cos it peed down, and when we left, we decided to take the old road back to Uspallata, then head north to Calingasta - about 250km I guess, mostly on gravel. The first part was fine, out past Villa Valencia, into the desert and a bit of an incline. Then the fog rolled in, but the people in Mendoza had told us that if it was foggy this side of the mountain, it'd be clear on the other, so on and up we soldiered.
True to their word, we eventually broke through the fog and clouds, out of the damp and into the sunshine, with some glorious views (we're getting used to those!). We continued up, higher and higher, until some traces of snow lined the road (can you guess where this is going? We didn't.), and then, in shady places, a bit of snow would be in the road, but easily skirted around. And up we went. And lo, the snow it got more plentiful, and the road more slippy, and still we went up, and the worse it got. Eventually, after slipping off the bike a couple of times and being passed by cars that were giving up and turning round, I suggested maybe the conditions were a bit extreme for bikes. Rich figured it couldn't be far to the top, and the sun on the other side would have melted the snow, so why not plod on? Somewhat reluctantly, I agreed and I think we both regretted the decision fairly smartly. By this stage we had worked out (by we, I mean Rich) that riding in the new snow on the verges was easier than the packed stuff - not rocket science, I grant you, but I was preoccupied by trying to stay on my bike at walking pace - so I slipped, slid and dropped my way ever upwards into more and more snow, and no sign of the top any time soon. Rich was faring a little better, but even he came a cropper once or twice, and every time I slid off, he'd stop and help me pick my bike up again, which was jolly team-spirited of him.
It was a long day, let me tell you, and the snow on the other side of the hill was just as bad, and progress painfully slow, not to mention just plain painful at times. At one point we stopped for a drink of coke with a family at the side of the road, and they assured us it was only 4km more of snow, then clear roads. What they also mentined was that the snow got deeper first. Oh goody.
By the time my odometer had clocked up 4km, I had traveled about 300m, on account of the poor traction, so we soon lost track of how far we'd gone and how far was left. I was shattered by now, having dropped the bike countless times, and poor old Rich was just as tired from having to help pick it up or push me out of a stuck situation. I was able to return the favour from time to time, but his superior skills kept him out of trouble most fo the time and I'm afraid to say I was starting to feel a bit of a burden. Gotta be grateful to Rich for never losing his patience, despite my tendancy to treat each fall in the tried and tested McMullen fashion of swearing like a sailor with turettes (sp?) syndrome. I doubt you have to be a biker to appreciate how much snow is NOT our friend, however picturesque it looks!
As in all good fairy stories though, good triumphed over snow, and we rolled into Uspallata about 8 hours and 100km after leaving Mendoza. Always looking for silver linings, at least it was sunny and not too cold, and snow not mud, which would have been just as slippy but a thousand times dirtier. And we also got a night in Uspallata, at the youth hostel out of town, where we had a fantastic night, camped out in -5C, and joined some locals on a bank holiday weekend break for their Asado (Argy BBQ), which was a hugely entertaining and vastly more genuine experience than we'd ever have got in a cafe or restaurant. We also made some good friends, got some addresses to stay at in Buenos Aires, and I had my luggage rack unbent by Nico, a mechanic from BA on his holidays. All in all it was one of those whole experiences that starts you off asking "what the hell am I doing here?", then reveals exactly why you're there, like some kind of Karmic wizard.
After that, we headed north to Calingaste, through a wide valley bordered by snowy mountains, had a night there, then moved on to near San Jose de Jachal, to a gap on the river bank near a town called Huaco. The camp site was well hidden from the road and free, so you can't argue with that!
The next day we figured, after asking in a number of Info huts, to take the Ruta 150 to San Agustin. The short route, it was, with the plan of getting to SA and having an early stop and a day off. It was a great road, and hugely enjoyable, with a couple of shallow river crossings to make life interesting. However (isn't there always a "however"?), we got to within 20km of the end of the road, 60km or so under our belts on the gravel, when we ran into a road construction crew. Constructing the road. They found it very amusing when we explained where we were trying to get to, and kindly showed us on our map exactly where we were, before making it very clear we weren't going to be going any further. In fact, the man said, even on horses we wouldn't get through. They asked if the police road block had not told us the problem? We said the policeman just waved us through (in retrospect, he may have been indicating which road to take, but he didn't try and and stop us when we took the other road) They invited us to wait while the finished. Four years, give or take. Inevitably, we turned around, and just as we were heading off back the way we'd come, the chief party pooper pointed to a bird - our first condor in fact - and helpfully said "If you go by condor you will make it!" So back we went. And it was just as scenic from the other direction, and I even got some video footage, which may be too long to load on to Youtube, so may have to be viewed on DVD when I post it back to the UK. When we got back to the tarmac, we went north to Valle de Union, up the side of a huge empty desert with another condor, then, at Union, we went south down the other side of the desert, with another condor. Or maybe the same one, they stay pretty high, so its not always easy to tell them apart. We eventually got into San Agustin far later than planned, and 450 long and boring km later (long arduous day #2), for our well earned rest day. I went to the Valle de la luna, and Rich stayed home and played with the bikes. Hopefully some vid will be on Youtube of my day out (apologies if its a bit dull, but its more for my benefit on this occasion). The second night we followed directions 8km out of town to a camp site. What the directions failed to mention was the 10 or so river crossings we'd need to make to get there, but all well and good and we found a great little spot to stay the night.
Next day, we figured it was time to make some progress west, so we decided on a tarmac day to some destination or other never reached. Yes, as per the opening line, this is the 3rd long arduous day. Started well, though, except we missed the road out of SA that we'd been looking for. No worries, mate, we'll take the next left about 20km further on, no biggie. Except after half an hour on deeper sand than I was used to, we pretty much came to a dead end at some old farm buildings. For the second time, the map had sold us a red herring! Back we went, getting used to the sand, and back down the main road. Eventually, 15km before the actual turn, we spotted a gravel road that the map said would save us some distance, so down we went. Not a pleasant road, I have to say, with quite a lot of sand, some of it proper deep, so extreme caution was used (by me, anyway, Rich was off like a rat up a drainpipe), but all to no avail. I am proud to report that my first crash happened on this road (don't panic mum, it was only technically a crash, being as it happend at a faster pace than a "drop"). I hit a patch of super deep and extended sand, which slowed me down suddenly from about 30km/h to 20, and over I went. Unfortunatley, as the handle bars got embedded in the sand, they bent a bit, not that I realised this straight away, as when I picked the bike up, I managed to do so that successfully that I tipped it over on to its other side. Up it came again, and off I set, spitting sand, only to come a cropper in the same patch of sand 3m further on. You can probably picture the look of joy on my face, if you try really hard. Go on, try, see if you can. Up for the third time, out of the sand, and that was when I realised the bars weren't really pointing where I thought they should be (still got that happy picture of me in your head? Now, times it by 10.). It was at this point things began to get better. And when I say better, of course I mean worse. First, I met Rich coming back the other way. Not, as I thought to see what was holding me up, but because there was a locked gate up the road, and we couldn't get out, so we were going to have to turn round. Again. Bent bars for nothing I thought. Rich was impressed to notice, at this point, that I had thought to let some air out of my back tyre to improve traction through the sand. This surprised me somewhat, as I had done no such thing. Yes. Icing on the cake time, I had a puncure, in the desert. In a really sandy part of the desert with no firm ground ideal for changing tyres, just soft sand, no good at all for changing tyres on. Still got that picture in your head? Add a bit of colour to it. Somehow I had run over a nail. Surely not in the desert, probably at the side of the road, but it had done its job and given all the air an escape route.
An hour later, having had the wheel and half the tyre off, we had patched the hole and put everything back together and were heading back to the road, me even slower than usual due to shaken confidence in the sand due to the fall, and also to the wonky bars which were very unnerving in the sand, though not so bad on the road. In the end, later than planned, we found a B&B in a town called Chepes, where we tried to sort my bars out, as the newly adjusted riding position caused my left hand to go numb (useful in certain circumstances, so I'm led to believe, but not when riding a motorbike). And this is when the silver lining to Long and Arduous Day 3 was revealed. The bloke who owned the beer shop next to the B&B knew a bloke who could straighten the bars, so, after unsuccessfully trying to do it ourselves, I hopped on the back of his scooter for the most terrifying 3 minutes riding so far in South America, to his mates workshop. Five minutes later, having been laughed at a bit (and lets face it, I was beginning to see the funny side...almost) I was presented with a set of perfectly straight bars. A miracle, I hear you cry. Well, its what I said anyway, and between us we re-named the bloke Fernando Da Vinci. And things got better from there. Our new friend, Juan Manuel (yes, he really was called Manuel!)'s wife owned the shop next door, and her parents owned the pizzaria round the corner...and who should her father have been? Why, none other than Mr Da Vinci, of course! So we ended up having a big family experience in the family pizza shop, with lots of beer and laughter and broken spanish, got given a new (and hopefully reliable secon- hand map), and what had been a pretty crappy day ended on a massive high.
For now, that ought to do. We are currently having at least one, and maybe two days off in a small holiday town called Capilla del Monte near to Cordoba, staying in a beautifully tranquil camp site run by ex-2nd-in-Argentina mountain biker Victor. Today, I ran up a mountain (we're at about 950m already, and the summit was 1979m - 1000m up, about 6km of track), and had a fall 5 minutes before reaching the bottom, taking a good chunk out of my left knee, but that is a story for another day. Til then, hope you enjoyed the latest, sorry it was so long, but who'd o' guessed so much would happen on this trip, huh?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

...And They're Off!

Its only been a few days since the last update, but we're off into the big unknown tomorrow so thought I'd throw in a quickie in case I forget anything.
The morning after the 80's revival night, we followed some friends out to the small fishing village of Quintay, about 30km south of Valpo. One of our friends has an uncle who owns a seafood restaurant on the beach front (photos will be forthcoming), so we went there and got shouted lunch. It was a beautiful spot, virtually unspoiled by tourists (we tried to leave it that way) and used almost solely by locals or near-locals. Rich had a length of deed fried conger eel and chips, and I had swordfish and chips, or maybe it was swordwhale, given the size of the slice! It was a crazy place, and Rich managed to narrowly avoid a social faux pas in the bathroom, by identifying the rubbish bin for what it was almost as soon as he'd mistaken it for the toilet bowl. Still, seeing as the bin is for used paper (primitive plumbing rules here), I don't think anyone will mind too much. And, as far as I know, there were no witnesses...
Later that evening we went to some other friends for dinner (homemade pizza and pissco sour - a marguerhita style drink that's very tart) followed by a party in a bar hosted, if that's the right word, by a Londoner with a Clash-esque band which none of the locals could understand. No fault of theirs though, we both struggled, it has to be said, but it was loud and had a good beat, and when he'd finished he spun the wheels of steel with the obligatory 80's mix, which, no doubt, was what the locals were waiting for!
And then, almost in the blink of an eye, we were off. The day we left we detoured to Laguna Verde to collect a key for a flat in Santiago where we to stay that night. Unfortunately LV is off the main road a bit...quite a fact, so far that I got my first taste of rutted mud tracks and steep hills, so a nice little starter for 10 there! I passed with flying colours though, didn't fall off or drop the bike at all, but we failed to find the house we were looking for, so resorted to phoning up from the mian road and waiting for them to bring it to us.
Off to Santiago, then. easy motorway riding to get there, then chaotic rush hour traffic to find the appartment building, including a ridiculously long traffic jam in a ridiculously long tunnel full of absurdley smokey vehicles, so it wasn't long before we were (carefully) weaving our way through the traffic to escape. That evening we met up with a friend of mine from the UK, Tatiana Storie, who visites her family in Santiago every year. We had a great eveing with her, getting more Pissco and another free feed, before back to the flat and an impromtu wine evening with our host and some of her friends. Luckily the wine ran out about 3am, so an early night for once...
Next day was to be our first crossing of the Andes. I expect there to be many more, and having completed ne, I am sure there will be. It was every bit as spectacular as I expect you can imagine, and more so. At one point, I looked ahead at the side of the sheed hill and saw, amongst the massive snow drifts, what appeared to be terraces, like you'd see in a the side of a deep open cast mine. the terraces were in fact the road, switching back on itself with startling regularity, barely seeming to make any progress up the hill for each turn back. Despite the enormous amounts of snow, the roads were incredibly clear and dry, however and the riding superb. The temperature dropped to a minimum of -0.4C at one point, but gear was up to the challenge and we didn't freeze. At the top was the San Pedro Tunnel - 3km long through to the otherside of the mountain - which delivered us to the border and Argentina.
We made it through customs with minimum of effort. On the Chilean side, we had our bike importation documents taken, but were assured we'd be given new ones in Argentina. So we got our gear on, wrapped up warm, got on the bikes ready for the trip through no-man's land to the Argentinian border, set off, and were flagged down 5m on at the next booth. We'd made it to Argentina! Once again, Lady Luck smiled on us and passing businessman took pity on us and filled in all our complicated foreign forms, so we were through there in no time. Easy.
On the way out of the covered customs area, the Argy side was less clear on the roads, and I slid off my bike just out of sight of the customs boys, which saved me a little face from them, but not Rich, who manfully helped pick my bike up. On down the mountain to Uspallata for the night, a tiny developing ski town (give it 5 years and it'll be a Mecca for snow bunnies I reckon), and the next day it was off to Mendoza for a bit of well-earned R&R. Which is where I am now, and where I have run out of time on the computer. We're going vaguely north tomorrow, heading roughly to Paraguay, so I will keep you all posted soon. Until then, perhaps you could tell me: ¿Cuanto es el Perro en la ventuna?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

They're Under Starters Orders...

Wow. Culture shock and awe going on here. It's day 4 right now and my head is spinning with the sights, sounds, smells, language, beer, you name it, its probably making my head spin right now. I've had it pretty easy so far, it has to be said. I was met at the airport by a friend of a friend who, after having to wait 1 1/2 hours for my late arrival then offered to drive me the 120km to Valparaiso, thus saving me the trials of finding bus stops and buying tickets. Result, and thank you, Anamaría! My initial attempts at carefully rehearsed phrases I thought I would need when I met Anamaría dissolved into a confused mix of Frenish (or maybe Spench?) as nerves took over. Fortunately, Anamaría spoke pretty good English, so I had an impromptu Spanish lesson as we drove to Valparaiso.
She dropped me off at the bus station in Valpo, where I met Rich, and we headed to his base, in the house of a Chilean guy called Daniel who he met one day when Daniel was checking out Rich's bike (still with me?). Daniel has almost no English and Rich had almost no Spanish, but with a mutual love of bikes, within a very short time they were best mates, and Daniel was offering his house and lock-up for sleeping and bike storage respectively, and the invitation included me.
We have developed a fairly symbiotic relationship as far as language goes, with us teaching Daniel and him teaching us, and it works well, if you abandon inhibitions, roll up your sleeves and just get miming. It is amazing what you can communicate with sound effects, extravagant gesticulations and big smiles! Add into the mix Daniel's large social network and you find yourself holding long and complicated conversations in a mixture of English, Spanish, French, German, Italian....and mime. Once initial shyness over trying to speak foreign went, I've found I'm really enjoying the challenge of it all.
Anyhow, the rest of Wednesday included beer, a walk round town, an attempted mugging (we were the victims, not the attackers) by a couple of school kids having a crack at the newly arrived gringo (maybe talking loudly in English in small alleys is not a good idea - I think it draws attention), and an impromptu knees up at home with some of Daniel's mates, lasting til the wee small hours and involving my introduction to Pisco, a local liquor made from grapes and possibly used for stripping paint.
Thursday introduced us to the joys of "Coffee with legs" and took us to the Port and my bike, and Daniel proved his worth once again by going above and beyond the call of duty by spending the whole day standing around with me waiting while people passed bits of paper around and around and around. Its a crazy system for sure, but I freed my bike in record time (only 7 hours - it took Rich 3 days). We celebrated by going to a seafood restaurant that Daniel knew (we are so far off the tourist trail, its great!) and I enjoyed (its all relative - up to this day, I've generally avoided shellfish) a bowl of shellfish soup, containing not just the shell fish, but also their shells, tubey bits and most of the sea bed, judging from the high sand content! I have quickly realised that I'll have to eat anything put in front of me, at least until I can understand the menus well enough to know what it is I've ordered! Big smiles and bellies full (of bread mostly), we popped home then out again to a local bar full of local people - like I said, Daniel is taking us to the heart of Valpo and we laugh at the silly tourists - with loads of people, a live band playing their own music and vodka and cokes served in such a way that there is almost no room for the coke. The people are so friendly and welcoming and before long (well, 2.30am) we were off for more beer at someone's house, before finally passing out on various sofas in the even wee-er small hours.
Yesterday was bike fiddling stuff and, for dinner, more peculiar local fare courtesy of Daniel's favourite cafe - some kind of cold jellied pork (or some other meat-like product) served in a bowl with raw, sliced onion and white kidney beans. Mmmm. Luckily there was bread and beer to wash it down so we put in a good showing and made like it was the best thing ever - which in a way it was, I suppose. We followed this up with a return to the local bar, which tonight had a DJ playing twin turntables with classic 80's vinyl with some Beatles thrown in for good measure. Duran Duran,Tears for Fears and Spandau Ballet never got such an enthusiastic reception! Its a crazy atmosphere with people sat at tables jumping up to dance when the mood took them, loads of booze and heaps of fun. We have coined a phrase, Richard and I:"Everything's normal in Chile". Seems to cover all eventualities...
So, that's what we've been up to, but what of Valparaiso itself? Well, for those of you familiar with Wellington in NZ, its the same kind of layout, i.e. a flat level strip round the seafront with massively steep hills covered in houses that seem to defy the laws of gravity and built of mostly corrugated tin and crossed fingers. The roads are tarmac in the town centre but crumbly concrete slabs and cobbles on the unfeasible steep hills (I have never driven up steeper) and crazy dogs leaping out of every corner. The sunsets are amazing and I can't wait to get out on the open road and see more of it.
Have to go now though, so just remember: Esta es un robo!