Latest Update (as at 30/1/11):

Location: London. Back.

Total Distance Cycled: 10,325km
Days Biking: 140
Longest Day: 174km (2/12/10)

Friday 19 March 2010

The Kindness of Strangers

On one of our early bus journeys South from Buenos Aires, Liz mentioned that Kate Adie's autobiography is called The Kindness of Strangers.  The name was taken from her experiences of complete strangers showing extraordinary generosity to her during her times in improbable (usually war stricken) places.  This phrase stuck in my head.  It has somehow resonated in recent weeks each time we've been on the receiving end of yet another unsolicited kindness through Argentina - which, incidentally, is not a warzone.

Take yesterday, for example - we arrived in Zapala during a hot afternoon, struggled to find a hotel, hung out in the bus terminal whilst we hunted for one and eventually landed up in the ex-Army personnel club.  Brilliant old photographs of generals and ex-club presidents hanging on the wall, and all impeccably clean.  Avelino, with his big smile, twinkly eyes and degree in administration, was on duty on the desk.  He first spent 20 minutes enthusing about Zapala's riches to us two rare overseas visitors.  We had not had a shower for a couple of days, and the shower was calling to us, but before he showed us to our rooms, impressed by our interest in his town (and ignoring our smell), he said he wanted to give us a present.  He disappeared briefly and brought back for us each a small piece of fossilised fish that he had found during one of his long distance runs into the fossil/dinosaur laden hills around Neuquen province.

Earlier in the day, we had left the indigenous Mapuche indian family outside whose house we had camped overnight off Ruta 40.  Theirs is a simple - very simple - existence, with a small house built from bricks they had made themselves, and surrounded by litter strewn scrubland and rotting animal hides hung roughly over wooden structures.  And yet they could not have been more charming, Grandpa in his roughly knitted clothes showing us various possibilities for where we could put our tent, introducing us to three generations of family, and toothless Grandma helping to keep the poor starving cat away from our camping stove.  When the hay delivery man turned up in his 1965 orange pick up, we truly began to feel a temporary part of this set up.  More about the Mapuche later...

Far from the Argentine stereotype of everyone being on the make and quick to take advantage of a situation, we have had constant random moments of impromptu kindness.  Take the lady in Villa la Angostura, running the town's most bustling restaurant, who came rushing out after we left calling 'Felipe, Felipe...', brandishing my sunglasses that I'd left on the table.  Or the driver of the massive tipper truck which, slogging up a bumpy ripio hill, overtook us and then stopped dead in a cloud of dust; I saw an arm waving something out of the window, which transpired to be my other (we only have 2 each!) pair of socks; they had fallen off the back of the bike and he had evidently stopped some way back to pick them up.  Or the water truck driver yesterday who, near the top of one of our steepest and longest climbs yet, in blazing sunshine, stopped his own painful grind up to ask if we would like some of his water.

Lunch earlier this week was extraordinary.  Ruta 40 is a route of mythical loneliness - everyone, but everyone that we asked 'what's in the 200km to Zapala?' just said 'nada'.  They weren't quite right.  80km from any kind of town, we saw what we hallucinated might be a small bar, but which turned out to be Escuela 247, a boarding school for underprivileged Mapuche indian children.  Initially miserable that we'd kidded ourselves it might mean lunch, we thought we'd investigate nonetheless.  Inside, I ran into Luis, who turned out to be the headmaster, and Pablo his proudly Mapuche sidekick.  When I asked a few questions about the place, Luis offered immediately to give us a lunchtime tour, and showed us not only each and every classroom, but also the little computer room, the basic library, the teachers' office and even the bathrooms!  He then said we should bring our bikes round to his own house, where there were four places laid for lunch and where we tucked into school dinner with him and Pablo.  Great conversation ranging from La Dama de Hierro (The Iron Lady) to Argentina's chances in the world cup and, most interestingly, the school structure.

The school is government funded and is home during the working week to 130 children from age 4 to (in odd cases where they keep having to repeat years!) 20.  They usually come from local - within 80km or so - families, often from difficult backgrounds which allow them to benefit from the structure of boarding.  It is, Luis told us, the only rural school in Neuquen with a teacher dedicated to each school year.  The Mapuche, as we saw both from the family where we camped and from the humble dwellings where we were able to buy the occasional Coke along Ruta 40, do not have an easy time.  Prospects are poor from the outset, and lack of education widespread .  This is the opposite extreme from the cafes of La Recoleta in Buenos Aires.  In this case, however, Luis exuded positivity, enthused about the computers and newly arrived internet access and solar panels at the back of the school.  He and Pablo are doing a fantastic job giving the children a headstart.  You could see it from the disciplined lines in which they trooped into the lunch hall, and the pristine whiteness of their lab coat uniform.  But the blackboards in the classroom covered in Mapuche grammar told of an equal ability to preserve their heritage.  A very special lunch.

Then there was Miguel, the worker at the Catan Lil Estancia where we pulled off the road North of Junin de los Andes.  He said we were not the first cyclists to seek refuge there, but was quick to show us a perfect camping spot next to his house, sheltered from any wind by monstrous poplars on all sides, and flanked by the estancia's sawmill and stacks of wood.  He offered us the use of his tap, gave us plenty of advice on the route North, and showed us to the river which was deliciously warm and perfect for washing after 72km on the road that day.  We even shared it with an otter.  It could not have been a better place to stay or a warmer welcome.

On related lines, our detailed scientific research along the road has revealed the following reactions to our waves to each passing vehicle:

- Blank stare - around 5-10% of the time;
- Simple wave or thumbs up - approx. 40%;
- Effusive wave and/or hoot - 20%;
- Celebratory raising of mate gourd - 15%;
- Outright round of applause and/or musical hooting - 10-20%

Does that add up?  It matters not.  You get the idea.  It's brilliant to feel so well supported even when you're only passed by one car or truck every few minutes.  Everyone appears genuinely interested in what we are doing.  Often we get a different reaction from each member of a bus or truck crew, some of whom may have seen us several times by now.

Ruta 40 is indeed a lonely place geographically.  We have only done 200km of it, and it stretches many thousands of kms from one end of Argentina to another.  But you can see where the mystique and magic comes from.  In these landscapes you cannot help but think of the dinosaurs for which Neuquen is famous (the largest herbivore ever discovered was near here: 40m long and 18m tall...).  They would have been comfortable roaming the volcanic plains we have been through.  Are they craters from meteorites or just lava eroded spectacularly into deep troughs which pock mark the spirit level flatness of the higher plains?

One thing we are sure of is that it makes for some thigh breakingly long and gruelling climbs, often 7-8km long to get back up to the plains again and leaving us grabbing for our iPods and water bottles.  Another thing for sure: that we are not making a big contribution to things here.  The striations of multi coloured minerals in the rock faces suggest events have been taking place here rather more millions of years than we can match.

Where the loneliness abates, however, is in the people along the way.  Take the old boy in the San Ignacio truck stop.  What a place.  50km from anywhere, it is a whitewashed roadside site bungalow.  Outside were half a dozen gauchos sheltering in their broad brimmed hats under trees from the hot afternoon sun.  Inside, the grey haired Dueno of 40 years - he had been there for 10 years before the tarmac arrived.  The dark wooden gas powered fridge and rickety racks of Gancia and Cinzano suggest not a lot has changed in his time, but he was far more amiable than the isolation would make you think.  You couldn't find a more 'authentic' hang out.

Tomorrow, we move West towards Neuquen, before heading North.  We should be downhill for much of the next couple of days, possibly with a good tailwind.  But after 700km of these roads, you just never know.

1 comment:

  1. We're loving the photographs (and the words as well). We hope that your next stretch is fun and full of lots more of the kindness of strangers.