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

Location: London. Back.

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

Monday 12 April 2010

School´s Out!

We are in a state of high excitement. Liz´s parents arrive tomorrow, and that means ´Holiday Time´! We are rewarding ourselves with a week off. This may sound a bit odd. ´But they´re on holiday anyway, aren´t they?!´ Well, kind of. But we´d been warned by those wiser and more experienced than us in this long distance cycling lark that after a while on the road, it becomes almost like a day job. You get into a routine of sorts, you spend the day in the same old seat, going through similar tasks. The difference is that the telephone doesn´t ring and the commute is built in. The days off become a naughty treat, to be looked forward to (not least by our legs) with almost indecent levels of excitement.
And so during the last few days, as we pushed on from San Luis through the province of Cordoba, we have been striving to ´get there´. We´ve been ever more wholeheartedly relying on solid chunks of dulce de leche soaked cake (´Torta, Torta, Torta...!´), and late afternoon rescue swigs of Coca Cola to get us to that day´s destination. It would be wrong to say we´re not tired. A day off a bit earlier would have been seriously tempting, but we were keen to get to the hallowed turf of Cruz del Eje. Cruz del Eje, as our target for the end of this chapter, had taken on a life of its own - we envisaged a glorious cross between Las Vegas, New York, Bora Bora and the Cotswolds in high summer. Oddly enough, it turned out not to be like that. A dusty, rather uninspiring little place with a tourism office that had clearly scraped the barrel somewhat with it´s faded posters of a local dam and the Isla de los Patos (Duck Island).

Nonetheless, we are here, and four legs are appreciating the rest no end. The next few days are likely to involve trips to bodegas for extensive Malbec sampling, some walking around Aconcagua, possibly lunch across the border in Chile, and MOTORISED tourism around central/northern Argentina. It will be distinctly odd to move at an average pace of more than 15-20kph. We may come over a bit dizzy. But we´re more than ready for it.
So, what of the last few days? We have come to realise that we could not be much further from any tourist trail if we´d tried. At our last calculation, it was about six weeks since we last had a face to face conversation with a non-Argentine. If Liz´s parents find us just slightly bewildered, this may have something to do with it (at least the moustache has gone, which may be some consolation). As Liz described in her last blog, the towns through which we have been passing and spending nights have barely shown up on Google Maps even when you zoom right in. We have been truly in the back end of beyond, pedalling our way steadily through San Luis and Cordoba provinces, about 80km per day, and making good undulating ground.

But do you know what? We are just loving the anonimity of it all. We´ve become really quite addicted to sleepy little towns. Some so sleepy around early afternoon/siesta time that you wonder if it really is the dogs running the show. They are the only ones around and usually as fast asleep as the rest of the place. Siesta closing times appears to stretch ever further, often running from 12.30 to well after 5pm.
As we´ve found ourselves deeper and deeper into Cordoba province, the colonial influence has been increasingly noticeable. We are completely sold on the old stores, bars and houses along the ´main´ streets, with their roughly painted raw brickwork, solid but peeling wooden doorways, truncated corners and advertisements that clearly only change with some generations. We regularly see horses parked alongside cars on the main avenues of these pueblitos. Evening entertainment appears to consist of wandering through the plaza for inhabitants of all ages, drinking in tiny strip-lit, fan cooled ´boliches´ for the older gents, and fine tuning the decibel level on your Meccano set moped if you are a boy aged 14-25. Oh, and the occasional pool hall that just happens to share a spot with the local ice cream shop - you´d barely ever need to leave.
Every time we stop, we fall into conversation with another local character who wants to know all about it. There was Ramon the bar owner in Villa de Soto yesterday, with his 1950s record player box who insisted on playing Richard Clayderman at the wrong speed and asked us to sign his ´visitors´ book´ for foreign visitors with our impressions of Soto (the last entry was February this year); the bar owner in San Carlos Mina who was so reluctant to make us a cup of coffee in this sleepiest of Sunday morning towns that he actually flopped down into one of his bar´s chairs when we walked in, and showed no signs of shifting; and Raquel, the dumpy 50-something campsite owner outside Villa de Rosas, who was initially fiercely opposed to our camping in her lovely Sierra-flanked garden now that the season was over, but eventually buckled so completely that she brought us her special aubergine chutney on biscuits during her mildly obsessive evening plant-watering process.
In between these urban excitements, the countryside has been quite different to the isolated deserts of a couple of weeks ago. Cordoba has been almost constant civilisation of one kind or another. Between the villages, we have passed endless little roadside settlements, some better designed and built with the aim of renting them out during the December-March holiday season, complete with mini swimming pool. Many, though, are simple shacks surrounded by fencing made from general flotsam and jetsom which encircles a small number of dogs, pigs, horses, chickens, turkeys, sheep, goats, elderly relatives and playful small children (delete as appropriate). Usually, there will be a wooden painted sign outside (often misspelt) advertising local homemade olive oil, honey, walnuts, crafts, salame... (again, delete as appropriate). And the background jumble of rusting hulks of cars, carts, window frames, wheels and various unidenfiable machinery that may or may not one day come in useful is as inevitable in these places as a roof (ie. it´s usually there, but not always).

It has been a sea of wild flowers - us non-horticulturalists just see them as colours, but the earlier oceans of little yellow and white ones were joined by bright red and purple ones, as well as (these ones we were more confident on!) spectacular violet and deep purple morning glory and sweet peas. Throw in fields of maize, corn, wheat and peas, plus that stunning late evening golden light, and it becomes hard to keep your eyes on the tarmac at all. We even had great plains of palm trees for one stretch. One scene field of deep golden grasses dotted with jet black Aberdeen Anguses and backed by the towering Cordoban Sierras will live long in the memory.  If it wasn´t for that steady headwind, it would have been almost perfect.

We were almost nearly in Mendoza already, incidentally - we turned up at the bus terminal today at 12.20, to be told that one of two daily buses to Mendoza was leaving in precisely 15 minutes. When I returned from the ATM 20 minutes later, panting and dripping, it transpired that, for all the cajoling of Liz and her new bus terminal friends, the bus had just left. This precipitated a headlong rally style chase to the next town in the hands of a jovial driver who claimed to be a taxi driver but was unquestionably Sebastian Loeb and Jenson Button´s illegitimate lovechild. Alas, we had just missed it again, and returned crestfallen to Cruz del Eje, with Seb Button. Since then, it has been an afternoon of emails, blogging, pool and hanging out at petrol stations (a particular skill of ours and a good way to kill time given their air con, wifi, inevitably friendly attendants and delicious coffee). It´s amazing how quickly time can pass in these little towns.

And so we´re on the overnight bus to Mendoza instead, leaving at 0155hrs. Just to ensure that we are at optimum exhaustion levels to greet the Hurran Delegation from London tomorrow evening! Here´s to the school holidays... and no bikes for a few days.

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