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 21 May 2010

Cruz del Eje - would we ever leave?

With all the fun and frolics of recent weeks - the thousands of kilometres NOT on bikes (sorry!), the social whirl of Buenos Aires, the spectaculars of Salta and Iguazu, the weddings, christenings, parental visitations and all the rest alluded to in Liz's last blog - there has been one constant.  Cruz del Eje.

We first freewheeled in well over a month ago, hot, exhausted and bitten by ants, having earmarked it on the map as a decent strategic spot to dump our bikes and kit - at an imaginary location as yet unidentified - and head off for a couple of weeks R&R.  My how that snowballed.  That first late summer afternoon, we pottered into town on bikes that were also panting for a rest, and hardly warmed to the place.  No, it was worse than that.  We could see nothing remotely appealing about this little railway hub - now seemingly dead - that had had its day.  It felt like Argentina's answer to a Welsh mining town whose mines had long since closed.  We scampered back from the centre to the motel that we had found right on the main junction, whose 'highlights' were a couple of service stations, a set of traffic lights, a hot dog van and a selection of motley strays padding around.
Little did we realise how attached we'd become to Cruz del Eje.  Everyone we mentioned it to during our time in Buenos Aires reacted with either 'where?' or 'oh'.  Everyone we told in Cruz del Eje that we were from Inglaterra told us they'd never come across anyone from there.  You could not find a more 'average' town.  There are simply no tourists.  At least not ones who've ended up there on purpose.  And we loved it.

Our first stay was purely functional - we needed to find a bed for the night, a safe place to store our bikes, and a bus to Mendoza.  We managed all three - the Hotel Posta de las Carretas provided the first two, as well as one of the broadest grins we've come across from Pablo behind the desk who told us we were in good hands.  We had no choice but to believe him and entrust our steeds to his safekeeping.  Somehow, it did feel safe, though.  The third took a bit longer, and forced us to spend considerably more time at the town centre Petrobras service station than we might have chosen.  In fact, until our bus left well after midnight.  The warm welcome from the hotel and the al fresco wifi on a warm evening provided grounds for encouragement about C del E, but we were hardly gasping to return.

On each of the three subsequent occasions that we returned, however, we liked it more.  The next time, we returned to showcase the place to the Hurrans.  Quite a moment for them.  They were suitably amused by the sheer randomness of it, but also impressed by our familiarity with the "Viejo Munich's" menu and our first name terms with our hotel friends.  The Viejo Munich became our regular haunt for dinner.  Positioned just a stumble away, across the forecourt of our neighbouring YPF petrol station, we were immediately impressed by how each of the improbably large number of tables was positioned for watching the footy on the television.  River Plate or Boca Juniors losing yet again as their seasons went from bad to worse, and tables of middle aged gents with ever more furrowed brows.  Our favourite waiter was ruthlessly efficient, glisteningly bald, and would mince magnificently across the room under the glow of fluorescent strip lights.  You'd have to go a long way to find a better dish than the kidneys al vino blanco with mashed potato on which we feasted several times.

The next time we found ourselves back again was again with the Hurrans - this time a valedictory night for them, whilst we were to stay on to deliberate about our best next move to convalesce The Knees.  By now they were more familiar with the breakfast routine - YPF was the spot, the forecourt drenched in sunshine as C del E came to life; the cafe con leche and fresh, warm medialunas almost certainly unrivalled in Argentina.  We would then usually shuffle across the Ruta Nacional 38 junction, avoiding the mighty trailer trucks that would grind their cargos of bricks or cattle across the traffic lights day and night.

On the other side of the junction was the GNC service station, where you fill your converted car with liquid gas.  Now, where Petrobras won for outdoor wifi and YPF won for breakfast, GNC won for evening beers and lunches.  Oh, and homeless dogs.  We'll come to them in a little while.  Are you getting the impression we hung out a bit too much in petrol stations?  You're probably right.  But what a great spot they are for soaking it all up.  By the time we left, we were pretty familiar with every staff member at each one of them.  Quite what they thought of us is anyone's guess.  We were killing time, but somehow it never dragged, and nobody ever hurried us.  Always plans to be hatched, emails to send, knees and viruses to recover from, photos and blogs to post.  And dogs to talk to.

By the fourth time we were there, it hadn't exactly become a way of life, but it wasn't far off.  We began to recognise the horse and cart carrying the vegetable man to market; the ancient stationwagon parked outside the GNC selling those horrible animal print beach towels; the new adverts on the Viejos Munich's menu; the same dude who turned up each afternoon in the world's largest pickup, the buses that came through at the same time each day; the homeless lady who would drift through the GNC during the evening.  We knew the shifts of Sergio, Marcos and Pablo - all interesting, educated, great guys - who worked on our hotel desk.  It was a family game - the lady who cleans the rooms has a son who does the maintenance.  And Chani, the imposing matriarch of the hotel who begged us for English coins for her collection, keeps everyone happy.

But it wasn't all about our favourite junction.  One afternoon, I left Liz to go and buy bus tickets and mistakenly discovered the railway station.  Talk about a throwback to a bygone era.  The encapsulation of all that we've seen of an ancient railway system breathing its last.  A signal box full of comedy, trainset points levers but scattered with broken glass and long disused.  A good half dozen ancient rusting locomotives, shapely and magnificent enough to leave trainspotters drooling.  I think I might be becoming one.  Strings of box wagons slowly sinking into the ground as their rails gave up.  Just when I'd given up entirely on Argentina's railway system, I fell into wistful conversation with the charming Pablo, who works (much less hard than before) on the railways and lives in a small, bare cottage right next to the line.  As we talked in his cottage, the impossible happened.  I heard a distant train horn blow.  We went outside.  Then I saw a light.  This was it - Cruz del Eje's once-every-10-days freight train.  People emerged from their houses, school children gathered, horses and carts stopped to watch.  It's hardly the thriving system it once was.

Another afternoon, we finally discovered the 'other' half of Cruz del Eje - the other side of the RN38, away from what we thought was the centre.  It turned out that this is the half growing more quickly - so much more, in fact, that the church on the plaza is undergoing a busy, dusty, bescaffolded transformation to allow it to be inaugurated as the town's official cathedral in early July.  They have a month or so to go.  Diego and his dust coated men have their work cut out.

And there were the dogs.  We began to recognise them from early on.  Our favourites always get names.  Black Eyed Mange Thing is a lugubrious, mangey old boy with a black splodge over one eye, who mooches across the RN38 in slow motion, not unlike Eeyore.  Herbert is the diametric opposite, a bundle of energy and pointy ears who rarely spends long on all four feet, preferring to stand on his hind legs for food and love from his new friends (the two often go together, of course).  He was totally relaxed about coming with us across the road from the GNC, and spent an afternoon with me 'helping' to service the bikes in the sunshine.  A complete character, more than capable of looking after himself on his GNC block patch.

And Cruz.  Cruz has been one of the highlights of our time out here.  Yes, there have been waterfalls and deserts, exceptional people and glorious sights, but few can compare with our time with Cruz, with his shiny black coat, floppy spaniel ears and irresistible brown eyes.  He was immediately named ('Cross') in homage to our favourite town, but also because he represents something of a cross roads in our trip before we got back on the bikes.  Oh, and he's a bit of a cross breed mutt.

We had first seen him on an early visit to Cruz del Eje.  He was a small black bundle of shiny fur, hiding under a display rack in the GNC and nursing a sore, bleeding paw.  He was there a couple of times, clearly in pain and keeping out of harm's way.  By our final visit, we were hoping to see him improved, but on our first evening back he came hobbling into the GNC on three good legs, yelping as someone mistakenly closed the door on him.  The front paw was no better, an open, gungy wound with signs of infection.  He limped up to us and we shared an empanada with him.  Now, it should be noted that we are fully aware of, and as pragmatic as we can be, about the number of strays in every town in Argentina.  They are often lovely, often unhealthy, and rarely unpleasant or aggressive.  They all have their patches, their mannerisms, and often their family packs.  Usually they are pretty street wise and find ways to get by.  But sometimes a dog adopts you, and Cruz decided that we were his friends.

He liked to hang out with us over the next couple of days, sitting at our feet, curling around our legs, and wagging to greet us when we arrived on his little territorial patch of grass.  But moving around was hard, a plaintive hoppety-skip, holding the bad paw out in front of him.  By the second evening, we decided we had to do something.  We found a vet in the hotel's Yellow Pages, and spent much of the next morning trying to telephone them.  To no avail.  Eventually, I walked in to town, and found the vet's - but with no actual vet on call that day (I was reassured to see several of their stray dog friends brilliantly allowed to come in and feed from the open feed sacks!).  They pointed me instead to a small animal specialist around the corner, and the girls there sweetly said they would do what they could if we could bring him in.

Alas, when we got back to his patch he was nowhere to be seen.  Even the staff working in the GNC were surprised - 'he's here every night'; it's where he finds shelter by night, and they let him stay in the warm there.  So it was with great relief that we found him the next morning, lying on his corner in the sun, nursing his wound with his tongue.  We managed to negotiate with a taxi to take the three of us to the vet's and lured him in with salty crackers.  He was very unsure about this car business, and pined audibly as he watched his GNC corner disappearing out of the back window.  But somehow he knew we wanted to help and relaxed.  The vets were great and he was incredibly well behaved - we kept him calm as they snipped away the worst of the wound, disinfected it with liquid oxygen and iodine and gave him a hefty shot of antibiotic.  We thanked them, paid them a nominal amount and took him back to his 'home', where we gave him a slap up lunch of vet biscuits and left him to sleep it off in the sun.

By the time we left yesterday morning, he'd recovered his strength to the point of jumping up at us and bouncing around yapping like a pup - often still on three legs, but now with the fourth showing real improvement and healing.  He had even came across the road to help us to pack our things, a trans-RN38 adventure which we got the impression he would not usually make.  As we climbed on the bikes, he was as good as asking to come with us.  It was dreadful.  He followed us, hobbling manfully along the main road until, in the end, I had to take him back to the GNC and ask his friends there to keep him inside until we had gone.  Not a dry eye in the house.  Or on the bikes, at least.  I think we did a good thing.  I only hope we didn't confuse him too much.  We promised ourselves to call the hotel when our trip is finished and find out whether he is still around in the same place.  If he is, he may yet find himself being relocated...

And so, Cruz del Eje is another closed chapter (or is it...?!).  We set off on two wheels again yesterday, and boy does everything hurt today.  Where did our fitness go?!  We're blaming it on a gradual climb for most of the day and the dregs of a heavy cold that we've both had.  We'd better get hardened again sharpish, for the Andes are looming not so far off.  But meanwhile, we have the delights of small towns like Dean Funes to enjoy.  It's a lovely little place, full of preparations for this weekend's national bicentenary celebrations and friendly folk.

But it'll never be Cruz del Eje.

1 comment:

  1. Lizzie- Your dad just sent us the link to your blog about your incredible bike ride. Look forward to reading it. Temperatures in the mid 90s here make that a very likely afternoon activity. Don't forget Austin Texas if you find we are on the route.