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

Location: London. Back.

Total Distance Cycled: 10,325km
Days Biking: 140
Longest Day: 174km (2/12/10)
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Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Don't cry for me Argentina

I have a confession. In 1986 when I was 12 and Argentina last won the World Cup I was not listening on my christmas present radio cassette player to Madonna, or Wham or, heaven forfend, AHA. Such coolness was the preserve of those 'in the know' at school. I would nod and glance nervously during conversations about their relative merits and hope that the subject would change quickly enough for me not to have to reveal a complete ignorance of what exactly 'Papa' might be preaching about. I was way behind the times, dreaming of a career in musical theatre and listening with devotion and all-lyric-knowing geekiness to the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Oh yes. I knew every single word of 'Evita' and would quite merrily sing away to myself 'I'd be surprisingly good for you' blissfully clueless to it's potentially dubious connotations.

I was pretty clueless generally really. Certainly about Argentina. It was a country we had had a war with not very long ago, it was the place that Evita came from and sang a lot about and there was some man called Maradona with a godlike hand who had done something extremely bad recently that wouldn't be forgotten for a VERY LONG TIME.

And there time froze. Because when Phil first mentioned the idea of this trip late last year and explained that we would begin in Argentina I'm afraid, to my eternal shame, I didn't know a great deal more than that.
Admittedly they are three pretty headline pieces of info. In the twenty some years that have passed since my mortifying pre-teen hideousness, whilst I have mercifully moved on musically, there has been a flood of 'Las Malvinas son Argentinas' signs liberally scattered across the world's eighth largest country and a recent reopening of the all round South Atlantic debate; the memory of Eva well and truly lives on and the current female president styles herself rather hopefully in her image; and Maradona is back at the World Cup managing an electrifying team whilst the large foam hands wave behind him.

As hands waved us off to the airport, however, I knew none of this and it struck me suddenly just how unaware I was of where we were off to. The weeks before departure hadn't allowed for the leisure of much investigation and of course I'd been learning the language of pannier packing, down-fill levels and pedal clip options.

I need not have feared however. From the first taxi ride in from the airport (tango blazing from the radio, whizzing past the River Plate football stadium, lurching alarming from lane to lane across the lord knows how many lane highways) the hands of our driver were waving emphatically, his voice was topping all other noise and we met the first of the greatest experts on earth on summing Argentina up in a nutshell....the Argentines.

And the nutshell that we have now heard well over a hundred times from bus stations to gas stations, from dining tables to diner tables, from the Buenos Aires luminaries to Abra Pampa llama herders, goes roughly like this:

'Argentina has EVERYTHING. Fantastic resources, natural wonders, a huge cultural mix and a land that will just give, give, give, that feeds 320 million (substitute whatever number seems appropriate) across the world even though the population here is only 40 million. It is a place of plenty, of passion and of perfection. There is only one problem, it also has politicians.'

Ah the politicians. Politicians, politicians, politicians. From federal to provincial, from the capital to the country, from past to present they are bemoaned and bemoaned and bemoaned.

It is a dark subject to begin on, but it comes up every time and no-one can see an answer and few can see an end.

So there you have it. Argentina. Done.

Except of course it is not done. The conversation turns, the head shaking stops and people ask us where we've been, where we're going and what we plan to see and then the superlatives and supreme pride break forth once more and they become fully signed up members of the Argentine idea.

The 200th anniversary of the very first stab at that idea (final borders, full blown constitution and the first president of the Republic of Argentina were in 1853) has provided a chance for this country to sing its own praises and celebrate its fusioned origins. Indigenous people who slowly populated it from 10,000BC were followed by Inca invaders from the north; New world seeking Europeans came quickly after, African slaves in tow, hoping for gold and land, worried they were arriving in a place of monsters and giants; missionaries were hot on their heels determined to bring their god and convert the heathens; then following the wars of independence and the internal wars of power wrangling, the massive influx of European immigrants in the late nineteenth century, mostly from Italy and Spain, whose numbers were so numerous that only the United States has ever seen a greater influx. Argentina has more influences than a child being brought up by Angelina Jolie. It's a wonder it knows who it is at all.

It has tango and polo, folkloric and football, mate and bife, the Gaucho and the Porteno, people in the fashions of Europe and people in the clothes of the Andes, Pachamama and Jesus Christ, asados and cakes, paved roads and unpaved, poverty and great wealth, ice cream and hot chocolate, Spanish and Quechua, farming and business, wine and beer, Evita and Che, dulce de leche and diet foods, oil towns and small towns, trucks and no trains, fine foods and fair enough fare and every kind of landscape imaginable.

We have travelled over 17,000kms round the country, 14,000 in a bus or car, 3,000 and a significant something inching our way along on our bikes. We've visited 17 out of 23 provinces, slept in 81 different beds, hung out in most of the major cities and 'man oh man' this country is vast. If you were to set out from London with your knapsack on your back and crow-like head South, by the time you had travelled the equivalent length of Argentina you'd be half way down Africa.

Pick a geographical feature at random and it has it. Mountains, glaciers, lakes, rivers, rainforest, desert, farmland, beaches, saltflats, forest, you name it, it is here. Choose a climatic mood and you'll that's here too. Baking heat, unbelievable cold, sea level bikininess, high altitude airlessness. This latitude pounding party mix gives you flora and fauna, fruit and farmcrops that make it an Eden-like powerhouse.

But in the 3360km on the bike I have found a less dramatic Argentina, a day to day one. The Argentina of the supermarket aisle and the laundrette, the layby and the lounge. And I've loved it. I've unearthed things that have amazed and bemused me, things that have made me giggle, things that have made me gasp. It is the longest time I've ever spent continuously in another country and my curiosity has been aflame throughout.

Spinning my legs inch by inch I've soaked up so much that I can't spin it neatly into a pithy thought.
These are some of the things I will always remember:
  • That breakfast is a pretty perfunctory affair not designed to keep your hunger locked up 'til lunch. Coffee and sweet medialunas. Same again at 11 please!
  • That the YPF petrol station chain do some of the best of both.
  • That coffee comes with a small glass of fizzy water.
  • That every town has a plaza.
  • That most plazas are named after San Martin the Great Liberator.
  • That 'Belgrano', '9 de Julio', '25 de Mayo' and 'Sarmiento' are road names you will find in EVERY Argentine town.
  • That sweetness is at the heart of a culture that has some of the best cake shops I've ever seen. That they wrap, enfold and mille feuille dulce de leche, (that sticky rich goo of loveliness), into a million different permutations.
  • That sandwiches de miga, triple decker wonders made with impossibly thin bread, can come in the magical and inventive combinations of egg and olive, or roquefort and palm heart but most often come in 'jamon y queso' and are completely ubiquitous. And YPF will always have them.
  • That YPF is a brand but that in many other arenas Argentina is quite brand free or has Argentine brands that I can now recognise.
  • That there are few 'standard' high streets and that little shops still exist. Shops that sell things so specialist sometimes as to be absurd or otherwise unexpectedly sell absolutely everything you could ever wish to buy but you'd have no clue at all from the outside.
  • That most goods have 'Industria Argentina' printed on them and are manufactured here.
  • That advertising is endemic to TV programs and most Strictly Come Dancing type shows require the host to plug a product at about three minute intervals.
  • That the judges on Show Match, Argentina's answer to Strictly Come Dancing, make the 'outrageous' quartet in the UK look like nice respectable maths teachers.
  • That on Show Match it is perfectly acceptable for the host Marcelo Tinelli to take a pair of scissors to a nubile contestants dance knickers because she's just not showing quite enough arse.
  • That Show Match gives ample and fullsome proof (literally) of Argentina's obsession with plastic surgery.
  • That Cronica TV heralds all its news bulletins to 'Stars and Stripes Forever' and that that music plays ALL DAY LONG.
  • That school kids pour into town centres at around 12pm at the end of morning school, hang out on street corners, drink coke in cafes, but that by 1pm every single one has vanished and towns become wierd post apocalyptic vacuums with all the shops shut.
  • That everything kicks off again at 4.30 or 5pm and that shops stay open until 9pm.
  • That dinner is never eaten much before 9pm. That life is all a bit 'later' here.
  • That kids going to state schools will all wear extraordinary white lab coats over their home clothes. Sometimes a school branches out to vomit faun or pale blue but white is the coat of choice. These coats are usually the first item on sale in supermarkets.
  • That supermarket queues are often so long they stretch right down the isles.
  • That 'Disco' is a bit like 'Waitrose' and that 'La Anonima' is a bit like Tesco.
  • That church is a big deal. In small towns people often cross themselves as they pass the church, even slowing in their cars to do so.
  • That sometimes church spills out into the streets, that there are lots of parades and services and huge public worshippings.
  • That, whether it was because we were on bikes and looked very odd, or whether that's just the way it is, we have received so much good cheer and kindness and generosity. And endless fantastically helpful directions.
  • That there's nothing like a good Argie Bargie - we' ve seen some great protests.
  • That horses and carts will vie with mopeds and cars down just about any main street.
  • That cars in the more provincial places have lifespans that defy belief. They can often keep going with no bonnet, no doors and no visible means of containing fuel.
  • That there is a LOT of 'Nada' in Argentina. Emptiness like you wouldn't believe.
  • That it is important to like meat in Argentina.
  • That no bathroom in small hotels has a shower tray or curtain.
  • That every bathroom offers a mop-like item to counteract the above.
  • That just about every bathroom allows a lot of water to leak under the door.
  • That you can shower at most YPF's (pronounce Eeee Pay Effff-ay). In fact they are so great that I invented a song (to the tune of London's burning)...YPF, YPF, I love you, I love you, coffee and a bano, coffee and a bano, wi-fi too, wi-fi too.
  • That double beds in anything less than the best hotels are only ever designed for 1.5 normal sized human beings.
  • That the difference in road quality between provinces can be extreme. Cordoba, sort it out.
  • That Argentina contains the largest spiders I have ever seen.
  • That if tango doesn't make you want to dance, there is something wrong with you.
  • That tango in a town plaza at midnight is something you're unlikely to see in Milton Keynes.
  • That most tourists in Argentina are Argentine.
  • That anyone living in Argentina who doesn't live in BA will tell you that BA is a cesspit of vice and crime.
  • That BA is not (in our experience) a cesspit of vice and crime.
  • That anyone in a town smaller than the next town will assure you that the next town is very dangerous.
  • That the next town is rarely dangerous.
  • That if you think Scotland and England are poles apart try the difference between North and South here.
  • That it isn't enough to have one source of stimulation. If you are a provincial restaurant, it is only decent to have a TV on and music blaring too.
  • That in a provincial restaurant, all the chairs must face the TV.
  • That in a provincial restaurant, a television programme that has contestants sliding in a soapy suit down a pinball style ramp with the possibility of falling into several water pits is infinitely more interesting than talking to your biking partner.
  • That in a very provincial restaurant, wine will come from a carton.
  • That in a very provincial restaurant, it is a good idea to have the beer.
  • That football is a religion (cliche intended).
  • That the second greatest footballer of all time is Lionel Messi.
  • That the greatest footballer of all time is a given.
  • That the greatest footballer of all time can currently be seen cavorting brilliantly on the sidelines of the World Cup.
  • That there is a festival for everything, and a Minister for Festivals in the Government.
  • That someone has single-handedly commenced a campaign to ensure that virtually no public toilet door in the whole of the country can satisfyingly lock. High brow or completely low brow, there is no lock that works.
  • That Argentine weddings start late.
  • That Argentine weddings involve a lot of jumping up and down.
  • That Argentine weddings are fun.
  • That every town will have its own colour of taxis. BA's are yellow, Cordoba's lime green, Salta's maroon and black and the ones in Frias so utterly terrifyingly old that you must never take one.
  • That you can buy ice cream at midnight.
  • That the ice cream is the best I've ever tasted. Ever.
  • That you can eat ice cream quite happily three times a day.
  • Ice cream
  • Ice cream
  • Ice cream
  • That if you order a parrillada, be aware that most of what you order is not on sale in any butcher in the UK.
  • That there are a lot of stray dogs.
  • That a lot of stray dogs are lovely.
  • That distances on road signs should never be believed.
  • That if you find a bottle of wine from any other country in a supermarket you are in a very special supermarket indeed.
  • That I didn't miss out on youth culture by not listening to all those 80's classics. They are ubiquitous here and I hum them all the time.
  • That any attempt to come up with a summary of Argentina defies logic.
  • That the Argie flag is everywhere. Everywhere.

And this flag seems key. The contrasts, the differences, the cliches, the stereotypes and my list all unite in the 'idea' of a country. I have rarely been as conscious of the conscious choice of nationhood. There is no doubting its strength. This evening horns blasted in La Quiaca as the locals, who wake up and look at Bolivia every morning from their windows, celebrated Argentina's footie victory by hilariously driving round and round the town.

And we have Bolivia in our sights. We will cross the border tomorrow. We popped over yesterday and had a quick look before scurrying back to Argentina, the YPF (!) and everything else that has become so familiar. We are more than a little sentimental at ending the first and probably largest chapter of our adventure. We plan to return properly at the end of the year, and 'join up our line'. I can't wait.

'86 was a good year for Argentina. 2010 looks to be the same. 'It's been surprisingly good to me'.

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