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

Location: London. Back.

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

Wednesday 2 June 2010

The National Capital of the Goat and other Patriotic Talewinds

If you have a trumpet blow it, if you have a drum bang it, if you have a flag wave it. This is the week to be patriotic in Argentina, to stand up and be counted, to shout 'viva la patria' with the best of them and to drink copiously in your country's name. This week 'somos todos Argentinos'.

On the 25th May 1810, a group of Buenos Aires luminaries, declared independence from a Napoleon addled Spain. There had long been dissatisfaction with rule from afar and most had had enough of sending hard earned wealth back to Europe. This kicked off 'The Argentine War of Independence' which was finally concluded six years later with a formal declaration which Spain was forced to swallow.

So, this week saw the 'Bicentenario' of those events, with a four day weekend, endless pale blue and white decorations contorted into bunting, bannering and ballooning, monumental monument unveilings and us cycling through the middle of it all.
We were chewing up 500 kilometres and 3 provinces of the country and pedalling about as directly north as it is possible to. This journey also took us on a rather symbolic tour, and as we cut a straight and mostly flat path through the country's northern heart we found ourselves in tune with all the shenanigans by passing a number of National Capitals, Famous Spots, Argentine Finests and One and Onlys.

Some of these titles we attributed ourselves. As we sped out from Dean Funes to the world's least likely tourist destination, Lucio V Mansilla, we came across the 'National Capital of Eyepopping Bedspreads'. This pint sized spot is named after a former deputy of the province, who was a man with an extraordinary lifestory, a middle name of Victorio, and some high powered Presidential relatives. He got up to all sorts of military antics, love escapades and 'travels amongst the natives' and then had a second career in journalism where his writings included one memoir entitled 'The seven dishes of rice pudding'. Brilliant. Whether it was his broad life interests that inspired the residents of his namesake 'pueblo' to adopt an enthusiasm for cartoon colourful bedding, or whether they all just fell off the back of a lorry, who would not want to desport themselves on a thin fleecy blanket covered in fur balls and a life size depiction of a bear?

The Province of Santiago del Estero has much more to recommend it however than growling bed clothes. It is home to the 'Madre de Cuidades'. The provincial captial is the oldest Spanish settlement in modern Argentina, founded in 1553. This made this area seem a very apt spot to have a day's rest, raise our plastic waterbottles and take our buffs off to the revolutionary spirit by joining in the Bicentenario jollies. And so we recovered from our night with the luminous bed beasts, rushed on for a day more through achingly empty salt flats, crashed for a night in the slightly less tiny Recreo, self pronounced 'National Capital of the Goat' (I ask you), and charged into Frias, Santiago's third biggest town.

It announced itself proudly. A fantastic tailwind blew us in at a triumphal pace down a long straight road. From miles out we could see the largest flagpole to date flying the pale blue and white number with enthusiastic vigour. The sun was blazing and it was warm. Frias (despite meaning 'colds') sits in the hottest part of Argentina where in the summer temperatures soar to 50 degrees. But we were enjoying a kinder 'Sun of May', like the symbolic sun of independence that sits in the middle of the Argie flag. It was all very pleasing.

And wonderfully local. Buenos Aires could keep it's slick shows, military parades and firework displays; we were partying Frias style. As we biked in through the town the prepartions were well underway. Huge banners were being erected, flags hung from every window, no one was at work and there was a brilliant holiday feel. On the eve of the main event we joined the locals in the 25th of May plaza for a candlelight church service of celebration, the unveiling of a new monument and then hot chocolate and mini animal biscuits at the church hall.

The following morning a 4 hour event took place. The town officials stutted their stuff in heavy black coats and shades. The Municipal band, arrayed in a variety of gloriously mis-sized hand-me-down blazers, with a second trumpet who hadn't practised much and a conductor of Peter Sellers like pomposity, played heroically for the entire duration, its child drummers probably in breech of every EU infant work regulation. The sun shone and after yet more unveilings and wailings near the monuments there was a three hour parade. This took the form of a march through carefully selected highlights of Argentina's modern history, with every school, nursery and Rotary displaying their efforts by passing in front of the not-so-grandstand, where those of import were sat. Whilst the mayor tried to make the occasional mobile phone call, or discreetly take his nasal spray medicine, the announcers announced each act with migraine inducing huzzahs and everyone leapt to their feet and clapped.

So much effort had been made. Parents throughout Frias had been cobbling together costumes, people had travelled from miles away to take part and long suffering secondary school teachers had spent hours trying to persuade their loping charges that marching along looking left and swinging your arms in time with each other would in fact make you appear irrepressably cool. Some looked thrilled to be there, others giggled their way through but the sports teams ran, the baton twirlers twirled, at least a hundred horses charged and about every twenty seconds a patriotic cry would be raised to the sky. There were several 'who's going next?' moments, a few trips on overlong skirts and a glorious moment when some smirking undertakers pointed out to us that there was a massive spelling mistake in the middle of the new plaque, but there was no doubting the positivity, pride and passion that infused the day.

There were some serious moments too. The school teacher, who praised the achievements of the last 200 years but who made clear allusions to some of the less brilliant moments, those speakers who reminded all to be aware that there were plenty of current problems that need the kind of national attention paid to the celebrations, and the priest who hoped that this moment would draw a line under everything negative and herald a new era of cooperation.

Because there are some very real problems. We went on from Frias past some tiny places where we saw a sharp upturn in poverty. As corn gave way to sugar cane and we approached the outskirts of the city of Tucaman we saw a woeful lack of infrastructure, basic amenities or investment. Whilst the centre of the city (famous for being home to the 9th July 1816 signing of the final declaration of independence) has wide streets, pavement cafes and some magnificent buildings, those clinging to its edges live, well, clinging to the edge.

Not all was doom and gloom. We stopped overnight in Simoca and coincided with its Famous Saturday Market. This was filled with the Famous Sulkys or small swift traps pulled by horses which are so Famous in fact that a dozen of them recently took the 1400 kilometre trip to Buenos Aires to take part in a discussion about greater recognition for horse transportation and trip through the streets in the parades. Horses and carts are so used in this part of the world that the main highways have signs banning their use to remind them that they don't blend well with trucks.

The Famous Saturday Market was an affair of real gusto. The produce was beautifully arrayed, the goods were painstakingly hand made and the live stock was very much alive. At least when it arrived. Here you could pick your own pig. Or turkey, or chicken, or any other running thing. That done it would be hoisted off to the back and dealt with swiftly. And all for all to see. It was an eye opening experience. Lovers of 'Babe' should beware a visit to Simoca. We found it so edifying and rather exhausting that we were forced to have a hot dog.

Purveyors of hot dogs have a bonanza time on their hands for now there is something else to distract from any troubles, stir the collective heart and have everyone rushing for snacks during half time. The 'Mundial'. As soon as the dust had settled on the partying the banners could be brushed down for the departure of the World Cup football team. This was followed with obsessive excitement. Thousands gathered along the street as the team bus went past, others went to the airport to wave them off and for those who stayed at home there was the chance to witness them loading their hand luggage into the overhead lockers or settling themselves comfortably into their seats. The news tell us the weather in Pretoria, how many practices there have been and all and sundry obsess about the ability (or lack of it) of the volatile manager Diego Maradona. Regular 80's music montages of him and his achievements, replete with slo-mo hugging and crying, waft off the TV, culminating in the last time Argentina had World Cup glory with him lifting the cup high.

And we are getting higher too. The hills have arrived, the climbing has begun and Bolivia is only a stone's throw away. Altitiude, cold nights and coca all call. It's time for the 'One and Only' Andes.

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