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 14 June 2010

Shouts of Joy

It´s an odd feeling being stared at by plants. Deep in the valley `Quebrada de Humahuaca´, we looked up and saw lines of cacti leering ominously down at us. Their limbs raised in a mixture of alarm and attack it felt rather like being ambushed.

Our senses are definitely under assault. We are in the northern province of Jujuy, our final province of Argentina and we are only 200 kilometres from Bolivia. Jujuy means `Shout of Joy´ and this landscape invites whoops and ah´s and ´look at thats´ by the bucketload. We have one particularly enormous shout of joy brewing, one that will see us able to bike on from a place that we are currently stuck..but more of that later.
What a place to find ourselves trapped though. Imagine finding yourself standing in a deep gap between two huge lines of Mr Whippy ice cream. This ice cream folds and crests in stiff whipped up peaks as far as you can see both in front and behind you. Then imagine this ice cream is shot through with coloured layers, rich deep colours so far removed from raspberry ripple that they could only have been made by Farrow and Ball. Nothing garish, you can see burnt banner blue, baskerville brown, clotted cream and whisky white, royal bed red, ointment orange, prime minister purple and greysmoke green, and they swirl and mix and melt down to the valley floor sometimes dark and forboding, sometimes spectacularly bright in the sunshine. All of this in contrast to a razor blue sky. It´s like staying in the world´s most sophisticated angel cake.

The towns that line this route also wrap you in a paint palate. This time of the more commercial Dulux variety with every colour imaginable woven into rugs, jumpers, woolly hats and ponchos all adorned with the requisite llama pattern that screams `I went travelling in South America´. The colour bleeds into the electric bright plastic flowers that decorate the graves in the hillside cemetaries oddly juxtaposing with nature´s subtler hues. These towns have charming one story adobe buildings lining red dust streets, a daily market and a small white church and tour buses that depart at night leaving a sleepy, super starry peace.

We are no longer in a place that is typically Argentine. This is an area that is Andean. The traditions and people of this area cross over the borders of Bolivia, Chile, Peru and Ecuador resting firmly in the arid, bleak and majestic peaks that surround us. This culture that calls to you from every terracotta pot corner, from the looks and glances from behind a pile of merchandise or up from under a wide brimmed hat and shouts at you in smells, sights and sounds.

We have spent two days since leaving the city of Jujuy climbing through this territory. I must emphasise the climbing since we have ascended over 1250 metres and gone well over that in order to make it over the`Cuestas´sneakily lurking in between. Our thighs have been shouting rather more in pain than in joy but have behaved remarkably well and our lungs are coping with the thinner air. We soaked up the famous Hill of Seven Colours (guess how many colours you can see!) overnight in glorious Purmamarca, and then headed for Tilcara where we have stayed for several days.

We are at a completely gorgeous place called the Posada de Luz. Luz the owner is generous in every measure and has created a home from home where we have laughed, larked and lounged and which is the perfect spot from which to immerse oneself in this world. We are waiting, you see. Waiting for a parcel from the UK that keeps promising to be delivered but never quite arrives. We watch as vans pull up at the door and likely looking Postman Pat types emerge only to discover they are the gas man or the TV people leaving us to sink back with a little shout of frustration.

And a secret shout of delight because we have not exactly suffered. Food in these parts is amazing. Luz sent us to her friend Tere´s Gastronomy School of Northern Argentina, where we have drenched our taste buds with mini shouts of ectasy in llama stew and andean potates, in quinoa cleverness and beautifully baked bread. We have been twice and seen round this fantastic set up, picked herbs in the garden and chatted late into the night. It´s tempting to sign up to her two year cooking course!

We have climbed the hills and visited the ancient fortified settlement where archeologists unearthed, doubtless with shouts of triumph, a mass of uber ancient pots and other artifacts and have been able to get a sense of just how long this area has been inhabited.

A looooong time is the answer. People first wandered into this valley well over 10,000 years ago. There is a powerful silence that reigns here and gives you a calm feeling that this is an extraordinary and ancient place. Tracks weave in height-defying unlikelitude all over the mountainsides, used by people for hundreds of generations. We came across three locals yesterday midway through a three hour walk into the endless distance to visit family. Hunter gatherers gradually put down roots and lived undisturbed until the Incas attacked down this valley persuading them of the wisdom of signing up to their kingdom. They were followed by the Spanish, who were equally persuasive, and finally by the forces of an emerging Argentina, battling their colonial mother, who were so outnumbered that they dressed the cacti up in military garb in order to appear to have a few more people on their team. These sharply sloping sides and savage ravines soaring above one have seen their fair share of hiding, hunting, hurting and adapting.

Now there are all the usual cultural clashes of the modern and the older world. Internet cafes vie with the artisanal stalls, mobile phones with stretches of signal free emptiness, traditional music gives in to the irony defying ´Sounds of Silence´ and the ´Hey Jude´s for the benefit of the visitors and has a more haunting authenticity in the every-sunday celebrations of a passionately supported Catholic Church where worship is fused seemlessly with the earth goddess Pachamama. On the roof tops of the least likely property sit the Direct TV satellite dishes, gifted by an 'eye on the popular vote' President to the people so that they may enjoy the World Cup.

Now there is something to shout about. If you are an Argentine at least. We cosied up in a local cafe on the 11th and watched Messi, Teves and a sideline dancing Maradona take 3 points in their opener. Vamos, Vamos, Vamos Argentina....blow your plastic horn.

I have mine at the ready for a triumphant trumpteting when our parcel finally manifests itself. In the meantime I am in love with Tilcara and quite at peace with the world.


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