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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Monday, 6 December 2010

Zephyrus

In Greek mythology the god of the west wind is Zephyrus.

Zephyrus is a handsome firm skinned youth with soft curly hair and gossamer gold tipped wings. He is considered generally to be sweet and gentle. He heralds balmy spring days, lightly kisses the cheeks of fair maidens and flutters the fronds of plants and trees in a playful, delicate manner. He is a wind you welcome with open arms.

He is a good wind.

Well, dear lovers of the classics, I have news for you.

NO HE AIN´T!!

He is a bad, bad, baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad wind.

I know we´ve gone on and on about the wind, and I would forgive you for being bored, but it really will be the thing I´ll struggle most to convey effectively to those who are at home.

The wind in Patagonia is unbelievable.

I´m with the Greeks though in making the wind into a person. It should be personified because to me it really feels like a living creature. It takes on a life and a personality all of its own.

My Zephyrus though isn´t a sweet boyband dreamboat. My Zephyrus is an angry aging celebrity rock star with sagging skin and a cigarette-addled shout.

This is how my Zephyrus behaves.

He is very inconsistent and keeps odd hours. Sometimes he will sleep until lunchtime before suddenly rising with a sore head and stamping about and shouting at his cowering staff. Othertimes he is still up at dawn, having partied all night long, and although in a good mood is rushing around sending orders this way and that and keeping exhausted minions from their beds.

He blows hot and cold. He can be all warm and rather fierce in his intense embrace or frostily furious pouring cold scorn on anyone in his path.

When he is up, you are up. He is relentless in his intensity and he has sudden creative bursts when he is rushes around madly for a minute or two and grabs at every idea, at every creative impulse.

He is extremely violent. He has a tendency to trash anything in his way if he is in a rage. He whips himself into a frenzy of destruction that means the safest place to escape to is the floor where you lie down hoping to miss the raining debris and pray hard not to get stamped on. Even his fun behaviour can be terrifying. If he slaps you on the back it is a bit too hard, if he shuts the car door it is with a slam, if he pushes you onto the dancefloor you struggle to keep your footing.

And most of all he is noisy. Very, very noisy. He specialises in music of the relentless teens-in-the-garage variety all banging drums, clashing sounds and rather yelled lyrics. He yells and yells and yells. He jumps and writhes and wrings the life out of his guitar, often finishing with the sort of finale that involves banging it on the stage. He no longer knows how to be quiet and is only dulled into submission occasionally when mellowing narcotics prevail. Otherwise, if he is around, be prepared to be able to hear him and only him for hours on end.

You see, no mild mannered winged creature he. I think the Greeks would have characterised this West wind better as one of their rogue or tempest winds. These they called ´deamons´. And the winds we have encountered since leaving Esquel certainly fall into the demonic catagory.

We were leaving the land of evergreens, floral luxury and clear blue lakes for the wastelands of the Patagonian steppe. The landscaped changed almost immediately from all that lushness to bleak beige sand and low scrubby bushes of muted green and brown. Every plant is tiny and looks as if it dare not grow any taller.

And that is because of the mean West wind.

We were venturing back into the area which had defeated us before where the wind had just been too strong to cycle in, trying to beat the direction by coming from the North. Looking at our maps it is easy to see why this area is so at the mercy of the elements. Sailors call this part of the Southern Hemisphere the `Roaring Forties´because at the 40s latitudes there is almost no land mass to get in the way of the winds swishing around the globe. Nothing but this jutting section of South America which gets to bear the whole brunt.

As we set off, Zephyrus swung into action straight away. Travelling from Esquel to Tecka he got behind us and gave us a great big shove. The sensation is similar to when you are first learning to cycle and your Mum or Dad, just after taking off your stabilisers, give you a hearty push to send you careering on your way. You feel not entirely in control of the bike. But you go very quickly and the first 48 kilometres out of Esquel were knocked off in just over two hours.

Then however we had to turn slightly to the right and have Zephyrus come a bit over our shoulders. That is when things started to get more interesting. Then the enthusiastic parent morphed into a devilish sibling, the sort who enjoys catching you out with a sudden shove to see if you will fall off your bike wailing onto the pavement. In order to avoid this you have to bike at an angle, leaning into the wind and struggling hard with your down-wind arm to keep the bike travelling in something like a straight line.

And as the wind winds itself up, resting becomes almost impossible. There is nowhere to hide in a landscape without barriers of any sort. For lunch on this first day we tried eating in a sort of ditch on a bend. However it turned into a wind tunnel with sand blowing at us from everywhere and making every bite of our sandwiches unnaturally crunchy. We lasted about ten minutes. Whilst we were lodging there, a coach went by and I was hugely amused by a woman on the top deck who seeing our bikes lying by the road, and the two of us cowering on the ground, dropped her jaw with cartoon like horror, put her hands to her face and I imagine gasped.

So, instead of being reduced to a side show, we sped on. We rested only once more on the whole trip, where we shovelled in the rest of our sarnies, making it to Tecka rather battered and filthy at about 6pm.

Ah, Tecka. First of the wind drenched towns. There is a particular look about these small places that are, by most people´s standards, in the middle of nowhere. It is utterly surprising to happen upon them and they have a slightly eerie feel. First, like the steppe plants, they are all very low. Almost no buildling rises above one storey. They can´t! Secondly, because of the weather conditions most people stay inside and so no-one is occupying the dusty roads.

Being in these places, you realise the civilising power of tarmac or paving. It makes places feel a bit more permanent as if, by laying a road, you stake a claim on the landscape and bend it a bit to your will. In Tecka that hasn´t happened and so the sand blows around in vicious little twisters making you wonder if one day a particularly violent storm will whip the whole lot away.

We found the local hospedaje. It wasn´t easy. In this town hiding from Zephyrus it was squirrelled away behind a shop. It was quite probably being run on the sly, with no book for us to sign into and no sign above the door. But we didn´t mind. It was warm and wind free.

The hunt for dinner was equally opaque. A tiny building, with a few names of food stuffs scrawled in black pen oddly on the outside wall, served as the Casa de Comidas. It was like a Masonic lodge. It looked completely closed and we almost walked away. However, we had the door unlocked for us and were fed in the minute dining area along with three ancient locals and a truck driver. Food was delivered to our waiter by hands belonging to an unseen body through a little hole in the wall. It was all extremely strange.

The greatest contact we made in the town was with the hospedaje owner's dog. He liked you to throw stones for him and indicated this by placing them on your foot and then waiting. It seemed he could play the stone game for hours at a time. I guess you have to make your own entertainment in a place like Tecka.

Gobernador Costa, which we wobbled to in a similarly wind propelled high speed and jaunty angle manner the following day, had comparable qualities. The same empty streets and dust strewn humans but a bit more to keep them occupied. Gob Costa (as it is reduced to) had both a Museum and Library, both of which we launched into and hugely enjoyed. It also had brilliant shops that, presumably due to the town´s size, multi-tasked. We were so thrilled to imagine what the inside of an establishment that was both a stationers and a bike shop could look like that we just had to go inside. One side had brightly coloured note paper and boxes of pens, the other side had tyres and spanners. Of course.

Very importantly though Gob Costa had an YPF. Those petrol stations from heaven with coffee and snacks and wi-fi. And it was lucky that it did because, although we didn´t know it when we arrived, we were going to have to spend a bit longer in Gob Costa than planned.

You see, Zephyrus got angry and had one of his proper tantrums. We were sitting having dinner in the restaurant of our brilliant motel, run by Rosa, the most charming, and smallest, lady imaginable, when our attention was drawn to his furious shouts. The wind was blasting against the window, banging to be let in. Over the road it was harrassing a street sign. It had previously been standing quite still, and looking all wooden and strong, but now it was wobbling like a boxer in his corner trying to recover enough strength to go another round.

And the following morning Zephyrus was at it again. We gingerly cycled to the edge of town, all kitted up and ready to go, only to have to stop because we couldn´t stay on the bikes. We couldn´t even keep hold of them. I´ll have you know that Philip Bingham is a jolly strong chap and so you can image how appalled I was to watch him having his bike literally ripped out of his hand by a blasting side swipe from our winged westerly combatent.

We took forty minutes to drag ourselves back down the road to our former lodging, Zephyrus punching us the whole way, where our hostess greeted us with open arms and a concerned motherly look. She had gone out, attempted a trip to the corner, nearly been blown over and gone back in!

We went back in too and, like children who have been told that school is unexpectedly closed, watched TV sitting on our bed for most of the rest of the day.

With relief the following morning, Zephyrus had decided to chill out a bit and spend the day ambling about instead of hurtling around. He didn´t get going really until lunchtime and then he had the grace to mainly dance his merry dance at our backs. This was lucky as we had decided to try for a really Herculean distance by our standards. There was simply nowhere to hide our heads for a vast stretch of road and so we knew we had to go a long way. We set ourselves the target of Facundo, 174 kilometres away. Our longest day previously had been 123 kms. But we really didn´t fancy a night in the desert with nothing but a light bit of canvas to protect us so we decided to give the distance a shot.

It was a big undertaking and it was very hard work. Zephyrus was sometimes with us, sometimes satanically against us but nine and a half hours of sitting on the bikes later we pushed into the town.

Facundo was another place in hiding. This time in the bottom of a valley. It was its only chance of existing in such a wind blasted spot. A town of 200 human souls, it had everything a tiny place needs including a Municipal Alberge. The policeman told us where to find Blanca who settled us in there. It was basic but perfect.

Everyone knew everyone and Elvira, who made us some dinner told us that she knew we were on our way into town well before we arrived. Both Blanca and Elvira asked us very searching questions about where our lives were going and what we were up to. Clearly gossip was afoot. Despite then Facundo being in hiding from Zephyrus there wasn´t in fact anywhere to hide once you got there!

We had really reached a properly remote part of the world. A part where so few folk choose to reside that becoming familiar, as we would discover over the next few days, is not tricky to achieve.

The next day took us West to Rio Mayo. We had been wrestling for days with which way to head further into Patagonia. Our choices were down to head East to the coast of Argentina and more wind or west into Chile to colder weather, lots of rain and ripio but hopefully no wind.

We had chosen West and would make our turn just outside Facundo where the road divided.

Zephyrus had other plans however.

We tried leaving Facundo by the most direct route but his hideous power meant we kept falling off our bikes on the gravel road. So we retreated to the tarmac to try another way and did well until the directly western turn. Here the headwind was so bananas that after just a few kilometres we were brought to an enforced stop.

It was horrible. It is so hard to describe the ludicrous power we faced. Imagine every reporter you have ever seen making his last broadcast in a hurricane before having to retreat into the news van and beat a hasty retreat. That is about the right level. The wind was so loud that we couldn´t hear each other speaking!

We realised we had to get out of there but were at a loss as to which was to go. Should we push on West to Rio Mayo or turn tail and let the wind blow us East and face the music on the coastal side. It was properly dispiriting. Having come so far and become fit enough to be able to travel a long way on our bikes, up hill and down dale, to be stopped is very hard.

But that is the power of the wind. I guess that is why the Greeks, the Norse, the Celts and so many other cultures have turned labelled it a god. Sometimes the gods just decide your fate. Major historical events have turned because of the wind. The English were invaded by the French just at their weakest moment in 1066 when the winds turned to the Norman's advantage. The English were saved by the 'Protestant' wind in 1588 when it turned the Spanish Armada away. Sometimes you win, sometimes you loose.

We chewed it over and in the end we decided to continue West to Rio Mayo (another 40kms) and reassess there. It took us nearly three hours to get a lift which finally came in the form of the heroic Pablo and his little white van. Bumping down the road he left us in Argentina's sheep shearing capital (oh yes!) at its YPF. This YPF was so wind battered that its sign had long since blown away but it was the usual haven of coffee and comfort.

Another local hotel called and we settled wearily in knowing we had come to a real crossroads. Lots of fun and larks in Rio Mayo lay ahead but as we collapsed onto our bed one thing and one thing only was on our mind. Zephyrus was howling away outside and impossible to ignore.

Which way were we going to turn our sails next?

3 comments:

  1. Hi Liz & Phil: We're following your adventures up here in snowy Ottawa. You're writing style is excellent - which helps us to better appreciate your struggles, joys and dilemma. Where to go from here? I'll be watching your space to find out what happens next in this adventure. Safe riding & "may the wind be always at your back, may the sun shine warm on your face...." . Dave & Ken

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  2. Hurran+ Ice = HurrICanE so no wonder you are suffering the chill wind. (Just a small wind up!).

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