October 04, 2006 GMT

A TV crew will film my departure from Cochabamba. I pack, load the bike and wait in the central square. The cathedral is the far side, police headquarters on my left. A brass band plays. Cops wander over to inspect the bike.
I tell them I intend riding the lowland road via Villa Turani to Santa Cruz.
Villa Turani has been a centre for the US DEA - THE WAR ON DRUGS as corrupt and corrupting, ill conceived and unsuccessful as THE WAR ON TERROR.
The cops warn that I may be stopped by civilians posing as narcotics agents. There are no agents in civilian clothes. I must insist that the fakes accompany me to the police station in the next town.
What if they are armed?
“Insist,” insists a cop
Sun shines. The TV journalist waves from the far side of the artificial lake. The lake water is clean. The flowerbeds are beautifully kept.
“Right,” I say, “Yes, right, I’ll insist.”
The cops shake my hand and wish me well.
The band plays.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 12:18 AM GMT


Monday I had a tail wind and cruising at 100 Ks was easy on an excellent road south to the border across dry forest patched with rough fields. Hot as an oven and I stopped where ever bottled water was available from an icebox. The only service station midway was out of gas. The next gas station was a further 100 Ks and I bought 4 litres from a drum at the next village as insurance. I slept at the Hostal La Oyerencia on Avenida Heroes del Chaco in Villamontes: $9 for a large room, hot water in a good bathroom, fan, cable with CNN: 1,000 Ks in two days.
Today I faced a head wind and 80 KPH was a maximum. You cross a rail bridge immediately outside of Villamontes. I am wary of rail bridges. I took a fall on a suicide bridge in Panama. This bridge, the planks are good and divided from an intact security fence by a metre wide walkway. Once off the bridge you take a left and are on excellent highway. Cold drizzle and I stopped at the roadside and pulled on jacket and rainwear. Miserable, I stopped in Yaquiba and found a hotel on the square, bathroom and cable for $3.70. A great restaurant on the square has an upstairs that was packed with Menonites in fresh blue overalls and straw Stetsons. They don’t drive cars, trucks or tractors. A Menonite baby was sucking on a plastic pacifier.
I’ll need Argentine pesos tomorrow. Yaquiba has a bank with ATM and a legitimate moneychanger next door. I checked the dollar/peso rate on the web and was given the same rate by the moneychanger. This is easier than dealing with the standard hustlers at a frontier.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 12:22 AM GMT
October 11, 2006 GMT

I am in the Argentine. Or I am in Argentina? I prefer the former. Crossing the border was routine, though time consuming. I have one more border to cross, that dividing Tierra del Fuego. Two young Frenchmen at the Bolivian frontier recounted their fears of the complications entailed in travelling by bike. There are no complications. A biker requires proof of ownership, a national driving licence, lots of photocopies, patience and a good attitude. Attitude is essential. Officials scent arrogance or impatience or contempt faster than hounds scent a fox. Same with the police. I have been treated with courtesy throughout this journey. I have ridden sixteen thousand kilometres. Other than at a frontier, I have been asked for my papers only once, on the approach to the Ecuadorian border with Peru.
Fuller accounts are on www.simongandolfi.blogspot.com

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:20 AM GMT

I am in Salta. I have a room two blocks off the square at the Residencia Elena. The room opens off a patio full of flowers. The water is hot. The ceiling fan squeaks. The room rate is $20 for a couple. I am alone and pay $16.50. I don’t complain. I have ridden 400 Ks over country that is flat and boring. Agriculturally it is organised well in vast fields of sugar, some plant with a yellow flower, wheat and citrus. Mountains pretend to approach only to retreat into the haze. Entering the city is easy. The centre in clearly signed.
Joy! Salta has sidewalk cafés on the cathedral square that serve excellent coffee. I order a fruit salad, sip coffee, and people watch. I have been in a largely mestizo world for the past five months. Argentina is different. You see white people, white, white, white. A tall man selling fruit in the market is as white as an Irish nun in a closed order. Is he scared of the sun, frightened of skin cancer? What does he do at weekends? Watch football on TV?

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:23 AM GMT

I am in Salta. I am in a recognisably European city of sidewalk cafes and clean parks and smart shops. I have escaped unscathed from the terrorist and bandit territory of indigenous America. I report the loss of my wallet at the police station on the cathedral plaza. I am recompensed with two kisses. The police officer is young and pretty and kind. She says that I am in great shape for an Oldie – that Bernadette must be a wonderful wife to have looked after me so well.
A second police officer groans under the weight of her pregnancy. I recall Bernadette visiting a dear friend on his deathbed. John was gynaecologist. He was also a rugby player and dismissive of women’s aches and pains. Dying of cancer, he complained to Bernadette that every part of him hurt.
“At last you know what it feels like to be pregnant,” said Bernadette.
I report this tale to Salta’s female police officers. Bernadette is their hero.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:27 AM GMT

I lie in bed - 7.30 a.m. The hotel room is small and dark and dank. Plumbing gurgles. A man converses in German and in Spanish. The Spanish is with a member of the hotel staff. The German complains that his bedside light doesn’t work, that the lavatory won’t flush, that the ceiling fan screeches. He wants a discount on the room rate – or his wife/girlfriend demands that he demand a discount.
My bladder is demanding.
And my laptop is demanding. It waits on the table. I hate my laptop. It is a Panasonic ToughBook and indestructible. It weighs a ton. It travels in the box on the bike’s luggage rack. The box is black. Midday the box becomes an oven. Heat murdered the batteries. I have to work indoors. I tried working last night. The chair sandwiched between the bed and the table has a cracked seat. The crack pinched my arse.
I feel inside my pyjama pants for evidence of the pinch.
I find three spots.
Before riding, I need to put cream on the spots.
I don’t want to ride.
I have been riding for months.
Tierra del Fuego is a further 5000 Ks.
Bernadette thinks that I should ride back in the New Year to New York.
My heart will give out.
I feel for my pulse.
Where is my pulse?
8 a.m. - I must get up.
My years will stick knives in my spine and in my ankles.
I will slip on the soap on the wet floor of the bathroom and crack my head open.
Where did I leave my teeth?
I need my spectacles.
Being old isn't fun.
I want to be home. I want to sprawl on the couch and watch TV and hug the kids (if they allow) and rest my head in Bernadette’s lap and know that soon she and I will go upstairs to bed.
Salta is half the world away.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:31 AM GMT

The altiplano is beautiful to the traveller. He passes by. He doesn’t stop. There is nowhere to stop. In Argentina, village after village tempts. I head south from Salta. Colonel Moldes comes first – surely an odd name for a town. Argentina is full of such names: Colonel This and General That.
Colonel Moldes is too charming to be military. Trees shade the main street. Pillared arcades shade the sidewalk. I stop for coffee at the Hospedaje Dona Lada. Birds enjoy the palm trees in the small park where a bust of the Colonel holds sway. The coffee is excellent. The young woman who serves is delightful. Each passer-by greets me. This is bliss. I could stay a week. Townspeople would talk to me in the evenings. I would learn something of Argentina. Big cities don’t work. People are too busy. I am invisible. I learn nothing.
What is the cost? $8 for a single with bath.
I paid double in Salta and had my pocket picked.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:36 AM GMT

The gorge of El Rio de las Conchas on the road from Salta to Cafayate is a must for a biker. Temperature is ideal. The road is set up right. The curves and climbs and descents are perfect. Take time out to admire the scenery. What scenery! The walls of the gorge are red rock ground and stretched and wrenched. The thorn trees and scrub along the river seem sprayed with emerald dust and lit with strobe lights. I share the gorge with a pedal-bike race. Cops clear the route. Three riders have a kilometre lead over the pack. A couple at the back catch a drag from attendants in a van. An ambulance brings up the rear.
Weird taste to ride through such beauty with your head down and blinded with sweat.
The riders might think me weird to be riding a pizza delivery bike the length of Latin America.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:40 AM GMT

I intend sleeping the night in Santa Maria. Santa Maria is a small market town in the centre of nowhere. The road I take is surfaced with ripli. Ripli is Argentinian for corrugated dirt. Honda and I share an antipathy for dirt.
Should I have known that Santa Maria is holding a world conference of Camels? Morales, President of Boliva, was due to attend. Now he is attending funerals of Bolivian miners dead in a fratricidal battle between miners from a co-operative and miners in the State sector. Miners from the co-op are militant. They detest the subsidies and State contracts that advantage miners in the public sector. Their weapons are sticks of dynamite.
Morales or no Morales, every hotel in Santa Maria is full with freeloaders of the conference circuit. A pleasant elderly gentleman with few teeth mans the tourist office in the central square. He is a keen biker and owns an Alpina. He bought the Alpina as a rebuild job. It lies in bits in his garage. It has been in bits for the past fifteen years. It requires spare parts. Parts require money. He doesn’t have any. And he is getting older. Sixties? Hopefully my visit will rekindle his dreams. He advises Tafi del Valle as an alternative destination. 90 Ks, and I have two hours of daylight. Does he hate me? Is my liberty salt in the wounds of his disappointments? Why else would he fail to mention that the 90 Ks includes altiplano and a mountain pass? The sky up there is overcast. The temperature falls faster than lead. My tears snap and tinkle on the rutted tar.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:42 AM GMT

I leave Tafi del Valle at 7 a.m. One elderly man in a thick fawn coat and wool hat sweeps refuse back into a bin dogs have riffled. No one else stirs. The city folk of Salta were equally late in rising. 8 a.m. had the feel of 6 a.m. in an English city. Argentineans siesta and shops stay open until 10 or 11 p.m. British shop assistants would strike. Even first generation Asian kids would rebel.
The road dips passed a lake, rises then follows a stream down through a thickly forested gorge. The trees are peculiar. The leaves are sparse and small and curled. I have ridden a couple of Ks before realisation strikes. Strikes is an understatement for being smitten visually by a mass of yellow daffodils. The trees are deciduous; this is early Spring; I am in a temperate micro climate. Sunrise tints the leaves with pink. One more gift of beauty from South America…
20 Ks further and I reach a tropic floor of cane fields, citrus and wheat. The road crosses west into the next valley. Desert…

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:45 AM GMT

I have ridden 730 Ks today from Tarif to Chepes. I couldn’t see a reason to stop. Present a Texan with a slice of this land and he would refer to it as his ranch. Normal people recognise desert. Vegetation is sparse and grey rather than green. Sand blows across the road and gets in your ears and in your eyes. The road runs straight to the horizon and all the way back to the horizon. A dot on the road finally materialises into a truck. A car driven fast overtakes and remains in view twenty minutes later.
A road sign welcomes me to Florida. A dust track leads off to the right and crosses disused rail track. I pass a second sign the other side of the road – Florida is history.
The road crosses a dry lake. A fence runs across the lake parallel to the road. Two Aberdeen Angus bullocks walk beside the fence. They halt and look at me. I poop my klaxon. Perhaps they break wind.
Why didn’t I take the scenic route? The scenic route is riple – Honda and I don’t ride riple.
Chepes is a road junction. It used to be a rail junction. The railway died. What else can I write of Chepes? Dusty streets, a motorised procession of celebrating football fans. I found a hostal at $7. A big beer and steak dinner set me back $3. The steak was on the run from a steel foundry. I stuck my hand in a ceiling fan and sprayed blood over my bed.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:48 AM GMT

My wristwatch fell off some time yesterday. I bought the watch in Panama at a street stall for $9. The one window in my room at the Chepes hostal has Venetian blinds that don’t open. I need a morning call. I have parked in the garage behind the hostal owner’s car. She has to leave early.
What is early?
“By nine – half past at latest.”
Is late rising religious?
Was Evita Peron a late riser?
She did much of her early work in bed.
The road crosses 160 Ks of desert. I count three curves, each less than ten degrees. I stop at the first town. Town? A mini-Lourdes built round a hilltop shrine dedicated to the saint of travellers. Believers arrive by bus. I am served the most disgusting cup of coffee of this entire trip, the most revolting enpanadas and the toilet facilities are filthy. The saint is a fraud. Were she genuine, she would strike these exploiters dead.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:50 AM GMT
October 26, 2006 GMT

Modern machinery and concrete sew the desert with water channels. From the sand sprout vineyards and citrus orchards and serial crops. This is Argentina: the scale is vast, the fields are flat. Close-by soar the snow-capped Andes. I long for a visual foreplay of wooded foothills.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 12:37 AM GMT

Mendoza is a clean safe modern city of shaded streets and watered parks and squares cooled by fountains. Plaza San Martin is the centre. I check half a dozen hotels before taking a $13 room on the 3rd floor at the Imperial for two nights. The room has a full size window and hot shower. The towels rate as adequate, the elevator works, staff are helpful. I write eight hours straight at a table in the ground-floor restaurant (prices are reasonable for acceptable food). Three further hours on the internet and I am up to date with Blogs and correspondence. Late evening I sit at a sidewalk café and people-watch. The temperature is ideal, no flies nor mosquitoes. I think of Mendoza as a European city. I am wrong. In any European city I would see African and Asian faces. Here there remains a thin sprinkling of dark mestizo amongst older citizens. Amongst the young, Europe is triumphant, the indigenous visible only in a slight tanning of skin and in a bright blackness of eye. Dress is casual. The young are confident in their sensuality. These are beautiful people and they are having fun.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 12:40 AM GMT

I am due to meet with the regional President of the journalists’ union in San Juan. His cell phone is permanently busy. The road south traverses flat fields. The mountains are vertical flats and equally boring. San Juan has nothing to recommend it. I ride on.
Olive groves and terraces of ancient olive trees are familiars of European literature. Literature is passé. Argentina is agro-corporation. Kilometre upon kilometre of young olive trees march to the horizon either side of the road. I break for coffee at a service station. A young woman serves me. She is one of four daughters, no brothers. I have four sons. We compare ages, occupations. Twenty or more shade-netted plant nurseries occupy the far corner of the intersection: baby olive trees fresh from the genetic lab. The owners are Spanish. The town has become dependent on them. These same Spaniards have planted three thousand hectares of almonds. My informant is unsure as to how many thousand hectares of olives have been planted. The young woman tells me that a labourer earns $270 monthly. She asks what a farm labourer earns in England. I guess at $500 a week. I sip my coffee and wonder what the future holds for the European farmer, the Spaniard husbanding olives and almonds on a few cherished hectares. Is he aware of the intention of his compatriots here in Argentina? Perhaps a TV producer could put them together. Imagine a judge as chairperson. Is investing in the destruction of your campatriots’ living an act of treason? Or merely sensible business practice? God Bless The Global Economy, Screw The Loser…

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 12:44 AM GMT

General Alvear is a small modern town with a large tree-shaded plaza. Why this need to memorialise the military? What did General Alvear do?
I find a hotel room, hot water, $7. I check the Internet and learn that England has lost to Croatia. For years the sports journalists and fans have blamed a foreigner, Sven Juric Ericson, for any failure of the national team. Perhaps the Swede did well given the paucity of talent.
I eat steak and salad and return to the hotel. A small neat man in his sixties sits on the sofa in the reception. He wears blue chinos, a blue jumper, blue socks and blue bedroom slippers. His moustache is parted in the middle and teased out into two points. The manager presents him as her friend (hence the slippers). Senor Hostility would be a better introduction. He settles himself on the sofa in the manner of fighter pilot settling in the cockpit.
“You are English.”
“Yes,” I say.
“You English are arrogant. You don’t wish to be part of Europe. You believe you are superior.”
I am pro Europe – what should I say? I suggest that some Brits are nervous of being associated with nations where political corruption is the norm: that this fear is common to most members of the six nations comprising the original European community.
“Your Blair is more corrupt than anyone. More corrupt than Belusconi. He and Belusconi are friends. Look at Iraq - he is a liar, your Blair. There is proof that more than six hundred and fifty thousand civilians have been killed. What do you say to that?”
Senor Hostility is softening me up. Soon he will shift attack to the Falklands/Malvinas war.
“I agree,” I say, “Absolutely...now, please, if you’ll excuse me, I have to be up and on the road by six-thirty.”
So sneaks away the cowardly Brit…

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 12:51 AM GMT

7 a.m. and the road leads dead straight across scrub desert. A cold fierce head wind plays smoky patterns of fine sand across the tar. I bend forward over the fuel tank and edge the speedometer up to 70 KPH. The sand gets in my eyes and in my nostrils and in my ears. The road is endless. The country is featureless. Thousands of kilometres remain.
I check the speedometer. I have ridden six kilometres.
I check the speedometer. I have ridden eight kilometres.
I mark a post on the horizon. I won’t check the speedometer again until I reach the post.
A pale spot becomes a truck. The truck becomes a monster. The bike shudders. Ten kilometres…
I need coffee.
Cochico, at 90 Ks, is the first place name on the road map. 90 Ks at 70 KPH?
But it isn’t 70 KPH. I sit up and the speed drops to 60.
All bikers suffer this type of depression one time or another, mostly when they are young and haven’t dressed for the weather or on the wrong bike for what ever it is they are trying to do.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 12:53 AM GMT

Cochico is eight shacks and a police barrier. A young cop tells me to pull off the road below a dead pickup. The shack behind the pickup serves coffee. I look for a sign. Nothing. Only a couple of thin dogs. The door is tacked together from old planks that have been used elsewhere. I tap. A balding head appears and is followed by a hand that scratches the scalp.
The door opens fully and the head extends into a man of my generation. He is fresh from bed and hasn’t completed his ablutions. Coffee? Of course I can have coffee.
He shows me into what passes for a restaurant: five tables, a bar, a TV, and a fireplace big enough to roast a whole sheep. The unglazed windows are protected by three layers of netting to keep the sand out and the light is dim.
The owner seats me at a table and shuffles off to where ever the kitchen is. He returns after a while with two cups. He hasn’t had time or the inclination or memory to wash or brush what is left of his hair. He asks if I want a biscuit or a sandwich or a slice of cake.
“No,” I say, “No, I don’t think that I want a biscuit or a sandwich orf a slice of cake.”
He sets the cups down on the table and sits opposite me. Where have I come from? Where am I going? How long have I been travelling? Do I have a wife? Children?
He has four children. All live and work near by – except for a daughter, 27, who is away studying in San Juan. The other daughter is married to the ambulance driver. His wife has a job as cook somewhere else (he expects me to know what or where the somewhere else is). He does the cooking in the restaurant. His kids dump the grandchildren on him. He seems extraordinarily contented.
I imagine how good it would be to have my two elder sons close by and Anya running a local stud. Have the door always open. Have Sarah drop the genius off of a morning. Have everyone at table for Sunday lunch. It is the life I imagined for myself when I was young. I have made a real mess.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 12:54 AM GMT

Any biker riding through Cochico, please stop and pay the old man my respects and give him my thanks. He pulled me out of black depression. His contentment did it. And human contact. I got back on the bike with a changed vision. Instead of kilometres to be crossed, the desert had become something to look at and enjoy. I had been comparing it unfavourably with the game-filled Ogaden that I had enjoyed in my youth. The Argentinean desert is no better nor worse, prettier nor less attractive. It is different. That is all.
Either a light rain or heavy dew must have fallen in the past weeks. The road is raised and the runoff has left green strips of fine grass each side of the tar. A small falcon with a white under-tail and white beneath the wings hunts the road edge. I spotted, right beside the road, three small coveys of a dun coloured game bird, somewhat resembling guinea fowl. A small pink flower grows in patches. And I was struck, as I rode along, how little I know of the world in which I have lived. I am old for a learner. I need to move along at a fair pace.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 12:56 AM GMT

What began as a bad day has been a great day. I stopped for lunch at a shack in the middle of nowhere. A bunch of trucks and pickups were parked outside, a good sign. The drivers sat at two long tables laid with tablecloths. A young pregnant woman was serving platters of steamed trout and bottles of red and white wine.
I sat at a table without a tablecloth and was offered steak and salad or salad and steak. I took the steak and salad. A driver, not of the party, joined me. He was familiar with the place and the pregnant woman’s daughter, a six-year-old, kissed his cheek and fetched him a glass and a bottle of soda. Our food came at the same time and we left together. The driver didn’t know what the party was but was anxious to be on the road ahead of the wine drinkers. I had a rear wheel puncture right by the gas station in the next town. A neighbouring puncture specialist fixed the tube for $1.60. I rode on through Nequeen and took Route 237 towards San Carlos de Bariloche. Late evening and I suffered a couple of sharp rain squalls. The evening sun lit the underside of dark grey cloud over the lake at Villa el Chocon and turned the water into a shimmering sheet of slate-coloured glass. The light on the water was too intense to discern the far shore.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 12:59 AM GMT

Villa el Chocon down by the lake is a tourist resort. The cops at the cop station warned me of the prices and suggested a hostal in the roadside village.
Hostal El Alamo is a find. Any biker riding by should stop. The beds are perfect. Bathrooms have power showers. The lady of the house is a great cook: $10 for the room plus $4 for dinner and the tap water is safe.
I share table at dinner with a man of interesting views. He is a building contractor, self-educated. He finds modern society immoral. He places much of the blame on female liberation. Women, once educated, lose respect for their working husbands. They find their husbands uninteresting. They prefer the company of their educated female friends. Soon they are out drinking together and smoking. Prostitution is the next step. He tells me of a dance hall in Buenos Aires. A factory building, it holds three thousand couples. By two in the morning none of the women can dance – all are inebriated, all are for sale.
He was a child when his father was killed in an earthquake. He believes his father came from Syria or Iraq. Iraq is the birthplace of civilisation. Now look what the British are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have killed 650,000 civilians – they and the Americans. The British in Australia were worse than the Spanish in America. Recently 300 Aboriginal bodies were discovered. Their British employer had murdered them rather than pay wages due - a common occurrence.
He believes in a great conspiracy by the rich. Consumerism is part of the conspiracy. Women are the chief targets (yes, we are back to women). 52% of world income is spent on women. Makeup is the largest item. Women are weak and easily influenced. They have no resistance to temptation. Read the Bible. Lot’s wife…
So he continues while I nod my understanding and marvel that his wife hasn’t cut his throat.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:01 AM GMT

Another great day. I ride route 327 from Villa el Chocon to San Carlos del Bariloche, then take route 40 to Bolson. Lakes and mountains and dark, forbidding moors are the menu. I recognise a face on the moors. He is a young chap, not fully grown.
“Where are you from?” he asks.
“Colwall,” I reply.
“In Herefordshire? That’s close to Ledbury.”
“Six miles,” I say.
“I believe that’s where my great great grandfather came form,” he tells me.
“Very probably,” I say and take his photograph.
He is embarrassed at having spent so much time with an old fogie. Off he trots to join his friends.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:02 AM GMT

Route 237 crosses the river only once. The gas station the far side of the bridge has the appearance of a restaurant but isn’t. Ride a few miles further and there is a restaurant on your left down by the river. You can’t miss it. It is the first building after the bridge. Don’t stop. I was charged $10 for a bowl of lentil soup, salad, and a small bottle of water.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:03 AM GMT

Argentina excels in road signs. SINUADO is my favourite. SENSUADO would be extra. Any biker knows the meaning: sweeping curves, smooth dips, curving climbs, perfect camber, views to die for. The road to Bariloche passes through a valley maybe half a mile in width. Black mountains rise each side, sharp crests of bare rock. Black scythe blades of rain cut across the valley. Beyond rose the white peaks of the Andes. What more should I want?

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:07 AM GMT

Bariloche. I wonder at the name. Was it born as Barry’s loch? Pines edge the lakeshore. Above shine the ski slopes. Lift cables bisect the pistes. The road swings south towards Bolson. I follow a second lake. Rain closes in. The road climbs. Rain turns to sleet. My feet are soaked, toes and fingers numb. Sun over the peaks strikes through the cloud. I am in semi-dark. My cheeks suffer a bombardment of ice crystals. I raise the speed by 10 KPH to intensify the pain. I must be crazy. I even stop to photographs the peaks. I kneel beside the road and steady the camera. There, on my knees, illumination strikes. Size is of no account. Nor is speed. Years are immaterial. This is the test. The pass mark is having fun. Enjoy yourself under these conditions and you may ware the label proudly: BIKER.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:09 AM GMT

Bolson is cute tourist town. Prices are high. So are the mountains. The tourist office found me a room ($15). Face the square and turn left up main street. Three blocks and Hospedaje is on the left. I have a large comfortable room. The double bed has a good mattress. The radiator is hot, the water in the shower is hot. I have a window onto a garden and a table that I can write at. Honda is safe under cover in the garage. Bringing the Blogs up to date takes a full day.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:10 AM GMT

Esquel was a hippie haven in the seventies. Now it is a fashionable resort - bright hippies tracked the change and shop with Platinum-grade credit cards. The road from Bolson crosses a stretch of altiplano. I pass two cops wrapped in balaclavas and frost-retardant. I ask what happened to the central heating. The one cop says, “The Government forgot to pay the gas bill.”
I top up with gas at Esquel and head for Tecka. The road follows a wide flat river valley of huge sheep paddocks. Trees grow along the river. I startle a flight of green parrots. What are parrots doing up here on the altiplano? And why haven’t the farmers planted shelter strips? Teka doesn’t look much on the Auto Club map. So much for maps: Teka holds a treasure. I turn off the highway onto a dirt street. Tin-roof bungalows each side are closed tight against the wind. The road becomes tar and I spot pickups parked outside a gas station. The gas station is out of use. The drivers are here for Sunday lunch.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:12 AM GMT

A true restaurateur is a miracle you luck on in the strangest places. Evidence starts with the greeting. Tecka, the owner has been waiting all his life for my arrival. Will the plat de jour suffice? A simple gnocchi?
The gnocchi are al dente. The sauce is a combination of tomato, garlic, herbs, ham and Italian sausage. The quantity is as vast as Argentina. It is served in a dish cradled in a basket. It is divine. So are the fresh-baked bread rolls.
Bikers, forget your schedules. Stop here and eat.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:14 AM GMT

I ride out of Teka into a full gale. A moment’s inattention and I would be slammed off the road. I consider turning back. A great restaurant – maybe there is a great bed. However Patagonia is famous for its winds. What I consider a gale is probably the standard Patagonian breeze.
Gobernador Costa is a further 60 Ks south on route 40. The streets are empty. Those out for a Sunday stroll have been blown away. I stop for gas and a coffee.
A pretty young woman operates both the gas pump and the coffee machine. She asks where I am going.
“Sarmiento,” I say.
“That’s two hundred and sixty kilometres,” she says.
I agree.
“There’s a gale blowing,” she says.
I’ve noticed.
“You should stay the night here,” she says.
“Patagonia is famous for wind,” I say. “Will there be less wind tomorrow?”
“Of course there will be less,” she says. “This is a storm. We don’t always have storms.”
She fails to convince me. There could be a storm tomorrow. It could bring a more intense wind. Weaken, and I could be stuck for weeks. I don’t have weeks. I have a flight booked to Madrid out of BA on the 30th.
Better the devil…

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:15 AM GMT

The nearest pollution must be hundreds of Ks to the north. I am struck by the clarity of light and the extraordinary depth of blue in the sky. The blue is reflected in the lake on the approach to Sarmiento. The lake at Villa del Chocon was the same amazing blue. So was Lake Titicaca. I have seen parrots today. I have seen flamingos graze in ponds alongside sheep and Hereford cattle. Awareness that flamingo breed in the Andes fails to make their presence any less surprising. Those long thin legs should freeze and snap.
Now, in evening, I pass cars parked by a bridge on the outskirts of Sarmiento and Sunday fisherman walking with their fly rods along the riverbank.
I turn off the road at a sign offering B&B. Dogs greet me kindly. A woman shows me a bunkroom. She rents the room with its six beds and use of a kitchen for $20. I don’t have use for six bunks. Nor can I use the kitchen. My logic confronts her prices. My logic fails. I take a room in town at the Hotel Ismir for $15. The room is miserable. So am I. I am tired. I have ridden 600 Ks. I have hay fever or a streaming head cold. I shower and walk a couple of blocks in search of a restaurant. Joy is foreign to Sermiento in a gale. People huddle and watch TV. Bungalows shrink within themselves. The Hotel Colon is a rarity. I spy six men at the bar. I guess that they missed out on church serviced and have been at the bar much of the day. How will they view an intruder? A Brit? I pass half a dozen times before getting my courage up. A set of aluminium doors leads into a porch from which more doors open to the bar. The doors are ill fitting. They grate and squeak and clatter. An army tank would make less noise. Conversation ends. The six men at the bar turn on their stools and inspect me. So does the owner. So does he wife.
I hold my hands above my head in surrender. “I am a Brit,” I say. “Am I allowed?”
“They allow horses,” says a man in a flat gaucho hat.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:16 AM GMT

The Hotel Colon in Sarmiento is the type of dump any respectable biker hankers after. The bar is the right length. Six people and it doesn’t feel empty; twelve and it doesn’t feel overcrowded. Sarmiento is a small town. I doubt there are more than twelve serious bar stool occupiers. The six in possession have been on the same conversation for a while. Maybe it began yesterday or last week. It is one of those conversations that expand over time and develop threads that go nowhere and are put to death. Mostly what is said now is in allusion to what has been said earlier and you would need to have been in on the conversation early to understand its direction – if it has a direction. I sit at the far end of the bar, order a small beer and watch the last few minutes of a football match on TV. The conversationalists seem content with my presence. The pool table to the left of the bar hasn’t been used in a while. It is there because this type of bar requires a pool table. The girlie advertisements for beer exist for the same reason. They are expected, as are the three tables, each with four folding chairs, arranged along the wall. The barstool residents would be uncomfortable were they absent. A young couple occupies the table closest to the door. I guess that they are students. She wears spectacles and is perhaps the more confident – or the more pressing of there relationship. The obligatory guitar case protrudes from amongst the bags and backpacks heaped on the floor. I wonder if they are waiting for a bus – or for a parent.
I imagine Josh or Jed calling home. “Dad, can you pick us up.”
I wonder if my sons are aware of the happiness I find in being asked. To be of use is a joy, no matter the time of day or night. I will bitch, of course. Bitching is expected.
I don’t ask how many Us is.
I don’t ask if the girl is a friend or a girlfriend.
Asking would be an infringement.
Of course I want to know – though not to judge, but because this is part of who they are.
However I do wish that they would sit a while in the kitchen once we get home, let me cook them something, talk to me, let me share a little of their lives. They tend to hurry straight upstairs to their room.
I guess it’s my age.
I’m sort of odd, an embarrassment.
You know? Having a dad in his seventies…And, yes, I am odd. I do odd things.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:18 AM GMT

I ask Mrs Hotel Colon if there is a restaurant open nearby. She asks whether a steak and fries would satisfy. A steak and fries would be just dandy.
I drink a second beer and nod intelligently to asides from my barstool neighbour. The asides refer to the general conversation. A mystic would find them obtuse.
Mrs Hotel Colon summons me to a small dinning room. She says, “I put a couple of eggs on your steak.”
I thank her and ask for a third beer.
Three beers and dinner cost $7.
Room rate for a single with bath is $15. Should you ever pass through Sarmiento, you know where to stay. Take a right at the park, ride three blocks and turn left. The Colon is on your right.
Don’t bother with the conversation. It won’t be comprehensible. You are a year or two late…

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:20 AM GMT

Wind buffets the Honda and I crouch low on the ride to Comodoro RIivadavia. Ahead lies the South Atlantic. I intended servicing the bike at the Honda agency. Comodoro Rivadavia appears deserted. Wind commands the streets. Dust devils snake across the tar. I stop for fuel. A lone truck pulls into the gas station. I have hit a national holiday: Mother’s Day.
I turn south on the coastal road and halt on a cliff top. The wind has brought clear skies. The sea is dark blue. Curling lines of surf, whiter than white, burst over the rocks. My camera is buried beneath layers of clothing. I pry through the layers. My fingers are numb and the wind whips the camera case over the cliff.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:22 AM GMT

Caleta Olivia is an oil town. Here, too, the wind is in command. I stop at a small hotel near the plaza. The owners emigrated from Andalucia so let me call it the Hotel Andalucia. The wife appears from the kitchen, books me in and retreats back into the kitchen. I open my laptop on a table in the bar/lobby and work to late evening. The wind drops and the young come out to play. The women wear the standard uniform of the young, jeans or pants supported by their backsides, two inches of bare belly, shoulder tattoos. The guys wear swagger and grease their hair against the wind. Piercings are in, mostly ears and eyebrows, a few noses, no lips that I notice.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:26 AM GMT

The political history of Argentina is tawdry in the extreme. The politicians have a need for heroes with whom to associate themselves. Statues memorialise great men in even the smallest village. Sa Callete memorialises the oil field worker. An enormous statue dominates the central plaza. The statue is a direct descendent of Soviet art (see www.simongandolfi.blogspot.com) Mother’s Day and pizza parlours are doing great business.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:29 AM GMT

I sit with the owner of the Hotel Andalucia at the front table beneath the TV. In his mid-sixties, he is a short man, thickset, square hands. He wears a flat cap with a worn peak, blue suit, white shirt, no tie. Enter any café in Andalucia and you will find his twins playing dominoes or cards. He owned land near Granada. He worked the land with mules. A hard life…so he sold up and emigrated. He was back recently, after thirty-five years. His childhood friends now use tractors on the land and employ workers. They’ve built new houses, own two or three cars. A health card gives them free medical treatment in a modern hospital. They draw comfortable State pensions. The local café has central heating. He stayed three months. He wanted to stay for ever. He is a proud man and doing so would have been an admittance of his mistake. He rises from the table and goes outside and unlocks his new Ford 4X4. He sits in the car a while before driving off round the block. I watch part of a football match on TV. The owner returns and sits in his same chair. He doesn’t speak to me. Speaking with me would remind him of where he is. His wife sits at the table in the kitchen. Open their skulls and you would uncover dreams of a village of whitewashed houses and cobbled streets, of olive trees and fresh figs and wind-cured ham – and of friendships and enmities that endure through generations.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:30 AM GMT

The land between Caleta Olivia and Porto San Julian began as a plateau. God got bored and chopped the plateau with the side of his hand every fifty miles or so. Rivers run through the valleys. Which direction the rivers drain depends on the angle at which God chopped: east into the South Atlantic or west to Lago Argentina. Geographers and geologists don’t care for God and will give you a different explanation.
The road runs straight as a ruler across the plateaux. Have the wind in your face and you barely move. The clarity of light leads to confusion. You can see for ever. You presume three bushes are a clump. The clump splits: the first bush is a mile closer then the second and the third is a further mile distant. A service station is the first stop after 150 Ks and there’s a new hostal on the right 100 Ks short of San Julian. That’s it. I may have seen a small tree. If so, it was a small tree. Crossing the terrain on a small bike, you need to keep your mind occupied. God as a landscape artist served me well.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:33 AM GMT

Most towns on the Patagonian plain seem built by the three little piggies. Along comes a wolf and he’ll blow them away. Porto San Julian is different. It possesses solidity and permanence. I don’t know why - perhaps being out on a point and 6 Ks off the highway. The townsfolk care for their town and they make the best of where it is. A community of 18,000, it has three football clubs and a fives court. I make a tour in search of a hotel and find a monument out on the cliff front. The monument is a fighter plane from the Falklands/Malvinas war. The Hotel Municipal faces the monument. It is a good hotel. The room rate is higher than my want. Going elsewhere would be a retreat. I have been in Argentina for three weeks and have avoided the war. I am a Brit. The war is something I need to confront.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:34 AM GMT

I am in a fishing port. I want to eat fish. The best restaurant has been taken over by elderly couples form Buenos Aires on a bus tour of Patagonia. A table will be available at 10.30.
I wait in the hotel and talk with the manager. She is a reminder of the schoolteachers who told me of the US invasion of Panama. She has the same soft voice as she tells me of the young soldiers sent to the Malvinas. Poor boys, how they suffered. Most were from the north. They had never experienced cold and they had neither suitable clothes nor adequate food.
I reply that I recall reading of British officers’ anger at discovering the condition of the Argentine soldiers and their contempt for Argentine army officers, many of whom abandoned their men.
I walk back down the cliff road to the restaurant. Wind grabs at my jacket. I imagine the ancient Argentine battleship, Belgrano, torpedoed. For how many minutes could a sailor survive in the freezing sea?
I feel a hypocrite as I enter the warmth of the restaurant.
The two bus drivers and the tour guide for the oldies invite me to their table. We chat of road conditions and distances and the countries we have visited. Later they drop me back at the hotel in the double-decker coach. I lie in bed and think of the vile headlines in England’s popular press. A good Argie was a dead Argie. And what of all those Brits who, over generations, have settled in Argentina?

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:38 AM GMT

Early morning and I am forced to tack into a fierce wind as I circle San Julian’s monument to the Argentine airman killed in the war. The plane seems so small, little more than a toy. The names of the dead are inscribed on black plaques:
Heroes of the Malvinas.
Argentine or Brit, there were no heroes – only victims: victims of political ineptitude and politicians’ vainglory.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:41 AM GMT

I face another day of wind and cold and vast distances.
I am accustomed now to the dress code for springtime in Patagonia. On the bottom half I wear underwear and long underwear, two pairs of pyjama bottoms, thick jeans and rain pants. The top gets three undershirts, cord shirt, three jerseys, leather jacket, scarf, windproof rainjacket. I pad the front of the jerseys with newspaper. Next I load the bike. One bag goes on the gas tank. I wedge a second bag into the gap between the seat and the cargo box. Maps, spare gloves and the FootPrint guidebook go in rubber webbing on the box lid. I struggle into the backpack, settle the helmet and security glasses, pull on wool gloves and leather gauntlets. Ready…
Passers-by stop to watch this large blue balloon in a crash helmet prepare to mount. I know their thoughts.
Will the old weirdo get his leg over?
Will the bike fall?
Safely seated in the saddle, I kick the starter, no throttle: Brrrmmmm…
I smile at the disbelievers, raise a disdainful paw, slip the Honda into gear and ride off into the sun. And ride – and ride – and ride…
I have seen a red lake and a green lake and blue lakes and dry lakes. I have shouted at fat married couples (birds) to get off the road. I have talked to Hereford cattle and road repair gangs.
I whirl an arm to denumb my fingers, stretch my legs, wriggle my toes. I bow to lessen wind buffeting by passing trucks, wave to gauchos, slalom the broken white line. I check my watch and the distance travelled against the distance remaining to the next gas stop. 100 Ks is the beginning of a countdown. 100 Ks is only sixty miles. 80 Ks is fifty miles. 20 Ks is nearly there.
My dismounting technique is ungainly – more a semi-fall sideways. I hobble to the lavatory and fumble deep within all the folds of clothing for something to pee with. I sip black coffee in the gas station cafeteria, munch a sandwich, chat with whoever asks where I come from. These are the moments that make the trip worthwhile: so many different people, all content to share with me a little of themselves.
I fill the tank. Backpack, helmet, glasses, gloves: Brrrrmmmm.
Ahead lies a further 150 Ks.
Is it fun?
In truth?
Fun is the wrong word.
Challenge comes closer. In my seventies, can I ride 22,000 Ks on a small bike the length of the Americas? The start of each day is hardest. I wake and lie in bed and contemplate the distance ahead. One more night in a strange bed. Broken sleep. Every part of me aches - back, knees, ankles. I want to give up. I fumble for spectacles and the lamp switch. Check the AAC route guide. Tomorrow I will be on the final page. Get up, you old fool. Take a hot shower.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:44 AM GMT

Santa Cruz is the Provincial capital. It is packed with visiting officials and people needing to speak with officials. And it has the Province’s main hospital. I try six hotels before finding a bed. The shortage puts the room rate up to $20. I find a restaurant that professes to serve fresh fish. When will I learn? When in Argentina, stick with beef.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:45 AM GMT

There are no gas stations between Santa Cruz and the border. Fill up in town. Wind as usual. The landscape has more shape; scrub has given way to vast grass paddocks. The grass is thin and tufty. Sheep graze separately. Despite the cold, this is springtime. Lambing has begun. The young butt their mothers’ udders.
A road sign points left to Tierra del Fuego. An ostrich inspects me. He is one of eight. The other seven look the other way. I meet half-a-dozen trucks. The road dips. The channel lies ahead. A sailor is about to close the ferry ramp with a chain. He waves me on board. Drivers ask where I’ve come from. The driver of a new 4X4 pours me coffee from a flask. I go to the office to pay the ferry fare and am given free passage. I stand on the raised walkway and watch as we approach Tierra del Fuego. Rather than exhilaration, I feel relief. My journey is almost done.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:46 AM GMT

I have four borders to cross: out of Argentina, into Chile; out of Chile, into Argentina. A young Argentine cop at the first border discusses the Malvinas war. He was a child, too young to remember much and is uncertain as to the background of the conflict. He is certain that war was unnecessary. England and Argentina are friends. Many English have settled in Argentina. “It was the politicians, the Generals,” he says.
I share my thoughts of the monument in San Julian: that there were no heroes, only sacrifices.
He agrees. “Those poor boys from up north sent down there without proper clothes.”

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:47 AM GMT

There are no gas stations between Santa Cruz and the border. Fill up in town. Wind as usual. The landscape has more shape; scrub has given way to vast grass paddocks. The grass is thin and tufty. Sheep graze separately. Despite the cold, this is springtime. Lambing has begun. The young butt their mothers’ udders.
A road sign points left to Tierra del Fuego. An ostrich inspects me. He is one of eight. The other seven look the other way. I meet half-a-dozen trucks. The road dips. The channel lies ahead. A sailor is about to close the ferry ramp with a chain. He waves me on board. Drivers ask where I’ve come from. The driver of a new 4X4 pours me coffee from a flask. I go to the office to pay the ferry fare and am given free passage. I stand on the raised walkway and watch as we approach Tierra del Fuego. Rather than exhilaration, I feel relief. My journey is almost done.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:48 AM GMT

Paperwork at the Chilean border takes half an hour. I have 180 Ks to cross before reaching the next frontier. The first 30 Ks are concrete; the rest is gravel. Gravel would have defeated me at the outset in Mexico. Now I am semi-expert and ride the dirt at 60 KPH. The knack is in staying relaxed and not tightening up when the wheels slither. Expert or not, dirt is exhausting. Oncoming trucks drag clouds of dust and cut visibility to zero. When overtaken, I pull off the road and wait. I have reached serious sheep country. Not all are fenced and I beware of lambs chasing across the road. At last the Chilean border, a quick formality, then 18 Ks to Argentina and a paved road.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:49 AM GMT

I am half an hour at the Argentine border. I fly home at the end of the month and will return in February to ride north. I intend storing the Honda with the Honda agent in Ushuaia. The customs official tells me not to worry. The bike is on a temporary import permit for six months. I should show the permit to the customs at the quay in Ushuaia. I am very tired and consider stopping the night at the Automobile Club’s hostal at the border. Doing so would leave me a long ride tomorrow into Ushuaia. I ride on.
What stopped me closing and fastening my bag properly? The bag that rests against my back and which holds all the bike’s papers and the duplicates. The bag that I have unfastened and unzipped four times today at four frontiers. Exhaustion?
Did I relax with the journey almost finished?
I stop for a pee midway to San Julian and discover the document pocket on the bag unzipped. I have lost the bike’s registration papers, the temporary import permit, the FootPrint guidebook and Argentine Automobile Club member’s guide.
I have been on the road the best part of six months and I have been so careful.
Weeping won’t help.
Maybe a sheep will find and eat them.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 01:53 AM GMT

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