February 2016 archive

Talking politics and riding the storm

We’re in a small rural town called Chacabuco: a pretty square, church, bank, low-rise residential buildings and wide, tree lined streets. It’s miles from tourist traps and a good opportunity to see some of the real Argentina.

Staying in a cheap hotel for a couple of nights, sorting our kit after being forced to push our bikes through the most tremendous storm. Rain like I’ve never seen, even in Brazil. It wasn’t pleasant, with only a couple of metres of visibility and rain that whipped the skin, even through our waterproof jackets. But our morale remained high – we’re happy and full of positive energy!

We left BA on Friday morning, expecting the train journey to the rural town of Lujan to be relatively quick and easy. Rookie mistake. We made it to Moreno easy enough (aside from being squished cheek to jowl with hundreds of other commuters, all trying to find a breath of space between our bikes), where we could change train for the Lujan service. But after waiting 4 hours for the train, evening was beginning to set in. My map told me there should be a guesthouse and a hotel within striking distance, so we set out for them. But once we arrived, in typical Latin American style, they were shut. Beginning to get slightly concerned in the darkness of a potentially hazardous Buenos Aires suburb, we rode down a dirt track, hoping to find a quiet spot to pitch the tent. We asked a family drinking juice on a table outside their small bungalow for advice, and the man of the house immediately said ‘Tranquillo! Se puede acampar aqui! – All good, you can pitch your tent here!’.

They sat us down and put large glasses of icy juice in front of us. We talked about our trip, about their family and their dogs, about the charming wooden sculptures around their well loved garden that Pepe, the man of the house, had carved.

What a kind, humble, generous family! We ate at their family table, delicious home cooked pasta and meat sauce, plenty of ice cream for desert. After dinner they wouldn’t allow us to pitch our tent, insisting that we sleep in their marital bed while they slept in the children’s room with 4 of their kids. After a deep sleep, they fed us breakfast before we enjoyed a game of football with the whole family on the pitch that Pepe had carefully mown and marked.

We talked politics with them (a common and passionate conversation, we’re learning, in this country), about how the new president Macri had caused hundreds of job losses in the local area, particularly in the milk industry. For all her many faults, the workers had liked Kirchner. Aside from the gross corruption and vanity, she had supported them. Pepe and Carolina – a construction worker and waitress supporting 5 children – benefitted from the former president’s policies of subsidising certain industries.


Such a wonderful family

They were difficult to leave. Such humble generosity and kindness from strangers. They had some work needed to be done on their house – plastering, some roofing. I wondered if one day I’d return and help them complete the work.

But as always, we had to push on.

Sophie’s first long day of riding took us nearly 50 miles through Lujan and towards San Andres de Giles. As evening again set in, we turned down another dirt track to try find a quiet place to pitch the tent. We found a suitable spot and I waved at a local farmer so he knew we were there. When he approached, he said it was no problem for us to camp there. We set up the tent away from the track, ate our rice dinner, and relaxed for the night. Soon as I lay down on my inflatable mattress, a car pulled up and the farmer said ‘Michael, are you awake? I’ve been thinking, and I’d like to invite you both for an asado. You can take your tent up to the house. I’d like to share a real Argentine asado with you guys’.


Soon before Hernando’s invitation

If you hadn’t heard, the Argentine asado runs deep in the culture: thick cuts of meat are slung on a grill over the embers of an open fire and shared with friends. Hernando, our new friend, had invited his pal Ivan and Ivan’s girlfriend Maria to meet the mad Brits who were crossing the continent on their bikes. They couldn’t believe we were there. Ivan had said to him on the phone: ‘no way man! What would Brits be doing here in the middle of nowhere? And on their bikes!  Not a chance’.

We drank rum and coke and gorged on the tender meat, again talking politics. Hernando and Ivan couldn’t stand Kirchner for all the money she’d wasted. The public funds were at the highest in Argentine history when she took power, but there was hardly anything to show for it. She had selfishly squandered the public purse, buying herself and her cronies luxury houses, clothes, holidays. Like a Rhodesian warlord, utter disregard for financial accountability. Disgusting. And they weren’t convinced about Macri: ‘it’s too early to tell. But he’s from one of the richest families in Argentina. Time will tell, but I’m certain he’ll be proven to be as corrupt and ineffective as everyone before him’.


Ivan and Hernando

Ivan is a lawyer, well educated in politics and economics, and Hernando is a pig farmer. It was Hernando’s pig farm that we stayed in (as with Pepe and Caro, he insisted we slept in a bed, in the house), and the next morning we met the pigs. The numbers were depleted after the busy Christmas season, but still there were around 30 sows, 2 stud males and plenty of piglets. Hernando: ‘Tomorrow is a busy day – I have an order of two dozen piglets. I grab them by the leg and quickly slit their throats right here. They know what’s going to happen soon as I approach with the knife. They run but there’s nowhere to hide. It’s not pleasant, but I love what I do’. It was an odd feeling, looking at these cute animals, knowing that tomorrow they’d be packaged and sent to hungry customers. But I’m no vegetarian and the work’s got to be done. As with Pepe and Caro, I felt I’d love to return and help on the farm. It’s always difficult to leave.

And then to a campsite in Carmen de Areco the night before last. It was Saturday night, so noisy noisy noisy. Sophie was physically and emotionally exhausted after the ride and nearly wept when unable to get a wink of sleep with the awful music playing at disco volumes. It’s a steep learning curve for her, and she’s quickly toughening up to the rigours of the road.

And so to yesterday, after the serious weather that hit us when we were fortunately only 10 miles from our target of Chacabuco. We were able to push the bikes through the craziest part of the storm and even ride the final 6 miles into town, obviously utterly soaked, but in high spirits. We found our cheap hotel and crashed onto the bed.

The going has been a little slow since leaving Buenos Aires, but that’s to be expected. As little as half a year ago, Sophie hadn’t ridden a bike in over a decade. It’s amazing that she’s happily riding these distances as it is! 50 miles yesterday and almost as much the day before.


She’s on the road!

It’s been real so far, and real fun. We love what we’re doing. The occasional couple’s tiff, but we both want each other to be doing this together. She’s a plucky one, and I’m proud of her.

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!


Faded splendour and steaks in the capital

It’s been two weeks in Buenos Aires.

My good friend Jose has put me up in his amazing work space/studio in Recoleta. Perfectly located in a friendly neighbourhood, most of the touristy things have been a walk or short bus ride away.

But the first week I was glad to just rest. It was a luxurious feeling, knowing I didn’t have to put any miles in, and the lure of reliable WiFi connection and nearby supermarket meant I was happy to spend plenty of time at home.


La Bombonera – home of Boca Juniors

Sophie arrived on the 25th. In the 8 or so days since, we’ve ticked off many of the suggestions a guide book would recommend. A couple of impressive art galleries, a few steaks, a spot of tango and (my personal favourite) a walk around the La Boca neighbourhood to take in the colour and passion of the world famous football club, Boca Juniors. We visited the dead at the Recoleta cemetery, walked around the botanical gardens and took a day trip to Tigre, where we cruised along the river in a wooden boat.


Casa Rosada – the President’s office

Many of the cliches you may have heard about Buenos Aires are true – the drivers are crazy, there is a sense of faded splendour, excellent wine does come in a less than £5 per bottle, and yes, many of the people really are that attractive. But there were plenty of surprises for me as well – people have been warm, welcoming and generous (none of that anti-Englishness I’ve heard so much about), there are plenty of green spaces (granted, in the wealthier parts of town), and I’ve not once felt threatened by crime.

It’s challenging to try and distil two weeks worth of sights and sensations into one blog post. Perhaps at some point later in the trip I’ll write a little more about my time here. For now though, I’m excited to be getting back on the road tomorrow morning. We’ll head west toward San Rafael, in Mendoza province. The town is supposed to be beautiful and there are white water rapids that hopefully we can raft down. After that, we’ll take the route 40 south to Tierra del Fuego and the End of the World.


Caminito in La Boca


Recoleta Cemetery









I can’t wait.

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!