Cycling in the Pampa is nothing spectacular. Since December the vast agricultural lands have changed into swamps, large masses of wetlands have become plain lakes. Mosquitoes dwells happily alongside snakes, storks, owls, foxes, nutria’s and everything in between with wings, feet or no feet crawls around, is caught against the speeding wheels of trucks and cars and… receives the occasionally secretive hair cut.
I need material for my art…
While the rain has satisfied the Earth more than was welcome, making places to camp in the boring countryside challenging, there are occasional upheavals.
Pablo is such. He calls himself crazy. Standing 3 hours beside the road, enjoying our relaxed way of talking and laughing, all in Spanish. Pablo cycles for 2 years now, nothing crazy about that, but the fact that he has gone through two very unlucky happenings is rather unusual.
He’s been gun-pointed by 4 man, robbing him from his bicycle, all the panniers, his tent, shoes and even his clothes while camping. Then, being without bicycle he posted his misfortune on Facebook and got everything renewed. He has been hit by a truck too, smacked onto the tarmac, sliding several meters behind the truck. All happened in Mendoza, and though this is just one story, it does make all the ‘Argentina es muy peligroso‘ stories come true.
Pablo is a cyclist who lives on pasta with tomato sauce, for breakfast and dinner, and this makes me think why I am so focused on a decent meal? I get annoyed when I can’t find anchovies or have to buy lesser quality of cheese. Furthermore, Pablo states he like cycling in the rain, something I can not believe. And I suspect him from seeking shelter for the rain coming days, meanwhile arranging me a place to stay in Junin, with a beautiful named woman Carmen Diaz.
I have my share of wetness, humidity and condensation in the winter-land of milk and corn. The ground is so quenched with rain that even my pee won’t be absorbed. Sloshing through pools of water, a soaked tent wrapped in a ground-sheet packet with mud and the stench of my own body when I pull out money from my bra are unpleasant to come about.
With each rain fall the earth becomes a mud-pool or a soppy grassy mass, and I need to find drier places to set up camp. Incredible, as always, I just stumble upon them. An open gate, an abandoned house, a family of bats, bundles of worms and a smell of masculine rats is not bad. To top it of, a most powerful monotonous orchestra of bull frogs is my evening matinée.
With rain, thunder, closed fences and soaked lands, an earlier received inviting has me cycling a tad harder, to sleep at Don Rosendo Transport Company. The owner, a distinguished man who was checking out my Rohloff hub when I was taking a shower at a gas station, is the example of an accomplished rich business man, cycling his carbon mountain-bike in the weekends. He’s out when I reach his office, but am welcomed by Aldana and Omar.
They try all possible ways to give me comfort. Aldana suggests I take the stuff I need and she’ll bring me to Rosendo’s wife where I will enjoy a shower and a bed. I tell her the company shower will do, although she finds this dirty (since men use it too), and my air mattress in the company cafeteria will fit me just fine. There’s even a (very clean and neat) kitchen.
Cycling in the rain is not fun, I’d told you already. I only do it because it brings me closer to the sun. But the smells, dirt, and off-putting look accompanying me are things I can do without.
Yet this is how I arrive at Carmen’s. Black dirt under my nails, greasy hair, clothes not washed nearly 4 weeks, smeared in streaks of filth, oil and sooth; I have had better days. So had the bicycle and panniers, covered in mud. Carmen, a former teacher, is a fresh friend of Pablo, as they’ve met only for 2 hours. And Pablo has set up a stay for me. I am surprised at the ease and willingness strange people are happy to care for me. As it turns out, they enjoy having a traveler in their midst; I am introduced at several places, from supermercado to national voting administrative unit, as the Dutch who cycles for 4 years. Although this sort of proud introductions are daily practices in Iran and Iraq, I have not sought this out in South America. But doors are equally open, though not visibly. I think the language barrier is to blame partly.
I stay two nights, have an instant click with Carmen and eat until my tummy sticks out, all the while soaking in the provincial atmosphere. Their dark crab colored and thick plastered walls hold nearly black creole furniture, carpets I try not to walk on with my muddy boats and paintings of indigena. The table I eat breakfast from is painted in a pale green while Eduardo, a retired agronomic, prepares food with precise patience.
Being it a Sunday I enjoy another asado in their garden together with all their children and grandchildren. Being it a Saturday I relish a late night evening where Carmen plays the guitar, Eduardo sings folk songs and their son Juan dances a few steps folklore. I am slung back years into history, it feels like, and I soak it all in.
I leave with everything washed, including myself donned a haircut and gotten rid of further winter pelt. Bring on the spring! Eduardo and Carmen ride in front of me with their car, leading me to the start of the dirt tracks. From now on I will cycle the countryside on tracks, as much as the water level allows me.
‘Do you believe in God,’ someone asked me. ‘No,’ I’d answered. ‘How did the world then came into existence?’ The tattoo on my wrist may indicate I believe in the Big Bang theory, but what I believe in is the obvious: ‘Evolution created us,’ I answer, all in Spanish. The person then wants to know how, according my explanation, the first creature was placed on Earth, and by who? I explain that it took many millions of years to start from a single organism, which miraculously happened to be there, to develop in a human.
I would have never told this to Hermana Ward and her comrade Hermana De Wet. Both are missionaries, the latter from Paraguay with South African, originally Dutch forefathers. Hermana Ward has troubles speaking English, though her accent is unmistakable American.
A guy talked to me at the Chinese supermercado in Salto, though I try to avoid Chinese supermercado’s because the Chinese never understand my Spanish and are just not forthcoming. He ended with: ‘I am a Mormon, and that girl there speaks English too,’ and so I met the two Mormon missionaries.
Hermana Ward comes from a small town near Phoenix, Arizona, USA. She is on a mission and does this with devout enthusiasm. She is so earnest that I hear myself talking to her: ‘I imagine it is sometimes difficult to convert people to the Mormon fate, or Christianity for that matter, as so many prefer the easier entertainment, like fast cars, television, sweets and alcohol. I point at fat kids screaming to their mom for candies, but I refrain from adding ‘sex’ as this word seems utterly out-of-place in the face of Hermana Ward, besides, of all the things mentioned, ‘sex’ seems to be a natural occurrence, however aware, consciousness or wealthy someone is. It is my most hypocrite self I hear here. And to my surprise Hermana Ward looks at me if I am the missionary and she the woman opening the door of her house for me.
Yet, many people believe in God and his entourage, Hermana Ward herself embodies the purity of Virgin Mary. She has the kind of vibe and innocence and freshness and sincerity and pure goodness and intelligent naivety that I doubt anyone will ever do her harm. Maybe it are all these qualities combined that people see a tiny fraction in me as well, as so often I am warned to be prudent in this dangerous South American continent, or wherever I am in the world, as the ‘world is a dangerous place’, something I hardly ever experience.
When Pablo the truck driver let me off at General Alvear, it was a straight long line to San Antonio de Areco. ‘You are in Mendoza, the Andes, my brother lives in Buenos Aires, are you sure you know where you are?’ text Monica, a friend of mine. I know very well what I am doing, trying to fit three arrangements into an accumulating time-lapse: I wanted to stay as long as possible in Pablo’s truck while going the direction into which I am to pick up a parcel, send by dad to Monica’s brother where after I will meet with a Belgium friend who will start his South American tour in Buenos Aires. And that for someone who isn’t keen on planning!
When I reach San Antonio de Areco to fetch my parcel, the parcel is held back at the immigration, where it might sit for a few months more. ‘But the good news is,’ says Juan Carlos, who has the exact same expressions as my friend Monica, ‘there is a festival this weekend.’
My tent pitched in the little garden of his antique restaurant, decorated with original Jugendstil, or Art Deco, ornaments, I feel I could not have had a better place to sleep. Without really asking for how long they want to host me, I opt for 5 nights. ‘I will take care for your breakfast, lunch and dinner,’ says Juan Carlos.
The next morning Juan Carlos wakes me up at 7 and we drive in his car to the gas station where I have my shower, an 8 minutes waterfall of heat and cleanliness. We drink coffee and eat facturas, we make a little round around village to buy supplies for the restaurant, where after I sit down and use WiFi to my heart content. And so I am doused in yet another lifestyle, that of a 300 year old colonial village drenched with gaucho’s.
‘This was a little holiday for me too, I am so glad you were here,’ says his wife Graciela when I leave, without parcel. Neither Graciela nor Juan Carlos speaks English but with Graciela I soon have a natural connection. She’s the kind of woman you want to tell your secrets to. The kind of woman who understands without the need to make a full sentence, not even in my Chinese-alike Spanish. The kind of woman who makes me jump from happiness when she arrives.
‘I love you,’ says Graciela with a high-pitched voice, when I leave. ‘I love you too,’ is my reply. And happily she ads, ‘I am like a mother for you, isn’t it?’ No, I fumble my brows, because she was really more like a sister to me, the fun we had, the happiness we shared, the jokes we understood, the secretive things we’ve said.
The four of us, Juan Carlos and their friend Mario, visit the festival where gaucho’s appear fully dressed in old-fashioned wooden carts. We eat our tummies full with barbecued meat, especially intestines, while Juan Carlos announced ‘we are not going to eat there, okay?!’ But it is presented to us as friends, so we all eat, a lot.
We drive over to Belen de Escobar and mount the mud-brown Parana river where we speed until we extract laughs coming deep from the tips of our toes allows, until we are bruised, adrenaline fulfilled and cold to the bone.
I watch the traditional folk dance Chacarera, danced by people from the village. I enjoy watching this dance so much I have a large smile on my face, almost as if I am retarded, and I could be no bigger difference than the woman opposite me, who has a face unaccountably wrinkled by sourness and an expression bordering anger. Perhaps the arousal shows in this dance is so obvious, a strong amatory is to be seen, though I feel a bit out-of-place, being here on my own.
I leave San Antonio de Areco after a short bicycle trip with Gaston, the cook. He is a guy as many others who seek work all over the country. They hitch by truck to places where they know might be a good chance to find employment. ‘I am allergic to people with a plan,’ he tells me. He lives together with a friend, 90-year-old Oscar, who lives on soup and chicken. Gaston and Oscar undoubtedly enhance each other, which I find a beautiful occurrence. Perhaps typically of Argentina and Chile, where people truly help out each other.
The shoulder of the 3 meter narrow route is a play-heaven for super large marmots, not afraid of anything, but for me on a bicycle. They sprint and jump as if they train for the National Marmot Gymnastic Contest. Dogs seems always on a mission, running after something they think is worth running after. And the stream I pitch my tent that evening has a flow of large, long rodents swimming past, ducking under water if they hear me calling out to them: ‘Hey hello, yoehoeee!’
Enjoying the night-time sounds of diving rodents, big plonk’s, swimming away downstream. Gnawing sounds at the door-flap. Some hail fall, much rain, thunder as if people on wooden shoes slide through a dance hall.
I’ve set up camp at a perfect spot, an old abandoned government building where booths are lined up to practice shooting skills, 2 meter from the river, very near the village Mercedes to ride over and buy supplies, underneath a tree for shade -if only there was sun-, there is wood, and easy access to the water. All requirements met my friend uttered: I’m ready to meet Koen, a friend from Belgium.
The latest update on where I am now is to be read here
More info about numbers and details here