Published: June 15th 2008June 14th 2008
Five days in, and my long-planned South American cycling trip was suffering from a notable absence of actual cycling. My bike was still in the box that had brought it to Santiago from London, and I was becoming increasingly frustrated with being stranded in the Chilean capital.
My plan to take one of the numerous buses that climb up over the Andes to the Argentinian city of Mendoza, my intended starting point for my trip North, had been thwarted by three days of grimy wet weather that had closed the road leading to the "Paso Los Libertadores" on the border.
On my arrival the previous weekend, the Winter sun, although weak, had been unopposed in a cloudless sky and there was little sign of the fabled smog that often beds down in the City on such mild, temperate days. Now, the sombre, steady drizzle that followed had dampened my mood, but had done little to subdue the City´s bustle and colour. The City Centre was still packed by an unending mass of eager shoppers, gently encouraged to spend by a feel-good soundtrack of eighties power-pop classics piped through the smart streets and malls. Now and then, this gentle harmony would
be interrupted by the sound of shouting and chanting - students angrily protesting about proposed education reform. Police and reinforced vehicles accompanied the protestors, some of them school-children, as they marched through the streets holding banners demanding a "dignified education".
One of the "students" approached me (at about 45 years of age, her claims to be an impoverished student seemed to me highly suspicious), and handed me a printed poem. She explained, "With Pinochet, you know Pinochet ?, we had dignity. But not with the present government. We want our dignity back. You can give me 20,000 pesos ?".
Despite her polished patter and dubious credentials, it was nice to speak English with a chileno, as the local, lazy-tongued Spanish dialect had so far proved indecipherable to me. However, as the conversation wore on I began to feel uneasy as I was subjected to a series of comparisons between her apparant poverty and my apparant wealth, expertly delivered to ensure I felt as guilty as possible for refusing to part with a sizeable sum. This was a well-trodden path I had been down many times before, so I made my excuses and went to find something to eat.
Near the main square, I came across a row of at least twenty identical open-counter fast food joints, each offering the ubiquitous "completo" - a hot dog topped with two equal stripes of red and white paste, its inventor seemingly abandoning the traditional attributes of taste and nutrition in favour of colour co-ordination (the optional addition of a mushy-green stripe completes the tricolour to create an "Italiano").
After polishing off one of each, I needed a strong coffee to recover and headed over to a busy looking coffee-bar. Exclusively occupied by men, with an imposing, frosty-looking matriarch taking the orders just inside the door, I soon realised this was one of Santiago´s infamous "Cafe con Piernas" (coffee with legs), where the coffee is served by scantily-clad waitresses whilst a team of unsmiling men make the coffee and keep an eye on things. Apparantly, they are entirely innocent. They keep normal office opening hours and the girls provide the mostly middle-aged male clientele with conversation only. Not being able to understand a word anyone said in the place, I´m not sure I got my money´s worth.
Each morning, I sauntered over to the Los Heroes bus station to
ask if my bus would be running that day. Each day, the same response: "Hola, Christopher, no hoy" (not today). "Manana, no se" (tomorrow - I don´t know). Finally, after four days, with the skies clear and the morning bright, I got the thumbs up and I was away to Argentina, the "semi-cama" luxury coach winding its way through a series of snow-cleared switchbacks and past the mighty outline of Aconcagua, South America´s highest peak.
At long last, I commenced cycling from San Juan, just North of Menoza, the following afternoon, completing a modest 40 miles before reaching the village of Talacasto, long abandoned and now derelict after an earthquake some years ago. It being a further 65 miles to the next town, I decided to camp there for the night. To my surprise, I heard voices as I approached, and spotted a battered white Ford Sierra parked next to the nearest house to the road. Frederico, along with his wife and two young daughters, was sitting on what used to be the garden wall of a large house.
"Can I camp here ?", I enquired.
"Yes, of course", he said, shrugging his shoulders.
His wife joined in, "But
it will get dark at night".
Stating the bleeding obvious, I was to discover, would occur with bemusing regularity in my awkward exchanges with the locals.
It turned out they lived some miles away, but had just stopped for a break on their journey home. Suggesting that I camp in the only house still with a roof, I managed to pitch my tent inside, on the concrete floor. After waving goodbye to Frederico and his family, I retired to my tent and hit the sack at the decadent hour of 7pm, when darkness fell. Some hours later I was woken by the sound of a strong wind whistling through the glass-less windows of my "house". Was this "El Zonda", the strong, dry wind that is infamous on the Eastern edge of the Andes ? I knew that it commonly lasted for several hours, sometimes days, so I was relieved to wake to a reassuringly still morning, and continued my journey through the open country of San Juan province to the town of San Jose de Jachal.
Communication was proving to be difficult. The local dialect was largely unintelligible to me (was it even Spanish ?). Generally, though, I
could make myself understood, with some exceptions.
On a trip to Jachal´s service station cafe, the smartest-looking place in town, I decided I´d like a cup of tea.
"Un te, por favor", I asked.
A blank face stared back. I tried again.
"Er, un cafe ?", came the response.
"No, un te".
The man behind the counter looked at his wife, who shrugged her shoulders. She called over a younger man, perhaps their son, obviously confident of his ability to interpret exotic requests from strange-looking foreigners. Coming close, his ear turned towards me, a concentrated look on his face, he nodded, and I tried again.
He gave me a puzzled look, and ventured "Un sandwich ?".
(Actually, a sandwich would have gone down well, but I didn´t want to complicate matters). Spotting the box of tea bags behind the counter, I leant over and picked it up, pointing at it. Still nothing. I pointed at the word "te" on the box.
"Ah, un te !".
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