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Bomberos, that unexpected haven of hospitality which holds out to a travelling cyclist the tantalising hope of a hot shower and a dry place to sleep after a long day on the road is barred – at least in some cases – to that most dangerous of creatures, the unaccompanied woman.
Men? Sure. A woman under the supervision and care of a man? Of course. Why ever not? But a woman alone? Well, no. That’s a different matter.
It’s kind of churlish to complain, since the fact that the bomberos of Latin America offer hospitality to travelling cyclists at all is something of a miracle and a gratuitous kindness. Still, it irks. I have previously suspected that the high rate of refusals I get at bomberos is due to my perilous nature as a loose (as in unattached) woman but it is in Rocha that my suspicions are unequivocally confirmed.
URUGUAY: COLONIA — MONTEVIDEO
Uruguay is a small country and I don’t doubt that many people would have trouble finding it on a world map or naming its capital city. And I have to confess, on arrival, that my own prior knowledge on the subject of Uruguay is pretty scant.
ARGENTINA: BUENOS AIRES
I’m a confirmed city agoraphobe but certain metropolises have an undeniable allure and Buenos Aires just happens to be one of them. It has charm. Undeniable charm.
And the charm starts right in my chosen Buenos Aires abode. The Hotel Victoria is a rambling five story building, with 70 rooms, that has been a residential hotel for over 80 years. I’m not sure if it has gone up or down in the world during that time but currently it is jam packed with an eccentric collection of people from all over Latin America. A Colombian guy tells me he is here in Buenos Aires studying circus skills. He came to study economics, he goes on, but somehow he has ended up learning to juggle on a five metre high unicycle instead.*
IS THAT A BIKE LANE?
A lot of people get around Buenos Aires on bikes and there are over 150 kilometres of bikes lanes throughout the city, I am told.
BOOKSHOPS: THE GLORIOUS
I don’t know if this makes me odd or not but I’m a person who prefers to explore a city through its bookshops. Sydney, Sao Paulo, New York, Chicago, London, Prague, if you want to know, I can tell you where the best bookshops are.
In Buenos Aires, I am facilitated in this quest by the advice of Jodie, an Australian friend – who I first met in Mexico – who spent a decade or so living in various Latin America countries and is a fellow bibliophile. She emails me a list of bookshops that I must visit in Buenos Aires.
Cemeteries also feature high on my list of places to visit in getting to know a city and Buenos Aires’ Recoleta Cemetery doesn’t disappoint.
Outside the cemetery gates more histrionics of a different flavour.
Murals are another way to get a hint of the contents of a city’s soul.
A DOG’S LIFE
La Boca is a somewhat seedy wharf-side neighbourhood which I visit in search of another bookshop on my list.
A couple of blocks near the famous football stadium have been painted pleasing colours. The streets are cluttered with tawdry souvenir shops and overpriced eateries and populated by restaurant touts and bored tango dancers in fishnet stockings shivering in the cutting wind. Tourists are bused in to gawp and photograph while police stand around making sure there is no trouble.
And trouble isn’t so hard to find. When I wander outside this invisibly cordoned area in search of my bookshop, I am quickly accosted by two young men on a motor bike. The lad on the back of the bike dismounts, opens his jacket and shows me a gun, and then demands my backpack. My first instinct is not self-preservation.
The guy takes an uncertain step backwards as my insults become more vociferous and, as the would-be muggers realise that things aren’t going quite as simply they had hoped, the man jumps back on the motorbike and they flee. But I guess this story could have ended quite differently and I am lucky.
BOOKSHOPS: ARTISANAL AND ANARCHIST
Eloisa Cartonera**, which eventually, I locate, more or less unscathed, is an independent publishing collective, in La Boca, that produces handmade books from cardboard. The collective started in 2003 in the aftermath of Argentina’s 2001 economic crisis with a number of objectives that are probably best described by their own website.
Argentina’s dark past is on display in the city.
*I later meet with someone who cynically exclaims, “Typical Colombian! They are all children of narco-traffickers!”… I wonder.
**A cartonero is someone who makes their living collecting cardboard and other recyclable material off the street.
ARGENTINA: PUERTO MADRYN — VIEDMA — BAHIA BLANCA — CORONEL DORREGO — SANTA CLARA DEL MAR — LA PLATA
Sometimes it is all about the riding, sometimes it is all about the landscape, sometimes it is all about the people. Once I hit the Atlantic there is no option but to turn north on Ruta 3 and that leaves just one of those three things for my enjoyment — the people.
In Viedma, I stay with Marco, Andrea and their daughter Anita, after contacting them through Warm Showers, a hospitality network for cycle tourists.
In Bahia Blanca, I spend a couple of nights with Diego and Natalia, a couple who spent their honeymoon on bicycles in Missiones, a choice both their families considered dangerously eccentric.
I detour into the unremarkable town of Coronel Dorrego in pouring rain with high hopes of a hot shower and a warm dry place to sleep with the bomberos.* But the bomberos, it turns out, aren’t keen to host a passing cyclist and so I leave town, as dusk falls, to search for a dry spot to pitch a tent.
Then I get a flat tire. It’s just one of those days.
As I repair the puncture by the roadside out of range of the spray raised by the wheels of passing trucks I spy a track leading through an open gate to a group of trees which obviously shelter a couple of buildings. I decide to try my luck again so I ride up to what turns out to be a once handsome building in a current state of sad dilapidation. A dog barks hysterically and a young man emerges. He immediately grasps the situation and before long I am warming myself by the wood burning stove while Juan continues to paint the kitchen.
THE RAILWAY LINE
Eventually, late in the afternoon, I leave the farmhouse. Given the torrential rain that been falling the decision to strike away from the highway onto a dirt road that follows an old railway line might not be a choice everyone would make. But given speeding trucks on narrow wet tarmac vs. mud… well, to me, there’s only one option.
Finally, after two and a half weeks of largely uninspired riding, I arrive in La Plata, a university town about 70 kilometres out of Buenos Aires where I plan to have a well earned rest before taking on the capital.
Life is clearly quite tough for a lot of people in Argentina.
A SUNDAY RIDE
In many ways I am a reluctant cyclist. I consider cycling transport and I don’t generally do it for entertainment. But since other people see me as a cyclist I do sometime get roped into going for a ride.
On the way back through La Plata we pass by a disturbing reminder of the excesses of Argentina’s ugly political past.
*bomberos = firemen
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