15/09/2019 Simon ‘Wardy’ Ward is nomadonanomad
My journey from Montevideo to the farm near Zarate was going to be spread over three days. Mathias drove me to the outskirts of the city, saving me about 20 kms which was a big help as I still had over 100 kms to go to the hotel I’d planned to stay in at Colonia Valdense. Thrift had gone, temporarily, out the window largely because there were no camp grounds or hostels in the area and the forecast was for below freezing temperatures and I just fancied an overnight stay in warmth and with an internet connection. My old mate, ‘el viento’, the wind, was light, but in my favour, and I seemed to be making reasonable time. My time out of the saddle had left me a bit short of riding stamina and after about 75 kms the hurt started and I was looking forward to getting a lie down and some food, probably of the biscuits and crisps variety as I was still in Uruguay.
Hotel De Los Poetas was my destination. The photograph on the chocolate teapot, google maps, was uninspiring to say the least but it would be a bed for the night. I followed the map exactly and found sod all that looked like a hotel, no sign, nothing that looked anything like the photo, diddly squat, and to make matters worse it was getting late. My ‘back up’ was another 7 or 8 kilometres further down the road and I had to make up my mind quickly and get going while it was still daylight. I eventually creaked into the Mon Petit hotel and was thankful that it had heating in the rooms as I was frozen stiff. Heat full on and a hot shower later and I started to recover. A beer in reception while I waited for the restaurant to open and I had time to post a ‘review’ of De Los Poetas on the choccy teapot. It’s still there, and I’ve been thanked by others for the info. No replies from the owners which suggests my review was accurate. It goes along the lines of, “De Los Poetas Hotel. Either the pin on google maps is badly positioned, the hotel doesn’t exist, or it is attempting to win the ‘World’s most camouflaged hotel’ award. Potential medallist.”
At least I could look forward, next morning, to an easier day as I only had 50 kms left to Colonia del Sacremento and on my arrival, just 3 hours after setting off, I headed straight for the hostel I’d stayed in when I was there before. The guy on reception remembered me immediately which always makes me wonder if that’s a good thing or not? A few bits from the supermercado and I cooked a wonderful, and enormous, veggie stir fry and sat down to my last litre of Faisan Tannat Cabernet, fresh out of the carton, and into a plastic glass. Never let it be said that I don’t know how to live it up! Next morning, bright and early I had a huge breakfast (Even in Uruguay I’ve not found anywhere where they can mess that up, not holding my breath though) and headed for the ferry port. Passport stamped out of Uruguay and into Argentina in the same building, and without the expected fuss. I weaved the bike through the queue of cars and was first on the Seacat. The crossing of the River Plate only takes an hour and a quarter and I was first to disembark and I was through customs in a jiffy and headed for the train station.
Although Zarate is only 100 kms from Buenos Aires, the route is along a motorway and bicycles are prohibited. Alternatives would have taken me through the places where I would likely have encountered ‘problems’. Also, my arse was still feeling a bit on the tender side from the ride out of Montevideo and I’d needed no second bidding to heed the suggestion of my hosts to be to take the train. The prices are unbelievably low and it would take 3 hours and be painless. Or so I was led to believe! I rode and walked the kilometre to Retiro/Mitre station, on the way getting stopped by two locals who wanted pictures of me and the bike which makes me think about when do I get to start charging a fee?
I rocked up in good spirits to the window to buy my ticket but was told I couldn’t take my bike on a train to Zarate! I didn’t believe this so went to another window and got the same answer and was told to go to the bus station. Mucho pissed off! Another kilometre walking and riding and there I was told there was no way I would be able to take the bike on a bus. Impossible! What to do? Only one thing, go back to the train station, change back to my Argie SIM card in the phone, get some credit and call my hosts for advice. Changed the SIM, bought more credit and tried the phone. No joy, it won’t work, and the phone is displaying ‘NO SIM’. Marvellous. Again, what to do?
It was then I saw a guy leaving the platform with a bicycle! How does that work? So, I approached him and asked, in Spanish, why he was able to take the train and I wasn’t. He quickly realised that my Spanish wasn’t overly brilliant and was trying to google translate on his phone when I spotted another guy with a bike! What’s going on? Have the ticket folks sussed out I’m English and are remembering 1982, and getting a bit of their own back? The second guy was very helpful and he too, quickly became aware that my Spanish was not good and he came up with a brilliant idea. In a slow American drawl he asked me, ‘Do…you…speak…English? In these circumstances, normally, my immediate reaction is to say, to our cousins from across the pond, ‘from what I’ve heard so far sunshine, a damn sight better than you’, but I resisted as I was desperate to try and solve my bicycle/train problem. This guy was superb. He went back and forth to the information desk and asked question after question and eventually found out that I could take my bike on the train but the ticket clerks couldn’t guarantee that I could get all the way to Zarate as I would have to take a second train and I couldn’t book the bicycle onto that train here, I would have to do it at the connecting station. Ok, so I have to take a chance and the likelihood is that there will be plenty of space on the second train and the drama will just disappear.
Eventually I get to board the train and we set off to go 45 minutes before getting off at Villa Ballester to change trains for Zarate. Towards the end of this leg of the journey the security guards go along the carriages telling everyone to close all the windows and doors. I’m wasn’t sure why but then the crashing of stones on the train tells me why. I also get a whiff of the stench that’s coming from one of the areas where, if I’d been cycling, I would have expected ‘problems’. Now this place was a full-blown shanty, the likes of which I’ve only ever seen in documentaries. It would have needed the annual GDP budget of a small country spent on it to upgrade it to a slum! That’s how bad it was and I was very happy that I was in the relative comfort and safety of the wonderful Trennes Argentinos.
The train pulled in to Villa Ballester and getting off was easy as the modern trains here have doors level with the platform. I had been advised however that the older diesel trains on the rural routes were a different kettle of fish and a lot of lifting, pulling and heaving would ensue. First, I had to cross the tracks to get to the platform on the other side and that involved a long trek as there was a huge programme of roadworks going on and it took me 25 minutes to effectively move about 10 metres. (A bridge across the tracks? You’re having a laugh!) Eventually on the other side and the train is standing at the platform an hour before departure and all I have to do is get the ticket. No real issue as I’d been convinced in Buenos Aires, to buy a special card to get discounted prices. Was this going to be any good or not? As it happens it was incredible deal the whole journey, 100 kms, costing me the equivalent of 50 pence in UK currency which is about 60 cents US.
One guy on the platform, when he saw my bike, approached me and asked where I was from and what I was doing. When I told him, he said he thought I was very brave in undertaking my journey alone. I told him I was just mad and he quickly agreed. Some others then helped me get the bike on board and loads of questions were fired at me from some great folks, all keen to try to work out what was possessing me to travel as I do. Eventually the train set off for the remaining two hours to Zarate and the prospects of a long, sometimes difficult day, coming to an end. One more area to go through where the windows had to be shut, soon followed by the crashing of stones on the carriages and then we arrived in Zarate and I was looking forward to meeting Roberto, and getting to the farm.
That didn’t go down as planned as in true Argentine style Roberto was very late and as a super punctual Brit I decided to set off after only waiting 20 minutes, my reasoning being that I had a map of where the farm was and I would make my own way there. It was about 15 kms and the road was very flat, unlike Uruguay. I eventually left the main road and followed a badly pot-holed track, evading the packs of barking dogs, and homed in on the pin on Map.me which I use offline and is in many ways better than the choccy teapot. On arrival at the place indicated on the map two packs of dogs came running out, barking like mad, to greet me. No sign though of the Border Collie I had seen in the photos of my hosts profile on Workaway.
I assumed that the pin had been placed in the wrong place and I needed some guidance to find the right house although there were only four to choose from. Suddenly I saw an old fella who had come to his door in a small house about 60 metres from where I was. I waved to him and he came out and I asked in my very best Spanish if the house I was outside belonged to Senora Maria and Senor Roberto. He pointed at the bike and said, ‘una bicicletta!’ This wasn’t the answer I was hoping for but I resisted the temptation to reply, ‘no it’s a chuffing unicorn’ because I needed help. I repeated my request and all he did was say, ‘una bicicletta!’ again.
So, here I am, needing help, and I’ve met the village idiot. Today is not going well and it’s getting dark. (Later I found out that the poor old bugger was as deaf as a post and I had to retract all the bad thoughts I’d had, and just feel sorry for him) It turned out I was in the right place but I only found that out after riding back into town to call Roberto on Whatsapp. The border collie I was looking for was no more and had been replaced by a greyhound who I’d met earlier along with two terrier crossbreeds.
About the only thing that had worked during the whole process was that I had remembered the extortionate bank charges here in Argentina when using an ATM, but also the readiness of the locals to exchange Pesos for US Dollars. Before leaving Uruguay, I had withdrawn enough in the way of dollars to last a few months and so wouldn’t be contributing to the profits of the Banco de Nacion Argentina. My first exchange a few days later and I got 60 pesos to the dollar when the international rate was only 56. Not a lot of confidence in the peso here!
Anyway, enough for now. As usual thanks for reading this far and may Odin, Thor and Freyr go with you.
Simon ‘Wardy’ Ward.