Tuesday 23 November 2010

General Acha, Argentina - I'm an Argentinian TV star

You might think that cycling across the vast, flat farmlands of central Argentina would be a bit boring - you would be wrong! Since I set out on my bicycle from Buenos Aires, life has been a whole world of adventures. It's been really, really tough cycling and pretty stressful at times - a very different ballgame to my pleasant pedal across Europe. There are huge distances between towns, some terrifying traffic, no campsites, a scorching sun and headwinds that blow tumbleweeds across the road in front of me. However, I've made it this far thanks to two things. Number one is the overwhelming warmth, friendliness and helpfulness of the Argentinian people that I've met and number two is their extensive network of service stations!

My first challenge in Argentina was simply getting out of Buenos Aires safely and this is where I encountered the first of many acts of incredible kindness. Setting out early on a Sunday morning, I was soon intercepted by local cyclist, Juan - dashingly handsome in skin-tight red lycra to match his swanky red mountain bike. Juan cycled with me for over two hours taking me on a delightful and safe route out of Buenos Aires. Following a quiet back road adjacent to the motorway, we were joined by hundreds of other local cyclists out for their Sunday club rides. At the next town, Lujan, I had another bicycle escort who took me on a quiet, scenic route to the other side of town.

The next few days were, frankly, horrendous. In my research I'd read about other bicycle tourers cycling in Argentina on roads with wide hard shoulders that made cycling safe. But there were no hard shoulders on my road, Ruta 5, and the traffic, including monstrous trucks, was constant. Alongside the adjustment to a new country and a new continent, my totally inadequate Spanish and the enforced rough living, I was feeling pretty low at this point. However, I was cheered up by another act of kindness when a lovely couple in the pretty little town of Alberti put me up in their spare room - they even gave me a tour of the town in the evening and fed me supper! All I had to do was babysit the dog, Catalina, in the afternoon.

Beyond here at least I was able to pick up some quieter roads and to begin to enjoy the cycling. Although my route passed through mile after mile of flat farmland where a bend in the road was a major cause for celebration, there was always plenty to see. All around were beautiful, colourful birds. Without a weighty field guide, I can't put names to them except the flamingoes clustered in small flocks on the shallow lakes and the noisy parrakeets that gather above my tent in the evenings, the rays of late sunshine illuminating their irridescent green plummage. I'm also regularly spotting armadillos scuttling around in the roadside verges.

I like pulling into the little rurals towns in this area. There are no tall buildings, except for the main routes the roads are compacted earth, and with a slightly scruffy but likeable appearance, the overall ambience is a bit "wild west". Because the towns are set out on grid systems with no traffic lights, what few vehicles there are must go quite slowly, so there are hundreds of locals out on their bikes in these little towns. Everybody seems to know everybody else and soon after my arrival in a town, everybody seems to know me! It's thoroughly delightful!

There is not really much tourism in this area of Argentina which makes me a bit of a novelty, even more so being on the bicycle. I get a friendly toot and a wave from almost every car or truck that passes. When I ask for directions, people generally walk or cycle with me to my destination to be sure I get there. Due to the lack of tourism, there are no proper campsites and this has made this section of my journey all the more difficult. There is an informal system in Argentina whereby you can camp in municipal parks which usually have public toilets and running water and I've used these a few times. I ask for permission from the park-keeper if there is one or an adjacent house, if not. In the lovely town of San Carlos de Bolivar, the park-keeper and his wife insisted that I pitch my tent in their garden and they even put the bike away in the toolshed overnight. I could never imagine anything like this happening back home but the difference with the Argentine people that I've met is that they don't care about some of the daft stuff we get worked up about - they are genuinely pleased if they can be helpful in any way and seem to love meeting foreign visitors, especially crazy ones on bicycles!

The other place where I've been camping is ... service stations! I know this will sound alarming to readers back home but again there is an informal system whereby you can pitch your tent or pull your car over beside rural service stations at the end of the day. There is an extensive network, they are open all night so there is always somebody around and you'll find a few truck drivers also catching some shut-eye.

The service stations have toilets, a small park area with picnic benches and grass perfect for the tent, a cafeteria and a clever machine that dispenses hot water for a few pesos. I've even been given free coffees at service stations just for arriving by bicycle! Service stations really have been my saviour, not just for camping but also for stocking up on calories, water and rest. My favourite service stations are the YPF ones - they have big, comfy, leather chairs which are great for my saddle sores. Yes, just to add to my woes I have developed saddle sores. I think it's due to long days in the saddle because of the distances between towns here and the rough living which means I can't get my sweaty cycle shorts washed out regularly. Despite liberal amounts of Germolene, at the contact points on my bum, I have peeling skin and painful red raw patches. Apologies if this is too much information for some readers!

As if all these adventures were not enough, I'm now a TV star in Argentina. It was all quite surreal. I'd pulled into the backwater town of Tres Lomas to pick up some water. I started chatting with a couple of locals about the route ahead and before I knew it a crowd of about 30 people had gathered. Then out of nowhere a TV crew pulled up in a van! I answered some questions to camera about my trip and what I thought of Argentina before I was filmed cycling out of the town to a big round of applause. I was even given a gift of a bag of oranges. I didn't make much progress that day because at the next village I was hijacked by a schoolteacher to give a talk to her pupils and colleagues.

Given my minimal Spanish, it was a very brief talk but I was able to show everybody the bicycle and my equipment and they seemed to enjoy my visit.

There is a new Argentina album added to my Flickr pages where you can see a picture of the kids.

While I may be pleased with my progress so far in Argentina, I have now hit a major stumbling block that is the central desert of La Pampa. I knew it was coming but thought I'd get local advice about the possibility of cycling across. I'm happy to accept the local advice that this would be extremely foolhardy and dangerous! So I have to resort to motorised assistance to cross the desert. I think what's happening is that I'm getting a shared ride in a minibus-style taxi but we'll see as every day in Argentina is a world of adventure!

Friday 12 November 2010

Buenos Aires, Argentina - A life on the ocean wave

Ahoy! I´ve made land in the Americas. I must fathom out how I tell you the tale of my freighter voyage. It´s knot a short one. By my dead reckoning it´ll take us to the first dog watch. So offload some ballast and slice the main brace!

Well that´s all the naff nautical puns over and done with at the start. I do have a lot to tell you though. I´ll just start at the beginning, back in Valencia. A pleasant cycle took me from my hotel to the cargo terminal at the port where I was to join my ship. Because of safety and security concerns, I couldn´t simply just cycle up to the ship. Shirley and I were packed onto a minibus and driven across the port through a vast sea of multi-coloured containers and passed gargantuan ships being loaded and unloaded by enormous cranes. Everything in the cargo terminal is made on a massive scale and could feature in that TV programme "Big, Bigger, Biggest". I spotted the cargo ship that would take me across the Atlantic to South America, the giant letters on the hull spelling out her name, MSC Lausanne. She was reassuringly gigantic!

Pulling up to the ship I felt really excited about the voyage ahead - it just sounded so adventurous and romantic to cross the ocean on a proper noisy, dirty, working ship and not a namby-pamby cruise-liner. I was relieved to be at the gangway at last - I´d booked my passage months ago, one of the first steps in pulling my world cycle together. But there had been so many changes that I´d wondered if it would ever happen. I was just a tiny bit apprehensive - would I be sea-sick; would I even like being on a ship for nearly 3 weeks; would it be frightening if we ran into a storm, or even if we didn´t?

I´d no sooner been deposited at the gangway when a flurry of friendly Philippino crewmen hoisted Shirely and my bags on board. I was issued with my security pass for the ship which designated my rank as "supernummery" ie passenger. Then I was left to settle into my cabin. I hadn´t known what to expect for accommodation on board but certainly not the luxury I was landed with. My cabin had a spacious lounge, a double bedroom with ensuite bathroom and a cracking view to the front of the ship. If Lausanne was the Titanic, I would be in First Class with Kate Winslet. My lounge had comfy sofas and a large table where I could lay out my maps, pretending I was the captain plotting a course through rough, pirated seas. Talking of the captain, he was ruggedly handsome and I swooned in his presence, though it may just have been the motion of the ship.
The ranks "captain" and "master" mean the same thing and on this ship the crew call him "the master", a term which I always find a bit kinky.

There were three other passengers hitching a ride on Lausanne. On freighters the priority is always the cargo so most can only carry about four to six passengers in whatever cabins are not needed for crew. My fellow travellers were Dutch - very nice people who shared my interest in staring at the sea. Emile and Ellen were excellent bird-spotters and Harko had a wicked sense of humour. There are no special facilities on board for passengers - everything is shared with the crew including meals which fitted around the schedule of watches. Three substantial meals were served each day and lunch always included a piece of fruit so we didn´t get scurvy. There was also freshly-brewed coffee in the morning and afternoon - it´s a hard life at sea!

With no leisure activities provided, some people might find travelling by freighter boring but it suited me perfectly - no crowds, no noise, no traffic - just peace and the ocean. And there was always something to see. Our first exciting landmark was leaving the Mediterranean and entering the Atlantic through the Straits of Gibraltar. I didn´t know it was so narrow you can see Africa and Europe at the same time.

The other main difference to a cruise is that passengers on a freighter are, with a few restrictions, able to go anywhere on the ship and this makes the experience so unique. I could go onto the bridge anytime, walk right round the main deck below the skyscraper stacks of containers (a round circuit of more than half a kilometre), climb up to the monkey island (the topmost deck above the bridge) or chill out in one of my favourite places on the ship, the fo´csle. The fo´csle is the most forward below-decks area of the ship and it´s here that you can peer down into the shafts that house the giant, rusty anchors and run your hands along the massive chains that they drop on, each link a foot wide. You can stick your face into the port holes at the very front of the ship for that "windswept and interesting" look and the water seems close enough to trail a hand through.
As the fo´csle is the farthest away point from the engine, it´s also quite quiet here - you can hear the waves, the wind and the plop of the flying fish on re-entry.

Most days I also visited the bridge, the command centre of the ship, to get an update on position and weather, and for the best seat in the house. There is a Starship Enterprise-style control desk with big leather chairs and a dashboard with switches, levers and radar screens. Rows of computers and printers collate information from the weather forecast to the layout of the containers, as well as the multitude of navigational data. Despite all the technology, the ship´s course is still plotted on paper charts and a hard copy log book is maintained. Experienced nautical types (like myself) know that the term "bridge" comes from the 19th century when the structure was much like a footbridge slung across the width of the ship. And Captain Kirk would tell you that "log book" originated in the early days of sailing when the ship´s records were written on wooden shingles that were then hinged together like a book.

Of course, there was the excitement of arriving in some exotic, foreign port, especially so if it was at night, as was the case in Las Palmas in the Canaries and Santos in Brazil. The approach to Santos was particularly memorable. The docks are located some way up the narrow Santos Channel and after spending two days at anchor several miles out, we got the go ahead to enter the docks at 4am. It´s not difficult to get yourself up at that time if you want to watch the ship berth because whenever the engine is started the entire superstructure shakes violently as if there is an earthquake. As we sailed up the channel, the skyscrapers of Santos were on the port side - they seemed so close and I was so high up on the bridge, that I felt I could almost peer into the windows. For the approach all the lights on the bridge were switched off, adding to the blackness of the night.
There was an air of excitement and suspense as our Leviathan ship was coaxed gently up the channel and into her berth under the cover of darkness. You could hear a pin drop or a flying fish plop.

When the ship is in port you can watch the comings and goings of other big ships or the loading and unloading of containers - thousands of identical metal boxes are moved around the port, put onto ships and taken off ships. Some global logistics nerd has a handle on what it all is and where it´s all going. It may surprise you to know that only the bottom row of containers is actually strapped to the ship - the rest just stack and click together like giant pieces of Lego.

The ship never really sleeps. In port loading and unloading go on through the night as necessary. Once she´s left port, the ship ploughs on without pause across the seas - through the dazzling brightness of day and the inky blackness of night, under a hot tropical sun or a sky full of stars. In this way, it took us five days to cross the Atlantic from the Canaries to Brazil.

I, on the other hand, did sleep ... very well. Though it was a little unnerving at first going to bed on the ship. Unlike cruise ships, freighters aren´t fitted with stabilisers so there is a surprising amount of roll on even a calm sea. You seem to notice it more at night, along with the deep rumble of the engine and the constant creak of the superstructure. But I got used to it quite quickly, along with moving up and down the external stairs which I found mildly terrifying at first - it just seemed so easy to fall overboard.

A lot of time onboard I spent sitting out on deck watching the waves, the weather and the wildlife. The day we sailed between the Cape Verde Islands and the African coast we ran into a pocket of hot, humid air that deposited a cloud of insects on the ship - cicadas about two inches long, colourful beetles, giant grasshoppers and even a dragonfly. It was slightly surreal to hear the dusk-time chirrupping of cicadas in the middle of the ocean. It was even more surreal the following evening to hear karaoke belting out across the waves as the crew enjoyed a night off.

The first morning I woke up in the Southern Hemisphere, I threw back the curtains to see a flock of boobies circling the ship. Boobies are handsome, black and white, gannet-like birds. I rushed up to the bridge where they hung on the breeze at eye level before folding themselves into dart shapes and diving into the sea for fish. I could even follow their progress underwater by the trails of aquamarine bubbles. High above the boobies there hung a dark, menacing shape - a figgate bird. It´s a pirate and steals the catch from the boobies by harrassing them until they drop it.

But the most special wildlife encounter happened as we sailed down the coast of Brazil. The morning had been grey with heavy rain but it cleared up to a calm, bright afternoon. A humpback whale was spotted on the port side and then one on the starboard side and then another and another until all around the ship there were whales. Whales breaching with an explosion of white foam or giant flukes slipping into the deep with barely a ripple. As the sun sank, the evening rays turned the blasts of spray from the whales´ blowholes into golden mists that hung above the waves before dispersing on the breeze.

Mostly the weather on the voyage was calm and sunny, though there were some days with rain and it was quite rough sailing thourgh the Straits of Gibraltar. Approaching Santos on the east coast of Brazil, we sailed into an electrical storm on an enormous scale. Jagged forks of lightning cracked across the night sky, sometimes blinding silver and sometimes with an edge of orange glow. With each flash the ocean for 20 miles around was turned from night to day. It would have been a beautiful spectacle anywhere but to watch it from the bridge of a big ship in the middle of the ocean was spectacular.

I´d really, really hoped for a big, wild storm on the voyage ... and I wasn´t disappointed though I had to wait until the last couple of days before we ran into a Force 8 storm. It had been a calm, clear day but later in the afternoon a strange line of dark cloud appeared across the horizon, stretching for about 15 miles. Then it started to evolve in the weirdest way - below the line the sky turned almost black but above the line an enormous wall of cloud built up with a surface like bubble-wrap and a tint of pink. As we sailed into this, I was out on the bridge deck and suddenly the wind blew up from nowhere, 0 to 60mph, calm to gale force, in about 2 seconds. I rushed inside the bridge as torential rain now joined the wind in battering the ship. The sea was all heaped up with a surface like meringue and streaked with foam.
Visbility was so bad we could barely see the front of the ship. I watched this, transfixed, on the bridge. I´d wondered if being in a storm at sea would be frightening but it wasn´t - it was obvious that a Force 8 storm was nothing to a ship of this size and Lausanne the Leviathan plodded on through it all.

At 09.30 on 11 November, 19 days after leaving Valencia, MSC Lausanne berthed in Buenos Aires, Argentina and my cargo ship adventure was over. I´d had a brillaint journey and a unique experience and was quite sad to say goodbye to the old girl. The cargo ship adventure may be over but a new adventure begins as I set out to cycle through South America over the next few months. If I can find my way out of the chaos of Buenos Aires that is!

The question that people always asked me when they learned that I would be travelling by freighter was "what will the cargo be?" I´m afraid I don´t know what Lausanne was carrying across the Atlantic (not even the captain knows what´s in the containers) but, if you look carefully, there may be a clue in my Flickr photos.

Monday 8 November 2010

Santos, Brazil - mini update

A delay at Suape (another ship was in our parking space) meant we missed the worst of the bad weather but still caught torrential rain and a spectacular lightning storm on the fringes.

This is the second day that the ship has been at anchor off Santos - we are waiting in a big queue of big ships to berth at Brazil's biggest port. I'm happy with delays - I get to stay longer on the ship! The crew are happy - they've been fishing off the back of the boat!

Santos is the last stop before the final destination of Buenos Aires where I'll give you the full story of the freighter voyage and upload the pics.

Tuesday 2 November 2010

Suape, Brazil - mini update

On Sunday at 18.35 the ship crossed into the Southern Hemisphere - it was dark, so I didn't see the Equator!

With only 140 containers to offload here, it will be a brief stop before we continue down the east coast of South America - though a delay will do no harm as there is bad weather forecast ahead. Yikes!