Oxford, England, to Quilmes, Buenos Aires, Argentina

It has been a bit hectic meeting friends in Oxford, attending Christmas dinners and trying to get ready for a 75 day trip to Argentina all in the space of three days. It took me longer than expected to dismantle my bike and put it in a bag that I bought from New Zealand: the Tardis designed by Ground Effect. In hindsight I would definitely recommend dismantling your bike and bagging it, then putting it back together again, a long time before you’re due to travel so you don’t end up missing a flight, forgetting to take essential tools or spending ages fiddling around at foreign airports/stations.

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I took the wheels, saddle, stem and rear derailleur off; the SPD clipless pedals were small enough to leave on. My extra-large-sized Mongoose ‘Crossway 250′ gents’ hybrid bike fitted neatly into the unpadded but sturdy bag, which I took with me on the bus from Oxford to Heathrow Airport Terminal Five.

Sadly I had to have the whole bag wrapped in loads of disposable plastic film, which seemed a bit wasteful, but my friends and relatives in Argentina had warned me that if I didn’t do this many items could be stolen from the bag when it arrives to Ezeiza Airport in Argentina, even the whole bike could go walkies. The plastic wrap is by no means impenetrable but it’s one more hassle they have to get through if they want to have a peek inside, and they’ll probably be in a hurry to get all the baggage unloaded. I labelled the bike ‘FRAGILE’.

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There was no charge for taking the bike in this way, because the only other luggage I had was my little backpack.

It was fun to be back in the grand new Terminal Five and actually be travelling somewhere – last time I was there I had lived there for three days just for fun but simply walked out again without getting on any planes.

Never have I felt so comfortable on the thirteen hour flight from England to Argentina, it must be all the cold and awkward places I’ve been sleeping recently – the small space in economy class seemed luxury to me, and I had no problem sleeping sitting down. I watched a fun movie about cycle couriers in New York called Premium Rush. It was a slightly cheesy excuse to show off some bike stunts, but I’m easy to please, and it included the classic race I do against strangers in London all the time: fixed gear vs derailleur freewheel through the urban jungle.

Unfortunately I was in the middle row right at the back so I didn’t have a view out of the window, but I did get out of my seat a couple of times to find a free window to admire the beautiful sunrise over Brazil. I enjoyed the flight very much, despite there being quite a lot of turbulence which is especially pronounced when you’re sitting at the tail end.

I was slightly fearful, after so many years in complete control of my bike, to give complete control over to the pilot and the complicated machinery, especially since an Air France passenger jet recently disappeared into the Atlantic after experiencing turbulence along the same route, and none of the passengers were ever seen again. But I knew that statistically it is safer than most other mechanised forms of travel, and British Airways have a very good safety record, so I had already made up my mind when I bought the flight that the risk was worth taking to see my grandma again, perhaps for the last time because she is 96 years old now.

The flight landed with a nice big bump in Ezeiza airport, but we applauded the pilot anyway. I walked over the bridge into the airport then stopped to marvel for a few minutes at the hug machine that had blasted off the ground in West London, cruised for hours high above Brittany and the Atlantic Ocean, without bumping into any pterodactyls, and slowly descended into Buenos Aires to meet the runway with such precision.

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I’m not proud of flying to Argentina, even on a direct flight I have released about 1700 kilograms of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere and my return journey will release an equal amount, along with other nasties from the combusion of jet fuel. This is not the total emmisions of the flight, it has been divided by the number of passengers to represent the true cost of my individual journey – 3.4 tonnes of carbon for the round trip. This is about as much carbon as the average sub-Saharan African will emmit in their entire lifetime. Ironically, while I’m enjoying my holiday, it is they who will suffer the worst effects of climate change when the rains fail again and more of them die of starvation.

I used climatecare.org, who are based next to my dad’s piano workshop in Oxford, to offset my carbon emmisions several times over, thus ensuring that I could only be having a carbon negative effect even after taking into account effects like radiative forcing, which is caused by the high altitudes at which planes release their emmissions, and any other aspects of my journey like the bus journey and the airport hand dryers. For an interesting article in The Guardian about carbon offsetting click here.

Of course it would be much more simple to tackle the problem at the source and not fly at all. I hope this will be the last flight in my life; I hope to make my next visit to Argentina by bicycle or under sail. However by the time I get there I can’t guarantee my 96-year-old granny will still be alive and kicking, nor my auntie who is 78, nor my uncle who is 73 and has just had a back operation. That’s why I decided to fly this time. I would never fly just for a holiday or a cycle tour, I don’t think that’s fair on the rest of humanity.

My cousin who is vice-chair of the Cycle Touring Club has a sister in the Congo working on gorilla conservation who he hasn’t seen for many years because he refuses to fly anywhere because of similar principles. It’s a difficult decision to make when family and loved ones are involved. For the most part, I really like the globalisation that speedy transport and communications technology have bought about. I feel it makes the world a smaller place as we all learn to get along and delight in our cultural differences.

My parents are a classic example: Dad from England and Mum from Argentina, and I’m really pleased to be a mongrel, I have dual nationality and I feel 200% human! But it also means that every year several of my family members fly around the world.

I think flying’s really fun and I love waking up in Europe and going to bed in South America, or having lunch in Barcelona and dinner in London. I marvel at the precise engineering that makes it possible, and spend half of every flight with my nose pressed against the window to take in the breathtaking views.
But the long term effects of all this fossil-fuel burning are now undeniable; it might take seventy years, or it might take two hundred years, but the human race is destined to suffer serious consequences of global warming unless we don’t make drastic reductions in our greenhouse gas emmissions. We might be tired of hearing this, but we’ve done precious little about it – we’re now emmitting greenhouse gasses at a faster rate then ever before, and that rate is still increasing every year. There was only one brief dip in emmissions, when the recession hit in 2008, after which they quickly increased again.

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The most simple solution in this case is not to fly at all, or only if absolutely necessary.

Yes, all these thoughts went through my head as I gazed at the behemoth that had bought me across the length of the Atlantic in a mere thirteen hours, and observed the numerous swallows that ducked and dived around it as if to make a mockery of our super-heavy flight machines.

The Argentine airport staff kindly gave me permission to reassemble my bike in the baggage collection area. I was pleased to note that everything was just as I had packed it.

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I put the wheels, seat and rear derailleur back on with a 5mm allen key, then I realised that I had forgotten to bring a 6 mm allen key which I needed for the stem. I spent about two hours trying to make a 5 mm allen key work as a 6 mm, and a further hour asking all the airport staff if they had a 6 mm. They chuckled saying that they didn’t even have a screwdriver between them, so I might as well forget about an allen key. I had managed to tighten the stem enough to steer gently, but was reluctant to ride through the infamous Argentinian traffic and potholed roads with handlebars that might loose steering at any moment. Finally a police officer directed me to a service station at the airport exit where the mechanic provided a 6 mm allen key. Now I could cycle with confidence, swerve around and hop up and down the kerb if anyone tried to mug me.

The crime rate is very high in Buenos Aires and ever since I expressed my intention to bring my bike with me my Argentine friends and relatives have given me no end of grief, especially after I announced that I would be cycling from the airport to my granny’s house in Quilmes. Quilmes (pronounced ‘keel-mess’) is to Buenos Aires what Croydon is to London.

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I get the impression that many of them have never looked at a map properly, because it’s only since Google has mapped the area that they have any kind of detail to plan journeys. Motor vehicles take the motorway into central Buenos Aires then back out to Quilmes, but on my bike I could cut straight through the suburbs and make a much shorter journey of about 12 miles.

I had made an effort to memorise the route before take-off in London, not knowing when I would have an internet connection again. I discovered that Google Maps’ new ‘save map for offline viewing’ feature only works in places like New York and London where you don’t need it. Really silly that is – the whole point of the feature is to save the map to local memory so that when you go to a remote place or foreign country with no signal you can find your way around. That’s when your life can depend on having a map available. You don’t need this feature in downtown New York!

However I remembered that you can pan around Google Maps for Mobile and some of the map gets cached to local memory – just enough to get me across Buenos Aires. But that’s beside the point – I didn’t want to be waving my smartphone around for a GPS signal in Buenos Aires, I might as well be shouting: ‘come and steal my phone!’

I had been hoping to leave the airport early in the morning when the risk of crime might be lower, but by the time I had my bike ready to go it was midday. I rode off along the busy airport dual carriageway, pleased to see that I wan’t the only mad cyclist:

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As I rode out of the airport I kept repeating to myself: “cycle on the right, cycle on the right. Don’t forget to cycle on the right!” The route was quite easy to remember because Argentinian cities are laid out in a square grid like North America. Most blocks are 100 metres and most corners are right angles. Turn right at the footbridge, left over the flyover, over the main road and left onto the back streets, over a railway, a little river… I had spotted enough features on the satellite image to make navigation from memory possible. Just as well because the GPS didn’t lock, I think it needed to connect to the internet to download some data and work out where the satellites were relative to Argentina. I had removed my UK sim card to avoid roaming charges.

My relatives had warned me that I was unlikely to make it across town without running into trouble, and my brothers had placed bets as to whether I would arrive at my granny’s house with just my bike stolen, my bike and clothes and money stolen, or simply not arrive at all. There were some dodgy areas I needed to pass through. There’s a big problem here with a drug called ‘paco’, a byproduct of cocaine that’s cheap to buy but only gets you high for a few minutes before a big come-down, and is highly addictive. Poor children get hooked on it immediately then have a life expectancy of about five years. They spend all day and night trying to get their next fix, scrambling over roofs in the dark looking for a little something to steal. The older youths will kill you for two bucks, or maybe stab you for no reason at all, because paco has made them loose all reason.

At least that’s what I was warned, so I had made sure my eggs were not all in one basket. About 150 pesos was in my wallet, and nothing else – that was what I planned to give away if I got stuck between a rock and a hard place. I was advised that it’s wise to have a sensible amount of cash ready to give away otherwise the theives might feel disappointed and shoot you. I hid more bank notes in my shoe, then thought better of it and put them inside my sock because I remembered that it’s quite common to have your shoes stolen here. The rest of my cash, my passport and bank card went in the little pocket on the back of my lycra shorts, which I hoped the crooks wouldn’t know about, since I’ve never seen them wearing lycra cycle gear. There was no point in wearing one of those security belt pockets because they were likely to steal my T-shirt and the belt would clearly show through the lycra shorts.

I was annoyed to have bought my debit card with me but the email from British Airways said it was required for check-in, which wasn’t actually the case. I don’t think the bank card’s any use here. Anywhere you use it for payment, even at places you might trust like Buenos Aires central bus station, your bank account might be completely emptied by corrupt members of staff within the hour. I know because apart from family advice, I recently spoke to an American who had paid an awful lot of money for a bus ticket.

But on the quiet roads near the airport all was peaceful, only a few cyclists were out for a Sunday ride. I passed the first horse and cart, the first field of cattle, and the first football game with a barbeque – three things I’m likely to see a lot of during my stay.

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I decided to follow the main roads because they’re the only ones that cross the railways and rivers, but avoid cycling on them where possible, cycling on the parallel streets just one block away until I need to cross a railway. I’d been warned that if I didn’t get run over on the busy roads I would get mugged on the back streets, but I was enjoying the leisurely ride on a hot afternoon.

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I had decided a long time ago that the risk would be worth it, and I was mentally prepared to give everything away, so long as I didn’t get hurt myself. I bought my bike secondhand for £55 pounds over a year ago; I have since invested over £500 in repairs, upgrades and accessories but if it goes walkies it won’t be the end of the world. I have a custom-made bike in the pipeline for when I get back to the UK. I’ll be happy if the bike lasts me for all my planned adventures here in Argentina, and if at the very least I get back to Ezeiza airport on the 28th February with my passport and my body in good health.

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I passed through the agricultural college called ‘La Universidad de Lomas de Samorra’. The grounds were closed on the weekend but locals showed me how to get around the locked gates. The university is a beautiful, slightly ruinous old colonial-style building surrounded by a leafy park and some woodland.

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A level crossing, one of many:

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It was about 35 degrees Celsius in the shade and I was cycling in the noonday sun with no suncream. I became thirsty and stopped at a café called Cookie Corner in a charming area paved with old cobble stones.

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I was informed that this was the ‘Barrio Inglés’, the ‘English suburb’ of an area called Temperley, and that whenever the council want to pave over the cobble stones the locals protest, so they have been preserved. This is unusual for Argentina, where things normally get torn down and replaced without much thought.

Half a litre of water was 18 Argentine pesos! The exchange rate is about eight pesos to the British pound. I had been warned of inflation since my last visit, but I wasn’t counting on it being this bad… I only have 25 pesos per day for the seventy five days I’m staying. I can’t spend any more because I’m still waiting to be invoiced for the expensive bicycle which should be ready for me when I get back to England. Hopefully I can find free water sources here and live off bread and bananas plus whatever my cousins and friends feed me. It would have been nice to have a little more spending money, but I’m not really worried about it. I bought my piano tuning tools so I might even earn a little.

The café waiter asked me for some advice about his two pianos, and in exchange pointed out on the map the areas where I should be more vigilant on my ride into Quilmes. There was only really one short stretch where I would have to be extra careful. The general advice was: don’t stop anywhere, and ride fast through the dodgy areas, don’t even stop at the traffic lights.

I soon reached the area he was talking about, it certainly did look a bit different, with houses made of scrap wood and metal:

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The graffitti reads: “Blood brothers, let’s vote for change”.

There were still women and children walking around, but also a few bands of young men sitting by the road side. I cycled through as quickly as the roads allowed; by the time any of them had noticed me I was already flying past. The only men I feared were those with motorbikes who might be able to catch up with me. I’ve been warned that motorbikes are the crooks’ vehicles of choice for muggings and getaways around these parts, and if there are two on the bike, the one on the back is likely to carry a gun.

One such fellow shouted something to me as the motorbike sped past, and then pulled over not far ahead of me. Typical of the roads here, the bikers were dressed in nothing but shorts and flip-flops, no helmet of course. Oh dear, I thought, and accelerated towards the middle of the road, wondering if I could shoulder-barge them off their bike if they gave me trouble. However it seems that they were just having a spot of engine trouble, so I continued on my merry way, and found a lorry that was going at a convenient speed for me to draft behind.

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Not too close behind, mind, because they don’t always secure their loads properly around here. Cycling in the lorry’s slipstream enabled me to get through the dodgy area extra fast whilst at the same time hiding me from view of any crooks that might be ahead. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before.

I’m not sure what compelled me to go against everyone’s advice and leave the airport by bike. Several of my cousins and friends offered to pick me and my bike up with a van, I had to say no many times. It’s not just about saving a car journey, nor even about stretching my legs after a thirteen hour flight, as nice as that feels. I think I’m just tired of being ferried around here. My childhood memories of this country are full of car journeys and I saw much of the city and the outback through the passenger window on the highway. I also don’t like it when the reality of daily life in the country I’m visiting is hidden from my eyes. On my bike I hope to see the real Argentina: the good, the bad, and the ugly. But I must try not to push my philosophy too far, it’s not worth getting stabbed to death for. I guess I’ll just have to do what I do best: play it by ear.

Anyway, I had my adrenaline rush and got away with it this time – as quickly as the posh cobbled streets had turned into shanty town and dirt roads, they turned back into leafy suburbs again; I was now entering West Quilmes.

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I was soon feeling quite emotional as I pressed the buzzer of my granny’s house, wondering if she would still recognise me after eleven years. She gave me a big hug, and lots of kisses amidst some sobbing and tears. My Auntie then repeated the process. They have been through a lot this year because my uncle passed away, so everyone’s glad that there’s one more family member visiting to cheer them up over Christmas.

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16 thoughts on “Oxford, England, to Quilmes, Buenos Aires, Argentina

    • I forgot to mention, when I got to granny’s house I found my 6 mm allen key in the bottom of my bag! And that after asking all the airport staff if they had one, thinking I had forgotten it. Aaaah… air travel…

  1. Hiya Richard, glad you arrived safely. Just like to wish you and your family, best wishes and a Happy New Year for later ! Stay safe, enjoy your travel fella.

  2. Hi Richard,

    I just discover your blog after seeing your video in England Your England. I’m impressed about your lifestyle and freedom, but what surprised the most was your bike travel from Ezeiza to Quilmes. I’am an Argentinian girl who grew up in Bernal, Quilmes, and I know the road by heart. You’re very couraged!
    I’ve been living in Paris for many years and came back to Buenos Aires one year ago. I used to ride my bike in Paris all the time, even in Bernal after leaving to Europe, and I still don’t dare to take the bike from Buenos Aires city to Quilmes.

    Hope some day I will have the courage too :)

    • Gracias Sol! Todos los Argentinos me dijeron que es muy jodido andar en bici por acá, y que estaba loco en pedalear de Ezeiza a Quilmes por atrás. Pero yo experimenté todo lo opuesto, hasta me metí en unas villas sin problema.

      Opino que por la mañana es mas seguro, cuando la mayoría de los chorros están durmiendo, o por lo menos durante el día… y mantener los ojos muy abiertos, y pasar rápido antes que te vean. Si me siento inseguro doblo en muchas esquinas así aparezco y desaparezco enseguida.

      Bueno si lo intentás por favor tené cuidado, siempre corrés un riesgo. Para mi el beneficio de tener la libertad de recorrer la ciudad y hacer ejercicio al mismo tiempo es mucho mayor que ese riesgo. Si me afanan la bici, bué… me afanan la bici =)

      Justamente estuve bastante en Bernal en estos últimos días usando el wifi en la linda sala de lectura en la biblioteca de Moreno. Mi abuelo era de Bernal.

      Saludos

  3. Awesome… You’ve got a lot of courage!… I’ve been told you’re staying at my parents now near Pilar… That should be a better area, and if you’re going all the way to Cordoba, it won’t be as bad as going from Ezeiza to Quilmes.
    Hope you have an awesome time… Shame you haven’t planned going down south to Patagonia. I reckon you’d love it so much… We have lots of relatives there, and my parents even have a place there if you needed to stay somewhere…

    All the best

    Ronnie

    • Thanks Ronnie! Yes your parents are feeding me well! Mate y facturas for breakfast and your mum’s delicious pasta with cheese and Quilmes beer for lunch =P

      I’m tuning your granny’s piano today.

      Unfortunately I can’t make it down to Patagonia this time, although it would be the best place to escape this heat, but I’m really looking forward to visiting your brother in Córdoba and exploring the sierras.

      I’m going to be in your neck of the woods towards the end of May for the Welsh Ride Thingy, will you be in Bangor?

      • That’s great, you’re in good hands!…
        Esquel (Patagonia) looks like this right now. These are photos my cousin sent me recently:
        http://cl.ly/MgiD
        http://cl.ly/MgFh
        http://cl.ly/Mh7s

        Gonna be here in Bangor on May. Not sure how busy I will be or when the exam period actually starts… Just come and we’ll have a cracking time…. I won’t be travelling to visit any relatives during the summer, so I’ll always stay here at home. Might actually go down to Oxford for a week or so for easter, or even some week during summer…
        Take care

  4. Thank you for taking me on the journey throughout my Lomas de zamora, temperley and quilmes, I grew up in those areas, still have fond memories of the good times spent there. I wish it would be closere so that I could drop in, but Canada is far away. The pictures of Patagonia remind me of our area in Collingwood Ontario. Much Love, Natalia

  5. Hi
    Liked your adventures! I’d like to get in touch with you. I am aregneinean (from QUILMES!). I lived in the US for the past 12 years and I will go to Oxford next year and spend 4 months. I need so me info! may be we can exchange some information. thanks! Eugenia

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