Thursday, May 31, 2012

In which I travel through Argentina with Jeff

I had several chores to handle in Santiago, among them being mailing to the US the statue Monica had given me. I was relieved to learn months later that of all the boxes I shipped from Chile to the US, that was the only one that was lost.

My friend Jeff and I were going to travel together through Argentina. We’d arranged to meet Sunday morning at the East Terminal in Santiago. No one was there to see me off, but a friend of Jeff’s made me take several photos of the two of them together next to the bus.

We started the six-hour trip to Mendoza. I didn’t expect Argentina to be much different from Chile, but I was surprised. Just the change in the terrain was dramatic. On the Chilean side of the Andes, the land was green and lush with row upon row of grapevines stretching into the distance. The Argentine side was dry and rocky, with streaks of copper and sulfur and iron running through the mountains. Dry riverbeds ran alongside the highway and a few stunted trees dotted the landscape.

The border itself was high in the mountains and freezing cold. The customs building was a huge hangar without heat. We had to get off the bus and run through the snow and slush to get inside the building where we waited for the customs agents to finish their cigarettes and inspect our luggage. The bags had been removed from the hold of the bus and set on long tables by a man who later came to us with a paper cup with which he collected tips for doing something we had neither requested nor wanted and could have done ourselves. The agents had coats but we passengers had to stand there in our Santiago-appropriate spring clothes and stamp our feet and clap our hands for warmth while we waited. The two agents and their dog stared intently at our faces and poked through a few bags. I don’t know what we would have been smuggling from Chile to Argentina: Chilean grapes? Washing machines?

Closer to Mendoza, I noticed something I’d never seen in Chile: picnickers. They lined the highway. Argentine families had loaded their cars with card tables and baskets of food and were sitting by the side of the road eating their roast chickens and drinking wine. A few men fished in the sluggish stream.

Mendoza was a beautiful city, but too expensive. It was not yet tourist season so we thought we could negotiate a deal at the hostel, but the dueƱo had other ideas. (He was of the “I only have to sell one ten-thousand dollar piece of gum” school of thought.) We were the only customers he had and he still wouldn’t give us a discount. Not only that, but his wife got upset because we wanted to take two showers each for just a one night stay. (One upon arrival in the evening and one in the morning. Not too much to ask in a rational universe.)

Jeff and I -- both of whom have tastes that run to men -- would have liked to have stayed longer and watched the contestants for the international youth handball tournament -- tall, strapping young men, but at ten dollars a night apiece for the hostel and six dollars for lunch, it wasn’t in the budget.

We spent one day in Mendoza and then took the overnight bus to Salta. Here, we were able to negotiate. Jeff noticed that there was an oversupply of bus lines and an undersupply of passengers and got the ticket agent to knock ten dollars off the ticket price. And I’d thought his going counter to counter asking prices while I had the enviable job of guarding the luggage was just a big waste of time.

We prepared for the sixteen-hour ride by buying wine, yogurt and crackers. Our bus left at 8:00 p.m. Three hours and a box of wine later, we were in the perfect state of mind to enjoy the movie Bird on a Wire, which the attendant thoughtfully provided. We would have been in an even better mood except every time we hit a bump in the road, we spilled a little wine. Good thing the bus was almost empty and we could have our choice of seats.

We saw only the first twenty minutes of the movie before we stopped for supper -- included in the fare -- at a restaurant (which looked like it used to be a gas station) in the middle of the desert. A fire crackled in an outdoor grill and two skinny dogs circled it hopefully. The restaurant looked like a dive but it served excellent barbecued chicken. I took this as a good omen about the trip, but then awoke the next morning to discover the bus attendant was serving only disgusting sweet biscuits for breakfast. Then he put on the second movie. It was horrible. Dennis Weaver was driving down a lonely western highway and a trucker started to follow him. The whole movie is Dennis’ voiced-over thoughts and panic and the trucker looming behind. I wasn’t interested in watching but there was no escape.

The lovely countryside was not to be, either. Argentines seem to consider “side of the road” synonymous with “dump.” Plastic bags, milk bottles, and cans covered the ground. I even saw a dead horse bloating in the sun. Someone had thrown up a few seats back and I discovered a huge hole in the seat of my only pair of pants (which I happened to be wearing). We’d left the nice part of Argentina.