Saturday, 28 April 2007

The Road to Santiago

Oh, boys and girls, where have you been? I've been having such adventures in Argentina.

In Buenos Aires, everyone advised me not to hire a car. Given the way the portenos drive, they said, it was an accident waiting to happen. Somewhat nervously, I ignored the good advice and set off to the wilds of the pampa with no road map or Spanish dictionary, though for obscure reasons several out-of-date Japanese newspapers and a book in Japanese on Borges. On my first day, after various wrong turnings and Spanish-English non-conversations on directions with tollgate wardens, I eventually got on the right highway and found my way to San Antonio del Areco, a famous gaucho town.

Delighted to have safely reached my destination, I pulled into an estancia in the dark, went over a very narrow bridge and put the tyre onto a small side wall. Crunch! For a moment I thought I'd wrecked the whole car. It was too dark to inspect the damage so I trundled bumpily along to a cheap hotel imagining the horrors that awaited. The tyre was indeed truly massacred - it looked as if it had been butchered with a knife and then hit with a large hammer. The next day I had it changed.

I spent the next night on an estancia having done the usual tourist palaver of horse riding on the pampa. The other guests were a group of Poles on an Argentine excursion heading for a science conference in Rio, which made for interesting company. Their tour leader had laid on three musicians and four dancers to come out from town and entertain them. We were however visited that night by a spectacular storm. I was suddenly summoned from my room by one of the servants and asked to drive the car through lashing rain off the estancia and down a 4 mile dirt track back onto the paved road. The estate workers correctly surmised that the dirt road was about to be turned into an impassable mud quagmire. I swerved along as it turned into bog in front of my eyes, frogs hopping all over it. I was driven back in a 4 by 4 and then towards the end of dinner, amidst the thunder and lightning, the power went out and we were in the dark. I could hardly believe that the musicians and dancers would show up to entertain the Poles in these conditions, but to my amazement they did. We sang and drank by candlelight in a swirl of Tango melodies and Polish toasts.

The next day, leaving the Poles behind, I set off again and at one point got completely lost on the pampa and drove for an hour without knowing where I was going, eventually navigating by the position of the sun in the sky. When I reached a petrol station, I couldn´t communicate with the attendant, apart from to work out that he didn't have any maps. The roads were terrible, full of potholes several feet wide.

Uncannily, the old tune Have You Ever Seen The Rain? is the one that I have heard played constantly on Argentine radio as I have driven along. It´s almost a kind of Argentinian anthem (though they do seem to have a great fondness for Tina Turner as well). The week before I had taken a boat over to Uruguay and spent the night in the town of Colonia before taking the bus to Montevideo. However the heavens opened there too and I was caught in flash floods. Soaked to the skin, I retreated to the indoor market down by the harbour area and discovered that by mid-afternoon the bars were already alive with singing and drinking and the most friendly people - it really had the feel of the west of Ireland.

I must say that I like the Uruguayans and the Argentines. I've met nothing but charming and pleasant people here the whole time. There are some verbal tics they have which quite amuse me. I don't know if it's the same in Spain, but here they all say 'Perfecto'. This seems to mean 'Sure', 'Got you', 'Understood'. However when they try and speak English they always directly translate this. So I find I'm having conversations where I ring the Hotel Reception and say,

'I'm sorry but I'll be checking out a day early as I've decided to go to Uruguay.'


'And while I'm on, can I also tell you that the shower isn't working?'


It almost sounds as if they are laying on the irony, but they say it with a straight face, entirely sincere.

I've now arrived in Mendoza Province, the centre of the wine country and so - greatly against my will, of course - must force myself on a tour of the local bodegas to imbibe a few choice Malbec. While I was in Buenos Aires, I was reading and writing about Borges; since then it was all Paz and I've enormously enjoyed The Labyrinth of Solitude, a stimulating book, which while mainly being about Mexico has illuminated a lot of interesting aspects of Latin American history.

Now however I'm back to Cortazar's Hopscotch. Here's my favourite sentence so far, one which surely would have made even D. H. Lawrence blush:

He turned her into Pasiphae, he bent her over and used her as if she were a young boy, he knew her and he demanded the slavishness of the most abject whore, he magnified her into a constellation, he held her in his arms smelling of blood, he made her drink the semen which ran into her mouth like a challenge to the Logos, he sucked out the shadow from her womb and her rump and raised himself to her face to anoint her with herself in that ultimate work of knowledge which only a man can give to a woman, he wore her out with skin and hair and drool and moans, he drained her completely of her magnificent strength, he threw her against a pillow and sheet and felt her crying with happiness against his face which another cigarette was returning to the night from the room and from the hotel.

Well, I don't know who 'Pasiphae' is, but it sounds like they had a pretty good shag.

You may have worked out by now that I haven't done too much planning for this trip - in fact I didn't open a guidebook until I arrived. I've never known where my ultimate destination was going to be. I toyed with the idea of Patagonia, but that's really a 3-week trip on its own. I also thought of Iguazu in the far north, but that's more an add-on to a future Brazilian excursion. No, there was only one sensible destination - Santiago, waiting for me there on the other side of the Andes. So that was meant to be the final leg of the tour, but two days ago, after driving deep into the Andes and finally reaching the border at dusk, I was dismayed to discover that I couldn´t cross with my rental car.

It may all be for the best. Santiago is after all 24 hours of driving from Buenos Aires so I decided to unwind with some whitewater rafting here in San Rafael instead. Now all that faces me is a 1000km drive back across the pampa...

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