Sleeping with Strangers in Patagonia
He is a small-town man with a golden tan, loves his meat and knows the land.
This is all I knew of my Argentinean stranger, Gustavo, a friend of a friend of a Toronto friend. This, and that he is a perfect gentleman offering cheap travel: a shotgun seat in his jeep and a slim spot in his tent for the long trek southward to Patagonia.
We exchanged a few emails—mine, all lower-case; his, upper-case, with an extraordinary number of exclamation marks.
MEET SANTA ROSA ESTATION! BAR EL TERMINALE! WAER CROCODILE DUNDEE HAT!!!! BIG JEEP! SEE YOU!!!!!
I am alone in the front row on the top level of a double-decker bus traveling from Buenos Aires to Santa Rosa (The "Gateway to Patagonia"). Ahead of me are ten sweaty hours gazing out a huge picture window. Red curtains frame this makeshift movie screen splattered with bird-sized bug carcasses blotching the view of endless flooded yellow grasslands where cows stand stunned.
There isn't much else to look at here in the Pampas—save the occasional sluggish cowboy town parked down the end of a lonely stretch of mud road, each boasting it's own do-it-yourself gated entrance made from scraggy metal and bits of farm machinery; the same darkened little store in every town, plastic strip curtains keeping out the flies; the same squat woman slicing meat behind the counter with milk cartons warm on the shelves.
I am dying of thirst. For a good hour, I'd been contemplating the communal sugar juice sloshing around a metal canteen in the aisle. Thirst overcomes me and I drink.
Just before my arrival in Santa Rosa, I'm treated to the window show's climax: the legendary Argentinean gaucho. Cue the elegant white long-legged birds striding in ditches, zoom in on the solitary cowboy in a dirty poncho and a crumpled leather hat, riding high on his horse through the one-horse town.
On the bar stool at El Terminal station, the local beer is a godsend. So is the second, then third, when a tanned man in a Crocodile Dundee hat pulls up in a beastly jeep.
Gustavo, with whom I will spend the next 2,500 kilometers off-roading in a jeep he nicknamed "Tasmanian Devil" until dust has infiltrated every pore of my body, is an agricultural engineer from the small northern farming town of Sunchales. He has a kind, brown, round face, blue puppy-dog eyes, and big, chunky teeth that speak not a word of English, something my friend of a friend neglected to mention.
This is the first sign of incompatibility. The second is more serious. On Tas' dashboard are three cassettes: Rod Stewart, Elton John, and Kenny G. Quintessential macho cheese.
Scruffy eagles and cartoon-like vultures cleaning their beaks of cow entrails in the hot sun are all jostled from their perch as we motor past, leaving behind a poof of dust and a sappy sax tune in the air.
I point out the massive cows heaving in the fields. Gustavo employs one of his few English phrases: "Mmmn. Side of beef," he says licking his lips and rubbing his belly. Not a particularly attractive sight to a near-vegetarian.
We've already encountered two police checks. I am completed ignored, save for a flick of Gustavo's hand and the muttering of esposa (wife). Clearly, this is "men's business."
I'm occupied with my exceptionally challenging task en route: pouring hot water from a narrow thermos into a wooden gourd for Gustavo's hourly maté ritual while he maximizes the jeep's pitch and roll. For the next two hours, he drives while suckling the tea from a metal straw like a big baby.
I would have preferred a little longer to get to know each other before throwing down our tent, us two strangers in the middle of a bona fide no man's land, but it is already late in the day.
Lihue Calel Park (The Hills of Life) is a roadside patch of mostly scrub and rolling hills, some foxes, pumas, lizards, and the rare but highly venomous pit viper.
I gesture towards one of the funny-looking critters running down the dirt road. Gustavo replies, "Extincto." I flap my arms to ask whether it flies. "Si," and he charges the small flock with his jeep to demonstrate.
They don't fly. One disappears under the car. Gustavo's face is pure embarrassment; mine, horror. Please tell me I saw the bird hop away in the rearview mirror.
Looking for the park warden, my companion introduces me to the strange custom of clapping loudly outside a house over knocking. No one home. We throw our gear under a strange canopy of tangled black trees, full of screaming birds.
Gustavo points out a rodent beside my backpack, says "Tuco-Tuco" (whatever that means—in my mind "deadly"), and opens a can of tuna and a bottle of wine. Dinner is served.
The only thing worse than setting up a tent in the dark with a macho stranger who does not speak your language is the awkward, suggestively sexual rhythm of pumping up a mattress in the confines of a pup tent. Next to a bird murderer with tuna breath.
Then it hits me. Was it the communal sugar water on the bus or the jeep's lack of suspension? Diarrhea has come to visit.
Squatting in the dark shrubs, the famed Argentinean wild horses surround me like huge black shadow puppets. In fear, I fall back in the mud (and no doubt, horse dung), curse, and am shushed by the only other campers in the park. My traveling companion, ever the gentleman, hollers at them in my defense and the horses head for the hills.
Afraid to drift off to sleep should I snore, or worse, have "the bathroom visitor" return, I lie, buttocks squeezed tight, listening to Gustavo pee outside the tent. Banked by hills and under this ceiling of thick brush, it sounds like Niagara Falls.
It's all too ridiculous. I can't help myself. Then Gustavo joins in.
We are two strangers, belly aching with laughter in the Hills of Life at the end of the world. I am having a wonderful time.