The folks smiled all the way through my confession, which happened after the event, of course. From Ushuaia, via Skype: “So now that we’re safely here, I guess I should tell you how we got here …”
Yup, I did it. We did it. The folks are totally cool with it! I am so proud of and continually surprised by them. Sometimes I still feel like that difficult 16-year-old and I forget that they have long since accepted me as a 30-year-old adult perfectly capable of making mistakes and then fixing things on my own again. Sometimes I surprise myself in the same way.
Hitchhiking through Patagonia is one of those things they write about glowingly in Lonely Planet but don’t “endorse or recommend”. Among travellers, there are two not necessarily opposing viewpoints: “You gotta do it” and “You are out of your fucking mind”.
Francisco from Corrientes said it was the stupidest idea he’d ever heard. But hitchhiking is how Oren got down and up Patagonia. It was such a mind-blowing experience for him that he wanted to get a tattoo inspired by the experience, but he couldn’t find a parlour in the area. At last check, Oren still doesn’t have a single tattoo, which is a very rare thing these days, in these places.
Let it be known that Patagonia will inscribe itself on your heart and your mind, tattoo parlour or no.
Anyway, two things: When I set out from South Africa, sure, I wanted to hitchhike but never truly believed I would. I mean, where would I start? Hitchhiking is not something I would ever do in South Africa, that’s for sure. And I wanted to see Ushuaia – had been implored to do so by my parents and my instincts – but I didn’t commit to the idea, because it’s at the ass end of the world and it’s expensive to get there. Really expensive.
With an equally nervous but keen Nikki by my side, and with the security of her tremendous Spanish, the universe was clearly saying “now or never, dude”. And so we set off a little later than planned from Puerto Madryn to Trelew where, according to legend, we were most likely to get truckin’. Legend also has it that you should definitely truck it, not car it, for safety reasons.
It’s a pretty awkward thing, this hitchhiking. How exactly does one broach this particular topic with a complete stranger; how can you tell with one look if someone is unlikely to pull off the road in the middle of the night in the middle of Patagonia and turn into Don Hannibal El Cannibal, and basic stuff like is that truck going the right way and, I mean, what do you say?
We lurked a bit, ate our food (oh, how Nikki loves to eat) and then Nikki mustered up the courage I would see her exhibit countless times in the weeks to come and started approaching these would-be knights in shining 16-wheelers. Chick’s got balls. I feel a little bad because I volunteered to “look after the bags” – an important job, to be fair – while Nikki walked out there into the unknown by herself. I stood and smiled, loosened my hair, took off my jacket … as you do. Didn’t occur to me then that I’d be wearing what I had on for the next four days or so.
Trucks pulled in and out of that service station on the outskirts of Trelew for what felt like hours (I don’t have a watch). We got many flat-out nos, lame excuses like “our company doesn’t allow it” (whatever, this is Argentina, hot trucker with blue shirt, you don’t fool us), “no space” (another lie, we have eyes), “I’m going the other way” (fair enough).
Two more hitchhikers pitched up at the service station, Dutch- or German looking dudes, the pressure mounted. Finally we got a hesitant yes from one guy, but it wasn’t perfect: Nikki and I would have to separate, one with him, one with his “friend”. I didn’t like the idea, but we were getting desperate. Threatening clouds rolled across the horizon.
We’d have to wait for this friend to arrive anyway, so we sat down to have a think. These two truckers would be travelling together all the way to Rio Negro, ridiculously close to our final destination, so technically we’d be together, just in separate vehicles. Their trucks were big and shiny and new. They were also the only ones who said yes.
Nikki came back from the loo. “So…” she said. “I think the pump-attendant guy has been telling the truckers about us, and there’s a guy over there who says he’ll take both of us to Rio Gallegos. His truck’s kinda old though. I don’t know … go have a look.”
And that’s how we met Leo.
Oh Leo, you are simply the coolest dude this side of the Atlantic. Leo, with your two-element gas stove in the cab. Leo who makes mate as he drives (I took over eventually). Leo who cooks on that same gas stove, while driving, and uses it as a heater at night. Leo, with your open face and your curiosity and your clean sense of humour and your belly laugh, the residual sadness brought on by your recent separation from your wife. Leo, you with your two kids.
Leo, you who do not work for a big corporation but are paving your own road with your own company and your own down-but-not-out truck … which needed some tinkering before we could truly set off.
This is how it works. Truckers don’t drive through the night. They generally sleep over on the outskirts of a town. They have a bed in the cab. On our first night, all three of us slept in the cabin of Leo’s truck at a service station outside Caleta Olivia; he got the bed, obvio. It was very dark by the time we got there, and I didn’t expect to see the ocean. The white surf shone despite the black of the new moon; it sang softly only to me as I stood in the breeze on the beach in awe of what I’d seen and done that day – the endless miles of Patagonian everythingness, the bumps – flat and barren and alive and big, so big. The weirdness and the greatness of Argentina, the miles I was from home, my seemingly endless luck, the simple joys.
I thought about how adventure is rarely what or how you think it would be. That often it’s just about three people, two 30-somethings on a road to nowhere and a father, across desolate stretches of legendary landscape. I was in awe of the beauty of our symbiosis – we needed a ride, he wanted the company. It was weird and magic and somehow familiar, too. That night I was overwhelmed by the sense that I had achieved something really important, something I was always going to achieve … and I didn’t, couldn’t, do it alone.
Nikki and I weren’t exactly comfortable sleeping on our bags, my legs stretched out and feet on the giant steering wheel, hers tucked under my ribcage somewhere, but sleep we did – despite Leo’s snoring that started pretty much as soon as he said “buenas noches”. The giggling was insufferable. It was starting to get cold, we were far south by now, but inside it was warm.
Early in the morning we set off to get some miles behind us before stopping for breakfast. Nikki was beyond excited.
And then that afternoon, we stopped in another town and got ingredients for the best one-pot cook-off-while-driving you have ever seen.
Of course, we stopped to eat. Here:
Remember how I said it’s all flat. Actually, we had been driving on a raised plateau of sorts (my terminology is not so great). It felt like we were at sea level but in fact we had been steadily climbing. Now and then the world would drop off at our sides and we’d realise that we were in effect on top of a very high, very large, very flat mountain. That was a real mind opener.
We got to Rio Gallegos, Leo’s final destination but still a ways away from ours, after dark. To celebrate, and to mourn, we went for pizza and wine (flush) at a restaurant next to the service station. We drank, we ate, we laughed. We talked about love, about the Papa (Argentina’s Francis became pope that very day, or the day before, hard to say when the roads and the towns and time all flow together) … Close friends, no awkward silences. 1159km together in a vehicle, sharing mate and dreams and disappointments – and jokes at the expense of the gringo who can’t speak Spanish – will do that to you.
The second night was kind of worse than the first, comfort wise. And in the morning we all kept finding excuses not to say goodbye. We’d bring coffee for Leo, then go back for medialunas (small croissants covered in sticky syrup) for Leo, which he’d inevitably give to us, then I’d go to buy him yerba … our quick attachment and girlish inability to deal with the reality of separation was kind of pathetic. And unforgettable.