This is an excerpt from my book ‘Coming of Age in the Andes: An Adventure into the Mountains of South America.
What’s it like going somewhere you’ve never been before? To be taken away by dreams of exotic places and peoples? To be carried by the winds of your imagination? To be transported to a totally different dimension of experience in the hope of experiencing yourself differently? Have you experienced that?
What’s it like to go out alone on the heels of huge mountains in search of adventure? To strap all your possessions on your back and head out on the open road in the hope of finding a way in? What’s the value of that kind of thing anyway?
This journey through Andean Latin America is in many ways a story about these questions. And I hope what they meant and still do mean to me might have some kind of meaningful impact and be a cause for your own inspiration in life.
The plane touched down at EZEIA international in Buenos Aires at two in the morning. Thomas mentioned in an email there were shuttles from the airport to the main bus station, but instead I was lured foolishly into a taxi. And as is the case with so many cities in the world, taxi drivers are the king of scams. Also, I wasn’t aware there are about 6 or 7 different bus stations in Buenos Aires, nor which one might’ve been safe to hang around in the middle of the night.
At the end of an unusually long trip, streetlights getting progressively dimmer, the driver casually asked for $50. You must be off your frigging head man, for that you can buy a bus ticket across the country. But thoughts didn’t translate into words. I only knew some very basic Spanish, and wasn’t able to tell the conniving bastard where to get off. I could’ve just thrown him a fraction of the price and walked off, but instead I demurely handed over the cash, feeling like a complete idiot. Let’s hope the whiskey and god knows what else was bought with my money was at least of decent quality.
I hauled my bags out of the cab in a huff, and under my breath paid homage to the driver’s mother. Dropped off at a dodgy, dilapidated part of town in the middle of the night I peered around nervously, wondering what kind of crazy rabbit hole this could be. At the station, all the booking windows were closed and the only people around were a few cleaners, robotically pushing brooms across cold cement floors. A little freaked, I inhaled deeply, stopped swearing and sat down at a table outside a cafe called ‘Early Bird’.
‘I’m not gonna let that happen again!’ I told myself. So I pulled out a pocket Spanish dictionary and began learning key phrases like a man possessed. You know, as one does, just a little crash course in survival Spanish in the middle of the night in a foreign country.
When the café finally opened – not without a few completely befuddled looks from the staff at a young traveler sitting there with a big backpack – I asked a pretty waitress in a blue dress and red blouse what her name was, how she was doing, where she was from, and if I could have two fried eggs, sautéed potatoes, toast, butter, jam, coffee and orange juice. Well, she seemed as impressed as I was. The only thing not so impressive was that I didn’t get her phone number.
As soon as a booking window opened up I bought a cross-country ticket to Bariloche, the nearest major town to El Bolson, where Thomas lived in his grand hacienda. The bus was leaving late that afternoon, so I stored my kit and headed out to explore the city. At this point, a South America on a Shoestring Lonely Planet guidebook was my only compass. Many globetrotters argue using travel guidebooks results in following highlight trails and reproducing the ‘gringo way of travel’. Well maybe, but it all depends on how you use them of course.
Hopping on a bus downtown it seemed like I was somewhere in Europe…Barcelona, Paris or Milan maybe. I spent the day ambling along the wide streets and handsome parks of Buenos Aires. Stately avenues connected the metroscape, hemming in fancy department store blocks, museums, art galleries, theatres, embassies and banks. Buenos Aires is a huge city. I barely saw an inch of it, yet still felt its enormity. Literally ‘’good winds’’ in Spanish, one cannot help but fall in love with the capital of Tango, the fourth largest metropolitan in the Americas, with a population of over 17 million inhabitants.
It’s a truly multicultural place, home to a plethora of ethnicities and religions. Dozens of languages are spoken apart from the lingua franca Spanish, and the curious traveler can find themselves lost in Italian, French, Russian or Chinese quarters in the space of just a day. This cultural diversity is a consequence of Buenos Aires being a major inheritor of millions of immigrants throughout the world over the last 150 years.
Most porteos – ‘’people of port cities’’ and a name that’s come to refer to Buenos Aires locals – are of Italian and Spanish decent, but the sheer demographic complexity of the jewel of the Rio de la Plata is quite astounding. German, Scottish, Norwegian, Polish, French, Portuguese, Swedish, Greek, Czech, Croatian, Dutch, Russian, English, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Ukrainian, Lebanese, Georgian, Syrian, Armenian, Taiwanese, Chinese, Korean, Japanese. A veritable international village.
Enraptured by the immensity of the city, I strolled along carelessly down Avenida 9 de Julio, the widest street in the world, with an impressive sixteen lanes. It typically takes at least two traffic light rotations just to cross it. I cruised past the stunning Plaza del Mayo and the legendary San Telmo district, famed for tango dancing and parties that defy the night. I could definitely have hung out here for a few days, if not weeks. But there was a bus to catch. Across the vast pampa, southeast to my first base destination, northern Patagonia, to the little mountain draped town of El Bolson.
Time was ticking and I needed to somehow navigate through this gigantic metropolis – no less during rush hour – back to the bus station for the long-distance haul. Sweating like a pig I didn’t get much sympathy from the other commuters, most of whom sat in seemingly comatose states as the tram jerked through sardine-packed traffic. This unfortunately wasn’t one of those ‘keep calm and enjoy the ride’ situations. I asked the driver as politely as I could how long it might take to get to the stop nearest the bus station. I had to use my fingers to gesticulate the estimated time, much to his bemusement. 45 minutes. The coach was leaving in 30. I was screwed.
First I get ripped off by a dirt bag duo of taxi drivers and now I’m gonna miss my frigging bus to Bariloche…in the space of half a day! The gods of travel must’ve really been taking the piss. On the verge of losing my shit I almost tripped as I got off the bus and sprinted to the station entrance. In chimpanzee Spanish fumbled words spurted out.
‘’Your bus has been delayed sir. It leaves in 15 minutes.’’ Came the reply in unexpectedly impeccable English from a clerk in a bowtie and slicked back hair.
No way! I dropped to the floor in relief. It probably looked quite pathetic. But hell, I made it! Luck had swung back. The ticket assistant was very friendly, asked if he could do anything else and called some porters to help collect my bags from the storage room. Talk about wanting to buy yourself and someone else a drink at the same time!
I just then learned from Joos, a jolly German traveler who’d also booked on the bus, that the driver hadn’t pitched on account of a hangover! At the last minute the operator had to call in a backup, buying the time I needed to make it on time.
The 24-hour journey across the infinite, horizonless pampa was just incredible. I was accompanied by Vanessa, a sexy Chilean girl who had a body like Pocahontas and a hairstyle like Demi Moore in GI Jane with a Rasta dread for a flourish.
‘’So where you from guapo?’’
‘’You’ll never guess gorgeous.’’ And funnily enough she didn’t. It didn’t seem to matter that much to her.
‘’Where you headed?’’
‘’El Bolson…my uncle has a hacienda out there…I’m starting a year trip across South America, mostly to climb in the Andes. How about you?’’
‘’Wow! That’s great! You’ll love it…I think South America is kinda like a mix between the best of Europe and Africa…you know what I mean?’’
‘’What’s the best of each?’’
‘’Mmmmm….let’s put it this way…you can buy a three-thousand year old Persian carpet and still strike a bargain. Dance till dawn in the streets without the police hounding you but still ask them to escort you home. Camp in the mountains almost wherever without permits but still come across huts with facilities in back country. That sort of thing.’’
‘’Sounds like my kind of place…although I’ve never had a big thing for carpets. So where are you going then?’’
‘’Santiago…I study archaeology there and work in restaurants and hotels.’’
‘’With that hairstyle, man, they must really like you.’’
‘’Well of course! What’s not to like?’’
‘’You know Vanessa…if you ask me…very little.
‘’You should come visit me in Chile…if you don’t get lost in Patagonia…haha!’’
‘’Well, actually I’m hoping to get lost. It’s one of the best ways to find your way.’’