"Sailed not as a seaman, but as a traveler..."

"Sailed not as a seaman, but as a traveler..."- Sir Thomas More's Utopia

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The first ride.

Our shadows as we hitch-hike

We left the Estanga home a little after 7AM. The density of the night sky was already being cracked by slivers of light, but the sun still hadn't broken over the horizon. The patriarch of the home, Norberto, had pulled out a taped, torn, and re-taped map of Argentina and handed it to me, unfurled like a sail waiting to catch adventures.

"About 700 km," he said. "Bahía Blanca to Puerto Madryn." Two places I had only heard of in passing until very recently. "You can most definitely arrive to Puerto Madryn by the end of the day," he said, eyes to the ceiling, calculating in his head. Then, quickly adding behind a smile, "With a little luck, of course."

Of course.

We arrived at the YPF petrol station a little before half past. We got out of the car, heaved our heavy packs out of the trunk, and briskly said our goodbyes and see you laters as we shifted the masses on our shoulders, redirecting the weight to shifting legs. We wandered aimlessly around the station for what seemed like hours, following the sound of humming engines, searching for truck drivers revving up for a long haul. Taking turns, we awkwardly asked for rides south, down Ruta Nacional 3. Everyone said no, usually quoting a new company rule to not take on hitch-hikers. One guy even told us we were too ugly. Literally. Those words exactly. "You guys are too ugly."

In the cold wind I fingered the plastic bag of chocolates Lili, the matriarch of our home in Bahía Blanca, had packed for us. "In case you get hungry," she said to us with a look of concern. As if we genuinely had no clue what we were supposed to do when we felt hungry. You know, maybe eat something. I measured hunger against craving, and finally decided to save it for later.

At a little after 9AM, tired of the directionless pacing and the cold of the autumn air starting to seep into our bones, we decided to start walking alongside the highway and try our luck Holywood style, throwing out our thumbs and smiling big goofy grins, squinting against the strong sun of the southern hemisphere. Cars passed. Trucks passed. More cars passed. A few people waved. Most made a tiny, but visible swerve as soon as they saw us, like you would do if you saw a homeless man on the sidewalk you were walking down.

We were beginning to lose hope. Maybe we had made a mistake. These packs are heavy. Hitch-hiking isn't easy at all. We weren't 17-year-olds full of teenage angst looking for movie-style adventures before schlepping off to some expensive ivy league. We were educated professionals. I was hungry. The sun was beginning to hurt my eyes. Maybe this was a mistake. Who fucking hitch-hikes, anyway? What the fuck were we doing with our lives?

Finally, at around 10AM, a truck driver made eye contact and slowed down, coming to a full halt fifty meters or so in front of us. This was it, we were doing it! We half jogged, half skipped with excitement, up to his window and exchanged pleasantries while probably smiling way too much. He asked where we were heading, to which I replied, "As far south as possible."

He mumbled something about the south being vast and the word "south" being too vague. Something negative, and I could feel our first triumph slipping away.

"We have some friends in Puerto Madryn," I lied a little. We didn't technically know anyone in Puerto Madryn. Javier and Soledad were couchsurfers who had passed through Bahía Blanca, stayed one night with the Estanga family, and Ayelen contacted them before we left. We had never met and I don't think they even believed we were coming. But whatever, we weren't going to lose this victory over semantics. "We could talk to them to see if they could put us up for a few nights." He nodded pensively, weighing something invisible but heavy.

"Do you kids like mate?" he broke the awkward silence.

"Of course."

"Let's have some mate and talk about your trip a bit. Although, I must warn you, I take my mate with sugar."

I smiled and repeated a cheesy Argentine saying I'd come across a few times before, "Take mate with sugar when life is sweet, and bitter when life is bitter." He grunted and motioned us into his truck where he had a makeshift stove to heat up a little kettle. The herb was poured into the gourd, steel straw placed methodically in, the water, sufficiently hot, poured onto the herb, and we were sharing mate.

"I've got to make this delivery to Rio Gallegos, but I don't think I can take you that far south. Puerto Madryn, that sounds more possible."

"That's perfect!" I said, visibly relieved. He nodded with a faint smile, squinted at the road, revved the engine, and just like that, we were off; kettle still on the makeshift stove and mate gourd still full of hot water.