There is a taxi driver in southern Argentina named Ernesto. We didn’t know each other until a few days ago and we will never meet again.
We met when chance placed us in his taxi at El Calafate airport.
On the drive into town he politely asked us to share the contents of his small bag of caramel sweets. On a couple of occasions, he stopped the car by the side of the road, insisting we take photos of Lago Argentino and of the area he was obviously – and quite rightly – proud to call home.
We conversed using fragments of each other’s languages; nothing more than a painfully extracted collection of remembered foreign words. We were less articulate than three year olds on a play date. Yet, in a triumph of pointing and facial expressions over grammatical correctness, when we reached our destination, neither of us was surprised by the outcome.
This is how adventures are made.
In the process of accumulating more and more years to look back on, I have come to consider travel as an irresistible force; demanding an escape from life’s routine, compelling the creation of opportunities from which arise such unexpected delights as wandering around Seville’s Alcazar or watching the sunset transform Uluru.
Each time I wrestle our bags into the car and we head to the airport, it’s the leaving behind, the prospect of the unknown, that raises the pulse rate and makes the familiar street look suddenly different; today’s promise of adventure replacing yesterday’s predictability.
But this access to pulse-quickening adventure is not the exclusive domain of the unwashed, hostel-hopping backpacker. You don’t have to share a room or bathing facilities with a complete stranger to be able to throw yourself in front of the vagaries of luck and chance; comfort does not dilute the experiences gained when the chance meeting, the wrong turn, or the impulsive decision dictate the course of the independent traveler’s day.
Now, I’ve slept on my fair share of hostel roofs and swapped exaggerated stories of hardship with the people I’ve met along the way. But I’m older now. I have responsibilities. I have a wife who, thankfully, shares my wanderlust and – with a slightly higher emphasis on spa treatments – my expectations of hotel amenities. I have a daughter whom I hope inherits our worldly curiosity. And I have a job that finances our travels (perhaps far more than it should), while limiting our global wanderings to a handful of weeks each year.
Within this time constraint, we travel independently, largely making things up as we go along. We happily occupy the space between the hitchhiking backpackers at one extreme and the air-conditioned buses and eager cameras of the nametag-wearing crowd at the other. We’re much closer to the hitchhiker’s end of the spectrum and I know we’ll always be too young for the latter.
We start with an idea and a return ticket. Gradually, as travel time approaches (and a day or two after my wife’s initial request to please develop a plan of what we’re actually going to do when we get there) we start to fill in the gaps.
Argentina was the first of this year’s gaps.
Although the overnight flight to Buenos Aires induces tiredness, the north-south route from the east coast of the United States takes jetlag out of the equation. And even that tiredness is quickly forgotten if, like us, you are fortunate enough to employ the services of a taxi driver intent on swerving in and out of traffic at video game speeds. Had our wide, terrified eyes allowed us to blink we may have missed the entire journey.
After taking a couple of hours to recover a little of our composure, we embarked on an afternoon’s orientation stroll around the city.
I’ve always enjoyed this first venture into a new country; the visitor’s brand new and the resident’s commonplace together in a single landmark.
Making our way from the Obelisco to Plaza San Martin and, in the process, having acquired a better sense of the distances involved, we realized that reaching the Cementerio de la Recoleta by foot was well within our capabilities.
The cemetery is like a city full of very quiet neighbors. Street after street is lined by the alternately glorious, dilapidated and just-plain-eerie final resting places of Argentina’s presidents, politicians, and military heroes. Dotted among these leaders are the magnificently excessive tributes to the fabulously wealthy. Apparently the residents of these grand marble palaces decided to invest their entire fortunes in a final swaggering show of self-importance, leaving the survivors without a single peso of inheritance to squabble over.
On the following day, interrupting our explorations of Buenos Aires, Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay – 50 kilometers and an hour’s boat ride across the River Plate – is more than an opportunity to collect another passport stamp.
An easy walk from the ferry terminal, the Barrio Historico area of the city is wonderfully quaint and, taking care not to turn an ankle on the 17th century cobbled streets, more than repays a couple of hours of exploration.
Maps of the barrio are available from the tourist office near the Porton de Campo city gate, but aren’t really necessary; it’s a small, manageable area and most of its picturesque streets lead back to the central Plaza Mayor 25 de Mayo.
On and around the Plaza Mayor, seats and tables of the local restaurants spill out into the streets. Some of these restaurants, in a slightly mystifying approach to scheduling, appear to close for lunch. Others have randomly abandoned, ancient cars rusting outside – suggesting that their owners popped in for dinner in the 1950s and never came out again.
Back in Buenos Aires, the life and vibrancy of the city is revealed in the Sunday street market and the antiques fair at Plaza Dorrego in the San Telmo barrio. But it’s not the block after block of vendor stalls selling everything from T-shirts to power adaptors that make the experience so compelling – it’s what happens as a consequence; the incessant hum of activity, the mobile empanada sellers, the street tango dancers, the chance to enjoy a little jazz music while nursing a cold Quilmes beer.
All around us was the infectious happiness of people enjoying life, embracing its simple pleasures. It was a world apart from the petty frustrations and irrational anger we too often allow to dominate our days.
Whatever the answer, San Telmo on a Sunday afternoon in early autumn is an unmissable experience that provides an intoxicating insight into this delightful city.
It’s also a late night city. Restaurants that look going-out-of-business empty at 9:00pm are elbow-to-elbow at 11:00pm. We naively turned up for dinner at one restaurant at 7:30pm only to be advised that we’d arrived 30 minutes ahead of the chef.
As it was our last night, we took our seats, relaxed and reflected on our first few days in Argentina. The chef could take his time.
We could easily have spent another week in Buenos Aires, but it was time to head south.
7th April 2016