Why I Almost Went Home
But I didn’t. And maybe it’s for the best. Now, three hours later in the cool of the evening, a month of the austral summer in Patagonia seems preferable to February in Vermont.
In my hometown, the snow doesn’t melt until May – and then it’s black fly season.
Here is my daily schedule in El Bolson.
I wake up at about 10 am to the sunshine pounding my green Dunlop brand pup-tent. I throw off my down sleeping bag and try to get a little more sleep, but the sun is too hot, and eventually I stick my head out the door and take a deep breath of cool morning air. Usually the campground is quiet, and I am the first one up.
After a ritual morning sniff test of the clothes scattered about my tent, I get dressed, wash my face at the outdoor tap and ride my bike down the hill into town. Most mornings I stop for a Breakfast Super Pancho at the hotdog stand where the owner is almost blind, and his two young sons squint through thick glasses as they carefully count my change.
There are only two places with WiFi in El Bolson. One is Jauja, a restaurant in the heart of downtown that caters solely to the wealthiest of tourists and where the waiters never seem happy to see me. The other is a restaurant called Vatto a few hundred yards down the street.
Vatto is also expensive, at least by Argentine standards, but I have a perfect little table in the corner by a window and Federico and Sebastian and Lucia all shake my hand home-boy style when I arrive.
I refresh websites at Vatto from noon until 3, when I go hang out by the river for a few hours, returning to Vatto at 8, eating dinner and refreshing websites until midnight.
Then it’s back to the campsite, where there are usually a few dreadlocked kids from Buenos Aires singing shockingly good Jim Morrison covers around the campfire.
Then bed, until the sun gets me up again.
Three weeks in El Bolson and not once have I been above tree-line.
I didn’t pack well, that’s part of the problem.
I have wool gloves and a wool sweater, foul-weather gear, long underwear, thick socks, a heavy fleece and hiking boots. Patagonia is in the grip of a vicious heat wave. It’s been high 80s for the past two weeks and the days are 16 hours long.
I remember trying to decide whether to bring fishing gear or a camp stove and cook pots with me on this trip. I went with the lightweight spin rod and beautiful handmade fishing net sculpted from maple by an artisan from my hometown.
Last week I broke my fishing pole trying to jerk a lure loose from a snag. The net is a pain in the ass to carry around.
The main problem, though, is my sheer pig-headed stubbornness. I have the bad habit of being stingy about small purchases, especially regarding my own comforts. I could buy new sandals, but that would be a defeat, so I sweat around town in my heavy boots and socks. I could probably rent a nice little cabin in the hills if I spent a little money, but no, I will sleep in my pup-tent for 10 pesos a night.
I also know that I could just pack my bag and start walking up to the snowfields, but I’m behind on work, and even though I desperately need to clear my mind, I can’t bring myself to shirk responsibilities.
“Dude,” said the hydrologist from Steamboat Springs who was cooking oatmeal in front of my tent this morning. “Go to the high peaks. Elevation, man. Drano for the soul.”
Two days, I told myself. Two days to finish the guidebook assignment, then I’ll go to the mountains.
And so this morning I walked into town (the bike has a flat tire). It was hot, and Vatto wasn’t open yet, so I went to Jauja, had an 8 peso coffee and refreshed websites for 2 hours.
Then I went to Vatta, ate some empanadas at my corner table and chatted over Google until 3. Usually this is when I go to the river, but I was determined to get enough work done so that I could go to the mountains, so I moved outside to a sidewalk table and refreshed websites for an hour or two more.
An old man came down the sidewalk dressed like a gaucho, wearing a dusty black beret and pants with suspenders. He was a big man, and he was limping; sweat trails down the sides of his face.
He mumbled something to me through his white mustache, but I didn’t understand.
“Perdon,” I said, holding my hand in front of my mouth in an apologetic gesture of incomprehension.
“Sandwich,” said the man, pointing to the restaurant.
“Si,” I said. “Sandwich.”
The old man looked at me as if I was an eccentric but obliging little alien, then disappeared into Vatto.
“Wonder if they’ll give him a sandwich,” I thought. “I doubt he can afford one.”
About 10 minutes later the old man emerged holding a white ceramic plate topped with a toasted ham and cheese sandwich.
He looked at me and held out his hand for me to shake. His grip was firm and his fingers were dirty and swollen. Then he waved goodbye and limped with remarkable energy down the sidewalk.
A few minutes later Sebastian came outside. “Where did he go? Did he take the plate?”
“Yeah,” I shrugged my shoulders. “I guess he did.”
And it was only then that I wondered – did the old man think I was buying him a sandwich?
The story of the old man and the ham and cheese sandwich isn’t really a big deal – a little sad, but not without its humor. The old man got a sandwich, and all the restaurant lost was a plate.
But for me, sweating in the heat, refreshing The New York Times Opinion page, it sort of encapsulates the frustration I feel at this point in my travels. The novelty of being in Argentina has worn off, but I still can’t speak enough Spanish to have a conversation. As hospitable as the Argentines are, I’m still a weird outsider, and the only place I really feel comfortable is at my corner table, eating expensive food and checking e-mail. An eccentric but obliging little alien.
I need a plane ticket to return to Buenos Aires from Ushuaia after my cruise to the Antarctic peninsula. This rambling rant is already long enough, so let me break up the story of this plane ticket into a basic calendar list.
1/21 – I book an Aerolineas ticket online for March 23rd. $140 USD.
1/22 – An e-mail arrives asking me to call the airline to pay for the ticket.
1/23 – I try to call the airline 3 times from a telephone kiosk. Each time I am put on hold for ten minutes, and then the call is dropped. Each attempt costs money.
1/24 - I receive an e-mail telling me my reservation has been canceled because I did not pay for the ticket.
1/26 - I book another plane ticket online. There is only one cheap ticket left, which departs on March 25th and arrives at 2 am to the wrong airport in Buenos Aires. This is the ticket I book.
1/27 – I receive an e-mail from the airline asking me to call to pay for the ticket.
1/28 – Morning:
I try to call twice. Each time I am put on hold, and then the call is dropped.
I try to call once more. After 10 minutes, I get through to an agent. At the same instant that the call connects, the fat woman from the kiosk counter bangs on the door of my telephone booth and says something apologetic in Spanish. I wave my hand and concentrate on the call.
The woman at the end of the line is patient, and we get halfway through the spelling of my name, passport number and credit card information, but every minute the fat woman bangs on the door. First she is apologetic. Then impassioned. Finally her tone turns angry and she bangs and shouts until I tell the agent I’ll call back and hang up.
“What!?” I say.
“Cerrado,” she tells me. “We’re closing for siesta.”
I try to call three times more. Each time I am put on hold for ten minutes, and then the call is dropped. Each attempt costs money.
After the deadline to pay for my plane ticket has past, I walk to the park, sit in the shade and think about things for a while. An old man wearing Aviator glasses walks purposely by, and just as he passes me, announces something to himself in English.
“Face the truth,” he says in a firm, triumphant voice. “Acknowledge that which is real.”
I go back to Vatto and e-mail my Mom:
I'm working to hard to enjoy the traveling and traveling too hard to enjoy the work. Plus, the more I think about Antarctica, the more it seems like exactly the sort of consumer travel experience that I loathe. Going there would be a dream - so many people have told me that I'm living a dream - but I want to live a life.
Her reply comes back quickly:
Yes travel can be hard, or become almost meaningless, when there's too
much, when it becomes a life style instead of an opportunity to inject
a change (educational or fun or both) into one's usual lifestyle, work,
life. Do you follow me?
One day to Bariloche. 24 hours on a bus to Buenos Aires. A red-eye flight to JFK. Jet Blue up to Vermont.
I could be home in 3 days, looking for land where I can build a cabin and plant a garden and have a bed, and a bookshelf, and a table, and a rug, and a kitchen, and a woodstove and maybe even a shower too.
I know that since my plane ticket home was booked with frequent flier miles, the return date is flexible. I go online and try to change my reservation. American Airlines tells me that I need to make a phone call.
I go back to the kiosk. The fat woman is filing her nails. I call the number. It is long distance, and expensive, and I am put on hold. After only 5 minutes an agent comes on the line. Suddenly. I feel intensely nostalgic for home.
But the agent cannot understand me when I try to spell my name. Finally she calls up my reservation.
“It was booked with frequent flier miles,” I say.
“Yes,” she says.
“So can I change the return date?”
“Are there flights available for the first week of February?”
“Can I book one please?”
click. click. click.
“No. You can change your ticket to March 1st. Your ticket is low season. You cannot exchange a low season ticket for one in high season.”
“Even with a fee?” I’m desperate now.
“Impossible.” She says without a trace of sympathy. “Do you wish to book for March 1st?”
“No. Not right now. Thank you.”
“15 pesos,” the fat lady at the kiosk counter tells me, smiling sweetly. “Chau.”
And with that, I walk out into the sun.