An update of where I am at the moment follows soon, but first this adventure:
3 days out of a truck-driver’s life are the highlight of my trip in Patagonia. I am leaving the gloomy south of Argentina for warmer, sunnier and happier feelings.
I stand along the road for 7 ample minutes. I don’t know how a hitchhiker is supposed to take a pose, so I just stand crossed legged, as if I have to pee. I do nothing but look for a truck with a large load-capacity.
A truck hauls into the gas station I am waiting at, and stops right before me. I walk in a hopeful strut to the window the truck-driver is opening. With my head fully cranked in a vertical position, I ask if he goes to Buenos Aires, or Trelew. Trelew is only 400 kilometer farther, but I want to get away from where I am, as soon as possible, no matter what the end destination will be. I take off with a little food supply, as I am not into cycling large distances, my hopes sky rocketing.
The trucker surprises me, though, like many others he’s got a tired expression, he’s looking trustworthy. He answers that he pass through Trelew. I then just watch him, waiting for him to invite me in. But he doesn’t. So I continue in my Spanish ‘el viento es muy fuerte, and es muy frio tambien. E no me gusta la distancia.’ The guy his dark eyes watch me and his expression says as much as: ‘I agree with you, I don’t like all of this either’.
He still doesn’t get me. I guess I have to say exactly what I want: ‘Es possible yo voy con tu?’ That does it, and the truck-driver immediately answers with a ‘yes’, opens the sealed door in the side of his 14 meter long empty truck and shoves all my gear into it. And off we are. I and my bicycle are the only load he is now transporting.
I am excited! This is the first time in my life that I am in a truck.
When I meet with new people whom I will be with for some time, I can tell within a few seconds whether I feel good about it. A trucker with whom I will spend a long distance, which turns out to be way further than the 400 kilometer I was asking for, must feel positive. And Pablo does.
As soon as Pablo hauls out of depressing Comodoro Rivadavia, which is not very long as Martín has brought me by car to the furthest gas station out-of-town, we start a topic most people like to talk about. Almost everyone I meet ask me why I am alone, and so does Pablo.
Well, we have time to talk and with the dictionary Martín has given me, I can clarify myself much better.
The 367 kilometers to Trelew becomes 25 de Mayo, 195 kilometer further, and extents to General Alvear, 906 kilometer further. I spend nearly a 1500 kilometer in a truck. That I am now heading towards Buenos Aires from another angle doesn’t matter. I figure, with the wind pushing at my left kidneys, I will sail straight towards the capital.
My outlook on truck-drivers is not the same anymore. I now know the life in a cabin of a trucker a bit better and another part of life is explored with once again an outcome where I feel lucky and secure. I only realize now how little secure that was, seen from a truck driver’s window and from now on I make sure I leave the road when I notice, glancing in the mirror of my bicycle, a truck has no space to swirl around me.
The whole of Argentina depends on truck-drivers. Food travels huge distances. In winter they slide the roads with handmade chains around their wheels. In summer they speed up even more than they already do, making long days of driving, before the tomatoes they carry turns into a paste. And on such days, Pablo too pisses in a bottle while cruising the roads.
As goes for me, it would make no sense for Pablo to own a house. He works about 28 days in a month and drives at least 12 hours a day. That is without rest. His truck is his house.
He earns more when he transports a full load, less when his truck is empty, as it is now. Hauling from the lands of plenty Mendoza to the emptiness of Patagonia is beneficial, but there’s little to bring back.
Most truck-drivers use cocaine to stay awake, together with cannabis and whiskey. Marijuana, I have noticed, is popular in Argentina and Chile. Although Pablo does not use marijuana, he explains that the long, endless stretches of straight tarmac are so boring that the only way to stay awake, for many drivers, is this plant. Something quite unbelievable to get for me?
Pablo drives very safe. I wonder whether he perhaps has speed-control on his truck. I further wonder how he is able to talk to me, watch me while doing so, drink yerba mate, cleans the gourd from out of the window, talks on the phone, pose for a photo, clean his cabin with a high pressure air-pistol, prepare a bulk of coca leaves for chewing ànd drive. That is, drive in a constant, rather slow, therefor safe cadence.
Behind the large glass window it is warm. Finally the heat reaches my bones, and the words of Pablo resonates in my head. He talks long, difficult sentences, slow and pronounced. Each line he says is quickly translated in my head, without understanding all the words. Each extra sentence changes the whole structure of the subject he is talking about. My head needs to work quick and changes from a subject I think he talks about to what he actually means. Only at the end of his talk am I able to make something out of it. And remarkably, I am often correct. To touch philosophical subjects is challenging, but somehow we manage, and discuss the ways to escape our real world, which I am a master in, Pablo much less so.
Pablo earns little, his diet, as far as I can tell, consist mostly of sugar and coffee, soft drinks, pasta and processed food, white bread, jam and some chili’s.
I am glad that Pablo cooks his own meals, this way I avoid the expensive gas station fare. Pablo’s low standard cooking fits me well, as it is not much different from my camping fiddling. I beam with a bright broad smile when his pans are more unhygienic than mine. His food supply a bit moldy. His cups dirty. It’s just so much more easy to adjust to a level equal or less than I am used to. Nowadays I’m impressed by a full functioning kitchen and a clean toilet.
Seeing the road from a truck makes me feel more insane than I already think I am. I really wonder why I cycle these distances. It’s nuts. Boring too, there is really nothing to see. It is impossible to imagine cycling these roads is fun when seated in a truck.
‘So, this is my life,’ says Pablo at the end of the second day. He has driven from 7 in the dark morning continuous for a 12 hours, and looks tired and empty. I might find it all very special; spending time in a truck, sitting high seated like an Egyptian queen, whizzing distances fast, with a nice truck-driver sporting an impressive scar, who prepares me simple meals which are good enough to me. Standing alongside other trucks in the cold dark, their departure throughout the night leaving a vibrating motion from the empty cargo container I’m sleeping in. All this, it is far from nice for Pablo, and other truck-drivers whose life is hard work, as little pay as €250 a month and hardly any days off.
My travel reality is very different from his work reality. Throughout the journey I am invited in, if not I invite myself in. People present me with gifts and talk to me out of curiosity. There is hardly any harshness in people towards me. But being a local in your own country is contrasting, suddenly police men seem rather unfriendly, arrogant and fed up with these huge trucks. A bicycle might well be a magic unicorn for many people?
What I find the beauty of journeying across the unknown is the instant connection between the different. To find out how equal we are and how well we understand each other. Pablo finds the photo’s of my camp spots terrible: ‘It would depress me,’ he says. I think it are the most beautiful, lonely, open spaced and deserted camp spots ever. And while Pablo thinks I am extremely lucky not to have been killed, robbed, raped or attacked in the south American countries I have been to, I think this continent is the most safe and sane one. Therefor I have Pablo stop at some dark stretch just before Alvear, where I set up camp. The lights of his truck fade away slowly and all I do is lift up my head, fully cranked in a vertical position, watching the starry night, the Milky Way and thank Pablito for the warmth he brought to me.
A difference of 20 degrees, or only 10, in day time makes cycling a very different experience. The people in General Alvear are more warm. Gone is the depression of Patagonia. People here seem not dispirited, instead enjoying life. An old man selling along the street-side hands me the 3 eggs I asked for, adding ‘regalo,’ and 6 fried donuts with it. I can take off my jacket, and even my pullover once I am in camp. It is suddenly warm, and in every shop I appear people talk to me, and say: ‘Oh, it is very cold now!’
For me, it is summer, and I see beautiful people, sharp marred beards, lipstick ladies, puffed bellies eagerly pressed in jeans and sweet lazy dogs. I smile. The supermercado has an abundance of variety, something lacking in Patagonia. I pedal, with crispy clean ginger, fancy seeds and juicy kiwi’s in my panniers.
My depressing feelings are gone. I am enjoying again. But the question & answer of the reason of cycling remains intact: there is no reason other than escaping a world I do not want to be part of. But, as Pablo asked, how long will I continue? I ask myself too: ‘How long will I make photo’s of life on the road, embroider in my tent, roll up my bone-hurting mattresses each morning?’
I think it’s time to go home. Face the reality over there, and try not to be part of a society where I have a meaningless job of selling clothes, made in cheap labor countries, from cotton grown in India, where the rate of suicide among cotton farmers is extremely high (but who cares about that?).
There is nothing much to see. A hunched bird of prey looks at me while I pass, his feathers blowing upwards in the wind, pointing at my forehead. Honks of truck-drivers are assured when I pee, behind the low foliage of which this nature consists of, as far as both my eyes can see.
Cycling into the province of San Luis might show a tiny little difference. It does for sure when I pass a small group of Palo Verde trees. I have to squeeze myself and all my gear between a 7 wired fence with 20 centimeter space in between, but then I am seated underneath copiousness of trees, grass underneath my feet and a fire to keep me sweaty and stinky.
The quietness is in welcome opposite with the happily singing birds.
Compared to Patagonia it’s a festival of birds, butterflies and little hairy caterpillars crossing the road. Birds are alarmed when I whiz by, like a platoon of helicopters hovering straight up in the clear, warm air, they seek safer regions. Cows lingering in their endless stretches of fields make a bow before they make a run, scared by a cyclist passing. I blow them kisses and sweet words, though I feel guilty I consume them, and add: ‘I’m sorry I eat you guys.’
Each time a truck load of cows passes me, I watch their eyes; they know instinctively what’s awaiting them. Eyes full of innocence, a soft bereft taking over, like Jewish send off in a train in the early forties. I at once stop eating meat again, and with the more variety it is easier to make something fancy out of pasta and tinned tuna fish.
Sometimes I camp in fields, a gaucho galloping past, gathering the cows. And off they go, on a truck to a slaughter-house.
It start to become more green. More warm. I way more happy. The people in the small local supermercado’s greet me, almost each of them does so. Before long I hear the whole supermercado murmuring that there’s a cyclist from the Netherlands. It feels accepted, welcome and even honored. Its far from the stupidity I experienced in India and way different from the shy curiosity in Oman. When I ask an old man for directions, he gives them, and says goodbye with a casual hug, enclosed with a kiss on my cheek. Those casual loose hugs are happening more often. Of course, this alarms me, as it is abnormal behavior in my eyes. Yet, I receive such behavior from both men and women, and come to think of it, the difference with Carretera Austral Patagonia is enormous.