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“Follow me, quick, hurry up. I’m so sorry those people are awful.”
I was confused, a street cleaner was ushering me towards the bus station in Buenos Aires at a rapid pace: “I’m going to tell the police, they shouldn’t do that to tourists.”
Still confused I ventured a “Urrrrm what did ‘they’ do?”
It appeared I had been saved by the friendly street cleaner from a potential third robbing in Argentina. By spraying me with a tube of mustard, con men had hoped I would stop and put my bag down to survey the damage, leaving it free for them to steal. More fool them, I was too intent on catching my bus to notice their little game.
This incident left me feeling a little sad about Buenos Aires, a great city, but with a larger than usual number of petty thieves and robbers that had started to get on my nerves, I was not sad to be leaving.
The bus journey to Bariloche was less than uneventful, the scenery was flat and arid and my mood the same as I smelled faintly of mustard and had been unable to secure myself a train ticket from Viedma to Bariloche, the impossibility of booking in advance a huge frustration. According to Hector at Tren Patagonica, the journey was a delight. Original resorted carriages with fireplaces, comfy beds for the overnight journey and fantastic views. Although the dust, as in Paul Theroux’s day was apparently still an issue.
But my mood lifted upon sight of Bariloche. The town, reminding me of an European ski resort, was set to the backdrop of Lake Nahuel Huapi, snowy mountains and volcanos. The scale and expanse of the view was one of the most beautiful I had ever seen and I began to understand the Patagonian love affair.
Paul Theroux had not ventured to Bariloche, many people had suggested he visit but he was on the home straight, taking The Lagos del Sur from Buenos Aires to Jacobacci and then The Old Patagonian Express (official name La Trochita) ending his journey at Esquel: “A dot at the lower part of the map” as he had once described his destination, this was where the trains ran out of track travelling south. (The route now impossible as the railway no longer runs from Buenos Aires nor from Jacobacci, but there are plans underway for its restoration.)
The only way for me to get to Esquel and The Old Patagonian Express was by bus. The forest-covered mountains and purple wildflowers had me transfixed as we rumbled through the countryside. After a couple of hours on the bus my excitement and impatience at reaching Esquel were at a peak, when in true South American style we broke down. So close yet so far from my goal I sighed and tried to control my rising frustrations. The locals on the bus huffed a little and then fell asleep as the driver announced that we were awaiting a replacement bus. “When will this arrive?” I asked, hoping for a vague sense of timing. The driver looked at me incredulously “I don’t know?!” Of course, I thought, this was not the first time that Argentina’s developed façade had lulled me into a false sense of security, this was still South America after all, specifics were not commonplace. Two hours later we were finally on our way, the lush landscape giving way to the ‘Patagonian desert’ of dull green scrub against a background of flat brown earth broken up by the odd heard of llamas. The view brought to mind Bruce Chatwin’s description from In Patagonia: “The Patagonian desert is not one of sand or gravel but a low thicket of grey-leaved thorns which give off a bitter smell when crushed.” And Charles Darwin in The Voyage of the Beagle pondered on why the “arid wastes” of Patagonia had taken such firm possession of his mind.
Esquel itself seemed to meld into the surrounds with its unremarkable buildings stretching for blocks and samey blocks into the desert. Offering nothing in the way of distraction except the railway, I started towards The Old Patagonian Express with eager anticipation.
It was a dusty walk to Esquel station from the towns centre. I spotted the train tracks crossing the road and decided to approach by walking along them, avoiding the cars and their dust clouds. La Trochita and the Esquel station sign slowly came into view and I felt strangely emotional, this train representing the end of my journey; so important yet so insignificant compared with the months of travel preceding this moment. I started to think back to the highs and lows of my venture, the seedy Costa Rican bars, the Andean scenery, my fears in Colombia and love of the one train I managed to catch in Ecuador, the grimy hotels and the friendly (and not so friendly) people I met along the way. All of these memories I would never forget. But most of all I thought about my strange quest to follow in the footsteps of Paul Theroux, what had I gained and lost along the way? I felt a sense of elation as I had achieved my goal but also a sense of anti-climax. Now what? I had done my best to retrace Paul’s steps, I had examined the people, landscapes, cultures and railways as I had hoped, while providing my readers with some distraction while I travelled.
The train itself was a huffing, puffing black and red monster, the carriages, perhaps the very ones that Paul had travelled in, restored to their former glory; wooden exteriors and sky blue painted insides with wood burning stoves in their centre. The first class was painted brown inside with cushioned seats and high backs. We started with a jolt and the Argentinean tourists cheered as we clattered out of Esquel. The day was sunny and bright with not a cloud in the sky and I listened to the guide explain about the trains restoration and its fame as we bumped along the tracks, the windows clattering and carriage joints creaking and straining.
Our one and only stop was Nahuel Pan; old engines and carriages littered the flat desolate plain and greyish mountains shaded purple rose up out of the unforgiving ground. Tourists bought handicrafts and hot bread while taking photos of themselves and La Trochita (Little Gauge) which looked far more formidable than its real name.
With a shrill whistle we were soon on our way. This time heading back towards Esquel the final ‘dot’ on my map. I looked out of the window onto the Patagonian countryside and imagined Paul’s impatience as he had approached Esquel. I too felt impatient; to return to England and see friends and family, but also concerned as a quote of Paul Theroux’s came to mind: “Travel is at its most rewarding when it ceases to be about your reaching a destination and becomes indistinguishable from living your life.”
Stepping off The Old Patagonian Express at Esquel station I looked around at the tourists and marvelled that I had made it this far, for them the train ride had been a simple jaunt, a way to fill a day, a break from the humdrum. For me the ride had been a full stop; the end to a long journey which had started so many miles away and ended here in this Patagonian town, a dot on Paul Theroux’s map and now a full stop on mine.
“My arrival did not matter, it was the journey that counted…..the nothingness itself a vast beginning for some intrepid traveller, was an ending for me.”
Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express
As I near the end of my journey I’ve been wondering about the name you gave to the train from Jacobacci to Esquel: ‘The Old Patagonian Express.’
I liked the fact that the boy you were talking to on the train, Renaldo Davies, said: “This train is too insignificant to have a name. The government is talking about getting rid of it.”
In part the government have succeeded to do that as the only remaining segment of the train line that runs on a regular basis is from Esquel to Nahuel Pan and back again. A tiny section of the last train journey you took on your South American adventure.
But I stumbled across an interesting fact when talking with Hector, Argentina’s last remaining train expert. He informed me that the train has always been known as La Trochita, in translation, Little Gauge. Did you know this at the time or was it a fact you discovered later on, long after ‘The Old Patagonian Express’ had stuck? Your name sounds much more romantic and is now even on the current train tickets for La Trochita: The Old Patagonian Express as they now officially call it.
Getting hold of one of those tickets from anywhere else in the world apart from Esquel itself was near-on impossible as I have recently discovered, but having been immersed in some Patagonian literary research, it seems this is the beauty of the place; its isolation and solitariness.
The great expanses of nothing, the vast desolate plains and the lack of habitation which would turn into stretches of lush forests and snowy mountainous are overwhelming. These vistas led W H Hudson to feeling he was: “Incapable of reflection: my mind had suddenly transformed itself from a thinking machine into a machine for some other unknown purpose. To think was like setting in motion a noisy engine in my brain; and there was something that bade me still, and I was forced to obey.”
Perhaps this is the effect Patagonia has on its inhabitants, as I must admit to feeling something similar as I gazed upon the landscapes and marvelled at their rugged beauty.
Luckily upon my arrival in Esquel I was able to procure myself a ticket to your legendary train and the end of my journey. The Old Patagonian Express.
I had trouble striking up conversation with the portenos (locals) in Buenos Aires, their withering glances and patronising stares were not inviting. And when a stroll along Florida Street left me without my wallet I felt even less inclined to chat.
Despite all of this there was something I liked about Buenos Aires. I had been recommended a restaurant named Desniveles by a friendly Australian on my bus, it turned out to be the best steak I had ever tasted. The place was packed and its plastic tablecloths and penguin wine carafes gave it great character (unlike the portenos). I spent much of my time in the city strolling around various areas and sitting in the shade hiding from the relentless 35 degree heat. La Boca with its colourful houses and tango dancing charmed me and I enjoyed the boutiques of Palmero. Nothing as literary as Paul Theroux’s week with Jorge Borges, but I did visit his family home and duly admire the plaque on the wall there.
I also paid a visit to the police station to report my various thefts and get a crime number. This proved to be more entertaining than all my sightseeing put together.
A fleshy policeman ushered me into the ancient station and bade me to sit, promising he would be able to help. He proceeded to smoke a cigarette while sitting at an empty desk, wondering if this was the idle officer’s way of helping me I took in my surroundings. It felt as though I had returned to the seventies, the paint was peeling from the walls and old black and white photos of former policeman hung wonkily. An ancient chandelier dangled precariously by a single wire as water dripped onto it from a leaking pipe in the ceiling. The smoking policeman watched the drips form a puddle and sighed before looking over at his colleague who was diligently typing into what looked like an IBM computer. I waited…. A member of what looked like the ymca came in and gave the smoker his lunch, he was wearing his police uniform with tight style and copious amounts of hair gel, much kissing and greeting occurred, a cultural embrace between men that I was still getting used to. I was beckoned over to the IBM and we discovered an issue: my bag had been stolen in a state outside of Buenos Aires police jurisdiction. Both police disappeared into the office of the jefe (boss). Then the stunningly handsome jefe appeared from the office and put his arm around me: “Let me tell you a little secret….your bag wasn’t stolen on the border, it was stolen here.” He waggled his perfectly shaped eyebrows at me and nodded. “Great..thanks a lot” I managed to stutter while staring into his beautiful eyes; it felt like I was in some sort of South American soap opera. Much back slapping and kissing between the policeman occurred again as they agreed on the dates and times of the crime and the IBM typer got to work. Everyone was happy and I stumbled out of the station in a daze with my crime statement wondering if I had just played a bit part in a camp musical or was about to see Ashton Kutcher shout ‘you’ve been punk’d.’
My next plan was to organise one of the last legs of my trip; how to get to Patagonia. Paul Theroux took the Lagos del Sur to Ingeniero Jacobacci before taking La Trochita (The Old Patagonian Express). So I went in search of a train ticket.
The Tren Patagonico office was where I met Hector Cassano the last train expert in Argentina and saviour of La Trochita. His stories of political persecution had me rooted to my seat…more about that to come…and I discovered (again) that the only way to get a train ticket in Argentina was to book three months in advance. It seemed despite Buenos Aires European aspirations its reality was still firmly rooted in South America.
How I longed to be able to board the train in La Paz and three days later arrive in Buenos Aires. Despite the delays Paul Theroux arrived in Argentina’s capital unscathed. I felt rather like I had undergone some sort of emotional and physical challenge and to add insult to injury I was robbed a second time on my first day in the city.
After a bumpy seven hour bus ride on my way out of Bolivia, on unsealed roads through some of the most desolate landscapes I had seen in my life, I thankfully boarded the Expresso Sur bound for the Argentinean border. Sadly the train was not a sleeper but it boasted reclining seats and blankets. I tucked myself in and fell fast asleep, the clickity clack of the train on the rails rocking me into a deep slumber. I awoke feeling refreshed and headed straight to the dinning car where I was served a good breakfast of coffee and eggs. The landscape had changed, it was greener yet still mountainous. It filled me with hope, the dry riverbeds and barren vistas of south Bolivia had started to depress me, I longed for a paved road, a clean bathroom and a tasty snack. The pretty cacti that speckled the ground had started to look more hydrated and it felt as though this lusher landscape was leading me to better things. This was sadly something of a delusion.
The border was the usual melee of queues and chaos. The gringos were being stamped out of Bolivia ahead of the natives and their wads of paper. The Argentinean side was not as speedy, I spent some while trying to work out why a gringo tourist was wearing rubber gloves and searching luggage, until I realised he was Argentinean, I was filled with a sense of relief… I was no longer going to stand out, I would blend in with the locals for the first time in months. This excitement was sadly somewhat premature, at the bus station in La Quiaca I stood out enough to have my bag swiped from the office of a bus operator. I had placed it on a table for no more than two minutes before it disappeared. The only people in the office had been myself and the bus company employees. Trying to contain my anger I attempted to bribe, beg and cry for the return of my bag but all to no avail: “It must have been the Peruvians, they are thief’s.” was the only answer I could wrestle out of the employees. This was one of several frustrations I was to suffer in Argentina, I think the look of the country had lulled me into a false sense of security, the city streets reminded me of an older Spain or Portugal and the chino wearing men and glossy women looked like they had stepped out of an eighties European fashion magazine. But despite a shiny exterior the inner workings of Argentina seemed to have a lot of catching up to do and according to the papers things were moving back not forwards.
From the border, minus my bag, luckily my passport had been in my pocket, I wearily took an eight-hour bus ride to the pretty town of Salta. Arriving late and with only a morning to spare I strolled around the main plaza, marvelling at its impressive pink cathedral and ate breakfast in a café, all the while feeling like I had been transported magically back to Europe.
I was soon reminded I was in South America when I tried to organise taking the train from Tucuman to Buenos Aries.
“The train is booked until March.”
“March…?” I spluttered back incredulously. “But I’ve only just arrived in Argentina and could not find a way to book the train online.”
“We are sorry the train is very popular in Argentina, but it only runs twice a week.”
Frustrated with both myself and the rail company I tried every trick in the book to get onto the train, I flashed my press pass, talked about The Times, my blog and all to no avail.
I left, resigned to yet another long bus ride. A mere 22 hours to Buenos Aires.
With a heavy heart I boarded the 12.30 Andesmar bus. We stopped to change buses half an hour our of the city and I marvelled at a man in the petrol station, he was eating a huge steak, it must have been the size of a chess board. No salad, no chips, no drink even. Just a huge steak. Well this was Argentina after all.