“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