Puerto Iguazú, Argentina
Everybody comes here to see the famous waterfalls – among the largest in the world – but I’m just here to get my Brazilian visa. Like all other “must see” destinations in South America, the locals are making big money carting everybody twenty kilometres east to the fabled falls – it’ll cost you 150 pesos just to ride a bus for fifteen minutes. I’m sure the falls are stunning, or no-one would pay such an exuberant price; still, I’m content to spend my time here lazing in my hammock, playing harmonica, writing, and waiting on the Brazilian embassy (who also are all about the paper, sticking me for a whopping $616 pesos argentinos for my passport into Brazil). At least when it’s all said and done tomorrow I’ll get five whole years of unrestricted travel in the country for my troubles, instead of a couple of photos that most everybody here has somewhere in their camera.
Tony has gone just across the border to Ciudad del Este in Paraguay while he waits for me to get my documents all sorted out, (Paraguay is much cheaper, after all) which is good for him though I wish I could’ve come along, as I’m still missing Paraguay. Still, I was happy enough to get the huge obstacle (well, huge for a penniless traveller like me) of the Big Brazilian Visa out of the way. The stony-faced type behind the counter told me in heavily Brazilian-accented Spanish that my visa would be ready tomorrow at eleven a.m. At least they seem to be on top of things when it comes to visa issuances.
My last post left Tony and I in a small town in the extreme north of Argentina known as Las Lomitas. After a long and hostile run on the first half of the Ruta 81, we still had another couple hundred kilometres to go until we reached Formosa City. Maxi was very kind to us, and after I finished writing he drove us about forty or fifty clicks further down the 81 to Ibarreta, where we stayed the night.
The next morning brought sun, heat, and a wild ride in the back of a red pickup to Comandante Fontana. The driver had wild eyes and didn’t seem to particularly care that there were two people in the bed of his pickup – or for that matter even notice us at all. When he stopped in Fontana he had a mysterious pink liquid all over his hands. He didn’t return our goodbye waves and smiles before zooming off into the distance.
Comandante Fontana was having a windy, dusty day the morning I and my Padawan learner arrived to its niche of the 81. It hadn’t rained for awhile; that, combined with mostly dirt roads meant the wind carried huge clouds of dust with it, and placed said dust directly in our eyes, ears, and mouths as we waited for some saintly being to drive us the rest of the way to Formosa City.
A typical hitchhiking wait in the north of Argentina ensued. Long, hot, sweaty, and frustrating. We refilled our bottles several times from locals living nearby as the sun crept stickily across the boiling sky. Two and a half hours into our wait:
“Maybe I should play my violin,” said Tony as yet another car passed without batting an eye. “Be distinct, you know?”
“Do it,” I said. “Anything to get their attention off of themselves.”
Tony played, and while it did grab the attention of those passing by for a moment, it did not result in any rides. The only thing my Padawan’s roadside music show did was cause people to slow down to stare for a moment before punching the gas and roaring east without us.
The wind continued, and so did the dust. My skin was beginning to change colour in the barrage, causing me to become slightly alarmed and assume I was transforming into some sort of mutant dust-creature, doomed to wait hitchhiking outside of Comandante Fontana until the summer rains washed me away into mud. The dust was in my eyes, my ears, my hair, my throat, under my tongue, in between my teeth, under my fingernails, accumulating into little piles in the creases of my skin. It was probably in my blood too. That couldn’t be healthy, dusty blood.
“Hungry,” muttered Tony, and wandered off to find some bread. Meanwhile I hitchhiked, and while doing so found a strange looking cocoon stuck to a nearby road sign to occupy a bit of time. As I was dismembering it and trying to see what kind of caterpillar made such loco cocoons, a small blue car passed and I stuck out m thumb halfheartedly, not even looking up from my cocoon demolition derby.
It stopped. Oh dear God, run up to the car! Forget the stupid cocoon Crocodile Dundee, run to the car! We’re getting out of here!
The window rolled down as I ran up. “Where are you going?” asked the dark-skinned man in his late twenties.
“Formosa City, please,” I huffed.
“What do you do?” asked the other man with a heavy Buenos Aires accent from behind the wheel.
“Music. Travel.” I said. “And my friend plays the violin.”
“Your friend? I thought you were the only one,” said the driver as he pacified a grinning pitbull in the backseat with a treat.
“No, my friend is over there buying bread, but we can definitely both fit in your backseat!” I assured the driver, eyeing all the free space behind him.
“Well,” he said, appearing to mull it over, “I guess so. But go running to find your friend, and if you take too long I’m outta here.”
I threw out a quick “Gracias” and scampered as fast as my legs could take me to find my Padawan, least we miss our only spot of luck in three hours in this dusty hell. I bounced around three stores before I finally saw Tony, meandering along down a dirt road with a bag of bread in his hand.
“RIDE!” I shouted. “COME ON!” His eyes widened with both relief for finally having gotten a ride and panic for maybe losing it if we didn’t get our asses back to that roadside muy pronto. We sprinted back to our packs, our boots stomp-stomping and kicking up clouds of dust behind us. The little blue car was thankfully still waiting. We crammed ourselves and gear into the backseat and the driver took off east to Formosa City.
Leonardo (the driver, from Buenos Aires) and Andreas (the passenger, from Salta) were two off-duty gendarmes, returning to Formosa after a personal mission to recover Leonardo’s dog (the pitbull) from his girlfriend’s house in Fontana. Fortunately Ringo seemed a friendly pitbull, spending most of the ride panting and furiously licking my boots. Tony and I immediately forgot our quarrels with the Argentine gendarmerie (who, if you recall, were the ones who had kicked us out of our sweet ride in the broken old Japanese Nissan on the trailer of a Paraguayan semi), and now praised them for rescuing us from our dusty dominion alongside the hellish town of Comandante Fontana.
Despite their military occupation, Leo and Andreas treated us well. We stopped at a gas station to top off the tank and Andreas bought us a dozen empanadas and a liter of ice-cold Sprite, a welcome addition to our parched, dusty throats. As we rolled along the last of the cursed 81 to Formosa, the two gendarmes quizzed us on music. Leo had a thumb drive with presumably billions of songs on it, and he would play each song for a few seconds while asking us, “You guys heard this song?” Whether we had or not, Leo would seconds later skip to the next one and ask the same thing. This went on for the duration of our ride to Formosa City.
“So you two need to get some vaccinations?” said Andreas as we passed the big sign welcoming us into the city of Formosa. “We’ll drop you off at the hospital, you can get that taken care of right away. Vaccinations are free here in Argentina.”
That sounded spiffy, and the two gendarmes dropped us off at the city hospital – but not before giving us a little tour of Formosa.
“The costanera is where all the hottest girls hang out,” said Leo, pointing. There were indeed many very sexy women parading their olive-skinned legs about along the shores of the Río Paraguay. “Over there on the other side of the river is Paraguay,” he went on. “It’s ten pesos to take a boat across.”
“And over there,” pointed Andreas, “is the market. You can get lots of cheap Paraguayan things there, it’s worth a visit.”
At the hospital the two gendarmes boosted their high rankings in our respective books even higher – they gave us a tent. A light, Argentine military-issue two man tent. Probably the best possible gift one can give to a couple of hitchhikers headed for Brazil. I and my Padawan were ecstatic, and promised to keep in touch with the two vía Facebook as we continued our travels (we kept our promise; Andres sends me messages on Facebook every couple of days asking me “Por donde andas amigo?”).
This particular hospital was not stocked with the vaccines we needed, but one just three blocks away apparently was. The staff of the small local health clinic were extremely friendly and shot the both of us up with at least five different types of vaccines, and gave us a certificate to show that we would not be bringing yellow fever into any country we happened to wander through. I left the clinic with a wide grin, feeling more invincible than ever.
Nearby was a YPF (our home-on-the-road while in Argentina) and Tony and I got a few ice creams to celebrate before leaving our packs with the friendly worker behind the counter and heading downtown to check out the Paraguayan market and all that eye-candy at the costanera. We ended up buying an entire carton of Paraguayan cigarettes for just thirteen pesos and drooling for about an hour at the costanera. Hermosa Formosa, as I like to say, and it’s true. The city is full to the brim with probably the most beautiful women I’ve seen in all of Argentina – and I’ve been to a lot of places in Argentina.
That evening I and my Padawan learner took refuge in the YPF. I tried to get a few Inglés de la Calle lessons going, but the owner didn’t take too kindly to the big cardboard sign I had taped to the table, and we were almost kicked out for that little stunt. Still, it wasn’t a complete failure; one of the patrons drinking a beer nearby had read the sign before it was banned from the premises, and while he didn’t want any English lessons, he paid me $10 pesos anyways just because he was a nice guy.
The night wore on; there was a World Cup rugby match on TV, Argentina versus Hungary or something. The station filled up with drunken rugby fans until the match ended with an Argentine victory; Tony and I were left alone by about one am as the fans took their celebrations to some other place. The dark sky clouded up, obscuring the moon, and a howling wind began to whip throughout the city of Formosa. Fifteen minutes later the rain began coming down, and twenty minutes later the streets had turned to rivers and waterfalls had sprung into life from the rooftops of the surrounding buildings. As the old saying goes, when it rains, it pours, and the meteorological gods in charge of Formosa seemed to take that saying to heart. Tony and I had planned to make camp nearby, but the rugby match had proved interesting and anyways, there was free WiFi. Consequently we had stayed later in the YPF, and this turned out to be a good thing since if we had gone out to camp we would have surely been soaked and blown around something fierce in the ensuing storm.
We dozed lightly throughout the night in the YPF. When morning arrived the rain had still not let up. Eight, nine, ten am, and it just kept coming down. The owner came back and saw we were still there. He wanted to kick us out but we managed to convince him to let us stay until the rain let up a little bit.
The rain did not let up significantly until about one pm. I messaged Andreas on Facebook and asked him if he knew of a good place for us to spend the night; he suggested the bus terminal.
“Meet me there around eight pm,” he said in his email. “I’ll buy you empanadas and there’s WiFi there as well.”
That sounded like a plan to us. Looked like the rain had delayed us one day in Hermosa Formosa, but we didn’t mind. We were happy to have a rest, and the workers at the YPF were superb (minus the boss, of course). They gave us free sandwiches, one apiece, told us to pick out any drink we wanted, cookies, crackers, and even a free pack of cigarettes.
“Do you guys have any cigarettes?” asked Juan, the young guy behind the counter.
“Just Paraguayan ones,” I responded, holding out a pack of Rodeo smokes.
Juan made a face. “Sick.” He rummaged around the cigarette counter and pulled out a pack of French black cigarettes. “Take these man, these are much better.”
I took it. “Seriously? You won’t get into trouble?”
He shrugged. “Nah, they’ll never know.” Juan gave a grin and put a friendly hand on my shoulder. “Now remember,” he said pointing at me, “whenever you buy cigarettes in Argentina, stay away from any cigarette whose name has something to do with horses.” He pointed to my pack of Paraguayan smokes. “Rodeo, very bad. Derby, also horrid. Jockey, probably the worst of all.” He tapped the French cigarettes in my front pocket. “These are good. Marlboro, also good. Just remember, no horses!”
I thanked Juan for his smoking advice and the free smokes, and left with Tony for the bus station to meet up with Andreas. After wandering around for awhile we managed to locate the place, and there sat while we waited for our gendarme friend to arrive. Around ten he did, and he bought us a dozen empanadas and stayed with us for awhile before heading home around eleven thirty.
“Stay in touch, and have fun in Brazil!” said our friend as he headed back to base.
Tony and I wanted to set up camp nearby, but the policeman on duty was very, very unfriendly. I had set up our new tent in the corner just to get a feel of how big it was, and the cop got all puffed up and indignant and spewed some bullshit about no sleeping in the terminal. I told him we had no intention of doing so, I was just checking out our new tent, but he made me take it down right then and there and made us leave the bus station, even though I told him we were waiting on a early bus. So I and my Padawan learner walked a few kilometres to the outskirts and camped behind a gas station for the evening, ready to get some much-needed sleep before hitchhiking to our next destination (Corrientes), the following day.
We awoke at a reasonable hour the next morning and got two cups of coffee for four pesos inside the station before starting our hitchhiking. Turn left at the big cross, Andreas had told us. We had definitely seen the big cross – it had to be two hundred feet high. We had turned right, and after a time of walking and hitchhiking, we realized four or five kilometres later that we were actually on the road to Asunción, the capital of Paraguay – not Corrientes. Bummer. Fortunately we managed to befriend someone while he was stopped at a red light and he agreed to drive us back to the giant cross so we wouldn’t lose more time. From there we started hitchhiking again. The wait was a long one but when you factor in the fact that we were in northern Argentina, it wasn’t too bad. Planes flew by, taking of from the nearby airport. We waved our arms and frantically thumbed at them out of boredom.
Tony was pissing on a nearby tree when our ride finally came. A slightly overweight, spectacled, and very sweaty person shouted for us to toss the packs into the back of the pickup; we headed off shortly afterward.
“Where are you from?” asked the sweaty man.
“Texas. USA.” I said.
“Taiwan,” chirped in Tony.
“USA!” bellowed our driver happily. “Well, what a coincidence! I’m from City New York!”
“City New York, huh?” I said with a grin.
“Hahahahahaaaaaaa!” thundered Sweaty. “Gotcha! I’m from Corrientes! City New York, no way!”
“You sneaky devil,” I said, laughing.
Sweaty drove us for a little while, chatting on the phone with his wife (“She thinks I’m in Corrientes,” he whispered to us as he drove. “I snuck over to Formosa to see my secret woman, ha ha haaaaa!” I wasn’t sure if he was serious or not.) Tony and I were still pretty tired, and dozed slightly as Sweaty blabbered on to his wife or secret lover or whoever. Sweaty noticed us dozing, and declared that we should sleep until we got to Corrientes. “No sense in being tired!” he affirmed with a sage wink.
We dozed, and then suddenly we were near the city of Resistencia. Sweaty had stopped the truck.
“I’ve got to go do a few things here in Resistencia,” he explained, opening the door. “Having lunch with my mis – with somebody,” he winked again. “I’ll be back in a few hours to take you two the rest of the way to Corrientes. Meantime, you can hitchhike there on the other side and see if you can find another ride a little quicker!”
Tony and I got our things out the truck as Sweaty went off to see his “somebody” in Resistencia. After a few hours it was dark, no-one else had stopped for us, and we assumed that Sweaty’s date with “somebody” in Resistencia had gone a little better than planned. However, true to his word, our driver came back around eight pm, just as we were about to call in a day and set up camp.
Sweaty had undergone a transformation. He was no longer sweaty. He was showered, dressed in clean clothes, and smelled like cologne.
“Look at you,” I said. “Clean as a whistle! Got another hot date in Corrientes?”
“Sure do!” said No Longer Sweaty with a wink. “With the wife!”
No Longer Sweaty drove us the rest of the way to Corrientes and dropped us off on the other side of town at a YPF (once again). On the way he impressed us with his knowledge of history – in particular, American history. He knew all the names of key figures of the American Revolution and a lot about the Civil War. In fact, he knew more about American history than most Americans. Good for you, No Longer Sweaty!
My Padawan learner and I spent awhile at the YPF and then went across the street with some noodles we had bought and asked the owner if he could cook them for us. After looking at me funny for a moment, he broke into a smile and said no problem, take a seat. We devoured the half kilo of pasta in short notice, and the owner was nice enough to throw in some Bar-B-Q chicken so we had some meat to compliment our carbs. Around eleven we pitched the tent nearby and caught up on the last of the sleep we had missed during the rains of Formosa.
The next morning it rained again, but not so much. An hour of waiting brought a ride for only five or so kilometres, but to a good spot near a police checkpoint. More waiting, and mild frustration. On two occasions, we witnessed locals arrive, hitchhike in front of us, and get a ride within less than three cars. We couldn’t figure out what they were doing differently and what we were doing wrong. We decided to move closer to the police and literally hitchhike directly opposite them.
Ah! The magic technique! A few cars went by, and then one stopped to ask the police something before pulling over. The cop waved at me and shouted from the other side of the road, “He’s going to take you two to Posadas!”
Tony and I dragged our packs over to the car. A man in his fifties with unruly blonde hair, blue eyes, and half a cigarette jutting out from between his lips opened the door and said jovially, “I’m gonna make room for you guys in here!”
We did indeed make room. I occupied the front seat and filled the position of Mate Maestro for our driver and Tony.
“Name’s Stemburg – last name. German,” started the driver as he put the little car in gear. “Friends call me Guille, short for Guillermo,” Guille finished his cigarette and took the fresh mate I proffered. “German descendants, whole family, and there’s some Brazilians in there too. But I’m 100% misionero, I promise you that!”
Guille spoke quickly and didn’t seem to particularly care if anybody agreed with him or not. I liked him immediately.
“I’ve had a lot of women,” said Stemburg offhandishly. “See these eyes? They’re blue. See this hair? Blonde. They fell for me like flies when I was younger, and I swallowed them all up, if you know what I mean. But hey, I can acknowledge it: I just had the good luck to look like this, you see. But it’s not all luck,” he went on, handing the empty mate back to me. “You’ve got to know all the right steps.”
“Steps,” I repeated.
Guille nodded. “Look at it this way: I always say getting a pretty woman is like cooking a Bar-B-Q. There’s steps you got to follow. Now,” said Sitenburg matter-of-factly, “tell me, what is the first thing you do if you wanna cook a Bar-B-Q?”
I thought for a moment. “You’ve got to light the fire.”
“Wrong!” ejected Guille. “Before you light the fire?”
“Hmm,” I thought. “Ah! Open the grill!”
“No! Before that! Before the fire, before the grill, you’re getting way too far ahead of yourself, Pateeks!”
I frowned. “Well, I guess you need to buy the meat?”
Guille snapped his fingers. “¡Allí está! First, one must buy the meat! And it’s the same with women! Before you light your fire, you’ve got to have something to cook!” He lit another cigarette. “You get where I’m going, man?”
After a moment, it did indeed make all the sense in the world. Can’t have a Bar-B-Q without the meat.
We continued drinking mate and having long and very interesting conversations with the insatiable Guille.
“Lots of people worship God,” continued the misionero as we passed out of the province of Chaca and into Misiones. “And I don’t mean the Christian God, Jesus…well, I do, but I mean all these gods…Allah, Buddah, Jehova, hell, fucking Rah – you name it.” He opened a fresh pack of cigarettes and lit one up. “It’s all just ‘God’ to me.” Guille exhaled sharply and ashed out the cracked window. “But the thing that mystifies me most – the thing about all these gods, these idols, these beliefs – is that they are all the worship of things they cannot see.”
“It’s human nature to believe in something,” I said, lighting up a cigarette of my own.
“Of course,” said Guille, nodding. “There’s just one thing I don’t completely understand. Out of all these gods we can’t see, there is still one god that we definitely can see. We see it every day. We live it and we breathe it, whether we want to or not. And people disrespect this god more than they disrespect Satan himself. ” Stienburg chomped the end of his cigarette and pointed at me. “You know what god that is?”
I certainly did. In fact, I felt exactly the same way.
“The fucking Earth, man.” I said.
“The fucking Earth,” nodded Guille emphatically, causing a chunk of ash to break off the end of his cigarette and flutter onto his lap. “The fucking Earth.”
We sipped mate and smoked our cigarettes for awhile. Guille was one cool cat, that was for sure. As we drove up to Posadas, the capital of the province of Misiones, it began to pour down raining. Guille said he would drop us off at the bus station – they had WiFi and it would keep us out of the rain. “Anyways,” he said, pointing to a large electric keyboard he had in the back seat next to Tony, “I’ve got to give this to a friend.”
At the terminal Guille bought us a pack of cigarettes, met up with his friend, and was on his way. “Stay in touch on Facebook!” he said as he shook our hands. “I’m gonna add you to my group, it’s a special group for people like you and me – you’re gonna love it!” He galloped off into the rain, cigarette clamped in his teeth and smoke trailing behind him in the dark, wet sky.
Tony and I quickly found the best place to spend the night in the bus station. Posadas has a very, very nice bus station, for anyone who happens to be wondering. Here’s where you need to go if you’re looking to spend the night there: there’s a closed off waiting room that’s open 24 hours near the place where the buses leave. You can smoke, watch cable TV, sleep on the benches – hell you can even set up your tent if you want. And the whole place has WiFi. It’s easily the best bus station I’ve ever seen – and I’ve slept in a lot of bus stations in a lot of countries.
We set up camp on a bench up in the waiting room and occupied ourselves with emails for awhile. Then in came another younger person with a pack and a dirty face. We talked with him for a bit, and he was of course an artesano from Buenos Aires, coming back from a few months in Puerto Iguazú. After a bit more conversation I learned that he too had spent time in Guyaramerín, back in Bolivia – and we had been there around the same time! But the coincidence went even further….we had stayed in the same house (“La Casa de los Hippies”!) and with the same people (Johnny the Chilean painter and Maxi the Argentine paper flower-maker)! This guy had left just two days before I had arrived by boat on the Mamoré and was captured by the Bolivians trying to swim to Brazil. It really is a small world!
I relived my memories of Guyara with my new friend for awhile. He shared a few pieces of bread and some cigarettes with us; I let him use my laptop. After awhile an older man in his fifties or sixties came in with a worn old bag and a cup of steaming coffee. He spotted our little group sitting in the waiting room and asked:
“You fellows look like artesanos.”
“He is,” I said, pointing to my new friend. “We’re musicians.”
“Musicians, que lindo!” said the old man with a wrinkled smile.
And so we met Bicchi – the real King of the Road in South America. Bicchi is an old Uruguyan man who has spent the better part of fifty years travelling all around Latin America – you would be hard-pressed to find anyplace from Mexico down to Argentina that Bicchi hasn’t spent time in.
“I make stone jewelry,” said Bicchi, unzipping his bag and showing us his polished rocks. “Been doing it for forty years! It keeps me going when I’m on the road, which is almost always.”
A perpetual wanderer – a model example of what I’d like to be when I’m in my late fifties. Always smiling, with good things to say about every place he’s been to – even the places he didn’t like. Years ago he had somehow managed to acquire some land in Colombia near Cali, and he now grows coffee there whenever he wants to take a break from his wandering. Bicchi was currently en route to Uruguay after spending time in French Guyana.
“We’re headed to Guyana,” I said. “I’ve heard some things about French Guyana but not too much. What’s it like?”
“French Guyana,” said Bicchi dreamily in a gruff yet very pleasing voice, “is the crown jewel of South America’s Caribbean coast! A beautiful country with friendly people – and not to mention they pay in Euros! Cayenne and the entire country is worth spending time in. Parlez-vous français? “
“Un petit,” I said, then switched back to Spanish. “My mother used to speak to me in French when I was very small.”
“Ah, you’re mother is French?” asked Bicchi.
“No, she’s from Louisiana.”
“Louisiana,” said Bicchi. “USA!”
“Yes indeed. Just like me,” I said.
“Really?” said Bicchi, grinning. “Very good! I was close, I would have guessed Mexico. You’ve got a Mexican vibe about you.”
I laughed. “Really? Mexican?” I sat down next to my new friend. “I am truly honored to hear you say that.”
“I was in the USA,” continued Bicchi, still sipping his coffee. “Texas, back in the seventies. Very nice, but I never got to know more of the country. Things have changed a lot since the seventies, it’s very hard to get in nowadays.”
“It’s too bad,” I said. “Any one of my Latin friends who wants to go visit the states has to jump through so many hoops. How was it in the seventies?”
“Oh, you just needed a passport, is all. Just like any other country.”
“Now they think they are above everybody else,” I said sadly. “It’s really no wonder Brazil charges me so much to get in. And that’s nothing compared to what the Brazilians have to do to get into the US.”
“Well, I prefer South America anyways,” said Bicchi with a benign smile. “Colombia…is my preferred place to be. Nothing beats sitting on that porch in the early morning and watching the sun come up over the coffee plants.” His eyes glazed over slightly. “Colombia…the most beautiful country I’ve ever been to. And the Colombians!” he snapped back to attention and brandished his coffee at me. “They are my brothers, and they always will be!” Bicchi then went into a long, animated and detailed explanation of the joys of Colombia. His rough, low Uruguyan accent pronounced every word beautifully and made the place he was describing seem 100 times nicer. Bicchi could probably describe a Medieval prison and make it sound not too bad. But when he went on about Colombia – a genuinely beautiful place – it sounded literally like heaven on earth.
It made me blush to think that I had only spent two weeks there; then again, immigration had told me to hightail it out of there, and only gave me a one month visa for some reason. I’ll have to visit Bicchi and his coffee farm in the hills of Cali sometime in the future; anyways, the plan always was to go back to Colombia and give it a proper go-over.
Tony, Bicchi, myself and the Argentine artesano stayed up late into the night talking. The waiting room at the bus terminal in Posadas attracted the strangest and most interesting assortment of characters towards the wee hours of the morning. I felt obligated to write a directionless poem about the whole affair – and anyhow, that night is best summed up in wandering prose.
Glass room, waiting room, last room of the night
We’re all here, The Nighttime Squatters, and we’re doin’ all right.
Singers, preachers, vagabonds
Lonely travellers correspond
Through that which holds us true
of all that’s passed.
Terminal, all night, open doors, carnal delight
Beggers, laggers, splish-splashers, whores
The Terminal welcomes all through its
and if there comes a day
When no-one comes to stay
or on the plastic lay
without departing ticket –
the only lonesome sound
a sadly chirping cricket –
The Terminal ceases
to be just so
and changes to only
Without light, or HBO
or lit cigarettes, brighten glow
Stories, winded, shouted – television ignored
All attentions riveted on the glories of the lore
the tales of Terminal Traveller
Heard many times before
and multiplied here,
to be spread to there,
and there – from ear to ear,
as was done before
in the Terminals of Yore.
Smoky, loud, a mixture of tongues
Him in Spanish, her in Brazilian.
Those two in something
like unintelligible Crocodilian.
Lighters flicking, flames licking, watches ticking away
another night in The Terminal – soon another day
With normal passengers and normal stories
Nothing like the nighttime sorties
of The Terminal at dusk.
Laugh. Shout. Beg. Spout
the feelings in your heart
‘cause here it never gets that dark
The lights are always on
There’s no dark, and there’s no dawn
Just the infinite, superfluous, mysterious,
Four am, you want to sleep
to lay there, quiet, not make a peep
But then comes in a bearded man
With a dirty cap and wizened hand
He grins and tells you get up, son!
Your night in here is far from done!
The lights are on, and I’ve brought ale
Now sit right there and I’ll tell you a tale
About the beaches of Uruguay
A place of sun, a place of sky
A place where one must always abide
By the rules of Sea and Air!
The bearded man keeps on talking
You listen on and it’s all too shocking
When suddenly the door bursts open
Revealing a woman with her mouth wide open
Angry words are spewing out
The poor man behind her not looking so stout
“You’re a useless bum!” she shouts in Spanish
“Get out of here!” he she does banish.
She takes a seat across from you
She smiles coyly, something’s abrew
“I love your eyes, they are so blue!”
Her smile is missing some teeth
She reeks of HIV, and queefs
Terminal, oh Terminal,
Tell me a story
And get this bitch away from me
The dawn is here, no time to rest
Still, lay on down and do your best
Eight am the guard comes by
“Wake up now, your time’s gone by,”
All you give is a groan in reply
The Terminal affords no rest
The Terminal puts you to the test
And so you’ve spent a long wild night
In the place where there’s always some kind of light
A gathering, a meeting, a shelter, a home
Anything but a big white dome
where people wait
for buses to come
Guaranteed, you’re never alone
And so went our night in The Terminal. Easily the craziest, oddest night I’ve ever experienced without being totally drunk out of my mind. So goes nights in the Terminal of Posadas.
After slamming a few cups of coffee and bidding farewell to Bicchi and the Argentine artesano (never could remember his name), Tony and I set out from The Terminal and started the last stretch of the Road in Argentina: Posadas to Puerto Iguazú. 300 and a few kilometres. Should be cake right? We’ll see…
Bicchi had told us it would be best to stand near the cops – and indeed, we had learned that before in Corrientes right before Guille picked us up. However, law enforcement in Posadas were not nearly so conducive to our hitchhiking and made us stand about twenty metres ahead of their checkpoint. This resulted in a wait of several hours, until finally a fat man with a tie brought us to a crossroads about fifty clicks down the road. 250 to go, I thought as we got out into the hot sun and continued thumbing.
We had made a few signs to pass the time; one said “Donde sea,” which means “wherever,” and Tony made one which read “China,” complete with the Chinese word for China (中國). We were just going for laughs, but one of the passing buses saw it, laughed, pulled over, and took us both for free to San Ignacio, the next town about thirty kilometres further up. So far, so good…
In San Ignacio we tried again with the police. They were nicer here, and we tried telling them about our trip first. I’m a writer, writing, and Tony plays the violin. The policeman liked the sound of writing, and asked me to mention his name. I will do so, just because it’s a really interesting name: Florentine. Italian, apparently.
We waited and hitched, waited and hitched. Buses passed, but no others gave us a free lift. The passage to Puerto Iguazú was nearly 80 pesos, anyways – more than we could afford even if we wanted to. Hitchhiking in Argentina is a long and tricky game – and one loses that game if he pays for a ride. We only had 200 km left to go to Iguazú; we would win the game in Argentina, even if it took us a week to get there…
A few more rides and we found ourselves in Santo Pipo – home of the finest mate plantations in Argentina. While we waited truck after truck crossed the highway loaded with yerba. Unfortunately, none were headed to Iguazú, and any cars that happened to be doing so pretended not to see us.
Night fell; we stayed the night in Santo Pipo behind the police station. I hung up my hammock and Tony set up the tent. The next morning brought a meager breakfast of some sweet biscuits and powdered orange juice before we continued on our journey to Iguazú.
We tried another sign. This one simply said, “gringo.” It worked once, and we rode in the back of a pickup with a broken scooter to Jardín America – where we would stay for two days.
Five hours of roadside hitching: nothing. A tour of all the town’s service stations: nothing, not even WiFi. The last one seemed the most hopeful. We stayed the night, took showers, and met Juan, another old vagabond who lived in the Amazon and had been squatting behind the YPF in Jardín America for three months. He made antique car models, let us camp next to him, and gave us a few pointers about hitchhiking in the south of Brazil.
Bad news. It wasn’t easy. We would have to spend most of our time at gas stations apparently. But on the bright side, there were lots of buffets in Brazil. Buffets meant easy food…
The next day Tony and I decided to separate and meet up in Puerto Iguazú; one was easier than two, especially in the slowest of places like Misiones, Argentina. The next morning I set out on foot while Tony stayed at the YPF to ask more trucks. I walked, and walked, and walked and walked.
Lots of cars passed, but nobody stopped; it was hot. The sun was strong. I had a twenty-five kilo backpack and Misiones is a hilly place. Up, down. Up, down. I thumbed at passing cars; not one acknowledged me.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the misioneros of northern Argentina, it’s that they are reasonably friendly people – right until they get behind the wheel of a car. It’s as if, when they start driving, los misioneros transform into some sort of Huge Super Asshole who really couldn’t give two shits about you there on the side of the road. I even had one car stop, wait for me to run up, and then right before I got there, punch the gas and drive off laughing. That is probably the absolute most shitty thing you can do to a hitchhiker who has spent most of the day walking and is almost out of water.
The day wore on; Tony passed by me in the back of some flatbed truck. He waved jovially. I waved stonily back.
Towards four pm I stopped at a resort and bummed a bottle of water and a bag of bread before continuing my walk. I passed a small port town – nothing to see there – and kept walking north.
Night arrived. The stars came out and the moon rose slowly as I crested hill after hill. I was on autopilot; I ceased to be aware that I was walking. My legs moved rhythmically, back and forth, on their own accord; I glided across the asphalt as if I was sitting in the back of a slow-moving truck. Later, perhaps hours, I got tired. I located a few suitable trees, hung up the hammock, and went straight to sleep.
I was awakened suddenly by a tremendous thunderclap. I sat up quickly, forgetting for a moment where I was. Then the thunder rumbled again, this time accompanied by fat, jagged bolts of lightning which brilliantly lit up the trees in the surrounding forest.
I had to get my tarp up. Groggily I felt around on the ground and located my parachute chord in the pocket of my pack. Still barefoot, I gingerly tied the Siberian hitch up on both sides of the trees around me and draped my tarp over the line.
It was dark. I was still half-asleep. The downpour arrived just as I was fastening the sides of my tarp into the stakes I had mounted into the grass around me. My knots were sloppy, and the tarp was still wrinkled in some places. I didn’t notice; I was tired, crawled back into my hammock and went back to sleep as the downpour plit-platted heavily off my improvised rooftop.
Hours later; I was dreaming of rain. I was in a small house somewhere, and I lived right up next to the roof. It always rained, and the roof always leaked. I woke up halfway to realize that the dream was not entirely fabricated – my roof was leaking.
The knots around my stakes had come undone – probably the wind. Consequently, the tarp had flapped around in the gusts something fierce, and my roof had collapsed into a tight V around my hammock. Thanks to the magic of condensation, the direct contact between tarp and hammock caused all the moisture to be sucked directly from the wet tarp into the dry hammock – and afterward, the dry sleeping bag inside the now-wet hammock, and finally, the soon-to-be-wet hitchhiker in the middle of it all.
It was morning; the storm had passed. The tarp had not been entirely useless; it had saved me from the worst of the rain. Thanks to the tarp, I was only damp instead of soaked to the bone. Still, my gear had quite a bit of extra water weight in it, and I felt it on the ensuing walk.
This day followed much the same pattern as the previous one – up, down, up down auto-pilot walking, with breaks every three or so kilometres to guzzle my refilled water bottle and finish off the last of the bummed bread from the resort the day before. I found some interesting things on the side of the road – a dead, beautiful clearwing butterfly, two dry and non-smoked cigarettes, and a police badge.
The sun crept higher into the sky, and I soon passed a sign which read, “Puerto Rico: 12 km.” Puerto Rico had been about 34 clicks from Jardín America. I supposed that meant that I had walked about 22 kilometres so far. May as well finish her off, I thought, and my mind went blank for several hours and I walked without stopping until I made it to the town.
Puerto Rico offered few opportunities for me – though it did have a Shell station with WiFi. I dried my sleeping bag and hammock in the sun while I asked around for rides, because I sure was not going to set out walking again. No-one wanted to take me to Iguazú, and I gave up asking around ten pm. I got an email from Tony telling me he had made it to Iguazú already. Some gay guy had picked him up earlier that day in Puerto Rico and took him all the way to Puerto Esperanza, just 30 km from Iguazú. And he had not gotten wet in the previous night’s storm. He wished me luck and told me to meet him at the YPF in the downtown when I got there.
I Skyped with my cousin for three or four hours before the security guard kicked me out and told me to go camp somewhere. I obliged, and walked about a kilometre down the road before finding two good trees right alongside the highway in front of an auto mechanic shop. There was not a cloud in the sky. I decided to risk going tarpless for the evening and slept hard and without once waking up.
The morning sunbrought me back into the world; I grumbled, packed up camp, and prepared myself for another long day. I decided to give waiting on the road a try, since it was still early, and my gamble paid off. I waited for only ten minutes before a pickup towing some sort of electrical trailer filled with equipment stopped and drove me to El Dorado – a mere 100 km from Iguazú!
My driver was an old man from Posadas on his way to the border with Brazil to repair a tower that had been damaged in the big storm two nights before.
“I got wet in that storm,” I told the old repairman.
“It was a very big storm,” he agreed.
“Oh, I remember,” I went on, thinking. “But I suppose if it wasn’t for the storm, you never would have gone to El Dorado – and I never would have gotten a ride with you!”
“That’s true,” said the old man. “Life has a funny way of taking care of you sometimes.”
“Tell me about it,” I said with a tired smile.
In El Dorado I met a fellow hitchhiker walking in the completely wrong direction.
“Are you going to Iguazú too?” he asked.
“I’m trying to.”
“But Iguazú’s over there!” he pointed…south.
“My friend, I think you’re compass is broken. That’s south. Iguazú is north.”
“But the guy said…” he trailed.
“Come on,” I said. “Look, there’s a traffic circle up there. Sign says it’s only two clicks. Walk with me, man.”
He did so. His name was Fernando. Fernando was 25 and had left his hometown of Santa Fe (a few days hitchhiking to the south) to go and live his life on the road. He had left Santa Fe two days before. I had been in Jardín America two days before. Fernando was having better luck than me here in Misiones; I hoped some of that would rub off on me.
We hitched at the traffic circle for a little while. After maybe an hour, lo and behold, a big rig stopped for us. In Chile, that’s mundane and normal. In Misiones it’s nothing short of a miracle. Of course, the driver wasn’t an Argentino, but Luis the Paraguayan happily drove the two of us all the way to Puerto Iguazú.
I had made it at last. Almost exactly 24 hours after my Padawan did. But – the walk was worth it; I had found a dead butterfly and a police patch, after all…
We found Tony wandering around near the YPF.
“I was about to go to Paraguay,” said he. “I didn’t know when you would get here.”
“I told you I would make it,” I said, slapping him on the back. “Never underestimate the power of waiting and walking.”
We decided to try and go to Cuidad del Este in Paraguay together since it was Saturday and the Brazilian consulate wouldn’t open until Monday morning. Unfortunately, we learned that it was more than 20 kilometres from Puerto Iguazú, so we decided to go the next morning. Fernando went off to look for work and Tony and I made camp near the local YPF, after successfully evading local security guards.
I know; I have to pay to get into Paraguay. But rumor had it that I could drift across the border and not get any paperwork taken care of if I only stayed for a few days. However, this plan was soon thwarted by Argentine immigration, whom wouldn’t let me pass without getting an exit stamp. So I stayed in Puerto Iguazú and Tony headed off to Ciudad del Este without me.
I was waiting on a payment from my work on freelancer.com to come through so I could pay for my visa, but there had been some problems with the sender actually sending it, so I was about $60 short for the Brazilian visa. Tony loaned me the money before he went to Paraguay, and I promised to pay him back once we got to Uruguay and I was stationary for a week or two and had time to make a little extra cash. And I hoped the sender from freelancer would wire me my earnings already.
On Sunday I bought two bags of pasta from the local grocery store (3 pesos for both bags) and got a local restaurant to cook them for me. Then I went down by the river Iguazú and set up my hammock between two trees over a steep gully. This was around eleven am. I spent six or seven hours in my hammock over that gully (which was a good 5 m deep), relaxing, writing, reading, smoking, playing harmonica, eating cold spaghetti out of a plastic bag with my bare hands, and waving cooly at the pretty girls passing by on the riverwalk, who pretended not to see me. I fell asleep at some point, and when I woke up it was nearly dark. Since I couldn’t think of any particularly compelling reason to get out of the hammock, I stayed there and slept all night.
The sun sank down over the selva misioninera – Argentina’s closest shot at having a real jungle. Brazil loomed on the other side of the river, and I could see boats with Brazilian flags docked less than 50 m away from me. I was close. I was going there.
Chorouses of frogs welcomed night on the Iguazú river. First, there were hundreds and hundreds of little phweep! frogs. The pweeps! would come in waves. First, one frog would start pweeping, and then another would join, until suddenly hundreds and hundreds were all pweeping at the same time. Then, for no apparent reason, all of them would stop. There would be silence for a moment, until one lone frog started pweeping, and the whole cycle would repeat itself once more. It reminded me of perhaps a senate debate. In my head, the frogs were saying something like this:
Lone Frog: We must review the new bill for the order in which we all start pweeping. (pweep!) It has been brought to my attention that some of you are beginning to pweep at uneven intervals (pweep!) This is a clear violation of the Law on Pweeping Orders passed approximately ten minutes ago. (pweep!)
Other frogs: That’s ridiculous! (pweep!) We (pweep!) are pweeping in perfect (pweep!) sync! (pweep!)
Lone Frog: A clear (pweep!) violation! (pweep!)
Other frogs: This guy sucks (pweep!) Who (pweep!) voted for him? (pweep! pweep!) This whole (pweep!) thing isn’t (pweep!) making any sense at all (pweep! pweep! pweep!)
All the frogs: (indiscriminate pweeping, until no-one can understand anything anybody is pweeping)
Lone Frog: Silence! (pweep!)
There is silence. Lone frog starts up some other monologue (pweep! pweep! Laws, boring shit) until the rest of the frogs become indignant and the night is filled with indiscriminate pweeping (a clear violation of the Law on Pweeping Orders passed thirteen minutes ago).
There was another type of frog who would join in sometimes; his call was an assortment of sounds that sounded disturbingly close to a surprised and offended New Yorker. This frog (there seemed to only be one) would make alternating calls of “Ey!” and “Whoa!”
Whenever the pweepers would start pweeping, the New Yorker frog would become very surprised and offended. It seemed sometimes that the pweepers would deliberately attack the New Yorker frog with their pweeps. Here’s how it all went down in my imagination:
Lone Pweeper: I move to ban the New Yorker from the premises, (pweep!) as he does not make pweeps and we outnumber him a hundred to one (pweep!)
New Yorker: (Ey! Whoa!) “Whaddaya mean, ban me? This is upsetting me greatly! (Ey!)
Other Pweepers: He’s right (pweep!) the New Yorker doesn’t belong! (pweep! pweep!)
New Yorker: (Ey!) Now see here, Ima frog just like the rest a you! (Whoa!)
Pweepers: Get him!! (pweep! pweep! pweep!)
New Yorker: (Ey! Whoa!) Get away from me ya little bastards! (Ey! Whoa!)
Pweepers (collectively): DESTROY HIM! (PWEEP!PWEEP!PWEEP!)
New Yorker: (HEY! WHOA!) Ya little fuckers, get offa me, I swear! (HEY! WHOA!) Don’t touch that part of me ya pervert! (HEY! WHOA!)
(indicernable mix of pweeps and hey! whoa’s, until finally everything is quiet once more.)
The pweepers and the New Yorker battled on all night, the pweepers arguing and the New Yorker staying firmly offended and indignant as I drifted off the sleep in my hammock over the gully.
The next day (today) I headed for the Brazilian embassy and dropped off my Passport, along with the aforementioned fee of $616 pesos argentinos – a whopping sum. I had barely enough to cover it. Tomorrow, at eleven am, my Passport with Brazilian visa awaits me at last.
After dropping off the passport I went downtown and played the harmonica for a bit. I made 4 Reales (Brazilian currency) $6 pesos argentinos, and a guy gave me a working waterproof digital watch with a broken strap. I bought cigarettes and more pasta and tied the watch around my wrist with some spare parachute cable.
It has been a good day. I’m writing this from the bus terminal in Iguazú (not nearly as nice as the one in Posadas), and later will go back to the river and sleep over my gully and listen to the frogs argue into the night.
Tomorrow, it’s off the Brazil. My time has come. I can see that green and yellow flag flapping in the wind across the river. That flag will fly over my head first thing tomorrow…and that’s a promise.
Now, if you’ll excuse me…I’ve got some blues to play and a date with two trees and a riverbank.
– The Modern Nomad
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