I rented a car this weekend and drove around a bit. This makes the 7th country I’ve driven in. Each country’s roads have a slightly different feel. It takes a bit to adjust yourself to the new way of driving. In Argentina, signs are suggestions and the locals’ view of personal space extends to their cars.
However, there is one driving custom that I find is universal: You should not drive your car into a muddy ditch.
This is a long story. I will tell it in two parts. You could probably skip the first bit if you just want a laugh. The story is neither as bad as you may think (no humans were injured in the making of this blog) nor as straightforward. Or skip all of it and look at the pictures at the end.
I grew up in a small town but those readers who remember me there know that I’m not, truly, a country boy. Most of my friends lived on farms or worked on farms or had some semblance of mechanical aptitude. I did not. I had a decent fastball and cooked an above average grilled onion burger but farming and livestock escaped me. I liked astronomy and history and preferred photography to hunting. To my shame and regret, I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to learn more about agriculture from some of the best in the world. I’m sure I picked up more than a kid growing up in Queens but not as much as I should have.
Which brings me to Argentina. When traveling internationally, I like to leave the big city and tourist spots in a vain hope to get a better idea of the “real” country. It’s a vain hope because there is never a simple definition for anything real in human terms. It’s impossible to say what the “real” human is when talking of one person, much less a conglomeration of several hundred million of them. However, very often, you’ll meet someone abroad who will claim to “know America” because they’ve been to New York. (By the way, South Americans hate that – it’s America down here, too. Estados Unidos, por favor.)
Now, I love New York and it most definitely represents the USA well. It’s the economic center, a significant (I’ll let the artists fight over rankings) cultural center and, for over a century, was the first port of call for new Americans arriving to chase their dream. I grudgingly admit that if you can only visit the United States once and then only for a few days, you go to New York.
Before even getting to the urban/rural split in the United States that seems to grow deeper and angrier by the day, I’m sure there are a few cities that would like a word with someone who claims they know the USA because they saw a show in New York. Boston, for sure. Chicago, Philly, Miami, Dallas, LA, San Francisco. The list goes on. Each of those cities is quite different from New York and important in the story of the United States.
And then there is the divide in lifestyle between the urban and the rural. We tell the students on the program, especially those from smaller cities and towns, that a lot of the difference they observe will not be Argentine/American but urban/rural. We’re all living in Buenos Aires, a wonderful city that I’m already dreading to leave. But it is a city of 13 million people and life in a city like that is very different to life in a dorm in Winston-Salem. To be sure, there are many differences between Argentina and the USA. But life in Manhattan is probably closer to life in Buenos Aires than it is to life in a midwestern town of a thousand people.
So, if I’m going to tell people they should visit the lush interior of the United States, it seems I should make some effort when I visit other countries. Buenos Aires dominates Argentina far more than New York does the United States but, even so, there is a lot to this great country that can’t be found in the barrios.
I’m trying to bury the lead in hopes you won’t get to it. The above explains why I came out here to a ranch 60 miles south of Buenos Aires. This simple visit will not complete my education about Argentina but it advances it considerably. People in Buenos Aires are justifiably very proud of Argentine beef but living in Buenos Aires doesn’t really clue you in to the Argentine countryside where that beef is produced.
There is also the matter of light pollution. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about seeing Centaurus and Crux from my apartment balcony. Those who know me know that that is not nearly good enough. So, I got on airbnb and found an old farmhouse at a good rate that I thought I could get to easily, if not cheaply, enough. I exchanged messages with the owner who seemed lovely and was all set. I left my apartment around 1pm on Friday to take a car to Ezeiza, Buenos Aires’ international airport. There, I rented a car to drive the rest of the way.
It was an odd experience, heading to the airport carrying groceries and with a bottle of wine sticking out of my pack. The driver told me I couldn’t fly with the bottle and I explained I wasn’t flying anywhere. He asked why I had hired a driver if I was renting a car. There are agencies that will deliver a rental car to you in Buenos Aires. I explained that I wanted to limit the amount of driving I did in the city. Turned to look at me, he nodded grimly, said, “smart” and tore away from the curb and through a red light.
Driving in Buenos Aires is crazy. Let’s leave it at that.
I picked up the car, left the airport and found my way without trouble to Canuelas, a small town near the airbnb. It was grand. As bad as driving in Buenos Aires is, driving on a highway in the country, only a dozen miles or so outside the city, is very like driving on any country highway anywhere. The speed limits are higher (80 mph in places) and people give much less space but it’s tolerable.
I stopped in Canuelas and found wi-fi. I was to let my host know when I left the town and to see how the road to the ranch was. Rain was forecast and, if it came to pass, I would not be able to reach it without four wheel drive. There was no rain. I was good to go.
Canuelas and Lobos, about 40km apart are each small cities of about 30,000 people. Lobos seemed the more touristy one – I saw hotels and many restaurants whereas the downtown businesses in Canuelas looked like they catered to the locals. I located wi-fi at the Canuelas cultural center and sent my messages. I bought a few more supplies in the event I couldn’t, or didn’t wish to, leave the ranch over the weekend. I walked around a bit taking in the flavor.
Even in the small town, driving is stressful. Most intersections don’t have any kind of sign, certainly not a stop sign. Drivers seem to fall into three types: come to a full stop to check for traffic; slow way down, head on a swivel; proceed without a care in the world. These are generally: foreigners, country folk, and Buenos Aires drivers. Another interesting feature is the Argentine relationship with train crossings. The warning lights and gates come down far, far in advance of the train. On my walk to work, I cross a rail line and, about half the time, its lights are on and gates down. No one pays the slightest attention. To date, the earliest I’ve heard the warnings come was two blocks before I got to it. No train in sight when I arrived on foot. So we all cross. In the city, the barrier prevents cars from winding through. Not so in Canuelas. It’s a stubby little gate and all the locals slipped through. Three foreigners (we all waved at each other) waited for the train to pass. Took 15 minutes. But the gates didn’t go up. After 5 minutes, I edged up, saw no train and crossed. One of the other foreign drivers smiled and went. The third guy may still be there.
Heading south from Canuelas on Ruta 3, I arrived at the designated turn. Folks from my hometown would recognize this road. Cows to one side, crops to the other, ruts all the way through the road, farmhouses and barns about a kilometer apart out to the horizon. I took it slow and…missed the turn. I was to go 11km and turn right. I went 11.1km before realizing my mistake. We’re getting to the good part. Thanks for hanging in there through all the BS above.
Okay, I did my first 3-point turn something like 32 years ago. Swing to the left, put it in reverse…how do you put it in reverse? Is that reverse? No, that’s still first. Is that it? No.
I could not put the car in reverse. See what I mean about not being a country boy? Hey, I drive a stick just fine. The car rental guy was worried because I was an American but a stick is not an issue. However, I had not had to use reverse the whole way from Ezeiza to this dirt intersection, a mile from my ranch house. The car would not go into reverse. At all. I kept trying and kept sliding a little forward with each attempt seeing as how the car was still in first. On the bright side, this got me out of the road. On the dark side, I was edging closer and closer to serious mud. Recall what I said about universal driving customs.
Before I got to the mud, I had the sense to stop. I read the manual (in Spanish, alas). I taught the Argentine cows behind me how to curse in English. I railed at not being better with cars and had all the thoughts described in Part 1 about not really being a country boy and the urban/rural divide. None of this whinging got me anywhere, of course. Finally, I realized I had little choice but to walk the rest of the way. I arrived in fine form to much confusion. Apparently, their typical guest doesn’t arrive on foot. The horses were curious and the dogs angry. The hosts speak English about as well as I speak Spanish. They were wonderful. They brought me some water and even the dogs decided I was okay after a scratch behind the ears. One was a Rottweiler named Gorila who could put his paws on my shoulders and liked to. Reminded me of a dog I knew long ago.
My host drove me back to my car, had a bit of a laugh. I agreed that I was an idiot. Then she tried to put the car in reverse.
Vindication, it wasn’t just me. On the other hand, she inched the car that much closer to mud. She kept trying while I tried to explain “mud” and she kept failing, as did I. I then hit on the brilliant idea of putting the car in neutral and pushing it backwards. Uphill. This is why there is no plaque with my name on it in the engineering halls at OSU.
Finally, she yells, triumphantly! There is a tiny little lever on the stick that you have to click in order to shift into reverse. Because…this was lost on me and my host. I have no idea why there would be such a high barrier to putting the car in reverse. Always move forward, I guess. However, now that we have it in reverse, we’re golden. Right? No, it turns out. Together, my host and I have sunk the front wheels in mud.
I waited at the car as she went to get a chain. Three cars stopped to offer aid while I stood there, sweating in the sun. I had forgotten that on these little dirt roads pretty much everyone has a chain and is dying to tow some foreign idiot out of the ditch. What a story that will be at dinner! I thanked the first two but sent them on explaining that my friend was coming with a chain. The third guy showed up after I’d been there 20 minutes and I was worried that my host and I had miscommunicated – a constant worry these past few weeks.
The third guy was called Diego. “Like Maradona,” he said. I asked if he was born in 1986 and he laughed, obviously happy at the idea. I thought it more polite than guessing 1978 which I thought would still have been a little on the young side. He had me out in a second just as my host drove up. She wasn’t too upset that I’d found a way out without her.
I ran into Diego again on Saturday as I left the ranch to drive around the countryside for a bit. He flashed his lights at me on the rutted out dirt lane, remembered my name and we chatted a bit about the storm the previous night.
Oh, yeah, the storm. To make the trip feel even more like a trip back to Oklahoma, about 2am we had a tremendous wind-storm. It only rained a bit so the roads were fine but the wind was ferocious for about an hour. There is no A/C in the old farm house so the windows were all open. My shirt blew from the bedroom into the living room. The bugs scattered. I love windstorms. Probably because I moved away from them, according to friends who still live with them. In the morning, there were a lot of limbs down, a couple narrowly missing my rental, and we lost power for most of Saturday. My hosts were really worried it would scare me off. Ha!
Soy de Oklahoma. Tenemos tornadoes.
The ranch is beautiful. My hosts have about 80 horses which they train, sell and loan to polo teams. I was watching them work, thinking it looked different to how I’d seen horses worked back home. Turns out, I’d never seen horses prepped for polo. They brought a bunch of horses out and rode around a large field they keep roped off hitting polo balls and having a great time. One black mare really, really didn’t want to get close to the ball. I don’t know what they’ll do with her. My host made me a carrot cake and then sent her son down with a flan after dinner. They had me to Mario’s birthday dinner on Sunday. Enough beef to build a herd and empanadas that were out of this world. There are a lot of big birds, I think perhaps pheasant. Lots of bright little birds, too. There is a hornet’s nest in a tree next to the house that looks like it might be the center of hornet civilization. There is a creaky old windmill next to the barn and the horses study me with interest. Little frogs that come to visit at sundown and sing all night, hoping to make more frogs. And I got two beautiful clear nights looking at the half of the universe I don’t see too often. More on that later.
Part 3. Pictures.
Self-explanatory. The grass of the pampa is deceptive. That isn’t solid ground in there. Oh, it’s a panoramic view so the road on the left is actually the road on the right. Weird.
Plaza in Canuelas.
Welcome statue in Lobos.
Seriously, I’ve seen this sunset in Oklahoma.