We are in the Patagonian Andes, on a long dirt road somewhere between Mendoza and Neuquen. We are in an old ford F100 pick up – it is shit! Large, unwieldy, under-powered and uncomfortable. We bounce and slide our way along endless, mainly deserted, dirt roads. The countryside is open, empty and the few spiky bushes are covered in layers of dust. Periodically we see flocks of scraggley sheep and goats which are tended by gnarly, weather beaten gauchos sat on the back of equally undernourished horses. The only other traffic on the road is the occasional truck. These trucks are a miracle of bush mechanics and improvisation. At night they drive with no lights because their frugal owner-operators fear that using the battery increases fuel consumption. Driving a truck in Argentina is a different job to being a trucker in Europe or North America.
So we drive for weeks, chasing ancient shallow marine sediments, from a time when the Andes were lower and formed a chain of island volcanoes rather than a mountain range, when the Pacific Ocean flooded the continental interior. We started our quest in Chile, crossed the high Andes in to Argentina near Aconcagua and dropped down to the foothills and Mendoza where we worked for a week before heading south.
My companion for this geo-traverse is a large Irish man called Steve. Steve is a PhD student and after we finish this drive he will be in the area on his own collecting data for his thesis. Steve is an exuberant and jolly character with a high opinion of his own ability and worth. Before we travelled to Chile I suggest that learning a bit of Spanish may be a good grounding for 2 months in South America. His reply had come with characteristic over confidence; “I’ve been all over Europe and I never needed another language, for sure everybody understands me!”
So we spent several weeks in Chile where he depended upon me to order food, arrange the car hire, book into hotels etc. Gradually the reality that he would soon be on his own in Argentina, and that few if any people spoke any English, started to dawn on him. So eventually on this long monotonous drive, practicality overcame pride and he relented and asked me to teach him some key phases.
So with nothing else to do, I started.
“Queiro….” I want; “Donda es… where is” etc etc. Graduating to words and phrases for food and lodging.
“When you get to a gas station just say ‘llano’, pronouced YeaNo, that means full. Don’t worry about any of the aceiete or agua or any of that, just llano”
Several hours later we are getting low on petrol and we come across a wooden shack with a faded shell sign. There is no sign of pumps but they are a luxury not a necessity out here. As we pull in I suggest that Steve does the business, I’ll keep quite.
He is excited about this and I can almost hear his brain working overtime as he eagerly prepares himself. It takes an age for the extremely small, wizened old man to cover the ground between his shack and the car. Steve is too excited and bounds over to him, fully of puppy-like enthusiasm mixed with pent up energy from too long sat in the car.
He towers above the Argentinean, points at the petrol tank and shouts “Pollo” The man looks confused and rightly so. Without realizing that he has inadvertently requested ‘a Chicken’, Steve repeats the error with more frantic pointing. Pollo Pollo! The old man looks scared.
At this point I feel a need to help the situation, however I am laughing so much that as I try and climb out of the car I fall over. Now the poor guys, who has probably not seen another soul for weeks, has to deal with two huge Gringos, one enthusiastically asking for a chicken in his petrol tank and the other rolling around on the floor hysterical laughing.
We eventually control the situation and established that we want petrol not chickens and it takes almost an hour to dispense and fill the car with a hand pump from a series of large drums. We help with the pumping while our new friend eyes us suspiciously.
It’s just another day in the field…