Some years ago Charles and I were invited to a family wedding in Buenos Aires and, as he goes anywhere for a celebration, we planned a trip to South America. Travelling with Corman is always an experience.
I laid down the law about his tardiness, but for once we left home in plenty of time to get to Paddington station. Once in the taxi my telephone rang. “Hello, is that Ruth” “Yes “I said, “How are you?” said a male voice. “Fine” I said. “Where are you now?” he asked. I replied “In a taxi to the airport”. “Oh that’s strange so am I”. “Where are you going?” he asked. “Buenos Aires” said I. “What an amazing coincidence” – he replied, “Me too!” – at which point I turned round to see Charles on the back seat, telephone in hand, speaking to someone. He thought he was ringing his sister Ruth, but in error had dialled me. An original start to our trip.
Charles, whilst wonderful in many ways, is somewhat limited in the technology department. On arrival at Paddington station he spent five minutes trying to put his coin into a trolley – eventually gave up, informing me it was broken. Not so. I collected the trolley. Next, on the Heathrow Express he blocked the carriage whilst attempting to lower the handle of his wheelie case and would not stop until we reached the airport. Here he faced another challenge – the luggage labels from the travel agent. “These won’t fit!” he exclaimed, thrusting them at me to attach to the cases.
Reviewing our itinerary I realised that we were due to cover a huge distance. As a particularly poor traveller, I resolved not to complain about anything, but instead regard it as a challenge. Little did I know what waited ahead.
London to Buenos Aires went without a hitch. BA’s pull down beds are fine if you master the technique of sleeping immobile in one position, but not so good if you are allocated a window seat necessitating a climb over sleeping bodies to reach the bathroom.
At Buenos Aires, a car awaited us for the ‘one hour’ journey to our destination, Hacienda Ombu. It took two and a half hours – it was then I discovered that travel agents and South Americans share the same distain for punctuality.
Ombu was a mildly decaying estancia (ranch) where the menu for ‘kosher’ guests consisted of tinned tuna and boiled rice. A request for vegetables resulted in a bowl of floating disintegrated potato, courgette and pumpkin. I had heard that Argentina is definitely not for vegetarians, confirmed whilst observing other guests being plied with endless varieties of meaty delicacies.
The other guests were mainly European seniors ‘Doing South America’, the first couple – a bursar from Oxford and his wife. She was totally paranoid about security, regaling us with horror tales from travellers in Brazil being held at gunpoint in their tour bus and robbed of their belongings. She feared carrying a camera and had even left her wedding ring at home.
I explained how we took a different approach. This being to stride ‘purposefully’ and, if threatened, to start picking our noses vigorously as this would so disgust any assailants that they would rapidly leave. The second option was for us to leap in unison into a martial arts stance, complete with a violent cry of ”Hi Yaaaah” so any attackers would a) think we knew what we’re doing or b) fall apart laughing. Thankfully we never needed to resort to either of these undignified activities, but it was still useful to be prepared.
Ombu had several redeeming characteristics – a vast sky – which one forgets about when living in a metropolis, many different and colourful birds, and a variety of insects, making me aware of how closely we share the planet with wildlife. We visited Areco, a traditional gaucho village with shops selling everything ‘cowboy’.
Many of the men wore bright red berets, rakishly worn at an angle. They looked very stylish and I assumed they were ‘extras’ from the film company that had been parading back and forth down the main street in 1930’s costumes, but no – this was the traditional headwear for locals, many of whom sat moustachioed and macho, astride horses.
filming in Areco
An Arecan gaucho with red beret
The ‘must do’ activity in town was to visit the local museum, but it being the Fiesta of the Virgin, everything was closed, including the taxi rank. It was oppressively hot but we sat, optimistically if impatiently, waiting for any form of transport until eventually a vehicle of sorts arrived, complete with customary shattered windscreen. All the cars we travelled in whilst there were similarly damaged, presumably by disgruntled passengers.
After three days in Ombu we left for Buenos Aires immediately after Sabbath. As tradition requires, we sat in the garden of the estancia waiting until three stars appeared in the sky, the sign permitting us to leave. On arrival in B.A. we were informed that next morning we must leave at 5.30a.m. for a full day flying to Santiago, Puerto Montt and finally Punta Arenas in the far south.
The airport at Santiago was a nightmare. We found ourselves in a queue behind at least 600 others, with a probable wait of two hours and the likelihood of missing our connections. I grasped the initiative, spoke to a customs official who promptly waved us through the diplomatic channel giving us at least a fighting chance.
However we were, to quote Shakespeare, ‘sans everything’ – in this case, our luggage. Carousels did not exist, instead hundreds of suitcases were scattered haphazardly all over an aircraft hangar the size of a football pitch.
It was then I realised the common sense in buying a shocking pink case with neon straps – but we travelled, as most people, with black indistinguishable bags. After at least an hour of searching, we and they were reunited and we even found a porter. Our spirits lifted until he explained that the sole access to the departure lounge was up three flights by elevator but only one was working.
With pounding hearts and getting more stressed by the minute we eventually struggled into a lift. Once upstairs I passed hurriedly through security and continued with a sense of achievement towards the departure gate only to turn and see Charles beckoning, having been detained by security when their x-ray machine identified a strange item in his case. Charles opened it, whereupon the officer gingerly extracted a 12” long metal object that he eyed with great suspicion. “Che? What is this?” he asked, in the manner of Manuel from Fawlty Towers. He held it close to his eyes, inspected, shook and even smelled it. Turning to me he shrugged his shoulders hoping I would offer some explanation.
I could easily have told him how to get to the bank, order paella or enquire about the weather, but my ‘Teach Yourself Spanish in Seven Days’ was deficient in not having even one sentence of explanation about ‘what is a chanukiah? ( see above). I began “We are Jews “ (Somos Judeos) , “Today is a Jewish Festival” (Ahoy eta una fiesta para los Judeos). I then struggled on incoherently about lighting candles, eating doughnuts and spinning tops. The security men exchanged glances and shook their heads, indicating that they were convinced we were both ‘loco’. But once again the miracle of Chanucah prevailed and they propelled us, undoubtedly relieved to see the back of us, through the departure gates.
The flights to Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas went well. However, despite ticking all the boxes for ‘vegetarian food’ with our travel agent in London, no one in South America seemed able to grasp our strange and incomprehensible request for non-meat meals. Their creative substitution was an inseparable ham and cheese sandwich. After many hours of travel we were now, like the Israelites in the wilderness, praying for manna. None arrived. The hotel, we trusted, must surely feed us soon!.
Perhaps prudently, no-one had forewarned us that the shuttle bus would take six hours to reach the hotel. The first four were along a straight, traffic-free road with a 50kph speed limit which our driver maintained with stubborn determination. You cannot imagine the frustration of crawling along at this speed with not another car in sight.
In Britain we are used to short distances and constantly changing landscapes, a wood, a village, hillsides, a lake, people and traffic. Patagonia welcomed us with an immense expanse of not a lot – just sky and distant mountains. Little to hold our attention except the occasional sheep or guanaco – the local llama.
By now our sense of adventure was rapidly diminishing, to be replaced with questioning why on earth we had abandoned the comforts of home. Charles demanded that we return immediately, but frankly by then we were both very weary and could not countenance the thought of what that would involve. Surely, we prayed, the worst is over and it must only be another two hours, albeit along a bumpy unmade track in total darkness.
Israeli friends ( gerontologists) told us how they always travel to remote villages in Patagonia without booking, never knowing if they will reach their destination by nightfall. This, they maintained, was the secret of long life, as the stress involved is what everyone needs to keep alert and active.
I disagreed completely, declaring that my ideal holiday is knowing that wherever I stop there must be a clean toilet, drinking water and, if necessary, a hospital within easy reach.
I totally acknowledge that I am not a traveller but just a tourist (unlike my wonderful granddaughter currently exploring south America alone with a backpack). I question if this is an ‘age’ thing, but then when I was 20, I was a married mum so taking a year off was never an option.
Suffice to say, when we eventually arrived at the Explora in Southern Patagonia at 2.a.m., I knew immediately that I had died and gone to heaven. Spectacular and unbelievably beautiful. All the previous day’s rigours were instantly erased and we had a memorable and outstanding visit. Would I do it all again? Well of course – absolutamente!