Editor's note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote "Perils of Polly." She also has written a series of "Peril" columns about Australia, Asia, and Central America. Her perils continue in Argentina and Chile.
Did someone say "road trip?" How about a crazy road trip -- 8,873 miles throughout Argentina and Chile, including more than 1,100 miles in gravel and dirt? How about two 60-plus-year-old sisters camping across Argentina and Chile?
My sister, Sue, and I started talking about it right after we got back from our around-the-world trip throughout Russia, Mongolia, China, and Tibet. The idea of camping throughout Argentina and Chile was a little whacked out for her husband, but not for us. We finally landed on a time frame -- January and February -- and put a down payment on the rental of a tiny Kangoo van. That's where both of us stopped planning as family, jobs, and other fun got in the way.
After a trip to Hawaii and a visit from my daughter's family came to a close -- two days before the plane left -- I finally got on the Internet to see what we should do in Argentina and Chile. I decided we had to see penguins, flamingoes, and guanacos, had to drive to the southernmost city, Ushuaia, had to see the famous Torres del Paine, Perito Moreno Glacier and El Chaiten. Iguazu Falls and Ibera Preserve really captured my attention, but they were in the opposite direction, northeast. Then I discovered the Atacama Desert -- the driest place on Earth. I looked at a map. It was in the far north of Chile. To do it all would be really tough. Plus, my sister hated deserts. I put the Atacama onto a back shelf of my mind.
I left Kenai at around 10 in the morning. I picked up my sister in Portland, Ore., and we spent the night with her daughter in L.A. The easy part was done. On to Houston, then the 10-hour flight to Buenos Aires. We stepped out of the airport and sucked in the stifling hot air. It was summer! I left Alaska when it was minus 20 F.
Instant sweat drenched my head, back, and armpits as I stood in line watching our two carry-on bags and waiting for my sister to change our money into pesos. We were instantly attacked by taxi drivers, but my sister's philosophy was why pay $50 for a 2.5-hour trip in an air-conditioned taxi when we can pay 50 cents for a 3-hour trip on a city bus.
Bus 30 was pretty easy to find at the only airport bus stop, but the biggest question was where to get off. I was finally able to practice the Spanish I had studied. I told the driver our destination -- a hostel in downtown Buenos Aires -- and he nodded.
After a couple of hours, I began to get nervous. Would he remember my destination? Did I have to yank on the cord to let him know I wanted off? How could I be sure where I was?
I began attempting conversations with the surrounding passengers and discovered a serious flaw in my Spanish. I was a good learner: I could construct a fairly decent and understandable question that communicated my need. Unfortunately, I was quite handicapped in the understanding end.
Thinking I could understand, several passengers began yakking at high speed. I caught very few of the words. Even after I said "despacio" and "lentamente" (slowly) I couldn't detect any slower rate of the vocabulary geyser. So I began to smile and say "si."
In the meantime, I had a map. Maps are my friends. I scrutinized the signs flipping past, and finally found how they mark their streets. I discovered where we were on the map! That was a major breakthrough. Now I could relax, and some of the words they were saying began to make a little bit of sense. At least they seemed to be having fun.
When we began to get closer, I pointed at the map to the main Argentine helping me. He nodded. I yanked on the cord. The bus driver smiled and nodded. Sue hefted on her backpack and I rolled down my carry-on. A half block down we knocked on the door of our hostel.
It seems every hostel I've been to in a Latin American country has locked doors with security. Hmmm. Anyway, we registered, entered our four-bunk room, and wondered who would be our roommates. Sue had requested all female. We changed into shorts and began investigating downtown Buenos Aires.
Already, fate was proving good and bad. We ate at a restaurant that charged us for use of the silverware, and then I walked out without my camera. Within 10 minutes I was charging down the street and dashing back into the restaurant. I made a motion of taking a picture, and the waiter smiled and handed me my camera. Catastrophe No. 1 averted.
We spent the day walking everywhere, had dinner, discovered our roomies were a couple -- man and woman -- from Germany, then wandered the nighttime streets marveling at the piles of garbage heaped curbside.
Then we crashed. Tomorrow we'd pick up our car and begin the real journey.
Read more about Polly's perils in next week's Peninsula Clarion.