Perils of Polly: 'Hay camping cerca aqui?'

Polly and sister Sue display their cramped sleeping arrangement in a Kangoo van for the 33 days of traveling throughout Argentina and Chile. The rope across the top is a clothesline for laundry.

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.


The owner of our rental had told us there was a campground in Tapalque. It had to be here. It isn't that big of a city. The map said it was between 5,000 and 15,000 people. We turned down a large and empty boulevard. No sign anywhere announced "camping." We drove back to see if we missed any signs. Nope. We turned back into town again.

Some teenagers and a couple of dogs were walking on the street. I stopped and used one of my two favorite phrases: "Donde esta camping?" (Where is campground) or "Hay camping cerca aqui?" (Is there camping near here?) At the beginning of the trip I used, "Hay camping aqui?" and almost always got a negative response, and then I would find a campground a couple blocks away. I realized they took "aqui"--"here"--quite literally and I had to add "near."

Anyway, they exuberantly answered "Si," then eloquently told me where. I smiled and followed their finger pointing and got a few more blocks down the road. There, I asked another group walking on the street, and they, too, answered si with much un-understood verbage and we continued to follow their fingers. Several blocks later we found a couple on bicycles. They took more time to answer, and I understood the word for bridge. With that extra understanding, I was sure I could find it.

Unfortunately, we continued to wander and found no bridge, no campground, no hint of anything. In our wanderings, we came across the couple on bicycles again. They motioned for us to follow, and after a few turns, and a gravel road, there was suddenly a bridge. They led us across a bridge and to a hidden campground with absolutely no sign. We pulled in just as the sun went down.

This was our first night, and this routine was repeated nearly 30 times as each night we scrambled and searched to find a campground. We only stayed in the same campground for two nights four times during the trip, and two of those times were not by our choice.

At the beginning of the trip, I got a little anxious about not knowing where we would be sleeping that night, or if we would find anywhere to sleep. But soon it became so routine the uncertainty didn't matter. We always found SOMEWHERE to sleep, although some of those places were not too nice.

This particular campground was a municipal park and had a lot of locals in tents. We found both Argentines and Chileans love to tent camp. The bathrooms were typical of what we were to find throughout both countries: no toilet paper, kind of dirty but not filthy, with a pipe or toilet here or there leaking. Most of the campgrounds also had showers, although not always with hot water. Shower stalls were usually very small with no places to sit and dress, and sometimes no places to hang up or put anything.

We arrived too late to pay, and we were too tired to put up our tent. We ate ham sandwiches from our cooler which proved to not be working, batted away a few mosquitoes, and crawled in the back on the mattress and tried to sleep. The temperature was getting quite cool, so I expected to sleep well.

This is when I learned I had packed smart, bringing along my most valuable commodity, something I could not have survived without: ear plugs.

Latinos live on a different schedule than Americans. They stay up playing music all night long. I don't think there was ever a moment during that first night I didn't faintly hear music, muffled by my earplugs. Of course we were the first people up and out of the campground by 7 a.m. Later we discovered they get up between 8 and 9, but that still didn't seem like enough sleep. Then we also found out their secret: the siesta. Everything would be closed sometime during the hours of noon and three. For the most part, it made sense, as it was too hot in central and northern Argentina to do anything during the middle of the day anyway.

In the morning I noticed my legs beginning to itch. First one bite, then another began to appear on my legs. These bites were not mosquito bites. I hadn't seen anything that bit me, and they acted like our white sock bites -- swelling up and getting hot and red while itching like fire. I must have had more than 20 bites on my legs. My sister had none. But on the backside of the trip, also in central Argentina, she got attacked by the unknown biting bug, and I was spared.

I placed my fiery legs on the clutch and gas pedal with one goal for the day: reach Patagonia. It was going to be one of our longest days: about 14 hours of straight driving.

Look for Polly's next perils in next week's Recreation section.