The Road to Mendoza

Those who have watched me royally under plan my weekend getaways will surely attest, I am a classic case of how ‘winging it’ rarely works out. On one particular three week intracontinental romp, however, I was given the unofficial and slightly derisive title of The Safe One as we winged it significantly beyond my (it turns out quite tame) comfort levels hitchhiking in South America. It was during these same three weeks that I became familiar with the temperament of The Colombian, but that’s a whole different story.

The way I remember it, we rocked up in Córdoba. We were about three days behind our very rough schedule, I blame the delay primarily on my trip mates reluctance to leave their homes in Buenos Aires for the three month overland voyage they were making in order to get back to their hometown of Bogotá. At the time I didn’t recognise this reluctance for what it was, and instead my feet were itching to explore the country and my temper simmering with every day we delayed. With tensions high we rocked up in Córdoba.

Immediately upon arrival we met Rachael, who had no last name and was not willing to hand out information. We swam in a creek, we went on a day trip to the Guevara house, and we danced til 4am. When we tired of Córdoba and of Rachael, we packed our bags and made a sign; MENDOZA, a small smiley face tacked on to soften the request. After a brief and wholly strange visit to an Argentinian diner, we took a bus to the outskirts of town and walked out further still until we found a highway.

It’s strange how inaccessible highways are to foot traffic. Not unexpected, admittedly, but off putting nonetheless. We carefully navigated our way beyond the sight lines of tollbooths, near a wide shoulder in the road, and gingerly placed our bags on the sweating asphalt. It was at this point that we realised I held the natural advantage. As many informal discussions on the topic seem to agree, it is advisable to have at least one female visible when trying to hitch. Apparently we women act as smiley faces to soften the request.

Not only was I female, however, but as an experimental girl of twenty-two I had decided to try out the one hair colour I had always feared — platinum. In South America, unfortunately, one does not sport blonde hair if one is a foreigner trying to fit in. In retrospect a terrible choice, but it felt bold at the time. With simmering temper, feminine physique and a standout platinum pixie cut, I took to the proverbial stage with our sign and a great deal of reluctance.

Blonde, being placed in a barrel.

I stood in the unforgiving Latin sun for what felt like hours, half-heartedly waving our pitiful piece of cardboard in some gesture towards the sign shakers I’d seen in American movies. At some point we switched it up and I got to disappear inside the shade of a nearby bush, but soon enough I was back out there turning an unflattering shade of pink.

Eventually a youngish, infinitely kind woman picked up on our obvious desperation, pulling over to let us and our luggage bundle into her tiny hatchback. As most stories do, ours begins a downward trajectory at this point.

Although I, as a lowly English speaker, was only relayed partial sections of the conversation, I soon gleaned that we had made a serious error in neglecting to thoroughly research the road maps of Córdoba. The highway we had selected did not, in fact, lend itself to travelling to Mendoza. Instead of aiming to the West, it led either North or South (I do not think I ever actually knew which). I can only assume that we failed to realise this during the planning phase because all three of us had exclusively lived in cities with functional public transport systems and weren’t overly familiar with the tendency of highways to go in specific directions.

Our kindly host, furthermore, was for reasons I never quite made out only able to take us half an hour toward her destination. Somewhat sheepish at this point, we readily agreed to her condition without further enquiry. Crushed between Jose and two massive duffle bags I watched the scenery grow rapidly more regional over the course of that half hour.

Arriving at the entrance to a small village, Madame Driver recommended we set up at a particular road to repeat our sign-shaking routine. It seemed, however, that although this road now led to Mendoza, there was an unhappy dearth of cars. Disheartened and tired from our recent encounter with the searing sun, and in desperate need of water, we wandered down into the village.

Water, it seemed, was hard to come by without access to the general store that remained stubbornly closed despite the mid-morning hour. Instead we treated ourselves to some empanadas at a nearby café, which was quite clearly just the front room of one of the houses on the leafy main strip. I was enamoured and made some attempts to communicate in my meagre Spanish with the children apparently attached to the café; something I was ordinarily loath to do in front of my travel partners who were prone to disdain. Though I was satisfied with the authenticity of the experience, our thirst had steadily worsened and we needed a travel solution.

It was around this time we realised there was a bus terminal. Rafa, indignant and sullen, denied its existence and urged us to go back to the road. Jose refrained from comment and I pouted. It’s unsafe to hitchhike, and surely it’s more dangerous in South America? A bus pulled in. The fare was low.

We rocked up in Córdoba.