Varying and Irrational Standards or The Fickleness of a Traveller.
Chos Malal municipal campground is shown on the tourist office’s drawing as being on the banks of the Rio Curi Leuill, a small tributary of the considerably more consequential Rio Neuquen. The inference being tenting spots with immediate access, or at least view of a river. What the drawing omits are the excavated pits of river gravel, the flood protection gabion boxes, a gravel road and a link net fence. It’s a site that’s suffering under the weight of high season visitors, a spot of deep cleaning and bin emptying would help. It’s a dusty site, but the water tanker makes regular visits, one of which coincided with our ongoing research into local customs: the manufacture of artesanal ice creams. He soaked both ourselves and our field work. (The blue stuff: Cielo Azul turns out to be a bland generic whose interest lies entirely in the colour.) Not our best campground, but it’s safe, we can leave the tent unattended, a precaution not afforded on a wild roadside pitch or some of our pre-Christmas deserted camp grounds. In Scottish terms it was cheap, but we’re well converted to a South American economy so it lacked a certain level of VFM. We pay the tab, but feel slightly cheated, which is inconsistent, as we voluntarily contribute the same, for less, the following night.
We’ve found our way to our ’spa’ resort at Buta Ranquil, found our family, by the time this is posted number six will be in evidence, found the roosting chooks and the cold sulphur bath. When we arrive, like good little non-Latinos, we offer to pay immediately, ask the charge and father places his hand on his chest and says “what ever the heart considers right”. It’s also obvious that he isn’t expecting the pesos right away. It’s all very relaxed, all very easy, all very Latin. I’m distinctly unrelaxed, uneasy, very Scottish. That problem is all mine. I’m well outside a comfort box, but there’s no way that we can back out, conscience and credibility outweigh the anxiety. The tent pitch, or just the act of activity, help to create a bridge over the language chasm. The youngest boy is dressed for a dapper gaucho, eschewing the swimming attire of his brothers and sisters, bombacha trousers, checked shirt and soft leather shoes, is the first to inspect our abode. His older brother is the wheeler dealer, keen to sell us a bag of plums. We negotiate on weight rather than on price. He starts at a half carrier bag, we at a more carryable amount. We settle amicably at a quantity that will fit in our panniers and won’t leave us with upset stomachs. Then he disappears to climb through the fruit trees, returning soon, we pay and solemnly shake hands. A concluded deal. The epitome of a gentleman; he’ll enter grade three in the New Year.
What political correctness won’t readily allow, but what is very apparent; this is a form of poverty that is a challenge to my sensibilities. There’s no vehicle no machinery, no apparent means of employment. A recently extended slab sided house that asks the question, ¿How do seven, soon to be eight live in such a small space? Even with a communicable exchange, there’s no way I could ask. Yet the body language of both the parents and the siblings, speak of easy co-existence. To our own eyes, our meagre collection of western goods look and feel like oversized, overstuffed baubles. In North America we’d felt undernourished, our tent a thin disguise beside the monstrous RVs, our lack of outdoor heating mutinous, of air conditioning but a sure sign of deviance. Heretical to consumerism. We were subversives operating under the radar, and I gloried in challenging their perceptions, in being seditious, rebellious and different. Tonight it is we who are the fat, bloated face of first world western merchandise. Where a bicycle dynamo light is an extravagance, mud guards mere profligacy, travelling time a decadence. Not so gloriously revolutionary now.
Father and sons come down to our camp, ostensibly to put on a light, but there‘s no way that we could accept that expense; we‘ll be bedded down long before dark anyway. We exchange the near standard repartee of our route, the beauty, the tranquillity, the friendliness……. We try to ascertain the road conditions, the reprovisioning possibilities further up the road. But it’s obvious that his world is centred on this town and his family. The lamp lighting exercise, a polite cover for collecting our camping fee. We’d both agreed previously that a contribution that matched our previous night in Chos Malal was in order. It’s accepted with grace and an easy acceptance. What degree of our account can be set against guilt is not easy to calculate, but I can reassure my conscience that at least these pesos go direct to a beneficial cause, and not into the coffers of a local government. I was also buying, not only a pitch and a bath, but also a story and an experience. Sometimes it’s views down alleys, glimpses through windows, a spectacle from the safe exposure of a moving bicycle or the security of a tinted glass window of a passing car, that are our only exposure to a differing financial world. Voyeuristic tourism. Occasionally we need to be denuded, stripped of our protective covers, the anonymity of the traveller. If at the same time we are discomforted and challenged, then it’s these episodes and exposures that add to the travelling experience.