Sunday, 10 April 2011

When First Impressions are Everything

We need cash, we need camping, we need the first to pay for the second. Our last source for extracting pesos lies three days behind us.  The guidebook, a current edition, suggests that we are heading into a cashless, or at least, a cash sourceless zone.  It adds a certain level of interest to our day, a little spice to flavour an Argentine experience.

‘Cajeros Automaticos’, the glass cabinets that enclose a peso vending machine abound, usually in close proximity to the local plaza.  It’s as good a place as any to start enquiries.  They’re best identified by the queue of  people snaking out and around the side of the most modern, or the best renovated building in town.  Fortunately the guidebook is in error and has been since 2003.  There’s even a choice of providers: the Provincial and the National banks have a representation, both in the same building.  The ‘bean counter’ joins the queue, what seems to be a stagnant column and causes mild confusion by managing to be in two lines at the same time.  We have no particular preference or affinity for either brand, so it’s of no consequence who acquires our trade, but for locals it’s important.  It’s been a source of some interest to note the files forming outside one bank, whilst another of a differing stripe, one just down the road, one that’s just served us, stands empty. Jokingly, or at least part kidding, we wonder if there’s been a ‘run on the bank’, or did someone start a rumour?  It hasn’t  happened yet, but it’s come close. after striking a string of ATMs that are out of service, we start to become concerned.  Has the 'run' been and gone, is the cupboard empty?  It’s then that a queue is a reassuring sight and we’re happy to stand and wait for half an hour, awaiting our turn.  Will the virtual ’Indian’ bank manager consume our card?  Will it be the ink or the paper that runs out first?  Or will it be that there’s nothing left in the font?

Replete with some new pesos, we celebrate with a YPF coffee, to shelter and drip waterproofs, to peruse the visitor information and plot our options for accommodation.

The staff are remarkably sanguine about the spreading puddle of water that’s dribbling across their floor.  Maybe we might stay a little longer and order up some food.  It’s tempting; however, the rain seems determined to persevere, so we head off to camp. 

San Augustine has a selection of four campsites, and today a petrol infused fiesta of  motor bikes and rough terrain cars.  It’s a long weekend of rallying in the sierras.  Our first choice, the one recommended by the tourist office, has been commandeered by the event, the access road being part of the finishing line.  So we head for the guidebook recommendation.  Now gum tree sites in the dry can be nice, even ideal - that is, if you favour an understorey of wind blown nunca.  Nothing grows under a eucalyptus, with the exception of dirt and dust, as a consequence they need constant maintenance and management. There’s the need for sweeping the littering, peeling bark and the shedding leaves and for controlling the Argentine's utterly imperative, absolute need and overwhelming compulsion to drive over every potential camp spot.  Otherwise the impression of neglect and decay is complete. However, if you now add wet green season to an under-maintained place, you have what met our eyes.  It’s a depressing depiction of destitution.  A rutted, muddy track for a road, a collection of plastic shrouded tents with limp, dank, dripping bedding.  Soaked mattresses propped against cars, blankets being wrung out under the meagre shelter offered by the baños building.  Puddles and rivulets flow from pitch to pitch, ponding around the stand pipes. It’s a ploughed over morass of churned up mud, a sea of despair, with a hanging aura of desperation.  One circuit of this ’Somme’ was enough, “Let’s try another place”.   

The next is small and looks busy; El Patron meets us at the gate.  He hesitates at our request, but we don’t give him a chance.  We’ve both spied a minute patch of grass that’s part of his entrance and we suggest that our tent will fit under the saw palm, behind the gate, in this part of his front garden. Whether it’s our audacity, or the prospect of an easy camp fee, I’m not sure, for he readily agrees.

We play the comical cycling gringos, sitting illustrious, in the exhibition position, stuck on a very public pedestal; yet the most prominent of placements can be the safest.  When a bunch of grapes appear with the usual group of interested, inquisitive (or plain bored) young boys, I know then that we can safely leave all our kit unattended and head off into town to continue the onerous, strenuous field work into our favourite treat.  For we are now the collective responsibility of the whole campsite.  It’s a reassuring, warm feeling, one that we are fast learning to be a major part of the Argentine national characteristic.