So, you’ve reached the end of the world! What next? How about a relaxed week visiting national parks, museums and penguin colonies?
But everything is absurdly expensive…
Well why not catch a cheap pre-booked flight up to Buenos Aires and enjoy Christmas in the sun?
How about hitchhiking with a fully loaded touring bike over 3000km and risk spending Christmas drinking box wine alone in a barn?
We have a winner!
Months ago, long before the reality of the situation had set in, I decided upon hitchhiking my way north from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires. It would be fun, I thought. I’d meet some characters, see a whole other side of Argentina and save myself a lot of money in the process. I’d heard tales of other cyclists doing this so knew it was possible. All I needed was a bit of luck and plenty of patience.
However, as I sat in the snug confines of Refugio de los Mochileros in Ushuaia surrounded by cyclists preparing to fly home for Christmas my plan didn’t seem so alluring. Staring at the map the distance seemed greater than ever. What had my stupid past self got my present self into? As I wheeled my way to the entrance of Ushuaia, a mere 2 days after arriving, I can’t say I was brimming with wanderlust and enthusiasm. I just wanted to go home. Weighed down by the steel grey skies I stuck out my thumb and hoped for the best.
“So, where are you from?” “England” “ENGLAND??? THE FALKLANDS!! GET OUT!!!”
For a split second my blood ran cold before Guillermo roared with laughter. Ice broken, he went on to display his abilities as a radio football commentator.
“AAAAAND KUN AGUERO MARKS ANOTHER FINE PERFORMANCE FOR MANCHESTER CITY WITH 2 SPECTACULAR STRIKES! GOOOOOOOOOOAAAALLLLLL!!!!”
While hitchhiking with a bike is far more difficult it does occasionally have its advantages. If you’re ever stuck in a bad spot you can always cycle your way out of it. With none of the trucks biting and a favourable wind, I decided to cycle the 40km north to the border.
Many cyclists had told me of the fabled perfect tailwind. The kind so strong and pure that without putting foot to pedal you glide across the earth at 20mph like some kind of thrillseeking angel. I doubted its existence until I had the pleasure of being pushed for 15km by this benevolent force.
Unfortunately all good things must end and 10km short of the border the road took a sharp turn and I had to wrestle for what felt like hours with a horrendous crosswind. It had me roaring with rage like a dyspeptic grizzly bear with tourettes and by the time I arrived at the border I felt like I’d been violated.
During one of our conversations he casually mentioned he was one of the famous desaparecidos – the people kidnapped, tortured and sometimes murdered by the military dictatorship of the 80s. He had some leftist affiliations so he was tortured and forced to work in a prison for 6 months before the dictatorship fell. He considers himself lucky. He was kidnapped towards the end of their brutal reign; if he’d been caught earlier he’d have had to give up the names of all his friends and colleagues, something he was unsure he could live down. Later he stood as a witness against some of the convicted perpetrators and now receives a small pension for having done so. It was so shocking to be chatting with someone affected directly by these atrocities. As privileged westerners we hear about these things on TV or in books but rarely are we confronted with them face to face.
Our chats aside, my time in Rio Gallegos was fairly miserable. A constant strong westerly wind whipped in, trapping me for another day, then rendering my fruitless hours of thumb waving even more joyless. It’s easy to think “it’ll be fun” before the fact but once you’ve stared down rejection for 6 hours on the edge of a wind blown industrial shithole it’s hard to remain positive.
Cycle touring can be tough but the beauty lies in the freedom it gifts. You’re your own master. You go when you want to go. You stop when you want to stop. Hitchhiking on the other hand is the complete opposite. Your destiny lies completely in the kindness of strangers. Alone and vulnerable you stick out your thumb, smile and pray that just one blessed soul will take a leap of faith and pick you up. Then, after hours of being palmed off by what feels like an entire nation, some rare Samaritan does you a solid. But they go when they want to go, stop when they want to stop. At once you’re deeply grateful and utterly neutered, a hostage to their kindness. It’s this dynamic that at makes hitchhiking equally humbling and frustrating. You’re confronted by the very best of humanity, but are passively involved, swept down the river without a paddle.
At this point the prospect of spending Christmas alone in the dingy campsite kitchen was staring me in the face. In my drunkenness I decided I needed a plan. Obviously what I was doing wasn’t working. How could I endear myself to all these blank faced drivers? I focused on the weak spot of every Argentinian and went and bought a brick of mate herbs. If seeing a gringo waving a bag of the national beverage on the side of the road wouldn’t endear them to me nothing would.
These 13 days were simultaneously some of the most rewarding and draining of the entire trip. No longer was the struggle physical but mental and emotional. And while I’d never do it again I found the kindness of the drivers and the people I met along the way deeply inspiring and moving. The way in which the people here naturally veer towards kindness and sharing without question felt so removed from the English reserve I’ve grown up with. I also got to chat about politics, what it is to be Argentinean, the struggles and strifes of living in this country. For the first time I felt like I got under the skin of this land in a way that wasn’t possible on the bike.
If I take anything away from this trip it’ll be the essential human goodness that I was repeatedly gifted by the fine people of Argentina. God fahkin bless ya!!
Tunes: Moby – Best of, Various Hair Metal Bands, Sabroso, The Psychedelic Furs – Greatest Hits, Joy Division – Closer
Reads: Moby – Porcelain, The Spy Who Came in From The Cold – John Le Carre, The Electric Cool Aid Acid Test – Tom Wolfe, Waking Up – Sam Harris
A week in Buenos Aires followed by the final hurrah: 2 weeks of cycling through Uruguay before arriving at Montevideo, the city that came calling to me all those years ago in Italy.