Saturday, 13 June 2009


I usually consider fate to be nothing more than wishful thinking. Those souls attached to the notion of predestined events are merely using hindsight; reading the book backwards as it were to make a series of coicidences more than just mere coincidences. This is especially tempting if one of the events turns out to be momentous. A plane crashes that you were scheduled to catch, but you got sick and missed ther flight. It is easy to imagine that your sickness must be fate or the hand of a higher power saving you from harm´s way. Of course cause and effect is at work but there´s no great mystery or higher significance to it.

Another dimension to this small meditation on fate and free will is the topic of decisions. Maybe you missed the aforementioned hypothetical flight home because you could not tear yourself away from a recently met lover. As soon as she finds out her love made you stay and thus saved your life, she´s going to think you were meant to be together for always.

How many such decisions do we make of this magnitude of importance? Deciding what colour boxers to wear or whether to go to the pub or whether to have another joint before hitting the sack are decisions without any significant ramifications. However wearing unsexy boxers, smoking too much grass and then going out to the pub could conspire to ruin your chances with the fit bird you meet outside the chip shop.

The following tale relates a series of chance events and decisions that ended with a happy conclusion. A serendipitous ending one might say.

We arrived in Tafi del Valle in the Calchaquies mountain range in the afternoon. A small town at about 2,000 metres above sea level. To save money and get a more outdoor dimension to our travels we decided to camp. Once our tent was set up we were approached by a burly Argentine man. He brusquely signalled me to follow him. My wife was off looking at the horses grazing at the bottom of the campsite. I followed the man to a BBQ spot where he and his wife, baby and 4 friends were having a party. My wife found me and we were soon plied with chicken, bread and red wine. Despite our lack of Spanish and their complete lack of English we managed to have a good time. Argentines seem to be great communicators and are keen to find out all about visitors to their country. We chatted, ate and drank before they packed up to go home. They left us a pot full of left over food and a tin of green peas.

That night was literally freezing but the great chicken stew, ganga and cheap red wine kept our spirits up. We huddled over the charcoals and played with the local stray dogs. Being winter in Argentina we had the place to ourselves. I was loving it but my wife was suffering from the cold even after putting on several layers and getting in her sleeping bag. So it was that I had to conceed to her wishes and the next morning we checked into the hostel down the road.

Having conceeded to more comfortable and warmer accommodation, I used this as a bargaining chip to get my wife to accommopany me on a trek. We took the advice of Alex who worked at the hostel and set off on the walk to the nearby village of El Mollar. We began walking at 10am through the small town. We easily found the start of the trail. It was the first turning on the right after crossing the bridge. It was a wide dusty track that followed the nearly dried out river bed. As we walked we passed an incongrous dental surgery and then more congrous rustic and basic houses belonging to Artisanos. (Sometimes it feels like every fifth Argentine is an artisan). Within twenty minutews walking we were out in the wild. It was a wide gently sloping valley with greenry all round. The sun was shinning and we happily made our way slowly down the trail stopping often to observe the variety of birds nesting nearby. One bird was particularly striking - a small bird with floresent green plummage. We also passed idyllic small ranches hugging the mountainside with pasture out front for a few grazing horses.

About 40 minutes we reached a fork in the path. Following Alex´s directions we took the path to the right. We were now close to the big lake of the area, (Dique La Anglostura)Soon the trail passed infront of a small cemetry. It was walled on one side and the other side was the mountains. The necropolis contained hundreds of small but colourful graves. Most were made of rough cement, a few were tiled. They all had plastic flowers and small headstones made into small boxes with locked glass fronts that contained photos and memorabilia of the dead. The cemetry was empty. The moment was perfect as we walked up the rows of grave markers, like a scene from a movie or an interlude in a dream - the two of us in the valley walking amongst the beloved but deserted dead.

Full of weighty thoughts we left the cemetry and continued down the trail.

We passed a small village called Ojo La Aqua which was composed of a string of ramshackel housing, a school and a football pitch. Gradually the road got wider and better as we approached the centre of El Mollar. We arrived at the central plaza at 3pm which contained a field of menhires. Alex had told us that there was a bus at 4pm back to Tafi del Valle. Keen to avail ourselves of the benefits of an easy return journey we went searching for the bus terminal. We walked down the main road for a couple of kilometres to the edge of the village, and still we found nothing resembling a bus stop. We asked a local and got a fairly incomprehensible reply in Spanish; but a definite point back to the central plaza. So we went back to the plaza and found the only open restaurant (everything closes in the afternoon in Argentina). The empanadas and milanese especial sandwich was great.

Come 3.50pm we hurriedly paid the bill and posted ourselves on the corner of the plaza, convinced the bus must pass this point. There were kids playing football on the road and a couple of fat brown skinned old ladies sitting on a bench nearby. We pegged the ladies for fellow bus travellers.

It got to 4.30pm and still there was no sign of a bus. The old ladies had been picked up by a car. We started asking around about the bus and were told there was a bus at 5pm embarking from a plce just down the road. We followed the points and found a group of 20 locals hanging outside a parrilla restaurant. It looked more hopeful for us, and when we saw a bus pull over we were overjoyed. But what was that? Everyone had tickets. We rushed into the restaurant in search of elusive tickets only to be told that the bus wasn´t going to Tafi but to Tucuman. We were informed that the bus we wanted departed at 6pm.

There we were, the sun following it´s track down the sky past the mountains and stuck in a village. There were no taxis to be seen. To let off steam I cussed for a while and then pulled myself together and assessed our options. We could wait for the possible 6pm bus, walk back the way we had come or try and find the main road back to Tafi and hitch. We didn´t have any map or much Spanish. My trust in the local bus timetable was at a very low ebb. So I gritted my teeth and told my wife we had to speed hike back the way we had come. Seeing that I had made up my mind, my wife fell in and we quickly re-traced our steps through the village to the trekking path.

We made good speed and soon cleared the outskitrs of El Mellor. Then a minor miracle happened. We spotted an old beat up grey pick up truck slowly making its way down the stony road. I put out my hand and flagged down the vehicle. The old man who was driving the pick up stopped. I opened the passenger door and said the name of our destination. He shook his head and I was about to turn away when he signalled for us to get in. That was a big relief. The old man then continued to negotiate the stony road. At least we were going in the right direction, and faster than walking. With my nearly non-existent Spanish but highly attuned sense of guessing we had a basic conversation. He told us he wasn´t going all the way to Tafi but could take us a few kilometres down the road. He wanted to know where we were from and how long we´d been in Tafi and where we were going next. I was just about to try and cobble together a question about what he was doing driving down a fucked up road when my wife indicted for me to look behind. The pick up was full of gas bottles. That explained all the horn honking when we got to Ojo El Aqua. We were riding with the gas man.

After the small village the gas man stopped at a junction and pointed out the route for us to follow. He said we had 3kms to go. What a tme saver; and the sun was still above the mountain line. In no time at all we made it back to the cemetry and started remembering the various twists and turns the path took up the valley.

By 6pm we made it to the trail head and onto the bridge leading into town. We felt elated as only you can be when you´ve had an intuition that your bacon has just been saved.

And it gets better. As we were crossing the bridge over El Rio Churqui a young woman on a motorbike flew past us. In her dust fluttered a white and pink note. My wife and I immediately recognised it as a 100 peso note and dived into the road to retrieve the bill. As we looked up she was gone. If she had been driving slower we might have been able to signal to her that she had dropped some money.

So we had our first day in South America where we recorded a profit in the daily leger of costs.

To trace the series of accidents and decisions that lead to this happy state of affairs I will sumerise in numbered points:

1) We decided to move to a hostel because the night before camping had been freezing.

2) Because we moved to the hostel, the English speaker had recommended the trek to El Mollar.

3) Because the bus didn´t go back to Tafi at 4pm, 4.30pm or 5pm we decided to trek back to the hostel.

4) Because we got a lift from the gas man we got back to the bridge just at the exact moment when the woman dropped a 100 peso note on the road.

5) Because of the 100 peso note we recorded a profit for the day.

Now that´s serendipity for you.

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