Who Ever Said Hitchhiking is Dangerous?

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I arrived in Santiago de Chile in early November looking for adventures.  I made my way North to the desert and a week later, I drove out of San Pedro de Atacama in a rented Nissan 2×4 pick-up truck with a Seattleite, two Aussies, and a Quebeqouis, all of whom I’d met in the last seven days. Although I was the youngest and least experienced driver of the group, my new friends agreed to let me have the wheel after ceaseless pestering.

Thankfully, the not-so-astute but very tedious Chilean bureaucrats overlooked the fact that my New Jersey provisional license doesn’t permit me to drive out of state as I crossed the border into Bolivia. My companions and I spent four days in the Atacama desert, sleeping under some of the starriest skies in the world, bathing in hot springs, watching geysers erupt, marveling at flamingos as they fed on crustaceans in salt lakes, driving through canyons, climbing up sand dunes, chasing llamas, and receiving second degree burns from the sun. We once got the car stuck in sand fifty meters off the road and 30 kilometers from the nearest town, but perseverance, ninety minutes of wheel- spinning, and creative use of a carjack got us back on the highway. All those years of Spanish study really came in handy when I had to talk the cops out of arresting us for illegal camping. For us, every obstacle seemed like another opportunity for an exciting challenge and the excursion easily became the biggest adventure of my life until that point.

In late November, I left Mendoza and started walking westward along Argentina’s Route 7 with 30 kilograms on my back and my thumb out. My extensive travels had taught me to expect the unexpected and that no equipment or gear could better prepare me for the unexpected than an optimistic disposition and an open mind. That Wednesday morning, I knew that hitchhiking would be a cheap but slow way to cross the thousand kilometers of highway between Mendoza and Buenos Aires. I had no idea that hitchhiking would be an eye-opening exploration of Argentine working-class culture.

I met two Argentinean truckers, Pipo and Vincente, in an YPF gas station just off of Route 7 and I asked Pipo if he would give me a ride to Buenos Aires. He agreed to bring me but indicated that it might take a while to reach my destination. We immediately bonded over our mutual distaste for Chilean culture and our shared interest in the beautiful women that passed by. (I confess I severely exaggerated my views to put myself in Pipo’s good graces.) In my first verbal exchange with Vincente, he asked me if I thought 10 pesos (about $3 US) was a fair price for the hire of a prostitute.

We spent several hours perusing products at the mall including radios, computers, DVD players, clothes, flip flops, refrigerators, and cell phones. Pipo and Vincente amused themselves by selecting random items from the women’s section in Carrefour (a South American Sears equivalent) and urging me to try them on. Vincente finally settled on purchasing a lawn chair, a suitcase, soap, and shampoo. He spent a total of 258 pesos ($82 US)—about one third of his weekly salary, about half of my weekly budget in Argentina, five times the price of a 500 gram steak in an up scale restaurant, and 26 times the amount that Vincente considers fair to pay a hooker.

At dinner, my friends assaulted me with a barrage of mildly funny and consistently annoying jokes. “He wants to know your name,” Vincente told the voluptuous waitress, “he just doesn’t know how to ask in Spanish.”

“Stephanie.” the waitress told me through her long fluttering eyelashes.

As I turned my head from the toothsome Argentine back to the table, I discovered Vincente’s shoe where my plate had just been. When Vincente continued to encourage me in my flirtation with the waitress, I reminded him that I had a girlfriend. Demonstrating his cunning wit, he pointed out that she was across the ocean and would never find out. He said that in Argentina it is uncommon, even expected, that men cheat on their wives and girlfriends. I suppose this isn’t so different from the United States, though at least perhaps American men try to be less conspicuous in their infidelity. The middle-aged truck drivers erupted with laughter.  Later, around the desert course, I had a chance to pay Vincente back with my shoe on his place setting.

“He learns quickly!” Pipo exclaimed through sidesplitting guffaws.

By Wednesday night, I’d already spent countless hours in the YPF’s QuickyMart, watching World Cup qualifiers and reading The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. Enthralled with the climax of the story in which a holocaust survivor who searches for meaning in a life in which he has lost everyone and everything that he loved—I was continually interrupted by Vincente’s irreverent jokes. As I read, my traveling companions sat next to me watching porn on Pipo’s cell phone. Technology has really done some wondrous things. During halftime of the Brasil/Uruguay game, a pair of prostitutes walked into the service station. Their revealing garments that qualified as clothes only by the word’s most liberal definition made little attempt to conceal their less-than-appealing figures. My friends asked me if I wanted to have sex with either of the two. One even mentioned that he would treat me. I politely declined.

The hookers left. I continued my book. They continued their porn. Minutes later, Pipo tapped me on the shoulder and showed me a video of a girl with two monstrously large black penises in her mouth. He asked me if my girlfriend participated in the activities demonstrated in the video. When I told him that she didn’t, he responded by supposing that it would complicate our relationship. I started a new chapter. He started a new video. After Brasil beat Uruguay, 2-1, Pipo retired his pornographic cell phone and told me that I could sleep on top of his friend’s truck where I wouldn’t be bothered by the morning dew or the police.

I spent most of Thursday and Friday with Pipo’s cousins that live in Maipu (the urban sprawl municipality on the outskirts of Mendoza where I met Pipo). They were extremely friendly and open and eager to share their carnivorous cuisine with me (a bit of a shock to my largely vegetarian diet). Over a lunch, we watched Men of Honor on TV, which inspired a discussion on racism in the United States and the rest of the world.

Pipo and Vincente bragged about their Yanqui friend (me) to all of their fellow camioneros and anyone else with whom they happened to be speaking. The two truckers had never spoken with a North American before making my acquaintance. As exciting and interesting our encounter was for me, it might have been interesting for them, too. “He’s not shit like us,” Pipo would tell his friends. “He reads books and poetry. He doesn’t sleep with prostitutes. He even stays faithful to his girlfriend even though she is thousands of kilometers away.” This last point shocked everyone and disappoint Pipo’s nieces who seemed quite intrigued my blonde hair and blue eyes.

Once we drove out of Maipu on Friday night, I started to realize how different Pipo was from his coworkers. His incessant and demeaning shouts at women diminished. Conversation shifted from pussy to politics. We talked about Bush and he told me that before meeting me, he thought that all Americans were conservative war-mongering idiotas like our president. He told me about his family situation. When he was my age, not knowing what a condom was, he had his first son. “I got a girlfriend, we touched each other, we got horny, and she got pregnant,” Pipo explained. He had a daughter two years later with the same woman and another son three years after that with a different woman. He and his children now live with his girlfriend and her two kids from previous lovers. Pipo single-handedly supports them all and he hasn’t heard from either of his exes in years.

Two hours after leaving Maipu, we arrived in San Luis where Pipo’s family lives. I spent the weekend sleeping on the floor of his living/dining room, eating home-cooked meals, visiting more cousins than I could count, and telling captivated audiences about my travels and the United States. Though I was itching to get to Buenos Aires, I was sad to leave San Luis on Sunday afternoon. Pipo and his family had shown me so much hospitality and had given me one of my best traveling experiences ever. Monday morning, five days after leaving Mendoza, I waved goodbye to Pipo at a loading dock on the outskirts of El Capital Federal and set off into Buenos Aires, one of the world’s largest cities, in search of my next great adventure.

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