Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Chile to Chile: a Motoring Marathon

On Sunday morning, around 9 a.m., I began a long solo drive that began in Punta Arenas (Chile) and took me to and across the Argentine border at Monte Aymond, proceeded north on coastal RN 3 to Comodoro Rivadavia, and then cut across northwest to the northern Patagonian lakes district. Finally, around 9 p.m. last night, I crossed the Andes from Villa la Angostura via the Paso Cardenal Samoré to spend the night at the nondescript lakeside town of Entre Lagos - a distance of roughly 2,070 km (about 1,280 miles) - in some 60 hours.

Because I was unable to snag a berth on the ferry from Puerto Natales back to Puerto Montt, I had no alternative but to return via Argentina. That may not sound like a great distance to anyone accustomed to driving four-lane freeways in the United States, but two-lane roads in the Southern Cone can be a different matter entirely.

I chose the route in question primarily because it consisted of paved roads, except for the odd bit of construction. That’s a little misleading as to driving conditions, though - RN 3 is pretty good, but segments of Chubut province’s RP 20 are badly grooved and potholed, as are some more northerly sections of RN 40 (I have written about RN 40’s southernmost parts many times).

For almost the entire trip, powerful headwinds and sidewinds that I would estimate at 50 knots with even higher gusts, didn’t much slow my progress. They did, however, eat into my gas mileage and, at the same time, they made it a challenge to stay on the road. With even stronger gusts every time an 18-wheeler passed in the opposite direction, it was all I could do to stay on the pavement, and I can only imagine how motorcyclists and bicyclists might feel simply trying to stay upright.

All that said, this was not the most irksome part of the trip - rather, it was the Argentine police. They’re my longstanding pet peeve, not because of overzealous enforcement (for what it’s worth, I have never seen an Argentine patrol car stop anybody for speeding; for that matter, I’ve rarely ever seen a patrol car on the highway, as opposed to parked alongside the road). It’s not even because they’re notorious for soliciting bribes for minor equipment violations, such as burnt-out brake lights, at roadside checkpoints (that’s not happened to me for a long time). Rather, it’s the time-wasting stops as 20-year-old rookies armed with a clipboards detain dozens of vehicles to write down number plates, check driver’s licenses, and ask each driver where he or she is coming from, and where they are heading.

Apart from the fact that it’s not their business whether I or any other non-felon might be Bariloche-bound, the police have no way of knowing whether or not our answers are truthful. Outside Río Gallegos, I told them I was driving to Alaska; at Sarmiento, I merely said “north” and, when asked if that meant the province of Formosa, I said it meant Canada. In reality, multiplied by the tens of thousands of times it must happen every day throughout the country, this is a pointless waste of resources; cumulatively, the lost time - not to mention the fossil fuels wasted by idling vehicles - is a burden on the Argentine economy.

That said, it’s been worse. In 1979, when I hitchhiked through an Argentine Patagonia then under a vicious military dictatorship, the police outside Puerto San Julián stopped a driver who had graciously given me and another young man a lift north from Río Gallegos. On learning that the other passenger was Israeli, the police took us all to the local station (pictured above) where, for more than an hour, they interrogated him with me as the default interpreter.

Aside from the fact that my Spanish language skills then were inferior to my current fluency, it was not easy to translate the combative Israeli’s “Tell these [expletives deleted] to go [expletive deleted] themselves.” At least, it was difficult to do so in any remotely delicate form, at a time when people often "disappeared" in such circumstances. That sort of flagrant anti-Semitism is thankfully rare in today’s Argentina, but I can never pass Puerto San Julián’s police station without being reminded of that time.

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