The Insane Traffic Situation
In the remote village of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini and the roads leading into it, there are few rules that I am aware of. Humans and animals share the same spaces and seem to accommodate each other’s idiosyncrasies. No one knows whether the normal traffic pattern should be driving on the left or the right side of the road. It all depends on the depth of the mud and the ruts. There is a really big farm tractor with a winch that routinely extracts cars that get in over their head, so to speak. On the 120 kilometer dirt and sand washboard road leading into the village from the town of Mercedes, the drivers of cars, vans, buses, and trucks all drive wherever they think they will find the smoothest section of road. I haven’t quite figured this out, because going south we drive on the left side of the road and going north we drive on the left side of the road, which means we prefer the “wrong” side of the road no matter which way we are going. It also means that going in either direction the drivers prefer the side of the road they were avoiding at all costs when they were headed the other way, if you get what I am trying to say here. If I spoke better Spanish I would ask them about this. When a vehicle approaches from the other direction everyone seems to play a very polite game of “chicken” with warm smiles and hand waving all around.
A new road and airport
There are exciting new elements on the traffic scene. The state or federal government has announced they are going to pave the road into Colonia Carlos Pellegrini. Do you mind terribly if we refer to this village as CCP for efficiency’s sake? A Mercedes attorney explained to me with a smile that this is the fourth time funds have been allocated for the paving of the road, and the last three times some enterprising official ran off with the funds. It seems this happens a lot in Argentina. No one seems to get too excited.
They might be serious about it this time, though, because piles of concrete light poles are being deposited alongside the dirt road, I guess in preparation for the road work. I don’t understand this either, because I thought you put the light poles in at the very end of creating a road, not at the beginning. But then maybe they need the light to see what they will be doing. Speaking of lights and poles, the electric in CCP goes out daily, sometimes for hours at a time. The electric is supplied from Mercedes, and apparently the problem is that the power distribution lines are on poles that are planted in marshy, very wet ground, and they are not secured by concrete or otherwise stabiized. On the handful of round trips I have made to and from Mercedes (usually to get or send emails or write posts like this one), I have noticed that many of the power lines list at a wacky 45 degrees or so. No one seems to be disturbed by this fact. Is it just me?
There is also a tiny new airport being built outside the village for small planes. The locals are vigorously debating whether all this activity is good or bad for the village.
The Retro Buses
A final comment before we move on from traffic, both animal and vehicular. A word about how to get a bus into or out of CCP. There are three bus “companies” that service the constant traffic in and out; Mr. Ortiz, the Ibera boys, and Mr. Facundo Munoz. The Ibera boys seem to be the cheapest, at 150 pesos per trip one way. They have two Mercedes-Benz vans that have seats for 13 people, although on one trip I counted 19 for a short distance before some passengers got off and transferred to another bus. The Ibera boys have huge smiles that would melt a heart of stone, and when I am carrying a very heavy backpack they always help remove it from my shoulders and put it in the back of their van, which I appreciate. Like Mr. Ortiz, they apply a gringo tax of varying amounts, but when they understood that I was a volunteer teaching English to some of the village children, I got the 150 peso rate. This sounds like a big number but it’s only about $11 for a 3-hour trip that beats the hell out of their vehicles (and your spinal column). So I always tip them 50 pesos, which brings my total cost to about $14.Their “office” is across the street from the school and I see them working hard at cleaning and maintaining their two vans. Twice on trips with them, we had momentary stops in the middle of nowhere while they took out some tools and walked around the front of the van and knocked on some things, and then off we went. No idea what that was all about.
Mr. Ortiz drives an old white van with ruby red drapes on the windows. I think it’s because of the red drapes that it always reminds me of a hearse. Mr. Ortiz brought me into the village on my first trip, and he charged me 360 pesos, and not knowing any better, I gave him a 50 peso tip, which probably made him think I really was a stupid gringo and an easy mark, because he charged me more than double the usual rate and then I rewarded him with a handsome tip to boot. But I didn’t know any better at the time. I haven’t used him since that time, but his is the only bus that provides transportation on Sundays.
Finally, there is Mr. Facundo Munoz, a very handsome young man who looks extremely dashing in his uniform. His company is called Crucero, and I don’t know if he owns his bus, or if he is a driver for a bus company. He is the only one of the three that does not use gringo pricing. His price is published, and he is the only driver who, without being asked, writes you a receipt for your cash payment. You can also book on his bus online and print out a reservation, all of which makes me think he is part of a bigger, more professional operation. But then there’s the bus, which he parks outside his house in the village. It is not a van, but is a real bus, big, old, and very, very yellow. When it is not very dirty from the ride, which is not his fault. His price is a little higher, at 190 pesos, but I respect him for his uniform pricing and straightforward accountability. The inside of his bus is shown below. With a much longer wheelbase, it is a slightly more comfortable ride than the vans of the other two operations. And no funeral drapes on the windows. Don’t tourists want to see what they came to see?
I take the Flecha Omnibus (double-decker) from Buenos Aires to Mercedes, or vice versa. The bus is very nice. The sleepers are on the bottom and a little more expensive, but worth it for a nine-hour ride. Of course on the top, you get to see more, but you also hear the branches of trees scraping on the roof of the bus when you are driving through towns. Flecha serves a full meal on these rides, and the bus driver stops at what looks like a small business on the streets of some town and they supply all the meals, airline style. And I was very pleasantly surprised that the meals are very tasty, better in fact, than what I’ve gotten on many flights.
On my first of these long bus trips I noticed the big windows on the bottom half of the bus had close-weave wire mesh over the windows, which certainly obscures your view, darkening it. When I inquired, I was told it was because locals occasionally throw rocks at the bus windows. I found that hard to believe, because when I went into the big, main Buenos Aires bus station at Retiro, the neighborhood looked fine to me, nothing remarkable or sinister. However, when I came into town this morning at 5 a.m. (I am writing from Buenos Aires at the moment), I got a view of the neighborhood from the back side of the bus station, and now I understand the wire mesh. See the photo below.
The food in Colonia Carlos Pellegrini
In my opinion there is a shortage of vegetables, both in quantity and quality. Carrots and eggplant are common but salads are rare; definitely not a part of daily cuisine. There is a heavy emphasis on a variety of pastas. The desserts are very high in sugar content. Obesity is common among the village women, and some of the children. To me that means diabetes is not far behind, and all this has to be diet related. Perhaps obesity is less common among the men because they are more involved in physical activities. The common diet is probably driven by costs. Most vegetables are brought in from quite a distance, in some cases a couple hundred kilometers, and that means higher cost. I do not understand why some enterprising farmer doesn’t approach all the posada owners and offer a deal where if enough will buy produce from him or her, the farmer will invest in more acreage dedicated to vegetables. Most of the cooks are local, and they are creative working with what they have. The village does not have a first class bakery or professional chef that I know of. I think to bring one in, a posada owner or the village as a whole would have to offer an investment opportunity. There are 26 posadas and/or lodges in this tiny village.
The ambience and spirit of the village
Three words come to mind right away: pristine, pretty, and primitive. Not primitive as in stone age, but in the sense of doing the best you can with limited resources, and putting your best foot forward with dignity and pride. The interior and exterior of many of these posadas are nothing less than astonishing. Their immaculate lawns are golf-course quality, and the interiors are beautifully designed and well maintained. Some of the kitchens behind the scenes match the front of the house in cleanliness and some do not. Many of the proprietors have clearly invested in architects for their design, sometimes by sacrificing amenities like an automatic washing machine adequate to handle all the linens and towels; or decent kitchen equipment in good operating condition that goes with a substantial hotel operation. Sometimes there are shortages of the simplest things, like wash or dry cloths, dish detergent, hand soap, hair shampoo that actually cleans your hair, or plastic wrap or containers to keep leftovers uncontaminated in the refrigerator. And in other cases, there are French perfumed soaps and the best of everything. And of course there are different price points for everything. I have seen many, many very conscientious and hard working staffers in the village. If they want to attract more travelers from North America, or even Europe for that matter, they will need more English speakers, especially as guides. Aesthetically I think the village is outstanding. On operational details they occasionally come up short, but are easily forgiven.
At least one well-stocked bar with a bartender who knows what to do with all that stuff would be an added attraction, as well as a candy/bakery store in the spirit of the 2000 film Chocolat starring Juliette Binoche. I am thinking not so much of unnecessary amenities for guests that would change the essential nature of the village’s charm, but of enterprises that would fill existing customer tastes and generate profits for the owners.
I am guessing the vacancy rate is high in the village, and that is because the owners are fairly illiterate about using the internet effectively to generate traffic to their websites, which presently serve mostly as information centers for those potential guests who have already heard about them. And who could blame these entrepreneurs when it is so difficult to send or receive emails, create bookings, or monitor their own websites? It’s like trying to sell cars for a living when there’s none on your lot. Essential infrastructure at the present time is unreliable or lacking.
You have a practically engraved reputation to join the parade here as a subscriber, where we bring you together with travelers and locals from all over the world in a meaningful, real way. You are invited, not to join us like a bump on a log, but to join in the fun of the party, to participate. Share your travel experiences and desires, whether on the other side of the planet or down the street. Every time we test drive a new taste bud or think in a new direction, we are travelers. We are living proof that we can set our differences aside, be positive, and find common ground. Write comments in your mother tongue or practice your English. I am murdering Spanish at the moment. It doesn’t matter. We are communicating. And there’s always Google Translate.
You can subscribe by filling in your email address on the top right corner of the opening page of this blog, or if you are using your phone, at the very bottom of that page. Greetings from Buenos Aires, wherever you are!