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.

RUSH HOUR. If you’re checking your rear view mirror, these two are pulling up on you fast. They are known for hogging intersections and road rage. I saw one of them kick a dog, except the dog was faster and got out of the way. As you can see, the filly is tailgating at high speed.

 

CAUTION: DUCK CROSSING. Not maintaining minimum speed and approaching traffic.

 

RAPID TRANSIT. Juvenile, joyriding, probably without a license.

 

PASSING IN A NO PASSING ZONE. Reckless driving. The horse’s back legs can do some serious damage to that bike. Never mind the driver. (Avoid night driving if you have cataracts.)

 

SLOW DRIVING IN THE PASSING LANE. Blocking oncoming traffic.

 

ROAD RAGE. No idea what’s going on here. Avoid eye contact and keep moving. It might get ugly.

 

 

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?

SOBER VILLAGERS BUT TIPSY POWER DISTRIBUTION POLES. Sometimes it seems all that is holding the power line poles up are the power lines themselves. Ten days ago the power went out for several days in the village. Emergency power was provided intermittently by a diesel generator in the village operated by the new mayor. When the power goes out, the internet, such as it is, also evaporates. The storm in question had high winds and apparently 42 of these power supply poles on the road from Mercedes fell over. Please forgive the poor quality photo; it was taken through a very dirty bus window on a very dusty and bumpy road. But it’s enough to give you the idea. The only internet source in the village for about a week was on the front porch of the mayor’s office, and then only from 12:30 to 2:00 p.m. So every day there was a crowd of people standing or sitting on the porch trying to get messages in or out, including yours truly.

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?

Mr. Munoz’s bus. He doesn’t discriminate in his pricing and he always gives a receipt. His big yellow bus has the name Crucero on it.

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.

WATCH OUT FOR ROCKS THROWN AT YOUR WINDOW. The back side of Retiro bus station in Buenos Aires. Explains the wire mesh on the bottom side of the doubledecker buses. Marysia, a substitute English teacher with 15 years experience teaching English in Hong Kong told me that when she came into Mercedes from the city of Corrientes, someone did throw a rock through a window of the bus she rode on.

 

ALL HAT AND NO CATTLE.  An old expression meaning basically a fancy hat doesn’t mean deep pockets. Argentina is proud of its gaucho history, some of it myth and some of it real, just like American cowboy stories. Many of the gauchos were/are skilled ranch hands. Most of them are proud of their traditional attire, particularly the hats.

 

SEEN AT THE BUS STATION.  I don’t know how effective the belts are at holding the pants up because there’s no way they’re going to fit through belt loops. But I rarely see one of these guys overweight. But still . . .

 

NO HAT, NO CATTLE. Yours truly with Richard King from Calgary, Alberta; a retired teacher who spent six years combined in Sierra Leone and Dar es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania, teaching physics and math. Enjoying a beer in Mercedes. Richard, 79 years old and going strong, is spending the next month in northeast Argentina and southern Brazil bird watching. He says this part of South America has some of the best bird watching in the world. He’s brought his sleeping bad and he is prepared to “rough it.” Last year he and his wife attempted the 2,000 mile bicycle ride from New Orleans to Fargo, North Dakota. They got to Missouri before he got hit by a passing car. What is with these senior citizens? Is there something wrong with them?

 

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.

 

WHERE’S THE BEEF?. In spite of all the media boasting of Argentine beef, and in spite of all the ranches in the area, in the village itself in four months I have not seen one single steak, nor have I seen one advertised on any of the menus. Where is all the prime beef going? For that matter, I haven’t seen a lot of even chicken or pork.  One of the region’s mysteries. There’s plenty of eggs; there would have to be for all that home-made pasta. I have been told by various guests that when a cow is butchered, absolutely nothing is wasted, and virtually all the organ meats are offered to the guests. I have also noticed here in the village and elsewhere that many menu items simply advertise “carne” (meat) without being specific. I prefer to know what I am eating.

 

ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY OF ANTS.  About a 20 minute ride outside of CCP there is a stretch of road with literally hundreds, maybe thousands of these ant hills. They are so close together, and so uniformly distributed that initially and from a distance I thought it was a cemetery. In the marshlands ants can’t go where they usually go, which is down. They would drown in the marsh. So they go up, and build these mounds. If you poke one of them with a shovel, guess what you see? Gazillion ants, all in motion. Each mound is a major ant city. I can’t believe they used to have anteaters in this area. Time to re-introduce them into the marsh?

 

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.

 

The beauty of the wild Ibera Wetlands, the 2nd largest such pristine area in the world, and its flora, fauna, and birds, await your exploration. A staff of 1,000 is waiting to attend to your every need. A step back in time perhaps, or a glimpse into the future. Either way, you read about it here.

 

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