Buenos Aires, Argentina
This might not be the first time you’ve heard a journalist say this, but the headline on this story – well, it’s a bit of a lie.
Unless I completely fail to get myself organised before we fly home next week, this won’t be the last post ever.
But it is the last report of our travels with the van, and for that reason I have been procrastinating over writing it even more than usual. Because I can’t possibly think of how I’m going to end it. Just think how devastatingly witty, profound, meaningful and tear-jerkingly amazing it’s going to have to be to do justice to the last four and a half years.
So I have decided not to try. Maybe I’ll just let it all fizzle out, or stop the post mid-sentence. Let’s see what happens.
For now we’re going way back to the end of 2015, when we bundled out of Brazil in a haze of rain and fog. We had the delusional hope that once we crossed the Argentinian border, as if by magic, the sun would appear. Guess what, on the other side of the man-made frontier, the topography and weather were exactly the same. The El Niño phenomenon was generating some crazy weather and it had absolutely no consideration for a) borders or b) our trip.
It was a bit complicated because we had committed to writing a story in that part of northern Argentina, more than two weeks hence, which required us to attend a festival in January. In the meantime we had planned to remain up there for Christmas and New Year, make final repairs to the van before selling it in Buenos Aires, start organising all our accumulated stuff, and enjoy our final few weeks of camping, barbeques and sunsets. None of that was really possible with sheeting rain, howling winds and flooded campsites.
While trying to decide what to do we headed south a little, occasionally pulling in to water-logged petrol stations to take a break from the unbelievable rain, and obsessively checking the weather online. It was pretty set in for the festive period and the only way to escape it and find good camping was to get south of Buenos Aires, a few hundred kilometres more than we’d planned to do, and way off our route.
A wet windy night pretty much made up our minds – this wasn’t the way to end the trip, and it was totally impractical to do all our essential van jobs without good, dry weather. That had to take priority so with guilty hearts we cancelled our work plan and headed south towards a sunny Christmas.
Almost as soon as we reached the border of Buenos Aires province, things brightened. We drove through the pampa under lovely skies, and felt relieved.
We pitched up in Tandil, a sweet little hillside town about 300km south of the capital, and found a relatively luxurious campground where we could dig in for a week, laze by the pool, and let Christmas float by. It was our fifth Christmas on the road and while we do always feel a bit sad knowing we’re absent from a lovely family dinner, we miss virtually nothing else about it.
Not that we are totally grumpy grinches, obviously. We follow certain traditions like joining the throngs at the supermarket on Christmas Eve to stock up with ridiculous amounts of food, booze and chocolate. And we always try to cook a feast of some kind.
For our second Argentinian Christmas that obviously involved a lot of steak and a barbeque. As a nod to the British festive plate, we made chorizo sage and onion ‘stuffing’ balls and chucked them on as well.
There was a dessert too but I had to have an impromptu, spumante-related, nap and missed it.
I mentioned to Jeremy that next year we might have money for Christmas presents and asked what he might like. He said: “A campervan please.”
Given my earlier comments about the awful weather I am really, honestly not complaining, but the heat was so intense we couldn’t go out walking for long.
We took a short hike up to Tandil’s mini version of Christ the Redeemer where, as always, we befriended a stray dog. On the way back down the ground was so hot the dog was literally hopping around, trying to save its poor burning paws. As he flopped in the shade at the bottom we rehydrated him with a couple of litres of water and bathed his sizzling pads.
Now we were stationary for a few days, we could launch Operation Chuckaway.
Even though we’ve lived with minimal possessions for the last few years, we’d still managed to accumulate an amazing amount of clutter. It was time to downsize yet again.
We decided to brave the crowds at the coast for new year, and were pleasantly surprised to find a lovely family-run campsite in San Clemente del Tuyú where loud music was banned, and the rule was actually observed. Another win for the grinches!!
We love music. We like going somewhere to hear music, and then coming home to a place where we can choose to listen to our music or not. For new year’s eve we found a lively packed bar with tables outside, and snacked on calamari and milanesa as we watched people go by. A live band came on in the street after midnight, and the Latin American tradition of spraying each other with foam and silly string began in earnest. As we ate ice cream on our way home at 1.30am, some of the beachwear shops were just opening. Who buys flip flops in the middle of the night? You have to love Argentina.
Once the holidays were out of the way we started working on the van – getting some minor repairs done, sewing things, siliconing things, glueing things, getting round to some jobs we had ignored for years.
In 2012 our awning broke in a storm. Yes, 2012. We’d been using it – with improvisation, brute force and frequent swearing – but still hadn’t fixed it because it always seemed like such an arse to try to find someone to repair a specialist awning that doesn’t exist in South America.
It couldn’t just be lashed back together – its locking, telescopic aluminium leg has to be an exact size and fit or it can’t be put up or put away. To get that kind of work done you need to be lucky to find That Guy – the guy who is handy, who loves to solve a problem, who is interested in our journey, who has the will and the time to help. How do you find That Guy when you’re always on the move, always a stranger in town?
We studied the map to find the right size of town, where we could both camp and get things done without having to spend each day navigating a massive city. We randomly ended up in Navarro, a lovely nowheresville place in the pampa south of BA. We love those kind of communities because they tend to contain useful shops and helpful people who aren’t bored of tourists.
We went to the local ironmonger to explain our awning predicament. He said: “What about asking the bloke next door who makes aluminium window frames?”
We went next door, clutching the snapped, bent awning leg. The boss shook his head: “Nope nothing we could do about that, we only do windows,” he said. But lurking behind him, listening, was his colleague. It was That Guy.
“Let me have a quick look”, he said. We pulled the van up to the shop and took the awning out. He puzzled over it for ages, trying this piece and that, sawing pieces off and attaching new bits but nothing was working. It was way past closing time, the sun was beating down mercilessly and he was on the verge of giving up – but we could tell we had him in our clutches! Failure is not an option for That Guy. He asked us to return after siesta – he wanted to mull it over as he ate lunch and slept.
When we went back a few hours later he was hopping around excitedly. He’d had his eureka moment – within half an hour the awning was repaired, it slid beautifully into place and folded away like new. He was almost more pleased about it than we were. Hugs and photos all round, and off we went.
As well as doing all the dull chores, we were making the most of our last days with the van by spending all our time outside, and barbequing as many dinners as possible before returning to winter in Europe.
Inevitably, we were starting to feel horribly sad about saying goodbye to our van life. At the same time we were kind of itching to have the sale all done and dusted, as nothing was certain about the buyer until we’d met and he’d seen the van. Our minds were torn between wistfulness for what we’d experienced in the last four-and-a-half years, and excitement about seeing everyone and making new – albeit uncertain – plans for the future.
One thing we can be sure of is that those plans will always involve travel in some form. Everyone says it and it’s true – travel does not scratch the itch, it only feeds the urge to see more.
Our final weekend was spent on the banks of the Rio Lujan in the Tigre Delta north of Buenos Aires – a perfect, peaceful spot for some contemplation and teary, self-indulgent nostalgia.
We were ridiculously nervous as we left there to make the short drive to meet our buyer. I drove like an old lady down the fast motorway, thinking it would just be typical if someone crashed into us on the way to make the sale.
The exceedingly helpful Cris Torlasco of camper hire company Andean Roads had helped us find a buyer, who was a friend of his. We parked up at Cris’s place for a couple of days, cleaned up the van, showed the buyer round, dragged all our stuff outside and got down to packing and handing over. It all went smoothly and the deal was done.
We’d agreed to get one final mechanical repair completed before we drove it to the buyer’s house. We thought it was quite fitting that our last few hours with the van were spent sitting outside a mechanic’s yard on a plastic chair, waiting, waiting. How many hours have we spent doing that since 2011? I couldn’t even guess.
For various reasons we’d decided not to leave for Europe straightaway but to spend a month in an apartment in Buenos Aires – to complete a new writing project, spend time with our friends Karen and Gustavo, and enjoy one last hurrah of steak, wine and summer.
Once everything was ready we drove the van to the buyer’s house in the suburbs of the city. He and his wife were excited about their adventures ahead. We sat in their living room and had a celebratory beer, feeling strange, relieved we’d got everything done, and not a little emotional.
Our taxi arrived and as we stood to leave I instinctively picked up my van keys from the table.
“Oh sorry!” I laughed a little hysterically, putting them back down, “they’re not mine any more”.
Miles: Final total 58,276 / Kms 93,242
Things we now know to be true: We will never be cured.
“When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age… perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ships’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping… I fear this disease incurable.” – John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley
PHOTO GALLERY, INCLUDING THE RETURN TO BUENOS AIRES: