And so it was one Thursday that Stripper and I left frantic Buenos Aires in a slightly battered Sofia and set off for Asuncion. Sofia, of course, is my trusted Toyota pickup truck. She has taken me a quarter of a million miles around South America and safely through life’s various crossroads, so I named her after the lover of an ancient philosopher, from a time when our thought was deep and we flew like little birdies over the naked Andes.
I held Sofia by the wheel (as if touching her delicate shoulders) as we listened to the music play and I told her stories of my childhood. Stories, which many young women in the past found silly and boring. Which other girl, except Sofia, would listen to my stories hours on end without saying a word?
This female entity and I cruise around the Andes, not seeing anyone except the odd llama or wild donkey, grazing on the grass and watching us in disbelief as we fly by, like the children of an old rally champ. Sofia grunts beneath the bonnet as if being ravaged by Ron Jeremy himself when the oxygen is thin and her valves are hungry, thirsty.
She never ever abandoned me, not even in Bolivia when we once decided to drive down these river rapids. The main road was closed since Evo was trying to make a point, fighting for his cause, by laying logs on a deserted Bolivarian road. The truck drivers said they had waited there a few days already. What do you mean, days, in an oxygen-and-water-scarce environment as this? They said, you could take a shortcut along the river, but the road is rough and the river is restless. Shall we go, Sofia? Let’s!
It was in this, crucial year of 2012, exactly in the month of December that I hit a poor cow on the Paraguay-Bolivia border. I had driven all day, was tired, third mouthful of coca leaves eating away at my gums, night was falling and a Bolivian housewife disguised as a border guard was giving me the mistreatment. Twenty dollars fixed the visa procedure. I drove off anxiously, following a dark road. At one point I glanced away at my iPod and looked back up, only to see a herd of cows crossing the road. Wham!
Driving with me there was a French lady who, the moment I stepped on the brakes, jumped out of Sofia to chase the fleeing, limping cow. I hope she’s okay, she shouted. I couldn’t help but stare at Sofia, my palms pressed to my head, all the while shedding crocodile tears.
I put myself together, tore off the hanging piece of the bumper and tied the rest to the car with some rope. The headlight was intact, although there was a huge dent on the whole right flank of the car. Passenger door was alright, could still open easily. So I gave Sofia a gentle stroke on the bonnet. She flashed her lights and away we drove.
Going back to Route 11, linking hectic Buenos Aires with the lesser developed provinces. Svuko-je and I, cruising in Sofia, Afro-Putumayo music, perfectly blending into the landscape. Endless plains, wooden poles, barbwire fences, meadows, soy fields, wheat fields, flashing by our eyes. Svuko-je (loosely translates as the Stripper) is an elderly youth from the city of Belgrade’s finer urban areas. He is a sensitive guy, proud of his old neighbourhood — which I never really understood, coming from the New Belgrade ghetto – who has taken up permanent residence in Buenos Aires , San Telmo. He loves computers and everything to do with electronics, but most of all he loves women and quality beer.
The Stripper earned his nickname trying to undress a dark toned Chaqueña from northern Argentina in his bedroom one evening. Vuk (Wolf), his real name, was trying to get the clothes off the Chaqueña while his friends sat in the living room next door, smoking medicinal cannabis and drinking nice cold Warsteiners. Out of the blue one of the guys sneaked over to the bedroom door, peeked through the keyhole and kind of whispered to the others something like: He-stripped-her.
Stripper and I clicked 800 km one the first day of our journey and stopped over in Reconquista for the night. This was after visiting a roadside asador, filling our bellies with much cow rib and fresh salad. How good, to still have these roadside taverns serving homemade meals to round bellied truck drivers, and well intentioned travellers. They are long gone in old Europe, buried in an avalanche of fast food restaurants and boxy petrol stations.
Here I am going on about food and taverns, but let us not drift from the subject. Going back to Reconquista.
Stripper and I spent the night in a shabby shack by the road where cockroaches in the toilet were aplenty and the curtains heavily soiled.
At breakfast early tomorrow we concluded how lucky we were that we hadn’t been stopped yet by any road bandits also known as the federal police. It was these words that suddenly unlocked a celestial mechanism and having driven just a hundred miles that day, we were stopped by cops.
They asked to see our papers, we obliged and they started sniffing around the vehicle looking for a flaw, not because they were concerned for road safety, but because they wanted my money.
Ah, have you done your periodic vehicle inspection, asked one of the cops. I decided to play the fool. Two days before the trip I tried to get the car inspected but with a beaten looking Sofia nobody would oblige me. I decided to bluff all the way and told the cop, look at this window sticker, there it is (and it was really there, only it expired last April). The cop runs to the side of the car, looks at the sticker and suddenly, bingo!
Come with me, sir, he said, and we headed off to a metal container that read, Policia Federal.
Okay, no sweat. I take out my wallet, always topped up with small dollar bills for such emergencies. The cop frowns his eyebrows as he reaches for a pen and starts to write the ticket, when suddenly, with a sad face, as if wrestling with my conscience, I produce my wallet with the green dollar bills, like a prostitute showing her panties. As for these actions of mine, fuelling corruption, the mother of poverty in Latin America, I have this to say: Judge not the Romans until you have stayed in Rome yourself. Anyway, I then completely softly and openly proposed to an innocent and overall honest looking Argentinean cop to make me a gentleman’s deal on the penalty ticket.
Instantly a ray of sunshine broke through a container window and illuminated the cop’s face, now adorned with a smile at the prospect of incoming revenue. There, a bit like the market sellers, we started bargaining over the figure, when suddenly a much younger cop, but much higher ranked, walks in and asks, dead serious, what is the problem? The older, junior cop starts explaining, but the senior cop then scrutinizes my papers and says in an honest tone of voice: We still have to write you a ticket, there are another seven checkpoints until the Paraguay border, but with this ticket you can drive the next month without any problems!
I knew he just wanted to demonstrate his professionalism in front of a foreigner (sometimes cops in Argentina get uncontrollable urges of integrity, although rarely) because this was the first time in seven years that I was stopped for periodic car inspection papers and this was exactly when I didn’t have them. It goes without saying that Argentinean cops don’t ask for periodic inspection papers as then they would have to take two-thirds of the vehicles off the road.
Still, I estimated that the cop meant what he said so I put my wallet back in my pocket, thus withdrawing my offer for an out-of-court settlement.
It took a good 10 minutes for the older cop to write out the ticket. Eventually the younger cop disappeared leaving me and the sergeant alone in the room.
After writing the ticket the cop shoved it in my hand and wished me a safe journey. Just as I was walking out of the office, the guy shouted: If you pay the ticket in the next 15 days it is 50 dollars, but double that if you pay later. He winked at me as we shook hands and said, hasta luego. As I felt a sudden rush of benevolence, I grabbed my wallet and left a creased bill on the desk. Thanks for the effort and honest advice, I added.
Like a jaguar the cop hurled himself at the bill and swiftly unfolded it, probably hoping to see a double digit, but when he saw the fiver, his eyebrows collapsed like a support roof in a Chinese coalmine and he bitterly crushed the bill like a letter carrying bad news. Did not utter a word, did not even look at me.
He got a fiver from me for a job done professionally when he could have got a twenty for a job done corruptly.
The cope was radiating serious anger so I stepped on the gas pedal and flew off before he changed his mind. I really didn’t mean to create such a horrible feeling of fury in the cop’s old body, but so it turned out in the end.
I stopped at the first village in search of a Banco de la Nacion, trying dutifully to pay my ticket while the rate was still cheaper. But, it was a Friday and the bank had closed early. I stood like a tulip outside the door, holding a piece of paper in my hand, banging on the door, but no one answering. A man shows up from a house next door and says, the bank only opens next Tuesday because it is Dia de los Abuelos on Monday.
I laughed out loud, climbed back into the car and said, Stripper, next stop – Paraguay.
We were soon stopped at the next checkpoint for not driving with the day light on. Cop takes our papers and goes off to his container to write us a ticket. He reappears 10 minutes later and makes a hand gesture calling me into the container. I get out the car, run over, climb the wooden stairs and enter the oficina where the cop was sitting, pen in his hand, blank ticket on his desk, giving me a threatening look. I sat across him and stared at him. I didn’t say anything. Theatrically, he swings the pen to the paper and starts writing, then raises his eyes inquisitively, moving his eyebrows up and down. I said, 10 dollars, he put his pen down and offered me a handshake. I took out the dollars, put them in the cop’s hand, collected my documents and left.
Stripper , let’s go to Paraguay, I say as I put the key in the ignition.
We swiftly passed the remaining six police ambushes and finally reached the border. Paraguayan police gave us some grief over the state of Sofia, but we managed to get away without greasing anyone. We rushed on toward our final destination, the village of Ciervo Qua, situated in the selva, on the egdes of Lake Ypakarai.
Here we are, Stripper I shouted out as we arrived. Take some clothes off, son, or the heat will kill you! Stripper gets out of the car and takes a deep breath of the oxygen enriched air. An instant rush.
The Indios are overjoyed at seeing us. They shake our hands, give us hugs and rush off to bring the cold beers and fresh fruit juice. The jungle is budding like a middle-aged lady’s knickers, birds are singing, the insects are buzzing, a red sky to the west, Sun drowning into the treetops.
The cheerful Indios suddenly all want to talk about a newly elected president, into whose hands they have placed their hopes for a better future. There is a football game next weekend, the Paraguay league super clasico, Ciero Porteño – Olimpia. Holding a glass in my hand, I listen to the Indios when suddenly, in the middle of their sermon, I rudely shift my gaze toward a few red headed woodpeckers chipping away at a gigantic mango tree and I think to myself, what on Earth are you guys talking about?