This is Harry. He is my kindred spirit. I named him Harry because he has lots of hair, more hair than a human at least. Chalk that lack of imagination up to the fact that I haven’t slept in a very long time.
It’s 4 AM and Harry and I are sitting in a gas station. It might not be ideal, but it’s better than the alternative – outside is 40 degrees, with ice cold pouring rain. Harry whimpers and I pat him on the head.
“That’s alright buddy. I’m a stray dog too.”
The trouble began about a half day earlier, on the tail end of a 27-hour bus ride from Buenos Aires. We were stopped at a big trucker gas station in the south-west of Argentina, only four hours from our final destination of San Carlos de Bariloche. I’d gotten off the bus to stretch my legs and was talking to an Italian sailor named Alberto, the only other gringo onboard. I was looking at birds fluttering on the horizon. He was talking about India.
“Yes, this bus is bullshit. Long bus. But I did 36 hour bus in India. Oh no, no good. After that, I said ‘I will stay on the sea – on the boat!’”
“Yea, that sounds pretty rough.”
“It is not a matter, we are close.”
“You have accommodation?”
I turned and our eyes met.
I’ve been on the road, collectively, for about 15 months. Every once in a while I get it into my head that I might be getting good at this, that I might be becoming that veteran traveler I’ve come across so many times. And then I make a rookie mistake like this.
I had friends who’d come to Bariloche before and, as is travel code, reported back. Almost all of these advance reports said the same thing.
“Great place, but be sure to book ahead.”
“This is the Aspen of Argentina and it’s high season - don’t go without a hostel booked.”
“The locals are going, the gringos are going – be sure to book far in advance.”
You see, I’d been too busy doing absolutely nothing. The full minute it would have taken to book a hostel couldn’t have fit into my packed schedule of aimless wandering and arguing with friends about where to get food. I’d been cheerful, excited about a new town after so long in Buenos Aires, and this Italian had just burst my bubble of obliviousness. Yes, I was headed to a new place, but what would I find there?
It turned out Alberto didn’t have a place to stay either. He was new to South America and was supposed to be on this trip with a girlfriend, who’d bailed at the last second. He’d just flown into Buenos Aires and from the looks of it, had been drinking for the whole four days he’d spent on the continent thus far. He did however, speak Spanish and have a cellphone. Perhaps all was not lost.
He called everywhere. Places far out of town, places neither of us could afford. All full. Night fell and Bariloche creeped closer and closer.
We pulled into town around 10 PM. I’d spent almost the entire journey hating that bus and now suddenly didn’t want to get off. But I remained optimistic. This is a tourist town containing thousands of hostel and hotels rooms. One must be vacant. I will find that one.
We caught a cab to a hostel called Penthouse 1004 because Alberto had heard good things about the staff. We needed local insight and, though we knew the Penthouse was full, the nice ladies at the reception desk seemed like a logical place to start our search.
And nice they were! We were allowed to store our bags and use the bathroom while the owner called hostels on our behalf. Nothing. I scoured the internet only to find most sites wouldn’t even let me search for a room, as it was so close to midnight. No luck. I walked to the streets to find a disconcerting trend: almost everywhere had handwritten “Full” signs, in Spanish and English, posted on their front door. It started to rain as I ran back to the Penthouse.
Alberto had become frustrated with our plight and, considering himself a macho traveler, announced he was going to “buy a bottle of gin and sit under a tree”. I wished him luck. I tried to bribe the Penthouse staff to let me sleep in the laundry room, to no avail. They were sweet but firm. I couldn’t blame them. At 1:30 the common area closed and it was time for me to go.
Even at this seemingly dismal point, I didn’t feel discouraged. I considered the positives. Bariloche, being a small rich resort town, was a safe place. Robberies were uncommon and, even so, I’d left most of my things at Penthouse for the night and had very little on me worth stealing. I’d read that there was a McDonald’s in this town and McDonald’s never closes right? I had some books to help me pass the time - I could read novels under a street lamp like some kind of tragic poet. Plus, I retained some hope on finding accommodation. I had a plan.
People, I decided, would be the solution to all my problems. Travelers are inclusive group - I’d witnessed the camaraderie and teamwork of the backpacking community countless times along my assorted journeys. I simply needed to meet someone, some fellow citizen of the road, who would hear my plight and understand it and recognize themselves in me, and then wait for them to insist that I crash on their couch or floor. I needed to find and become part of a group, share a few strong drinks on this cold night, and be taken in by my fellow vagabonds, who would sneak me in past a guard to the warmth of a hostel. Yes, the backpackers would save me. And I knew just where to find them.
I ran to a bar, near what seemed like the center of things, as rain engulfed the town. I was excited by my task and, though I’m not necessarily an outgoing person, I thought of the whole thing as some kind of secret mission. I would identify my targets, charm them with my stories of adventure, relate my situation in a hapless but hilarious tone, and then graciously accept their charity. Time was an issue, as it was nearly 2 AM on Wednesday night in a small town, but I still felt irrationally confident.
Mission status: failure. There were a number of factors working against me. First, I’d wound up at a much more local, rather than backpacker, bar. Second, I was carrying a lot of books, which isn’t always the best look for a crowded bar. Third, there was a mix-up with the waiters when ordering a beer. I placed an order for a Pale Ale which took it’s time in arriving. In that waiting period, a different waiter approached to see if I needed anything. I tried to tell him that I’d already ordered a beer from a different waiter, but my broken Spanish turned that communication into something like “Hello! Yes, yes, yes…I had a Pale Ale beer before….with a man….a different man….” Rightfully confused, he interpreted the whole thing as me trying to order a Pale Ale. Both beers arrived simultaneously, placed down carefully as my small table for one was covered in books. I couldn’t help but laugh to myself. Loner Nerd Alcoholic. The Unattractiveness Trifecta. This might not work.
My plan of finding some generous benefactor abandoned, I collected my books and left the bar. To the McDonald’s it is. I’ll stagger my coffee and food purchases over the course of the night so they can’t throw me out for not buying anything. It was only about 5 hours till sunrise and then the promise of a new day would invigorate me. Things could be worse.
Closed. McDonald’s! Closed from midnight to 8 AM. WHAT? Do these people not like money? Do they not know how strong the urge of the drunk twenty-somethings is to order multiple Big Macs at 4AM? I wondered where Alberto was and if there was any space under that tree.
I walked down the street slowly, fully dejected. Any optimism I’d had about the potential of this night had been drained from me. This was no longer an opportunity for adventure or some bizarre travel challenge or an inconvenient-but-also-sort-of-fun problem that needed to be dealt with. This just sucked. I was going to spend the night alone, in the freezing rain, and there was no one to blame for that.
I looked up and saw my last chance. The bright lights of the YPF gas station. I’d passed it earlier and vaguely remembered a small sitting area. Maybe that’d be open. More likely, they lock the doors at night and do all business through a small cashier window. But at least it was something to walk towards. It’s not like I had anything else to do.
When I got under the roof of the gas pumps, I walked slowly, savoring the hope. This was one of the only lighted places left in town. This needed to work. It was either here or a night spent outside. I leaned against the door and, thankfully, it gave way. It was open. I was in.
And so here I sit. Safe, warm enough, drinking bad coffee, eating generic candy bars. Complaining and pitying myself when I have the right to do neither. I only realize now, near the end of this “ordeal”, how much I dramatized this thing inside my own head. It was inconvenience that I couldn’t help but experience as tragedy. The whole thing reminded me of being in a foreign ATM booth when your card doesn’t work. Suddenly the world seems to become very real. You feel a pang of unfamiliar fear. “I want food and I might not have the money to get it.”
But it’s not real, at least not when you take a step back. An ATM card failed. That’s no disaster. You probably have back-up cards. Or hidden cash. Or travel companions to borrow from. Or parents to wire you money. Or a dozen friends to call. Its not that you don’t have money. It’s that you briefly don’t have access to money. Those two situations shouldn’t be confused.
It was the same with tonight. I didn’t rough it or make my way on the streets or experience any kind of true despair. I forgot to make a booking and the resort town was full. I was forced to be without a desired bed for a few hours. I drank beer and sipped coffee and ate candy. The horror, the horror.
I tried to realize the basis for my tragic interpretation of what had happened. It had only very little to do with the now, with the immediate circumstance of not having something. That sudden, unfamiliar fear wasn’t coming from “I might go hungry for the next few hours” or “I might not find a room tonight”. It was coming from trying to imagine, even in some small way, the reality of having to live life that way and being terrified at even my own naïve, unqualified, imagination. I know that’s bullshit. It’s like playing paintball and saying “Geez, war must be scary.” But it’s how I felt.
It was like looking over a cliff and imagining yourself falling off. And then scrambling backwards and sitting down and trying to remember to be thankful.
My story must end here, I need to go bribe the cashier. He’s trying to throw Harry out in the rain.