Traveling – The early days

One of the greatest gifts I’ve received is the opportunity to travel. When I was young, my Mom & Dad would surprise us with an unexpected plan: “let’s go to Salta!”  or “tomorrow we go to Patagonia”. And those were 4000 Km trips usually, not just a walk on the park.

And these would not be just trips. It would be “Epic Trips”. First would come the preparations: food, drinks were topmost in our list. My Grandma would work side by side with my Mom, and would produce a seemingly infinite amount of sandwiches, snacks, cookies, etc. Then one of the most challenging aspects of the preparations would come: fitting everything in the car. The Ford Falcon trunk was tricky: it appeared to be large, but it wasn’t really. It had a weird shape and (worst of all) the spare wheel would take 1/3 of the space. And if you knew any better, you would never travel in Argentina without a spare.

If Tetris existed at that time, my Dad would have been a champion. It amazed me the incredible optimization of space. He would use every freaking cubic cm. in that trunk. There would be some trial and errors, but in the end, everything would fit: clothes, shoes, cans of food, fishing poles, first aid supplies, kites, food, clothes. Oh, and more food and clothes, because….just in case.

We prepared with the detail and dedication that you would for re-settling to a new place. I think we had enough supplies to start a new life somewhere each time.

The car would be checked: gas, wheels, tire pressure, oil levels, water levels, windshield cleaning level. All glass surfaces would be polished. Tools would be carefully selected from the toolbox. Which wrench should we take? Worse: which ones should we leave? It was nerve wrecking. Imagine being stranded in the middle of nowhere needing precisely the screwdriver you decided to leave behind. Think about it. Yes, nerve wrecking.

Our departures were all stealthy. Mostly because we operated under the assumption that bad guys were looking around the clock checking who was leaving and who was staying. And of course our house was a fortress. It would take a small army to break into it.

We’d left in the early hours of the day. And, naturally, we’d start eating 2 blocks aways from home because, you know, we could starve, so better be prepared. And we’d have about 2000Km until our destination. So better start early. Or, if you are going to die, better die healthy and full.

And our trips were all long, dusty, hot and awesome. One game we played was guessing when the AM radio station would fade into crackling sounds. Yes, the car’s radio was just AM, but it had buttons. With memory! The (real) radio-buttons would mechanically memorize 6(?) stations. I also pretended I was the copilot, so my window winder would be the gear shifter, and the pedals were …. imagined.

There was no AC, no entertainment system, no seat-belts. One of my favorite places was the “shelf” in the backseat, up next to the back window. Laying up there. But then I grew up and wasn’t fun anymore.

There were many other games we played to kill time: singing, counting poles, guessing where the rail tracks were or when they would cross the road, check and count license plates from all states. We (my Dad) drove at night, morning, afternoon. We saw sunrises, dawns. We crossed creeks. We got stuck in the mud. We wondered at the marvel of the sight of the first mountains after hundreds of kilometers of plains. Or when we saw the sea. Or that little bridge that we thought would simply break with the weight of all of us.

Many roads were not paved, and there was the long discussion on how well the gravel was set or not. Or if the conditions would be better or worse. We’d press the windshield with our hands to prevent it from exploding into millions of little pieces if a stone hit it.

My Dad was a big fan of the “Automovil Club Argentino” (the equivalent of the AAA in USA, only that AAA in Argentina means something completely different). We’d stay in their motels which were like civilization outposts in the middle of nowhere. Good food, clean rooms, hot showers. Nothing fancy.

The familiar “ACA Robot” (as we called it), was a relief sight in the middle of nowhere: it meant water, sandwiches, chocolates, coffee for the driver. Oh….and gas for the car.

(And yes, I’ve been to that particular one I got from Wikipedia. It is in Cordoba).

The ACA produced incredibly detailed cartography. My Dad was a big fan, and would buy several of these maps, even if we didn’t have plans to drive there. It was the equivalent of Google Maps I guess.

One of my favorite “jobs” was being the navigator: “right turn ahead”, “steep slope in 5 km”, “Construction for 10 km”. I was very impressed by the details it showed and how accurate it was. How could “construction ahead” still be relevant in months or years after the are had been surveyed and a map printed?

I used many of these maps years after they were printed. And the key features of the route were still there. Some places were still under construction. I guess that’s one of the positive side effects of living in a country with slow moving public infrastructure projects perhaps.

Spread out in the roads you would see these little guys [1]:

Unless you’ve just landed on this planet, you can probably guess this indicates the distance to someplace (usually to “Km 0“).  One of my favorite mind games was measuring the time between two of these milestones and then compute the average speed. I would then quickly glance over the (amazing) Ford Falcon speedometer to double check. And there it was: 90 km/h. My Dad had a very steady foot on the gas. And the speedometer was very accurate. But what I was the proudest of, is my own mental calculation abilities. Each calculation would only take about 20 Km.

And this is how we traveled for the first ~15 years of my life. And we traveled a lot. It’d take a few more years to take an airplane for the first time.

[1] The milestone picture comes from this blog.

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