DON'T CRY FOR ME

To keep upright, you had to walk with your body leaning forward at the absurd angle of about fifty degrees. Even with my weighty pack on, I felt that I could be whipped off my feet at any moment. "Tierra del Fuego", the "Land of Fire" was poetically but accurately named.

A long haul truck trip had landed me right on dusk. At the heart of the fire. The wind in lashings and temperature to suit. Food and shelter on order, I entered the first place that advertised either and discovered a cosy little atmosphere of about five travellers seated and ready for eating. With my scarf wrapped across my face, and eternal layers, I looked like I'd just stepped from antartica. They smiled and welcomed me to join them. They understood completely.

I'd never met a Korean before. He even seemed out of place down here. He was overtly friendly and, as the night wore on, a great story teller. He worked for what he described as one of the biggest multi-nationals in the world. "We make everything from tennis balls to armoured tanks and back again." He had been employed to come here, climb the Fitzroy Glacier and take photos of himself wearing their swimming costumes, sunglasses and greased for protection with their suntan lotion. What a life, what a job to be paid for!

He told us the story of some years' previously. They (his Company) were to present to the gullible marketplace, a four wheel drive vehicle which they would claim was the first to completely cross the Himalayas. From one side to the other. It had been his job to achieve that end and so, together with two mechanics, tools, supplies, nearly a hundred porters, cooks, tents, sleeping equipment, a doctor, etc., etc., (he said the logistics of that project still gave him nightmares!), they drove until they couldn't drive, completely disassembled the car and put it on to the backs of porters, carried it until they had achieved their goal. "What a joke, a waste," he suggested in an animated, slightly high pitched Asian-English voice.

The rickety wooden front door flung open and a gust of dust coloured wind announced the return of the guest house owner. He hadn't enough room for me, so he'd been out to see where I could sleep that night. The evening came to a sudden end. I relayered my body with protection and, with torch in hand, followed to find my bed and shelter.

Next day it was up and at it for organising a ride to see the Fitzroy Glacier, supposedly the only glacier in the world still growing. All others were slowly receding.

There was a certain scale of excitement, pre-set within me. A result of growing up in the semi-arid zone of Broken Hill. Way out there on the western reaches of NSW, rain was a commodity which could cause people to dance. Hail was something you took photos of or stored frivolously in the fridge or ate on the spot. Snow was a mystical luxury that I had always immediately equated with Mt Koziosko, and the numerous family holidays to the east coast when I was a child.

Sitting before the massive ice face of a glacier shifted the senses forth into some new dimension. The face was slightly smaller than the Moreno Glacier of a week before, but our vantage point of less than two hundred feet from it gave no credence to comparisons. And all the time it groaned and squeaked. Noises that would occasionally make the hairs on your neck stand to attention. The spectacular ice flaunted a live piece of its body. Departing in the grace and aura of a spirit leaving its soul came a house of ice. It crunched and crashed its way, falling with frightening force to the soup of ice and water below it. Nature is powerful, an addictive and alluring sense that would pull you closer and closer to that ice massif, to become totally consumed.

Everyone was on a natural high. Running around saying, "Have you ever seen anything like this!?" The word "incredible" and every available synonym in every present language was used that day. Upon return to our town late that night it was decided to party.

We found out that there was a local discotheque. Generally open when the Argentinian army was doing exercises in the area. So, at the hour before midnight a small, but energetic, troupe of travellers converged there. We danced and laughed to the hits of yester-century. Who the heck was John Travolta? What did they mean by Deep Purple? How could anyone dance so frenetically to David Bowie?

Wandering from town to town as a solo traveller had, to this point, been great fun and adventurous, but now I was feeling quite lonely. I saw massive penguin colonies and forms of nature unsurpassed, but my ebb was at a low. Every day was cold and windy to such a degree that getting outside to meet people and explore the sights was becoming a chore.

Another day, another town, and it was Christmas Eve. I had found my way to a guest house, secured a room and come outside to explore the town. There had been something a "might off-centre" with the owners of the guest house. They seemed to be the result of too many years of wind lashings, dust and cold. A bleak lifestyle .... give me droughts and forty degree centigrade heat any day. A sobering thought, and one that balanced my thinking. But still, there was something amiss. There were two young women hanging around, draped over stools in the foyer, as if adornments. Not real people, giving off an almost eerie presence. Like gypsies or ..., that's it .... maybe I'd stumbled into another whore-house; house of ill repute. Maybe that had been why people up the road a little had been staring at me, as if I was walking the streets naked. Maybe it was all just a festering of thoughts of someone who was feeling quite low. It was Christmas; there was no telephone to call home; it seemed that all shops and restaurants were closed and that "poor ol' Pete" was going to have to eat lowly and alone that night. There were few people on the streets, and I imagined that everyone was indoors being confronted by lusty presentations of gourmet Christmas treats. Memories of home, and a spurt of homesickness awakened a new and dramatic set of thoughts in motion in my mind's amphitheatre. How could absolute freedom result in such bouts of psychological struggle?

But luck seemed to be my eternal travelling companion. The only other people tramping up that wide and deserted street were two Dutch travellers. They were a couple who had also given recognition to the fact that it was Christmas Day and had been scouring the streets looking for a place to eat and celebrate together. They invited me to join then. Casual conversation with some locals informed us that there was only one restaurant in the town, and as much as it wouldn't be open during the day, it might open that night. With nothing better to do, we three ambled off together, encaptured with each other's traveller's dialogue, and in search of the restaurant. In the wind sheltered entrance to the shop sat an elderly lady, scarf covering her greying years, and peeling potatoes. On the table behind her were a number of lifeless chickens and a bunch of fresh looking carrots. Our eyes met and she smiled welcomingly. It was good fortune that we had visited her, as meals that night were only on advance booking, and at this time of the year it would normally only have been including locals. But she was in full Christmas spirit, and would be more than happy to make places for three homeless travellers. We ordered two bottles of wine as well, and returned accurately at the appointed time of seven p.m. to be part of an Argentinian Christmas.

Days scurried by and the low that I'd hit had not shifted either way. It was manicured and maintained by my immediate environment. I had had enough of wind continually howling into my ear drums, washing me everyday with dust. On New Year's Eve I boarded an unscheduled Army flight from the depths of Argentina's throat and disembarked at its heart. The centre and hub of Buenas Aires. Things like Evita Perón, the Falklands War, los desaparcidos ("the disappeared ones"), and football spiced my new realm of thinking. I remembered the exploits of five years' previously. Staying at the Buenos Aires Sheraton, the World YMCA Conference and my ensuing seduction by a very beautiful Swedish girl. Daughter of the President of YMCAs throughout the world. I drifted in thought all the way from the airport to the bus depot. An hour's drive and an introduction to suburban street life.

The blunderings of the Falklands had only compounded the effects of the plummeting Argentinian peso. The once secure middle class was now reeling under the pressure. Banks posted daily exchange rates to the US dollar, and long lines of customers greeted most banks every morning of the week. There was speculation about exchange rates, desperate business people were exchanging money openly on the streets, a burgeoning black market the result. The consistent pestering of "cambio, cambio", "change money" became annoying.

Restaurants didn't bother recording prices, because of the rapid day to day price changes, and the adage that "ice cream sellers do best in recessions" was substantiated by the proliferation of street vendors and ice cream parlours. There was a hum of desperation in the main business districts, but out in the parklands and suburbs life was slowly paced as usual. Pick-up soccer games were in progress everywhere. Argentina .... champions! The catch phrase of would-be stars. A goal was a moment of glory in an otherwise desperate country.

Again I wined and dined on the expense account of their ailing economy. A dollar for a good hotel; two dollars for the succulent Argentinian steak, salad and small bottle of wine. Luxurious cheap travelling. No tears spilt!