THE EPIC

"Sin cortos, por favor!" No shorts to be worn! AAAh! Senseless numbers of hours by bus, border controls and body brutality took me from one dot on the map to another. Rio, Sao Paulo, Motevideo (the capital of Uruguay) and a welcomed return to the "land of tango".

Beneath the European window dressing and inland from the sprawling boulevards and endless parklands was a Buenas Aires under stress. A country with three thousand per cent inflation was one in trouble and Buenas Aires was its nucleus. Indeed, dealing with the loss in the Falklands; the stories of total strategic incompetence; of sending under-trained pilots to their graves. The strange situation of dealing with a freely elected president to replace the military junta. All these things only added to the seemingly insurmountable pressures of being "owned" by the International Monetary Fund and foreign banks, the power-broking multi-nationals.

I was but a meadow lark on the wall. Looking in on a party I had no desire to become involved in. I was heading home. I had located a very cheap hotel via the recommendation of an Israeli traveller I'd met in the youth hostel in Montevideo. A one room dungeon on the second floor of a very run-down affair. But cheap!

The afternoon was spent scrubbing clothes by hand. A sturdy concrete basin, hard soap and muscle power. I could have afforded to catch a taxi to the nearest laundromat, with the exchange rate at hand, but this was both my way of grounding myself, getting some exercise and staying put. I'd been on the move for the last week and it felt good to focus on the simple task of cleaning clothes. Swami Keelan and the art of Zen clothing purification, or something like that!

Next morning I was again singularly focussed, this time on purchasing my onward ticket which would be part of my three phase haul back to La Paz. Train to Salta, in the north of Argentina, bus to the Bolivian border and then the anything-is-possible train to La Paz.

The central station was a grand affair. Yet another legacy of a somewhat psychopathic obsession of British Rail engineers worldwide. I studied the large board with endless destinations, departure times, days, prices and finally worked out that there was only one train a week, that it left quite conveniently in four days' time and with my present standing as a beholder of US dollars cash, the consequent black market exchange rate, click, rattle, steam, hoot went the undernourished grey matter to calculate a total of fourteen dollars. Nothing to me, but in Argentinian pesos it must be a lot. I joined the lengthy queue, passing the time by reading the New York Times newspaper, an acquisition from that same Sheraton Hotel I'd stayed at all those years before. It was a sure sign of disparity that I paid twice as much for a newspaper as it cost to stay in my hotel for a night.

Upon reaching the ticket counter, I confirmed with the gentleman behind the cast iron lace window that the train was a once-a-week affair. My ticket showed a seat number and he verified that travel was by ticketed seats only.

The ensuing days were divided. I looked for more wire to make my "hippie" jewellery with, bought cassettes of folk music, saw half a dozen films and tramped through art galleries. I found out that Argentina would meet the USA in a Davis Cup semi-final just a day or so after my prospective departure date. I considered delaying for a week, as I still had time up my sleeve, but decided that I couldn't even start to be bothered with re-tackling that ticket counter queue again. I met a couple of Danish people and went wining and dining.

Returning to the hotel that afternoon, I off-loaded my day pack and headed up the three levels of stairs to the roof-top clothes line area. My clothes would be dried to a cinder after yet another "cooker" day in the Argentine. "In the Argentine" ...... I recalled having a conversation, a literary discussion with my father somewhere in the hazy past, with "in the Argentine "versus" in Argentina". Couldn't recall the substance, as my transient mind was pulled back to roof-top level. My clothes were gone! Stolen perhaps? But no, there were sheets hanging where my tethered jeans and shirts had once hung.

And there they were. My pile of hand-scrubbed clothes lying in an unloved pile, against a chimney which protruded from within. Good, they hadn't been stolen, but awkward in the scope that they had been dumped on a roof-top covered in a fine red brick dust top soil. What the hell was going on? Why would any sane person remove washing and place it in dust?

I asked the maid. A dour faced lady with tight cheeks pulling onto already stressed lips. She explained in a nonchalant manner that "she be the culprit", that she washed sheets on Wednesdays and that she didn't have time to be dealing with "others". I remonstrated a point of fairness, hands flailed, eyes pierced, she left aloof and without remorse. Conflict without resolution, dirty clothes at hand, I explained to the sleepy manager that it wasn't good. He agreed, but said I should have asked first before hanging my washing on the clothes line. Cannon fodder for sarcasm, I maintained full control, and returned to my room.

It was a dingy room, really, but my spirits had lifted again. The spring had returned to my daily step. A large morose cupboard guarded bedside; a small desk tickled my feet. My pack lay open next to the cupboard and, generally, I kept everything of value locked up in my pack during the day when I was out. As extra security I hid my camera in a half concealed back corner of that cupboard. My passport and travellers cheques were at my groin at all times. My mother's invention to make small calico passport size pockets and sew them inside my trousers and shorts had been a blessing. I found money belts tedious. I needed to be security conscious in these third rate cheap hotels, and especially now, as the lady who I'd argued with was surely the same person who made my bed and swept the floor each day.

The day to leave came. Two hops on the underground railway maze to the central station. I was a little earlier than my pre-determined time, but decided to seek out the platform, double check, re-check. Although Argentina was a far cry from the travel cannibalism that existed in Peru, it still had its South American oddities. Threads of the unexpected.

So, as they backed the train alongside our platform I nestled into the mass and became the "all Argentinian savage", pushing and shoving with polite disregard, powering my way on board. I secured my seat without problems and managed space for my pack in a luggage rack that was almost instantly full. People hustled this way and that, securing their plots, marking boundaries.

No less than five minutes passed when an extremely hopeful gentleman tried to squeeze his case in next to mine. I watched him. He reshuffled until, sadly, he had the weighted end of my pack overhanging so far that it took its chance to escape the squeeze, crashing to the seat below.

This scene was quickly overshadowed in importance as latecomers tried to find the odd "spare four feet" in an already crammed luggage rack. Just one little morsel more for the bloated belly. I hoped that those English engineers hadn't skimped on bolts and stress calculations for that rack.

The dust soon settled and humanity was restored. The family across the aisle had really dug in and looked like they'd be going all the way. Their beautiful black-eyed daughter stood staring at me, a jewel for the north. I gave my patented "hello" and smile, causing her to coyly smile and run to her mother, burying her head into her midriff with an uncalculated thump. Everybody was so neatly groomed that I was immediately discernable with my battle-scarred jeans and one of the T-shirts that I'd made before leaving Australia. My once vibrant Nike runners were showing the lines of their distance. They had been faithful through countless kilometers and had only had to be hospitalized once for minor repair. My constant companion, the day-pack, had seen the needle and thread several times, but was holding firm.

I sat motionless whilst taking in the last moments of Buenas Aires. The soothing motion of the train and the rhythmic tinkering of the tracks let me relax. We passed a field of endless soccer games, breeding grounds for future Maradonas. Endless apartments gradually gave way to dottings of cultivated land and farms. Beef and the Argentinian gaucho (cowboy) soon filled my window frame. I dozed.

It was all good now. Heading back to La Paz at the pleasure of British Rail. A stunning red sunset had washed through the whole sky. The spectrum of grey-pink, through to heart red, lapping at the pampa, the endlessly undulating plains with its dotted forests of pampas grass. I mused at returning to La Paz, making mental lists of the things I'd buy, the fabulous Bolivian music, the photos I wanted to ...... gulp! The photos ........ the camera (*?!!!!*).

A lack of use of my camera whilst in Buenas Aires and I'd managed to overlook it upon packing to leave. It still stalked that darkened corner of the cupboard in my ex-room. I took off my walkman headphones and the powerful music of the Argentinian named Uña Ramos. I caught the eyes of the people who sat opposite me and we all knew that something wasn't right. I was conferring with my handbook to see when the next stop may be. Rosario, five hours away!

Amidst silent self-cursing and "damning", I tried to steady and seek logic. We were already four hours out from the city. Would my camera still be there? Surely that maid would find it. I'd never see it for sure. Did insurance cover it? I'd have to wait another week for the same train and this ticket would become obsolete. Dumkopt! Then, almost as if my internal alarm bells had sounded out in the driver's cabin, we started to ease pace. We were slowing. I shoved my walkman into my pack and rushed down the aisle to ask the conductor some rapid fire questions. Where were we? Were there buses stopping in this town that went on to Buenas Aires? Empty shrugs to both, I ran down to haul my pack down from overhead, quickly packed my scatterings into my hand pack and made off down the aisle for the door. I crunched a shoulder and generally caused considerable focus of attention. A drug crazed gringo for sure!

The carriage door was flung open into the air-lock with the door to liberation. But by now the train had begun to move again. I stood at the exit contemplating some cowboy movie stunts, but the drop-off was on to rocky ground, and the pace of the train was now prohibitive.

I lowered my pack to the floor, peering out the open door with the wind causing my nervous perspiration to cool my skin. Maybe we'd stop again in a moment. The conductor approached me and asked to see my ticket, then reassured me in that "we don't want any trouble" voice that we were a long way from Salta, my marked destination. I accepted, resigning to dumbness instead of defence. I couldn't be bothered trying to explain. I could see several onlookers inconspicuously peering down the aisle at us.

After a distancing amount of time, I re-heaved my pack onto my back and entered the carriage. Noticing that the back two seats were empty, I decided on a low profile until Rosario, and consequently absconded to the dunce's corner. Resignation was noted with a couple of deep breaths and some mutterings of confusion. A lady diagonally opposite turned around to see where my mutterings were directed. I rolled my head and looked out onto the fading moments of sunset. Time rolled by.

At first I thought I was dreaming, but the second recurrence of something poking into my left buttock confirmed that my present state was open-eyed and real. In a start I sat upright and turned around, half expecting to see someone. A laminated wall reflected my own startled face. And again! There's a finger poking into my hip. Swiss cheeses!!

But how can there be a body connected to that finger. The back of the gently sloping seat barely misses touching that wall. There is barely enough room for a fat child in the gap close to the floor where a triangle is formed. But sure enough, I'm now talking to a seat crack, behind which must exist an adult male body. A stowaway. How exciting, I'm sitting on a stowaway. How unnerving. The lady opposite turns around again. Either she knows of this man's existence, or she is sure that I have a disorder of reality. I smile, she turns away.

Difficult jottings of conversation ascertain that he's a Bolivian student returning from studies in Buenas Aires. He's a little short on funds and, besides, he made it back unscathed once before. The seesawing pendulum of balance. My bad luck turns out to be his good fortune as we finally pull into the station of Rosario, just whispers after midnight. I quickly explain my predicament as I hand him my onward ticket. He's a typically stunted Bolivian guy, now beaming at his new found legality. I shake hands and wander off into the crowd outside.

A succession of things go my way. The bus station is attached to the train station and within a frenetic half hour I'm sitting on a bus, high speed, for whence I'd come. Just five non-stop hours later and I'm woken by a fellow passenger. "Buenas Aires, señor!" It's barely five thirty in the morning. My second piece of luck is, in a sprawling city of over ten million people, where travel from city to a suburb might take as much as an hour or more, that the bus station is in a recognisable area. I throw my pack on and walk to the nearest main street. I know where I am and just ten minutes of focussed walking later and I arrive at the hotel.

In a city where people barred windows and placed shutters over doors at night, it was a great surprise for me to find the door open. I entered quietly. The night watchman was sound asleep in the reception receptacle, which was placed in the space that existed under the stairs. A creative plan sprung to mind, and I followed trustingly. Firstly, I walked to an obscured corner of the entrance hallway and up the stairs a little to offload my packs. Then, with the deft hand and a state calmed by exhaustion, I crept to within poking distance of the watchman. Just above him was the key board, all efficiently numbered. Gosh, what if there was someone new in my ex-room. The lift was easy, the escape cat-like. I climbed the two flights of stairs to my room, quite sure that the creaking of the old wooden staircase would wake someone I didn't want to.

I opened the door slowly, and again, good favour revealed an empty, but made-up room. And there, unmoved by my personal dramas of that previous night, aloof to tentativeness, sat the camera. Pentax MX. Jailer of scenes, captive to Kodak. I sat on the bed and wondered what to do next. Locking the outside world out and going to sleep seemed obscure enough. Why not, life seemed surreal as I lay there, mind darting left, then right, mashing into a dull grey whiz. Round and round and round.

Four hours later I rose from the heavens. I showered and then proceeded downstairs, already amusing myself at the confused look which would surely mix easily with the generally drousy look on the manager's face. The nightwatchman was at service and so, relying heavily on a sinister concoction of surprise, language barrier and good cheer I paid for that night. I left to check out the Davis Cup.

Guillermo Vilas was the Argentinian villain and John McEnroe the classic bad guy. The smart girl at the National Office for Tourism assured me that there were plenty of tickets available, gave me underground rail times and suggested that, if I headed off that instant, I'd probably catch that clash of the titans.

Standing outside the Buenas Aires Lawn Tennis Club with the news that the stadium was at capacity didn't perturb me in the slightest. There would surely be scalpers around. After half an hour of waiting, the beckoning cheers of the crowd inside pulling at me, I started to lose faith. But an eternal optimist will always pull through.

Three million pesos was his demand. Straight from the international school of sleazy humans stood the unbuttoned flowery shirt, the hairy chest, the shady eyebrows. White leather shoes were a dead giveaway. I turned my back on him and ambled. Supply and demand weren't on my side, but a year of experience meant that I had acquired "all the moves". I could manipulate this man until he would offer to pay my way for me, or at least, that was the careless air I was now exuding. I mean, I hated tennis, I didn't even know what Davis Cup was. "One million pesos" .... yes, sir! I paid, and then followed to see the Latin system flowering in its full glory.

At the back of the stadium a guard at the service entrance was handed his cut. I was led in. Then my "guide" led me to a door and handed more notes to the usherette. He motioned to me that I was free to enter.

Once inside, I realised that I didn't necessarily have a seat and that possibly I'd been duped. Super Mac and Vilas warmed up, slugging missiles at each other and prancing their moves at the encaptured crowd. I moved back against a wall that I thought would leave me inconspicuous, but soon realised that there were six or seven other people nearby. Probably all cash victims, as I was. Next I overheard a security guard suggesting that we take our seats. He started demanding to see peoples tickets. I scanned the crowd for a spare seat and there it was.

"Act like you own the world ....." and with a confidence that besets when you've nothing to lose, I shuffled myself down the front courtside seats to one of two empty seats. Next to me sat a doll-like Argentinian girl and in front of me was Peter Flemming, John McEnroe's doubles partner for this tie. I settled in, not looking sideways such that someone might engage me in conversation, and saw Vilas upset an unsportsmanlike brat. One nil to Argentina. The real prize to me.

My escape from Argentina continued, a sequel no less! A train trip to Tucuman, normally eighteen hours worth, extended to thirty-four hours, due to a derailment. A nine hour bus to Salta, three to Jujuy and finally eight and a half hours to LaQuica on the border.

Two nights and one meal, freezing cold winds and five a.m. Border crossing at eight thirty a.m., only to find that there were no first class tickets left and it would be the abstract mayhem of local travel. Chickens crowing, escapee guinea pigs, contraband and distracting smells.

Not to be outdone, the Bolivian rail system expanded what was recorded as a twenty-one hour trip to a thirty-two hour "tester". But who was counting anyway?

On arrival in La Paz, I headed straight for my mirage of bed and silence. Hot shower and sleep. I was told there were no single rooms, but could share with a Chilean man if I liked. I showered and entered the room, aware that he was probably still asleep. I sat on the edge of my bed combing wet hair, smelling like a rose, but feeling like a dog's bone. Imagine the total nonsense, the absurdity, as the Chilean guy rolled over, propping himself up in bed and saying, "Want to snort some coke, man?" The end; take me to the land of peace and eternity, sleep over all is forever.