The Story Begins
This story begins in Concordia, the capital of Entre Rios province in northeastern Argentina, right after I had left behind four weeks of partying (and a sprinkling of Spanish study and culture) in Buenos Aires, Argentina's vibrant and cosmopolitan capital.
It is a story about what can go wrong when you are travelling alone and don't look after yourself and your belongings. It was an experience that made me totally rethink the way I journey, driving home the reality that I was going to be on the road for a long time, not a one-month bender away from work.
I was stopping in Concordia on my way to the Iguazu Falls, the famous thundering waterfalls in the far northeast corner of the country, that defines the border between Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. I was still recovering from a cold and I'd just had three days of beautiful, mild and sunny weather. I was in high spirits, looking forward to warmer weather as I traveled north.
Why Stop in Concordia
You may ask what I was doing in Concordia, a city that isn't mentioned in Lonely Planet's South America Shoestring Guide. The “gringo trail” usually involves a direct overnight sleeper bus from Buenos Aires to Puerto Iguazu, the small town on the Argentinian side of the falls. There isn't a reason to stop in between, at least for conventional tourism reasons – a fact that my hostel buddies, who had booked seats on the overnight buses, reminded me of several times.
I was itching to get out and test my newly improved Spanish. Feeling the need to wander for a while, smell the roses and inject some challenge into my travels, I decided to go solo (at the time, I was still in my “travel is all about doing it tough” mindset, the idea of participating in and thus further propagating the gringo trail seemed unthinkable to me).
The El Gran Capitan
I'd heard about a recently re-opened train service, a relic from the British-built rail system, called El Gran Capitan, that ran from Buenos Aires to Posadas (the capital of Misiones province, the province that also contains the Iguazu Falls). Always having liked travelling by train anyway, (more sociable, you hang out in the dining car and drink beer with random characters, they're generally the cheapest and safest options), I set about finding a ticket.
El Gran Capitan only ran twice a week. I would have to wait three days for the next one, but I was not deterred. I jumped on the next bus north, bound for Concordia, figuring I had a better chance of getting rest than in the 24-hour party zone of a Buenos Aires hostel. Three days later, a sudden cold change came over, I was caught outside in the rain with only a T-shirt. I could feel the cold that I had caught in Buenos Aires freshening up. I began to regret all the partying I had done the night before.
I was waiting for a train that was five hours late, in five-degree temperature, having had little sleep. This didn't help my health. When I got on the train and into the cheapest berth available (probably a critical mistake in hindsight), all I wanted to do was sleep. I placed my backpack on the luggage rack above and opposite my seat, stretched out on a vacant row of seats, using my daypack as a pillow. I didn't bother to secure my pack to the luggage rack, even though I had the equipment to do so. I woke up five hours later. In the space where my pack had been, there was someone else's bag. I had been robbed.
The train was stopped at a station further up the line. I did a quick search outside for any thieves running away with my pack. No one. I searched the train with the help of the train security staff. They didn't seem to care too much about my predicament. I would have to investigate on my own.
Further questioning determined that my pack had been missing several stops back. I had to face it – it was gone. A quick inventory check, though, showed I hadn't lost anything too critical. What a relief! I didn't have clean underwear, soap and razor, but that wasn't so valuable. I spent the rest of my journey telling my tale to a few new train buddies. Twelve hours later, the train finally chugged into Posadas, nine hours after the scheduled time – a common occurrence in South America.
It was about 2:30 a.m., still freezing, my cough getting worse. The sensible thing to do would have been to find a room. Instead, I went to the police station to give my report. A female officer with a Polish surname took my information. I joked about giving her my business card, that I only give it to ladies (she wrote all this down in the report!).
Not Feeling Good
It was winter vacation in Argentina, all the hotels were full. I had to wait until the morning for a room. I wandered the streets, stopping at a sleazy all-night joint for a hamburger and a beer, and then waited for my room while sitting back in a chair in the hotel courtyard, listening to my discman.
I spent the next few days resting, pondering the English idiom “to own only the clothes on one's back”, which romanticises the freedom one gets from having few possessions. I found out that turning your underwear inside out five times, spraying more deordorant on your T-shirt is not romantic rather, repulsive.
I discovered that the cough medicine I'd been taking was a stimulant, no wonder I wasn't getting enough sleep. Everything was saying: take a break, see a doctor. No, I stubbornly pressed on to San Ignacio, an hour away. Surely it couldn't get any worse. But it did.
I should have seen the bad omen when there were no seats left on the bus, I had to sit on the floor for an hour, with about 10 other people. They seemed quite amused and appreciated the irony when I remarked in my limited Spanish about the coffee being at least hot! In Argentina, buses have air conditioning, free water, coffee, videos, sometimes snacks. Yet, they were willing to sell standing-room-only tickets, cram folks in so that nobody could move.
I arrived in San Ignacio to find more “no vacancy” signs. With a few Argentinian students, I walked four kilometers out of town to rent a riverside cabin at the camping grounds where they were going. No such cabins existed. After I stayed for dinner, they offered me a spot in their tent, but I declined, thinking a bed would be better for me.
I walked back into town to find nothing was available. I wandered, desperate for rest, smelling poorly, looking more dihevelled than before, still on cough medicine. I ended up sleeping on the top of a trestle table with a few blankets and a pillow under a covered area in a camping ground that the owner kindly rustled up for me. It was free.
I couldn't sleep, I was seeing strange spirals and squiggly lines around the contours of objects that I looked at. I noticed a strange strobe light effect in my vision when I blinked in bright light. I needed a room and a doctor. Luckily, a cabin became available. I took it, and then I began walking to the local hospital. It started to rain again – not the best condition for an exhausted and sick individual.
The waiting room was depressing – full of young families with coughing babies. When my turn finally came, I blurted out my symptoms in broken Spanish to an old doctor who spoke no English. He listened to my chest and said I had bronchitis, I would need antibiotic injections. Injections? The fear of having injections in a dodgy hospital in a foreign country immediately set my heart racing. Weren't there some pills I could take. “No,” he replied, “you are too far advanced for that.”
I trudged off to the pharmacy, bought the injections and waited to see the nurse. I started to roll up my sleeve for the injection, reassuring myself that this would be nothing compared to the number of needles I was given in military service. The nurse pointed to my buttocks, pulled out what looked like an elephant needle. I told her I had never had an injection in the buttocks. To calm me, she waved the needle and said, "This is much too big to put in your arm."
I began to feel better within an hour of the first injection, but I still couldn't sleep well, until much later and after two valiums.
The injections worked their magic quickly. I got back on the road two days later, stopped at Iguazu falls, headed to Rio De Janiero for some recovery therapy – sunshine, salt water and surf.
My rough episode didn't cost me too much money or time, despite the fact that I probably came close to having a serious bout of pneumonia. It taught me a simple and valuable lesson about travelling – health first.