Tales from the road

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Seasoned travellers sometimes say that one should enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

In theory this sounds very good, although I’m told it is not valid if you have to change flights at Pearson airport in Toronto. This winter (well, it was summer and fall for us, but I don’t want to rub that in any more than I have already) we did a lot of journeying. And I must say that I enjoyed it a lot. After all, it was on the road that we got to see all manner of marvels we would have missed if we’d jetted from one place to another.

We spent a fair amount of time on buses, but they were quite comfortable. Almost all of the inter-city buses are double-decker buses with the majority of the seats on the second floor (for your viewing pleasure). The heating and cooling goes on and off (as people go to the driver or the driver’s assistant and complain that it is too hot or too cold). There is free water (lukewarm) and free coffee (lukewarm, and with plenty of sugar) — as much as you can stomach. They have a decent bathroom for a moving vehicle, somewhat comfortable seats, and the odd video (usually starring Meryl Streep, for some reason). I like the front seats on the second floor, as it is a magnificent view. But it can also be very hot, if you are driving in to the sun, as you bear the brunt of the sun’s rays. You can close the curtains, but then that pretty much destroys the reason to sit in the front in the first place.

If you happen to drive, when you go to park your car, in many cities, look for the parking attendant. In Montevideo, they might wear an orange safety vest, and they’ll come over as soon as you look like you want to park. In Buenos Aires, they might be someone waving what looks like a chamois cloth. In other cities they might be wearing brightly coloured safety vests. They’ll help you park, by stopping traffic and letting you know how much space you have. Then, when you come back, they’ll help you get out of the space. Don’t ignore them, and give them a small tip at the end. Allegedly, they also keep an eye on your car while you’re gone, so it’s a small price to pay.

When you are travelling and you see smoke in the distance, it is either a fire or a protest. Burning a tire is de rigeur here for protesting. No sensible protestor would begin the day without a tire to burn. Ironically, while companies may not burn tires for fuel, protestors (including some who are arguing for environmental causes) regularly burn tires for political purposes. We met one social activist who talked a lot about the environmental and social challenges in the country. But then he proudly told us about when he helped to burn a heap of tires on a road to stop the traffic for a protest.

While travelling, one needs to stop occasionally, and what better place to stop than a museum. They are usually quite affordable. Ironically, the most expensive museum we saw on the whole trip was a museum devoted to the dearly beloved Che Guevara, the Argentinian revolutionary who helped Fidel Castro create Cuba, and then went on to foment revolution in a number of other countries across two continents (ending up assassinated in Bolivia in 1967). It was a house that he lived in as a child in a lovely town called Alta Gracia (his family moved there when Che was 10, to help his asthma). The cost was 75 pesos; anywhere else a museum is at most 10 or 20 pesos (many are between 2 and 5 pesos – less than a dollar). Even the most expensive private museums are only 25 pesos. Apparently, Che’s spirit is in the house, but I doubt if he could afford to live in it in body, at these prices. Before you think of snarky comments about how the communists certainly know how to extract a profit, it is actually the municipality that runs the museum. For some reason they’ve recently raised the price from 5 pesos to 75 pesos. That’s inflation for you!

Travelling around Argentina, you will see a number of different kinds of shrines on the roadsides. At the risk of sounding like an academic who needs to order and analyze everything, I’d say that there are four different kinds of shrines. The first two are similar to what we’d see in Canada:

1) Shrines to the Virgin Mary. These can be very elaborate (well beyond the vertical-bathtub-as-grotto style that we often see). They are on street corners, out in the middle of nowhere, high on rocky outcrops, just about anywhere. They generally feature a representation of Mary (with a small head and a large triangular dress, usually blue) standing on top of a crescent moon.

2) Shrines to commemorate the victims of automobile accidents. There are close to 5,000 traffic fatalities in Argentina every year (a country of about 40 million). Like many other countries, there are memorials set up for at least some of these every year.

The other two kinds of shrines are more unique to Argentina:

3) On occasion, by the side of the road one will see a small shrine with candles and votive offerings surrounded by hundreds or thousands of plastic water bottles. These are shrines to the folk saint Difunta Correa (“difunta” means deceased). They are dedicated to María Antonia Deolina Correa, who lived in the mid 1800s. Her husband had been conscripted in the civil war of the early 1850s. After being injured, he was abandoned by the rebel army he’d been forced to join. She went looking for him, to bring him food and water, travelling through the deserts of San Juan province (her infant son in her arms). Alas, she died there, of exhaustion and thirst. However, a few days later, her son was found suckling on her breast, still alive from his mother’s still-plentiful milk.

This was seen as a miracle indeed. A shrine erected on her tomb became a place of miracles and her following increased from there. By the late 1800s, a number of additional shrines were already in place, and the cult has increased since then. Despite her popularity, the Catholic Church has not recognized her in any official manner. The most prominent feature of the many shrines to Difunta Correa is the bottles of water (to help quench her eternal thirst), along with car parts and license plates. She has become the informal patron saint of travellers.

4) Another rather common style of shrines are those built for a folk hero by the name of Gauchito Gil. They feature shrine-like shelters with rows of candles and colourfully tacky statues and packages of foodstuffs and drinks and so on. They are set in a grove of trees, or at least a single tree, which are decorated by long strips of red cloth. Not a lot is known about the real “El Gauchito,” Antonio Mamerto Gil Núñez, but he was a Robin Hood type of fellow who lived in the latter half of the 1800s. He joined the army for awhile, fighting in Paraguay in the War of the Triple Alliance. Disillusioned with this, he then went on the run with several other army deserters and travelled the country stealing cattle and giving them to the poor. He was thus widely supported by those who benefitted from his own form of progressive taxation.

Eventually, he was caught and subjected to a rough justice. He was hung upside down from an algarroba tree and then beheaded (in that order, apparently). As was the custom at the time with army deserters, his body and head were to remain separated. However, just before being killed, Gaucho Gil told the executioner that his son was ill and would only get better if Gil was buried with both body and head together. The executioner did not believe him, since his son had been fine. Nevertheless, when he went home (Gil’s head in tow), he found that his son was indeed very ill. So he headed back to reunite the head and body of Gaucho Gil and bury the pieces together with all necessary ceremony. And, as the story goes, his son got better quickly. Clearly a miracle, right?

So now people leave all manner of objects at these roadside shrines, hoping for a miracle of their own. At the site of Gil’s last resting place there are numerous large storehouses of such gifts, as well as chapels. The objects range from bicycles to hair clippings to whole racks of wedding gowns, all in the hopes of a miracle. When driving past, one should honk the horn, to avoid trouble on the road. Although his story is incredibly popular, he has no official recognition from the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, votive candles and statues and essential oils dedicated to him can be purchased at any good religious store, sitting beside the products commemorating any of the other official saints. And one of the most common statues of Gaucho Gil is of him in a dashing red cape, in front of a cross. Like any good saint, Gaucho Gil now lives on in the land of Facebook. Look him up if you don’t believe me.

All of this got me to thinking about what kind of shrines we could erect here in NL? They would make the long distances between communities a touch more intriguing. Maybe we could hang bunches of dried caplin on trees to commemorate the decline of the fishery? Or nail moose antlers to a stump in every location where there was a moose-vehicle accident? Let your creativity blossom….


Today’s feature musician is a pan-Latin American star, Julieta Venegas.   Born in California and raised in Mexico, she was musical from a young age. It is the same old story – she started on the piano at 10 and never looked back. At 10 I was still saving cool bits of string and keeping frogs in my pockets.

She is very well established by now, with five Latin Grammys on her shelf and six or seven CDs. Here is a fine song called “Ya Conocerán.” www.youtube.com/watch?v=LeOMssUq7q4

And, to bring these musical selections together in a tight package, here she is singing with one of the suggestions I wrote about several months ago – Bajofondo, an Uruguayan-Argentinian band:


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