I’m Saturday #21: Truckin’

Southern Pantanal, Brazil

Let me start by saying that I love road trips. The first five years of my working life was spent following a gypsy-like circuit between Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw and Regina. I worked at racetracks in each of those cities for anywhere between two weeks and six months before moving on to the next town. Travel days were always my favourite. When called upon, I happily made frequent forays to Edmonton and Calgary to fill in for vacationing colleagues. A request to train a new employee on the Manitoba Great Western Circuit was a particular treat as it involved a drive of 400 km or more… each way… the same day.

Later when I was a partner in a printing operation based in Orangeville, Ontario, I regularly delivered product to racetrack customers from Ottawa to Sarnia. In the early 90s I would drive to Aylmer, Quebec at the drop of a hat, or should I say the bounce of a cheque? Suffice to say, I really like driving.

But how will I like “driving” when I’m not the one one doing the actual driving? I guess I’m about to find out. In a few minutes I will board the Dragoman truck for a 15 hour run between Foz de Igaucu and Bonito, Brazil. If you have a few minutes, hop aboard and experience the trip as I did.

Although edited a few days after the fact, this account of Saturday #21 was largely written in real time.

6:08 a.m.
“Buddy check!” calls out the group leader. “Si,” is the collective response of 20 very sleepy overlanders. “Let’s go, then.”

6:10 a.m.
We’re pulling out of the grounds of Hostel Paudimar about 10 minutes behind schedule. Not bad, considering that a few tents were still up at 5:45 when I claimed this forward facing window seat in the right (shoulder-side) dinette. There’s no guarantee that I’ll hold it for the day as seating is on a first claimed basis and all bets are off after lunch. For now I have what I think is the best seat in the house. I don’t do “backwards” when it comes to moving vehicles, a window seat is great in hot weather, and I imagine the shoulder side to be safest.

9:11 a.m.
We are pulling out of a very nice highway gas station and back on the road after our first break of the day. While most of the group shopped for snacks, I visited the Brazilian version of Tim Horton’s and ordered a ‘large’ coffee con leche. I don’t know what it is about South America and coffee – they have enough that rationing shouldn’t be required – but a ‘large’ coffee here is all of about 4 ounces. I can see an espresso being this size or smaller, but a coffee?

9:52 a.m.
We’ve been on the truck for about 20 minutes since the last stop and some of the boys are anxious to resume yesterday’s game of President. James, the British solicitor taught us this card game. Although he calls it Presidents and Assholes, it’s known around the world by many names: Rich Man Poor Man, Emperors and Scum, Capitalism, Bum, Landlord, Trouduc or Trou du Cul (France), Einer ist immer der Arsch (Germany), Hűbéres (Hungary), Sluitspieren or Klootzakken (Netherlands), and Zheng Shangyou or Dai Hin Min (China). What it loses in tact, Presidents and Assholes sure makes up in name recognition.

I am proud to say that I clawed my way from the starting position of ‘citizen’ all the way to ‘Vice President’ on two separate occasions. Once you’re in the Oval Office it’s very tough to be impeached. Likewise, the lowest level of society faces tremendous obstacles on their way to the top. Unfortunately I didn’t perform well in office and was soon demoted to the position of citizen or even asshole.

11:05 a.m.
The area of Brazil that we are driving through today is largely rural/agricultural with small villages spaced about 15 km apart and larger towns appear every 50 km or thereabouts. The larger centres have implement dealerships, garages, building supply stores and the like. The smaller centres look very much like Canada’s Prairie Provinces with a post office, general store, gas station, cafe, perhaps a government building or two, and not much more.

11:20 a.m.
A small boy riding a two-wheeler that is way too big for him is staring at our truck and almost rides into a ditch. He looks embarrassed when our eyes meet. Most people we pass on the street will stop what they are doing and check out the Dragoman truck for a few seconds. Kids are enthusiastic wavers in South America but the adults really have to be coaxed to wave. No doubt they’re asking each other, “Who are they?” and “Do they pay to ride in that thing?”

11:35 a.m.
I loved author Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar and Dark Star Safari and was convinced to take this two-year trip after reading his Ghost Train to The Eastern Star, but now that I’m actually on the road, Theroux’s My Other Life doesn’t seem quite as exotic as the other three. After this book I have Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog and The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje. Reading proves to be difficult on a truck traveling over rough roads but I’ve had enough ‘President’ for now so I take a seat at the back and press on with Theroux’s My Other Life.

1:30 p.m.
We pulled into another nondescript town around 12:30 and opted to kill three birds with one stone. We filled up with gas, Cook Group #5 (my group) prepared lunch, and while the ham, cheese and veggie wraps were being set out we had the local mechanic rotate Yana’s front wheels. Bob said the tires were new in Peru and he feels they’re out of alignment. The local mechanic was happy to rotate them for a few bucks so we were spared the chore of jacking up a large truck and loosening lug nuts by hand.

Locally grown watermelon may have been within the mechanic’s lunch budget but it wasn’t an option at the supermarket where we last shopped two days ago. We are budgeting $1 for breakfast, $1.50 for lunch and $2.50 for dinner (per person) when shopping for food that we consume as a group. My cook group blew our budget on ham, cheese, whole-wheat wraps, lots of veggies and several heads of lettuce. Unfortunately someone put the lettuce in an upright freezer at the hostel last night. Live and learn.

1:35 p.m.
We’re back on the truck and headed to the edge of whatever Podunk town this is. I haven’t seen a street sign in days and it’s very rare that you even see a sign welcoming you to town. I’m in charge of emptying the truck’s garbage and recycling bins and apparently I forgot to do this at the last stop. I have been warned.

1:45 p.m.
We just passed a cemetery where ladies in black dresses stood around a closed casket while a man led them in prayer. The rest of the men were working diligently a few meters away, digging the grave.

2:14 p.m.
We have driven about 50 km since the tire rotation so Bob and Tom got out to check the lug nuts. I snapped photos while most people either stayed on the truck or wandered to a nearby fence to see some cows up close. These particular cows originated in Africa. They don’t appear to be very meaty but we’ve had plenty of local beef and it’s very good.

We’re moving now but we recently sat and waited for about 5 minutes when we drove up behind a cattle drive.

DSCN5733 - Version 2
3:00 p.m.
Crystal has been playing music on her iPod Touch with no speaker. I like her choice of music but I am not a fan of any music played through technology that was meant to be used with headphones. I got out my laptop but since most of my music is stored on iCloud, and I not longer have my iPhone, only about 20% of my music was available to play. Crystal requested the only Canadian artist she knew – Nelly Furtado – so I played a short playlist including Furtado’s “Like A Bird” and some classics from Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Joel Plaskett, Carolyn Mark, Justin Rutledge, Corb Lund and Buck 65 before popping in my headphones and getting a much better listening experience, albeit solo. My course in Canadian Music Appreciation will have to wait for another day, preferably when we have external speakers.

4:50 p.m.
No punches were thrown and the only voices raised have been to drown out the noise from open truck windows, but we did have a very, let’s say, ‘vigorous’ discussion involving meat lovers, farmers and several vegetarians. You don’t have to twist my arm to get me to order the steak at just about any restaurant where it’s within budget, and that’s every restaurant in Bolivia and Argentina, but I also see Daisy’s point of view: The welfare of animals raised on factory farms, meat chock full of hormones and antibiotics and the whole idea of what is or isn’t organic, free-range or natural, is a legitimate concern. I’m not proud to say it, but like an 8-year-old on the subject of Santa, I just don’t want to know the truth.

5:18 p.m.
To tone things down a bit someone suggested that we play a game of “What Would You Rather Do”. This game consists of one player asking another player a series of questions starting with “What would you rather do?,” followed by “Marry, Snog or Kill,” and the names of three prominent people. I was the unanimous choice for a “snog” when the other two choices were Donald Duck and Henry Kissinger. I’m not sure how that made me feel. At least I wasn’t lumped in with Charles Manson, Marilyn Manson and Che Guevera, or the trio of Ellen DeGeneres, Penelope Pitstop (cartoon character) and Princess Anne. I won’t go into detail but things degenerated quickly. I took a break by riding in the rear “roof” seat for half an hour. You can’t beat the view.

6:00 p.m.
It was time for another pee break so we pulled into a truck stop / soybean depot and parked beside two long-haul truckers who were cooking dinner on gas stoves that folded down from the sides of their trucks. Other truckers stood about 20 meters from us and just stared. We couldn’t get them to wave or say “hola” even though they were obviously transfixed. Only when we left and some of the girls moved over to that side of the truck did one of the guys muster a quick, choppy wave that could be confused for a bidding signal at a cattle auction.

7:00 p.m.
We just watched an amazing sunset while passing a sign that read Bonito 37. It looks like we’ll be setting up camp well before 8:00 p.m.

9:08 p.m.
The last 10 km of the trip was over a nearly impassible road – if you can even call it a road. The main road was under construction and blocked by large barricades. We took to the plowed path that ran through fields parallel to the road. No motor coach could have made it through but Yana did. Kudos to Bob for some skillful driving even if it did involve a lot of slipping, sliding, gunning of the engine, lurching back and forth, etc.

9:30 p.m.
The price of an upgrade is the same as in Igauzu so I have opted to let James have the tent to himself. I’m always looking out for James’ best interests. Rather generous of me, don’t you think?

11:58 p.m.
I’m writing from bed in a dorm that I’m sharing with two English-apeaking Dutch guys who are halfway through a one-year round-the-world trip. We are sharing travel tails as we lay awake in the room, a large fan circulating overhead and the brightest moonlight imaginable streaming through the louvered shutters.

It wasn’t a bad day considering that I spent 15 hours in the back of a moving truck, repeatedly being referred to as “Asshole” by seven card-playing mates. I think its a testament to my love of road trips that I actually came off the truck with a smile on my face. Saturday #21 will go down as another great road trip experience.

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