I sit in a brothel in Bahia Blanca, waiting for Monique. At this stage I don't know it is a brothel and I don't know if she will turn up. We have met just once, through our relatives, and the only thing we have in common is that we want to hitch-hike around Argentina.
She arrives at 6pm, with a sleeping bag in one hand and a red leather hatbox in the other. Her equipment for the year is: two pairs of shorts, two T-shirts, jeans, jumper, hiking boots sketch book, pictures of her home in Ireland and nail scissors for cutting her hair. We end up in our sleeping bags in the same bed, all the others being in hectic use by this time of night.
Bahia Blanca is a port and a good place to pick up trucks on the long run south to Patagonia. Being female is an immeasurable advantage. The drivers are carrying cash to pay for their petrol and robberies are on the increase. In courtly Argentina women are considered incapable of such a thing, so we sail past male students who may have to wait days for a lift. The longer the beard, the longer the wait. One Falklands veteran has been waiting for 10 days; the pump attendants refer to him as "el loco Malvino" and take him sandwiches when they can.
The truckers confound our every expectation. They eat very little, for fear of putting on weight or dozing off. They are intensely domesticated, pouncing on stray biscuit crumbs in their cabs and falling prey to the cleaning product salesmen who lurk at service stations. They have a macho swagger, hitting the tyres with baseball bats to check their condition and cutting up their food with their facons (the knife that every red- blooded male carries at his belt). And yet their patron saint is La Difunta Correa, who died with her baby at her breast but continued to suckle it until it was found. Sentiment and hardship go hand in hand in this job. Doubly so during an economic meltdown.
Ruta 3 is the road that follows the edge of the Atlantic all the way down to Tierra del Fuego. It is a strip of grey flanked by dirt shoulders big enough to accommodate two trucks side by side, rippling into a heat haze on the horizon. We climb into cab after cab, sometimes with one driver, sometimes with two.
Monique and I seem to represent a third sex to the drivers. At our age, 28, most Argentine women are married with children and not climbing into trucks with strange men. Yet we do not fit into the category of the road prostitutes who ply their trade back and forth between service stations. So our offers of food are waved away, lifts are procured, solicitous questions are asked. Monique, who has very little money, touches a chord. But there is more; a peculiar generosity born of crisis which we meet everywhere. In the heat and the desperation and the spiralling inflation, people stick together.
As the austral creeps past 5,000 to the dollar and rumours of President Menem's marital problems begin to filter south, we are still going nowhere in particular. Where the trucks go, we go: Welsh Patagonia, with its permanent moaning wind and thorn bushes festooned with plastic bags; the snaggle- toothed mountains of Tierra del Fuego; the glaciers of Lago Argentino. Our Spanish now laced with lumfardo - the Argentine equivalent of rhyming slang - is coming on in leaps and bounds and will deeply shock my Buenos Aires cousins at a later date. We, drink quantities of mate, a herb tea which suppresses your appetite, turns your tongue green and signals a halt for conversation.
There are other advantages. In undulating country like this, there is no better way to see than from the cab of a flat-front truck. High above fence level, with a panorama of rabbit-fur colours and infinite blue skies scrolling past in the windscreen, the drivers point out guanacos, armadillos, Patagonian hares. They tell us incredible stories of an estancia of mythical proportions owned by the Queen, and that the biggest landowner on the Malvinas is none other than devil incarnate herself, La Thatcher. I have started to read One Hundred Years of Solitude, the bible of South American magic realism. But as the austral romps into the high six thousands, and the price of a meal goes up as I am eating it in a roadside cafe, it just seems like realism to me.