The Porteño taxi driver surprised me several times. He smiled and whispered affectionately as he moved the small dog across to steer the car. The terrier had been whimpering, seeking attention as we zipped through Buenos Aires traffic. The smell in the car was also surprising. The windows were open because of the heat and the interior was decorated with toilet bowl fresheners. Pine and lavender as I recall, six clipped to doors and seats that I could see.
He said he hated the smell of cigarettes. As if I had asked, which I had not because I was gagging from the heady deodorising fumes. I was surprised that my appearance told him I was English speaking. I thought I was travelling incognito, without obvious ‘kidnap me’ nor ’employer will pay ransom’ tell-tales emblazoned on my clothes.
Then he was trying to tell me about the story in the news that day of a woman who murdered her best friend. Let me remind you that the smell in the 40 degree heat was overpowering, there was a miniature dog with its paws on the steering wheel and the faster the car went, the more relief we had from the summer heat. All this in fast, kamikaze Buenos Aires traffic. Now I was hearing about a woman who stole a baby from the womb of her best friend. Why?
‘Did you know that the sting of ginger is actually zingerol?’ he asked. ‘Yes’, he continued without drawing breath, ‘pipperol is the chemical that flavours black pepper. And chillies, well, the heat in chillies comes from capsaicin.’
He had been a chemical engineer who lost everything between the Malvinas and hyperinflation, before Menem rescued his country. He liked that he could drive a taxi. He had studied in Canada and he liked talking English even though he distrusted gringos just like he distrusted the Argentinian military. I believed him but I ended up confused by ginger and pepper for years. His jee sounded like zee so I learned zingerol when he meant gingerol. I also learned pipperol when he should have said piperine. But I accepted them all because I knew the word capsaicin that’s behind the heat that is measured in Scovilles.
‘Why are you here?’, he asked.
I might have replied ‘Pungency and heat’ if I wasn’t in fear of my life, if my ears didn’t have a burning sensation from the monologue topics, if not the scorching noonday heat or the chillies.
I told him, sardonically, that I was hoping to get to Patagonia.
That was the last thing I was able to say until paying him at the end of the journey, outside some restaurant where I was meeting an old friend (who never showed up). He had, by then, decided I was a tourist and started telling me gaucho tales, stories of mystical cowboys who performed miraculous healings and other things I couldn’t hear as the 120 km wind buffeted and blustered even harder than him.
An ascension to heaven must have been on my mind because I began to think about clouds I’d seen from above the day before. Our plane was flying across thick Amazonian cloud cover that was cracked and faulted below us like the pavement limestone in The Burren in Clare, in the west of Ireland. Unbelted in the back seat, I found refuge in that memory and took comfort from the dissociation.
Perhaps I wanted to be home in Ireland, safe with my family. In a country with seat belts in every car.
While suffering these terrors, I recalled two Canadian women I met on a Donegal bus from Glencolumbkille to Killybegs twenty years earlier. They admitted experiencing more fear on that journey than they’d ever known in Mexico or the Colombian cordilleras. The roads that criss-crossed the raised bogs were twisty and narrow, the bus was long and the rear wheels so far forward that it felt more like a tumble dryer than a bus journey. But the driver did not have a dog. Nor a need to talk. In fact he looked utterly miserable and ‘ready to end it all’, joked the blonde woman. On reflection that driver had looked manically depressed.
I think the ebullience of a happy chauffeur is preferable to driving nihilism. And in case you are wondering, I did ask the Porteño driver to drive more carefully, more slowly but he ignored me. And there was no way I was having him put me out of the car not knowing where were I was given that he had recognised me as a foreigner before he opened the door to share a little hell with me.
I enjoyed my time in Patagonia, as I’ve written before. I’m not sure I enjoyed the twenty minute odd journey across Buenos Aires that has persisted over twenty years. But it was good value, for sure.