That Time We Got Stuck in the Argentinean Salt Flats – Part Two

Check out part one to read the beginning of our salt flats saga.

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After more than two hours and ten kilometres of walking, we arrived at some buildings that we’d been hoping might house some people. We were pretty disappointed to find that the buildings were just empty shells, but our spirits were lifted when we saw a guy riding towards us on his motorcycle. Finally, someone who might be able to help us! By using my stumbling Spanish and showing him a picture of the truck on Zevi’s phone, I managed to convey our situation to him. As I was trying to explain our plight he taught me the Spanish word for “stuck”, which would prove to be very useful later. He couldn’t drive us anywhere since he didn’t have any passenger seats, but he did lead us back to some buildings near to where he was staying in the hopes that we’d be able to get cell phone service. We were at a point where calling 911 seemed to be our best bet – we weren’t sure what the police would be able to do for us, but we felt like our situation was dire enough to warrant an emergency call. However, despite our new friend’s attempt to position first Zevi’s, then my, and then his phone at varying angles on a rock where he said there was usually cell service, none of us were having any luck getting through. Eventually we had to give up and figure out our next move.

Even though the guy who had been helping us told us that waiting by the virtually deserted highway in hopes of flagging down a car would be futile, there really wasn’t anything else for us to do. As we dragged our exhausted bodies towards the road, both Zevi and I glanced at a broken down shell of a building and wondered if that was going to have to be our shelter for the night. Neither of us said anything, but we were both really starting to worry that that huddling behind those ruined walls by the side of the road might be our fate that night.

Sleeping out in the wilderness might not have been such a concern if we had accounted for the fact that we might still be outside when the sun went down. We were in such a hurry to leave the truck, which at that time was roasting in the sizzling desert heat of the salt flats, that taking warm layers hadn’t crossed our mind. I was wearing a t-shirt and a thin skirt, and Zevi was wearing a lightweight long sleeved shirt and shorts. Standing by the side of the deserted highway as the sun began its slow slide down below the hills, we started to wish that the four water bottles in our backpack could be magically transformed in to warm coats. We found a couple of rocks by the side of the road that functioned as a makeshift seat, and I sat on Zevi’s lap as we tried to keep each other warm. The minutes wore on and on, and, just as our friend had predicted, no cars came. We were both trying to stay positive and be strong for each other, but as we sat there I felt so absolutely helpless and hopeless. This was the most dangerous situation that either of us had been in. I’d never felt more vulnerable, and I don’t mean that I felt like I was in a place where I could share my feelings, I mean that I seriously felt like we might not make it out of that windy, deserted Northern Argentinean countryside. It was incredibly scary, and even thinking back on it now makes my heart race a bit.

We’d been waiting for what seemed like forever, and we were both almost ready to break down. After coming up with a few ideas, all of which we ultimately decided weren’t going to help our cause, Zevi suddenly exclaimed that he thought he’d seen a vehicle moving towards us. When I looked and saw nothing we figured that the stress and exhaustion were making him see things that weren’t there, as much as he wanted them to be. A few minutes later, though, we discovered that he hadn’t been hallucinating, as a beat up orange truck came in to view and laboured towards us. We jumped up and down and frantically waved with every ounce of energy we had, hoping to convey our desperation to the driver of the truck. The relief we felt when he slowed to a stop is indescribable.

Our saviours were a farmer, his wife, and their numerous children, all crammed in to a single bench seat in their elderly truck as they made their way back home from an All Saints Day church service. I told the driver our story, and although his countryside Spanish was nearly impossible for me to understand, I managed to decipher his offer to stay with them in their house just up the road. Let me tell you, I was thanking my lucky stars that I’d decided to do that Spanish minor in university at this point. On top of this, he let me know that he thought he’d be able to recruit some friends and get our truck out in the morning. I couldn’t believe that we’d gone from utter to despair to incredible good fortune in a matter of minutes. Zevi and I couldn’t get the smiles off our faces as we settled in to the back of his truck. The respite from the wind was such a huge relief – we would have slept there all night with no complaints!
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We bumped and jostled our way about five kilometers up a dirt road to the farmer and his family’s humble home, where, incredibly, they gave us a room to sleep in and fed us llama stew for dinner. They had no electricity or running water, but we certainly weren’t looking for luxury at that point. As we ate our dinner and drank our tea, the farmer’s wife came and told me about her children and their way of life. Although this was definitely a negative experience overall, the chance to chat with some true locals and see how they lived was the silver lining.

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True to his promise, in the morning the farmer had rounded up a couple of neighbours and gotten all of the necessary supplies together in order to extract our truck from its salty, muddy trap. We drove on to the salt flats, and, although I’d warned him that we’d traveled a long way, I think our chauffeur was a little surprised as we journeyed further and further away from the road. When we finally had our truck in our sights, we parked a little ways back so that the farmer’s truck wouldn’t suffer a similar fate to ours. We carted shovels and boards and tarps to our truck and the farmer and his two friends got to work with a little help from Zevi. It took them an hour to extract each wheel from the mud’s powerful grip, using bottle jacks and planks to prop the wheels up little by little. As I watched them chew their coca leaves and drink their boxed red wine as they worked diligently in the hot sunshine, I wondered what poor soul they’d practiced this technique on in the past. They seemed to know exactly what to do.

When all of the wheels were out, Zevi and I were gripped by a new stress. What if this tactic hadn’t worked, and we were forced to abandon our truck in the salty desert? We tensely watched as one of the men slid into the drivers seat and gingerly eased his foot on to the gas pedal. Nothing happened. All our fears were coming true, and my heart sank. After some adjustments, he tried again, and this time we saw the sight we’d been dreaming of for the last twenty hours. The truck was free! We held our breath as he drove over to where the farmer’s truck was parked – getting stuck again would be devastating. Thankfully, he made it, and there were hugs and high fives all around.
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It was hard to express our immense gratitude to the people that saved us, but we gave them almost all of the money we had as a small show of our appreciation. We held our breath as we drove across the rest of the salt flats, and didn’t really exhale until we got on to a paved highway. Zevi had been eager for adventurous drives, but we’d both had our fill of treacherous roadways for the foreseeable future. We’d also had our fill of salt flats for the foreseeable future, and possibly forever. It was a traumatizing experience, but for as much bad luck as we’d had, we got equally lucky when that farmer stopped to pick us up. We spend so much time avoiding strangers, especially in foreign countries, but you never know when one might save your life.

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One thought on “That Time We Got Stuck in the Argentinean Salt Flats – Part Two

  1. karengummo says:

    You were the strangers in that place I suppose. Thank goodness your saviours embraced you. Wow. It is always good to hear that story again.

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