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First publsihed in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, October 3,1976

POSTMARK:  Argentina

By COLLEEN McGUIRE

Visions of terror danced in my head whenever I used to try to imagine what Argentina was like after reading countless newspaper accounts of terrorist shootouts.

But it’s a pity that the media seem only concerned with the political shakeups for Argentina has far more to offer. The country is fantastic due exclusively to the nature of the Argentine people.  They aren’t friendly; they are overly friendly; They are cheerful, always smiling, helpful, noticeably sophisticated and enjoyable to talk to. Except for my experiences with the Greeks, Argentina has the finest nation of citizens I’ve ever met.

If Argentina didn’t have a military government, I would find it ideal. However, the military is a reality. Within 100 miles of crossing the Bolivian border my brother and I were searched three times on a first-class southbound bus — one that served free refreshments.

One passenger had the boldness to complain when soldiers ransacked his luggage. He had nothing of contraband, but because he protested, and mildly at that, the soldiers detained him. As the bus pulled away I caught a glimpse of the victim and was spooked to see such trepidation and terror in a grown man and such pompous wrath on the face of the uniformed officer.

On two occasions, I witnessed the military’s drilling procedures, and they caused me to shudder, The 7 soldiers weren’t merely marching, but were goose-stepping, just like I’d seen in war documentaries of Nazi soldiers.

Basically the government is unconcerned with backpackers and tourists, and doesn’t bother us at all. From Jujuy, way in the north, my brother Tom and I boarded a train for Buenos Aires about 1,700 kilometers away (forget hitchhiking; people are too afraid to pick up any road-side strangers)

After previous rides on other South American trains, the Argentine train was a relief. It was so clean you could actually sleep on the floor — which I did because it was a 36-hour ride to the capital. The train speeds down the tracks instead of ambling along. There’s no oversale of tickets, so that everyone has a seat, and crowds don’t block the aisles.

Since everyone here was so decent, we had no worries about robbers. Tom had placed his hand-made Peruvian bag above us on the luggage rack. Suddenly it fell off the rack, ricocheted off my back and flew out the open window. We looked at each other in horror, knowing that inside the purse was his passport, all his travelers’ checks, health certificate, $15, all identification, plus an open plane ticket worth $75.

The train made a stop about five kilometers later in a little village called Frias. We disembarked, backtracked up the rails for seven kilometers, but due to the summer’s high grass could find no sight of the precious bag. Disappointed, we returned to Frias to report the loss to the police, since, traveling around Argentina without any documents is worse than getting in a car wreck and not having a driver’s license.

The people of Frias were tremendous. Lelia, a widow with four young children who works at the train station took us to the police to help explain the incredulous event to the officers. After a fatiguing amount of questions — also directed at me, who had lost nothing — Tom finally got a paper which served as a temporary passport.

Lelia then insisted we spend the night at her house, where she fed us and mothered us tenderly. The next day we were going to leave, but about five men urged us to stay. These kind men took time off from their work to help us for a second day to scour the tracks. But, unfortunately the little Peruvian bag did not turn up.

For a second night Lelia took us into her home and fed us well. I had showed her the various coins I’ve been collecting of each country I pass through, and she and her neighbors bestowed on me a variety of obsolete Argentine coins. Tom and I left Frias the next day, touched by everyone’s generosity.

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