A story from the desert of La Rioja from MatadorU student Antrese Wood.

Image: aussiegall

AFTER A FULL DAY OF DRIVING, I made it to Talampaya National Park in northern Argentina. I passed the welcome sign as I turned off Ruta 150 onto the 76, then headed north into the park. On my left, huge red rock formations jutted out of the desert floor. Ahead of me, nothing but desert. I drove on, and the rocks grew smaller in my rearview mirror and eventually disappeared.

I was on my first solo trip to do some plein air painting in the province of La Rioja.

The sky changed from orange to yellow-green and was now in that deep saturated blue just before it loses all color. A startled flock of birds took flight as I drove past. Hundreds of them, black, flew along the road just above and to the sides of my car. It reminded me of snorkeling and being surrounded by fish in the water. I felt big and heavy as they darted effortlessly around each other. I kept their pace as we followed the road together for a few magical minutes.

One by one, the stars came out and the final color left the sky. I’d driven about 550km since I left my apartment in Villa Carlos Paz. My husband would be home from work by now and waiting for my call. I’d promised him I would text often and call as soon as I got to a hotel, but I hadn’t had a signal in hours.

It was pitch black by the time I got to the other side of the park and saw the next sign of life: a small building in the yellow glow of a single light. Most towns have a checkpoint at the entrance. Normally the police just glance to see that your headlights are on and you’re wearing a seatbelt. My right headlight has an electrical short, so when the officer signaled me to stop, I thought it must have gone out.

“Do you have any fruits or vegetables?”

He chewed on a toothpick waiting for my answer. I’m from California, a state with agricultural checkpoints at all its borders, but this was the first I’d seen in the two years I’d lived in Argentina. I would never expect one so far from the border of the province, much less in the middle of a desert. He caught me off guard.

Without turning around, I could see the cooler behind me on the backseat. It was filled with apples, pears, a few avocados, and some carrots. I weighed my options. I could probably say no without any trouble. On the other hand, I was by myself, in a foreign country in the middle of nowhere, and it was night. I hedged my bets and fessed up to three pears.

I still don’t understand the logic of my answer — why, if I was going to lie, I didn’t just go all the way and say “No, sir, there are no fruits or vegetables in my car. Nope, not a single grape.”

He asked where I was from.

    “California.”

I’ve learned that officials are nicer when I say California, rather than the United States.

He wrote on a clipboard.

    “You can’t pass, it’s a protected area.”

    “Oh, I’m sorry. Can I throw them away?”

    “No.”

I waited while he jotted down some more notes.

    “Well, I just need to call my husband to let him know I’ve arrived. Is there cell service here, or internet?”

    “No internet here. What cell provider do you have?” he asked.

I told him.

    “Not here. They cover Villa Union, its 40 kilometers that way,” he said, nodding in the direction I wanted to go. “But you can’t bring the fruit in.”

    “…and I can’t throw it away?”

    “No.” He almost looked apologetic. “You can turn around or eat them.”

I couldn’t remember the last town I passed, but I knew it was several hundred kilometers away on the opposite side of Talampaya. The second option seemed easier.

    “Eat them?”

He laughed and nodded.

    “You can pull over there.” He pointed to the side of the road just past the building.

    “I guess it’s about dinner time anyway.” He laughed with me.

I asked him about the area. He told me about Pagancillo, the tiny town I was about to enter, and Villa Union, where I was hoping to sleep. I thanked him, and then pulled off the road to eat the pears.

The driver handed him a white plastic bag bulging with what looked like…fruit?

I took my time. I had the feeling that if I wolfed down three giant pears I’d be sick. I watched him through my rearview mirror talking with his partner. Occasionally they both glanced over. I finished the first pear wondering what the point was. Did he expect me to eat the core, too? Three bites into the second pear and I was full, dreading the next bite. I felt like a little kid, stuck at the dinner table until my plate was clean.

Another car stopped at the checkpoint. I watched through the side mirror. The officer talked to the driver as he wrote on his clipboard. The driver handed him a white plastic bag bulging with what looked like…fruit? The officer walked to a trash can and dropped it in.

I stopped eating the pear.

The other car drove past me. I looked at my phone. No signal. I pulled out my iPad and hit refresh on my email. The wheel spun, and then slowly my inbox filled with unread mail.

Interesting.

I checked my rearview mirror. The guy and his partner were in the doorway chatting. It had gotten pretty cold out and they looked like they wanted to go in. I sent my husband an email and updated my status on Facebook.

I started my engine.

They both looked up. I waited a few seconds to give them a chance to walk over but they didn’t move. I pulled out and waved goodbye.

    “Buenas noches…chau!!”

He smiled and waved. They both went back inside.