A tale of two halves.…
I awake to my Fitbit vibrating alarm at the unearthly hour of 07:15 and wake Ailidh with a grunt. We have a mutual agreement not to speak or make any kind of eye contact in the mornings – a rule, that if broken on a particularly early morning, could put an end to our travels, and potentially our friendship.
We get dressed and skulk out the door of our little guest house in total silence. As we walk 6 feet apart one in front of the other in the direction of Jujuy town, our noses are primed for the scent of caffeine.
Ailidh and I split our travel responsibilities like a total dream team. She is Maths, Science, Geography, PE and Life. I am Spanish. So a pretty fair split I think.
She channels her geography skills using grunts and hand signals to indicate the way to town, and we arrive perfectly on time to the travel agency, having grabbed a glorious pastry laced with Argentina’s signature dulce de leche on the way.
We pay for our trip, inhale a cappuccino, and as we board the minibus for our tour, we are becoming a little more human.
Well actually, I am becoming more human. Ailidh has the lurgy (a stinking cold) so she has made the transition from silent Darth Vader, to slightly more communicative Darth Vader. I continue to give her a wide berth, remaining upwind at all times.
We are a group of 14 tourists, almost everyone else is from South America- just us and a Frenchie representin’ for Europe.
We drive through the Cerros of the Jujuy province – the butt-clenching hairpin bends made bearable by the breathtaking panoramic views, but still give me occasional concerns about having worn white shorts.
If you weren’t sure, a “cerro” is smaller than a mountain, bigger than a hill and they have us surrounded.
Today’s main attraction is Argentina’s salt flats- Las Salinas Grandes.
Our total lack of holiday research means we had no idea that there were salt flats in Argentina, so it was a nice surprise! When you never research anything, every day is a surprise really.
This salty discovery is especially good, since getting to the (more well known) ones in Bolivia right now might involve tear gas.
On the way to the salt flats, we stop at various viewpoints which flaunt the area’s natural beauty. El Cerro de los Siete Colores, la Cuesta de Lipán y la Abra de Potrerillos.
We learn that the salt flats are one of Argentina’s 7 Natural Wonders, and the third largest salt flats in the world. I can see why. I mean, that is a shit tonne of salt.
We become those wankerish tourists taking a gazillion perspective-distorting photos, and when our little group has had its fill, it’s back on the minibus for a quick lunch stop in the pueblito of Purmamarca- a village which looks like it belongs in a Wild West movie.
Despite strong encouragement from our guide to eat llama for lunch, we point blank refuse on the grounds that they are too cute and fluffy to eat and ditch the group in protest.
When it’s time to head home, we go back the same way we came, through the winding mountain-esque roads- the sharp bends flanked by dramatic drops.
As the final scene of Thelma and Louise pops into my head, I double check my seatbelt, despite the fact that it probably won’t be much help if we drop off a cliff.
After dropping off a few passengers in a town called Tilcara, I move seats to the row parallel with Ailidh and fasten my seatbelt once again, as our minibus gradually winds its way down to lower ground.
I distract myself with a game of Wordscapes- which has somehow managed to dwarf Candy Crush in the obsession stakes, and Ailidh reclines for a nap.
20 minutes or so passes, and a screech of brakes snaps me out of my Wordscapes trance, and flings me forward in my seat. I catch a glimpse of the road ahead and see a police car driving directly in front of us. It’s too close. I wonder where the hell it came from.
Hugo the driver, swerves the minibus sharply to the right to avoid hitting it and I can feel the moment he loses control.
Time seems to speed up as we career off the side of the road down a couple of metres into a grassy bank. The minibus flips over onto its side. Ailidh’s side.
People and things drop from my side to hers, as I remain suspended from (what is now) the ceiling by my seatbelt, phone still in hand, Wordscapes still on the screen.
The scene inside the minibus looks like a crumpled heap of chaos.
I look at Ailidh, she looks shocked but ok. We are the closest to the back, so we look down towards the others, assessing the scene.
The couple in front of us had been pouring themselves some maté (a bitter tea with a tobacco-like taste that is Argentina’s National obsession / punishment) as the crash happened, and hadn’t been wearing their seatbelts. They have fallen on top of one another against the window, and with maté spilled everywhere, it looks like they are bleeding herbs.
The couple in front of them are suspended like me, seatbelts on- they’re Ok. Ailidh releases me, and goes and does the same for them.
Three old ladies who were sat at the front of the bus are not doing so well. None of them had been wearing their seatbelts and as a result, the crash has caused a three person pile up, with the two ladies at the bottom faring the worst, one is unconscious, the other conscious but bleeding from the temple – their window smashed beneath them.
Those of us that can, climb out through the one accessible door at the back of the minibus, Hugo the driver (who has emerged unscathed), forces it open and flings it over onto (what is now the roof of the bus) to secure it.
With the driver encouraging everyone to leave the ladies in the bus and wait for the ambulance, Ailidh springs into action, heading back in and using her medical skills to assess the two women who haven’t been able to get out. I stand just inside the door to translate
“Can you feel your legs?”, “where does it hurt?” “Can you move?”
Police are on the scene but no ambulances, so having confirmed that there’s no spinal damage, and with both of them now conscious, Ailidh helps the ladies out of the minibus one by one, passing the hand of the first lady to me to help her up the bank, and practically carrying the second lady out herself.
She administers first aid to the lady with the head injury using a mini first aid kit she has in her bag. I learn some new Spanish vocabulary as I resume my translation duties- “suturas, vidrio, ceja, tijeras”.
She cleans the wound with gauze and water and tapes it tight, then cleans the lady’s face and hair of blood using all manner of cobbled together offerings – all provided of course, by the women in the group: Wet wipes, tissues, hand sanitiser. Thank god for the great female handbag.
The ambulance eventually arrives and the paramedics take the bleeding lady off on a contraption that more closely resembles an ancient torture device than a stretcher. No one else is examined.
The police ask for everyone’s details and get us to sign disclaimer forms, which seems like a pretty dick move. Their struggles to pronounce and spell Ailidh’s name would have been quite funny in different circumstances. I think soon, she’s just going to have to tell people her name is Eyelid.
After some time shivering with shock by the side of the road, we get a lift home from a friend of the agency. The fact that we’ve just been in a road accident does nothing to improve his driving, and as he overtakes the ambulance, we’re thinking, “surely not twice in one night…”
We make it home in one piece, but after a couple of hours, Ailidh takes a turn for the worse, turning whiter than I could have ever believed possible for somebody who is already so white.
We head to the hospital and Ailidh gets to experience being on the other side of some very archaic looking X Ray and CT machines. The doctors pump her full of fluids and drugs, confirm that her brain is just as weird as it was before and allow us to take the ghost of Darth Vader home to bed.
As we reflect on yesterday’s events the morning after, I can confirm that Ailidh has now returned to her usual shade of white, which while still alarming to most, I have been assured, is healthy.
I remain a mahogany brown colour with nothing but a cut on my knee the size of a grain of rice.
And we’ll probably take a taxi to our next destination, perhaps a bicycle.
The moral of the story: Be a goody two shoes and wear your seatbelt.