Vacant vacation

As she settled into the Autobús Argentinias coach at Mendoza’s prosaically named Terminal del Sol for the 7 hour journey across the Andes to Chile, Britney mentally reviewed how she would pass the time. First she had oodles of photos to upload to Facebook, then her tweets and finally an update to Britney’s Backpacking Blog.

Having enjoyed the climb into the foothills, she switched on her iPhone, congratulating her forethought on fully charging its battery. The signal metre was at…what!  Minimum and fading? Britney stared incredulously. How could this be happening on a high-altitude public highway? Then the signal died. Fuck! She was cut off from the world.

The electronic artery that provided breath and breadth to her social life was severed. She felt that her own heart had stopped beating. She pictured the flow of her blood weaken until it became too faint to power the life-giving organ. Some primitive instinct buried in her brain triggered a reflex to restart her breathing. With a loud insufflation that drew a concerned look from her neighbour, air refilled her lungs as palpitations rocked even her shoulders, causing her head to nod like an idiot.

With the presence of mind that survival hard-wires into travellers who place themselves beyond conventional travel boundaries, Britney talked herself down from her dizzy place and commanded the thoughts of panic to dispel. The instinct won out and she sat there with her eyes closed, breathing deeply, in through the mouth, out through the nose, over and over until the heat lost its intense hue and the pressure became inaudible.

The bus vibrated its way upwards, ever upwards as Britney’s mood sank lower and lower. She next opened her eyes at the sound of an English accent exclaiming, “Cor, jus’ looka that eh!” She was among every other passenger who reflexively followed his finger out the left side of the bus. She couldn’t see what the pom referred to. There was only cloud. It stretched for hundreds of miles below them, with just the tip of one solitary peak piercing the blanket coverage. She felt a tenuous metaphorical coalescence with the peak’s isolation and imagined herself floating towards it, barely skimming the fleecy cloud to alight on its barren surface and to belong there.

The next time that she opened her eyes was to refuse some mollejas from the bag proffered by her neighbour. Britney didn’t feel hungry. She longed for the familiar Facebook to-ing and fro-ing with old friends, colleagues, cyberpeers, whoever. A guttural male voice at the rear of the bus began a popular Patagonian lament that soon attracted an accompanying guitar and before long, a flute. Many heads swung to add a visual element to the aural, as Britney stared ahead in sensory suspension. Polite clapping intruded before the voice of a young girl began what could have been a love song. The crystal soprano soared and softened, accenting the Castilian lyrics with characteristic Hispanic extravagance, as Britney vaguely heard its vein of distant and desolate melancholia.

At the summit, instead of the passengers alighting, customs officers boarded to conduct the formalities and Britney cursed the lost chance to ask, or even bribe her way to a power-point to give life to her impotent communication tool. The bus then commenced its descent along the edge of an abyss that drew shrieks of pretended terror and laughter from a trio of teenaged girls seated in the front. The laughter became infectious and it rippled along the aisle, passing Britney by.

She next awoke to a violent turn as the bus entered the meandering descent that formed their exit from the mountain range. After nearly an hour of 180° switchback turns, they sped past the vineyards of the Maipo Valley, still shadowed by the peaks behind them. She was first off the bus in Santiago. She quickly orientated herself and ran the two left turns on the map in her head, then checked into the hostel. In the dorm she unplugged somebody’s alarm clock, inserted her universal plug and watched the iPhone come alive. She pressed the Web icon and it opened at her pre-set Facebook login box. With a few taps she was in and stared at the list of over a dozen messages. Each one asked similar questions – ‘You must be so excited about your Andean crossing.’ ‘Does the bus really cross a chasm?’ ‘Didn’t the tunnels seem endless?’ ‘Heard any trad sounds yet?’

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