Monday, July 30, 2007

A Parana Sunset with Coffee, Gas and Good Cheer

Watching the sun sink into a violet haze over the Rio Parana from the YPF gas station café in Villa Constitucion will never get a nod in any Argentine guidebook. . . but tonight I savored two hours in its bright, clean, warm refuge while awaiting a miracle cure for the fourth windshield for my three-year-old VW Bora ( Jetta).

Rather than buy yet another windshield to replace the one most recently scarred by flying pebbles from badly paved and unpaved roads, I've decided to let Carlos fill the crack "with an injected liquid," or so he tells me, perhaps wary of getting more technical. I repress more questions so he can get to work. Given my former inclination to simply toss out worn things and buy shiny new stuff, I had been skeptical of this treatment until I saw his repair of the gouges and cracks on Roberto's teen-age Ford Galaxy. Wow--almost good as new! And that's good enough.

Folks here who have never heard of ecology or greenhouse gases don't throw out anything if it can be repaired. Cars are kept until they weather away into pulverized oxidized steel and disappear into La Nada. No big used car lots, no huge junkyards can be seen around here! (This rule of “use it 'til you wears it out” seems to be applied more to machines than clothes, I might note.)

Besides, I figure repairing the windshield instead of replacing it raises my EC (Environmentally Correct) quotient, and I will accept any remaining scars as visible proof of my planetary conscientiousness.

Given its out-of-the-way location, Roberto had to lead me to this “taller” or workshop, me tailing his Galaxy over a truck-rutted road that endangered my tires as well as my already sad windshield. After dropping the Bora off, Roberto stops for gas. Instead of letting him ferry me back and forth to some nice cafe in San Nicolas, I insist in staying here at the YPF gas station—hoping to save him some wear and tear.

Besides, for me these odd moments in public have their benefits, not the least of which are those brief pleasant social encounters which make Argentina so special. I don’t know anyone in this town, but it’s hard to feel alone in these parts.

The first bonus is the clearest blue eyes--more cerulean than aquamarine--in all Argentina, right high on the pale face of Santiago, the tall, lanky blond gas station attendant. Taking my credit card to cover filling the Galaxy tank, he asks the inevitable question: “De donde sos?” (“Where are you from?”) “California, pero vivo en San Nicolas,” I replied. “So where did your blue eyes come from?” He grins and replies proudly in English: “The father of my mother--he came from Germany.”

A little more chitchat with Santiago and I enter the brightly light shop and ask where to find the potato chips. Upon hearing my voice, the young woman brightly asks me the expected, "Where are you from?” I almost never tire of saying "California" because I love the surprise and delight it seems to provoke. It moves her to bring me a real glass for my soda.

Really, these YPF gas stations should be listed in Argentine guides. In this one, across from the industrial park, at least 60% of the floor space is given over to the 15 café tables—currently empty--and two bar counters for the patrons to enjoy an espresso and “factura” (pastry) or ham and cheese sandwich or other light fare. I can smell the cleanliness.

I pick one of the window seats with a view of the distant Parana. I see that Roberto still has not yet driven away. Apparently his rebellious Galaxy needs a bit of coaxing. Three guys come quickly to his aid. I watch from the shaded window, sipping a Coke and the Lay's blue-cheese flavored potato chips, devoid of any urge to get in the way.

Unlike the mini-marts of US gas station chains—a boon for suburbanites who need to pick up a half gallon of milk or some toilet paper on the way home from work, the shops in YPF (and Petrobras) gas stations function as the cleanest, nicest snack bars on any route. You can find hot coffee, candy, pastries, other munchies, telephone booths, and well-maintained bathrooms, something hard to find away from international tourist destinations.

In my pre-immigrant life in central NY, I confess that I used to sneak off to a Dunkin' Donuts at the top of rural Onondaga Hill, not so much for the coffee and donuts (which I now miss!), but for the same simple amenities any writer needs—peace and quiet, good light, a window with a view, and a clean table. This YPF gas station fits the bill!

Peace and order--lacking in much of this country—reigns within the YPF shop. Thus able to concentrate, I have whipped out my laptop to write. The hour hand is slipping past six, and customers wander in and claim other tables. Right now five tables are occupied by nine men. And then there’s me. The huge flat panel TV is turned off, and I can barely hear the radio's pop music. No one is thumbing the pages of today’s Clarin newspaper, neatly folded on one table. There’s just the hum of quiet conversation and very slow coffee drinking. I order coffee with lots of milk and a roll of dwarf Oreos (inexplicably 30% smaller than in US).

As the clock hits seven, Roberto enters! Oh! He says he didn't want me to feel abandoned, so he drove the 20 km back from San Nicolas to make sure I was okay. The cashier brings him a cup of coffee in a real cup, and he polishes off the remaining cookies in a single gulp, chattering away. We pay his bill and head to the car glass shop, where the price of fixing my windshield has mysteriously risen from 60 pesos to 100 pesos while I was gone.

The results are not quite miraculous, but most of the crack has disappeared, leaving only a slender horizontal thread of ingrained dirt about six inches long at the lower right. Good enough for driver and passenger to enjoy the view. I hand over the pink and purple 100-peso bill* and thank Carlos, who offers to drive the car to the curb for me. I accept with thanks.

Later Roberto tells me that my obvious foreign accent—the one that gets me the cheery smiles and drinking glasses—added that extra forty pesos to the bill. Plus Carlos certainly took note of my “luxury” turbo Jetta. “Se cobra por la cara," Roberto sighs (One charges according to appearance).

Ahh, a kind of home-made sliding scale, I laugh to myself, But it does not phase me. Maybe it was a bigger job than expected, and besides, what a peaceful, pleasant, productive late afternoon. And given these roads, I just might get to do it all over again!

* * * * * * * * *


*This bill is as politically incorrect as it is “pretty”! One side features the profile of General and President Julio Argentino Roca, the other side a famous painting of his uniformed cavalry in its famed Desert Conquest of 1879, whose explicit goal was genocide of aboriginal peoples. But that’s another story.

1 comment:

jomama said...

Enjoyed that post.