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January Batman fever is sweeping Argentina. All my young cousins - down at Mar del Plata for their summer holidays - are wearing "Bati" beach shoes and "Bati" bermudas. The austral is 4, to the dollar and rising. Girls on the beach are wearing frills and g-strings and the football selectors in Buenos Aires are mulling over the World Cup squad which will later stun them by losing to Cameroon. I sit in a brothel in Bahia Blanca, waiting for Monique.
At this stage I don't know it is a brothel and I don't know if she will turn up. We have met just once, through our relatives, and the only thing we have in common is that we want to hitch-hike around Argentina.
She arrives at 6pm, with a sleeping bag in one hand and a red leather hatbox in the other. Her equipment for the year is: two pairs of shorts, two T-shirts, jeans, jumper, hiking boots sketch book, pictures of her home in Ireland and nail scissors for cutting her hair. We end up in our sleeping bags in the same bed, all the others being in hectic use by this time of night. Bahia Blanca is a port and a good place to pick up trucks on the long run south to Patagonia.
Being female is an immeasurable advantage. The drivers are carrying cash to pay for their petrol and robberies are on the increase.
In courtly Argentina women are considered incapable of such a thing, so we sail past male students who may have to wait days for a lift. The longer the beard, the longer the wait. One Falklands veteran has been waiting for 10 days; the pump attendants refer to him as "el loco Malvino" and take him sandwiches when they can. The truckers confound our every expectation. They eat very little, for fear of putting on weight or dozing off.