Streets paved with Gold
They only exist in fairy tales – don’t you know? If streets were paved with gold, they’d soon be overrun by bad guys, from near and far, trying to pinch the gold. So why have I written such a weird headline? On my way to Santiago I came through an odd, small town in Argentina, which triggered this thought.
That’s always one advantage of travelling in your own vehicle: you sometimes come through places no normal tourist would see, or you have the chance to stop and investigate unusual things a backpacker would only get a fleeting glimpse of while passing by on a bus.
The place I want to tell you about is called Balde, and it’s a little bit east of San Luis. Never heard of it? Me neither, and I’ll bet most Argentines don’t know it either. Balde is a tiny town, not even big enough to feature as a dot on Google maps. But it has smooth concrete sidewalks with polished granite inlays – see what inspired the headline? Normally any substantial length of footpath, without broken or missing pavers or deep cracks, is a remarkable feature in any given city in Uruguay or Argentina. An entire (though minute) town with smooth sidewalks decorated with polished granite is worth taking notice of. And my surprise discoveries didn’t stop there…
Now, how do I get to the town nobody has ever heard of? Well, by pure chance. It is getting late and I need somewhere to park and sleep over night. Usually an unfenced rural field or a small grove of trees are good spots to spend a night in our camper. Big cities like San Luis are never good, so I drive past it and take the first exit off Ruta 7 outside the city’s outskirts. This happens to be Balde.
As soon as I come off the highway I notice several unusual things. First there is a big arch with the town’s name on it. On its own that’s not so spectacular, since quite a few towns in Latin America have either weird looking concrete statues or some conglomeration forming a town gate – occasionally they’re sponsored by a major mobile phone company and bear the sponsor’s logo more prominently than the town’s name.
No, that isn’t all. The road is lined with a shiny row of street lights, in the middle of surrounding scrub land, and a concrete footpath. Now that’s something I haven’t seen very often during our travels in Latin America! I had spent the night before in a sizable town, Rufino, where most residential streets weren’t paved at all. The road surface outside Balde was the best I had driven on for the last 800 to 1000 kilometers.
So I drive slowly on, enjoying every meter of bump-free road, and after about two kilometers I reach the edge of the settlement. The first sight is of some relatively stylish, small, new townhouses on the left, and a nicely kept green area to the right. Then a rather shabby-looking, abandoned building site and another beautiful green park with a cute, small (but dry) fountain in the middle. Everything just looks a lot neater than anywhere else I have been since I arrived back in South America…
The road makes a sharp turn to the right and straight ahead is a small, almost Bauhaus-style inspired pavilion with a “tourist office”. A tourist information – where am I?
I continue on; to my right, some normal-looking, single-storey houses, with a neat, clean footpath in front, and on the left a large, fenced in football field. Beyond this is an open dirt field with a nice wide driveway going into it, so I decide to check it out as a place to stay. I’m too tired to look any further for a more secluded place, the sun is about to set, and it looks quiet enough.
Once I have the truck parked level, I get out to stretch my legs and inspect the surroundings. Behind me is a longish structure with two small restaurants in it – both shut. I’m curious and I take a closer look. Damn! This looks like a 3-bay bus stop. A 3-bay bus stop?!? I hope it will not be the cause of a night interrupted by buses coming and going. I’m worried, so I investigate the tire tracks in the dirt; none look anywhere near as fresh as mine. So maybe this is only to pick up school kids in the morning? But why build such a solid structure with a large free standing roof, nice kerbing and tiling, a spacious waiting room with bench seats and restaurants, only for kids waiting for a school bus? Barely six weeks earlier in Germany I took a bus from Braunschweig to Berlin – they didn’t have any form of shelter at the bus stop in Braunschweig, a modern European city of 250,000 inhabitants, and I had to stand in the rain and wait for my delayed bus…
I’m confused to say the least.
Next to where I parked the truck is a small construction site, where it looks like work stalled a while ago. What are they building there? A band stand? Yes, a band stand! And not a small one! No – big enough to accommodate an orchestra of some 20+ members. And about 20 meters from the bus shelter. Strange!
All around this street corner enclosing the bus shelter, the unfinished band stand, and my parking spot for the night, nice green shade trees are planted. And it’s here that I first discover the granite disks in the smooth concrete footpath. The next morning I shall find that they are a feature all through town – so nothing that special, really.
*) photo credit header photo: Miuenski on flickr
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