I’ll admit to a little shock and lot of surprise when I was asked to go along on Road to The Clouds, a Land Rover expedition through Argentina last week.
I write about driving, but rarely consciously plumb new fields for material. Tugging on my adventure cap, I leapt at the opportunity with enthusiasm, if blindly.
It’s tempting to envision a Land Rover expedition as an excuse for too much testosterone to wrestle too much horsepower through a landscape that didn’t ask for it.
Except, something interesting happened once things got underway.
As we snaked our convoy through the Calchaqui Valley in northwestern Argentina, I realized that I was intimately learning about not just the land, but the people and the history of that rugged terrain.
Our trip ended up having a record number of women on board, a fact I’m told changed the dynamic in many ways.
The first obvious difference, initially, was the number of comfort breaks we had to take. Argentina is covered in cacti. And small, brambly bushes covered in thorns.
Because we were driving up a large mountain and gaining altitude steadily, you had to drink large quantities of water.
That water must go somewhere, and I’m still plucking thorns from my jeans. It’s hard to be modest in such unforgiving circumstances.
I am thankful to the sisterhood of all those women, and the chivalry of the gentlemen who looked the other way.
Part way through Day Two, we descended toward a small school in the valley. More than 100 schoolchildren, aged 4 to 16, were gathered in the brilliant sunshine to greet us.
As we parked the trucks and climbed out, clutches of tiny kids immediately surrounded each of us, arms outstretched, kisses offered to both cheeks.
Totally isolated, the children walk for four to five hours every Sunday night to attend school for the week. They repeat the commute on Fridays to return home. Healthy, happy and friendly, these chicos and chicas reminded many of us of our own kids.
The chance to be enveloped in such love was a warm inoculation in such an unforgiving landscape.
As I snapped picture after picture, the kids would pose and laugh, loving the attention. When I knelt down to show a little girl her picture on my digital camera, I was instantly surrounded by a dozen tiny bodies pressed tightly in a circle to see.
One after another, I took their pictures, stopping to show them their own beautiful faces.
These photos are my favourites of the trip. Journalists took photos of each other taking photos.
I don’t speak Spanish, but the language of children is universal. Everyone knew to hold up how many fingers to indicate their age, and the pride on their faces as they gave us drawings they’d made didn’t need a common tongue.
As we drove out, the children scrambled up a hillside and perched on the rock ledges.
Cheering, waving and laughing, they yelled to us the English that they knew. “Okay! Okay! Okay!” they yelled, watching until we were out of sight.
In the Land Rover’s rear-view mirror, I watched until I could no longer see them.
I had never known they were there; now, I will never forget them.